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The Songline Quest: Australian Outback Mountainbiking Expedition 2000

Pedal Strokes Through Heatstroke

By Stephanie Gregory

David McLain/Aurora
Billy Mungie, an Anangu elder, sings a traditional song about his land outside the town of Coober Pedy
It's hard to get into a cycling groove when you're so thirsty that you feel like your lips are going to flake off. Unfortunately, parched body parts are a common ailment in the Outback. The sun is so unrelenting that not any amount of Gukenaid will save you.

Case in point was our 50-mile ride from Iga Warta, an Aboriginal bush community, to Leigh Creek, a company mining town. This one-pub-and-a-gas-station lies along the Oodnadatta Track, a washboardy four-wheel jeep road that follows the same route explorer John McDouall Stuart, the first white man to traverse Australia from south to north, took in 1862. Given our bumpy ride, it seems the road conditions haven't changed much since then.

David McLain/Aurora
Archeologist John Fox walks past a lone shack in the Australian Outback
In addition to the insane heat, we battled a 40-mile-an-hour headwind that sapped every last bit of moisture from our skin. The farther we rolled on the miserable track, the more we felt like cycling raisins, slowly shriveling in the late spring heat. Harder on our psyche than the oppressive heat, however, was the unrelentingly scenery. It was so flat and unchanging, with so little visible wildlife, that we might as well have been riding stationary bikes at the Y. The only glimmering break in the monotony was when an emu skittered across the road, followed by three sprinting chicks. The fleeting site revived our sense of adventure, reminding us that we really were surrounded by spectacular (if elusive) wildlife.

Some of us were able to roll our parched selves into the pub at Leigh Creek, but Sherri Hitz, the biologist on our expedition, had to hang the bike on the sag wagon, thanks to a minor case of heat stroke. Sherri called it a preventative measure—it kept her from turning into beef jerky.

The next leg brought us to Lake Eyre, one of the world's largest waterless salt beds. The limitless expanse of white was scary in a ghoulish sort of way. But it was nothing compared to Coober Peedy, the freaky underground opal mining town we'd visit next.

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