As a general rule, it appears that horse people tend not to be bike people, and never the twain should meet. The opposite also seems to be true. So, switching our trekking mode from equines to bicycle promised to be rather an interesting social experiment.
My horsey friends were confused, yet hopeful . “At least it’ll be much easier with the bike”, they chipped in positively. “But sooooo boring! It’s just a price of metal after all! Won’t you miss your donks and Fly?”
Well, yes. But I also didn’t want to put them through the agony of trekking trough northern Queensland in summer, hence the bike.
Once we committed to becoming Bonafide cyclists, as least for part of our BNT journey, suddenly bicycle enthusiasts began to magically appear from out of the woodwork, either bursting with enthusiasm or quietly doubtful. “You do realise it’ll be a it harder than with horses”, we were solemnly warned. “And you’ve got punctures to think about, and aching muscles, and headwinds and hills, and, and, and…..”
Ahhh. It appeared that it was a curious case of each respective camp relishing in the belief that their mode of travel was the most hardcore, challenging, real-deal way of doing this BNT thing (please note I am generalising here). Interesting. I couldn’t wait to be the fickle trekker who tried both…
So after much pondering while pedalling along, here are some of the conclusions I have drawn.
The Bike And How It Was…
We could camp pretty much anywhere
Literally, anywhere. This is largely due to the fact that most of the time we were able to carry enough drinking water for the two of us, even on bits when we didn’t have a support vehicle.
When travelling with the donks and Fly, there is a bit of a list of criteria that needs to be met before choosing a campsite and bunking down for the night. This includes enough green pick for the three of them, enough space to get well and truly off the road side, plenty of water (from a dam, creek, or river), and preferably a bit of shade.
But With Holly (eherm, the bike), we could camp on a square of concrete in a caravan park, on a patch of gravel on top of a windswept ridge, or in a 24hr rest area. Too easy.
Less stress, less worrying
There is a lot to be said for not having animals to be responsible for. Don’t get me wrong- I love my animals and will never part with them. My point is that a lot of people equate trekking the BNT with freedom. But when you are in charge of your animals’ well being and safety, that freedom starts to taste a lot more like responsibility.
When you have animals, you can’t just dump your gear at the end of the day and get stuck into a six pack. But with a bike you can! Woohoho!
No need to water, feed, fence, check… You really have the afternoons and evening selfishly all to yourself. It was kinda nice while it lasted…
Likewise, if a bike gets broken or injured, who cares? Obviously you have the dilemma of repairing it or finding out how to get it to someone who can, but its not like you are up all night stressing over whether it might be in pain, whether you should administer a dose of inflammatories, etc.
Also, you can basically run a bike into the ground and know that you are not going to hurt or kill it. With animals, it’s a constant watch for weight loss, adequate hydration, signs of discomfort, rubs or sores, etc. If you push it, they’ll suffer. I guess in a way that’s also true with a bike, but I doubt I’d be shedding any tears over it.
While the initial cost of a bike can be a bit hefty (luckily my mad idea to cycle part of the BNT coincided with tax return season), the low maintenance costs and savings on horse feed are pretty incredible.
Our first trip to the bike shop was a pleasant surprise. $15 for a gear tune up, you say? Only $30 for a whole new bike part? Not to mention that one could buy a brand new spanking set of top- quality panniers for less than I paid or my saddle cloth (yes the cloth, not the saddle). $100 could buy you a deliciously chubby bag full of goodies. Try that trick at Horseland. Or rather, don’t.
For someone who spends at least $50 a week on horse feed/hay and knows the reality of $150 yes-I’ll-take-a-quick-look-at-your-horse vet bills all too well, it was a revelation. As a new bike owner, I couldn’t help feeling like I did as a 16 year old on my first trip to Bali- RICH!!
If you have a certain amount of mileage to cover and only a limited time to do it in, a bike might be the best bet- it was for us. When walking with Fly and the donks, we travel at around 4-5km an hour. On the bike, it is more like 15-20km. We were averaging 3 BNT maps in one day, which for us was pretty mind boggling. Since you’re getting through the kilometres more quickly, this has the added bonus of resupply points being days rather than weeks apart. This means less food to carry, and for me, this made the wilderness feel like less a wilderness – like there was some comfort in knowing I was only ever a few days at most from civilisation If we needed it.
It is physically harder
Cycling is physically harder than both walking or riding. For the first few nights, I couldn’t sleep properly because my thigh muscles felt like they had been put through a pulveriser. A few days later, my knees felt like they were going to explode. All this, despite having just walked over 2000km. My over-confidence in my fitness levels was very hastily replaced by sheer exhaustion. Things were even harder when we had our loaded panniers with us, which fortunately for us, most of the time we did not.
When you travel with animals, there is a bit of a weird celebrity status thing going on… People stop to ask questions, take pictures, offer assistance. In Canberra today, we had to cross the traffic lights at the pedestrian crossing with the bubs. When I glanced at the drivers waiting for the lights to change, I got a bit of a fright to see that someone in almost every car was taking a picture of us. I guess you don’t see donkeys at the traffic lights everyday on your way to work!
If you were an extrovert, you could really get into this- for extra attention or to really cause a stir, try riding your horse trough a bottle-o or hitching them outside a pub. Guaranteed to make it onto the front page of the local rag. People love to see travelling animals… Maybe there’s an air of nostalgia about it, or perhaps it’s just the thrill of the novelty.
But a bike? Nah… People tend to leave you alone more and don’t make much of a fuss. Fine by me, but it also means we didn’t meet as many people or establish as many connections when we were on the bike.
Hills suck and It’s kinda hard to go off road…
Luckily, most of the BNT in Queensland is on gravel or sealed roads. However, there are a few bits that involve river crossings, bush bashing, or steep hills. Our initial experience at going off-road with the bike was riddled with punctures and involved slogging and heaving through sand. On one hill in particular, I had to push the bike up a metre, apply the brakes to prevent it slipping down, then take a step myself. Repeat 50 or so times.
TO some, this might be the stuff real toughies are made of – a delicious adrenaline fuelled, endorphin- drenched funfare. But not for me. I’m quite happy heaving my way uphill with a backpack, but not dragging a machine that was clearly designed with well formed roads and paths in mind. I take my hat off to those who tackle the notoriously hilly, off-road sections of the BNT by bike (ie Victorian High Country)- now THAT is hard core!
The bike is not very entertaining or affectionate
Bikes are wondrous inventions, they truly are. They will get you from A to B, and pretty fast too. I fact, I plan to use ours on a daily basis when we get home. But will it make eyes at you over the campfire for a morsel of damper? frustrate you to tears, then make your heart burst with joy? Entertain you with its evening-time antics? Make you swell with pride when it attempts something it was previously frightened of? Confuse you, teach you, embarrass you (ie. Jasmine’s constant pre-dawn braying when camped across the road from a caravan park), worry you, alert you, force you to try new ways of doing things?
Cycling on the tandem felt like a partnership between Z and I, but when we are travelling with the bubs, it is more like a team, and definitely a case of ‘the more, the merrier’ for us!
It was great to give both modes a go, and although I am keen to try my hand at bike packing some time again, it’s fantastic to be back with our three precious equines for the final stage of our trek.