I crossed The Entrance Bridge, leaving the previous day’s mishaps behind me, and pushed north, following off-highway trails through forest fringes.
Finally the New South Wales Coast Cycle Trail began to offer what it had promised, taking me far from the Pacific Highway and brokering a tightly-negotiated route along the various barrier islands and reefs that were smeared along the coastline.
I bounced between placid seawater lagoons and the omnipresent Pacific surf, stopping mid-morning for coffee at a shipping-container kiosk on the southern point of Catherine Hill Bay.
Freewheeling down past the beach, the waves looked so inviting that I couldn’t resist stopping for a spot of body-surfing.
Only then did it become clear what a gift to cycle tourers is an Aussie east-coast institution whose origins can be traced back to the early 20th century, known today as the Surf Life Saving Club (SLSC).
In New South Wales, and probably elsewhere on the east coast, the beach is the social equivalent of the European town square: a place to hang out, meet friends, swig a morning coffee or an evening beer, watch the world go by or the sun go down, with the obvious difference that you might also – depending on tide, swell, wind, presence of jellyfish, seaweed density, etc. – plunge into the surf.
Pretty much every such beach has an SLSC, variously providing lifeguarding services, youth clubs, training courses, community sport programmes, and the like.
And every clubhouse offers facilities which overlap wonderfully with the needs of the travelling cyclist: drinking water, toilets, showers (indoor and outdoor), people to chat with, a bit of shade if needed – altogether, a dependable local institution around which one may design the logistics of a bike trip.
Parallels might include the Turkish petrol station or the English village pub. Indeed, many surf clubs incorporate bars, cafes, takeaway kiosks, and/or events spaces to help make ends meet.
Some of the more generously provisioned beaches (and picnic sites) even sport free, electricity-powered, push-button-operated, taxpayer-funded public barbecues!
Exactly what kind of enlightened nation is this?!?
It didn’t take long to discover I could stick a cheese slice in an English muffin, whack it on the grill, and have myself a near-instant roadside toastie.
In Belmont I finally found a branch of Aldi, having missed the previous one while trying to stay on the route. I bought several packs of English muffins and a lot of cheese slices.
Belmont was also the jumping-off point for a segment of the route I’d seen mentioned a few times: a rail trail known as the Fernleigh Track. Now an established model for active transport development, the rail trail principle is simple: take dismantled railway lines into public ownership and repurpose them for walking, cycling, and related activities.
I grew up in the Welland Valley with a segment of rail trail on my doorstep (although ours was an unofficial one with no legal status). Not far beyond is the Brampton Valley Way, formerly the railway line from Northampton to Market Harborough and in 1993 reopened as a 13-mile (21km) recreational route. And I’ve pedalled many others in my years of riding. Indeed, I’ve often sought them out when planning my own routes, for among the many attractive aspects of riding a former train line are gentle grades, traffic-free alignments, substantial earthworks, respect for natural topography, and a nice wide tread with space for everyone.
Now I think about it, given that list of attributes, rail trails might just represent a vision of how active transport infrastructure might be designed fron scratch, if only public opinion and policy were influenced in the same way (and with the same financial backing) as are road-building and car culture.
The Fernleigh Track snaked pleasantly through chirping and croaking forest and wetland, occasional spurs leading off to nearby suburbs. I stopped at one of these trailheads to take a few photos, use the public conveniences (so convenient!), and fill up with cold, filtered drinking water (wherefore didst spring these godly gifts?!?).
As I did so, a young chap in lycra unclipped from his road bike to fill up with water and asked me where I was going.
‘Brisbane,’ I replied.
‘Whoa!!!’ he said, recoiling in laughter. ‘That’s epic! I’d love to do a long bikepacking trip… maybe after I graduate.’
It turned out he was from China and was studying abroad at a university in Newcastle, the second city of New South Wales, to where the Fernleigh Track would eventually lead. I did what I usually did in conversations like this, played down the “epicness” of trundling along at 15–20kmph for a few hours a day and eventually finding yourself on the other side of a country or continent, and tried to draw attention to the eminently achievable nature of long-distance bicycle travel.
He asked about my bike and gear and talked of his dream to ride from China to Europe; a notion that had clearly crossed his mind before.
‘Best thing you’ll ever do,’ I told him, and I meant it.
In Jewells, about halfway along the rail trail to Newcastle, I swerved off into suburbia. I had combed the regional WarmShowers host network for people whose profiles suggested we might have something in common (though in truth all members have something in common: that they are members of WarmShowers!), and found a few that ticked the boxes. After cranking up a cul-de-sac so steep I suspected it might be a joke played on all unsuspecting new arrivals, I found the house I was looking for.
Scott and Lanelle were a young couple living the kind of life I have often imagined I might live if I could ever stay in one place for long enough. They’d travelled and lived away from home, found livelihoods that more or less fitted their values, and had returned to buy a place near their hometown.
Having done so, they had set about making it their own. Bookshelves groaned under the weight of doorstop volumes on permaculture, homesteading and living lightly. A pair of Vivente World Randonneurs were propped up in the garage against a mitre saw and a rack of carpentry tools. Artwork I assumed to be mostly their own work adorned the walls. And the kitchen was a hundred experiments-in-progress in how to get the most out of the home-grown produce their garden provided in abundance.
Something clicked and we chatted long and wide. A WWOOFing volunteer from Germany wandered through on her way to do some weeding. The couple popped out to the local community garden meet-up while I took a shower and a nap, leaving me with a dinner made from exotic-sounding ingredients to unimaginably creative recipies.
Later on, the conversation turned to pairing bike touring with volunteering, and then to the route ahead, part of which they’d ridden recently. Scott, a former schoolteacher, was now inclined to build a new kind of livelihood, and we got deep into the intricacies of enacting personal visions which involved buy-in from lots of other people (with particular reference to the Transcaucasian Trail).
I didn’t need to, but I stayed for a happily drawn-out breakfast. And I felt that this brief crossing of paths had been valuable for all of us. In truth, I was tempted to stick around as a volunteer for a few days, but I decided against it. I was still a long way from achieving momentum on this tour, and I knew a few solid days in the saddle were the only way to reach it.
And so I rolled back down to the Fernleigh Track and struck out for Newcastle and a particular little coffee shop Lanelle had recommended. (Did I mention how excellent the coffee is here?)
I would never have met Scott and Lanelle – nor had the priceless experience of being their guest – had I not paid £2.79 for a one-month subscription to WarmShowers’ official Android app.
Given that, it’s sad to see the fuss kicked up by a minority of self-entitled members over the WarmShowers Foundation’s decision to cover the costs of developing, launching and maintaining an official app by charging less than the price of my coffee for monthly access to some of its more convenient features.
Seriously. Warmshowers has not been flipped for profit like Couchsurfing. It is operated by a charitable foundation, which is explicitly and legally bound not to make a profit.
Anyone who has ever helped set up or run a nonprofit knows that mere existence costs money. You need a lawyer to draft your articles of incorporation. You need a business bank account. You need a tax accountant. You need ongoing legal advice to comply with legislative changes, else lose your organisation’s charitable status and wipe out much of your donor base. Payment providers cream off donations as they’re made; app stores gatekeep access and take a hefty cut. Put simply, the cost of doing something for free is higher than most people realise.
On top of all that, you need a governing board to ensure funds aren’t misused by those in charge of spending them, whose job is to make decisions in the best interests of the organisation – such as how to raise funds to continue operating.
And regardless of how this particular decision or its consequences were handled, or whether and how certain individuals ended up outside the circle, I suspect that most of those enraged by the announcement that money would be charged for app-based access to an otherwise free global network of no-strings hospitality and future friends were not among the volunteers or the thousands of generous hosts. My guess is they were the people who had never chipped in at all, letting others do the fundraising so they could do the freeloading.
In the past I have been guilty of knee-jerk reactions against fees for what once was free. I’ve since learned that I have failed to consider what might be happening behind the scenes. Many a passion project has grown from a labour of love to one whose popularity demands a robust financial model so as not to implode. There must be plenty of founders who refused to acknowledge this, their martyred efforts long forgotten.
(My Patreon page illustrates all of this: While many of my blogging peers have gone down the paid subscription route, mine remains free – but only because of a handful of loyal supporters who help cover the webhosting, domain registration, mailing list provision, spam blocking, backup storage, WordPress plugins, photo editing software, and all the other invisible costs of running a marginally popular blog which I have, in the past, seriously considered shutting down.)
Okay – that was a classic rant, but the WarmShowers controversy was overdue a mention, and today was the perfect opportunity. Onwards!