Guest writer Henley Phillips shares the story of supporting his wife and ultra-runner Katie Visco on her epic 2019 run across Australia. Read on to learn what it's like to run and bike across a desert continent - and the unforeseen challenges they faced. Be sure to follow Henley and Katie for a deeper scoop on this adventure.
When you make plans to travel to Australia, people come out of the woodwork to warn and caution against all manner of threat and danger. It’s a continent and land far away, upside down, known for its extremes, and thus, a place that induces fear. Emails and phone calls pour in from friends and family full of concern and worry, sometimes with nothing specific to warn against or practical advice to give, just a generalized sense of foreboding. Surely it must be dangerous. At first the concerned comments feel sweet and loving, like a hundred mothers pouring out their care for you, double checking that you’ve thought this through.
What about the snakes? Isn’t it too hot? What if you get lost? I heard Australia has the most deadly snakes in the world. Snakes, hostile Aboriginals, scorpions, remoteness, snakes, flat tires, flies, broken ankles, heat stroke, snakes, snakes, and have you heard about the flying snakes?
Support vehicle and total burden.
As my wife and I planned her run across the country, from Darwin to Adelaide, 2200 miles through the Outback, we thought only of food and water. Instead of the most direct route along the highway, we’d be traveling on remote dirt tracks with several hundred miles in between resupply points and no option to top up if we ran out. I’d be the support crew for Katie as she ran - just me, on a bicycle and trailer. One human-powered effort support by another human-powered effort. 100%. Of all the things we were warned against, water and food were our real worries.
No one warned us of the wind.
A typical scene in the Northern Territory - charred vegetation and termite mounds.
On the second day we make it to Darwin River, Northern Territory, for our afternoon break. It’s bloody hot, and we want something cold to drink. The town is no more than a roadhouse and small general store that also serves as the post office, gas station and mechanic shop - a configuration we’d see in all of the Outback communities later on. It’s a Sunday, so by mid-afternoon the pub at the roadhouse is filling up with with motorcycles and the weekend crowd from Darwin. We duck into the shade of the general store’s awning, buy two soda waters, and Katie hangs her sweaty clothes and socks all over my bike. We are a sight to behold. A dusty green Subaru pulls up, and a man dressed in khaki and sweat-stained Akubra steps out. He’s here to check the mailbox and talk to whoever’s around. Today it’s us, and his name is Bart.
“Have you lived here all your life?” we ask.
“Not yet,” he says, and as he turns to laugh, I notice he’s missing half an ear.
A smile that will quickly fade as the corrugations pile up and make for rough going.
Bart knows the Outback well and is worried that the trailer wheels are too small and won’t handle the sand and corrugations. Our conversation veers to tales of bad luck in the remote deserts of Australia - people dying from silly mistakes or barely making it out. He double checks that we can carry enough water. We can - 100 liters. Then he glances down to see feet clad in my trusty Bedrocks, and almost shouts, “You’re going to cross the Outback in bloody thongs?!” I can’t help but laugh at the strange Aussie adjective+noun combo that conjures up a sore backside, but Bart shakes his head in worry.
Heat. And no place to hide.
By day 42 Katie has run 757 miles, and we’re smack in the middle of the Tanami Desert. This is a 17 day stretch without resupply in a landscape unforgiving of an error such as miscalculating food and water. At times, our view stretches for endless miles in every direction with nothing - not a shrub or blade of grass - to keep us from looking out into infinity. We dip in and out of ancient floodways that haven’t seen a drop of water in seven years. It’s dry, rough country. The road has deteriorated into a maddening state, corrugated the full width of the road, intermittently sandy, miserable to pedal, and in my journal for the day I simply write “Today sucks.” Every Australian we spoke to, once they learned we were taking the back roads of the country, warned us of the corrugations. They’d be too deep, too rough, impossible, too much for a pushbike and trailer. Maybe we should consider the highway instead?
Morning coffee at first light after two hours of pedaling in darkness.
Once we make it to Alice Springs, the halfway point of Katie’s run, we decide to take peoples’ cautious advice and worried suggestions lightly. We had just made it through one of the most remote tracks of the route, had troubleshooted the hard bits, and realized that this trip, our style of travel, induced worry and fear. We also decide to stop asking questions that could lead to subjective answers, like “How’s the road ahead?” “Good” and “bad” are surprisingly fluid terms.
Fogarty’s clay pan, corrugations and a headwind - all the good stuff at once.
Day 89. We’re passing through the Pedirka and Tirari Deserts in South Australia, up and down the Hamilton Sandhills, through claypans, and into headwinds that don’t let up. The wind is hot and strong, and it hasn’t stopped for weeks. There are days when pedaling is slower and more tiresome than pushing the bike. Katie runs bent against the wind to make herself small, less body to catch wind, but it’s useless.
An evening scene drying clothes on the branches, waiting for sweet sleep.
We’re exhausted from the pure physical force of a constant wind that no one warned us of. We often wake in the middle of the night to a gust that collapses the tent, pressing its fabric against our faces. The hollow sound of wind whipping through the tent, over our sun hats, and through the spare bits of saltbush is producing dread that manifests in a physical discomfort. Day after day we wake to demoralizing wind, our stomachs wrench and churn as if we were ill. There is no respite, and nothing we can do about it. On some lucky occasions we find a wind break behind ruins of the Old Ghan Railway, but these are rare gems. The Outback is scorched and whipped clean by the longest drought in years. The wind snatches up and discards the desiccated flora. All of the other hardships fall out of focus - the sand, corrugations, Katie’s painful feet and groin, 100+F heat. We learned to manage these and even found solutions for them, but the wind has us beat down to a new low, rendered helpless. Not too far from the end of our journey, I sob at the sound of the wind in the morning darkness.
Shelter from the wind and sun in a wash outside the Flinders Ranges.
At times throughout our journey across Australia, over the course of 119 days, it felt as though other people were shedding fears and worries from themselves onto us - past experiences with wildlife, mechanical mishaps, heat, loneliness in the desert. But our worries were different, our reality in stark contrast to the air conditioned and weather-proofed travel of most people we met along the way. We figured out food and water, suburban Adelaide, and our nemesis the wind, but because we hadn’t inherited those fears from others along the way, we dealt with it all in calm, always making the next best decision to keep us going. We learned to be cautious of other peoples’ caution. For some strange reason when fear is passed down to you with good intention, it can quickly become fact, something rational and undeniably true.
Sugar’s bad for you until you’re burning in the Outback sun.
We finished on a Friday on a bustling coast in Adelaide fittingly called Henley Beach. It was surprisingly cold, remnants of a polar surge from Antarctica, and the wind was blowing like hell, making everyone who came to see us finish uncomfortable. The end came and went in a flash, almost catching us off guard, the struggle being supplanted quickly and unceremoniously with dinner plans and people gawking at us. Before it was truly all over, I had an urge to get in the water, to bookend the dip we took in the Timor Sea when we started in Darwin all those days before. There was a decent surf, and I could make out a few folks in wetsuits bobbing in the cold blue water, surfboards beneath them. I said the hell with it, and just as I was about to get in, someone stopped me to say, “Be careful. You know there’s sharks in the water?”
There was never water to spare. On occasion, cattle station water tanks saved us from searing heat.
Remnants of the Old Ghan Railway offering a sliver of shade.
The end of our journey, Henley Beach.
All photos and words © Henley Phillips.