4 January 1976. Not quite 20 years old, I’m riding my bike from Melbourne to visit my mother in Colac. At Melbourne Airport it’s 40ºC.* It’s hotter on the Melbourne–Geelong Highway.
Just after Werribee I catch up with two men riding racing bikes fitted with small racks for baggage. They’re heavily laden. The bikes have brazed on centre-pull brakes, something I won’t see again until about 2010 when people start touting their benefits for randonneuring bikes. They’re on skinny racing wheels with light, silk tubular tyres—what in Australia were, and maybe still are, called singles. Handmade, expensive, held to the rims with glue, fragile, and difficult to repair on the road, singles are what you usually don’t use when you’re bike touring.
Pulling up beside them I see one rider’s wearing a small cycling cap with the peak turned up, the other has nothing on his head. They’re both badly sunburned. Skin is peeling off them in slabs. They’re distressed. I give them my water and ask where they’re from. Their only English seems to be ‘Japan’, ‘Jilron’, and ‘wa-ta’.
They can barely talk and are hardly moving. I ride in front of them to protect them from the wind. We make it to Geelong. I find them water in a park. Drinking, they use a map to show me they’ve ridden from Cairns. They’re going across to Adelaide. From there they want to ride to Uluru—’Air–lres Lroku’, they say.
This is 1976, the Geelong road is rough enough, the Adelaide to Uluru road is probably dirt from Port Pirie on, if not before. It’s summer. Their skin is peeling off in slabs. They’re dehydrated. They seem to have no food. Only a tent and some light clothes on their far too light bikes. They’re on fragile wheels with expensive, difficult to repair tyres which will be impossible to find in, say, Coober Pedy.
I ride with them to Moriac just outside Geelong where they collapse. I find a water tank behind the church on top of the hill and put them under the tap. We walk to the local pub/general store. Conversation amongst the ten or twelve WW2 veteran-aged blokes drinking at the bar stops when we walk in. Under poisonous stares, I find a phone and ring my mother. We wait outside while she drives from Colac. We stack the bicycles, their baggage, and our three fœtid bodies into her tiny three door Honda. My mother drives us home.
The riders stay with us for three days. I learn they have one other word of English: ‘tsu-tay-ki’—which they want to eat at every meal.
They recover their spirits and their energy. We talk as best we can. I learn they work and ride for SunTour, the inventors of the slant-parallelogram rear derailleur, the basis for all modern derailleurs, and makers of some of the best components ever made. They’ve ridden around much of the world, including South America. When they’ve been in a country long enough, they take the racks off their bikes and enter races. Showing me their map, their plan for Australia becomes clearer. They understand the distances are great but from Adelaide onwards they’ll follow roads to rivers and lakes between towns. They point to places on the map where they plan to stop.
It is, I find, difficult using only your hands to explain to people who don’t speak your language, people who come from densely populated islands crisscrossed with rivers and waterfalls, places where water routinely erupts from the ground, where in some spots people cook in their homes on hot spring water, where typhoons are common, where daily communal baths are an integral part of the culture, it is difficult, I say again, to explain, even to people who do speak your language, that just because a place or thing—an apparent town, a mountain, a river—is marked and named on a map there’s no guarantee anything recogniseable as a town, a mountain, or river will be at the place so marked and named, that anyone will live there, or permanently, a chance that the ground around and on the mountain will be low and flat, and that the river named and so definitively shown running thru that non-place, will most likely have no water in it, or the water will be underground, or if water ever flows on the surface it does so only every ten or fifteen years and then not for long.
These two men are only the first of many Japanese cyclists I will discover in often remote places in southern and western Australia as I camp out on bike or car trips. These cyclists could be divided into two types: those who ride hand-made touring bikes equipped with low rider Nitto Campee racks and craft-made canvass baggage bags with adjusting cord on the sides (something like this), and those who ride clunkers with their gear in backpacks and plastic bags held to the bike with bungee cords or twine. Those I talk to seem perplexed but undaunted that there are often no towns where maps say there will be towns, no mountains where a mountain is named, and, especially, no rivers or water where rivers and water are shown. Perhaps coming from a culture that can unask a question, or contemplate Mu, they had no problem with the idea of non-towns, non-mountains, and non-rivers.
I often wonder if the Australian bush is full of the bodies of Japanese cyclists who found out that sometimes both yes and no or neither yes nor no just means no. However many bodies there are, a month or so after they rode out of Colac the two Sun Tour cyclists sent me a postcard from Alice Springs.
In Japan in 2013 I meet a Japanese man of my age who years before had ridden a bike from northern Alaska to Los Angeles, Because, he said, I looked on a map and thought it would be a good thing to do. One of his dreams, he tells me, is to ride across the centre of Australia. He’s looked at a map and it looks like it’d be a good thing to do. He knows Australia is flat so it wouldn’t be hard. Besides, he says, there are many places to stop for food and water.