(Days 4 & 5 – Wednesday 22 April & Thursday 23 April: Nundle to Tamworth)

I woke in Nundle to the sound of car tyres on wet pavement. I was grateful for the excuse to accept Scott’s offer of a lift to Tamworth. It was only light mist but it felt like we were in a cloud and it could start raining in earnest at any moment. I couldn’t ride another day in the rain just now. Scotty suggested a midday departure so I filled the morning with nothing much including a quick look around all that is Nundle. Scott is from South Yorkshire but moved to London a while back then got the travel bug. He’d been working at the Peel Inn for a couple of months but he and his girlfriend Charlotte were about to wrap up there for a trip back to the UK for a wedding. They hadn’t set out travelling together but met at Cape Tribulation and would head back there for a bit after they returned to Australia.

When we arrived in Tamworth I insisted on giving him a few bucks for petrol which he insisted on refusing – saying he didn’t need it. I put it on the passenger’s seat saying it wasn’t about his needing it but my need to offer something in gratitude for his help.

Tamworth felt a proper city after a few days in small and tiny places – and I spent the afternoon getting things done: I bought a birthday card and stamp; a Telstra SIM card to increase my coverage and a cheap foam camping mat to supplement my deflating one.

I also had coffee at Ruby’s – well rated on Bean Hunter – and popped into the Tamworth Regional Gallery. I kind of love Australia’s regional art galleries and have always found something of interest in them. Here was an exhibition of George Baldessin (1939-78) an Australian printmaker. It was quite good.

Hanging with Slim Dusty in Tamworth. I woke on Thursday to blue sky. The sun was shining as I pedalled away in high sprits and expectations of back roads all the way to Woolbook where I would camp for the night. Five kilometres up the road Richard and Graham, two riders in their late 60s or early 70s on a tandem and doing an out-and-back training ride for an upcoming charity ride caught up with me. The road I was on was a dead end; I needed to take the New England Highway. So back into to town it was.

From there I had options. I could take the highway to a turn-off six kilometres along to rejoin my original route having added nearly 10 kilometres to a day that was already going to be 60 km and which would include climbing on unpaved roads. Or I could stay on the highway where, at present, there was a nice shoulder and regular amenities. Bendemeer was 39 kilometres away and sure to offer a caravan park, the sun was shining, the sky was blue … to Bendemeer it was.

The first half of the ride was as lovely as riding along a highway can be – the scenery was beautiful, the surface smooth, and I was moving at a healthy clip. Unlike my previous days’ riding I could actually pull off into good empty, dry, spaces to have a break. There was a petrol station with toilets just when I needed one. And little Moonbi had a park where I stopped for lunch. It was all going so well. Look, I had read the map and could see there was a First Moonbi and a Second Moonbi and the little words Moonbi Range. I could see there was a Scenic Lookout – always short-hand for Top of a Fucking Hill. But having never done this before I couldn’t know how hard it would be and because the map isn’t made for bicyclists, nor was the highway, I couldn’t see that the shoulder would more or less disappear at the most inopportune moments.

So over about 20 kilometres I climbed a total of something nearing 530 metres. Here’s what I learned: I would pay a lot of money to lighten my load and I might need to re-think my first few weeks in Europe vis a vis mountains.

I succeeded in riding all the way up First Moonbi – albeit with sections where I rode 75 metres, stopped to breathe, then rode another 75 metres. Second Moonbi was another matter – the shoulder disappeared when I most needed it. I walked the bicycle most of the way up pushing it along the white line and walking in a drainage trough. Let me be brutally honest – it fucking sucked. There were tears. As with the day on Crawney Pass – tears of frustration, not quite sobbing but, you know, tragic crying. Just for a minute. And then I kept pushing knowing that short of putting my thumb out again I just had to keep going. Push the bicycle for 30 metres, catch my breath, push some more.

Motorists, as they have been all along so far were polite, giving me room, sometimes waving. I was worrying about daylight as the sun disappears around 5 or so. But then I was over the top, the shoulder reappeared, I mounted up and rolled much of – although not quite all – the way down to the turn off to Bendemeer.

Rarely have I been so happy to see a small town and the warm glow of a country hotel. As I was sorting myself a bloke walking into the pub said “You made it.”

“Just,” I replied.

“I passed ya on second Moonbi, where you were pushin’ it and wondered if you’d make it here before dark.”

And here’s the thing … if I had quit and put my thumb up someone would have brought me here. And that’s lovely. But I didn’t and once I had carried my gear up to room 8 and admired the view from the veranda, taken a shower and dressed to go get a drink – I looked myself in the mirror and grinned with pure joy and real pride, “I did that. I fucking did that.”

I had two beers and the best pub meal I’d had in a long time … or at least since Scone, chatted with a pair of agriculture teachers visiting their distance learning students and was sound asleep by 9 pm.

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