“I was pretty naiive about what was involved in a trip like this,” says Dan Marsh, carpenter, photographer, bicycle adventurer and Velo Cycles customer. “The first month I found really difficult. I was fighting every day. I questioned why I was putting myself through it.”
The truth is that you can never be fully prepared for a trip like the one that Dan undertook. It will always be a bit of a shock to the system. Leaving from Melbourne in the middle of winter, Dan cycled along the coast to Adelaide, before heading inland to remote Lake Eyre, Australia’s largest salt lake, and onto Alice Springs. From Alice he crossed north-west Queensland to Karumba in the Gulf of Carpentaria, and then over to Cairns on the east coast. In Cairns he was joined by his partner Michelle, and together they pedalled south to Byron Bay, where they have been ever since.
Not only did Dan carry all of life’s essentials with him – food, water, clothes, bedding and shelter – he towed a trailer full of heavy and expensive photography equipment. Inspired by Murray Fredericks – one of Australia’s better-known landscape photographers and a man famous for riding a Surly Pugsley onto the wastes of Lake Eyre to take photos, with some unusual and stunning results – Dan too wanted to capture the magic of Lake Eyre, as well as document the amazing landscapes and people he encountered on the road.
Fortunately, things became easier for him as he went along.
“My mind and my body got used to it,” Dan tells me over the phone from Byron Bay. “I stopped counting how many miles I was doing each day. About a month in I started loving it, it became normal.”
So exactly how much stuff was he carrying?
“I had, like, five cameras, and I can’t remember how many lenses but quite a lot. And for the first part of the ride I also had a surfboard. It was way too much! It was pretty full-on with all that gear, but it was good to be able to stop and have a surf.”
Did he get some good photos for all that effort?
“I did, but I found I wasn’t using most of the photography equipment. When you’re riding every day you usually don’t have the energy to stop and spend time taking photos. Once I got to Cairns, I went through everything and got rid of a lot of the camera gear. So I rode with the trailer for six months for no real reason.”
How much water did he have to carry in the more remote parts?
“I could carry 25 litres at most. I didn’t have to carry as much water as I envisaged in South Australia and Northern Territory, but once I got into Queensland it was 45 degrees every day and I struggled to carry enough. I really had to ration it out. I ended up getting a lift from Karumba to near Cairns because it was too hot.”
How heavy do you think the bike was with everything on it?
“I don’t know, but it was too much!”
So what kind of bike does one need for this kind of extreme load carrying? There are a large number of high-quality, heavy-duty touring bikes on the international market, but the problem for Aussies is that few of them reach us. Australia is a comparatively small market and touring bikes, despite their growing popularity, are still a niche product. Chief among the quality touring bikes that do make it to Australia is the Surly Long Haul Trucker and its disc brake equipped counterpart, the Disc Trucker.
The Truckers have developed a cult-bordering-on-mainstream following over the years, garnering plenty of devotees, and an reputation for reliability, strength, function and value. And it was the Disc Trucker that Dan chose, with the help of our staff (myself, in this case), for his epic undertaking. The Disc Trucker is built from the ground up to haul heavy loads – from the frame material, geometry and gear range, to the high-spoke-count wheels and mounting points for luggage racks and other accessories.
So how did the Surly handle the heavy-duty use?
“The bike was f***ing amazing,” says Dan. “I didn’t break any spokes or anything. I did snap the axle on the trailer, but I had a spare. The only thing I wore out were the tyres. With the weight of the trailer the back tyre wore through three back tyres.”
“I didn’t have many punctures either. I probably averaged about one every 1000km.”
Dan did have one major mechanical when his rear derailleur got caught in his spokes and was badly bent. The most common cause of this is the derailleur getting hit from the side – if the bike falls over, for example, or is treated roughly in transit – which can throw it out of adjustment just enough to send it into the spokes when you’re finding the smallest gear. It’s an uncommon occurrence, but nonetheless can be avoided completely by running an internal gear system rather than the derailleur system that comes standard on the Disc Trucker.
An internal system, otherwise known as a gear hub, is a popular choice for remote-area, long distance touring due to their rugged reliability and low maintenance. And the most popular gear hub for this use is the venerated Rohloff Speedhub, a 14-speed, German-made system that seemingly lasts forever and embodies all the stereotypes of German engineering. The rear dropouts of the Disc Trucker are specifically designed to work with a Rohloff, making it a top choice if you’re looking to set up a bike with this type of drivetrain.
Regardless, Dan was able to get it fixed, and remained philosophical: “what I learned so much from this trip is that I can’t foresee the day ahead or change the elements or road conditions. You just have to deal with it and take it as it comes. It makes you pretty grounded and its pretty character building.”
This was far from the only thing he got out of the trip, however.
“You realise what you’re capable of mentally and physically. When people would ask me why I was doing it, I said I was just going for a ride. People don’t understand it because they haven’t experienced it. I wasn’t doing it for anything other than the enjoyment.”
“When I was out in the desert it was the most amazing experience I’ve had in life. You have nothing but you have everything in the world. It was probably the most content I’ve felt about everything. I was happy to be alone out in the middle of nowhere and not need anything. I was happy to sit around a fire in the dirt by myself. I was happy with ultimate freedom. That’s what I set out to search for.”
You can find more of Dan’s images at dan-marsh.com