A Bike-Ski Traverse through the Australian Outback
Written by Kitalé Wilson // Photography by Henry Smith & Kitalé Wilson
Rays dance through salty mist, illuminating the task before me. Sleepy fingers fumble with latches and buttons as a crimson hue sweeps away the cool of night. I load a roll of film into my weather-beaten Canon AE-1 and wind forward to the first frame. I blink through the viewfinder; hexagonal sun flares reveal dust and blemishes. Amidst the haze, a jagged monolith rises from the churning Pacific. A coastline stretches south over the horizon. A deep breath, a light squeeze, and the shutter fires with an audible clunk, preserving the moment.
The dream begins here. On a map it may seem as simple as a graphite scribble, but as I lower the camera I can sense the magnetic pull of an imminent adventure.
Further up the beach I spot cinematographer Henry Smith crouched over his camera. He lends me a humorous grin as I approach. I hardly look like the expeditionary type; I’m wearing a pair of tattered Reeboks, canary shorts, and a climbing helmet. Together we’ve been sketching up this adventure for the past year, patiently waiting for the right conditions and a break in lockdowns. With skis and backpack fastened along its frame, my vessel for this adventure is a vintage yellow bicycle – a remnant of the ‘90s cycling fad. It’s nothing high tech, but I kind of like that.
The plan is to cycle from the southern New South Wales coast inland over the Great Dividing Range and across the sunburnt Monaro to the Snowy Mountains. Here we will exchange rubber for skis and summit Australia’s 10 highest peaks.
My hands clasp the polished handlebars and I push down on the pedals with my off-white Reeboks. The contraption takes flight. Suddenly I am reminded that all grand voyages in life begin with the most minute of actions – a dream, a map, a push.
The next couple of days amalgamate into a blur of quaint fishing towns, open bays, and scenic bivvies. The bike-ski contraption and I weave our way down the coast and inland, savouring every well-earnt kilometre. Things that would normally pass by unnoticed suddenly become fascinating. As I pedal along I feel the dry katabatic wind rolling off the range, gaze up at the eucalypt canopies above me, and hear the roar of cicadas at dusk. I stop to appreciate these moments, lay my bike on its side, and advance the roll of film to the next frame.
Trending inland, I encounter the verdant country that clings to the Bega River. Herds of grazing cattle pass by as I climb higher into the rolling foothills. Local fruit stands signal a respite and an opportunity to stock up and rehydrate. The bloom of wild flowers and swoop of magpies signal that spring has come, and that the snowpack on the main range will be melting fast. The gradient steepens. Soon I am navigating the switchbacks of the Great Dividing Range, and knuckles grip white from the exertion as I gaze through the thicket and see the lush valley floor below. Every so often I turn a corner and spot Henry filming next to his car. I give a spurt of energy as I speed past him, then return to my steady rhythmic pace until the next encounter. With minimal gears, I step my full weight into every pedal as I climb, yet find myself pushing the bike frequently.
The hills grow. Soon their crests run for several kilometres, and gradually the scenery changes from lush rainforest to arid countryside. The reality of the distance and elevation ahead hits me. Sweat drips from my brow. Thin tyres weave through yellow lines, and my world slowly condenses to the space between the handlebars.
I reach a small outback town, receiving strange looks as I pedal in with my skis mounted, and decide to sleep there for the night. Waking up the next morning, I can feel the toll of the previous few days. My legs ache and creak as I set off. Crossing a retired railway, the road dissolves to gravel and I become acquainted with the Monaro rather quickly.
The name Monaro translates to ‘high plain or plateau’. It is an enormous swath of land that acts as the gateway to the alpine regions of Australia. Its distinctive lack of trees, amber grasses,and surreal absence of life all combine to create a feeling of isolation. Abandoned homesteads dot the rolling hills. Sheep graze on the new season’s pastures. It holds an eerie presence – one of suspense, almost as if the landscape is holding its breath.
I’d hoped to make good distance in this part of the journey, though as the morning progresses a headwind builds. By noon I am pedalling headfirst into a frigid gale. The Monaro offers both freezing wind and scorching sun simultaneously – a real pincer movement – something I have yet to encounter anywhere else.
Flat tyres signal a time to regroup and ready myself for another battle. My eyes squint in the harsh light and hands begin to blister under the repetitive motion. As I scan the solitude of the stark landscape my thoughts are crowded. I crouch behind my bike as the wind howls, yet internally I feel that I am cast a-sea in the doldrums.
In the beginning of a journey the dream is young and fresh; we can visualise the final destination and this serves as a potent stimulant. As the days flow on, the dream begins to deform and wither under the load. The question ‘why am I here?’ surfaces.
There’s an old saying that we all begin an adventure with two wolf pups: fear and loneliness. In the beginning, these feelings are small and harmless, playing around in our mind. But they grow if we feed them, and are soon big enough to devour us. The only antidote is resilience. The unique characteristic of being able to see through the false thoughts. To wipe clear the lens with which we see the world, and sense that, just as the road flows beneath me, this too shall pass.
The sun’s arc casts shadows on the road as wheel spokes slice through the fading light. My vision narrows to the rising ground before me. The wind blows me off course; I correct my alignment. Curiosity has gone. I stare blankly at the pebbles passing beneath me and force my legs to keep pushing. My camera clings tightly to me in the evening wind and skis chatter as I swerve to evade potholes. Suddenly I feel a shift in axis – flat ground. My contraption crawls over the crest, I breathe a sigh of relief, and slowly bring my head up.
A mountain range fills my vision. The peaks on its skyline shimmer with blankets of fresh snow. My axis shifts once again, and gravity propels me further west, towards my objective: the Snowy Mountains.
Eyes open, and a plume of fog fills the space. A chandelier of ice crystals shimmers above my head as I slowly sit up in the tent. Precariously exiting the cramped space, I am careful not to bump the walls and send a volley of ice onto Henry. A soft alpine glow greets me as I step out from the vestibule. My boots crunch on the hardened pack. This is our third day on the range, and we are camping on the narrow ridge of Mueller Peak. To the north I observe the terrain we have covered, including six of Australia’s highest peaks. As I turn south my eyes scan the route we will forge over the next couple of days.
Instinctively reaching for my torso, I grasp the camera with my mits. The shot counter reveals that we are almost at the end of the roll – and also nearing the end of the adventure. I gaze through the viewfinder, as I have done so many times before, and my vision comes to rest on a prominent peak. Mount Kosciuszko’s northern face is neither menacing nor technical, but it stands with a regal air, dominating the encompassing region. As the highest peak in Australia, its summit marks the finale of the adventure.
The morning sun thaws us out while we break camp and load our packs. We step into our skis and drop down the ridgeline into the valley below, then, after loosening our boots and making a quick transition, we begin to ascend the mellow slopes to Seaman’s Hut. With its red roof and granite block walls, the hut is sweetly old-fashioned and seems out of place in the shadow of Etheridge.
Henry and I snack on salami and cheese while we reshuffle gear for an afternoon of peak bagging. We depart the sanctuary of the hut and choose a direct line to gain the ridgeline above. As we kick-turn our way up the slope, the afternoon sun turns the pack into a sticky mush and we begin to shed our layers.
Before long we summit Etheridge Ridge as a wall of clouds marches in. We both add rocks to the summit cairn, rehydrate, and continue south, well aware of the fading light. As the temperature drops, a thin veneer of ice forms on the snow. Clouds continue to conceal the peak above us. Our skis crunch through the hardening pack and slowly we gain elevation.
The summit of Mount Kosciuszko is anticlimactic – there are no wafer-thin ridges or technical cornices to navigate. Instead, it rolls into a patch of rocks. A small monument marks the highest point in the country, and clouds slowly vacate as we approach. In their wake the sunset clothes us in brilliant colours. We drop our packs and kick off our skis, and once again I reach for my trusted companion. My thumb advances the last shot on the roll, marked by a red ‘36’, and we take in the panorama. The kiss of spring is evident in the green valleys slowly pushing back the snowline.
The silence reaches its crescendo and the dream has come to fruition. Yet, in my mind, I cannot help but wonder where I would be had I not stepped out into this adventure. In order to truly experience this world, we must expose ourselves to the obscure moments that surround us – much like a roll of film. An equal capture of both harsh and beautiful moments can garner a truer and more comprehensive view of life – the coasts, the deserts, the mountains. As important as it is to dream, what is paramount is to expose ourselves to those dreams.
I gently rest the camera on a rock and set the timer. As it beeps, I race back to the summit where Henry is waiting with his own camera in hand. We both lean against the monument and cheer. Gazing over the camera, the journey we have just completed begins to resonate. The shutter fires with an audible clunk, preserving the moment.
Henry Smith: @hsmithcreative // www.henrysmith.com.au
Kitalé Wilson: @kitalewilson // www.kitalewilson.com