24 April 2018: SIGNS THE Cooper Creek to Cunnamulla bicycle ride has 117km to go before assuming truly iconic status emerged the evening before the lycra-clad pilgrims mounted their machines. A mystery man from the east placed his finger unerringly on the nerve.
He dressed all in black, so Johnny Cash he became. The man in black badgered his local contact to drive past that night’s camp near the Naccowlah cattle yards on Durham Downs and carry on to the dig tree at Nappa Merrie. That would’ve entailed a round trip of nearly 240km, allowing 15 minutes to half an hour of twilight to absorb the epic of Burke and Wills, the explorers who perished in 1861 blazing a trail from Melbourne to the gulf of Carpentaria.
This is what harried city people do. They pack it in. Grab a snap with the smart phone and move on. Shove a smattering of experiences from these iconic reaches of Australia into a digital dilly bag and scurry back to the rat race. Cash resigned himself to a glimpse of the main Cooper creek channel, 14km west of the camp. He suggested tapping into the B & W ordeal to extend the ride’s appeal. Burke and Wills before you die? Are you tough enough for Burke and Wills? Etc. He predicted the lycra hordes of Brisbane and the coast would trip over their cleats to sign up.
Some in the group had the foresight to allow an extra day to take in the dig tree. John Sommerfield of Canegrass, near Adavale, self-appointed logistics manager for a couple of Charleville riders, declared all Australian birth certificates should include a clause requiring bearers to visit the spot beside the Nappa Merrie waterhole. “Anyone who doesn’t go to the dig tree at least once has not lived,” he said. “If you spend even one minute there your life will be better.”
But the main hurdle to a B & W experience for cyclists, apart from adding a day and nearly 120km to the 440km Cooper-Cunnamulla trip, is the last two stretches of dirt, totalling about 45km, on the Nappa Merrie road.
The origins of the CCC are mundane. Concocted by Karen Ticehurst as part of masters games in 2006-2009, its aims were to spark visitors’ interest in way outback where the stars are bigger and brighter, and fences are few and far between, while funnelling them towards Cunnamulla, where it was hoped they would drop fistfuls of dollars.
Last week’s ride was the fifth edition after a nine-year break. It drew 45 riders and nine support crew, who came from Brisbane, Warwick, the Sunshine coast, Mackay, Bundaberg and Townsville. Many of them had links to dispersed members of the Higgins clan, for whom the ride is a return to roots of sorts. Veteran cyclist Robert Eckel, keen to sample events before sliding into his sixth decade, brought a squad from Charleville. Ticehurst said it was the biggest turnout of the five tours.
Now, the bicycle hasn’t evolved much since spokes and equal-sized wheels became the norm in the 1880s. It is still being refined with lighter materials, such as carbon fibre, slinkier gear mechanisms and even electronics.
But none of the innovation has been able to get around the fact that, for a bicycle to move, the human backside must engage consistently with a narrow seat to drive the legs that push the pedals. This was to become the burning issue of the 440km campaign.
A sprinkling of those corroboreeing around caterer Dogga Dare’s chuck wagon at the Naccowlah yards that night had an inkling of the agony awaiting them. Cash brandished a tube of butt cream and said it should be applied soonest rather than later. The Charleville logistics manager said he was equipped to help, putting the wind up riders with a photo of a cattle preg tester’s arm in a glove that extended to his armpit.
Sometime after sunrise, after photos and waiting for stragglers, the cavalcade headed east in high spirits. The Charleville crew wore mustard and white jerseys bearing the moniker Mulga Munchers, presumably a political statement in light of last month’s protests over tree-clearing laws. A tortoise-and-the-hare pattern soon evolved, in which the Mulga Muncher mamils [middle-aged men in lycra], led by Eckel, forged ahead, drafting off each other. The rest, in twos and threes, or alone, straggled against the niggling southeasterly, catching up at the smoko and lunch breaks. For some reason, Eckel went twice as fast uphill as he did on the flat … and the man in black went with him, like a shadow.
They rode over gravelly ridges and down into gullies, past oil wells and cattle in good nick. The country was almost lush compared with Cunnamulla, with dry gidyea burr, Mitchell grass, buffel and bluebush. By the time the sandwiches caught up with them at the intersection with the Eromanga road, still 40km from the Noccundra hotel, plenty worried they’d bitten off more than they could chew.
Of course, it wasn’t a race, but the Munchies set a cracking pace for the pub. Presumably they were thirsty. But the man in black propped his black Specialised against the sandstone wall to claim the yellow jersey, if only it existed.
That evening, some of the cyclists cooled their rears in the coffee waters of the Wilson river, caroused, tore into camp cook Dogga Dare’s offerings and hit the swags early. The next morning, they settled gingerly onto their saddles and with trepidation embarked on the 140km stage to Thargomindah. “It’s like a bandaid, I just want to rip it off,” said Amy Petersen, who described herself as the chief hose moverer and parts orderer at Nockatunga. She could’ve turned in at the gate to the homestead and got her life back but she pressed on.
By the third day to Eulo most had cottoned onto the benefits of group think and tucked into the Charleville peloton. “It’s a 30% saving of effort,” said Johnny Cash, still holding onto the imaginary yellow jersey.
That evening, many of them sought solace in Nan and Ian Pike’s mud baths. The next morning, the riders woke to an Anzac day dawn service and, after breakfast, headed off on the 68km stage to Cunnamulla. They arrived after the morning march, looping around the war memorial to the finish in front of the Cunnamulla statue. Some reckoned he had the right idea, sitting on a nice soft swag.