The outback was post-apocalyptic, dotted with abandoned trailers, rotting animal carcasses, fluffy gorilla slippers, golf balls and anal beads. It was sandy and unapologetically barren. And yet, here I was on a bicycle, hauling a heavy trailer across the middle of the continent with a stranger I’d met on Instagram a week prior.
Boy, was I was hating it.
Brando Yelavich, fondly known as “wild boy”, is currently crossing Australia by bicycle. When he was 19, he was the first person to walk the circumference of New Zealand with nothing but a tent, a sack of flour, and a bow and arrow. He’s loved in his New Zealand homeland and beyond, and regularly tours schools to share stories of his adventures and the artefacts he’s found to wide-eyed children.
A couple of days after following me on Instagram, Brando asked if I wanted to join him on a leg of his journey across Australia. He had a second bike and trailer and all the gear, he just needed a riding partner— an “ordinary person willing to do an extraordinary thing”. Four days later I was walking out of Alice Springs airport with a small backpack and a spring in my step. I had never seen the Australian desert before, and I was excited to traverse it on two (unmotorised) wheels.
I didn’t realise what I was walking into when I greeted the dust-stained Brando in Alice Springs. He walked up to me with arms wide and a beaming smile on his face. “Welcome!”, he announced, his dreading hair flopped over the front of his headband. As I walked over to him, I made a silent prayer to an abandoned God that he wouldn’t murder me in the outback, and took comfort in the knowledge that he was engaged to a lovely radiographer working on the east coast. We embraced.
When I first hopped on the bike, I fell off before I managed to put my feet on the pedals. The bike and its trailer was packed with 80 kilograms of water and supplies and balancing it all was difficult. If spending a year on a motorbike helped, I couldn’t tell. I was terrified. I hadn’t ridden further than 8 kilometres on a bicycle before, and here I had agreed to ride 400km on an unsealed 4WD road and potentially across the Simpson Desert as well. I found myself blinded by the arrogance of my self-belief. I wibbled and wobbled out of Alice by the highway, using my foot to stabilise myself every time a truck flew by.
The ride was hard. I rode on 350 kilometres on corrugated road, following the shade of orange that seemed to indicate harder surfaces than sand. I pushed that damned bicycle up and over another 50 kilometres of ankle-deep sand dunes at 2.5 kilometres per hour. My legs were quickly bruised and bleeding from where the pedals grated against my skin. Every impact amplified the pain and frustration. The flies congregated around pools of blood, like cows around a trough.
In a matter of days, my hair was matted and my skin a deep red, stained from sand and sweat. The saddle sores were raw and bleeding, and every time I leaned into the seat I grimaced. I had an old sarong tied around my face, and yet the flies still managed to find their way into my mouth. I imagined them flying about in my empty stomach, showering in the occasional suckle of water I was rationing. I was so dehydrated I wasn’t urinating each day. I thought a lot about the tap at home, and how freely I could turn it on and drink from it.
There was only one water source on the journey, and we had to ride off-road to a cattle station to find it. There, like a beacon in the distance, was a white water tank: a bore plunging deep underground, filling the trough beside the fence with clean water. We were overjoyed. I was so low on water, I wouldn’t have made it to the next town without it. We celebrated by stripping off and taking turns washing in the murky trough, which was full of animal bones and bugs.
We quickly discovered that the bore water was in fact, salty. This drastically killed the mood. When you’re parched and exhausted, the last thing you want to do is drink salt water. We were a day and a half away from the next town, but it had to suffice. We added another 20L of water to our load and rode away.
Brando is crossing Australia to raise awareness about mental wellness. At the beginning of my trip, I was dubious about this claim. I quizzed him on the practicality of the expedition- was it simply an attempt to make the trip appear like it had a higher purpose? We all have mental selves, and we want to keep them well. Some of us find this difficult. Some of us don’t. How do adventures or social media hashtags or branded campaigns have tangible impact? What good does awareness about mental health or HIV/AIDS or animal cruelty have? What do we do after Glucoma Awareness Month or Trafficking Prevention Month? I wanted to understand how framing an activity with a cause actually helped the cause itself, particularly in the case of mental wellness, which already has a strong foothold in public thought and policy.
We discussed this in great length on the floor of John and Susie’s house in Alice Springs, a kind couple who had set us up for a few nights while we got ourselves organised. When I went to bed that night, I thought about Brando’s engaged social media following and the influence he has in his community. Brando is a traditionally masculine man— a modern-day explorer traversing wild landscapes and hunting for survival. At the same time, he’s talking about his fragile self and his battle with mental illness, both online and off. He’s breaking down stereotypes and redefining the adventure-seeking male-dominated narrative through blogs and photos and videos. Sure, he is raising awareness about the importance of mental wellness, but more importantly, he is opening doors for conversation amongst men. I had newfound respect and admiration for him, as men have also suffered under the patriarchy and it takes courage to break through those chains.
The stars were something else in the outback. We would pitch our tent and light the fire every night under a whole splay of little shining dots. We’d dig into our Radix freeze-dried food and Brando would make a damper and we’d sit, happily. I’d crawl into the tent soon after, slipping my dusty feet and sticky body into the sleeping bag to get my 10 hours. I slept well, despite the occasional sand storm and cold gust. I was thankful for Kathmandu’s sponsorship. The pyjama thermals did their job well.
At home, I never remember my dreams. However, every night in the desert I dreamed, and I remembered the stories. In one dream, I was sitting in the pew of a church. The service was held outside, and the chairs were painted white and the isles were woven with vines. There were hundreds of people sitting there, with sections reserved for schools and big families. The Priest approached the stage to welcome the congregation, and announced he needed some time to set the stage before preaching his sermon. It took him all day, and soon the sun was setting and the people were leaving. After some time, I was the only person remaining. Finally, he trudged up on stage, wiped the sweat off his brow and, after gathering himself, pulled a leaver. Out flew hundreds and thousands of blue wrens. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, and I sat agape in wonder. Then the dream ended.
Like any person on a big and bold adventure, you get tunnel vision. Brando was in his element out in the desert, hunting for food, reading the stars. At times, I felt like a bit of debris trying to penetrate the tunnel. He enjoyed handing out stickers with his logo and website on it and spoke romantically about his plans to produce films about his great adventures. He was hoping to sell a documentary about this trip to Netflix. I had to learn to navigate a complex person in a difficult environment, while being on camera. I was intentional in my attempts to facilitate open, honest and peaceful conversation which, thankfully, allowed us to strengthen our dynamic and work as a team, amid the brand building, the filming and the various tasks required for sponsors.
Brando saw the very worst of me. He saw me cry, he heard me use my harsh, monotone “sick of this bullshit” voice, which I have only ever expressed to family. I am usually too afraid of losing the love of a friend or a lover to let those frustrations rise to the surface. But with Brando, I let it out. I didn’t have the energy to suppress it because my energy was spent on the bike. I grew angry that he couldn’t be what I wanted, what I needed. A stranger was the last person I wanted to be stuck on a desert island with. He couldn’t hold me like a lover. He didn’t understand my battles like a long-time friend.
I wanted to leave. I knew I was demanding too much.
He begged me to stay.
Brando was patient with me, offering words of encouragement and a hug when I was struggling. I was riding at a quarter of the speed than he could, and many times I asked him “What’s the point on bringing me out here? I’m dead weight!”. He was persistent. He wanted to get me to Aputula and he’d do anything to get me there. But I wanted more. I wanted a kind of emotional safety he couldn’t provide. However, I needed to live in his tunnel in order to survive this. And rightly so, this was his adventure, and he was gifting me with the opportunity to taste it firsthand.
Before the ride, I believed myself to be strong. I believed myself to be capable. I believed that whatever I had been storing behind these high walls of mine would be kept safe, no matter what challenge I was confronted with. I had been rocked to my emotional core before, but never by choice. I didn’t realise that I’d be battling my rapist’s face alongside never-ending sand dunes. I didn’t realise I’d be battling with the words from lovers I’d hurt and from friends I had neglected. I didn’t know that by mounting a bicycle, I would be challenged to reconsider the true state of my mental wellness. I was mentally stable, sure. But was I mentally well? Maybe this was part of what Brando was on about.
When two dusty humans on 3-inch wheels are cycling across the outback, people can’t help but stop, gawk and offer us whatever they may have in their back seat. Water, oranges, chips, fly spry. The generosity and friendliness of these momentary interactions are what kept my little cycling legs turning. From a man in a 2WD with no power steering on the 4WD track with fresh oranges to the 8 men and their broken trailer slinging me an ice cold VB by the fire one night. From the 37-year-old cockatoo who drank our beers and chewed our durries to the man who had kayaked from the Gold Coast to Papua New Guinea 4 times and gifted us with red frogs. I was thankful.
We spent the first couple of nights in Alice Springs with John and Susie and their little dog Molly. John had ridden from Adelaide to Darwin by bicycle on his own in the 70s. They had a burgeoning lemon tree and even bigger hearts. They were kind people, who exerted a peace and humility that I aspire to emit when I’m older. I went back to visit them at the end of my journey. John showed me their community garden and I picked the lemons off their tree and squeezed them into ice trays with Susie. I love the sense of filial adoption when you’re someplace far from home.
When I finished my ride in Mt. Dare, leaving the capable Brando to cross the Simpson Desert on his own, I grabbed a lift out to the highway. It was time to hitchhike to Alice Springs. Thankfully, the first car that drove in that direction pulled up and opened the door. I didn’t have a tent or a sleeping bag on me, so the fear of being left on the side of the road at sundown was pressing. As I was loading my backpack into the back seat, an old man, who had been eating an orange under a tree nearby walked over. “Just wanted to check she was getting in the car with good people” he said, and nodded to me. An orange-eating angel.
I flew out of Alice Springs and over the desert and listened to Bon Iver’s new track Naeem on repeat. I read To Sir With Love by E.R. Braithwaite, underlining this passage in pen:
A great city is a battlefield… You need to be a fighter to live in it, not exist mark you, live. Anybody can exist, dragging his soul around him like a worn out coat; but living is different. It can be hard, but it can also be fun; there’s so much going on all the time that’s new and exciting.
I covered such little ground in a geographical sense, but the bicycle allowed me to experience Australia and explore myself in a way that I hadn’t before. It was hard, but it was fun. For that, I am thankful to Brando. I am thankful for his patience, and for allowing me the space to kick and scream and fall off my bike. I am thankful for his knowledge, and his willingness to impart that knowledge on others. While I was completely unqualified for this adventure, I know that I am better for it. Thank you for your faith in me Brando.
Until next time,
All shots captured by Brando.