The Sunburnt Desert: A Solo Bikepacking Journey Across Australia

Crossing any foreign country alone is a daunting quest. In shaky moments I turn to my heroes, the women who boil their fears until they evaporate into courage. Legends like Robyn Davidson, who famously walked her camels across the empty Australian outback to the Indian Ocean and wrote about it in her book “Tracks,” whose pages revealed the mayhem and mystique of solo desert expeditions. Upon reading her account, I envisioned my own voyage across the country. Where Davidson chose camels, I chose a bicycle.

Heatwave induced mirages are nothing outside of the norm in one of Earth’s harshest desert environments. Many times while cycling Australia I caught my thoughts drifting back to Africa, on my first monumental bike voyage from Cairo to Cape Town. The similarities of the two lands were palpable: Australia’s outback terrain akin to sand dunes of the Saharan Desert, and Down Under roadhouses seemed close cousins of remote Sudanese cafeterias. In both places the feeling of complete surrender to mother nature’s extreme weather arsenal was nearly identical, and total. Nevertheless, an unmistakable boundary separated how I approached the two journeys: a traditional touring outfit in Africa versus a lighter bikepacking setup in Australia.

From Touring Africa to Bikepacking Oceania

Matching mindset with setup is how I initially approached kitting out my two-wheeled vessel for long distance journeys. My traditional touring rig in Africa was tailored toward a slower pace to prioritize cultural immersion and travel. They say the best bike is the one you own – for Africa, that meant riding my second hand steel Surly Disc Trucker with 26” wheels. The route mostly followed pavement, with occasional—though sometimes unreliable—resupply options. I selected a stubborn steel rack that attached two generous Ortlieb classic panniers with an additional dry bag on top, thereby allowing for a superfluous 50 liter rear capacity. Coming from a thru-hiking background, this was double what I would dare carry on my back. I tried to balance the heavy rear weight with water on the fork. At the front I attempted a half-baked bikepacking approach of full frame, handlebar, and stem feed bags. Optimizing for comfort and self-sufficiency along the isolated distances was paramount. My heavy kit reflected my unhurried touring attitude. For five months through ten countries, I packed everything I needed on my bicycle down the length of Africa, which in hindsight ended up being more than I needed.

Touring Setup:

  • Surly Disc Trucker 26”
  • Schwalbe Marathon HS40 Touring Tires
  • Ortlieb Back-Roller Classic Panniers
  • Sea to Summit 20L River Dry Bag
  • Revelate Designs Mountain Feed Bag
  • Handlebar Bag by LesenokBag
  • Custom-Made Full Frame Bag
  • Blackburn Front Fork Outpost Cargo Cages
  • Brooks B17 Standard Saddle

Where Africa jostled my cultural barometer, I envisioned a ride across Australia to test my personal pinnacle of endurance. But first, I needed a warm-up and gear shakedown. I turned to the mountainous neighbor in the Pacific, New Zealand, for a two-week bikepacking journey down the south island. Previously leaving tours open-ended for freedom to roam, I began to wonder how hard I could confront my comforts– scrutinizing remoteness, terrain and an ambitious timeline. Cherry picking on experiences from my thru hiking days, I forecasted what was coming next: the punishing evolution to minimalism.

My Surly was sidelined for a drop bar steel Kona Sutra LTD 29er that bestowed a more aggressive riding position, without compromising expedition reliability. Bulky racks were replaced with nimble bags and a rattle-free system. I deliberated seat packs and chose the superior Revelate Designs Spine Lock, limiting myself to the 10L size over the enticing 16L alternative. The only downside to this stable saddle bag was its attachment system’s incompatibility with my beloved Brooks leather saddle rails, so I swapped it out for their all-weather Cambium, choosing the carved version which added flexibility over uneven surfaces. On my handlebars I gravitated toward a watertight dry bag roll to store my sleep system, complete with an Oveja Negra handlebar harness, dry bag and added lunchbox topper. The expanded cockpit with two stem bags and a top tube bag became a valuable space, housing charging accessories, tools, and loose small items. I graduated from my touring-focused Schwalbe Marathon tires to the Maxxis Rekon Race, which at 2.25” was like riding on clouds. The only remaining veterans of my touring set up were the front fork cages for hydration bottles and my custom full frame bag. Cutting my carrying capacity almost in half, New Zealand’s ride set the stage for my new bikepacking bag strategy.

Bikepacking Setup:

  • Kona Sutra LTD
  • Maxxis Rekon Race 2.25” tires
  • Handlebar Bags: Oveja Negra Handlebar Harness, Sea to Summit River Dry Bag 20L, Oveja Negra Lunchbox
  • Cockpit: Oveja Negra Snackpack Top Tube Bag XL, (2) Revelate Designs Mountain Feed Bag
  • Revelate Designs Spine Lock Seat Bag 10L
  • Custom-Made Full Frame Bag
  • Brooks C17 Cambium carved saddle
  • Front Fork Outpost Cargo Cages by Blackburn for hydration bottles
  • Across Australia in Summer

The idea for my ride across Australia was to start at Victoria’s windswept capital of Melbourne and dissect the country through three states, finishing in Western Australia’s capital of Perth on the Indian Ocean. This 4,000-kilometer (2,485-mile)  pathway offered a passage into the heart of the humble land down under, encompassing the Great Ocean Road, Adelaide wine vineyards, and a treacherous crusade into one of the harshest environments on Earth: the infamous Nullarbor desert.

Beyond the demanding and hostile terrain, two daunting factors confronted my plan: I attempted to cover the distance in under 30 days and in the notorious summer season.

But first, I had to dial in my gear. The skeleton was in place from New Zealand, but my packing list had slightly shifted to accommodate for the hot climate and endurance mission.

Australia Packing List:

  • Big Agnes Tiger Wall HV UL 2 Tent with Tyvek footprint
  • Enlightened Equipment Enigma quilt
  • Hydration: (2) 2L bottles on the front fork, (1) 750ml in full frame bag, in the desert added (1) 750ml downtube and (1) camelbak backpack
  • Cooking and food: Vargo Titanium 750ml mug, titanium spork, instant coffee, granola bars, electrolytes, takeaway toasties (Aussie sandwiches)
  • On bike clothing: Smith Persist helmet, chamois, Patagonia capilene long sleeve, Patagonia Houdini jacket, Goodr Circle G sunglasses, Shimano MTB trail shoes
  • Off bike clothing: Bedrock Sandals, Patagonia nano puff, Patagonia capilene tee, running shorts
  • Electronics: iPhone, Sony RX100, Anker 10,000mAh power bank, Spot GPS, Joby tripod
  • Other: hi vis strip, lights, bike maintenance kit, toiletries, mosquito headnet, Field Notes journal, Sea to Summit airlite towel, AquaTab water purification tablets, zinc sticks, zinc lotion, sunscreen

I furnished my expedition rig with the non-negotiables: sleep system (Big Agnes Tiger Wall HV UL 2 and Enlightened Equipment quilt), hydration bottles (up to 8L capacity), tools, electronics, and clothing. First to go was my small camp stove— a risky choice, considering that desert service stations would be spaced up to 200km apart, but this was an intentional way of forcing big days to reach food and water resupply by nightfall. I ditched my rain jacket, extra chamois, and minimized my off-bike clothes. I took any opportunity to down-size; my bulky Sawyer water filter could be replaced with AquaTabs.

My major changes on the setup came from a need for speed and safety. In terms of tires, my route looked close to 100% paved– with the exception of a few off-road dirt tracks– so I replaced my meaty 2.25” tires with Teravail’s adaptable Cannonball 700c x 47mm. Anticipating occasional bail-out onto chunky gravel shoulders of the desert highway, I looked for a gravel race tread pattern that would be decently fast rolling on tarmac. Safety was a large consideration after hearing horror stories from cyclists about the frequent and inconsiderate monster machines on the Nullarbor that resemble swaying trains more than trucks. I cut out a hi vis vest, draped it over my saddle bag, and added a drop bar rear view mirror to save my neck from constant car-checking. With my kit as featherweight as my budget would allow, I arrived at Melbourne, built up my bike, and pedaled for the Great Ocean Road.

Long, colossal quests are best when broken down into segments. For every six days I rode, I aimed to take an off day to rejuvenate the legs and investigate what lay ahead. Happily, the trip looked to evenly split into four sections.

Section 1: Melbourne to Adelaide via the Great Ocean Road

The Great Ocean Road ranks among the top of Australia’s sights. Winding along jagged coastlines, the National Heritage-listed stretch boasts rare wildlife corridors, micro climate climbs, a national park, and expansive seaside vistas. I found it hard to resist taking the Great Ocean Road, sidelining direct route productivity for natural wonder. The faster, more direct route of cutting into the interior from Melbourne’s CBD would get me to Adelaide quicker, but sacrifice a true Australian experience. I knew I had made the right decision when, as if out of a fairytale, a full grown boomer (male kangaroo) intersected my path as I departed the surfing mecca of Bell’s Beach. Although choked with traffic at high season for holiday-makers, the cliffside pathway was a dream to ride on. Immediately I noticed a fiercer turnover on my gravel race tires.

Hazy cloud coverage came and went like the tide, and I couldn’t help but make comparisons with the famed Highway 1 along Big Sur. From Torquay to Apollo Bay, the route wound through emblematic eucalyptus forests decorated with stealthy koalas peeking from the branches above. Wild camping wonderlands invited total solitude, as I would set up my tent under a fairy floss (Aussie translation: cotton candy) dyed sky. Kookaburra song at sunrise became a familiar alarm clock along my Victoria coastline stretch.

With amenities never more than 50km apart, I enjoyed the luxury of traveling light in terms of food and water. The ocean breeze whisked me to each bay, and soon enough I reached the famous 12 Apostles, a collection of limestone cliffs eroded from the brutal wind of the Southern Ocean.

Beyond Warrnambool, the Great Ocean Road faded in my small rearview mirror and I crossed my first state line into South Australia.

Not long after exiting the seaside, I arrived at the geographical outlier of Mount Gambier, a town boasting natural phenomena of an extinct volcanic crater called Blue Lake. The water changes color throughout seasons, so it was a treat to witness the summer’s cobalt blue expanse. Many other crater lakes and caves add to the town’s unique wonders, and it holds the unofficial title for Australia’s best freshwater and cave diving.

I continued beyond Mount Gambier to quaint coastal beach towns that lay nestled between the dramatic scene of sand dunes kissing limestone cliffs. Crowds dwindled here in comparison to the surge of tourists along the Great Ocean Road. Winding up the Limestone Coast, I eventually made it into the city center of Adelaide for my first rest day. A bit less hectic than its Melbourne counterpart, the city was still mad with modern comforts.

Section 2: Adelaide to Ceduna into Rural Emptiness

Escaping Adelaide at sunrise was surprisingly peaceful. For a few days I meandered through wine vineyards and rolling hills. Although wind wasn’t yet a factor, thermometers screamed with notorious Australian summer temperatures. Approaching Port Augusta, I was blanketed with sea salt air and scorched earth. The land had suddenly opened up, and I was high with bikepacking delight. The natural next step was finding smaller roads where the tarmac ends. Productivity halted, but enjoyment was at an all time high— until I hit deep red sand. My front fork cages nearly came completely loose from the unpredictable corrugations, but my Brooks cambium saddle and Teravail Cannonball tires loved every jarring moment, and I couldn’t help but think this was my Kona Sutra LTD vessel in its element. The trusty steed passed the test of Australia’s remote dirt roads.

The second my tires reconnected with buttery asphalt outside of Port Augusta, everything became eerily quiet. The outback was looming on the horizon. Known as the crossroads of Australia because of its strategic location between highways, this is where I would begin my straightforward journey on the Eyre Highway. Route finding was made simple from here to Perth. Rural service towns with under 1,000 inhabitants, creative murals and names like Iron Knob kept me entertained and fueled. Free camping sites scattered along the desert offering coin-operated showers, camp kitchens, and friendly gray nomads (caravaners) that shared stories and meals.

Arriving in Ceduna– believed to have come from the Aboriginal word Cheedoona meaning “a place to rest”– I began preparing for the sun-roasting days ahead on the empty Nullarbor plain. Stretches could be up to 200km between water sources. It was clear that my current 5L capacity (ample for the previous two sections) wouldn’t cut it in the remote riding ahead. For the first time I questioned my seat pack system. Although secure to the seat, I was always conscious of the weight load with my saddle pack, and only occasionally added one liter to the top in fear of it catching my rear tire. I had to get creative with where I would add more bottles and I decided to expand my 5L water capacity to 8.5L by purchasing a small camelbak-sized backpack and adding a bottle cage on the downtube.

Section 3: The Middle of Nowhere & The Infamous Nullarbor

In the harsh Australian desert your only companion is your shadow. The rhythm becomes hypnotic: rise to an obsidian sky, pack provisions to the ballad of birdsong as the sky explodes with color, pedal muted pavement before the machines awake, and— if luck is on your side— avoid any arguments with the wind.

Upon starting to cross the Nullarbor, I began to understand the hype. Known as one of the harshest desert environments on the planet, the next 1,200km of my journey boasts the Earth’s largest piece of limestone. Latin for ‘no trees’, the Nullarbor Plain was originally granted the name Oondiri by the Aboriginals, meaning ‘waterless.’ Where water is the most precious resource, rain is all but a myth. If there was one word to justify all that is the Nullarbor plain it would be: empty. There’s nothing, that is, except for a diverse range of creatures adapted to the arid climate: kangaroos, wild camels, wombats, deadly snakes, lizards, vibrant birds, and countless flies, whose population peaks in the summer season.

In terms of civilization, you are far from it on the Nullarbor. Only a dozen middle-of-nowhere outposts called ‘roadhouse’ are dispersed sparingly across the desert, consisting of gas, food, beer and accommodation. Only recently paved in 1976, the Eyre Highway straddles South and Western Australia, stretching from Ceduna to Norseman, and is only for the most daring of roadtrippers, freight trucks, and self-sufficient adventurers.

Warned of the truck and wildlife dangers at dark, I decided to wait for each morning’s first light before pedaling. Before long, curious gray nomads (caravan retirees) appeared from the desert dust, rubber-necking at the rare sight, and, upon realizing I wasn’t a feral camel or surprise kangaroo, fired wind-choked questions out from their refrigerated cockpit. “What was I doing out here in the summer– had I gone mad?” My answer was met with baffled stares. Their expressions evolved from astonishment into concern. “Why not just take a car, bus or train? Within five days I could arrive on the other coast,” they pleaded. This conventional misunderstanding is precisely the reason I love long distance bicycle travel, because it defies the normal consensus. However brash and honest their response, they had a point. I asked myself for what seemed like the thousandth time the same question that haunted my over air-conditioned, under-approving audience: Why was I out here, in the middle of the Australian desert, cycling across the country in the summer alone?

Thankfully I wasn’t the only self-propelled traveler perceived as a lunatic– at the historic Nullarbor Roadhouse I spotted a Surly outfitted with front and rear panniers. I had run into my first bicycle tourist, an Aussie circumnavigating his home country. He had already been on the road for close to seven months through record-setting heat. Where I planned to camp at the overpriced roadhouse campervan park for the restaurant perks, he set off on his freedom vessel to find peace amongst the desert’s unlimited camping options. The juxtaposition of our journeys was clear as the night sky: my bikepacking setup was faster, yet more reliant on service stops; his touring rig could go days self-supported, but at a slower, load-laden speed.

My typical day in the desert consisted of anywhere from ten to twelve hours of riding. On rare occasions, I would fly on a magic carpet of tailwind. This phenomena occurred over 200km on my third and biggest day in the Nullarbor section. Everything seemed to sway in my favor; I witnessed the dramatic cliffs of the Great Australian Bight, escaped the heat before late afternoon, and was pushed by Mother Nature’s gusts the entire way.

A local family supported my ice cream habit as I crossed into my final state line into Western Australia and ended the day at Eucla’s roadhouse. It was here I met the second cycle tourist on my journey, a South Korean traveling east from Perth to Sydney, exhausted from his push against relentless headwind.

The wind took a turn for the worse as I battled through 32kph gusts through Mundrabilla and Madura. Permanently riding in the drops, every turn of the pedals was a fight. My place slowed to a brutal 10kph at times, and I consumed twice as much water as the previous day. Although cruel to my westbound path, I applauded the newfound tailwind fortune of my eastbound cycle touring friends. By the time I reached Caiguna, my bike was baked in desert dust and zinc, and my legs were screaming for a rest. Hearing the price of a room for the night, my bank account threw a tantrum, but I melted at the thought of arctic air conditioning amidst the boiling 107°F temperatures outside. My rest day in the Nullarbor sent me into a warp of time travel; with no wifi nor cell service (Nullarbor tip: go with Telstra), I devoured books, flipped between three channels of television, ate greasy takeaway food, and hand washed the filth from my faded kit. After 24 hours of sensory underload, I was ready for what awaited me the next day: the longest straight stretch of road in the country with no turns left or right for 146.6km, and aptly dubbed the ‘90 Mile Straight’.

By now it was evident that Australia’s wind patterns were as unpredictable as roadtrains and as baffling as Aussie slang. Speaking of, what exactly are roadtrains? Imagine a freight truck on steroids. Consisting of two, three and sometimes even four trailers, you can hear them miles away, hunting you down. When they zip past, their dangerous wind tunnels suck you in, take your soul, and spit you out on the gravel bank off the tarmac. The sumo wrestlers of overlanding cross-country freight, roadtrains reign control of remote roads, especially on a desolate two-way highway to nothingness. These behemoth machines are the worst nightmare of Nullarbor cyclists. Lucky to avoid any close calls, my eyes stayed glued to my tiny mirror zip tied to my drop bar, and the second I would hear the roaring monster on my tail, I respectfully bailed off the edge of the road and onto the unpredictable gravel. My carefully selected Teravail Cannonball tires were fit for the job, handling rogue waves of thick sand that threatened a garage sale wipeout. Most drivers gave me a wide berth, entering the other lane to the horror of oncoming drivers, but every now and then—especially on the mind-melting and monotonous 90-mile Straight—I would get passed by a dazed truck driver, lazy and unapologetic. My subsequent gesture to these especially mindless drivers happened so often that I dare say I added a new bird to the 828 species in Australia.

The final two days in the Nullarbor consisted of back-to-back clashes with erratic crosswinds, asphalt-softening heat and 190km rides. I crossed paths with yet another eastbound cyclist on a world tour, and we shared a mutual bitterness toward the wind before carrying on to our prospective destinations. Although my research had proven a prevailing easterly wind in the summer season, each of the bicycle tourists I encountered chose to travel in the opposite direction. In the end, Mother Nature had the last laugh, changing direction at any moment and keeping every cyclist guessing.

Section 4: Norseman to Perth in the Western Woodlands

Nine days spent along the Nullarbor taught me that my fears are paper tigers. As I reached the end in Norseman, I realized that I was capable of withstanding more on the bike than I had ever previously granted myself access to, and I owe a lot of that to my setup. Because I downsized my gear and minimized my carrying capacity, the ambitious schedule was made possible. In doing so, the tone of my trip transitioned from my past approach of travel-oriented touring to endurance-absorbed expedition. In Norseman, I was mesmerized by Aboriginal art, tracing stories as a strong tie to their indigenous culture.

Throughout the openness and emptiness of the desert I traveled my own story of suffering and surrender that harvested freedom and possibility. Eventually the desert road morphed into the expansive eucalyptus forests of the Great Western Woodlands. The unique ecosystem glistened with a golden tint as the sun rose and set me into my final stretch.

With six days to go until Perth, I spent the time in pedal meditation, contemplating my navigation of setup and gear. The biggest pitfall of my setup seemed to be lack of space for food and water provisions. While I was lucky tJoo avoid any, a mechanical could have called for a night in the Australian bush. Considering this remote reality, I concluded that two scenarios could have made my setup more proficient for additional storage on future bikepacking tours. One would be to ditch the seat pack and explore the Tailfin aeropack and mini pannier setup, adding space without compromising streamlined efficiency. The other option would require ditching my beloved Big Agnes tent for a lightweight bivvy, minimizing the space needed for a few days’ worth of resupply items.

The Grand Finale at the Indian Ocean

I went to Australia galvanized by Davidson’s historic expedition that opened my intrigue into a faraway land. I also went because I craved connection to an ancient landscape as much as an introspective battle of my own glass ceiling. Cycling three states and four time zones, my bike became not just my vehicle, but my home. Through unique flora, deadly fauna, summer heat upwards of 110°F, and courage-crumbling wind brawls, my setup was overhauled, packing condensed, and long days were prioritized over a more comfortable journey. In return, Australia opened its full menu of diverse wonders: infinite desert, unforgiving outback, oceanside cliffs, unique wildlife, and frenzied city centers.

There’s a saying that long term bicycle tourists are invisible travelers. Unknown to many, they slowly move toward their destination, chipping away at the masterpiece of the journey. In a culture where accomplishment can overpower appreciation and presence is often outweighed by productivity, this behind-the-scenes bohemian niche rambles on. They choose to witness the world by bike at their own pace. Unbeknownst to many and unfazed by the mass, a vagabond’s ‘slow is fast’ paradox is adopted. In my journey across Australia, I ventured to toe the line between tour and bikepacking. I adopted an endurance mindset and setup to accomplish my challenge of reaching Perth quickly. In the end, the real challenge wasn’t making miles, so much as the simple act of staying present, paying attention, and remembering that I choose the bike to travel across countries and continents because it’s the ultimate antidote to modern, fast-paced life. After all, the process is the reward, not the finish line.

One month and 4,000km after leaving Melbourne, I arrived in Perth windswept, sunburnt, exhausted, and elated. I washed the desert dust from my skin in the dazzling Indian Ocean and dreamt of the next two-wheeled voyage ahead, onto another remote continent on the edge of the atlas.