The Gulf to Gulf
Shared by Katie H
My 2,193km ride through the Australian Outback
Words, Images and Maps by Katie H.
In June 2022 I set out to ride from Karumba in the Gulf of Carpentaria to the Spencer Gulf in Port Augusta over 26 days of cycling and 30 nights of camping. Titled the Gulf to Gulf, I would make my way from the top to the bottom of Australia through the outback, an experience I had been itching for.
Some thought I was having a bit of a midlife crisis and perhaps I was, but the good kind. Six months prior the training began, upping my usual riding schedule to get me as fit as I could be, and then there I was, in Karumba with another 22 cyclists set to depart. A little bit of nerves hit my stomach, but for the most part an overwhelming amount of excitement.
STAGE 1 – GULF COUNTRY
Day 3 – Burke and Wills Roadhouse, 268km
There’s not too many certainties in life, but a headwind and fruitcake were starting to be two of them. Waking to another 30km/hr southerly and with no shelter, I decided to seek refuge in the bunch after the first two days of riding solo. Setting them to cruise control, I sit on the back and take their slipstream for 30km to morning tea.
I eat some fruitcake, more fruitcake, and more fruitcake, then back on the bunch for another 30km to lunch. Lunch stops are brief and I inhale my cheese sandwich so I can hitch another ride. Again I’m on for reprieve, but I find I’m losing touch with the wilderness experience I longed for. The talking, watching of wheels and rear end of the cyclist ahead was not what I came here for.
20km’s out I started to tire. I suck down a Gu but it’s too late. I wanted to get off but they insist I stay on. Kind, but I was done, I want to suffer alone. They slowed the pace, I swap to the inside to get more shelter, but it did little to shield me and it started to get the better of me. It’s only day three I think to myself. The cyclist beside me was in my ear, bringing me back to the present and it stops me from bubbling over. I pull myself back together for the last 10km into the Burke and Wills Roadhouse, we roll in and I think, thank fuck.
STAGE 2 – CHANNEL COUNTRY
Day 8 – Leaving Mt Itsa, 700km
Finally the wind was on my shoulder and I could hear Mum repeat an Irish blessing to me “May the road rise to meet you, may the wind be always at your back, may the sun shine warm upon your face”. I couldn’t help but get a pang in my stomach thinking about where I was now, to when she first said this to me, here I was all these years later finally with all those things.
I pushed on and the undulating hills gave me momentum as I sped down to power up, I then realised I was out in front, how’d that happen? A rider caught up and at 40km we started wondering where the morning tea van was, we slowed down and a few others arrived, we rode on for another 5km or so, it was unlike the van to be missing… One of us turns around and finds out the van was 2km back, we groan. Between us all we have enough water and food to ride on to lunch, only 20km further down the road. We’ll be there in no time at this pace.
The van rolls past us, it was all smiles and waves then at 60km we’re left wondering again where’s the van? The headwind returns and at 80km still nothing. I ran dry about 10km back, everyone else low and the coolness of the morning had passed, replaced by a dry desert heat.
At 100km we see the van, no one was impressed, and as more pile in not everyone is so silent, myself included. Unfortunately an ice cream can’t smooth everything over, especially when there’s still another 30kms to camp. Later that evening I get roasted by the campfire for pushing ahead when the van may not be able to catch up. I cop the wrath and go to bed, maybe less porridge tomorrow morning.
Day 9 – Channel Country, 797km
The tropics turned to savannah and now all that remains is bitumen and dust. Those up to 60km/hr “Bit of a headwind!” gusts left me feeling a bit knocked about. The heat radiates down and reflects off the road, I jump on the back of the bunch, but I still can’t catch a break. Energy was low and I kept focused on 25km at a time, keeping my eyes on the moon that was visible in the sky, trying to not wish it all away.
The bunch was chaotic, zapping my concentration. A few drop off and it wasn’t much longer until I too started to slip, “Don’t lose them Katie,” I hear as another rider comes up behind me, pulling in front. I stick with them for a bit, but the distance grew and off they went, sucked into the vacuum of the bunch ahead, and me falling off the back of the world.
With no wheel to suck off, it was just me that was going to get myself through this, me and my Minties… a reward for every 5km slog to the end. I watched my Garmin like a hawk, seeing every kilometre tick over in anticipation. Some things you’ve just got to get through alone, as they say no great achievement is without challenge (and reward).
Day 10 – Boulia, 874km
The morning’s fire was lit when I woke, the only light at camp except for the spread of stars above me. I grab my porridge and sit by the fire, revving myself up for the day ahead. The sun slowly starts to rise and the mad rush to make the pack lunch is on and before you know it, it’s time to get on the bike.
By the time I leave everyone is gone except for one lonely cyclist dragging their luggage through camp like they’re disposing of a dead body.
I catch up and overtake everyone. I stop for the bathroom and overtake them again. The peloton has completely dismantled and it’s each rider for themself. I stare down the centre of the road, so flat, no mountains, no cars, it’s like I am in a dome, is this real? Am I actually in my garage with VR goggles on right now? It all feels too surreal.
After a few bush camps in a row I’m excited about camping in civilisation, the prospect of washing my clothes and having a proper shower taking up most of my day’s thoughts. I excitedly arrived in Boulia, it’s a dust bowl and I wonder if I would appreciate this place if I turned up in a car. As I make my way to the toilet everyone on the return leg is bright eyed “Have you seen the showers?! They’re amazing!” I arrive and it’s a donga, a shipping container on besser blocks. I laugh to myself and wonder how many kilometres it took for this to be considered amazing, but gee – what a shower.
STAGE 3 – THE BIRDSVILLE TRACK
Day 22 – The Birdsville Track, 1,656km
With the long days of the bitumen behind us, the dirt trail of the Birdsville Track opens up. This is the mountain bikers stage and those on dual suspensions terrorise the loose rocks and corrugation. I have now swapped my wheels over to my wider mountain bike tyres and I feel like I’m finally on the right bike for the job.
My tyres rip through the soft sandy sections and I enjoy having something more technical to navigate. The road and gravel riders who have been the strongest fade to the back and I realise that although I have been getting stronger, a lot has to be said about the bike you’re on and I wonder how I would have gone in the earlier stages if I was on something more road friendly.
We pass through Goyder Lagoon, an area surrounded by artesian springs with an abundance of wildflowers that have sprung up since leaving the savannahs. Amongst the petals and sandy campsites are natural hot pools varying in temperature depending on how close to the source you plunge.
It’s one of the rider’s birthday and there’s a rain water tank that has been repurposed as a spa, incredibly basic but so inviting. The spa fills and a couple of bottles of Moet are cracked, we inch our way in, getting deeper as our weary bodies adapt to the heat. I look around, surrounded by nothing but blue skies and it hits me, this has got to be one of life’s top moments.
Long days are spent on the dirt and you come to know everything about these people as they do about me, and with phone reception long gone, for eight days we are our only entertainment. It was on this length of track that true friendships are formed, having gone from people I was on a holiday with, to that of one only dust, dirt and grit can be made on.
Day 27 – The Flinders Rangers, 1,993 kms
I wake to a frozen palace, I give it a shake and think I’ll deal with that later and walk off for breakfast. It’s choose your own adventure day and of course I choose dirt along with the bonus mine tour in Blinman. Miners get to leave first so I get back to the tent, stuff it in the bag and dump it in the van. Even though I get to leave early, I still manage to get out of camp pretty much last, I feel like everyone is leaving earlier and earlier.
The mountains have arrived and after so much flat it feels good to put the head down and focus on the hill ahead. As I make my way up I pass most along the way. I’m feeling completely in sync with my bike and I love feeling this strong, I want more.
We arrive into Bliman, see a cafe and I have three coffees, a Cornish pastry and cake, it feels good to use the credit card again. We do the mine tour in full cycling kit then it’s 60km on to camp. A group of us have been riding strong together for the past week and as the kilometres tick over we work as a team to collect the riders ahead. Each day starts off much the same, we set out with no intentions but as we start to warm up and the average speed begins to increase, there’s no looking back.
As we approach Wilpena Pound we enjoy the best descent of the trip, a 10km sealed winding downhill following the skirt of the surrounding mountains. Even though I’m on my mountain bike, the road cyclist in me loves hearing the zinging of my tyres as they scream their way down. It felt so good, goosebumps good.
Wilpena Pound is beautiful with oversized river red gums and pine trees, many hollowed out and large enough to upgrade from the tent to. Tempting, but I’ve come to love this pop up tent and there’s nothing better than that comforting feeling of being zipped up in your sleeping bag each night. We settle in for another evening and when I’m just about to fall asleep I hear one cyclist say to another “This has got to be the hardest one yet” as they try to find their tent in the dark. I have a laugh to myself and conk out.
Day 30 – The Finish into Port Augusta, 2,153km
It’s the last day and I’m chomping at the bit to get to the finish line. Ever since we clocked a day of an average speed at 26km/hr I was desperate to beat it for the descent into Port Augusta. I tell the group my plan and I can see the pain on some of their faces, but I know they won’t let that beat them as there was no one more that loves the chase and pursuit of a quiet victory than those I was riding with.
We make our descent into Port Augusta and one of the riders refuses to sit on my rear wheel, swapping out to be in front to get the average speed up. They then position back and I see them start to slide, we’ve come so far we’re not going to lose them now. They latch back on and we make our way into Port Augusta arriving at the finish line – the car park of the visitor centre, how anticlimactic. We decide not to stick around, making our way down to the water to dip our wheels in the Gulf, signifying the end of our journey.
We clock in at an average speed of 26.7km/h – not bad for a dual suspension mountain bike, I’m happy with that result. I look around and there’s some tears but I feel a bit lost, what am I going to do now? I’ve spent over 4 weeks with these people and will miss their companionship and all those long days looking out at nothing. Never have I felt so strong, like I could breathe fire if I tried, and even though I am so exhausted I feel so relaxed and am so content. I know my body will be aching from missing this experience, with the big burning question I now face – what am I going to do with my life now?