The Western Explorer traverses a lovely, yet weather-swept landscape of button grass and scrubby little eucalypt trees. Imagine a grey sky over dripping, uneven clumps of grass, sodden bark, tons of happy frogs, and dozens of lively creeks and rivers. And occasionally, a breathtaking glimpse of that great wide Ocean to remind me where I am on the map. That is, seriously down under.
There are no mountains out here. Perhaps the road engineers thought that because of the relatively low elevation, it wasn’t worth building with a normal, sane gradient. Perhaps they were doing it on the cheap; someone later told me they only built the road – and a simple gravel one, at that – to prevent the area becoming a World Heritage Site, so they could eventually mine it. And it is a bit cheap; although the road isn’t too terribly full of potholes, any area signed as a “picnic area” or “scenic lookout” appears to be simply where they had an extra pile of gravel.
Whatever the reason, that Western Explorer road goes over steep.
The hills were stupidly steep for a guy on a loaded bike. Nevertheless I was able to stick to a little “rule” I ride with: never use my lowest gear. Treat 2nd gear as the end. That way, I always know in the back of my mind, that if the going gets too tough, I don’t necessarily have to get off and push.
And I haven’t been defeated by a hill yet.
Unfortunately my left leg might not be as strong as I thought it was. I had been doing okay, torquing that crank over the endless series of disgustingly steep climbs. In the rain, mud and flip flops. Some proper aerobic exercise does me good: my heart rate gets way up there, even though I’m only going about 2 kph. I feel like some old steam engine heading to the pass on a slow chug.
Then, during a particularly steep bit, I did a mis-pedal(it takes some concentration to ride so slowly), and suddenly my left quadricep yoinked! in pain.
Ouch! I guess I finally pushed hard enough to discover a limit. My hip joint, which has been the source of nearly all my recovery complications, has been fine. But apparently the rest of the leg has atrophied a bit.
Obviously I lost my momentum on the hill, so I dismounted and took an account. After a rest it still hurt, but higher up than the part of my thigh that really pushes the pedals, so I knew it would be okay if I babied it. Injured, I told myself it would be okay to use that lowest gear now, or even walk, if it started playing up.
It wasn’t long, however, before true catastrophe threatened.
What goes up must come down, it’s a law of gravity, and also of cycling hilly country. In other circumstances, it might have been reassuring.
I would’ve been fine going down the other side of all these steep hills, I think, if the rain and gritty mud hadn’t combined to wear down my brake pads in record time. If they had just been dry and sticky like they’re supposed to be. Or if I had cinched them up a touch when I noticed them losing their grip….
The elation of reaching the summit quickly turned to terror as I started gaining on the inevitable down of the other side. My brakes were not slowing me at all.
It was too late; the rig, she was too heavy. I crushed both brake levers in my fists, all the way to the handlebar, and I was only accelerating.
I screamed, I yelled. A short panic. Several curse words. All in the few scant seconds it took for the situation to become desperate. My mind raced: what could I do?!
Any forced landing, even this near the beginning of the crisis, would be quite disastrous in its own right. Not an option.
I wasted a valuable second attempting to skid my sandals on the gravel. Not a chance.
I tried my foot over the rear tire, and instantly decided that option was likely to break my ankle. Not worth it.
An instant later, a deadly bend in the road looming ahead, I realized it was my only option.
The noise it made, once I stabilized my foot over the tire enough to apply a lot of pressure, conjured images of smoking rubber as the tire burns through my sandal into the soft skin of my wrinkly wet foot.
It takes a lot of pressure to slow such a weight, but slow it did. Not much, but enough to hold on around the curve.
With a straightaway now before me, I had a better option. I let go with my foot and held on for dear life.
It felt like free-fall, only with bumps.
But I survived.
We finally came to a stop over a culvert at the bottom. A little creek babbled happily past its muddy banks.
I would’ve been shaken. I would’ve counted my lucky stars I hadn’t made a repeat of my Ireland crash. I would’ve checked to see if my sandal had a hole burned through it. Except that my left quadricep was screaming at me.
It felt like the muscle had torn right off the bone. I guess I had instinctively kept my dominant right foot on the pedal, which meant my injured left was assigned desperate apply-pressure-or-die duty. I hadn’t had time to think about it, only reacted, and used the muscle. And paid the price.
I could barely stand up, it hurt so bad. My body was suddenly crippled, my brain was crashing from adrenaline. My mind wailed in pain and anguish. Have I permanently injured my leg – again? Is this the end of the tour? After only eight days?!?
After a brief internal panic, my mind eventually got around to asking a more pertinent question. What do I do now?
I was alone, out of cellular range, and in a seriously remote area. It was raining, and this little creek crossing was not a good place to camp up and wait.
I would have to move forward.
So I limped. And limped, and limped, keeping my left knee locked, my right alone doing all the work of pushing the rig up all those steep, slippery gravel hills. I limped for miles.
It was a pretty dangerous situation to be in. Yet remarkably, I was in a great mood. I amazed myself with how many positive things I was noticing as I limped. The beautiful scenery, now more detailed than ever; how I wasn’t too cold; and oh look, my feet have dried off! Etcetera. Stupid little silver linings like that were everywhere, all surrounding a dark but now rather distant worry: that I may have to quit this tour.
I limped well past dark. No one came.
After what felt like half the night, with no small amount of celebration, I finally arrived at the Donaldson River Picnic Area, the only mark on my map even hinting at civilization, and where I had thought to camp anyway.
At least, I assumed it was the picnic area. No signs, no shelter, no barbecue, just a leveled-off pile of gravel jutting out into the marshy riverbank.
It was heaven. I stayed an extra day.