Ten minutes was all it took to slot back into the role of sweatiest, most vulnerable, most linguistically explicit road user.
In Newport I loaded up the relevant New South Wales Coast Cycle Trail segment and struck forth on a narrow coastal road called The Serpentine.
As the name suggested, this was the start of a meandering rollercoaster of obscene gradients winding through humid forest amongst staggered hillside dwellings. Riders on this designated cycle route would find themselves hurdling headlands and conducting flybys of secluded beaches, all the while wondering if they were covering more horizontal distance than vertical.
These hills weren’t long – but by god, were they steep.
My last major undertaking on a bicycle had occurred before the word “covid” entered the dictionary. So I was even more delighted to find this gruelling warm-up interspersed with segments of six-lane highway.
Cursing the hills, cursing the traffic, cursing my legs, and occasionally cursing all three at once in a coordinated verbal assault upon that trifecta of cyclists’ bugbears: this was a familiar combination of grievances, one I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing in about 50 of those abstract entities we call “countries” (with the notable exception of the Netherlands, where there are no hills to curse).
My intention now was to add a new country to the list. Technically I had already done so in those first ten minutes, but only in the way I have technically visited China because I once spent an overnight layover in a hotel in Guangzhou. No – it would take more than a stiff morning’s climb to be able to say I’d travelled Australia by bicycle in any meaningful way.
(Let’s remember that this is a land so big that to visit a friend in Perth would require a flight of the same duration as from London to New York, or a drive roughly equivalent to a east-west crossing of Europe, or a four-day continuous train journey, or – the dream – a good couple of months of pedalling.)
North of Newport was Avalon – more hills, more sweat – and north of Avalon was the suburb of Palm Beach. One of its many seafronts is apparently familiar to many TV-watching Brits as a principal filming location for the popular Australian soap opera Home and Away. In reality, Palm Beach is an exclusive district of greater Sydney made inaccessible by terrain and distance; the preserve of multi-million-dollar second homes with swimming pools and private jetties; a trove of accumulated wealth hidden amongst cliffs and forest canopies and further concealed by a subtropical loop track of cicadas and kookaburra cackles.
Mid-morning, as the sun rose above the tree-tops and beat down upon the tarmac, the neighbourhood seemed abandoned, except for a trickle of passing utes – the Aussie name for a 4×4 pickup truck with a tool chest or two mounted on a raised rear tray. As I rode north, these vehicles and their occupants dispersed themselves amongst the driveways of their absentee clients in order to dredge the unused swimming pools, tend to the unseen gardens, and construct the extensions and sundecks and boat sheds whose only purpose appeared to be to channel surplus cash into further inflating the market value of these properties.
It struck me as ironic that – at the starting point for one of the most frugal and egalitarian forms of adventure in existence – I’d found myself riding through a premium postcode in one of the most expensive cities in one of the richest countries on Earth.
Rounding the northern spur of those bejewelled hilltops, with only the Barrenjoey headland separating me from the great Pacific, I came at last to my exit point of Palm Beach Wharf, from where the public ferry would spirit me across the bay of Pittwater, out of Sydney proper, and to the Central Coast region of New South Wales.
Lucky timing: the late-morning ferry was just boarding as I rolled up to the end of the wooden jetty, rickety and incongruous among the designer dwellings above.
As the ferry chugged slowly out of dock, the conductor offered me a wireless card reader to pay my fare – but my card inexplicably failed to register. He shrugged:
‘No worries, mate. Have yourself a free one!’
And he moved on to the next passenger, leaving me with a big inner smile, happy to be reminded that – even in a place like Palm Beach – money didn’t always matter most.