Australia is an incredibly large country. It’s only when you drive out of the cities and clock up some country miles that you can begin to appreciate its vastness. Or better still in a jet hurtling along at over 800 kph to see it still takes about 6 hours to cross. So can you imagine travelling around Australia by the slow and leisurely method of a bicycle?
A Canberra couple, Mark and Denise Arundel, have just finished such a ride. It took them exactly a year to cycle almost 16,000 km, blogging as they went on their web site “Sprung Chicken Ride 2009”. The particularly interesting thing about their ride from the Museum’s point of view was that they were inspired to undertake their trip by a bicycle on display in our Transport exhibition which was ridden around Australia by adventurer Donald Mackay. What is really amazing about Mackay’s ride was that it was undertaken over a century ago and completed exactly 110 years ago today on 25 March 1900.
Mackay had no concerns with cars and aggressive city drivers, there weren’t any, but there weren’t any roads either, only rough wagon and cart tracks. He was actually the third person to make the trip around Australia in a plethora of long distance rides in 1899 to prove the usefulness of the bicycle for outback transport. How useful is a bike in the bush I hear you ask? Well, over 110 years ago it was much cheaper than a horse, it didn’t need expensive feeding, watering and stabling, could travel three times faster than a horse and carried the rider plus luggage. Bicycles were popular with shearers who rode them between shearing sheds until motorcycles and cars were used from the 1930s.
The bicycle as we know it today or, more correctly, safety bicycle with two equal sized wheels, had only been around for a few years when Mackay made his ride. Before that, cyclists rode precarious penny farthings or ordinaries, which were only for the fit and agile and certainly not women.
It took Mackay 240 days to complete his ride, travelling anticlockwise via Queensland, across the Northern Territory, down the West Coast of Australia, across the Nullarbor and then up the East Coast, through the bush. Mackay actually donated his bike to the Museum. It was made in Melbourne, specifically strengthened for the trip and weighed 29 lbs (13 kg) without any gears. His equipment included two water cans attached to the bicycle weighing 15 lbs (7 kg), a set of tools and bicycle parts, a camera, waterproof cloak, diary, time book, food bag and revolver. Amazing as it now seems to us today it was normal to carry guns for protection in the bush against bushrangers even in 1900. During the ride Mackay wore out 2 pairs of cycling pants (probably knickerbockers) and four pairs of cycling shoes (probably kangaroo skin). We have a map of Australia in the collection on which he marked his route.
Tyres were a great problem for early cyclists, apparently very sharp thorns were their worst enemy. A shipment of spare tyres and inner tubes failed to arrive in Darwin so Mackay had to cut untanned calf hides into strips and wrap them around the tyres with lashings of a rubber solution. Other pioneering cyclists stuffed grass into their tyres.
At the end of his ride Mackay said of his bicycle it was “the best little wheel I ever rode” and “although I humped it over rocks, through great swamps, and crashed into stumps and logs on a thousand occasions it stood up every time and never needed the slightest repair”.
No wonder the Dux company, which supplied Mackay with his bike, were delighted with these comments. They gave him a presentation trophy while Dunlop, who supplied the tyres, not be to outdone, gave him one too.
When I was thinking about the two rides separated by over 110 years, a number of similarities and differences came to mind. Australia in 2010 is in the midst of a cycling boom with more bicycles being sold here than cars. In 1900 Australia was also in a huge cycling boom on account of the advent of the safety bicycle. It proved to be an ideal mode of inexpensive personal transport and gave independence and mobility to all ages, especially women.
The modern-day riders had a laptop and digital camera whereas Mackay had a diary and time book and probably a folding Kodak film camera.
The modern-day riders could nip into Woolies or other local stores for supplies, Mackay probably carried food similar to swagmen of the period, flour and salt to make damper as well as jam, sugar and tea. He would have stopped in at a few towns and also properties for extra food and supplies.
The modern-day riders had GPS, internet, mobile and satellite phones while Mackay may have had a compass and had to rely on word of mouth for where to get food, water supplies and directions.
The modern-day riders had state-of-the-art lightweight road bikes with gears, cable brakes and suspension, and have ridden almost exclusively on the bitumen, while Mackay rode a strengthened bike to deal with rough terrain, had no gears, no suspension, and only a “back pedal” brake!
Nevertheless, both rides are noteworthy achievements in their own way which demonstrated the usefulness of the bicycle as a practical and sustainable mode of transport at either end of the 20th century when cars were just about to make their mark in 1900 and when their continued use in 2010 at the present rate is unsustainable, particularly in cities.
Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator