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Memories of the trip so far: Weeks 12 to 13

The Northern Territory is bigger than most countries, but its population is tiny. In the countryside there can be many hundreds of miles between houses. This would be one of the big challenges for my cycling; huge gaps between places for rest, food, or water in one of the driest and least populated areas of the worlds driest and least populated country. It's massively different from the Asian countries I'd been use to for thousands of miles before.

My plane landed in the city of Darwin at around 3am. I'd spent the short flight from Bali chatting to the interesting guy in the next seat; boy he could tell a tale. He had me crying with laughter even while telling me about family tragedies.

Vin on the Stuart Highway in Australia

With the time difference and having to check-in well in advance I'd had no chance at all to sleep, but by the time I was ready to roll out of the airport it seemed too late to do anything but ride for the day. I soon regretted this; by lunch time I was falling asleep while riding and waking up wobbling down the road. I decided to stop at the next place, but there was nothing for 45 miles of sleepy torture.

When I finally found a town there were no rooms available and only one camping spot left: it was Anzac weekend and many people were gathering in this town for a remembrance service at the war cemetery up the road. The area had been bombed extensively by the Japanese in WWII and the highway I cycled was a series of wartime airfields. I loved the bit of culture and history I'd stumbled in to by coming to this place on this weekend, but I didn't enjoy camping in the heat and humidity, and feeling the need to seal the tent against snakes and spiders. I sweated the night away and in the morning had wrinkled fingers like I'd been in a bath all night. I was only fit to ride to the next roadhouse in the morning, where I had a meal and went to bed for 14 hours of sleep. Pushing on too far on day one had really back fired.

I liked the roadhouses. They are a general store, petrol station, pub, cafe, motel and caravan site all in one. There is often no town around them either; they are the one building serving the travellers on the road for huge distances. I remember walking into the bar at Pine Creek another day down the road, The Doors were on the jukebox and I could order a burger and chips: simple welcome pleasures after a long hot road.

A few days inland, I put in a longer day. The final embers of a great sunset were fading over my right shoulder as I rolled into the Northern Territory's highest bar in Larrimah. You couldn't get more Outback than this place; folks made of leather covered in wiry whiskers sat in 'their' spot in a rambling and earthy pub. They told stories and drank. They too were very very welcoming.

My silly first day set me up to fail spectacularly on the second, but the headwinds I faced constantly meant that even a long day of good effort would be about 100 miles. It took many days to mentally adjust to this and be happy at a slower speed and mileage.

Another issue hampered progress too: Those huge distances between places. If I needed water or food, or wanted more than a bush camp, the next place might easily be 50 or 100 miles away - and there really is nothing in between. A few times I pushed on into the dark, but when I arrived at roadhouses in the dark I'd be verbally assaulted by the drivers who'd just passed me - angry that I'd been on the road in the night. Usually I'd stop before dark, and I'd also start after dawn so I could get a breakfast. Short days and headwinds aren't good for record breaking.

Most wildlife I saw was unfortunately roadkill. I used that as a guide to what to look out for alive at the roadside. There were not as many snakes as I had imagined from the warnings, but I did see a couple of the live, aggressive and deadly ones relaxing at the roadside. Hundreds of lizards scurried around like a bow wave before me most days. On my one rainy day a herd of Wallabies were enjoying the conditions and didn't hear me coming so I got a great look at the cute creatures.

Hawks and Wedge Tailed Eagles prospered on the roadkill but were also interested in me. They frequently flew along with me looking down while I looked up and admired these large and graceful birds.

After a night camping in the bush, I rolled into the first roadhouse for breakfast at Renner Springs. As I filled up my water bottles to leave I got talking to Pen and her support crew: She's been given a couple of years to live with bowl cancer and seems to have decided to really live her dreams. She's touring Australia on a Harley Davidson and raising money for a charity which has helped her. She's an inspiration to us all for her courage and for following her dream as I believe we all should. I met her again a day later on one of the biggest empty stretches of road I'd face. It was a great feeling to meet someone I already knew, even only from the day before. She and her mates topped me up with water and food, and most of all with encouragement.

Sudan was my last overnight stop in NT. There is no roadhouse at Sudan, it's just a place halfway between places. It's in an area called the Barklay, on the Barklay Highway, where the winds are legendary and the distances vast. There is water from a bore hole, so when I arrived that was the first thing I did; refilled my water bottles. A man rushed over to me from a caravan 'how about some cold water fresh from our fridge?' he said handing me a bottle dripping with condensation due to its icy temperature. He was called Alonso, and I went over to meet his wife Jan - who invited me to join them for a steak dinner. Alonso and Jan were good examples of the friendly, generous, caring people who I met on this stretch of road. Others gave me food to cook, or gave me tea and biscuits. One fella stopped his van and got out to give me a cold can of cola 'you probably need this' he said.

Generosity, the vast land, and headwinds were the last impressions I had of the Northern Territory as I reached the Queensland border near Camoweal. I met just a few other cyclists: A nice German called Rico, enthusiastic Johnny from Norfolk, and in Cloncurry, Queensland I met Ivo. Ivo's an Ausi, cycling 'the road to happiness' around Australia against depression. Cloncurry is Australia's hottest place having once been 51.3C, but it was a cool evening when Ivo and I chatted through life and cycling by a camp fire. He's a great bloke and will write a book of his travels which I'm sure to buy.

After meeting people like Ivo and Pen I couldn't resist a detour down the 'Matilda Highway' to Kynuna and Winton. The towns compete for association with the song Waltzing Matilda, each claiming first performances and being equal distances from the Billabong where the Jolly Swagman's ghost can still be heard. Just before Kynuna I was surprised to recognise a pub; the Walkabout Creak Hotel where Crocodile Dundee was filmed - they could make more of that association I think.

The ride back to rejoin my planned route at Hughenden was along a very long quiet road by the side of an abandoned railway track. I saw a sign which had me laughing for hours but was totally genuine: It pointed up a dirt track and read 'caravan park 115km'. As I reached Hughenden my distance travelled ticked over the 9000 miles mark. I had a little sob as I thought of home and my wife knowing that from now on I was on my way toward rather than away from them.

I had just a couple of days more riding through the Outback to reach the populated coast at Townsville. These days were beautiful. There were more roadhouses, more varied scenery, and less strong winds.

My very last night before the coast was spent at the Mingla Hotel at Mingla, which means 'big waterhole' in the local aboriginal language. They had no rooms available due to refurbishment, but made up a place for me when they realised I couldn't go anywhere else. I had a couple of beers with the locals who were literally falling-down drunk as I headed off for a shower and bed. I promised to go back if ever I'm in Oz again and headed off in the morning with my first tail wind to reach Townsville where I'd turn south for Brisbane.