Lines of tar, as straight as straight can be, hundreds of kilometres with nothing but crops and bush. ‘It was a lake out there once upon a time. Flat as can be, salt flats to the south, and nothing much before Adelaide’ the lovely Ian Lockhart explained. We thought we might be better and safer skipping the long dull ride, trading it for more time by the river, but the realisation dawned that there are only two buses a week – we just missed one, and they don’t take bikes anyway. And nobody wants to give a ride to our circus of bikes, trailers and luggage. So, from Sunraysia to Riverland, we have had some epic days cycling the very section of our route that we had decided not to cycle.
Weirdly though, it was unexpectedly magical. Where else can you ride hundreds of kilometres of desert highway, lines of bitumen leading to infinity, where double-trailer trucks hurtle crops out from the ‘food bowl’ of Australia?! Our oasis across the desert were the amazing artists Liz and Clint Frankel, www.frankelglassandbooks.com.au , with warm hearts, a well-stocked larder of stories and food, and a spectacular studio at the end of a dusty track overlooking the river. ‘It’s not Australia’s food bowl’ they passionately explained, ‘it’s an international export bowl run by multinationals: a vine, wine and almond bowl, all about profit.’ The startling fact that a litre of water costs more than a litre of wine here sums things up.
Without the Mighty Murray River and manipulation of its waters, nobody would live here. It is arid country, where droughts, floods and bush fires are constant threats. It is not cycle touring country. ‘Are we mad?’ I wondered, as hours into the night, starlight and truck lights illuminating our passage across the desert, I ran over a chunky lump of road kill, thankful it was smaller than a kangaroo. The stench of rotting flesh permeated the night air, but I was happy to be riding. It was twenty degrees cooler than the burning daytime sun, and we could ride on the skin smooth surface of the carriageway instead of the rubbly shoulder, dodging in when we saw the juggernaut lights bearing down.
Water is a hot topic for everyone living here. In the millennium drought, eighteen years of water shortage that ended with a flood in 2010, livlihoods were seriously affected. Small farms had to close, rich multinationals moved in, and they care nothing for the health of a river basin on the other side of the world, as long as profits are being reaped. They bottle more wine than can be sold, to the point where the supply of water to the vines is so jeopardised and so expensive, that it costs more than the wine. In this land, water is a highly sought after commodity. We’ve been dependent on bottled water as many places are empty of drinkable tap water.
Water is liquid gold. It keeps us alive cycling through the wheat and vine desert. It gives life to everyone and everything here. It is vital, and yet it is a tradeable asset…wars will no doubt be fought over it.
It’s been some journey so far, the spirit and kindness of the people we’ve met along our way something quite extraordinary. Tough times are normal around here, from drought to flood to bush fires to general survival, and I wonder if the traumas have made people more resilient, more connected with the environment and each other, important aspects of being human. Survival here means water, strength of spirit, and community connection. The Mighty Murray and its region highlights some raw fundamentals about life. We are privileged to be having this experience. I’ll never think the same again when drinking water or wine.
And now we have the final section downstream to look forward to, and arriving at the great Southern Ocean…