The Roads Less Travelled

Dawn mist rising on old marsh road, Pevensey, East Sussex, EnglandWhen I think of all the places I have been to and the journeys I have taken on my bicycles over the years none have been as transforming as the journey that began on the streets of Melbourne many years ago when I dusted off my old tourer and began commuting to work. I have written a story called Wheels of Chance about how all that came about, and what an unexpected pleasure it was to have rediscovered cycling again as an adult. This is about what happened afterwards, about how those commutes through the inner city Melbourne, and the sense of wonder and self-reliance I rediscovered while riding my bicycle, went on to shape the course of my life.

The first story ended with my having played hooky from work one morning and ridden down the Mornington Peninsula for a day of stolen sunshine, piny breezes and fish and chips on the beach. It was the first time I had done such a thing since I was a schoolboy and having gotten away with it (with a little humorous help from above) I wanted more. It was like an awakening. I began remembering all the old daydreams and longings, the plans I made, the journeys and adventures I was going have one day. And as I rode into work (or not) exercising my imagination as much as my legs, I began to wonder why I had never seriously tried to make any of these grand plans and adventures come about, but had instead blithely assumed them to be impractical or impossible.

It would have been one thing to have tried and failed, but I had never even tried. I’d just bumbled along following the expected course, doing the done thing, settling for a buttoned-down existence in the suburbs, churning out copy for a parochial Sunday paper whose advertising slogan soothed readers with a promise that all would ‘make sense’ within its pages. I was tired of sensibility and practicality; I wanted adventure and the thrill of the hunt – to chase down the elusive dreams of my youth and make them happen.

Perhaps this sea change in thought and attitude would have come about eventually anyway, but one thing I know from looking back from this perspective of years, was that my bicycle certainly was the catalyst for opening my eyes then. Thanks to the daily micro-doses of independence and self reliance I found on my commutes into the city, I began plotting my escape, not as wistful airy-fairy daydreams of things I’d do ‘someday’ but with the hands-on purposefulness of a street-savvy cyclist who’d grown accustomed to setting his own course, speed and bearing, captaining body and soul through Melbourne’s labyrinthine back streets. What was navigating the byways of life but an extension of my morning ride? I decided to go first to Antarctica.

Not having the resources or the experience to fund my own expedition I called up the Australian Antarctic Division’s headquarters in Hobart and over the course of a phone conversation learned that there was such a thing as a Writer’s and Artist’s grant for creative types such as I to go down and spend time on one of the bases. These grants, I was given to understand, were rare and keenly sought and the fellow at the other end of the line was not at all encouraging about my chances of winning one, but nevertheless I asked for the forms to be sent to me. I duly filled them out, thoughtfully, creatively, doing my best to make my journalistic self sound more like Earnest Hemingway and less like Fletch. On the line that asked which base you wanted to visit, I chose Mawson, the oldest, farthest-flung and most romantic of Australia’s Antarctic bases.

For some happy, fluky reason my longshot application came home a winner. I like to think it had something to do with my new found sense of self-belief, acquired in the saddle and on the streets. Whatever the reason, eight months later, on a cold rainy afternoon in Hobart, I was striding up the gangplank on the icebreaker Aurora Australis, bound for Mawson.

By then I had left my old job at the newspaper. I’d outgrown it – not the newsroom part of it so much but the downbeat, downtrodden atmosphere that pervaded the place, and the viciously paranoid editor who ran it. I’d had enough. With the wonders of Antarctica opening up before me and the old boyhood buccaneering spirit rekindled by my so many miles in the saddle, so much jousting with traffic on a daily basis, I didn’t belong there any more. One of the things that pleases me most when I look back after all these years and recall the day I went into the editor’s cubicle to tell him that I’d had enough and was leaving, was something I said to him when he told me, in his most patronising tone, not to worry, despite my black ingratitude in leaving like this he would still write me a decent recommendation. I looked him in the eye and told him not to bother; I’d never use it.

And I never have.

And so I went south as a freelance, with a commission from Time magazine to do a feature on the removal of the last working dogsled team on the continent, which happened to be at Mawson. It was a glorious adventure – far better than anything I could have imagined or expected, packing life and living into every moment of every day, immersed in a frozen crystalline fantasy world of pack ice and helicopters, sled dogs and funky Antarctic bases, penguins and whales and the midnight sun. And while I may have travelled there on an icebreaker, I knew that it was my bicycle, sitting home in the shed, that had brought me to this, made this wonderful thing come about. And I took great pleasure in that.

When I returned at the end of the summer field season, I relocated to the wine country in South Australia and from there began freelancing for anyone who wanted a pen for hire, working from my kitchen table. Although I no longer needed to commute to an office I went out for long contemplative rides through the vineyards each morning anyway, by then astride a shiny blue Cannondale tourer which I purchased with the proceeds of the dogsled story I’d written for Time.

My daily mileage trebled from what it had been on the streets of Melbourne and my rides took on a more lyrical quality, since out here in the country I wasn’t obliged to break stride and stream of consciousness at every intersection, or keep such a wary eye out for tram tracks or absent-minded pedestrians. I could simply pedal on, mile after mile, following long empty stretches of open, sun-drenched rural highway, seduced by the lovely vistas rolling out in front of me and imagining all the places I could go and adventures that were open to me, should I choose to keep on going.

I had a map of Australia pinned to the wall above my desk at home and in quiet moments liked to look up and plan a route around the continent. After a couple of years of this, and at the age of thirty-eight, I arrived at one of mid-life’s crossroads, and decided to make good on my daydream. I put my few remaining worldly goods and chattels in storage, lashed a bedroll and waterproofs to the rear rack of my Cannondale tourer and set out on what eventually became a ten-thousand mile solo trek around and through Australia. It was the best thing I ever did.

I was away nine months. I camping rough most nights or else stayed in remote cattle stations, mining towns, and Aboriginal communities. I carried all my own food and gear, packing aboard as much as twenty-three litres of water on some of the longer, tougher desert crossings, often riding well over a hundred miles a day in century-plus heat in order to make it to the next reliable source of water. The shimmering heat, dust, glare and flies were hellish during the days, but the nights out there were magic, camped alone on the vast spinifex plains with billions of stars overhead.

Then I loved to sit up late, sipping at a bottle of water in the relative cool of the night, marvelling at the gaseous swoosh of the Milky Way and the great primal hush that had settled over the landscape, and over me as well.

I took quiet pleasure then in the familiar sight of my bicycle, careened against a spinifex bush an arm’s length away; good ole bicycle that had brought me to these wild and beautiful places, and which I knew would carry me down the road again in the morning towards whatever far-flung roadhouse or settlement or lonely cattle station I was heading for next. I owned every minute of every day, saw every sunrise and sunset, and lived a life of the sweetest simplicity I could ever have imagined: food, shelter, water and with the road itself to provide a sense of purpose and direction. Nothing more. I neither needed nor wanted anything more.

Eventually my wanderings brought me back around to Melbourne and when they did I made a point of dropping by the old address on St James Parade in Elsternwick for the childish pleasure of reprising my former commute into the city – but this time thirty-five pounds lighter than I had been in my commuting days, brown as a nut, and riding a hard-bitten tourer laden with panniers, water bottles and coated with nine thousand miles of trail dust.

Huckleberry Finn on his raft never felt any gaudier or freer than I did pedalling past the newspaper office that morning, in delicious contrast to all those times in the past when I’d been obliged to turn in to that grubby old loading dock area and chain my bike to the rack beside the Coke machine, an act that had taken on metaphorical significance by the time I finally pulled the plug.

I spun up Lonsdale Street that morning in broad autumn sunshine, smiling in head reminiscence at the trepidation I’d felt when I’d left that well-paid but soul-destroying sinecure up there on the third floor to go out on my own, and all the whispered cautions from well-meaning colleagues who’d urged me not to throw away a job, however unpleasant, in such uncertain times. It had been the decisiveness, self-reliance and assurance I’d found aboard my bicycle that had given me the courage to leap. And by golly things had worked out; I’d not missed a meal. And more good things were on the way. An editor I knew at National Geographic had taken an interest in my journey, enough to have persuaded the magazine to send one of their photographers out to join me on the road, periodically, a few days at a time over the course of the past few months.

Between his photos and the letters I’d written back to my editor friend telling him about my life on the road they decided not only to run with the story, but to make it a three-part series, the first in the magazine’s history. The first instalment ran about six months or so after I finished my ride. By then I was off on another assignment for them, not a cycling story this time, but as the start my becoming a regular contributor to the magazine, something I’ve been doing ever since.

It’ll have been fifteen years next month since my very first story appeared in National Geographic. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. I live in Sussex these days, married to an English girl I met in the course of that long-ago ride around Australia, and have two little English girls running about the house, and every morning go out for a bike ride – ever mindful of, and grateful for, the way my bicycles have shaped the course of my life and career since I stated riding again all those years ago. I look at my bikes sitting there in my shed, and I smile.

  20 comments for “The Roads Less Travelled

  1. Ron Clark
    November 15, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    This is my favorite post so far, and goes a long way towards explaining why you are in company with Ted Simon and Willie Weir as my favorite travel writers. When I read your book all those years ago, it was like pulling the control rods out of a nuclear reactor; it started the chain reaction that eventually led to me doing things like packing gear on a motorcycle and criscrossing the country (twice!). Every once in a while there are glimpses in your blog of even more stories that occurred during your Australia trip that weren’t in your book, and I enjoy those little mini “sequels” to the story. Ride on, Roff….ride on!

    • Roff Smith
      November 15, 2012 at 2:56 pm

      I am so glad that you liked it. And I am deeply flattered that that I was in some way a catalyst for your breaking out and crossing the country – twice – on your Harley.

  2. November 15, 2012 at 10:43 pm

    Another excellent article, I really enjoyed that. I wonder if you have considered editing your book to add more detail to it? Maybe it’s not worth it, but as much as I enjoyed reading it, I got the impression sometimes that we were not getting the whole story, that something was being left out.

    Have you ever considered repeating the trip around Australia, to see what’s happened in the intervening years?

    Did you ever write about your trip to Turkey?

    • Roff Smith
      November 16, 2012 at 2:29 pm

      I would like to have included a lot more in Cold Beer & Crocodiles but at the time my deal with Nat Geo called for a manuscript of 60,000 words and I very diligently adhered to that – thinking like a magazine writer, i guess, not wanting to write for the spike. In retrospect I should just have written the book I wanted to write and let them get on with it.

      I would love to re-edit and revise it now. The trouble is, it is too old a book now to be current but not old enough to be ‘classic’.

      There is much about the way the original book was published that made me very unhappy – not least of which is the fact that it was never sold, marketed or promoted in any way in Australia! Hard to believe but true. It was also supposed to be out in time for the Sydney Olympics – I did my part but they forgot, forget, to release it until October of that year. Some publishers in Australia tried to buy rights, but the Nat Geo book division couldn’t be bothered to respond. The list of their screw ups goes on and on. It ended up being a really horrible experience. I would love to re-do the whole thing – right this time – but as yet I’ve not had the opportunity.

      I would love to reprise the Australia trip and see some of the old faces. I still keep up with my friend Mick from those days (in fact he comments on here occasionally) and we have talked about dong a commemorative fishing trip back up to the Gulf, something I would dearly love to do. That fishing trip with Mick, Terry, Thommo and Paul was hands down one of the greatest travel experiences of my life, and I’ve had a few by now!

      I have written up my trip to Istanbul and it is a lively read. I think too long an interval in years went by before I wrote it though so I am not certain of its finding a market. I have seriously toyed with the idea of serializing it on here.

      • November 16, 2012 at 2:52 pm

        It sounds like NG missed an opportunity with you book, such shame, it was still a good read though.

        It’s good news that your still in touch with some the guys you met out there.

        I’d love to read about the Istanbul trip, I wonder if anyone else that reads this blog would?

        • Roff Smith
          November 16, 2012 at 3:07 pm

          Thanks.

          As with everything I write or photograph I always find myself thinking of the many ways they could have been better…

          I really like the Istanbul story – it has a lot of humour in it. I am very tempted…

  3. Ron Clark
    November 16, 2012 at 3:53 pm

    Well, if you ever get involved in some sort of on demand on line publishing, I’d be the first in line to purchase the book that you really wanted to write, and not what the editors demanded. I’d love to see the photos that weren’t published with the book, and read the stories that weren’t told.

    • November 16, 2012 at 7:17 pm

      Oi! I’m first!

      That’s two, Roff, get your order in for a new Peggoretti!

      • Roff Smith
        November 16, 2012 at 7:44 pm

        I’m on it!

    • Roff Smith
      November 16, 2012 at 7:45 pm

      It really is pretty tempting…

      • Ron Clark
        November 16, 2012 at 7:52 pm

        Well, that pressure you feel in your arm is me, twisting it a bit, to get you to write that book the way you wanted!

        • Roff Smith
          November 16, 2012 at 8:07 pm

          Funnily enough at this moment I am tinkering with a polished draft of a novel I have been working on – a sort of black comedy adventure novel set in the 1920s. I have been amusing myself with it for the past few years and I was looking at it the other night and see that it’s nearly nearly done.

          As to the travel books – I would really love to re-do the Australia story and if I get a clear opportunity I will…

          Watch this space…

          • Ron Clark
            November 16, 2012 at 8:51 pm

            Kind of an “Indiana Jones meets Dr Strangelove”?

          • Roff Smith
            November 16, 2012 at 9:05 pm

            Or maybe quentin Tarantino does P.G. Wodehouse

  4. Ron Clark
    November 16, 2012 at 9:12 pm

    Yes, I can picture it now…Jeeves and Wooster discussing what they call a Big Mac in France…

    • Roff Smith
      November 16, 2012 at 9:24 pm

      With a touch of the Avengers – Steed and Emma Peel

      • Ron Clark
        November 16, 2012 at 9:32 pm

        Yes, definitely Emma Peel…kudos to Joanna Lumley, but no one could rock a leather jumpsuit like Diana Rigg.

        • Roff Smith
          November 17, 2012 at 6:40 am

          So true

        • November 17, 2012 at 9:56 am

          Ron, you speak the truth, Dianna Rigg, made this prebusecent youth slightly gaga with her high kicks in the late 60’s

  5. Lyn Kincaid
    February 27, 2016 at 10:27 pm

    leaving Mareeba soon- with friend, and my daughter gave me Cold beer and crocodiles , what a fantastic book!!! Riding to Hall ck – thru the back country. cheating by bus to Port H. then directly East to Alice – visiting offspring and grandkids,Then C.Q and home. Just wanted to tell you as I am so excited about going and can hardly wait. All the best

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