When I left Darwin in April I had the vague ambition of pedaling home. Or at least east. Three months later my bicycle sits in the most south-westerly spot in mainland Australia, which is about as far as one can get from Canada without a rocket ship.
Sometimes it feels like the edge of the world. Behind me squalls howl through flattened grass. At my feet the Indian and Southern Oceans collide, crashing over cold rocks with barefaced fury. This place is rugged and hard, the sort of spot that would make Hemingway rub his whiskers in boozy approval.
Presiding over the region’s northern edge is Cape Naturaliste, where a limestone lighthouse has illuminated the shores for more than a century. The very idea of such a place filled me with romantic notions of wool sweaters and kerosene lamps. I cycled 13 km of hills to marvel at this monument of an era long past.
But it wasn’t to be. An historical preservation society had commandeered the lighthouse and tickets to cross the chain-link threshold cost three times my daily budget. I was relegated to a pauper’s hiking trail that skirted tantalizingly close to the tower without ever affording a decent view.
It was a theme that would repeat itself as I slowly made my way toward the southern shore. Caves Road meanders through two disparate worlds – one of stunning coastlines, neither fenced nor tamed, and the other blighted by souvenir shops and family fun parks.
Don’t get me wrong. Roadside attractions have their place in the world. Hell, where I come from, kitschy statues and giant balls of twine are considered a point of pride. But after 90 km of inflatable castles and plastic mazes, I couldn’t help but think that nothing spoils nature so completely or with more enthusiasm than people with too much money.
Luckily, cycling has taught me one valuable lesson: You can’t change the view but you can decide what you see.
I looked up to discover rare black cockatoos sounding my arrival with their screen-door squawk. As their shapes disappeared through the pillars of the forest, my eyes focused on sprawling vineyards and forgotten mills. Each was dotted with sly kangaroos grazing on the tender green shoots that had appeared after days of rain.
The road was also found to be aptly named. Often barely visible behind bushes and moss, signs pointed to networks of caves that could be explored by the public. They were beautiful in their simplicity, though I admit without embarrassment that I wanted no part of the adventure.
Tight quarters give me the willies and I have no intention of being lowered into a deep, dark hole without the courtesy of a pine box.
Eventually the track rejoined the main highway and swung south to the coastal town of Augusta. I cycled through its empty streets late on Sunday afternoon, stopping only long enough to fill my water bottles. That night I camped in a secluded forest with only a blue tarp between my tent and 14 hours of rain.
I awoke in good spirits thanks to hot coffee and dry socks. By noon I was pedalling the final kilometres to Cape Leeuwin – the last stop on my journey between headlands. This time I had no expectation of rarefied air or postage-stamp perfection, though fittingly I found both in equal measure.
As I rested my camera on the fence beyond the lighthouse, the caretaker bustled from a cottage and proclaimed himself a fellow rider.
Without asking my name he invited me to spend the night in the old keeper’s house where he eagerly shared dinner and stories from the saddle. Like me, he has cycled the Gibb River Road and is passionate about all things bicycle.
I’m grateful for such unexpected generosity, not because it gives me a warm meal or a roof over my head, but because it’s the one thing that connects where I am with where I’m from. Tonight, thanks to the kindness of a stranger, Canada suddenly doesn’t seem so far away after all.