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Overlanders tale also peddles nationhood

26 August 2017 179 views No Comment

Tour de Oz
By Bret Harris
HarperCollins, 322pp, $29.99

Circumnavigating Australia by bicycle sounds like a grand folly, something that could form the basis of one of those amusing films about unlikely journeys.

But the story happens to be true. Four years before the inaugural Tour de France, four cyclists, widely known as overlanders, embarked on a race around Australia.

Bret Harris’s Tour de Oz is about their heroic attempts to “circumcycle” our vast continent. The timing is interesting. This pedal-powered adventure took place shortly before the colonies became a nation in 1901. In one sense it reflected the ambition and optimism of the era.

On Monday, June 5, 1899, a wiry, wily resourceful bushman, Arthur Richardson, was determined to become the first person to pedal around Australia.

To do so he left Perth, heading north. Richardson, who neither smoked nor drank, had spent time on the West Australian goldfields at Coolgardie, and also at Kalgoorlie, where his distinguished father, also Arthur Richardson, was a doctor.

While heavy rain and sandy terrain slowed his initial progress, Richardson pushed on, although it required great courage and enormous endurance. Along the way he suffered heatstroke and exhaustion as well as fending off crocodile attacks and spear-throwing Aboriginal warriors who were — quite appropriately — resisting European intrusion.

In a bizarre turn, at the same time another party of cyclists had the same seemingly loopy ambition. New Zealand-born brothers Frank and Alex White, and tattooed adventurer and wealthy pastoralist Donald Mackay from Wallendbeen station in NSW, were attempting the ride in a counterclockwise direction from Melbourne and Brisbane respectively.

Like Richardson this trio battled thirst, hunger and illness, as well as unclear maps and ­inadequate directions.

One of the main themes of Harris’s engaging book is tension between the two attempts. Would the threesome be able to beat Richardson in his solo quest? Well, you will have to read the book to find out, and it’s well worth doing so.

Fine black-and-white photos supplement the fascinating narrative. Two stand out: first, a studio portrait of Richardson on his bike, a steely determination in his eyes; second, the White brothers on their bicycles in Sydney, looking as if they are enjoying life in Australia.

Harris is a seasoned sports journalist. He does not pretend to be a cycling expert but in this entertaining book he follows the advice of Benjamin Disraeli: “The best way to become acquainted with a subject is to write about it.”

How true is that?

While this tale of adventure and derring-do centres on four main characters — Richardson, the White brothers and Mackay — as the book proceeds a fifth emerges: Australia itself.

Indeed, while writing about the overlanders and their remarkable rides, Harris came to realise he was also engaged in penning “a profile of an ancient, yet young country on the verge of nationhood”.

From the rapidly booming cities of the southeast to the rugged wilderness of the northwest, the author felt, and successfully communicates, a growing sense of Australianness as the four cyclist-adventurers race each other around the continent.

As Harris makes clear, the dream of overlanding is a recurring one. Think of all the grey nomads circumnavigating the nation as I write this. (They are not on bikes, of course.)

Others have ridden around Australia since but the journey achieved by Richardson, Mackay and the White brothers more than a century ago is a milestone that will never quite be matched.

Of the intrepid foursome, it is the varied exploits of Richardson that, for me, steal the show.

A few weeks after he completed his epic journey, his sponsor, the Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Company of Australia, published The Story of a Remarkable Ride, an account as told to “Pedal”, cycling writer for The West Australian newspaper.

Dunlop reproduced the three-part newspaper series as a booklet to maximise publicity. Distributed gratis, the little book was well received by the public, at home and in England.

Shortly afterwards Richardson enlisted in a West Australian Bushmen’s Contingent to fight for the British Empire against the Boers in South Africa.

As it happens, he was wounded there while riding a bicycle, and in May 1901 was repatriated “home” to England and then to Australia in December 1901.

All in all, Harris’s book is, please forgive the play on words, a tour de force.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University. Professor Fitzgerald’s blog is available at www.rossfitzgerald.com/​

The Weekend Australian, August 26-27, 2017, review, Books pp 22-23.

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