In Which The Kindness Of Strangers Wins Again, And How I Forgot What Camping Really Means

I rose before dawn, ignoring the scent of bacon, and rode out of camp. My goal was to reach Forster before lunch, get my broken spoke replaced, and live happily ever after.

I stopped for coffee in Seal Rocks (flat white, no sugar). While waiting for my order among bleary-eyed barefooted surfers, I popped into the store nearby. I’d been told it had “very limited supplies”, so I was surprised to find bananas on the shelf among a range of fresh produce, groceries and souvenirs.

(Where I live, a village store with “very limited supplies” means one that only sells certain brands of vodka and cigarettes.)

Then I hit the road inland. Surfers paddled out to the break as I pedalled waves of asphalt. More campers sped past, the din of eager engines announcing their approach through the forest, heading to Seal Rocks for one last late-summer weekend of fun. I soon recognised the spot where the north end of the Old Gibber Trail had spat me and my broken wheel out the previous evening. Had the detour been worth it?

Richard had fitted my bike with an experimental chainset update. I will no doubt bore you with the details in a future post, but the experiment involved bolting two chainrings onto a crank designed for three, fitting an ultra-wide-range 11–40t cassette, and swapping in a new extra-long-cage derailleur to accommodate the extra teeth.

The hoped-for result was that I’d spend most of my time riding on the big front chainring and the middle few cassette sprockets, reserving the lower ratios for hill-climbing alone. I would thereby eliminate a swathe of redundant gear combinations and lessen chainring, sprocket and chain wear into the bargain, amongst other potential future benefits.

And because of the cross-compatible nature of the original build, it should all be a straight swap onto the existing freehub and cranks – even keeping the cables and friction shifters.

(Yay for fighting the tyranny of planned obsolescence!)

Among other things, we’d wondered whether the new gear ranges would actually suffice for touring. That tumultuous ride inland from Seal Rocks verified that yes, indeed they would. 

But before long I hit the main road to Forster. Another caravan-choked single carriageway with meagre shoulders and an unhealthy smattering of roadworks, it was a road I would happily have skipped had the option existed.

On the upside, its sheer nastiness did inspire me to crank up the pace. It was barely 11am when I rolled victorious onto the forecourt in front of Forster Cycles, where I would triumphantly get my broken spoke replaced.

Except I wouldn’t.

Because there was a hastily-printed note in the door of Forster Cycles, apologising for the inconvenience but they would in fact be closed today.

Thanks for the heads-up, guys.

So I pedalled back into town to stock up on English muffins and cheese slices, wondering which of the surfboard-laden 4×4s I’d passed that morning had contained the staff of Forster Cycles, heading to the beach for a long weekend.

Vile riding conditions continued north of Forster. The sole paved road was hemmed in by ocean, river, wetland and ranch, and with only one way to go, it was the way everyone was going that Saturday afternoon.

Shortly before Taree, I breathed a sigh of relief, took a hard left, and followed a comically steep dirt-road shortcut over the hills to a campground near Rainbow Flat. The site was the polar opposite of Treachery Beach: a grassy hilltop farm with a little row of pitches amongst expansive paddocks and stables where tenants kept their horses. Save for a single motor home whose occupants did not emerge for the entire duration of my stay, I was the only guest that night, and I have rarely slept in such tranquility.

Taree was a kooky little town with a bike shop that was closed on Sundays. The coffee shops weren’t, however. While supping the second flat white I’d apologetically bought while charging my phone, I clocked that the regional railway line passed through Taree as it approached the coast. This railway, I hoped, was the means by which I would soon return to Sydney, for as I previously mentioned this had been a bike tour of opportunity; a short blast of freedom in between landing at Kingsford Smith and driving my sister-in-law to church.

The riding picked up after Taree as the route found its feet again, propelling me north on rural backroads with a pleasing ratio of gravel to blacktop. In Harrington (more muffins) I took a gamble, reserved a pitch on a national park campground at the north end of Crowdy Bay, and set off to punish my remaining rear spokes with another few hours of gravel and washboard.

Yet something was different today. I was no longer dwelling on the “what-ifs”. Yeah, so I might lose another spoke. My wheel might end up so taco’ed as to be unrideable. Big deal. I’d walk or hitch. This was Australia, not the fricken Sahara – though now I think about it, when I did ride across the Sahara many moons ago, I must have done so with the exact same attitude (“this is the Sahara, not the fricken Australian outback!”).

Diamond Head hove into view. A group (herd? pack? flock?) of kangaroos bounded across my path as I rolled onto the site – obviously. I checked in and rolled down to the site. Jesus… I gaped. These Aussies really took their camping seriously.

Back home, a couple of my friends and I sometimes enjoy spending idle hours discussing the relative merits of the ways in which we could better modify our 4×4s for even more gnarlsome off-road expeditions, more epic overland trips, more luxuriant car-camping weekends, and the like. Occasionally, we even implement some of them. (A story for another time, perhaps.)

At Diamond Head Campground that Sunday in February 2023, I’m pretty sure the local lineup would have rivalled any international overland expo I might have chosen to patronise for ideas and inspiration on the subject of how to set up my car for camping. Tens of millions of dollars’ worth of expedition-grade hardware was lined up in neat rows across hundreds of vehicle-accessible pitches spanning what seemed like several acres of beach-facing campground.

I wasn’t sure what to laugh at first – that this one site’s daily revenue probably exceeded what Dilijan National Park (where I currently live) took in a year, or that I still carried around with me the quaint notion that “camping” referred to a little cluster of tents around a fire. I spent a good hour wandering among the assembled installations, taking photographs for future reference, in the process probably coming across as even more of a freak than, as the only cyclist for miles around, I already did.

Later on, when I told my sister-in-law and her fiancé about this, they illuminated the situation nicely. As I had previously discovered on Day One, even the cheapest accommodation in Australia costs a relative fortune. A commenter on my blog had put it bluntly: “It’s cheaper for Australians to take a 6‑hour flight to SE Asia for a vacation than it is to go away by car in our own country and stay in budget accommodation.”

For this reason, they opined, many Aussies preferred to outfit their vans, SUVs and work trucks with a side awning, maybe a roof tent, some MaxTrax, bull bars (for the ‘roos), a few handy floodlights, and probably a set of BF Goodrich All-Terrain KO2 tyres, and then to sling a bunch of cheap camping gear from Anaconda in the back and rent a pitch at a campground for a week or two. 

National park campgrounds seemed particularly popular, for a single pitch could be shared among members of a family or a bunch of mates for the same nightly rate as I was paying to occupy perhaps 5% of the allocated space, alone with my bicycle and tent.

I initially considered this apparent commitment to the great outdoors to be enlightened. 

Yet, as I mulled it over, I wondered if this was simply how most people in most places viewed camping.

I have spent an unusually large proportion of my adult life sleeping under canvas (or in a hammock) for a mixture of practical and ideological reasons. I love being outdoors and have designed my entire existence around it, and I love to explore (whether for work, pleasure, or the necessary feeding of my soul) in as unconstrained a way as possible. For this reason, you’ll rarely catch me without a portable, ultralight home in easy reach.

But what I have never done – at least, not since a very rainy school trip to Brittany at the age of 12 – is go on a camping holiday. 

The more I thought about it, the more I realised that what other people thought of as “camping” was something I’d only come across by accident, whether while trying to find an empty corner of an overcrowded Mediterranean caravan site on my way back through Italy with Tenny, or jostling for road space with RVs and seeking out rare hiker-biker campgrounds on my way down the US West Coast, or working for food at the sprawling National Trust campsite in Great Langdale, or here, at Diamond Head Campground in Crowdy Bay National Park, New South Wales.

Seen in that light, there was no great revelation to be had in noticing people sleeping outside to save money on holiday. I had simply taken my camping practice so far from the norm that I barely recognised it any more.

These were the thoughts that bounced around as I set forth yet again, this time on bright red dirt, stormclouds up ahead, still wondering if and when I’d ever find a way to replace that damn spoke.

Then, as I took shelter in a bus stop from a downpour, another comment popped up on my blog.

‘G’day Tom’, wrote Derek. ‘I’m based in Port Macquarie which is likely on your route. If you need access to a workshop and tools whilst you’re here, as well as a washing machine, shower, floor space and the opportunity to chill out, it would be a pleasure to help you out.’

I blinked; looked at the map; looked twice. Port Macquarie was just a couple of hours’ ride away. The New South Wales Coast Cycle Trail passed right through it.

I wrote back to Derek, wondering if he’d get the message before I limped up on his doorstep, and figured that it didn’t matter too much. I was overdue a rest day, and with a reasonably-priced YHA hostel, Port Macquarie seemed the perfect place to take it.

After all that, it would be the kindness of strangers that would eventually set right my mechanical woes.

Funny how things turn out when you don’t take it all too seriously…

Comments (skip to respond)

7 responses to “In Which The Kindness Of Strangers Wins Again, And How I Forgot What Camping Really Means”

  1. what a great journey you are in. i’ve done the PCH here in the USA westcoast (washington state to San diego) and collected lots of pictures and videos along the way. i am learning now how to make a blog myself hopefully to add to my retirement hobbies, and your site is inspiring me to actually dive in. keep riding and blogging. hope to meet you someday on the road or just hear from you in my own site. THAT IS if i actually launch one :0. I am posting to comply with my online blogging class 🙂

    1. Well done, Jack! Blogging has been by far the most important creative outlet I’ve had in my years of riding. I hope it brings you similar fulfilment. Let us all know when the blog is launched and how we can find it! (By the way, my own account of the PCH in 2012 starts here, if you’re interested.)

  2. Robert avatar

    I’d buy a copy!

  3. Hi Tom, how are you . Reading everything you write is a pleasure and an inspiration. I’m Brazilian and my English is very bad, I use a translator to learn with you. Thank you! Ah, what tent is this?

    1. Hello and welcome! This tent is an UST Highlander. It’s quirky, but I’ve learned to like it over the two years it’s been in my collection. Hope that helps!

  4. Ian Tait avatar

    You’re a good writer Tom. Hope all these blog posts will appear in a book one day. Ian

    1. Thank you for the kind words and encouragement! I’ve long thought about compiling all my travelogues into a simple ebook. Perhaps this is the time to do it…

Something to add?