I ride nervously into Coonabarabran.
Last night, I read that the town derives its name from the an Aboriginal word, gunbaraaybaa, which in local tribe Kamilaroi dialect means... ahem... shit. This morning, mercifully, the air is fragrant with the treacle-sweet aroma of honeysuckle. Children dressed in green tartan uniforms walk to school, shouldering superhero backpacks. A comfortably overweight woman strides purposefully along the footpath, being lead by a shaggy-haired minature dog. It looks like she's following a furry vacuum cleaner. The vacuum barks at me and hoovers along the zebra crossing.
Main Street is also the Newell Highway, so I keep well to the left as B-double trucks rumble slowly downhill. Outside the newsagent, two old blokes, dressed in neat shorts and long socks, discuss the affairs of the day. Both are sitting on mobility scooters. We all have an attachment to a set of wheels, I suppose?
At the roundabout, I turn left and catch my first glimpse of the Warrumbungles, a curious assortment of volcanic shield-plugs rising out of the north-western slopes. They are home to a colony of grey kangaroos and over one hundred and twenty bird species...
A magpie mistakes my helmet for breakfast and pecks furiously as I duck, pedal faster and wave my hand above my head, a crazed conductor without an orchestra. I wonder what welcome the other one hundred and nineteen bird species have for me? As the houses give way to small farm holdings, I relax into my ride, a short pedal to the top of the Warrumbungles at Siding Spring, home to twelve telescopes, including Australia's largest, the Anglo-Australian Telescope. The night sky in these parts is largely immune from man-made light pollution, allowing the scientists a unfettered view of the Milky Way. And here, on the plain, local residents are in on the action. Every kilometre, I see a small igloo-shaped outbuilding housing an enthusiast's telescope. Some have turned their hobby into a business, charging admission to look into the heavens.
Outside one farm is a letterbox in the shape of a cow, complete with metal udders. Next door's letterbox is a yellow duck with the legs of an ostrich, you insert the letter into his (her?) bloated stomach. These are quickly followed by Ned Kelly, his chest plate glowing in the sunlight; a tree trunk with a narrow slit for the letters; a pair of semi-trailer wheels with hudcaps and mud-guards; a smiling running man constructed with tubular steel, holding the letterbox in his outstretched hand, like he's in an egg and spoon race; and my favourite... a man on a bicycle, at speed, his flowing scarf trailing in the breeze, on his head a jaunty beret. The letter, naturally, is inserted into his front basket. It's all very curious. Did the residents get together over a barbecue one afternoon, and after too many beers decide to brighten up their farm entrances. Or did the duck just arrive one day, and as each resident drove by, they were suitably inspired? The postman must smile, awaiting each new arrival.
At Timor Rock, I pull over for a drink. It's a splendid scene. I sit in lush grass shaded by a stand of gums at the foot of the rock, rising one hundred metres straight up, covered in spinifex, sun-faded native trees and grasses. Next to the campground is a pig farm. A gentle breeze blows towards me and the air is still heavy with honeysuckle, not... pig. The animals frolic in the open, squealing, chasing each other across the pasture. A large black sow stands wobbly, stretches, looks across the enclosure at me, before wandering off to the mudpatch in the far corner.
Timor Rock is the start of ten kilometres of slow climb. The road is not conducive to riding, being pock-marked, rough and gravel-strewn. At least I can hear cars approaching behind me from a far distance. As the sound gets louder, I'm learning to judge just how much space the driver will allow me. Thankfully, there are few vehicles this morning. As I round a bend, I catch my first glimpse of the Anglo-Australian Telescope on the ridge. It doesn't look that high, but then it's still twenty kilometres away.
The first climb is a gut-buster, but I'm slowly learning to control my breathing, concentrating on building a rhythm. Half-way up is a farmhouse with an expansive view over the plains. The owner contentedly mows his front lawn. He waves and I offer an exaggerated nod in reply, too nervous to take my hands off the handle-bars as I climb. The slow-going is because I'm carrying the added weight of a million flies on my sweating back. They take turns to launch acrobatic sorties into my nostrils and ears. A few kamikazes divebomb into my mouth, offering much-needed protein. If anything, it encourages me to pedal faster to reach the crest where I can speed down the other side and shake these insect freeloaders.
On my way into Coonabarabran this morning, I noticed at regular intervals, roadside billboards each displaying information about one planet in our solar system. A tourist initative by the Shire Council, it's touted as the World's Largest Virtual Solar System Drive (their capital letters, not mine). No matter from which direction you enter Coonabarabran, you'll see the billboards, and, hopefully stop and learn about Pluto or Mars or... that one with the rings around it. Irrespective, all billboards lead to Siding Spring.
And, indeed, as I turn off the highway and cross a cattle grid... or should that read aaaaannnnddd cccccrrrooooosssss aaaa ccccaaatttlllleee ggggrrrriiiidddd, I notice Earth's billboard welcoming me. The billboards are all written for the amusement of twelve-year-old children. So, of course, I stop at each one to learn another curious new fact. Did you know that earth is made up of 71% water? And is the densest planet in the solar system. Perhaps that explains why we need these billboards?
The final five kilometre climb is stupendous. It deserves a billboard all its own. I'm so preoccupied with the view stretching over the eastern plains, I don't notice the gradient steadily climbing until I check my Garmin. It screams a leg-popping 20% and I wobble in surprise. The road is shaded by grey gums and on each ridgeline, blackboys stand in elegant rows, admiring the view. Two more cattle grids and one tight hairpin and I'm on top. The village is a clutch of igloo-shaped domes on a windswept plateau. At the southern tip, the largest telescope is bordered by a high wire fence and keep out signs. Proving I come from the densest planet, I ride through the open gate and take a quick photo. Since the Earth billboard at the entrance, I have yet to see another person. There are a few cars parked in painted bays, but it seems the summit is given over to me and a family of blackbirds, who scuttle up tree trunks whenever I ride too near.
I park my bike outside the entrance to a non-descript brick building housing a kiosk and information display. As I enter, a lone woman quickly gets up from her chair. I think she may have been snoozing.
'Oh,' she says.
I take off my helmet, just in case she thought I was an alien. I'm not. I'm from Queensland.
'Are you open?' I ask.
She looks at her wristwatch, perhaps to see how long she's been asleep. It's midday.
'Of course. How can I help?'
I offer her my empty water bottle. 'Could you fill this, please?'
She hesitates. Am I planning on buying anything?
'And I'll have a bottle of ginger beer,' I look around for food. 'and a packet of potato crisps, please.'
She fills my bottle and yawns.
'Not many people here today?' I venture.
Is Tuesday a solar-system-free day in these parts?
She looks at my outfit.
'You rode up here?' Emphasis on the here not the up. Meaning, she's not impressed.
'Do you get many cyclists?' I ask.
'I only started a week ago. You're the first.'
'It's a lovely climb.'
'Hhhmmm. The ride down should be fun.' she offers.
'Yep, the wind in my hair.' I'm bald. It's my attempt at humour.
'That'll be five dollars,' she says.
I sit on a plastic chair in the outdoor area, admiring the view. The sky is cornflower blue, a few clouds taper across the horizon. It's eerily quiet. Secretly, I was hoping to hear the clank of the telescope opening, with men in white overalls and hard hats rushing about on serious astronomical business. Perhaps a grey haired, goatee-bearded scientist would wander across and tell me about last night's discovery. A new asteroid. And he's still contemplating a name for it. He'd glance at my bicycle and mouth the word, 'Roubaix', slowly scratching his beard, considering...
Refreshed on salt and sugar, I hop back on my bike and begin my descent.
Luckily, there are no cars coming up the mountain because I'm all over the road trying to stop my bike from reaching terminal speed. How fast do asteroids travel? Who cares, when you're riding a Roubaix! I barely have time to admire the letterbox gallery as I roll past, my face contorted in a weird clown grin by the force of the wind. I just need a scarf and a beret to complete the perfect letterbox.