This is where bike touring began for me. Fresh-faced and positive from university, where I had wondered probably a bit too much about the wider world and dreamed of adventure. I was certainly more eager to travel than to think about work and a career at the time. So, when I arrived at the Central Backpackers Hostel in Sydney with only 80 GBP to my name (having spent my savings on the way from the UK in South East Asia), I was unsure of how I would manage a Gap Week, let alone a Gap Year.
The answer came by hard-graft. I bought one blue shirt and one golden tie, and I found work at BridgeClimb, the folks who take people up to the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It was in every way an exhilarating place to work during the 2000 Olympics, as a world of celebrities came through our office doors and the whole city partied.
The job soon paid enough for me to leave the cozy nest of the hostel and move into a flashy penthouse apartment on Darling Harbour, albeit with 5 others backpackers crammed in.
All the while between work I explored as far as I could around town, with my trusty Trek mountain bike. I still think it is the best way to learn a place, not just the layout but the different vibes, views, languages and smells. Sydney had a lot and was buzzing throughout the Olympics. Soon after the party was over, I knew it was time for another, so I ditched a rather cushy second job I'd found managing a ‘Point of Sale’ test team, and pedalled north. The lure of actually travelling in my year out was too much to be sensible and work orientated.
One day I crossed the city to a bike shop who’d starting stocking B.O.B Trailers and splashed out on one. I threw my backpack in the shiny yellow trailer bag (which I still use today) and pushed myself north across the harbour bridge, my former office. It was a special moment and one, I have learned, that I get every time I embark on a new tour. The freedom of the road ahead and the initial panic of feeling the loaded bike, followed by the focus and drive to overcome whatever is around the corner, which, inevitably is a hill.
I pedalled from Sydney to Cape Tribulation. I was not brave enough nor experienced enough to take on the outback proper, so I stuck to the east coast when I could. I cycled along the Gold and Sunshine coasts before Fraser Island. This was a typical backpackers route, but not a typical form of travel. It felt great being in control of my own pace and doing whatever I liked, rather than lugging backpacks across towns to bus stops at silly o’clock. I was hooked and quickly realised that exploring and learning how to experience the warmth and kindness of strangers by trusting, is important to me.
Funnily enough, it was hot in Queensland and soon enough I was out of water. I thought better of drinking from a billabong, then noticed some signs ahead. It was Susan River Ranch, near Hervey Bay. Over 1000 acres of bush, trails, watersports, tennis courts, and hundreds of horses surrounding the homestead. I wandered in and immediately met the lovely Carol, the resident cook. Water bottles filled and cotton-mouth dampened, I enquired about what the place was. Were there rooms? Could I help out? The boss Norm walked in at this moment, with his hat tipped and said “Sure you can” (I later learned that this was likely preceded by “Bloody Pommie b4st7rd”.)
Was I dreaming? Within two minutes I’d happily accepted the terms of no pay, but bed and board. The next day I was in a tractor hacking down bush, the next learning to waterski, the next yanking down trees in a grading machine, the next taking out guests on horseback rides. What a wonderful few weeks it was. It was pretty full-on stuff but well rewarded and I was accepted into the family so naturally and comfortably. I’ll never forget the McLeods.
I left on good terms as the family knew I was transient and waved me on my way north towards the tropics. Sugar cane, and more sugar cane. Animals becoming more nasty looking. Downpours and aquaplaning, spider bites in the butt and all the while flashes of long-haired backpackers glumly waiting at roadsides, as I cruised by.