Taming the Illawarra Highway: Cooma to Sydney

back_to_sydney-2I had a decision to make. I’d rented the bike for 4 days but had the option to spend an extra day on the motorcycle. I was planning to take a few days up in Cairns to see the Great Barrier Reef so wanted to save some time for that. I figured if I wandered into something cool, I’d take the option otherwise I’d head for town.

I noticed a small rash on both of my ankles and figured something was going on in the boots. The rented gear was functional but as much as I’ve sweated over my four days rendered some funk. I’m guessing the gear wasn’t fully clean when I got it as I’m sure every guy before me added their personal touch to the jacket, pants, helmet, and boots.

The storm was still pumping out rain from last night. Thursday looked no better. I’d heard that Batemans Bay and Jervis bay were great spots to see but major storm cells were over both. It was time to head to Sydney.

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The road to Canberra was a simple, high speed run. A thin blanket of clouds covered the landscape. Fortunately it was not raining. It was two lanes, had very litte traffic, and way too many speed cameras.

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After an hour I crossed into the Australian Capital Territory. It’s much like the District of Columbia in the States. This land has special meaning to me. A year or two GetUp did an amazing video raising awareness of same sex marriage.

Tback_to_sydney-3he Australian Capital Territory was the first place in Australia to leagalize same sex marriage. Much like in California, the federal government stepped in and squashed the ACT’s step in the right direction. The irony though is that the ACT is the very land which Australia’s federal government sits on. Australia is much more a federalist government than America’s. State’s rights are less of a focus here. With Britian’s lead, I do hope that my Australian brethren will be able to marry in the eyes of the law one day.

back_to_sydney-4Canberra is Australia’s capital. I wanted to stop in and see Brad whom I met at Fair Day. I wanted to see the capital building as well. The road I was on all about vanished with no signs pointing where to go. This was the first time on the trip I was genuinely lost. I didn’t see how to get to Sydney and was trapped in an area of strip malls, construction, and traffic. The clock was running. It was time to cut bait and get to Sydney.

Going 100 is thrilling in the States. Here it’s less thrilling. It’s sort of like Diet Coke. The nasty speeding ticket isn’t waiting for you at the end of the road but it’s never the same experience as the real thing.

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I made my way back to the Hume Highway as the weather looked better that direction. The Hume Highway in New South Wales was the same as it was down in Victoria: a freeway with lots of speed cameras. For the middle of summer, the weather was almost cool. The sun was well obscured by cloud cover making travel easy.

I was getting thirsty after a few hours on the bike so I pulled into one of the rest areas. I only saw one other car parked in the area. Looking around, it was a bit more primitive than I was used to. The toilets didn’t have running water in the water for radiators wasn’t drinkable. On the way out though… they let the truck drivers know to buckle up!

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back_to_sydney-6I wanted to do one more interesting road for the day and still make it in time to drop the bike off by closing. Looking at the map, the Illawarra Highway was the best bet. It connects the Hume Highway out with the coast just south of Wollongong. I have a little bit of time pressure, but I wanted to see the Sea Cliff Bridge.

After the Sydney Harbor Bridge, the Sea Cliff Bridge is Australia’s most famous bridge. Apparently it was a construction feat to get built due to the challenging coastline. Every picture you see of the bridge in Australia along the coast is likely the Sea Cliff Bridge. As a motorcycle rider, I felt like it was important to check that one off the bucket list.

The Illawarra Highway started off a lot like most Australian roads I’ve ridden. The road was wide open, the speed limit was 100 kilometers an hour, the traffic was starting to pick up at school was letting out. I pulled into a gas station to get some water and some substance to tide me over until I got to Sydney. Australians seem to love ice cream just as much as Americans. Magnum is big here. It’s the one with an ice cream core with at least two layers of covering on a stick. Sometimes it’s chocolate and caramel, others it’s chocolate and honeycomb, and yet others it’s fruit or mint.

I wasn’t expecting what came next. The Illawarra highway seem to be a throughway to get people from the city of Wollongong out to the Hume Highway. The road got super narrow and the foliage enveloped the road. It was another Australian goat trail. I was in heaven! The only downer is that I was behind a Toyota that was going slower than a bicycle.

It turns out I was headed over Macquarie Pass National Park. There was one turn that was truly epic on this road. It was almost 180° down a narrow mountain side. The wide-angle lens I used doesn’t do to turn justice. It was beautiful.

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I heard mixed reviews about Wollongong itself. I get the sense “back in the day” that Wollongong was a beautiful place to visit. I often heard “it wasn’t as good as it used to be.” Traffic was horrific as all the schools were closing for the day. I decided to skip it and had further north to the Sea Cliff Bridge. Getting to the bridge from the north seemed a whole lot less complex than from the south even if it took a bit more distance to get there.

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Heading back to the M1 highway I saw a sign from Mount Keira. I was curious to see Wollongong from the sky and I’ve always been a sucker for high places.

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back_to_sydney-10The view was great, but I think I hit it at the wrong time of day. Being 4:30 in the afternoon the light was extremely flat. It’s good to know that the southern hemisphere has “crappy afternoon light” just like the northern hemisphere does. I’m guessing during the golden hours does you would’ve been great. But alas time was ticking.

I took the exit for the Sea Cliff Bridge off of the highway. Heading down the exit ramp there were no markings on the pavement. My right hand turn was the first major mistake of the trip. I did the American-style, rather than the Australian style turn. A quick invasive maneuver made everything okay. My heart still jumped A few beats though. I got down to the turn off for the bridge and found out it was closed due to construction. A lot of me wanted to go around the gates to see how far I could get before the tradies turned me around. Given that I’m a guest in a foreign country, I decided that it would become another adventure for another day.

From here it was an easy ride to the outskirts of Sydney. I was ready to see the welcome sign. It was a reminder of something familiar in a land that was so foreign. What I didn’t know, is that the hardest part of the trip (aside from the insulin debacle) was ahead of me. Having a rich history of knowing California and a laziness induced by GPS, I vastly underestimated the difficulty of getting back to the bike dealership.

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Since I picked up the bike in Melbourne, I didn’t have a sense of where in town the bike dealer was. To make matters worse, Sydney much like San Francisco doesn’t have a giant freeway running through town. It was also rush hour and warm. Being true to my gender, I didn’t ask anyone for directions. I knew it was just “that way.” I stayed on highway A1 through town and wound up towards the eastern suburbs 45 minutes later.

I knew it had gone the wrong way and I had a series of intricate turns ahead of me. Since I was running out of battery on my phone, I would power up Google Maps, memorize my next two turns, complete those directions, pull over and start the whole process again. I was running out of time as the dealership closed at 5:30 p.m.

Forty-five minutes and a gallon sweat later, I pulled into the dealership in the nick of time. Serena, the owner of Bikescape had a very stiff demeanor and chided me for showing up early and she thought I had the bike an extra day. I held to the fact that I contract said Wednesday in that I only inquired if the bike would be free one more day.

I was ready to be done. The bike was great, but the gear left a lot to be desired. The rash on my ankle was getting worse and I was less in love being so close with other guy’s funk embedded in the gear. Those boots came off so fast and then came the jacket, helmet, gloves, and pants.

back_to_sydney-32You’re probably thinking, “Did Dan enjoy this trip?” I think that’s a fair question. I was talking with a coworker of mine about it when the rationale dawned on me. This trip was an adventure. I had highs. I had lows. I had large amounts of unfamiliarity around me. The adventure happens along the journey between highs and lows. Struggling through a situation an surmounting it makes you stronger. Walking through fears and seeing that it wasn’t so scary on the other side deepens your tolerance. I love riding in California. I’ve ridden it enough to know all of the special, cozy spots.

Australia was different (for me). It was a new frontier with new journeys and new experiences. I missed the tall redwood trees and the snowcapped alpine country. I got to ride through lush, dense forest and see a golden filled coastline as the sun ducked under the sea. My lungs opened up as eucalyptus vapor permeated all parts of my body. I met great people along my journey.

It wasn’t easy on the time, but it’s not supposed to be. It’s about broadening your experiences and deepening who you are as a person. That, my dear Watson was had.

I lugged all my gear to the train station which was thrice the distance of the bus. Downtown traffic was horrible and I was ready to get home. The train station had a victory Coke Zero waiting for me.

Four days, 1600 kilometers, and a lot of fun. Maybe next time I’ll ride to Perth and say hi to all of Dave and Debbie’s friends there..

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