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The yacht race to Hobart may have grabbed the headlines, but more far more challenging events have been happening on the Tasman Sea. A four person rowing team arrived in Sydney Harbour the morning of December 30th 31 days after departing New Zealand.

Steve Gates, Andrew Johnson, Kerry Tozer and Sally Macready rowed across the “ditch” in a purpose-built, twin cabin boat made of balsa and fiberglass.  Thirty-three feet long, it weighed a ton and a half fully loaded.  They are the first Australians to make the passage under their own steam. Check out pics before they disappear at: http://www.theage.com.au/photogallery/2007/12/30/1198949663732.html.

Early in the arduous journey, a four-day storm generating thirty foot waves forced the rowers to hole up in the tight space of the boat. “When you’re stuck in there for four days with three people, you’ve got condensation running down the walls, everything’s wet, you’re wet… and there’s no room, so if one person moves they kick the other person in the head – that’s pretty tough,” Mr Gates said.

Two days out they lost their sea anchor. The replacement lasted only eight hours. One of the solar panels failed, as did pins in the rudder. Despite headwinds and huge waves, they had a fast and relatively safe passage considering the perils. On Christmas night, however, they were almost run down by a freighter.

Only quick action with a powerful spotlight saved them from disaster. They had been rowing in pairs, two hours on and two hours off, 24 hours a day, cat napping in the cabins in between shifts. Their mental toughness was amazing, and they may have brought a new term into the lexicon: butt blisters.

Among the first to congratulate the team by wireless were two kayakers still out in the ditch as it is commonly called by seafarers. James Castrission and Justin Jones started their journey nearly two weeks earlier from the town of Forster, just north of Sydney. Plagued by storms and adverse currents, it took them nearly a month to reach the halfway point. For two entire weeks they made virtually no progress, adding about 1000 kms to the crossing.

A recent podcast from the “womb” of their boat, Lot 41, describes two “rather large predators” who are rubbing themselves up against the hull like curious cats. The sharks were attracted when Justin went overboard to remove a buildup of barnacles.  The two young men are exhausted, struggling to maintain morale.  They are still over 400 kilometers from New Zealand.  Log on at : http://www.crossingtheditch.com.au/

The Tasman Sea has been crossed before by the solo New Zealand kayaker, Colin Quincy, in 1976, but the two young men out there in the ditch are no doubt haunted by the loss of  Australian Andrew McAuley, who disappeared last February within sight of the coast of NZ.  His kayak was found but his body has never been recovered.

If there have been any positive repercussions from the McAuley tragedy, it may be the trepidation of the trip itself.  Extraordinary precautions have been taken by both teams to ensure that their young lives were not been jeopardized by inadequate preparation for the challenges of crossing the ditch.  Dangerous adventures such as this deserve no less.

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Despite my antipathy to the holiday season, my wife and I were actually invited to a picnic on Christmas Day. I ended up going on my own, since she was battling bronchitis and there wasn’t much I could do except commiserate. Reassured by her promise that she wasn’t going to expire in my absence, I plugged the address into the GPS and headed out to East Brighton. If you must drive in Melbourne, Christmas is a good day.

The invitation had been extended by a fellow cyclist from the Great Victorian Bike Ride. He and his family and some friends get together for a long Christmas lunch. When the weather is nice (as it was Christmas Day), they meet at his friend Tom’s place, which gives on to a lovely park. Other families had the same idea, but the park was large enough for all.

It was a potluck picnic, so I threw together a baked dish and stuffed a plate and cutlery into a bag.  There were introductions and I was made to feel welcome. There was very good food, conversation and even musical entertainment. One of the neighbors (an architect by trade) elected to abandon his own group and serenade Geoff’s family and friends with his guitar, practiced performance skills and an inexhaustible repertoire of songs.

At one point, I was conscripted into a board game called “Make Me Laugh.” There was a period in my life when I was actually interested in board games, but I left that behind many years ago. Even though I couldn’t really make heads or tails of the rules, I joined in with enthusiasm. It was Christmas, after all, and it was fun.

A group nearby (probably the group our guitarist had abandoned) was playing cricket. When I was twelve years old and living in India, a Sikh friend my age tried to explain the rules. At the end of a monologue that went on almost as long as his explanation of the pantheon of Hindu Gods, I was utterly baffled. Geoff told he had a tea towel that explained the rules.  It was tongue in cheek, but everything on it was apparently quite correct.

You have two sides, one out in the field and one in. Each man that’s in the side that’s in goes out, and when he’s out he comes in and the next man goes in until he’s out. When they are all out, the side that’s out comes in and the side that’s been in goes out and tries to get those coming in, out. Sometimes you get men still in and not out.

When a man goes out to go in, the men who are out try to get him out, and when he is out he goes in and the next man in goes out and goes in. There are two men called umpires who stay out all the time and they decide when the men who are in are out. When both sides have been in and all the men have been out, and both sides have been out twice after all the men have been in, including those who are not out, that is the end of the game.

Yesterday was the first match of the Boxing Day Test, bringing together the teams of India and Australia and 68,465 fans.  110 people were evicted for hoonish (boorish) behavior, such as throwing plastic cups or baring all and running out on the field. Despite the extensive coverage in the paper, I have no idea who is ahead. This will continue for five days. By that time, everyone will be thoroughly inebriated.

In the end, anyone who can remember the score (or the rules) or his name, will be deemed the winner.


I have not yet managed to pinpoint the problem, but Noel and Australia just don’t go together. It won’t be the first place I’ve lived sans snow or ice during the festive period of Christmas, but the holiday marketing here is completely at odds with my Christmas sensibility. There were recent newspaper articles about summer reading and topless sunbathing. How does that get you in the mood for Christmas? What next, Christmas pudding at the beach? Yuletide barbies?

Fortunately, the arrival of two friends from Florida bounced me out of my grinch-like mood. They have been planning their trip for quite some time, and part of their whirlwind tour of Sydney, Tasmania, New Zealand and Melbourne involved me. They wanted to take in the Great Ocean Road. For me, it was an opportunity to revisit a spectacularly beautiful area that had I had seen once before, on our first trip to Melbourne ten years ago.

I picked Jay and Rita up at the airport on Thursday at noon and we set out right after lunch. We drove to the town of Port Fairy, a short distance beyond the official end of the Great Ocean Road. They had booked themselves into an elegant B&B on the water. I was able to get a room at the Merrijig Inn, just a block away. That evening Jay suggested that we sample the “degustation” menu of the Inn’s renowned chef. We started at 7 and worked our way through nine courses and wines, finally stumbling out of the restaurant just past 11 pm, satiated in every sense of the word.

Not surprisingly, breakfast at the Inn was not available until 8:30. It was nearly ten by the time we got on the famed highway. The far end of the road begins in the town of Warrnambool, which is a fine whale-watching spot in winter. From there, the road twists and turns its way along the coast and through the Otway range to the town of Torquay, famous for surfing.

In between the coastline is littered with spectacular limestone cliffs and stacks. Silent tombstones marking the sites of innumerable shipwrecks. There are at least 180 scattered along the southwest coast. The most poignant tragedy is that of the Loch Ard, an iron-hulled clipper launched in 1873. On a trip from England to Australia she entered the Southern Ocean in dark and foggy conditions, drifted too close to shore and was dashed against the reef of Mutton Bird Island. Of the 54 passengers and crew, two survived– an eighteen year-old girl and her rescuer, a crewman named Tom Pearce. Only four bodies were ever recovered.

Surveying the road started in 1918 and actual construction took place between 1919 and 1932, the Depression. It was built by 3000 returned servicemen (or “Diggers”) as a war memorial for fellow servicemen who had been killed in the First World War. The idea for the road had been suggested as far back as 1864, but even someone with no knowledge of engineering can appreciate the challenging nature of its construction. Between the towns of Anglesea and Apollo Bay, a ragged line of hills form cliffs which seem to fall headlong into the ocean, interrupted by the narrow slit of tarmac. Evidence of rock slides was everywhere.

Although the sky was overcast, the rain held off until we had we had taken the obligatory walk to see the most striking set of limestone stacks along the coast– the Twelve Apostles. Shortly afterward, it began to rain, and then to pour.  Jay and Rita and I had met bicycling.  That morning we had come across a few heavily-loaded cyclists and tried to imagine cycling the shoulderless road.  As we drove through the Otways, one of the last remnants of rainforest in southern Australia, the windshield wipers got a workout.

I slowed down, resigned myself to my confinement and looked forward to getting home safe and sound. There was a dinner party planned. The food was all cooked (thanks to some previous planning) and sparkling wine was on ice.  We had a reservation at a highly-touted restaurant the following night, thanks to Jay and Rita’s generous instincts.  It was the holiday season.  Time to say “cheers” and mean it.  Christmas might not be so bad after all.


As I try to remember where I packed my earplugs, a symphony of snoring saturates the air. The sound comes at me from all directions, a vast swamp of bullfrogs. I am sleeping (not sleeping) with three and a half thousand strangers. They are from all walks of life, all corners of Australia and a handful of foreign lands. I have, by chance, set up my tent among older males who seem to prefer sleeping on their backs. Nodding off is out of the question. In desperation, I flick on my audio player and listen to a chapter of “Dark Star Safari” by Paul Theroux. Just another sleepless evening on the Great Victorian Bike Ride.

This annual event has been run for 23 years now and Bicycle Victoria has fine-tuned it into a well-run organism, a virtual village on wheels. Numbers have fluctuated considerably over the years, from 1900 riders the first year to an astonishing 8100 cyclists in 2004, the year of the free bicycles and the Great Ocean Road.

Although we all take satisfaction in being self-propelled, we are, in fact, supported by a fleet of trucks running on oil. There are hard-working staff and volunteers. Every single day, as we slip silently out on the road to challenge the hills, laborers pack up semi trucks pulling honey wagons, shower trailers, kitchen equipment, food, tents, mechanical gear, coffee machines, etc.

It resembles a medieval village, complete with wandering minstrels, lycra-clad jesters, the aromatic intensity of sweaty human beings, and millions of flies. At every rest stop, we can count on fresh water for our empty water bottles and portable toilets for full bladders.  At each lunch stop, we look forward to sandwiches, fruit, sweets, a bicycle mechanic and good coffee. We have route marshals, sag wagons, “we are right behind you” volunteers and our own daily newspaper: “The Good Oil.”

Ages, body types and bikes cover a wide spectrum. I seem to remember reading that the youngest is two and the oldest 84. There are tandems, tag-alongs and trailers. Father-son teams, mother-daughter pairs. The biggest clumps of riders seem to be secondary school groups (12-14) and those in my own age bracket (50-65.)

I see people perched on bikes whose sheer size makes me wince and wonder how they manage to get uphill. Youngsters who seem to be nothing but knees as they jerk their way uphill, graceful as goats. There are drinkers and thinkers, generous and grumpy old men,  friendly volunteers who serve up dazzling smiles. V.I.P’s and men who have lost their jobs. There is one man on a trike who comes to dinner in a wheel chair. He propels himself with the formidable strength of his arms. He is amazing.

The bikes range from titanium and carbon fiber road bikes that can be lifted with one finger to heavy, steel-framed mountain beasts. There are a few trikes, even one brand new tandem Greenspeed and an elegant, Dutch two-wheel recumbent similar to mine. People ride up alongside me and pepper me with questions: how do you start that thing? isn’t it uncomfortable? don’t your legs hurt? how do you get up hills? (as we pedal up a hill.)

Only one person has the nerve to actually ride it. She complains of a sore bum and knows that it will impress the hell out of her nine year-old son. She’s off to a shaky start, but it takes me a long time to catch her once she hits her stride.

We are riding 550 kilometers through Gippsland, (southeast of Melbourne). It is a diverse landscape, ranging from forested hills to spectacular sandy beaches. It was named after a governor of New South Wales. Cattle and sheep were raised here on cleared pastures from the 1850’s on. Now there is intensive dairy farming, market gardening and viticulture.

We stay in towns with names such as Wonthaggi, Foster, Yinnar, Rawson, Maffra, Paynesville and Buchan. We go east, mostly, then north, climbing painfully uphill into the Strzelecki Range. The next day we shoot back down toward the sea, then spin east again to follow the contours of the farms.

I stop on a long hill and look back at all those energetic, exasperating teens and think to myself: what a wonderful way to get healthy in a hurry. I wonder if they are cursing their teachers under their breath. Is it peer pressure that keeps them pedaling? Are they proud?

The motto on the T shirts says it all: A Week in Another World. We are self-propelled, yet supported by hundreds of generous souls. The towns are welcoming, as if we were a circus. We share confidences, complain and brag, tell bad jokes and good stories. We have left behind our everyday worlds.

Many are repeat riders, signing on year after year for the singular experience of a physically-demanding, shared journey. To those of you who have shared your thoughts, lent me your hammer for pounding pegs in tough ground, bought a bottle of wine or two, broken wind for me (in the literal sense.)  I salute you. I thank you.  May we meet again with the wind at our backs and the hills falling away.  Next year.

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