Slow and Sandy: Bikepacking the Australian Outback
Following a two-week solo bikepacking tour along the Australian Outback’s Anne Beadell Highway, Dylan Kentch put together this reflection that weaves together the past and present. Read about his experiences of pedaling at a snail’s pace through a 1,300-kilometer stretch of remote, arid, and unforgiving terrain here…
Words and photos by Dylan Kentch
I just cycled from Laverton to Coober Pedy on the Anne Beadell Highway; that’s in Australia. It was slightly longer than 1,300 kilometres, and I went alone and roughly. It would have been fun to go with someone, and indeed if anyone had asked, I could have provided a loaner titanium fatbike and we could have taken my two-person tent. But no one did, and so when I didn’t avail myself of the only possible shower, there was no one around to ask why. Perhaps it was easier this way.
Two weeks of desert touring with no shower is fine. Comfortable with my own particularities, I screamed with glee to no one while coasting down sand dunes. I smelled the wet stuff on my fingers (twice) to ascertain if my tyre was losing sealant or if I had run over a particularly juicy camel poo. And I had only myself to ask about the wisdom of purposely not bringing any of the following items into the Outback for a two-week trip: stove, raincoat, and chamois.
It was a fucking sweet trip. Sick. Filth. I could continue writing the superlative adjectives I hear young mountain bikers utter at my retail job in a bicycle shop, but I don’t have to do this to drive home the point that this was a sublime and serene bike tour. It was one that went to both expected and unanticipated extremes. In the end, it was more than everything I desired.
Len Beadell was a surveyor, cartographer, and road builder who worked for the Australian federal government from the 1940s to the 1970s. He and his work crew, known first casually and later officially as the Gunbarrel Road Construction Party, built the majority of the dirt roads in northwestern South Australia (SA) and eastern West Australia. These works, many years later, make the Great Victoria Desert more accessible to cyclists like me. Initially, they helped the Department of Defense and its Woomera rocket tests and the British government that exploded nine atomic bombs in SA in the 1950s (in total, it conducted 12 bomb tests from 1952 to 1957, these nine and an additional three at the Montebello Islands.)
I used to live on the Gunbarrel Highway in SA, and I met people whose elders had seen the mushroom clouds from some of these blasts. The history behind these tests isn’t pretty, and I didn’t cycle out to Totem One and Totem Two, at Emu, to see these sad and scary monuments. Len Beadell named many of the roads he built after his family members; Anne was his wife. His children Jackie, Connie Sue, and Gary all have their names on those big fold-out Hema desert maps too.
Starting just outside of Laverton, the Anne Beadell Highway goes almost due east to intersect the Stuart Highway a few kilometres north of Coober Pedy. A few cyclists had ridden across it in its entirety before me, but not too many, and to the best of my research, Scott Felter was the first person to do so entirely self-supported. That was in 2018. I took comfort in knowing that it was indeed possible insofar as someone else had been there before me. The road is 100% unpaved, sometimes extremely corrugated, and often quite soft and sandy. SA hasn’t graded the road since the 1960s, and the WA side gets bladed maybe once or twice a year, and that is the pre-Covid frequency. To quote Wikipedia, “Beadell’s sense of humour was well known, and he referred to many of his roads as “highways.” The description stuck, and maps depict the roads as highways, despite the reality that they have degraded to single-lane, unsealed tracks through the remote and arid areas of central Australia.”
I had 80mm rims and 26 x 4.8” tyres and did not regret this selection ever. Stronger riders have ridden this road with 29 x 3” tyres on i30mm rims, and I am flabbergasted and amazed at this. I would probably still be walking out there if I’d taken my 29+ bike. I pushed up four sand dunes for a cumulative total of much less that one kilometre on foot and had no mechanicals other than a consistently lazy rear derailluer. Maybe my crankset went a little bit loose, too. If the combination of more than one chain, an indexed thumb shifter, a long cage XT rear mech, and the same shift cables for the last four years culminate in lazy shifts, I’m alright with that. I had a friction thumbie from a flat-bar road bike connected to an XT front mech and a 2×10 drivetrain. I limited out the smallest three cogs so the rear rack bolt would fit, and never used the largest 42t cog in the rear since I never use the lowest gear on any bike. So, perhaps it was more aptly a 2×6 drivetrain.
Even now, my mind is still pretty scrambled from this trip. Physically, it was not much more difficult than other bike tours I’ve been on, but it was mentally exhausting. Consistent worries about food and water supplies lasting (or not) did more than infiltrate my thoughts; they were my thoughts. Average daily riding speeds were between 9 and 10 kilometres an hour, and depending on which state I was in, my daily distance goal was either 90 or 100 kilometres a day. I always hit my goal or surpassed it, but that didn’t get easier as the days passed.
I have some heavy thoughts that are still working themselves out and perhaps, I hope, one day I can distill the calm and serenity I experienced in the remote desert into something more than the bunch of clauses and phrases and pictures here. I’ve never been somewhere so quiet before. No permanent water sources near the road meant that there was no stock nearby, and how lovely it is to cycle in Australia and see neither sheep nor cattle! But there were also no crickets, mosquitoes, or crows yelling in the mornings.
When the winds dropped away at night, even the desert oaks stopped their mystical whirring, and all was quieter than quiet. Sometimes, in the morning, fresh onto the bike, I couldn’t immediately identify that horrendous thumping noise that beat rhythmically around my head. As always, the culprit was the zipper on my windbreaker flopping around. I have tinnitus in one ear, which is also very hard of hearing. There is always a relentless high-pitched whining in that ear. What I heard and didn’t hear from nature on this trip overwhelmed all previously known audible experiences.
This trip was a numbers game, and figures controlled much of what I did every day. I had insomnia for the first half of the trip, and for seven nights straight, I was wide awake for three hours before the sun rose. I lay by my fire on cold sand wishing I could doze off in the sleeping bag instead. It was below 0°C every night except two. I left Laverton with 14.5 days of food, and the most water I ever carried was 30.25 litres. For three days, I saw no vehicles. I saw two thorny devils. I saw three kangaroos: two on the first day and one on the penultimate day. The third was massive, one of the largest roos I’ve ever seen, and was all white.
The dog fence is electrified where you have to take the six-kilometre return to go through the gate, and it will tingle you from fingertips to armpit if leaned on. Ask me how I know. I arrived in Coober Pedy with two tortillas, chewing gum, and 2.5 litres of water, and I can tell you exactly which days those rations come from. At Ilkurla Roadhouse, I ate two tins of baked beans, one tin of peaches, one tin of rice cream, and two tins of spaghetti in one breath. My bicycle weighed 22 kgs with sealant and framebags when I packed it for flying to Perth.
I would 100% go on this trip again. I took just over 2,000 photos, and every 4×4 driver I asked to take a picture of me was baffled when handed a camera that was not in the shape of an iPhone 11. I was fined $0 and lost no points on my driver’s license for not wearing a bicycle helmet when stopped by the police in Coober Pedy before I had even reached the pizza place.
Lastly, it’s important to know that this bike tour passed through the lands of the Nyanganyatjara, Tjalkanti, Ngalea, Kokatha and Arabana people. I acknowledge them as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of these lands and recognise that sovereignty was never ceded. I pay respect to their Elders, of all generations, past, present and future, and acknowledge unbroken connections to land, spirit and community. I was privileged to be able to ride my bicycle here.
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