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Conquering the hills of the Northern Rivers of NSW and Parkinsons at the same time

posted Sep 2, 2012, 1:26 AM by Dianne James   [ updated Sep 2, 2012, 1:28 AM ]
My wife has convinced me to make a contribution to the Parkinsons’ Pedeallars website because other people with parkinsons may be interested.  So here goes:

To start with, I am not a disciple of computers, blogs, or facebook so my typing may be incorrect but this is of minute importance when compared to the ride that we chose to do for 5 days in August 2012 – almost 400 kilometres of gravel roads, hills, night rides and $5 per night camping grounds.

When I first saw the “ad” for this trip in the 
BBTA Ride Calendar, it sounded rather idyllic – a gentle sojourn through the rolling hills of the northern rivers of New South Wales, so my wife, Dianne, and I rolled up at the Police Station at Woodburn expecting a tour with gentle rides, gentle hills and some speedy “downhills” for excitement. Like lambs to the slaughter we went:

Before going anywhere I had to be properly dressed. I have seen the groups of riders in my local area with their lycra suits moving at speeds I could only dream about. I managed a “work shirt”of green/yellow reflective material, purchased by Dianne in the hope that motorists will see me before squashing me as a result of my bad riding habits (doing U turns and cross road swirls without warning).

At last eleven riders left Woodburn and rode in a southwesterly direction towards our first stop, Laurence. We hadn’t been on the road for long, when suddenly a car pulled over and said that there was a member of our touring party behind us needing assistance with a flat tyre. This was one of the very few times that Dianne was by herself. Usually Dianne and I are either last or second last under the watchful eye of the tour leader. This time we had all been busy assuming that some one else was watching so it took a while for us to mount a rescue mission. Dianne had begun the repair and was cursing something about a pump (but had the wheel off) as the grand old man of touring and cruising “James” stepped forward and said “let her do it or she'll never be able to do it herself”. Then we spent a half an hour debating the pros and cons of this statement while the leader of our band and tyre changer extraordinaire, Peter, changed the tyre.

We rode along a very long stretch of gravel road, and after another flat tyre for Dianne, her front wheel this time, it was a pleasure to ride along the banks of Bungawalbin Creek, finishing Day 1 of over 80 kilometres at the riverside hamlet of Lawrence.

The new looking brick hotel at Laurence had showers and toilets (in a bit of an out-house, but clean.). We were camped for $5 per person on the lower part of the yard and had a steep bank to negotiate to get up to the hill for pre-dinner drinks, then we had a good meal at the restaurant, where the chef had won a “best meals” competition in some NSW magazine. The proof was in the meals that looked and tasted terrific. At last (before 9 pm) eleven very tired bike riders made their way back down the hill to their small tents and went to bed.

Day 2 dawned foggy with mists over the surrounding paddocks and the wide Clarence River. We rode along quietly over a mixture of gravel roads and potholed bitumen sealed stretches.

Enthusiasm filled the riders that this was going to be a great day, but seemingly on cue a big monster jumped up from the roadway and put a hole in my rear tyre. The first issue to be overcome was that I had never changed a rear tyre on a wheel with a Shimano Nexus 8 speed hub. 

For those not up with this touring cycling official lingo, its a “thingy” that changes gears when you turn another “thingy” on the handlebars. There is a jumble of red dots and little yellow lines to be lined up before extracting the wheel (I've used “extract” because or the similarity of this process to its dental equivalent). At last we were underway again with a new (borrowed) tyre and my own tube- thanks to James for the tyre and Peter for the tyre changing skills.

We didn't travel more than 100 metres when some idiot (that's me) managed to put a bungy strap around the rear gear sprocket. Of course the bike didn't travel too well in this condition so I had to stop and unload all of the stuff that had been un-loaded about 5 minutes before, to assess the damage. I was just about ready to abandon ship and head back to Woodburn when tour leader extraordinaire Peter found a solution which would at least keep me going (with 6 gears out of 8 operational).

Not wanting to visit the metropolis of Grafton, we travelled due west across to Koolkhan (sounds like we knew where we were going doesn't it !??). The various stoppages had resulted in the formation of two groups: those who had reached Day 2 destination in time to erect tents and Dianne and I and Peter and Susanne (tour leaders) who did not. We ended up arriving in the dark. Peter and Susanne erected their tent in a hurry. Dianne and I were graciously offered a room in the old farm cottage, which I took without a second thought, given how exhausted I felt.

Fortunately the others were there early enough to stoke the boiler in the outhouse so that we had hot showers.
There was also a flushing toilet out the back (the rest of the shack was 1850's vintage). Then we took over the farm cottage, cooking meals, having snacks and discussing the day's riding. Punctures and old tyres were high on the discussion list. I have to plead guilty here that I didn't know that my tyres were old and not good enough really for the heavy work out the gravel roads would give them. They will need to be replaced before the next tour. Day 2 was another 83 km.

My condition after Day 2 was pretty much the same as my tyres, old and worn out but hanging in there. It's a pity that I can't replace myself like an old tyre – under pressure and no tread left. It was another long day for me and my Parkinsons symptoms – I wasn't used to the hard days of many hills and gravel roads. My previous tours had all been on mostly bitumen roads for shorter periods of time. The gravel roads were causing me more stress than I recognized, however Dianne picked up on this and spoke to me about it, and with that recognition I found that I became less stressed, and in time, got used to riding on the gravel. I more or less collapsed into the bed provided and slept for a little while to try to recover from the day and prepare myself for the 3 days still to come.

Things always look better in the morning after a good night's sleep and that could certainly be said about Wave Hill Farm (our lodgings of the night before). There were good reflections and views across the large dam and as we ate our breakfast we were visited by a very cute farm dog who managed to lick our plates clean. We all tried to be ready at the appointed departure time of 7.30 am and so we left with having spent very little daylight time at the place (by this time I was convinced that the packet of marshmallows I had brought for toasting over a campfire were destined to remain where they were).

We travelled due north and had our morning tea with the whole group (usually our equipment failures and punctures had slowed us down) and lunch all together again at a crossing of
the Clarence River. This was a beautiful spot with casuarina trees low couch type grass. Cattle grazing kept the grass down and the manure supply up. One of the good things about Parkinson's is a loss of the sense of smell so the piles of dung didn't worry me. Our compatriots were keen to get started fort the next stopover so we tried to follow as best we could. And we were going well in spite of a headwind of at least 30 knots in some places when, you guessed it, Dianne had another flat tyre. This was becoming a bit of a problem as we were running out of options – no spare tubes and tyres that were getting worse. With Peter’s expertise once again, a change of tyre and clever use of two tubes got us the rest of the way to our next overnight stop and in fact we had no more trouble with tyres for the rest of the trip.

The overnight stop for Day 3 was the racecourse at the metropolis of Tabulam. This town was made up of the pub, which didn't serve meals, a restaurant / cafe which served very good meals, a school, a petrol station and not much else. In fact the overnight stop was 2.5 km out of town at the Racecourse. It was a great feeling to get somewhere in daylight, well it was dusk, really. Unfortunately there was no drinking water at the racecourse, nor electricity except in the toilets and showers so it was a bit disappointing. Then, for dinner we were going to walk or ride back to “town” to the restaurant. We erected our tent and put my bed inside – I just couldn't face the ride in the dark or a walk of more than 4 kilometres to the restaurant, so I let the others go while I gave my Parkinson's muscles a rest. Dianne very kindly brought me a hamburger and a drink back from the restaurant – I thought I was totally de-hydrated and drank just about all of the water we had until the next morning.

On Day 4 Dianne and I decided that discretion was the better part of valour – we abandoned the rest of the group and went straight to the next stop, the town of Casino. This was a hard decision but the set route was over 80 km of gravel and rough roads and we thought that we would be sure to wreck our tyres at the very least, whereas the
alternative was straight along the highway – all bitumen and wider for passing traffic (they passed us of course). The only drawback was that there was a large hill to conquer which would require lots of walking. So we shouted ourselves to a Devonshire tea in a lovely café at Mallanganee at the base of the hill before we took on the challenge. My gears were suspect from the bungy cord damage so I spent a lot of time walking up that killer hill (thank goodness for those scones). Still, we arrived early in the afternoon, put up our tent, and being back in “civilisation” had hot showers and relaxed on the grassy camping area until a courtesy bus arrived to take us to the RSL club for dinner. I was still exhausted by the day, even though it was all bitumen riding, and was looking forward to completing the tour with a relatively easy ride the next day.

We rose early on the Sunday, I think everyone was worn out by the four preceding days but still we were all packed up and ready by our usual start time of 7.30 am. We were only a few km out of Casino when we saw, in the distance, all of the bikes ahead of us had stopped near a car towing a horse float, and someone was sitting down next to the throng of people. At first I thought the worst, that one of our group had been hit by the car. It turned out to be a local elderly man (also with Parkinson’s) who had fallen over on the grassy road verge – whew!! It appeared he had done little damage to himself, and after waiting for the ambulance to arrive, it was off to Coraki.

I was really starting to run out of puff by this stage. One of the expert riders in the group helped me out on this last section of the trip into Coraki by allowing us to draft behind him for many km. Thanks Sam – you kept me going at a reasonable pace when I was exhausted.

Coraki is a beautiful town on the banks of the Richmond River. We had a great morning tea and it wasn't long before we were on our way again – to the end of the trip. My Parkinson's had left me quite exhausted by this stage and the ride to the end was slow and uneventful. The headwinds reduced and it was with a feeling of relief that I saw the bridge over the river which took us back to our starting place.

Suddenly I had all the energy in the world – we'd done it – 5 days and nearly 400 km behind us. As is usual with challenging trips like this I soon forget the bad things like busted gears and flat tyres and remember the good things like the people on the tour (especially the tour leaders Peter and Susanne, and James and Sam), the places we stayed such as Wave Hill Station, and the feeling that I have achieved something despite having Parkinson's.

I have now put new tyres on our bikes, some new pumps, and slowly but surely we will set ourselves up to better prepared for the trials and tribulations of touring!!! Bring on the next ride.

And to other people with Parkinson's, I’d like to encourage you to get out and ride – maybe not over the hills and on the gravel – but simply hop on that bike and go riding. And with a bit of exercise, it is amazing what you’ll find you can do!!

Alan James
1 September 2012