Orlright Mate, No Worries?
The 1998 RTA BIG RIDE: Tamworth to Newcastle

The RTA Big Ride is an annual event, this is the seventh event–and it says something that quite a few people have done all seven rides. All in all there have been over 10,000 participants. It takes place in New South Wales every April, and has a different route each time.

This year it started at Tamworth, a little country town in the middle of NSW, and meandered down the Hunter Valley to Newcastle. The ride is promoted by the RTA
(The Roads and Traffic Authority) who are a NSW State Government department–the theme being “Sharing the Road”. It is organised by Bike NSW–one of the largest bike advocacy groups in the world. Along the way money is raised for the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

I set off on my big adventure, leaving for the airport at (gulp) 5 am. “Never mind, I thought, I can sleep in every morning on the ride”. Arriving in Sydney, I transferred to the domestic terminal and waited. It was hot and sunny. After a while I spotted another waiter, who turned out to be Andy from Auckland. Going to the departure lounge we found it full of Americans with funny suntans–the International Big Riders. On the plane I studied my event guide book–a nicely presented and informative publication. Both in the route map profiles, and out the window of the plane Australia appeared very flat. Most other participants were getting to Tamworth by car, bus, truck and train. After a 45 minute flight we arrived at Tamworth Airstrip. An entourage awaited us. The Mayor made a speech–most of us were trying to keep an eye out for our bikes being unloaded from the plane and packed in buses.

“You’re SURE, this is the right place?” was the general reaction when the driver opened the door of the bus beside a dried up stream bed. Actually it was not a bad spot, with public toilets and quite close to the RSL club, and indeed everything in Tamworth. Soon happy campers were putting up tents and re-assembling their bikes. I assembled my tent and put up my bike. Initial fears were soon confirmed–a new middle chain ring was in order. Voyaging forth to the main street I discovered that Tamworth was not only a nice little town but also HAD a good bike shop. A new ring and couple of water bottles later (can’t be expected to remember everything) I returned to the campsite to find about half of the campers mending punctures!

First lesson–the grass has little things called bindis, which cause punctures–DO NOT ride on the grass. Second lesson–there are bigger things called catheads that blow onto the road–DO NOT ride on the road. Hard to avoid one or the other, so a couple of punctures later I returned to the bike shop and joined the queue to purchase more inner tubes. By now the bike shop was taking tubes out of the show room bikes to meet the demand!

It was a nice balmy evening. I strolled into town for dinner with Andy, and soon we were dining with a nurse from Sydney, and a retired couple from Syracuse (Upstate NY). It was an incredible mix of people–I never stopped marvelling at the variety of participants. All united by a love of cycling and sense of adventure–OK it wasn’t the Amazon or Himalayas, but at least we weren’t sitting on our bums. It was quite wonderful how anybody you spoke to had a good story to tell–and it was impossible to judge people from their appearance. One elderly and frail looking couple had recently ridden across the Nullarbor desert–almost 3,000 km and 42 ºC daily! Back in the tent I enjoyed the cooler temperature and had a good night’s sleep.

First Day–Saturday. Tamworth to Werris Creek 45 km.
Awakening at 7:30 I found our camp was transformed–there were literally thousands of people pouring into the park. Bikes were everywhere; a carnival atmosphere had overtaken us. I breakfasted on sausages and eggs cooked by locals. The main street was now thronging with cyclists and the excitement was palpable. I loaded my two bags (one with tent) onto one of two large articulated trucks, which carried our luggage each day. On the spot of 11 o’clock the Mayor made a short speech, and at 11:20 am we were off. After a loop around the main street the 1,500 cyclists crossed the bridge over the Peel River bed and headed for Werris Creek.

The day was sunny and cloudless, with a warm breeze speeding us along. The temperature would climb to 28 ºC. The country was flat, enlivened by brown grass and the occasional gum tree. The road was flat and straightish. The riders streamed out of town in a solid block two abreast. Car traffic was light and considerate. Rolling along, talking was the order, as there was much to discuss–new friendships were established, and old ones ones renewed. Enough people had done previous Big Rides, for quite a family atmosphere to have developed (47% of riders return). From single folk, couples, to family groups, and even large clubs–there were all types on the ride. Everyone was exceptionally friendly–I doubt if any one could be lonely. Bikes were–well absolutely everything. From the latest Italian road bike to single speed ‘postie’ bikes–all kinds were represented. In all about 60% of bikes were road types with about 30% mountain bikes and 10% difficult to categorise. There were about 6 tandems, a recumbent, 8 Bike Fridays, a Moulton, a Birdie, 2 ‘Tug-a-Tots’, 3 trailers and one bike with the kid recumbent in front of mum upright! Riders’ ages ranged from 3 months (in trailer) to 80 years. The average age of participants was 42 years old.

Soon, after 18 km, we arrived at lunch–a dusty spot called Duri. Here lunch was served from a truck in the shade of some gum trees at the one room Primary School. Because it was so soon after everybody had left together a huge queue formed in the hot sun–but every one was good natured, and we were soon eating a pie, cake, fruit, Museli bar and orange juice. Fresh cold water was available, as were toilets (on large trucks). Throughout the ride you never had to go further than about 15 km without a water stop, with radio communications at hand. Medical help (ambulance) and mechanical (two utes) cruised up and down the route at all times. After lunch the heat and digestion were making me lethargic. It got hotter, then suddenly–a pub. It was the Currabubula Hotel, and few could resist its shady, wet charms. After a couple of ‘Tooheys Olds’ I threw a leg over and rolled slightly downhill to Werris Creek. My back tire was softening but I pressed on and got in at 3 pm, tire just off the rim.

What a sight. Werris Creek (pop. 1,400) has few houses, but a VERY large Edwardian Railway Station. In the dusty sports field a huge tent city (pop. 1,500) was springing up. As well as all the tents there was: a general store, a bike shop, a licensed bar (the Brasserie), the event headquarters, catering, first aid station, massage, MS fund raising, security–all under canvas. Outdoor movies on a screen, live entertainment stage on a truck, about 8 pay telephones (satellite link), two shower trucks–about 30 showers that never rang out of hot water, four trucks of “Rows-a Loos”, the two luggage trucks, dish washing, clothes washing/shaving facilities, and drinking water completed the city. All this was attractively laid out around the “town square”–the open space with tables, chairs and sun brollies for drinking, eating and socialising. The amazing thing is that all this (18 articulated trucks) was put up each day–all without any fuss or bother. This is all mainly handled by the orange tee-shirted Volunteers–some of whom have helped on every ride!

Anyway I found my bags laid out by the luggage trucks, and soon selected a tent spot. Dinner was served at 6:30, it was barbecue style: bangers, steak, spuds etc. The dinner was different every night (yes, vegies are catered for). I soon learnt to have dinner a bit later and avoid the queue. After dinner each night was the Ride Briefing at 7:30. A local celebrity would greet us, the Ride Organiser would speak, and notes about the next day’s route were made. After dinner it was into town to check out the two pubs, and listen to the C&W band playing in the main street. I was quite tired so it was into the sack by 10 pm–tomorrow the sleep in!

Second Day–Sunday. Werris Creek to Murrurundi 84 km.
5:30 am. I check my watch. I don’t believe it. My neighbours are taking down their tent. I unzip. I still don’t believe it–it’s pre-dawn–and all around me people are striking tents and pumping up tires. I crawl under my bed and hibernate to 6:30. I get up and have breakfast. I create a yummy mess of porridge, corn flakes, museli, bananas and honey. The route officially opens at 7 o’clock. By 7:15 am the campsite is deserted and the luggage handlers are begging for my bags. I drop my tent and pack up–so much for the sleeping-in. I stagger around, finally getting on the road at 8:15 am. It’s a beautiful blue, fresh sunny morning.

I’m tootling along in a stupor when quite soon a Bike Friday folding tandem whistles past me, I throw it up a cog, then another and I’m soon on their back wheel. Just when I’m finding my rhythm the tall man at the sharp end says “Ready”, and they stand up. We have a passing lane to ourselves. I pray for a hill, for the pace to slacken, and feel that before 9 o’clock in the morning in too early to be on the rivet. Suddenly it’s Quirindi–45 km covered in 1 hour and 5 minutes. It’s still only 9:20 am - but it’s lunchtime! We grab our food and sit under some gum trees. It turns out that the front tandemist is the editor of Bicycling Magazine.

After lunch in the sports ground I head back to the shops in Quirindi to buy a nice cold Coke, and then head off into the heat. The scenery is the same, flat with brown grass. I don’t stop at afternoon tea, by now everybody is well spread out, and for a few kilos I ride alone. In the hazy distance I can see bluish hills. We are now cycling on the main road (the New England Highway). The route begins to rise in earnest and I start to overtake slower riders. After taking on some water and admiring the view from the summit of the Liverpool Range I swoop down a bendy but wide road. It’s a quick descent to Murrurundi, were I stop at the first pub to celebrate being officially in the Hunter Valley, then on to the second to mark noon. The camp site is in the Murrurundi Sportsground.

Sheep dog trials are in progress so we’re relegated to the outfield. I throw up my tent–forgetting the golden rule, and head back to the White Hart Hotel. The pub is full of cyclists rehydrating, the bar a solid row of lycra jerseys. Tales of unbelievable speeds on the descent are swapped. I hear 91 km/h was recorded by a tandem with a blind woman stoker! I find myself out the back under shady trees with a large group of convivial drinking-cyclists from around the Newcastle area–the ‘Dragon Riders’.
I work my way through the counter food menu. Back to the camp for dinner. I eat my Beef Lasagna with Ed and Jenny then watch “Ground Hog Day” under the stars. It gets cold so I head to bed, zig-zagging my way between impenetrable thickets of tents and bikes. The golden rule–Always Lie Down On The Ground Before You Put Your Tent Up. I sleep well enough in the small gap between what feels like a tree stump and the side of my tent!

Third Day–Monday. Murrurundi to Muswellbrook 94 km.
I leap to my feet at 7 o’clock, it’s a cool, misty morning. As I head off at 8 am the sun is breaking through the mist in golden rays. It promises to be hot. Today the route is along the main road, so we have to ride single file. No one minds as the road is predominantly downhill. I enjoy whizzing down the smooth road, as the beautiful valley gradually opens out. As I pass old friends greeting are exchanged. The scenery is grander and greener than yesterday. I don’t stop for morning tea at Wingen. After Parkville the road flattens out and a large chain gang forms. We get to a very handsome town called Scone.

After morning tea at Scone we turned left and headed across farming country. A pretty section of tree lined lanes preceeded a short but steepish climb (I used my new chain ring for first time), followed by an exhilarating drop down to the lunch spot at km 58. This was at the base of the Lake Glenbawn Dam. After lunch in a picnic area, entertained by galahs flying around the gum trees, I walked up to the top of the dam. The ice-cream shop was doing a roaring trade, but I just climbed out of the valley. Once again I rode with Ed & Jenny, but when they stopped at Aberdeen for avro tea I pressed on. It was pretty hot and at 1 o’clock I was glad to see a sizable town in the distance.

This was Muswellbrook. I rode down the main street and found Olympic Park–our home for the night. I located my luggage and put my tent up, did my washing. By now this was becoming routine. I dropped my films in to the photo shop and headed to the pub. This was located right on a busy roundabout on the main road. Thirsty cyclists thronged inside and outside under the verandah–there was standing room only. Bikes were stacked everywhere, and with time piled up in heaps, inches from the big trucks roaring past on the main road. It begun to resemble not so much a quiet drink as a riot. Apparently the Big Riders spend an average of $30,000 a night at the stage towns. Apart from my piccies I began to suspect most of this was going to the pub.

At 4 o’clock there was a parade up the main street, in which a couple of hundred Big Riders participated–accompanied by noisy heckling from the roundabout. Shortly after this the police came and declared the footpath an “Alcohol Free Zone”. There was no room inside the pub so I picked up my photos and went home. After dinner of beef and rice I watched the movie “Shine”. The projector did the traditional blowing up thing, so the last reel had no sound. It was a cold night, with a very heavy dew. I think I should have put my sleeping bag inside the tent a couple of hours earlier, but nothing stopped me sleeping.

Fourth Day–Tuesday. Muswellbrook to Singleton 100 km.
I was awoken by the usual dawn chorus of unzipping sleeping bags and tent doors at 6:30 am. When I got the sun was just up over the horizon. The sky was grey and everything was very wet from the dew. By the time I hit the road at 8:30 am (last to leave as usual) the sky was clear blue–another nice day. I soon caught up with a small group, the “Laing Gang from Wallerawang“. We soon hit it off and I rode with them till the morning tea stop at Denman. I met a woman called Rita who had recently started riding again after a 50 year break. She was 76, and had just won 7 medals at the veterans’ track champs. The road was narrow, winding and at times a bit rough. The contour began to undulate, which my legs preferred to the flat. I saw my first echnida–dead on the road. Pleasingly a pace line of about 20 riders formed and we made good progress. Gradually we headed out towards the west side of the Hunter Valley. The dry scrub gave way to small irrigated farms and the first vineyards appeared.

Lunch was at Jerry’s Plain and once again all the water was trucked in. Not once did we run out at any location. Everyone sat quietly in the shade of some gum trees. As well as vineyards, this side of the Hunter Valley has enormous open-cast coal mines. After lunch we shared a major road with coal-trucks and as a consequence we had to ride in a miserable single file. It was hot and dusty. I sped past avro tea at Warkworth, and was quite pleased to get into the camp site at James Cook Park, Singleton. After making camp I retired to the Singleton A.F.RC. clubrooms and tried out some canned VB. Dinner was pasta, flocks of galahs circled overhead. I had an early night, and fell asleep listening to the rumble of long coal trains passing the park.

Fifth Day–Wednesday. Singleton to Cessnock 81 km.
Usual routine at breakfast time. Eat breakfast while reading the morning issue of the Big Ride daily newspaper “The Courier”, wash dishes and face, queue for toilet, pack up luggage and tent, load bags on truck, and then head off. I was on the road by 8 am, getting into the early rising swing of things by now. It was another scorcher of a day. The route headed back along the coal truck road for about 10 km, then took the back road for Bulga. It was more interesting scenery, gum trees and vineyards to the left, the gum trees and hills of Wollombi National Park to the right. I skipped morning tea at Bulga and pressed on for Broke. Seriously. Lunch was at Broke. The ambulance passed us with siren wailing. The biggest hazards on the route were narrow timber bridges. In Australia they deck the bridges with boards running fore and aft, and as a consequence it’s easy to drop a tire into the crack! The efficient marshals were always on hand to warn of hazards. The route marking was excellent, generally the navigation was by way of small green arrows.

After lunch it got even hotter and slightly hillier. I saw my first kangaroo–dead by the roadside. We were in serious vineyard territory now. Afternoon tea was at Tyrell’s Winery. Quite a few people stayed for a while and took the option of being driven to Cessnock in vans. I arrived in Cessnock around 2:30 pm (under my own steam) and found Baddeley Park. After the usual chores I had a few Guiness’s in the Brasserie, and at nightfall got the shuttle bus to the Australia Hotel. Twelve of us made it next door to the restaurant, where we enjoyed the luxury of sitting on chairs. Got back to camp at around midnight –tomorrow was the Rest Day.

Sixth Day–Thursday. Cessnock to Maitland and return 62 km.
The Guide Book said: “This is your day to do just what you want”. I slept in to 8:30 am, and still felt a tad lethargic after getting up. Cessnock wasn’t a bad place but the main road went straight through the shopping centre and the traffic was getting on my headache. I tracked down Andy and we decided to ride to Maitland, a nearby town famous for it’s historic architecture.

A short distance out of town we spotted a sign saying “Refuse Tip and Old Maitland Road”. It sounded great and it was–a red dirt road winding through gum trees. Along the way I realised that not only had I skipped breakfast, but my water bottle was completely empty–brilliant. I spotted my first snake–dead on the road. Just in the nick of time we free wheeled down a long hill into Maitland. It was a nice old town by the Hunter River, and the main road by-passed the shopping precinct. We headed straight to the nearest coffee bar, where I had two milkshakes and a Coke, followed by a pie, chips and gravy–good hangover food. After lunch we cruised around and then headed back to Cessnock. By now a very strong dry head wind had erupted.

We got back to the camp around 4 o’clock and I blobbed out beside my tent. The sky was clouding over. After dinner was the “Big Ride Talent Quest”. By the time it began the sky was black, and lightening shattered the gloom. Suddenly a very strong gusty wind got up, and began knocking over the marquees. As the second act began huge warm spots of rain began falling–instantly everyone ran for their tents and the ‘Quest was over. The wind soon blew out, and the heavy downpour only lasted five minutes. People re-emerged and gathered around in clumps watching the spectacular lightening display. The booming thunder grew quieter as the storm moved away, and so to bed.

Seventh Day–Friday. Cessnock to Paterson 96 km.

Anzac Day. I got up for the Dawn Service–just kidding! It was a cool overcast morning. On the road by 8:15 am. From Cessnock we headed north towards morning tea at Branxton. The country side was much greener on the east side of the Hunter Valley, rolling grassy farms. Lunch was at Glendon Brook, eaten in the graveyard of a small church. After lunch the country side became quite pretty –a bit like New Zealand.

Afternoon tea was taken in a shearing shed at East Gresford. From here the route meandered south towards Paterson. To our left was the Barrington Tops National Park. A chilly head wind got up, and in the last 20 km a fine drizzle started. Paterson is a very picturesque little country town on the banks of the Paterson River. The town has fine historic buildings, including a large Court House. As I got to the camp site by the river the mist was covering the hillside. I found a good elevated tent spot backing on to the graveyard, which also gave me a shortcut to the pub! By the time I had pitched my tent the rain started falling in earnest. Digging out my warm clothes I set off to explore town.

Being Anzac Day the locals were out to party. Everywhere dry was packed with people, 2-up games were progressing, and there was yabby (crawlies) racing to bet on. I shouted myself fish and chips from the general store and then crossed the road to the pub for a quick drink. It was pleasant standing in the dry watching the wet and bedraggled cyclists streaming down the road over the level crossing into town. At 5 o’clock I wandered back to my tent for a wee sleep. The rain had really set in now. To my surprise it had cleared by dinner time, although the trees were still dripping. Dinner was “Rice Suprise”, followed by rice pudding! After dinner the “Son of the Talent Quest“ was held–but the lure of my snug little home away from home was too great.

Eighth Day–Saturday. Paterson to Stockton 96 km.
Great night’s sleep, something about rain on a tent! Getting up at 7 am, it was a cool, damp morning. Hitting the road by 8:30 it was very foggy, but after a short while the sun broke through. The country side was rolling at first but soon flattened out completely. Morning tea meant a return to the suburbs, as Raymond Terrace is a satellite town of Newcastle. I had a second brekkie at McDonalds. We rolled along a smooth flat road past a lake, and then turned and headed north up the coast towards Port Stephens.

As so often happens a large chain gang suddenly formed. The speed climbed and I spent the next 30 km looking at the back wheel of the bike in front of me. There were times on the ride I wished I had my road bike with me, but generally the mountain bike was much more practical. No worries about rough handling, damage or theft meant I could get on with enjoying myself. Next time I would take higher and closer gears, but then every ride has a different route. Last year’s ride was quite hilly. The organisers aim to produce a ride of moderate effort .

In no time at all we were at lunch at Tanilba Bay. After eating on the beach we rode back the way we had come. This time I could look at the scenery. The route was parallel to the coast. Occasionally I got a whiff of pine trees. Gradually the road became more built-up, and the traffic busier, forcing us into single file. Along side the road were large billboards: “The three causes of accidents –SPEED. FATIGUE. ALCOHOL.” I thought this described the typical Big Ride day pretty well. Soon we scuttled into Stockton Beach and found the campsite at the end of the road right beside the harbour. I found my bags and put my tent up for the last time, beside Ed and Jennys’.

We strolled back to the George Washington Hotel and had pies, chips and 7 or 8 schooners of “Old”. I think Ed had become pretty well acclimatised by now. In the Pre-Ride Literature it suggests a six week training programme. Sometimes I felt that six weeks drinking practice would have been more useful. We wandered back along the fore shore to have chicken for dinner. After dinner, ferries took us over the Hunter River to the bright lights across the water–Newcastle. The “End of Ride Party“ was being held in a large brick warehouse down by the dockside. I’d had too much too soon, and immediately flaked. I returned by ferry to the darkened campsite, picking my route through the intermingled guy ropes for the last time. Sleep–Yesss my precioouuusssss.

Ninth Day–Sunday. Stockton to Newcastle 23 km.
My sleep was rudely terminated at dawn by a gigantic container ship HONKING as it nosed it’s way up the river to the docks. Today was to be the finale of the ride, a processional trip through the city. We all wore our Big Ride tee-shirts and as we formed up there was an end of term atmosphere, with much hurried exchanging of addresses and phone numbers. At 10 o’clock we left and rode rather frustratingly slowly towards the city.

Arriving at Nobby’s Beach all hell broke loose. Those of us returning to Sydney by train (all the Internationals) had only 20 minutes to find our baggage, get changed, pack up our bikes, and reload our bags and bikes on a Sydney bound truck, and then race along the strand to the railway station in order to catch the next Sydney Train. It was impeccable organisation as usual–but we were running rather late. Andy and I pulled out all stops, and even had time to get an ice cream on the way. Getting to Newcastle Station we loaded our hand bags and grabbed some serious food for the journey. In Sydney we changed trains at Central, and were soon at Kings Cross looking for the our hotel. The Big Ride was over!

Return to the top