After a couple of two-wheeled calamities during my trip so far, both of which involved removing considerable amounts of skin from my right elbow, when I saw a sign offering free cycle hire in Adelaide, I did hesitate.
But on the Overland train from Melbourne, I read an article about the wine valleys and vineyards that surround the city I was now in, mainly set high in the Adelaide hills.
It’s a whos who of wine around here. Venture up into the Barossa valley and you come across so many of the great names – Jacobs Creek, Wolf Blass, Penfolds to name but a few – all with their grapes proudly growing on the south-facing hillsides.
But nestled in among all these familiar names was a place I knew I just had to get to. Norton Summit. Yes, the top of a mountain, a whole village, named after a Norton. A Robert Norton to be precise, who clearly went travelling a few years before me and staked a claim on the dramatic viewpoint he’d clambered up.
The only problem is precisely why its named after him – it’s at the top of a mountain, hard to get to, and there’s no public transport. Its 15km out of Adelaide to the east. It gave me something to think about as the Overland train made its way ever closer to the state of South Australia.
I was impressed that I was managing to see straight, let alone read anything on the train if I’m honest. Having left Ballarat later than planned, I arrived into Melbourne and checked into the Nomad Backpackers hostel in Spencer Street, almost across the road from the main Southern Cross station. There was a reason for that – I have to be up early in the morning for the train, and I knew I’d be out for a few drinks in the evening.
After living in a house for the last few months, it came as a bit of a shock to be arriving at a backpackers once again. It was early February when I last spent the night in one, and I’d almost forgotten how hectic and noisy it can be. I was booked into a 16 bed dorm, and I felt distinctly out of practice at the whole thing. I’d forgotten how it feels to leave all your possessions in a room of strangers, of how frustrating it can be trying to make a bed in a top bunk without waking the dozing occupant of the bed underneath, and how tricky it can be trying to keep your clothes dry in a shower that seems to be aimed at precisely the area where your clothes are supposed to go.
I seemed a bit lost if I’m honest, still saddened by having to leave everyone in Ballarat, bemused by the chaos and laughter all around in the communal kitchen, and wondering if I was ready for another few months of living out of a bag. I was on my own again, with the whole pressure to talk to people and make new friends. I just didn’t feel like it. Just an hour away, I had a whole group of people I could quite easily stay with for longer, but I knew I had to continue my trip. Besides, I was booked onto The Ghan to Alice Springs in a few days time.
I tried to snap myself out of it and texted Bryce, the mate I met in Thailand.
“We’ve just got a jug of beer in, how long will you be,” came the welcoming reply.
I had already messaged a few people around Melbourne to let them know I’d be out for a beer as it was my last night in the area, and inviting them for drinks as a send off. I used the London Tavern in Richmond as my meeting point, and jumped onto a tram to meet Bryce.
I arrived to find him with some of his other traveller friends, was told to sit down, and immediately beer was poured from everyone’s glass into a separate one for me. Before I knew it, we were all laughing, talking about our journeys and catching up. If I was feeling down about being back on the road, this was the reminder I needed of how brilliant it can be. How often back home can you turn up at a random pub, be introduced to new people, drink their beer and become instant friends as if you’ve known each other for years? The one thing we all have in common, our travels, is the instant bond.
Soon after, Ian arrived, aka Laingy who I met during my time on a summer camp for Camp America in 2002. We’ve always stayed in touch thanks to him working in London for six years afterwards, and it has been brilliant to meet up with him over the past few weeks in Melbourne. I’ll never forget my day out at the Australian Grand Prix with him, and it was great to catch up one last time over a frothy before I left.
Finally, there was Rosie, one of my dive buddies from my Padi diving course in Koh Tao, who managed to make it to say goodbye towards the end of the night. She pulled up a seat beside me and we chatted about the last few weeks since we met, and what my travel plans were. The best thing was, even though I now had three friends from different parts of my life sat around the same table with me in a Melbourne pub, everyone got on incredibly well, as if we all went way back. I made sure I got a photograph of us all together before Rosie had to leave, and we made our way out to another bar.
A few beers and vodkas later, the music suddenly ended and we all had to leave. It was raining outside – that really fine rain that soaks you through – and we took refuge in a pizza shop. Despite the rain, a group of talented guys began playing percussion on the street furniture outside, getting a beat going that was so catchy, everyone was dancing around. Everyone apart from the misery of a pizza shop owner, who thought he was doing the world a favour by constantly asking them to stop. The fact is, they were talented at what they were doing and it was great to watch and listen to – think the musical Stomp, but using tables, chairs, a street bollard and an electricity board street cabinet.
I said farewell to Laingy, but we both know we’ll see each other relatively soon – he’s often popping back to London to visit friends, and besides, we may even end up spending time together later in my trip. Bryce and I decided to walk to the city centre – a cab would cost a fortune – and an hour later, soaking wet through, we made it to Flinders Street and said goodbye. I’ve said goodbye to Bryce a few times now, but we always seem to find each other somewhere in the world again. I fear this time it was a final goodbye though, and he disappeared into the night with a cheery wave from his taxi.
I climbed into my bed at 3.30am, and set my alarm to go off in three and a half hours time. Just over an hour later, the trams started running again, shaking the foundations of the hostel, as well as my bed, every few minutes. I knew my decision to stay close to Southern Cross would pay dividends, and I soon found myself making a blurry-eyed walk up Spencer Street and onto the station’s impressive concourse for the final time.
I was booked onto the Overland, one of Australia’s most notable train services that runs to Adelaide three times a week. It’s a ten hour, 828km run through to the state of South Australia, and as I arrived at the station half an hour ahead of departure, the train was already ready for passengers.
Once onboard, a friendly carriage steward, David, grabbed a microphone and introduced himself to everyone. For a second, I thought I was in the wrong seat, especially when a glass of orange juice was given to me. There was a running commentary of what we would see and when – had I found myself in some sort of rail tour?
As it happens, it wasn’t, its just the brilliant way they look after passengers on the train. We pulled out of Melbourne just after 8am, and I watched as the now familiar skyline disappeared beyond the horizon for the final time.
The city had been good to me, and left me with so many fond memories. I’ll never forget meeting Matt and Siobhan from home there, walking along the river with them, taking in a footy game with Jess and Liv at the MCG and keeping music fans lubricated with plenty of beer at a music festival there. Great memories, and great times, but I was back on the road, or should I say rails, again, with more memories to make.
As darkness fell, and slightly behind schedule, we pulled into the city of Adelaide at about 6.30pm, and the Backpack Oz hostel where I will stay for the next few days arrived to collect me. It felt much more relaxed there, with a bar, pool table and free wifi. I had a shower, ventured to Coles to buy some groceries, knocked up some pasta and sat down with some leaflets and maps to plot my few days in the city.
That’s where I saw Norton Summit wasn’t too far away – and made it my challenge to reach it the following day.
“It’ll be hard on those bikes, they’ve only got three gears and its basically a mountain,” were the words of the reception guy as he handed me a key to the bicycle.
He was right, it was basically a shopper bike, complete with a basket on the front, but as I set off down the road it was actually very easy to ride. I cycled for about three quarters of an hour before reaching the steeper parts of the Adelaide hills, and that’s when it got tough. With sweat pouring off me after one particularly steep climb, I stopped for a breather. I could already see I was making good progress up the mountain, and behind me the city skyline was already below me and far in the distance.
It was hard work, but I was determined to make it. I set off again, up another steep climb, working my legs hard on the pedals. And then, yet again, disaster struck.
I noticed my back wheel go all wobbly, and knowing something was wrong, I got off to have a look, only to hear a hissing sound coming from the tyre. My heart sank.
I had no number to call the hostel, I was miles away from the city, and the bike wasn’t exactly small. There was a glimmer of hope though, as I spotted a bus stop a few metres back.
There was no timetable, so I called the number on the bus stop. The next service stopped by in just under an hour. I asked if it would be ok to get a broken bike onboard.
“I’m sure if you asked the bus driver nicely, he’ll let you on,” came the hope-inspiring reply.
In the meantime, I looked on my phone – I was 11.5km away from the hostel. I hoped the bus driver would be understanding.
When he finally arrived, I asked nicely as instructed, only to be told it was against company policy. I explained how it left me with a very long walk. He shrugged his shoulders. I watched as he disappeared down the road.
There was nothing else for it. At 12.45pm, I began my walk back to the city, stopping by at a couple of garages on the way to see if they could help. As cheerful as they were, they couldn’t.
It was almost 4pm by the time I trudged back into the hostel.
“So, did you win Phil? Did you get to the top?” came the cheery welcome back from reception.
“Not exactly. Have you got a puncture repair kit?” I replied.
I sat with a cup of tea and some Tim Tam biscuits for a while, picking myself up a bit and deciding I wouldn’t be beaten. There must be some way of making it to Norton Summit.
I went back to reception, asked to borrow another bike, and set off to have a look around Adelaide. I only had an hour of daylight left, and made my way to the Adelaide Oval, where over the years I have seen so many cricket matches between England and Australia played out on the television screen back home. Its currently being part-demolished and rebuilt, being fully refurbished in time for the Ashes tests next year.
I made my way around the cricket ground, its lighting pylons both a familiar sight and a good navigational aid in the city. I cycled back along the river, through some beautiful parkland, as the sun began to get ever lower in the sky.
I made it back to the hostel without any dramas, for once, and decided that I would give it another go at making it to Norton Summit the following day. I told Adam, a Swedish guy in my dorm, about the events of the day. He laughed.
“You’re crazy man,” he laughed when I told him the following day I was going to have another go.
I didn’t think of it as being crazy, more just a determination to reach the place I had set out make it to.
There were no bikes left to hire at the hostel, which turned out to be a blessing as down the road there was a bigger cycle shop with a mountain bike hybrid I could take for free. I picked a blue one, there were plenty of gears, the tyres had tread and well pumped up. I handed over my passport as a deposit and set off down the road.
At the second set of traffic lights, there was a crunch, and I stopped moving forwards. The chain had come off. I fished it out from between the pedals and the frame, and set off again.
Yet again, the moment I tried moving away from the lights, the chain came off. Something was determined to stop me reaching my intended destination. That, or my luck with bikes and all things with two wheels has definitely run out.
I turned the bike over, got my hands covered in black oil, fixed the chain again and headed to the hostel to get cleaned up.
Adam was in the kitchen.
“What now?!” he laughed. “Did you make it?”.
I’d already been gone over an hour and a half, and I could see why he was amused to see I’d had yet more problems, but I think I’d sorted it. I found out that if you went gently on the pedals in the top gear, the chain wouldn’t catapult off. I was confident that somehow I could make it.
“Third time lucky,” I laughed as I left the hostel kitchen, amid cheers of good luck.
And it was – after an exhausting three hour climb up some of the steepest roads I have ever cycled along, in the sticky mid afternoon sun, I finally reached the summit – Norton’s Summit.
It had been an adventure, it had been trying, but I got there, and along with it there was a great sense of achievement. Beyond the welcome signs was a quaint little village with an English feel, perched at the top of the mountain amid vineyards growing grapes for the world wine market. I found a spot on a hillside, laid down my bike, took my cycle helmet off and took out my lunch.
It might have been a bit squashed, but it was the best tasting cheese and Vegemite sandwich of my trip so far, overlooking the valley and taking in the sights and sounds of the mountains.
I noticed a pub on the way in, and as I’ve not sampled the local brew around here, I decided to treat myself to a beer, a kind of mini celebration at finally beating the mountain.
Needless to say, the ride back to the city was much more fun, whizzing down through the valleys, and I arrived back to huge smiles from some of the backpackers at the hostel, including Swedish Adam, who I am sure would have been expecting another story of failure.
I relaxed for the evening with Dan and Laura, a couple of former teachers from home. They’d just arrived in Adelaide after an early morning flight, and they are both catching the Ghan train to Alice Springs. I began talking to Laura on one of my first nights, when she managed to drop some chicken schnitzels in the hostel oven. There’s already been talk of us visiting Ayers Rock together- you just never know when you’ll bump into your next travel partners!