Biking in Australia

Planning my usual getaway from New York’s February weather was a bit more complicated in 2009 due to the economic situation. A month in India (which would have been my third trip there) included an upscale bike trip, 5 days in the Maldives, a luxury train ride and river cruise. However due to logistical and cost considerations, it just didn’t seem to be the best choice for 2009. As I told the travel agent who was trying to plan the journey, the “connections are from hell". She chuckled and agreed.

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I had an unusual reason for making my third trip to Australia. Having cycled in all the U.S. states and Canadian provinces, I had only one Australian state (Victoria) left in which to cycle. (I had also previously cycled in Australia’s Capital and Northern Territories). Although it was a bit further than India, its domestic connections were easier. I didn’t require malaria pills, visa formalities were easier too. However, the trip turned out to be a bit more difficult because of an historic record-breaking heat wave, both in the states of South Australia and Victoria.

I only had to “purchase” 3,000 of my wife’s United Airlines Mileage Plus miles to have a free round trip New York-Melbourne itinerary.

Check out these tips for having an indie travel experience in Melbourne.

Trip 1

In 1992 I took my first trip to Australia with my wife, Joan. We enjoyed the usual tourist attractions in Sydney and Melbourne. We also used United Mileage on that trip. At that time United gave mileage award recipients 50% off vouchers for Hyatt Hotels. We took advantage of them and stayed at outstanding Hyatts for most of our destinations. We travelled by train from Sydney to the capital, Canberra, where I hired a bike and rode on that city’s excellent network of trails before flying to Melbourne. The interesting Hyatt, in the embassy row, was in a time warp. It was designed to look like a 1920′s hotel, from all aspects – interior design to the employees’ uniforms!

While staying in Melbourne we hired a car and it has become the largest left hand driving city in the world in which I have driven. Making a right turn from the main street’s (Collins) left lane was unnerving. One evening we drove a few hours south to Phillips Island to watch a procession of penguins.

We then drove for much of the next two days to Adelaide on the Great Ocean Road, one of the world’s classic drives. There was a roadside sign “Drowsy Drivers Die” – turned out to be the only time in my life that I fell asleep while driving a car. Fortunately I was quickly awakened by the sounds of our car rolling over the small stones on the road shoulder. Aside from a flat tire, there was no damage to us or the car.

Before reaching Adelaide we took a 45-minute ferry trip to Kangaroo Island, known as “Australia’s Galapagos Island”. In addition to kangaroos, we saw penguins, seals, koala bears and unusual birds. The South Australia folks we met were very friendly. The daughter of our K.I. wildlife guide was a concierge at the Adelaide Hyatt, our subsequent stop. He alerted her to expect us. She was extremely helpful in arranging a bike hire, restaurant reservations, etc. Several Adelaide residents we met on the K.I. ferry invited us to their homes for an evening.

I had one day free for biking. The difficult choice of destination was between two of my favorite cycling venues, winelands and beaches! I opted for the shore, which I call the “Australian Riviera”. Little did I know then that I would return seventeen years later for an intensive nine day bike tour in these same areas! The weather that day was perfect for cycling. Using mostly bike paths, I headed for the palandromic seaside town of Glenelg, the center of a strip of beach communities.

relaxing on the Ghan train

The following day Joan and I boarded the classic Ghan train, heading north to the center of the outback, Alice Springs. (It now goes all the way to the Northern Coast of Australia, Darwin). For the overnight journey, the passengers had luxurious private bedrooms with ensuite facilities. There were three sittings for dinner. Just before the third sitting, an announcement was made requesting the 1st and 2d sitting diners to kindly return the silverware they took so that the 3rd seating passengers would not have to dine with their fingers!

Although the train had several attractive bar cars, I noticed that most of the couples retired to their compartments soon after eating. I assumed that this was their only experience in a train with private accommodations, and they wanted to try lovemaking aboard a train in motion!

Alice

On arrival in Alice Springs we got our first closeup of aborigines. They were lying around the train station listlessly, many in an apparent drunken stupor. It was hot (maybe 100 degrees F), flies were in abundance. I could see why the “Australian national salute” is waving flies away from an Aussie’s face. The Sheraton was comfortable; we spent the afternoon at its large pool. We took camel rides (bumpy) and visited the “Flying Doctors” base (they fly small planes to treat ailing ranchers at outlying “cattle stations”.

We were planning to visit Ayers Rock the next day, an ancient mammoth rock formation. However, due to a family emergency, Ayers Rock and Perth were scrubbed.

Although we were flying on a free economy ticket from United Mileage and all of the coach seats returning to the U.S. were filled that day, the airline graciously flew us back in the available business class seats. They never asked us for a payment.

We arrived in Boston, exhausted, met with our daughters’ doctors. They were drawing diagrams of our daughter’s G.I. tract, describing the surgical stages they were planning to follow. We were like zombies from the ordeal of our journey. All I could say was: Just do it. The surgery was successful; Mindy was back in class within a week or so. I remember someone saying that Ayers Rock would still be there whenever we returned – it wasn’t going anyplace.

Trip 2

Twelve years later, in 2004, I decided to spend the whole month of February in Australia. Joan opted to remain in New York. I joined a small group one-week bike tour of Tasmania organized by Pedaltours, a New Zealand based company. The tour began in Launceston and ended in Hobart. It had five American members and a guide. We stayed at mostly rustic, but comfortable accommodations, and we rode through lightly trafficked parks and wilderness. We saw unusual animals indigenous to Tasmania such as Tasmanian devils, wombats and platypuses. One night we stayed at an operating farmhouse.

Ayers Rock

I flew to Ayers Rock to continue the 1992 aborted trip. The area around the Rock was quite hot and flies were again plentiful. I observed a number of local hapless aborigines. There were several luxurious resorts.

I joined a sunset champagne group bus tour. It sounded like a romantic event; my uneasiness was unwarranted, though. Our guide, an attractive young Australian woman of Italian descent, usually led tours for Italian tourists. That day she was assigned to the English speaking group.

The plan for the last day in the area was for me to climb the rock. Because of high winds, Rock was closed, but there were bicycles for hire – riding out to and around the Rock was a doable alternative. The flies were a minor annoyance; I had already cycled
in the Northern Territories.

Perth

Perth, the next destination, is comparable to San Diego, located in the southwest of a comparable-size country, and has a similar dry and sunny climate. Everyone who wasn’t on a yacht was on a bike! I had a full week here with no definite plans, and no problem keeping busy. I had a room at a downtown Hilton that offered bikes anytime.

One day I booked a group bus tour southbound to the Margaret River wine region. There was a “wine boat cruise”. We were welcomed aboard with a glass of local bubbly. All I can say it was a good thing I had no cycling or car driving plans later!

Rottnest Island is an amazing place. A ferry from Perth brought us there – a different world – nice beaches and appealing indigenous animals such as quokkas. A large building housed over 3,000 rental bikes, the most I had ever seen under one roof.

I cycled along Perth’s string of excellent beaches towards the boating center of Freemantle. International yachting events frequently take place there. Its characteristic late day winds are called “Freemantle Doctors”. Having cycled so much in Australia, I felt I was entitled to an Australian cycling jersey which I purchased at the bike shop in Freemantle.

Perth kangaroos

As a souvenir (and symbol) of my the trip, I wanted to be photographed on my bike with kangaroos close up. One guidebook mentioned that the kangaroos who lived in a park on a Perth Island were fed daily at 7:00 in the morning. I arose early, cycled out there with my camera. I rode all around the island, but I could neither find a “roo” or a person who had ever seen one there. Dejectedly I turned around and headed back downtown. As I was going across the bridge leaving the island, I spotted a small vehicle with the words: Park Ranger. I flagged her down. She said she was on her way to feed the animals, I should follow her. The two of us fed them, she took a number of photos of me, the roos and my bike. It blew her mind that someone came all the way from New York to her park for this purpose.

It was getting close to the end of my wonderful and almost cloudless week in Perth. I had to prepare for my next adventure – the epic Indian Pacific four-day train ride across the continent from Perth to Sydney.

The Indian Pacific Train

The Indian Pacific train runs from the Indian Ocean at Perth to the Pacific Ocean at Sydney. It departs Perth at noon on Wednesday and arrives at Sydney on Saturday. It stops at Kalgoorlie, Adelaide and Broken Hill for about three hours. Kalgoorie and Broken Hill were extremely hot. I took a guided bus tour of the mining operations at Kalgoorie which was sandy and dusty. I strolled around Adelaide and Broken Hill.

Passengers included a few Americans and Canadians. There was a relaxing lounge car with large windows for viewing the landscape and the wandering animals. The train continued its roll in an easterly direction across the Nullarbor Plain, a vast, almost treeless semi-arid area. One stretch of rail without a turn was the world’s longest straight rail path. Overall, I considered it a relaxing and laid back experience in which I got an appreciation of the nothingness of the Outback.

After detraining in Sydney, I rode bike around the city so I could chalk up New South Wales as a state in which I had cycled.

View from Indian Head, Fraser Island
Fraser Island – View from Indian Head

I then flew up to the Gold Coast of Queensland, took a bus to Noosa, an upscale resort town. It had a European look – outdoor cafes, pleasant beaches and hotels. I strolled through the adjacent national park and got a good look at its resident koala bears. Two English tourists, one a leading morning female London disc jockey joined me for a memorable full day SUV drive to Fraser Island – a World Heritage site and the world’s largest sand island. It’s an island of exceptional beauty, encircled by uninterrupted white beaches. The professional driver gave us some thrills by quickly driving up and down the large sand dunes.

Back south to Brisbane, the state capital, where I strolled around this coastal city, dining at several outdoor seafood restaurants. I spend the last day in Australia cycling on quaint North Stradbroke Island, about 30 kilometers from Brisbane by train.

I had covered much of this fascinating country on these two trips, but hadn’t cycled in Victoria.

I spent three nights and two days in Adelaide on my own prior to meeting the bike group. On one of the hot days I boarded a tram (streetcar) to Glenelg in the morning, hoping the beach would be somewhat cooler. The unprecedented heat had been causing many problems (including dozens of heat related deaths among area residents, power failures and buckling tracks affecting the tram). I was lucky – made it to Glenelg and back without incident. While I was there I noticed a number of men were swim trunks with a weathered image of the Australian flag in front and white in back in a down to the knees pattern. I treated myself.

After meeting our group and guides, having an orientation and introduction session, lunch and fitting and adjusting our Trek bikes, which were provided for our use, we had time for a short 14-mile ride. The heat was dry, there was a breeze and most of the those miles was in the shade.
Actually I have been more uncomfortable riding on humid summer days in U.S. cities in the Southeast such as Atlanta and Miami. The heat wave broke to some extent on the second day. As we left Adelaide and approached the coast, the temperature became bearable.

We were in the Barossa Valley the first few days, where we saw and tasted some of the country’s best wines. From there, south towards the Fleurieu Peninsula and its charming coastal villages. Kangaroo Island was the next stop and included one day off our bikes for a non biking guided tour of natural and wildlife sights. We returned to Adelaide on another very hot day. I kept refilling my water bottle with ice cubes.

Melbourne
Melbourne

We had several rides on the hills behind Adelaide and one group ride to Glenelg’s beaches as the temperature again returned to a bearable level. We finished the last day before noon. I took the hour flight to Melbourne. My accommodation overlooked the Yarra River, which had promenades along both sides with outdoor restaurants, office buildings and a new casino complex, all within a ten-minute walk for me. There were food courts “to die for”. Melbourne, is definitely a cosmopolitan city. Its level of cuisine (especially seafood) approached that of Paris and New York.

The first day I had a guided bike tour of the city’s ethnic neighborhoods with a knowledgeable local guide and a friendly English couple. We stopped for tastings every hour. The tour was supposed to last 4 hours. It turned out to be almost 6 hours.

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I spent the last day on my bike (where else!) riding along the Southern Coast and the “Sausalito” type community of St. Kilda. The road was lined with beaches and palm trees. I saw the Tasmania ferry loading. I had cycled a total of about 350 miles in this magnificent country on this trip. I had time to go up to the top of the new 88-storey Eureka building for an overview of the area, spotting Melbourne’s main art museum. The sun emerged in the afternoon, warmed up to about 70. I dined al fresco on seafood and watched rowing teams on the Yarra.

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