At some point on the third day, the ride began to acquire its own momentum.
The Fernleigh Track tailed off (see my previous post), and Newcastle came and went in a dull morning of hilly coastal headlands strewn with bike paths and promenades. I stopped thrice en route to the Hunter River: once at a dead end at the bottom of a fabulous freewheeling descent (and, it turned out, fabulous first-gear ascent), again to make myself another instant roadside cheese toastie, and a third time at a bike shop for some chain lube.
The Queen’s Wharf ferry terminal was perched on the far side of Scott Street from Newcastle’s former railway terminus, a Victorian red-brick edifice that looked for all the world like it had been uprooted from a provincial English city. This, I guessed, was where the Fernleigh Track would once have delivered its wagons. Had I been in the mood to dawdle, I might have stopped to snoop around. But the road was pulling me onwards, and so I boarded the Stockton ferry and left bustling Newcastle behind for another time.
A waterfront bike path followed the north arm of the river, skirted the wetlands, and spat me out onto a flat, provincial road, joining a broader highway at Williamstown. Pick-ups and 4×4s hauling fishing boats and comically-oversized caravans flew past me as I hammered the shoulderless asphalt. To celebrate not dying beneath the wheels of a mobile home on its annual summer outing, I bought a hot cheese and asparagus pie and ate it unashamedly in a petrol station carpark.
The toponymic theme continued as the route shifted on to quieter backroads. I passing hamlets with names like Bob’s Farm and Taylor’s Beach and Boat Harbour, white colloquialisms one day written down and thus set in administrative and cartographic stone. Betwixt these settlements, the names assigned to the beaches and forests and rivers told a parallel story: Kooragang, Worimi, Tilligerry, Tomaree, Karuah.
I had contacted a few more WarmShowers hosts on the route ahead, but had otherwise decided it was time to start camping. Surrounded by protected areas and ranches and feeling uneasy about wild-camping, I spotted a campground in the village of One Mile. As I set up my tent on the perfectly-mown lawn, I was perturbed by an arriving busload of extremely sweaty backpackers, who proceeded to infiltrate every cabin and dorm and washroom in the vicinity. I pegged it over to the camp kitchen to roast the chicken I’d bought on the way into town, then sat quietly in the corner, devouring said chicken while listening to the chatter of the fresh-faced European teenagers who’d just got off the banana boat, retiring to my tent no more the wiser.
The following morning I got chatting to a friend of the campsite owner. She’d emigrated from Montreal and was taking a break from housesitting in Manly – a trendy Sydney beach suburb – to visit her mate in Nelson Bay.
As she described it, the loose tribe of adolescents whose laundry now adorned the camp had were on the gap-year kids’ equivalent of freshers’ week, during which their visa agency carted them around New South Wales on an orientation week of pub crawls, sandboarding on the Stockton dunes, opening bank accounts, and – ideally – landing one of the fruit-picking jobs they were obliged to take if they wanted to stay longer. The story took me back to my own sixth-form days, when the gap year industry (for that is what it is) set about wooing us with magazines and expo days about all the cool stuff our parents could pay for us to do. A working holiday in Australia had doubtless been among them, but I’d gone to Canada to train as a ski instructor and earn some money instead.
This particular campsite had struck a deal with a couple of these agencies to host several groups of newcomers a week, each time consisting of a few dozen young, English-speaking backpackers staying for a couple of nights. Occasional independent cyclists and road-trippers merely added variety. When the campsite owner later referred to the business as his ‘retirement fund’, he wasn’t joking.
Despite how unbearable a few dozen off-the-leash teenagers running amok could have made the place, the campsite remained tranquil and mellow. Since building my own cabin in the woods in Armenia (one of the private projects I’ve been sharing with my Patreon supporters), I’ve become a little preoccupied with timber construction techniques and aesthetics. Here, the campsite infrastructure consisted of raised wooden buildings on stilts set in a rainforest of ferns and gumtrees, all engineered and illuminated to create a Neverland-ish vibe which couldn’t help but evoke a childish sense of the fantastic. The owner had been a carpenter by trade and had built the whole place himself over more than two decades. That painstaking craftsmanship was seriously paying off.
The next day I took yet another ferry from Port Stephens to the wonderfully-named Tea Gardens. The boat lolled in the shallows while a playful dolphin entertained waiting passengers with high-speed underwater sprints and sudden leaps into the air. Disembarking on the north side of Nelson Bay, I cracked the whip and pedalled into a hot headwind between the oceanfront dunes and the wetlands and lagoons of Myall Lakes. Just before Bombah Point, the New South Wales Coast Cycle Trail route suggested I cut through Mungo Brush to the isolated settlement of Seal Rocks, using a gravel track known as the Old Gibber Trail – the first major off-road segment of my trip.
I’d been looking forward to getting stuck in to a bit of semi-wilderness, however caged-in it was by the land around it. So I banked right, rolled through the trailhead car park, hove my bike over the barrier gate, and pedalled happily off into the bush.
Fine, compacted gravel soon gave way to solid chunks of rock and rubble, interspersed with corrugated sections of sandy washboard. The going went from quite fun to a bit rough to literally jarring. I briefly considered dropping my tyre pressures, but I didn’t trust the mini pump I’d snatched on the way out of the door in England to actually do the job, settling instead for a spell or two of teeth-chattering.
At some point, the various rattles and squeaks were joined by a tinny clattering noise. It was a somewhat familiar sound, one that usually heralds a twig in your spokes, or something trapped in the stays of your mudguard, or an issue of that nature – in any case, something interfering with the wheel’s smooth rotation. I couldn’t feel anything amiss, but I eventually stopped and squinted for foreign objects, finding nothing obvious. So I continued riding further into the uninhabited bush, the clattering noise fading in and out as I pedalled.
It wasn’t until I stopped for a swig of water in a rare patch of shade and got down on my knees for a proper look that I realised what the noise actually was.
Some years ago I wrote a lengthy piece on the subject of toolkits for cycle touring and bikepacking. I’ll save you the tedium (if you’re really interested you can wade through it here) by offering you the thrust of the advice: pack familiar tools and emergency spares for likely scenarios.
The principle sounds simple. But you’d be surprised how many tourers either pack kilograms of workshop tools they don’t know how to use, or else keep dried-up tubes of rubber solution and tyre levers made of cheese loitering in the deepest crevasses of their panniers.
(Both approaches result in a nice long walk to the next bike shop.)
Snapping a spoke falls into a category of mechanical failures that might be labelled “inevitable, given time”. That is, it shouldn’t happen often, but it probably will eventually. One would therefore do well to prepare appropriately.
As I crouched in the dust, watching the limp remains of a rear spoke dangle from the wheel hub, it occurred to me that never in my 16-year-long bike touring career had a spoke snapped on any of my touring bikes. I’d fixed plenty of other people’s wheels in this way, but never one of my own. This suggested that either all my expensive hand-built wheels truly had been bombproof, or I hadn’t been riding hard enough, or I’d been exceptionally lucky, or – more likely – some murky intersection of all three.
And although I was in the middle of Nowhere, New South Wales, on a corrugated gravel road with a broken spoke and almost no water, the next thing that occurred to me had nothing to do with being stranded in the wilderness.
Rather, it was annoyance that I had ignored my own advice and not actually packed an appropriate toolkit at all.
Yes, I had three spare spokes strapped to my non-drive-side seatstay, where they had resided for the last eight years. I also had a multitool which featured a 3.2mm spoke key, and a couple of matching spoke nipples packed into a film canister amongst chain links and 3/16″ hub bearings.
But these were all useless. For what I hadn’t packed was a cassette lockring removal tool. This meant I wouldn’t be able get the sprocket cassette off to remove the broken spoke or lace in a new one.
In other words, I’d brought everything I needed – except the one thing I needed.
Spoke breakages are rarely catastrophic. Even if I’d had the tool, I’d have still ridden out on 35 spokes and found some water before settling in for a roadside wheel-building session. But my careless pre-trip packing now meant that my decisions would now revolve around the location and opening hours of the nearest bike shop. For if there’s one thing I knew about broken spokes, it’s that they tend to multiply if left unfixed.
I taped the loose end of the broken spoke to its neighbour and carried on riding, now paranoid about the worsening track conditions, wincing every time I hit a particularly nasty rock. I drained the last of my water, braced myself for a thirsty few hours, and eventually – after plenty more washboard and a few patches of soft sand – hit the asphalt again at Seal Rocks Road. (Incidentally, it was a lovely route and I highly recommend it.)
By now it was late afternoon. I was still deep in national park territory, and the only likely-sounding campground in the vicinity was a few kilometres’ detour away at Treachery Beach.
(I’d like to tell you I rode there based on it being the only campsite close enough to reach before sunset – but really I just liked the sound of the name.)
Rolling past the sign reading “advance bookings essential”, I quickly rehearsed my pitiful-Brit-on-bicycle act and strolled calmly but confidently into the reception hut. Despite being fully booked, the staff bought my sob-story in an instant, and I was soon pitching my little 2‑berth tent in a distant corner of a sprawling mega-camp, surrounded on all sides by overland trucks, off-road camping trailers and marquee-sized gazebos. Smoke rose from a hundred barbecues, beers were cracked in surround-sound, and another long weekend of paryting commenced.
The twin towns of Forster-Tuncurry were 60km north. Lying on my back in my tent, I scrolled around on Google Maps, found the local bike store and its Saturday opening hours, and set a mental course. I would crank out the distance before lunch, get the errant spoke replaced by a friendly, probably bearded bike mechanic who would take polite interest in my adventure, and be on my merry way.
Yes. That is definitely what would happen tomorrow.