• Tour de Oz tells the story of the first overlanders to 'circumcycle' Australia. (HarperCollins Australia)Source: HarperCollins Australia
As told by author Bret Harris in his book Tour de Oz, Anthony Tan reviews the remarkable tale of the first overlanders to circumnavigate pre-Federation Australia.
Cycling Central
10 Nov 2017 - 11:56 AM 

"I had made up my mind to lead the way in riding round Australia on the wheel."

The date: June 5. The year: 1899.

A lone cyclist attempting to become the first person to circumnavigate our island continent by bicycle - and in so doing, claim the world record for the longest continuous ride. "I always had a yearning to see the country, which, to the vast majority, even in Australia, is still a closed book," Arthur Richardson said of his motivation for going where no cyclist had gone before.

Provided with a Beeston Humber path-racer with just the one gear and no auxiliary brakes, Richardson, three years earlier the first man to cross the Nullarbor (it took him 31 days to do so), set off from Perth lured by adventure. And, if he completed the feat, a reported £500 prize; the equivalent of $72,000 in today's money.

With just a 11.4 kilogram load, he decided to travel light. No doubt, he'd be sleeping rough many nights, yet despite this, the time of year, and the far-flung territories he would need to traverse, Arthur did not even take a blanket. The plan was to sustain himself at cattle and sheep stations along the way.

Travelling in a clockwise direction, he estimated that the whole trip - 18,507 kilometres, to be precise - would take him no more than five or six months. It was indicative of 'just how much he underestimated the enormousness of the task,' wrote Tour de Oz author Bret Harris. 'There were even fears that Arthur would simply disappear somewhere in the great emptiness between Perth and Port Darwin and never be heard of again.'

Thirst, hunger, exhaustion, crocodile attacks and spears from Aboriginal warriors were all part of the journey. Little wonder they packed their rifles!

'There was no track or trail that stretched along the entirety of the Australian coast. Arthur, like the other overlanders, would be following dirt tracks, railway lines and cattle and camel pads formed by the passage of stock and wild animals, and in the trackless wilderness of the outback he would be guided by a compass or stars in the night sky.'

Richardson, 84 kilometres from his starting point, spent his first night camped at a farm in Bindoon, soaking wet. It would get worse - much worse. "Night after night I was compelled to camp out in the drenching rain and at times without shelter."

Had he left a month later he "would have undoubtedly have fared much better". Yet there was a reason for the urgency: setting off from Melbourne, a party of three, led by Frank White, holder of the Perth to Rockhampton and return record, was attempting the same feat, only in reverse...

White, too, wanted to be the first to ride around Australia, believing the journey would take just over six months. Unlike Richardson, he did not want to do it alone.

As it so happened, a wealthy pastoralist, adventurer, and cycling enthusiast by the name of Donald Mackay telegrammed him, asking if he could tag along. However due to business commitments Mackay said he could not start on the planned date of July 3 - which led to Frank roping in his younger brother Alex. Mackay would meet up with them in Brisbane, where it was his intention to set the world amateur long-distance record.

Already leaving a month after Richardson, the White brothers' start was delayed another four days as Alex was getting the steamer from Perth. Nevertheless, as they made their journey northwards, and particularly after teeing up with Mackay, the Launceston Examiner predicted the trio 'would almost certainly catch up to him (Richardson) because they had the advantage of riding as a team'.

With a chapter focused on a leg of the trio's journey, then a stint of Richardson's, Harris neatly alternates between the two competing parties, doing well to hold the reader in suspense for the most part.

It was not much much the rivalry that got me hooked, but the trials and tribulations encountered and their unrelenting perseverance in the face of a multitude of adversities. Thirst, hunger, exhaustion, crocodile attacks and spears from Aboriginal warriors were all part of the journey. Little wonder they packed their rifles!

It makes the modern-day overlanders appear almost soft. Though unlike today, one perilous roadblock missing was the proliferation of the motor vehicle; the first petrol-powered car was imported into Australia only two years before their attempted 'circumcycle'.

Without a daily diary from any of the four men, Harris has done exceptionally well to piece together both journeys into an intriguing narrative, and provide a window into the world of the original overlander, as well as life in pre-Federation Australia. Still, lacking the innermost thoughts often expressed in a deeply personal account, at times I found some of the evocativeness of such a momentous undertaking wanting.

Once read, it may well make you think twice before coming up with an excuse not to get on your bike.

Tour de Oz is on sale and published by HarperCollins Australia. List price: A$27.99.