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The Songline Quest: Australian Outback Mountainbiking Expedition 2000

Lost in the Outback

By Stephanie Gregory

David McLain/Aurora
Expedition leader Dan Buettner pedals past Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock.
"C'mon girls," pleaded our guide Joc Schmiechen, "haven't you at least got a rain slicker or a compass with you?"

One of my two biking partners, an Aussie named Kristi, shrugged Joc off with a flip of her hand, "Naaahh, Joc, we'll be fine. We're big girls."

Exasperated, he threw up his arms and walked away, muttering "Okay then. I' ll be shit-pressed if you can blame me for dying of exposure." With that, he hopped into the Land Cruiser and started retracing the 150-mile track that had brought us into this desolate canyon.

Laughing, we shouldered our bikes and plunged into the muddy knee-high water of the Finke River, the main attraction of Finke Gorge National Park, 145 miles northeast of Ayer's Rock in the Northern Territory.

The Finke is not exactly on Australia's A-list of biking destinations, but our mission was to explore aboriginal wisdom and seek adventure. So far the trip had been high on Aboriginal wisdom and mediocre on adventure. Plus, today's destination, the aboriginal village of Illpurla, was 300 miles away by car, or a 20-mile hike-and-bike through the bouldery bottom of a 530-million-year-old gorge-allegedly the world's oldest-that would hook us up to a graded dirt road, which would bring us to the Aboriginal ranching community of Illpurla, our camp for the evening. It seemed like a somewhat benign mission. Plus, poisonous snakes aside, we were feeling downright cocky.

Lesson number one of the outback: Cocky can kill you.

Four hours later, after I chomped my second and last peanut butter sandwich, Joc's words rang in my head like a curse. We were supposed to have found the graded road three hours ago. Instead, we were still pushing our bikes over suitcase-sized boulders searching for a glimmer of tire track. Only an impossibly faint doubletrack cut through the rocks on the river bottom, which led us to an impassable bend in the now-roiling river.

"At what point do we fess up that we're totally lost?" asked Sherrie, my other biking partner and the biologist.

"Now sounds good to me," I said.

Before we could surrender to our predicament we had to meet up with the other six bikers who had veered down another tributary looking for the road. Ten minutes passed, 20 minutes passed, 45 minutes passed. Finally, we heard cursing in the distance and picked our way toward the echoing profanities.

After a spirited half-hour debate, the vote was to make camp for the night at a tree-lined sandy embankment about 300 yards from the nearest billabong. We filled our water bottles with slimy algae water, gathered a house-sized mound of firewood, and pooled our remaining food-five oranges, three Power Bars, a couple packets of sugar, and a half-eaten bag of black licorice. None of us voiced our fears, but silently pondered our dilemma: risk getting further lost by pressing on or retreat on the 150-mile jeep track that brought us here. Either way, we'd have to confront a new wrinkle-the putrid river water had begun to give us dangerously dehydrating diarrhea.

Instead of dwelling on tomorrow's sun and the runs, we were downright giddy, sparking up piles of dead wood in the dry riverbed in hopes it would attract a search plane. Then we split two oranges between the nine of us, and read Walt Whitman around the campfire.

At 11 p.m. just when we had resigned ourselves to spending the night tentless, jacketless and foodless in the bush, we saw a glimmer of headlights in the distance.

"Hey, hey, hey," one of us screamed, grabbing a seven-foot flaming torch out of the and bolting out into the snake infested night, "Help, help, we're over here."

Tripping over acacia bushes and boulders, we ran toward the car trying to catch it before the driver gave up and turned his search in another direction. Breathless and riddled with thorns, I got to the truck first.

I opened my mouth, trying to voice our predicament. The rancher, who had a leathery face and a cowboy hat the size of Texas, already knew who we were. He was part of a search party that had been sent out to look for us. He looked me over, rolled a cigarette and drawled, "Of all my years in the outback, mate, I've never heard of anything so silly as a bunch of Yanks trying to ride push bikes through the Finke River Gorge."

Who needs Outback Survivor when you have gringos dumb enough to lose themselves for free?

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