A Yorkshireman of a certain age who likes most genres of music and most makes of old car. Travel is a joy, not least to escape the British winter. Travel by bicycle is bliss and if I’m not lost in music then I’m lost in a daydream about a hot day, tens of miles to cover and the promise of a great campsite and a beer. I like to think I’m always learning and becoming wiser. On the latter point then evidence is in short supply.
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As I researched Grelle’s latest release, the difficulties for artists making a living in these lockdown days became apparent. My searches often uncover interviews with major outlets and acres of copy for me to sort the wheat from the chaff to try and understand the person and their music. Not in this case. I found myself watching Grelle’s Facebook Live Post. You’ll see a bewhiskered bloke sat in a box room in front of various signs. These are links for making payments. In the meanwhile he intersperses songs from his latest excellent release by waving T shirts around at tempting prices. It’s not easy out there.
Despite the penury I can find a positive: it enables Grelle to observe the realities around him. He produces four-minute documentaries like “It Ain’t Workin”: a tale about occupants of a run down house with limited access to healthcare or decent accommodation. The earlier, now prosperous, generation has clambered out of this area but don’t appreciate the lot of the folk whose journey they once shared. The lachrymose delivery could be John Prine or Loudon Wainwright III. The song is performedover a picked acoustic guitar until violins, viola and a cello join and make this into one of my tracks of the year. No lectures here just a request that you reflect on those less fortunate.
However, it’s not all profound and he directs his fragile and unique voice to the thorny matter of love. “To Be That Someone” is a passive courtship where he tells her “Don’t you know I’d walk with you anytime. Doesn’t matter how far. And I’d be happy to be that someone”. I’m sure we’ve all been here. Half the 10 album tracks are with a band and the electricity lifts the pace and energy. “Space and Time” hits an irresistible Creedence Clearwater Revival or Stones groove and Josh Cochran, on electric lead, adds some 70s fascination. Similarly “Mess Of Love” with its ska rhythm could have you up and dancing as he ruminates on the couples’ ineptitude in the art de l’amour.
So if we’re back to the T-shirts then Grelle has worn it, seen the movie and written the book. There’s a wisdom that you’ll find alluring: he’s lived every part of these stories. It’s a care worn voice bolted onto a variety of sounds that can be beautiful ballads or hearty rockers with, on occasion, interesting time signature changes. It’s four years since his last release; let’s hope it’s not so long before the next.
Jason Isbell is an artist who can do no wrong. His mantelpiece is probably buckled from the weight of industry trophies. He’s the current involuntary torchbearer of Americana with qualifying credentials which include a catalogue of some fine music, peer worship, an apprenticeship in the Drive-By Truckers and the ‘correct’ political views. In the US media and record industry this combination generally creates an unstoppable, unthinking, commercial momentum and fawning reviews. With such a malaise I’d usually distance myself, however, his seventh release confirms the garlands around his neck are hard won and worthy.
There are no dramatic shifts in sound from his other four releases of original material since 2013. He still captivates with music and lyrics that cover a wide breadth of topics. The topics are usually introspective and acutely personal. Dave Cobb produces again. I like this album for its consistency more than his other three releases.
“What Have I Done To Help” is a fine opening with a bass that underpins a lighter acoustic topping with Isbell self-flagellating over his apparent lack of action to help those he has the ability to help. It’s a recurrent theme for Isbell who laments those less fortunate. He believes either his skin colour or status isolate him from their cruel realities. On this album his guitar gets more fluid and adopts many sounds. Here it wails seductively under a repetitive, yet satisfying chorus. “Be Afraid” turns on his fellow artists who fail to speak out about social issues: their self pre-occupation displays an acute lack of self-awareness. The song is 80s rock with a loping snare drum beat and an anthemic chorus with lots of REM guitar reverb. Terrific.
In the same way “Overseas” hits a heavy rock groove. An insistent and thudding beat eventually gives over to an electric solo guaranteed to sell a few million air guitars. Apparently there are two angles to the story; it was initially spawned out of separation from his musician wife (Amanda Shires) when she embarked on a solo tour. The first opening bars of “Running With Our Eyes Closed” has you again back in the 80s with a Mark Knopfler guitar sound, however, the song broadens out to generic FM Radio rock. All the time Isbell can pick a deft phrase or riff. The voice is uniquely mellifluous; the words, melody, arrangements are perfect throughout.
Isbell can be an open book and his life and family providing fertile predicaments to plunder. He’s been an alcoholic and throughout his recordings he never runs from the struggle. “It Gets Easier” sums up his daily battle “It gets easier but it never gets easy / I can say it’s all worth it, but you won’t believe me”. Likewise he visits the joy and responsibilities of fatherhood on “Letting You Go”. Like Brandi Carlile’s “The Mother”, it’s a song of wonderment and slight awe at this prized possession. Over a slow beat with occasional slide guitar moments he delivers a beautiful tune. Here he moves the timeline along to her eventual flight to lead her own adult life. Touching and articulate.
I said ‘hard won’ because you don’t release such albums without a lot of reflection, graft and inspiration. From the first listen you know you’re in the presence of something important. Wisdom and reflection pour from each song; wrapped up in the most delicate and economic wordsmithery. He now has a run of releases that justify the genuflection. I’m on one knee as I write this.
Anna (first wife) has acquired entry into her seventh decade on Planet Earth. She had a lockdown birthday at the end of April but we tried to make a fuss. A number of her friends did pop round with flowers whilst keeping the mandatory distance. Gals (sorry Favourite Eldest Daughter for this lapse into political incorrectness) are all very social and it was hard for her to let this landmark slip by so tamely especially with the daughters in Manchester. I hope when it is all over we can celebrate it properly. An observation about her cards was how many had a ‘60’ on them, mostly from the women! What happened to being eternally 39?
She’s also been a star shopping for some of the more elderly residents on the street. I have been making a couple of meals for one chap and was able to sell a Black & Decker Jig Saw on eBay for another chap. He had no idea what to do. I was worried after volunteering a selling price that it would fall short. Fortunately it did a lot better. On handing across the dosh he wanted to give us a tenner. That’s not the point of doing all this is it?
These marooned residents need food but they also need company. A long conversation is a kindness and they happily chatter away (even to me!). The chap who’s suffering my meals worked for The National Coal Board. This life of being down the pit now seems too dangerous to contemplate. Health and safety in the 70s and 80s isn’t what it is today. He was telling a story of his interesting life as an engineer when he recounted working at one pit for an awful manager with some stories of his bullying and intimidating behaviour. It sounded Dickensian. I did leave him reflecting on some of my personal experiences…
I was never very good a Physics at school. I’d dropped it by the time I had to pick my O Levels or it dropped me. My recollection of the subject, other than bimetallic strips, was that it could occasionally approximate to maths with homework that involved equations and the like. The day we had to present our efforts involved the master, David Welch, walking around the classroom checking the answers. The seating meant that mine was the first work he inspected.
I made a game attempt at the task but usually came up with the wrong answer. For this I would get hit around the back of my head. The Geography teacher, Mr Hartley, could also deal out corporal punishment for wrong answers. Barbaric really and useless as regards the learning experience. Welcome to the 60s and 70s.
With all this limited movement I’m still driving the Morgan. I pop out for the shopping and make rare excursions in it. I half expected to get flagged down by Plod to justify why I’m out in it! To keep fit I obviously ride my bike, as before, but in addition to walking we do some Pilates classes. (These are configurations of exercises we’ve learned and can remember from a class with an instructor). Anna was introduced to Pilates last year and loves rolling around on the floor. I started about eight years ago and am a lot less keen! It is a good thing to do and keeps us moving and free from some muscular aches and pains. I’m one of the oddities at our weekly class (during normal times) being male. More men ought to do it. I like to think I provide the girls with a little eye candy in what must be their humdrum lives.
Other exercise has seen us walking around the local area. On one such ramble we came across a lady carrying a Nikon camera with a long lens. This native finds locations to perch, mainly in the undergrowth, and then take some exquisite images of the wildlife. She then posts her images onto Twitter. (She can be found at @Natwalk101). The breadth of life she finds near us is a surprise. The biggest draw are the deer who run around a forest nearby. We’ve got a bit blasé about them but I may venture out with my proper camera shortly.
Lund is from farming stock in Alberta, Canada. His continuing foothold in a working life makes his lyrics authentic and authoritative; many are fashioned into stories with pathos or wisdom and others are simply hilarious with fabulous wordplay. His version of modern Western, rockabilly and Alt-Country is a unique sound that’s crafted by a band that has been behind him for over 15 years. The sound is always bordering on live, raw and propelled by Brady Valgardson’s drumming which gives all his releases energy that make you reach to turn the volume up. His 10th release of original material Agricultural Tragic is his strongest album for many years and has a level of consistency that makes it a compelling record.
After last year’s disposable covers album (Cover Your Tracks) Lund declared, “I really worked hard on this album – harder than I ever worked before”. It shows. Over 12 tracks he covers a search for lost mules, tussles with grizzly bears, cowboys’ lives, Western novels, the regret of getting tattoos and debates the merits of whiskey versus gin as a beverage in a knock about duet with fellow Canadian, Jaida Dreyer. Many appear autobiographical or about people he knows: “Old Men” is an observation of generational wisdom – “I want old men making my whiskey, I want old men singing my blues and I want old men teaching my horses. Because there’s some things young men can’t do, like the old boys do”. A thumping bass and attractive guitar from Grant Siemens make this a future crowd pleaser. “Never Not Had Horses” tells the story of an ageing woman coming to terms with her horses also ageing. The sadness of their inevitable and humane end weighs heavily on this near tearjerker.
From sadness Lund can change the mood instantly with several deprecating takes on life. Typically song tempos slow or accelerate as he delivers telling lines. “Tattoo Blues” is spoken and sung but would happily stand alone as spoken poetry. I can imagine audiences knowing this word for word at future concerts. The wordplay is exceptional. “Rat Patrol” is straight good time rock n’ roll as he reveals a pathological hatred of rodents. He’s all for dynamite, gunfire or decapitation to exterminate them. This blood-drenched diatribe is delivered with a call and response with the band. He doesn’t like them!
Terrific fun. He’s a one off and a treasure. Where do I sign?
I’m rather partial to the Braun family. There are four brothers who split into two bands. One is Reckless Kelly and the other is Micky & The Motor Cars. The latter’s Long Time Comin’ release was one of 2019’s strongest. Now in 2020 we get a double album from the older siblings – Willy and Cody. The sound is probably more country than rock and the themes they sing are the well used tropes– love, loss, homecoming and family all often involving cinematic sweeping vistas of the USA.
Willy Braun explains that American Jackpot was already recorded when he pulled the band together again to record American Girls. On both albums Willy wanted to talk about everyday American themes and in part the current political climate in the USA. At this point I might flinch but in fairness it has a light touch. “North American Jackpot” starts with a piano and rock introduction before Willy reflects on the changes in the USA over 300 years from the The Mayflower’s arrival (and America embracing newcomers) through to today where he “watches the fading lamplight that once lit the golden door”. Elegant words for his point of view, which goes onto to celebrate his country and what a fine place it is to live. Other more impactful social commentary comes on “Put On Your Brave Face Mary” where Willy laments, in a ballad, about the suicide rate of the military. Anthemic and impactful.
Most of the albums return to more predictable sentimental themes – “Grandpa Was A Jack Of All Trades”, “Goodbye Colorado” and “42” about the number on a baseball jersey. Throughout Cody offering some interesting, near celtic, flourishes on fiddle. These flourishes are never more evident than on “No Dancing In Bristol” from the American Girls album. This song about homesickness is set on a UK tour. Willy manages to insert ‘pint’ and ‘rain’ into the lyrics and I half expected a reference to “bobbies on bicycles, two by two” or a heavy fog in London. The band has released some epic rock over the years and “Mona” is another one for the catalogue. It starts with electric piano before a compelling guitar boogie unfolds.
Reckless Kelly has issued another couple of interesting albums where musicians comfortable in their skins and masters of their instruments craft another consistent album for fans of country, country rock and rock.
Ledger’s debut is a prize: pairing his languorous yet captivating voice and lyrics with T Bone Burnett’s production, Ledger’s delivered one of this year’s unexpected delights. The partnership drew this comment from Ledger – “I think we’re each attracted to the more sinister aspects of folk and roots music, and we each have a desire to keep music alive while finding a way to make something new out of it.” You get an album that seems at first listen, a near conventional traditional Country album, but starts revealing some shadowy corners and wider genre sensibilities as you become acquainted.
Burnett has let the voice do the talking and what a siren to follow. Over 11 songs the sound swings from straight Buck Owens (“Starlight”) through to 70s British pop with sci-fi images (“Electric Fantasy”). Burnett’s assembled band played the 2009 Grammy winning Raising Sand for Alison Kraus and Robert Plant. Their accomplished playing here is measured and varied.
“Imagining Raindrops” is standard 60s Country with a slow acoustic rhythm behind the rich baritone and Russell Pahl’s pedal steel. (“I’m Gonna Get Over This”) Some Day could be an Elvis song from one of his 60s GI movies. (The only trouble I have with this interposition is imagining Ledger ever flashing a winning smile. Frankly, he’s far too cool for that). “Skip A Rope” was a 1968 hit for Henson Cargill, which now seems ahead of its time with its tale of morality: “Cheat on your taxes, don’t be a fool, Now what was that they said about a Golden Rule? Never mind the rules, just play to win, And hate your neighbour for the shade of his skin”. Ledger’s version is a faithful rendition with the same important observations over 50 years later.
The more intriguing track “Invisible Blue” elevates this whole release from accomplished pastiche to arresting. His vocal is a deep, wistful croon backed by the sound of pedal steel and twangy guitar signatures; you feel his utter heartbreak. Deep in this noirlandscape comes “Nobody Knows”. His melancholic delivery hits hard: “Nobody knows where the lonely goes after the last drink of wine…but I know ‘cause I’m nobody”. Marc Ribot’s electric guitar steps out from the shadows and deftly picks a way to a sombre conclusion. “Tell Me A Lie” demonstrates Ledger’s range and tenderness: “Tell me a lie, it wouldn’t be your first…” Another lugubrious heartbreaker where the sustained ending note is pure Elvis.
Ledger has his own style and he’s found a brilliant partner to extract and polish this sound in Burnett. This is nigh on three quarters of an hour of bliss.
Caudle’s distinctive voice harbours doom as the band chugs into life on “Better Hurry Up”. This steamy swamp rocker urges alacrity as time slips away with a message about your own personal journey. The simple song structure has a chanting chorus of voices including John Paul White and Elizabeth Cook. “Monte Carlo”, “Dirty Curtain” & “Reach Down” all have that New Orleans swamp vibe and provide a welcome breadth to the sounds on this album.
John Jackson (Jayhawks) handled production responsibilities. He brought a fabulous band and a ‘live’ sound, which enabled each song to have more impact. Much is made in the PR material that the recording was done at Cash Cabin Studios on Johnny Cash’s estate. If the location had a meaningful impact then this small and intimate setting clearly brought the best out of all the players.
The luminaries abound throughout and Natalie Hemby (lately of The Highwoman) co-writes “Regular Riot”. This is back to a more familiar Caudle Country Folk sound with attractive pedal steel (Russ Pahl) signatures on a bright Byrds-esque tune. “Let’s Get” cruises along with Mickey Raphael’s (Willie Nelson) harmonica carrying the tune whilst Dennis Crouch’s (Alison Krauss & Rodney Crowell) thumping deep bass maintains the beat. Courtney Marie Andrews joins the vocal.
“Front Porch” returns Caudle home and places himself back in familiar surroundings reflecting on homely pleasures. He does excel at this type of gentle acoustic ballad with a fine tune and some heartfelt words. On the other hand, “Feelin’ Free” could be an outtake from Honky Chateau and features John Paul White. A splendid economic guitar solo from Laur Joamets (Sturgill Simpson) is the ‘take away’.
“Bigger Oceans” is a beautiful way to end the album: it’s a memorable and sumptuous tune that works perfectly with his melodious voice. It’s a paean to opening your mind and searching for wider horizons. Elizabeth Cook joins him and his acoustic guitar and pedal steel are the plaintive and simple accompaniment.
In some ways ‘it’s a long time no speak’. Obviously my recent bike ride up Australia was followed by many of you but I suspect the majority didn’t follow my restless and fruitless search for a koala or (live) kangaroo on two wheels. I really not sure what to think about the four weeks after it’s premature end. Some great scenery, interesting communities, banter and the childish joy of riding a bike to come to mind but something was missing.
Since my evacuation from Down Under and re-integration into ‘lock down’ Britain it has been a mixture of experiences. The first was the reality that it hasn’t affected my diet, exercise regime, opportunity to listen to music or write.
However the limits on movement and the continued close supervisory presence of the first wife has been different. Evasion of various stipulated outstanding tasks, by her having better things to do with her talents, has been difficult. A protestation that glossing some yellow skirting boards due to a lack of masking tape saw her texting a neighbour who (at a discreet distance) turned up at the door with said product. I never did like him…
It was a blow to my tactics. Other things on the list included turning over the flower beds and weeding. Frankly, any budding fundamentalist terrorist flirting with the idea of Western destruction could have his fervour nipped in the bud with the threat of several days of standing, with a spade, on a hard clay soil complete with hiding toads to first dig into it and then remove various roots and weeds.
Other things that have filled time include some walks near the house. New life, despite our challenges, abounds with lots of lambs. Old friends have been spoken to after, in one case after a silence for many years. Cupboards have been emptied and difficult decisions made. An old PC I replaced 9 years ago was one of four computers I own: it’s now destined for the tip. Added to that is the use of Ebay to sell a folding chair. Oh yes, it’s all happening in Acaster Malbis.
Other pleasures include taking an abnormal interest in the progress of deliveries to the house (see the image). The DHL chap, when he got here, advised that he was not usually on this ‘run’ but due to phenomenal demand he was working six days a week. Clearly we’re all on the internet.
Social media has been a constant companion. Adding to Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp have been Houseparty and Zoom. The circulation of amusing videos has got to the point where you receive it from several sources. We’ve all got too much time on our hands.
As I write the Prime Minister appears to be fighting for his life. If there was ever an event that reinforced social distancing and self-isolation then this is it. Most forays into a retail experience have been delegated to my younger partner. I’ve consciously attempted to keep a low profile. Despite my impressive youthful looks and fitness you can’t escape your age and I’m mindful to accept all the advice I’ve received.
I’ve vented about the problem with 24/7 news coverage and the pandemic has enabled the same old weary journalists to have something to digest, cogitate over and then ask pointed and unhelpful questions about. When did a journalist specialising in Westminster politics ever have an informed or useful point of view on something as complex as coping with a pandemic of a respiratory infection that leads to pneumonia? However, the airwaves have virtually abandoned talking about anything other Covid-19. Just what we needed?
Before my trip to Australia I contacted BBC Radio York to advise them that I was on another cycling trip and were they interested to speak to me? Oh absolutely! I was invited into the studio and we recorded an interview, which went out. On my exit from the studio the presenter asked if I’d record a 2 or 3 minute clip weekly of my progress and he’d add it to the show. No problem.
After the first one I got an ecstatic response about my clip from him. I did another couple and never heard anything. Bemused I was wasting my time I sent an email enquiring if the content was okay? I got an email back, from the presenter, advising that he had an elderly relative pass and this event had left him at ‘sixes and sevens’. Naturally I sent my condolences and left matters as they were.
I never heard from him again and his appearance on the show resumed. I imagine the BBC focus turned to the virus and anything else was cast aside including advising a bloke wending their way up Australia on a bike that their services were no longer needed. It matters not a jot about my being discarded as regards the well being of the nation or my making a living or whatever but it made me reflect on how the media have enjoyed the crisis and swept everything else aside.
Lastly as we dwell on the threat of catching the virus I have to admit to another anxiety. Eventually my hair will need trimming. Logically this should fall to Anna. Would you trust your partner near your head with a sharp implement? I think not.
I thought I would split my post between a travelogue summary and then a cycling report. The travelogue summarises my thoughts about Australia and my cycling report includes some statistics and detail about the riding.
For whatever reason I never took to Melbourne; every one tells me it’s marvellous. Its an impressive city on the Yarra river and both the buildings and the water are tall or imposing. Like all cities it belongs to the under 30’s. They populate its streets and the food, shops and spaces belong to them. Melbourne is ethnically diverse. I well recollect Australians at the next table chatting away in Mandarin or Cantonese and I later heard that Melbourne is the largest Greek town after Athens. Diversity is the reality and future but it wasn’t the Australia I came to see. I wanted to see how it made a living, the life it’s non-urban communities lived, its landscapes and foibles.
I eventually put the city behind me and got into the Victoria countryside. Here were fields and animals. Everything was parched but this was the vista I expected. Small towns with a pub, a few shops, a fire truck building and a community centre were the norm and I ploughed north. After Wangaratta I deviated off the beaten track and ended up in Walla Walla. This was small town Australia. Hard working, no frills, a little bit down on its luck and miles from anywhere. I started to get the feel for the country and its people. Leaving Victoria was by the direct Hume Freeway a large artery of a dual carriageway heading north and then east toward Canberra and Sydney.
My luck ran out with the weather. When it rains it isn’t drizzle but hours of heavy falls. Riding beside this road with its spray and unnerving drafts from 34 wheel trucks made me climb off and catch a bus from Gundagai to Sydney. I hate to do this but I saw no point in suffering for the sake of it. Sydney was magnificent. Lots of history, fine architecture, a staggering harbour and sunshine. From here the ride north, in New South Wales, was hard but early morning games of school boy cricket and joggers or recreational cyclists on outside seating drinking coffee made me think there might be something to this life.
The ride up the coast took me back onto another freeway – The Pacific Highway. A wonderfully made and direct road but I had the difficult decision again: either ‘get up the road’ or make detours to see the beach and settlements. I tried to make alternate days of sightseeing. Hawks Nest was simply wonderful. I wrote a review on an App saying “I may wish to be buried here”. A beautiful coast, a wondrous campsite, a fine selection of shops and all of it nicely off the beaten track. As Queensland approached everything got a lot more green and verdant.
So much of Australia reminded me of urban USA. The American trucks (Kenworth and Freight Liner), the love of pick ups, services from H & R Block (accountancy for small business), Greyhound buses, K-Mart, U-Haul and the endless signs to ‘something’ Creek or comical signs to places like ‘Bald Knob Road’ in the middle of nowhere. Despite the coast with so much fish the diet was very American – no fish, burgers, chips, bacon and fried anything. With a bit of thought then if you remember that Australia was starting to populate and receive white immigrants in the 19th and 20th Century it stands to reason it would have parallels. Add to this the big distances between towns and the hard agricultural life you can see why the similarities are there.
All that said the Australians have a rich British heritage. Our bonds go beyond the initial settlement, language, wars fought and relatives back in Blighty but our common sports, view of the world, music, humour, pies (!) and an affection for our Royalty. The news stands were full of glossy magazines with stories about the supposed competition between Kate and Meghan. In fact there is a great interest in the UK generally. People knew about our politics and woes in general.
Plodding northwards I came into the hinterland of Brisbane. This starts 40 miles south of the city. I mentioned the people. I was always treated courteously and there was never any serious hostility. However, no one went out on a limb to demonstrate any interest or hospitality in this lone Brit labouring on a heavily laden bicycle up the roads of their country. Of course Brits are ‘ten a penny’ here but not many are on touring bikes pitching their miniature tents next to large camper vans. It’s worth adding that on my ride I never came across another cycle tourist. By this stage whilst I was enjoying the ‘race’ then I clearly hadn’t put aside enough time to see many places properly. This timetable was a result of time pressures created by my initial rescheduling from January to late February. It is a regret but as things turned out I may be glad I saw so much.
Brisbane is a modern and striking city. I did whinge in the blog about my hostel’s district being in an area of spiteful impossibly steep hills. When there I decided to actually chill and an afternoon with Karl drinking beer was a highlight of the trip. Back on the bike the vicissitudes of urban cycling came to the fore; a gazillion traffic lights, kerbs, park paths etc. I was delighted to eventually get clear and went to see Caloundra and Noosa. At Caloundra I found the campsite with the best facilities (see the blog). Oh, if they were all like that. The sun came out and I experienced no more rain.
My stay in Kin Kin was back to the rural Australia I wanted to see. All I didn’t find were locals wandering around with corks dangling from wide brimmed hats. it was rustic and interesting. Shortly afterwards I called time due to Covid-19. Frankly I got out in the nick of time thanks to my wife. Had I stayed longer I would have had a difficult and arduous job to get back to the UK.
My departure necessitated finding a large cardboard box on a weekend. I asked a question on a Facebook forum and someone came back with the suggestion I ask Qantas at Brisbane Airport. $40 lighter I collected my box on a Sunday and got it back to the hotel for packing. Viva Facebook.
I’m so sorry I saw little of Queensland. I wanted to see a koala and kangaroo. The people in the north seemed more engaged (and social) and the coast was as breathtaking as usual. I hope to be back, whether that’s on 2 or 4 wheels is a question, but not for now.
In the blog I keep a lot of technical detail to a minimum. You have to be a bike rider to want to read about miles, gears and panniers.
I rode a total of 1,230 miles (1,976 km) in 17 days cycling. (I had four rest days and did some cycling around the towns but I’ve excluded it here). That’s an average of 72 miles a day (116 km) at a speed of 11.5mph (18.5kph). I climbed an average of 738 metres a day (2,421 feet). The average temperature was 26º C (79ºF).
My cycling style was to go as fast as I could but I never ‘worked’ when riding. I just pedalled easily. There was no point in exerting too much effort with so far to go. Naturally I was concerned not to strain anything or cause injury. On climbs I would reach for the gears. (It was not easy to stand on the pedals in any case, the bike is so unbalanced; you would be swinging around like a pendulum).As I explain below I went well and happily threw my leg over the cross bar the next morning for another 7 hours.
I have a system and it’s proven in North America and Europe. It worked fine here. The bike was fully serviced before departure and the gears, tyres and wheels were new. I had no problems other than a problem that I set off with. Under load when on the lowest gear ie. small chain wheel and largest rear gear, I had the chain rubbing against the mech. I never really rode the bike back in the UK after servicing, due to the weather, to discover this issue. A shop in Brisbane removed two chain links and climbing was thereafter less problematic. The new wheels were excellent and did’t need truing after ‘running in’ or spending two hours on a rock strewn track.
Some of my kit is weary after so many tours. Stuffing things into panniers creased or jammed doesn’t add to their life span. I’m still amazed that my Big Agnes tent works so well after all the days it has been stuffed into its sack wet. My sleeping mat failed and needed replacing. My silk sleeping bag liner ripped and I’m getting to a stage where my cycling shoes are making me look like a tramp and they’re not water repellent! This is alright if it is a hot climate and they dry out but in colder places it’s not a great sensation the next day.
On all my other cycle tours I’ve had a thoughtful stance on nutrition but failed badly. Heat and exertion suppresses appetite. You need to eat. I have stood in many large supermarkets unable to find anything I want to eat apart from fruit along with a cold drink. Thanks to Cam Blake (‘The Master’) at Leeds Becket University I elevated eating to something as sacrosanct as taking medication. That is, you have to do it in the prescribed doses at a certain time. I didn’t religiously eat when I should but I tried to eat on the hour and get at least one hot meal a day. My panniers were full of sugary sweets, energy bars, gels, fruit and porridge! I planned to stop and eat when I could and when I did I dropped all my UK dietary good habits. This meant being happy with fried food, dairy, red meat and most things I would worry about being unhealthy. The objective was calorie intake. It worked: I cycled 7.5% faster than my last similar trip, I lost no weight overall and suffered no debilitating daily muscle weariness.
I mentioned navigation challenges in the blog. These were many. My Garmin 830 has several filters. Halfway through Victoria I managed to sweep them away. However the device was prone to send you the long way round with no mitigation for climbing. The worry came when I ignored one route when leaving Hawks Nest because it was longer than Google. In fairness it was saving me from unpaved roads and mosquitos. Google Maps as an App was consistent but had a few errors. One was sending me to join the Bruce Highway a long time before I was actually allowed to join the road. Road signage was often useful especially in urban areas. As with all signage then it is apt to disappear when you are slavishly following it. Paper maps may have helped but how much information can you use when on the road?
I’d scoped where I might camp in advance. However just before I departed I downloaded an App called ‘WikiCamps’ to my iPhone. It was sublime. Offering solutions everywhere and lodgings that ranged from a piece of grass with a shower through to backpacking hostels. I’m assuming this is available for other countries. Peerless.
The road surfaces were fine. Of course some were more coarse than others. Potholes were an absolute rarity and progress was seldom slowed by the roads. As for my safety with the traffic then I have to state that I ride defensively (to the side of the road, wear bright colours, check before turning, lots of hand signals etc.) with a rear view mirror attached to the arm of my spectacles. I’m not easily frightened. When incidents arose I was more angry than frightened.
Drivers in large empty areas drove like Lewis Hamilton. However I never felt threatened. On the Highways I was occasionally a little uncomfortable with the genuinely massive trucks and irritated when they failed to give me much space (when they had the chance to change lane). Car drivers were usually vigilant but trades in pick ups and smaller delivery trucks were usually commandeered by lesser human beings. In the blog I mention a couple!
For the next trip I would simply service the bike, keep to the same nutrition plan and haul the same kit. I may carry out more of a forensic research of the route.
After failing to eat properly the night before I was delighted to discover this seemingly ramshackle general store in Kin Kin was a top cafe.
When I turned up last night it seemed improbable that they could russle up this omelette:
This was a sight for sore eyes. I asked inside about my nocturnal American friend. Yes he was known. His name’s Jim Wonder. He lives about 4 miles out of town and has been caught stealing showers and water before. They knew of his conspiracy theories and pre-occupation with artefacts. I feel I may have ‘grassed him up’ after discussing his ablutions last night but he needs to stop creeping around like that.
Fortified I headed north. Within a few miles I spent 10 minutes pushing the bike up an 18% gradient. Whether a help or a worry my Garmin Sat Nav does provide guidance that these enormous climbs are coming:
At the top I had another choice to make. Onward and upward with the Garmin’s route or ‘Plan B’ with Google Maps. I decided to abandon the Sherpa Tenzing opportunity and took an unmade road. The countryside was quite European and it reminded me of the Black Forest in Germany close to the French border. That, I recollect, has the odd climb.
Throughout this area local elections are taking place. Standardised posters were everywhere usually with a photo and name. Micky, in this one, is making improbable promises:
Apparently it is Australian law that all adults must either vote or register their intention not to vote. I wonder if this stops people whinging about the result?
At the bottom of one hill not too far from Gympie I was allowed onto the Bruce Highway. If you Google ‘Bruce Highway’ and ‘cycle’ you will discover loads of complaints about this road. I’m fairly dismissive of these types of dialogue but, I confess, the road had its challenges.
It’s been upgraded in separate sections and during my 50 mile relationship there were portions that were fine and then lengths that had a terribly coarse surface and or virtually no shoulder. The road had occasional overtaking lanes but never was it a dual carriageway. A feature that stopped vehicles giving you wide clearance, when passing, was a rumble strip of paint in the centre of the road.
What would you do in a pick up truck at 70mph? Give the cyclist clearance (and safety) and pull into the middle but experience the rumble strip or barrel on through nearly grazing the hip of the lycra loony on the hard shoulder but successfully keep off the rumble strip? No need to guess the answer. However due to creative signage I was always concentrating:
Of course a positive was that I was going directly north not weaving west and east. Nearing my destination a pick up pulled over and Paul leapt out in front of me. He’s a long distance cyclist and had hosted many cycle tourers coming through this area. Tonight he wasn’t staying at his home at my destination, Maryborough, or else he would have offered a shower, food and some shelter. He reeled off some camping options in Maryborough. They seemed to be free. However after Kin Kin I wanted hot water to do some laundry and proximity to some shops for dinner. I felt mean for rejecting his options and he seemed disappointed!
This was the first time I had experienced this type of interest and kindness. I continued into Maryborough and picked the second campsite I found. Again the owner was very kind and helpful – “here’s a supermarket, here’s your route out tomorrow, here’s the pitch etc” . On our tour of the site I saw the truck.
He’d received it as an heirloom and had once done it up. It was an 1933 REO. This is an American truck. I know you will have got some 70s Rock music compilation CD or cassette that has a track on it by REO Speedwagon. This is where the name comes from.
At this place and in the early evening my epic bike ride from Melbourne to Cairns abruptly ended.
I haven’t mentioned coronavirus a lot in the blog. I’ve seen the news headlines in the UK and Australia and spoken, often, to Anna about it. I was only concerned with the daily mileage and as you’ve read my schedule had few spare moments to think about a lot other than pedalling, eating, putting up the tent, washing my kit, showering, sleeping and then repeat. The whole pandemic had now spread worldwide and the situation was changing daily. In Australia there was no change in anyone’s behaviour or movement to detect. Yet.
Two things nagged me. Given the seriousness I should be with Anna at home and, secondly, would I be able to leave the country in April? Anna had been checking with Trailfinders. They could give you information to cover the next 48 hours but longer than that they had no firm information.
After a busy day in the saddle you are still ‘in the zone’ for an hour or so about mundane things like negotiating a slip road/ramp and what gear to be in. However, I shortly found myself charging my phone in the shower block but speaking to the UK travel agent. Anna had set this up. I heard the professional’s analysis and it was time to go. The travel agent switched my April flight for another one in 3 days time.
I was crushed. Imagine you’re playing, say, a team sport and doing well. You glance toward the touch line and see a coach holding up your number taking you off the pitch. Whoa, not now, we’re winning let me see this through.
At this point in time all I could really see was a couple of days of stress. Tomorrow was Saturday, apparently (!), I had to get the bicycle on public transport in order to return to Brisbane. There were limited transport solutions. When I got there I needed a big cardboard bike box: all the bike shops, where I’d get one, would be shut on a Sunday. I needed accommodation near a bike box and the airport etc….
Anyway these matters were resolved (with Anna and a cycling forum on Facebook) and I started the trek home.
I will publish one more blog, after this, to wrap up the statistics and some summarising thoughts. It’s around 1,200 miles. Frankly I’m still processing all this.