When you’re on the road, things don’t always go to plan. A couple of winters ago I set out alone to cycle the Mawson Trail, a 900-kilometre mountain-bike route from the city of Adelaide deep into the Flinders Ranges. It’s arid country mostly – South Australia likes to call itself the driest state on the driest inhabited continent – and I left with the expectation that water might be my biggest issue. But I expected too little water, not too much.
I’d only reached the Barossa Valley when I discovered that good grape-growing soil wasn’t necessarily good cycling soil. The soil through the Barossa was clay, and as I rode across its wet winter tracks I quickly discovered that clay goes onto things very well but doesn’t necessarily come back off.
Out of Kapunda, my wheels stopped turning, jammed solid with mud. I cleared the mud and rode on, then cleared it again. And so I advanced fitfully, muddy metre by muddy metre. Soon my chain was so clogged with clay that the cage of the rear derailleur snapped. To fix it, I needed to somehow find the bike beneath the mud so, jumping fences, I threw the bike into a farmer’s dam, scrubbed it down and fashioned the chain into a single-speed fixie, sans derailleur.
I rode on – surely I could cycle another 750 kilometres of outback tracks in one gear – but within a few hundred metres my bike was again mobile mud. Every moving part clattered and cluttered, at least until the chain locked again and both wheels ceased to turn. I’d never encountered mud like it. Riding on was impossible.
I pushed my bike back to a main road and hitched a ride into Adelaide. When I took the bike into a store for a new derailleur, it required a chisel to remove the now-hardened clay.
The postscript to the story is that I returned a couple of days later to the Mawson Trail about 100 kilometres north of Kapunda, at Burra. From here the outback was in sniffing distance, and I figured the clay would be long behind me. I pedalled out of town… and straight into red clay. Ten kilometres up the trail, my chain locked and the new derailleur cage snapped. In a paddock beside the Barrier Highway, it was time to give up.