Livin’ the dream in Southern Australia | NevadaAppeal.com

Livin’ the dream in Southern Australia

Rick Gunn
Special to the Appeal
Rick Gunn/Special to the Appeal Cliffs and coastline along Great Ocean Road.
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• Editors note: This is the latest in a series of journal entries written by former Nevada Appeal photographer Rick Gunn about his two-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way, he is raising awareness for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org.

To read more of his entries and see more photos go to rickgunnphotography.com, or nevadaappeal.com and click on the Wish Tour icon.

“You’re livin’ the dream,” a bike mechanic told me earlier that day.

I’d recalled his words within my partially collapsed tent. Camped behind a bush, in the hills above Adelaide, a bone-chilling rain-storm had forced me from the road. Rummaging through my bags for the only food I had, I gulped down dinner – two pieces of stale bread.

After mopping at the water that now pooled on the floor, I shook my wet sleeping bag, cursed, then crawled inside.

There I prepared for a long and sleepless night.

Seconds turned to minutes, then minutes into hours, as I laid on my back and listened to the storm; turning, thinking, listening, to the bursts of liquid shrapnel as it blasted against the tent.

Sometime before morning, my mind began to slip – drifting into a memory of another time and place – a memory of what now seemed some faraway life.

In that memory I saw a boy, his arm around a dog. The two of them laying lazily beside a warm mountain fire.

For that moment within my mind, I’d returned back home.

Just then, the tent up and collapsed.

My voice then rose from beneath layers of wet-nylon. Sarcastically it stated, “Dude … you’re livin’ the dream.”

Four days earlier, I had been living the dream. Intent on rewarding myself after a long-brutal ride across the outback, I hurriedly made a beeline for three of South Australia’s premier destinations: The legendary food and wine region of the Barossa Valley, the heart-lifting scenery of the Great Ocean Road, and the coastal wilds on the Island of Tasmania.

Awaiting me were a host of fellow humans – kind, giving, mystically idiosynchratic characters – that would change my course of destiny; their kindly gestures to be forever recorded within the pages of my heart.

It began in Port Augusta.

Cycling out of the desert, to the crest of Horrock’s Pass, I plunged into a valley of shimmering-golden wheat. Rolling through cropland, fringed by forest and farm, I continued through a dotting of pleasant country towns.

The first of these was Melrose.

“Is there any decent mountain biking around here?” I’d asked a local shortly after I’d arrived.

“There.” he said pointing as he looked upon the hills. I followed his finger to a set of lateral ridges and geologic folds jutting near the base of nearby Mt. Remarkable.

I talked with the man for a moment more, of cycling, touring and life.

“Andy Swain,” the man introduced himself, as the two of us shook hands.

Swain, as it turned out, happened to be something of a local cycling guru – and as luck would have it – he’d become my unofficial guide.

After borrowing me a full-suspension mountain-bike later that afternoon, the two of us saddled-up, and set out toward Mt. Remarkable.

Huffing for a spell up a track of rock-strewn dirt, we rolled over a crest, then stopped atop a ridge. Setting down our bikes to take in an eye-popping view, my vision rolled for miles across a horizon of golden wheat.

“Amazing,” I said aloud, as Andy stared and smiled.

Turning my attention from the viewpoint to the folds on Mt. Remarkable, I traced a hairball strip of single-track descending into the valley below.

“You ready,” Swain asked with a twinkle in his eyes.

“Ready,” I returned, then let gravity do its work.

Milliseconds later, our tires were smoking as we ripped down a twist of tightly cornered single-track. Blazing through trees, over rocks and off jumps, we blasted across a hillside, scattering a herd of sheep. Swooping, lifting, curving at adrenaline-pumping speeds, we barreled through a creek bed where the trail leveled to an end.

“Well?” Swain’s expression seemed ask, as he grinned from ear to ear. My eyes answered back, gleaming with a certain kind of reverence – that sacred mix of spiritual-physicality.

“Magic!” I spouted.

“What?” Swain replied.

“All of it,” I said. “The single-track, the forest, the light. There’s just something amazing about the light out here.”

“You’re not the only one to say that,” Swain concurred. “I’ve always thought there was something different about the light here.”

“And these Eucalyptus trees,” I said. “I’ve never seen anything like them – they’re massive.”

We stood for a moment and scanned their monolithic trunks, many as big as Redwoods.

“Some of these trees are over 500 years old,” Swain grinned, again brimming with pride.

“I’ll be back to Melrose,” I said to Andy the next morning as I said goodbye.

A lonely stretch of asphalt bisected the rolling farmland south. With the exception of the occasional pair of kangaroo ears I’d spy twitching above the wheat, I pedaled through a landscape nearly devoid of life.

Two days later came an explosion of vines – wine cellars and vineyards as far as the eye could see. I’d reached the Barossa Valley: Australia’s equivalent to California’s Napa Valley.

Finding a high-end tasting room in the town of Angaston, I parked my bike out front and stepped inside.

That’s where I met Vietnam Veteran Kerry Small.

Striking up a conversation over a well-earned glass of wine, Kerry was not unlike many of the Aussies I’d come across. He was friendly, outgoing, intelligent, witty and slightly inebriated.

After completing his tour of duty in Vietnam, Kerry had returned to the Barossa to make his living tending vines. With the Barossa producing over 400 million liters of wine annually, 25 percent of Australia’s total, Kerry could count on work pretty much until the day he died.

After listening to him speak for bit, I realized the man was a walking encyclopedia. A virtual wellspring of knowledge about all things viticulture. After discerning sips of a particular vintage, I’d watch as Kerry would pause a moment, then describe the wine with terms like, “fruit forward,” “balanced structure” and “mellow tannins.”

I’d take a sip, raise my glass and add, “this is one kick-ass wine.”

Carrying his wine glass in one hand and a pair of shears in the other, I watched as Kerrry toddled in and out of the tasting room, snipping at plants, sipping from his glass.

“He’s my gardener,” the female owner of the tasting room told me after Kerry left the room. “He works on my yard in exchange for the wine.”

Stunned momentarily by the depth of the woman’s beauty, her sky-blue eyes drilled bulletholes through my heart.

“I’ll do it for half his price,” I slobbered, appealing with all the charm of Homer Simpson.

The counter-girl giggled, then broke into a smile.

“I’m going to marry that woman,” I whispered to Kerry when he walked back in the room.

“I’m not sure her husband would like that,” he returned before stepping back outside.

Hope blew from my heart like air from a whoopee-cushion.

“You’re welcome to stay at my place tonight,” Kerry offered later. “That is if you don’t mind eating curry.”

“Deal,” I said, shaking his hand.

Moments later his phone rang.

“Six p.m. tonight,” he said loudly to whomever was on the other end. He nodded his head and added, “Listen, I’ve got this crazy Yank here riding a bicycle around the world … should I bring him along?”

“Right,” he said, hanging-up the phone then turned to me and said, “Forget the curry, we’ve been invited to a barbecue.”

Suddenly I pictured a mob of drunken Australian cowboys, busily slaughtering a cow.

Kerry’s driveway was long and bumpy, dividing what looked to be several acres of vines.

“That’s merlot, cabernet, syrah, and viogner,” he pointed out, before we stepped inside. The interior of Kerry’s house held a scattering of tasteful decor. Coffee-table books in the living room, opera posters on the wall, a mountain of crumpled bills by the computer and stacks of open wine boxes piled near the hall.

Pulling out a bottle and pouring us each a glass, Kerry then switched on the stereo. I couldn’t say for certain if he played opera to stimulate grape growth, but when he cranked up Madame Butterfly, I’m sure it shook the furthest vine.

An hour later, freshly showered and ears still ringing, Kerry and I pulled into another lengthy driveway. That of the CollinGrove Homestead – an immaculate historic building owned by the Australian National Trust. Managed by Kerry’s friend’s, chefs Peter and Janet Hill, they welcomed us heartily, then showed us both inside.

Not long after that, we were shown to a table then took a seat with a handful of guests.

“Dig in,” Peter said, pointing to the food.

The dishes looked unbelievable, like something out a dream.

There were piles of Scotch-fillets – Australia’s finest cut of beef – served with oven-roasted veggies, salads, cheese and bread. Peter poured freely from $40-60 bottles of wine.

Attacking the table like a lawn mower at full-throttle, I ate enough for three. But as I did, I noticed something effecting my appetite. Something, it seems, I’d carried over from the developing world.

It wasn’t a bug or a virus – but a handful of memories. Memories of those I’d come across along the way who’d struggled to simply feed themselves.

Setting down my fork that night, I noticed once again on this journey that something inside me had shifted – changed. Instinctively I recognized that as long as there were those that remained hungry in this world, I could eat but I would never be truly full.

Kerry and I stayed up late that night, talking about the world, while we drank copious amounts of wine. I awoke the next morning with a dried purple ring around my lips, feeling every bit as though I’d fallen from a plane.

Kerry arose smiling, looking no worse for wear. I thanked him graciously, then wobbled out of town.

Two days later, outside the town of Kingston, I found something incredible on the side of the road. I picked it up, looked inside, then mumbled the words, “Ashish Sharma,” before tucking it safely into my pocket.

Several days later, as rain fell in buckets, I pedaled into outskirts of Warnambool. Stepping into a phone book I dialed a number, then watched the beads of water as they trickled down the glass.

“Hello,” a voice answered on the other end. “Nice weather you have here in Warnambool,” I replied.

“Rick? … is that you? … Where are you?”

I was speaking with Jason Lugton. I’d met Jason, his wife Sioban and their family, Sebastian, Alex, James and Edwin at a campground in Alice Springs. They’d invited me to stay if I was passing by.

An hour later, I was drying off in the comfort of their hilltop home. Treating me like family, the Lugtons tended to my needs all the while radiating love and kindness, asking for nothing in return.

This was how I came to learn of the family’s spiritual commitment, not through sermons or scripture, but through something much more sacred – their actions.

I tried to earn my keep by telling them stories of humanity. When that failed, I switched to stories of all the disgusting food I’d eaten along the way.

Sheep intestines in Kyrgyzstan, worms in Turkey, or fish-gut soup along the banks of the Mekong. I can’t speak for the grown-ups, but the kids just ate it up.

Before we said goodbye, Jason pulled me aside and handed me a small envelope.

He told me it was a “gift” that I was not to open until I reached the streets of Melbourne.

“Thank you,” I said sincerely to all of them. Before I rode away I said, “You do know that I won’t stop hounding you all until I see all of you at my house in Tahoe?”

The cliffs and vistas of the Great Ocean Road came quickly like the oncoming storm. Feeling as light and free as the wind, I swooped through its long coastal curves. Riding aside carpets of coastal Heath, with heart-thumping vistas to either side, sometimes I’d stop and listen for hours or simply just look out and stare.

Curiously I looked upon the limestone formations, these towering skyscrapers of sand. What tales they could tell of men and ships, of bird and fish, the waves that bowed like prayers. What love affairs they’d had beneath these crystal waters – all the time knowing that one day, their lover would call them back. Then they’d disappear, into the place from which they came – beneath the thundering Tasman sea.

Following the road as it snaked and climbed, through a riot of Eucalyptus, fern and pine, I fruitlessly scoured the trees for wildlife, then stopped in a roadhouse near Otway National Park to see what I was doing wrong.

“I just don’t want to leave Australia without seeing a Koala,” I lamented to the woman behind a coffee counter.

“What about the one in that tree over there?” she said pointing through the front window. I studied the trees for a moment, and saw nothing.

“What tree?” I returned.

“Third tree to the left,” she said entirely bored. “In the middle about halfway down.”

Bolting through the door, I grabbed my camera gear, then dashed toward the fat-furry-lump I now saw sitting in the crotch of a tree.

Tip-toeing as I approached, I peered at the creature who seemed to be asleep.

“Hi,” I said quietly to the furball, lifting my camera to focus. It slowly raised its head from its elbow, like a drunk passed out on a barstool. Before I could get a photo its eyelids drooped, then shut again.

“C’mon now.” I said trying to coax the marsupial. “Just one shot and I’ll leave you alone.”

The animal lifted its eyelids momentarily, then nestled back to bed.

If I didn’t know better, the beast appeared to be – for lack of a better word – stoned.

“There’s something in the leaves,” the woman said, when I returned to the roadhouse. A common belief I’d soon learn was wrong.

“The popular conception that Koalas being permanently under the influence is completely incorrect,” Biologist Stephen Jackson writes in his recent book, “Koalas – Origin of An Icon.”

In the book, Jackson explains that the Koala’s singular source of food, the Eucalyptus leaf, “has so little nutrition that the creatures have little energy to do anything but sleep … up to 20 hours a day.”

The biologist also notes that Eucalyptus oil, the primary compound within the Eucalyptus leaf, “Is so toxic that it would kill most other animals.”

So toxic, he points out, that the ingestion of as little as 3.5 milliliters by a human has been known to cause “gastrointestinal burning, vomiting, dizziness, convulsions, diarrhea, depressed respiration, lack of coordination, seizures, comas or death.”

Perhaps even more disturbing than the food source itself was Jackson’s description of the young Koala’s introduction to this semi-toxic diet.

After weening from its mother’s milk, Jackson notes, “The Joey’s first semi-solid food is caectrophs, a semi-liquid feces known as pap … a green jelly-like substance the infant eats directly from the mother’s rectum.”

“Mmmmmm,” I thought to myself after discovering that little behavioral nugget.

“All this talk of food is making me hungry,” I mumbled, before I set out to find myself some lunch.

Two days later, after I’d finished the Great Ocean Road, I’d found myself standing in the Melbourne police station, talking loudly to an officer behind bullet-proof glass.

“And where did you say found this?” The officer asked, looking me up and down.

“Near Kingston SE,” I told him.

“I think it belongs to someone named Ashish Sharma … If you look inside you’ll find his name on his Melbourne I.D. card.”

“Is there any money in this wallet,” the cop finally queried.

I held my breath for moment, then blew it out slowly.

“Yes.” I replied.

“How much?” the officer asked, now piqued with interest.

“Five-hundred-dollars.” I said sadly.

The cop raised his eyebrows.

He opened the wallet, counted the money, then looked me in the eye.

“You did the right thing,” he said, then turned and walked away.

In my heart, I knew I’d done the right thing, but I still couldn’t help but feel sad.

For months I’d been skimming the financial treetops. That until a recent bicycle repair had me crash landing.

The truth was, that as I’d handed that cop that wallet that afternoon, it was essentially, the last bit of money I had.

Besides, it was not my money anyway.

There inside that cop-shop, I realized my dream of visiting Tasmania had been dashed.

Then, suddenly, something occurred to me.

Hurriedly I ran to my bike and began digging through my bike bags.

It took me a moment but I found what I was looking for, the “gift” that Jason had given me. Quickly I unwrapped the envelope, until I was counting a fistful of crisp Australian bills.

Two-hundred and fifty dollars.

There, on a crowded Melbourne street corner, as hundreds of people passed by, I wept.

“How did you get here?” A young Tasmanian boy asked me, on the day that I arrived.

I stood for moment, thinking of the kindness bestowed upon me.

“A friend sent me,” I replied, as the boy just stood there puzzled.

Turning my head from the boy for minute, I stared at the road before me, following it into the distance. Ahead of me awaited another chapter, another adventure, another chance to live fully.

And – if I was lucky – perhaps, another friend.

Staring for another moment at the magnificence of Tasmania’s Great Western Tier, I suddenly recalled the words of the bike mechanic – the one I’d first met along the way.

“You’re living the dream my friend.”

I repeated softly, “You’re truly livin’ the dream.”

Where in the world is Rick Gunn?

WHERE: Australia: Port Augusta, Melrose, Clare, Kapunda,

Angaston, Hahndorf, Adelaide, Wellington, Salt Creek,

Kingston SE, Mt. Gambier, Warnambool (Great Ocean

Road), Pt. Campbell, Apollo Bay, Lorne, Melbourne

WHEN: Oct. 15-Nov. 25, 2007

MILEAGE LOG: 20,737-21,600

ELEVATION: Sea level-2,000 ft.