Feb 23 - noon
I did not expect the heat to wake us at noon. When it did, it was harsh, immediate and stifling. However, I felt surprisingly good. A shower would have gone a long way to making me feel human. Yet, sweating on the bike, a camp meal of cheese and rice, and two ice cream bars were enough to get us through the sheep and wheat fields (they look silver at night) to the well-manicured country town of Cleve. It was roughly eight at night, and we had 40 km before Cowell, our destination for the night. Each of us was hankering for a beer and, hell, a pub meal was sounding pretty good at this point as well. We scanned the streets eagerly for the town pub. No joy. Cleve is so big that the pub is not on the main street - gasp! - but on a side street. Some local kids were wandering around - that’s what you do in a small country town as a kid - and we asked them. Two turns later we could see our liquid salvation. But yet, mere meters from our destination we were accosted by a group of 15 children between the ages of 11 and 15. I admit that as they fanned across the road between us and the pub, I briefly imagined the headline of the local rag: "Cyclists detained after confrontation with local school children on way to pub." Then one of them yelled out, "Roadblock!" followed by 14 other echoes of the same thing.
"Where did you come from?" "Esperance."
"Where is Esperance?" "What are they teaching you in school?" I thought.
"Do you play footy?" Nine out of every 10 males have played, or still play, footy. This always seemed like a silly question, but kids see our bike shoes and run with it. I had to answer, "no."
This was perhaps a tenth of the questions that bombarded us. In the background, four-letter words and other less obvious dirty words were whispered and sniggered at to no one in particular as the leaders continued with our interrogation.
"Do you have a girlfriend?" "No," said I. "Yes," said Anthony.
"Can we ride you bike?"
"Are you gay?"
"No" and "no."
"He’s gay," the leader – Tim - pointed to one boy in the pack. The boy shrugged; "I am," he said cheerfully (this was either a progressive town or he could take a hell of a joke for a kid in the middle of puberty).
They proceeded to ask Anthony questions relating to the physical qualities of his girlfriend, which he deftly parried, and all of the sudden they parted. We had passed this test, and at least for a short time, were accepted as part of their troop, and received an honor guard to the pub, at which more children were running in and out of.
We leaned our bikes against the wall, threw on some jeans, and a rather inebriated man wearing his cricket whites from a match earlier that day flung open the pub door.
"Where you lads from? Across the Nullarbor? Jesus let me buy you a beer."
This was an offer we could not refuse. Inside they had stopped serving food, but we made do with leftover pizza and some meager, but warm, toasted ham sandwiches. Inside were some more good folks who had clearly been holding down the fort for quite a while. A man named "Snook" introduced himself. He and his mate were impressed with our efforts; however, Snook’s friends did make scissor-hands to pretend to cut my hair.
"We don’t like that kind of hair around here."
"But", Snook replied, "he’s got a fair bit of chops" (you’ve seen the pictures; damn right I do).
The conversation with Snook and his mate was one in which I would need to drink a few beers to really get into. A young man who had spent the past eight months on farm exchange in the States introduced himself, and we finished our beer with him. He was coming down hard after his eight months away, and I think he was pretty happy to talk to some fellow travelers. Alas we left him, still 40 km to go, and the Cleve kids had a few more rounds of questions.
"What happens when it rains?" "We get wet," and it was looking like it was getting ready to rain, too. They also gave us some advice, "Watch out for the boogie man!" and some good advice, "Take care on the road to Lucky Bay; it’s about half dirt."
"Those red flashing lights on the way down to Cowell, those are wind farm lights."
I was about to be impressed at the with-it-ness of these kids, when one of the kid’s older sisters walked across the street and yelled out to one of the little darlings, "Mom wants you home."
"Suck me off!" he replied.
With that ringing in our ears and a grin I could not stifle, we rode into the night.