Stage 6 – Pilliga Forest To Tap Hill (Tooraweena)

The first of three crucial stages: to make up the shortfall from stage 5, to actually complete stage 6, and finally to install some confidence back into the journey going into stage 7.

The morning was pretty well structured because I had an interview scheduled with Anna Moulder an ABC radio at 10:15am: ABC’s the state broadcaster (a bit like Radio Scotland if you’re reading this in the UK). Consequently, I needed an early start and a strong pace.

I got the early start but it was nearly all uphill. For kilometre after kilometre all I got was long straight, uphill roads. These weren’t the kind of hills that get you out of the saddle: no, these were the kind of hills that force you to come down a couple of gears, find something that works, then turn it: for three hours.

By the time I pulled off the road to do the wireless, I’d knocked off 50km. That’s decent by 10am, but it was never going to set the day alight. And in any case, by the time I came off air and refuelled again, the clock was still showing 50km and it was now half ten.

But we’d made a connection. Whereas before I was just a guy on a bike on a highway, I was now a guy on a bike on a highway with motors and lorries giving a toot of the horn as they went past. It seemed like everyone in New South Wales listens to Anna Moulder on a Wednesday morning. The Instagram followers went up by ten in half an hour, and by the next morning the R2C web site had more money on it too.

Radio appears to work!

Awareness works too!

By now the forest was starting to do my head in. Instead of providing shelter, the trees were merely funnelling the wind straight into my face and progress, which continued on upward, was laboured and difficult. I’d been in this zone many a time on the Highland March. This was turning out to be a bad day, and coming straight on the back of a bad one yesterday, another exercise in damage limitation was just about the last thing I needed.

We chewed over the situation at lunchtime. Given the way my legs were feeling, anything above 125km for the day was going to be a bonus, so we set our stall out to target 125 and take it from there. However once we left Coonabaraban for the afternoon assault, the road that had previously gone up sensibly suddenly bared its teeth.

I was done for.

Cooked, fried and spat out on the road.

Bend after bend, climb after climb, much of it into the wind, I bared my soul on that stage. 12km/hr going uphill was all I could muster and that was despite the fact that we had Tooraweenah in our sights at the end of the last climb. Paul must have known I was having a bad time because he was having real trouble keeping me in tow. Fighting against a headwind, I was just about able to follow the van on the flat but as soon as the road went up, Paul was away from me. Each time two metres became five, I was done for. All I was thinking (and muttering) was “look in your mirror: please just look in your mirror”: then Paul would look in his mirror and see me twenty, sometimes thirty metres back down the road.

On the long, hilly days, with the wind against, those were the loneliest moments, when it felt like the whole world was against me. But experience has taught me well: when you feel like that, and I’ve been there many, many times on the Fenwick Muir, in the dark, in the rain, into the wind, you just have to find a gear that works, and turn it. Never stop turning it. Without fail, doing that on Ride2Cure always got me back to the safe sanctuary of the waiting van.

I eventually pulled off the road at the top of (what the locals call) Tap Hill before I had a chance to pile down the other side. It wasn’t even late, only 3:30pm, but for the first time since we’d left Brisbane, I had nothing left in the tank. Totally drained, totally exhausted and with much to reflect on before I took to the road again in the morning.

As we were about to discover, Tooraweenah has a caravan park and a whole lot more besides. For a start, it has a rich history and a world record to go with it. The communal meeting area at the caravan park, which also happened to be close enough to the WiFi hub to actually get a signal, had a wood burning stove and when I parked my arse around half four and the pensioners started arriving with their bottles of South Australian red, I thought we might be in for a jolly time.

But then my minder arrived with a better idea: let’s go and find the pub before it gets dark.

I didn’t need asking twice.

The pub sits on what appears to be the old High Street, judging by the buildings and the potential for olde worlde commerce. It reminded me of one of those made up streets that you see in museums, designed to take the visitor back in time. Somewhat ironically, the Community Technology Centre was housed in an old wooden shack that could easily have had a horse or two lassoed up outside like you used to see in old westerns.

Anyway, the pub had beer and it had food, the two essential requirements for a worthwhile stay. But more than that, it ignited a discussion that quite frankly, had it not been for some hard evidence, I might have found hard to believe. I was talking to a bloke at the bar who was originally from Tooraweenah, but who had subsequently moved to Sydney to make his way in the world. But now he was back, as a development officer for the Australian rugby football union (the Union code), to identify and nurture local talent before it got swallowed up by rugby league or Aussie Rules: a daunting task indeed in staunch NRL territory.

Anyway, recognising my Pommie accent, he invited me to come and look at a photograph on the wall round the other side of the bar. There stood his grandfather next to a small open cockpit aeroplane. The bloke explained that his grandfather had gone to the UK in 1931 in order to pursue a career in aviation. A pilot from his days in Australia, he struck up a friendship with a another bloke who owned an aeroplane in Liverpool and he was allowed to borrow this fellow’s plane to fly down to Birmingham to visit his aunts. In the days following his return, he received a telegram from home suggesting that another guy was seeking the favours of his intended good lady. Swift action was required and upon relaying the story to the bloke who owned the plane, he was allowed to borrow it again to fly back to Australia to offer a proposal of marriage.

The plane was duly fitted with larger fuel tanks, essential in order to transition between refuelling stops on the long journey, and in October 1931, Arthur Butler left England on the journey that earned him a wife and a place in aviation history. Navigating with just a dodgy compass and the sun, he made it home to Tooraweenah in just over nine days, a record that still stands to this day. The plane remained in Australia after the flight and subsequently invoked the creation of a passenger service in northern New South Wales. While we were having dinner, the chap came back and presented me with a paperback copy of the book “Flight To  A Lady”, a self-penned account which documents Arthur Butler’s incredible journey.

After hearing that story, a little bit of Tooraweenah will remain with me forever.

Stage 6: 125km. 792km done. 1430km to go.

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