The first thing anyone said to me in Mackay was ‘which bag is your’s, ma’am?’, It came from the guy in thongs, boardies, and a hat who’d been sitting in the aisle opposite me on the plane, and pretty much set the tone for my weekend at the Mackay Mountain Marathon.
While I waited for my teammate at the airport, three people asked me if I needed help. A guy called Wes left his job to take Mike and I to the bike shop, whose owner and race organiser, Evan Corry and his wife Louise, put us up in their home, gave us a car to borrow, bought us dinner, showed us how to tie truckers knots, and sent us up the range to Eungella (Young-galah) with some pretty fool-proof directions (and yes, we did manage to go the wrong way).
Having just raced overseas and been on such a high, had the colour and the competition, the hoardings, the applause – been a part of it, been up the front of it – I knew that, coming home, I’d see the differences. I’d flown for an hour and a half, now we drove for another hour: through cane, up the range, into rainforested hinterland. Eungella has a general store, a pub, some mountainside cabins, wildlife, and big, big, views. And lots and lots of nothing else.
And it’s also been a while since I’ve really been in a race in Australia – done more than my own thing – showing up on the start line having driven there myself from miles away, leaving as soon as it was over. Our first night up at Eungella, the community group put on a dinner. A real Australian bush dinner – fire, a barbeque cooked on a converted ute tray, salad where beetroot is the essential ingredient, consternation when I refused to eat meat (no, not even chicken), moths in the floodlights and cinders in the firelight, fresh-mown grass and friendly voices speaking my language.
On race day it was the same: the race started nice, people made room for each other, it was steady up the first climb. I’d made a bet with Evan that I would ride the big creek crossing but it was worth stuffing it up to have 10 or so spectators and racers in stitches. It was hard to get going again for all the hilarity. I’d grown unused to laughing in races.
But then I was alone. For about 3 of my 3.5 hours out there I saw nobody but volunteers who seemed to have leached out of the bush itself like the ghosts of trees – rusted, relaxed, hard, tough, kind people who don’t move their eyes or their hands when they speak, unless there are flies. The rest was cicadas, the heavy lemon scent of eucalypts, soft dirt, puddles, cattle, and a vast, stretching silence.
Racing like this, after so much time away, was strange. Being alone like that, so alone, it was hard to feel the adrenalin, the pressure to go faster. Working my way over cattle grids, past beaten up utes, dams, creeks, lantana, sand – I was also at home, and it was hard to race because of that, too. A part of me wanted to jump off the bike, wade through the long grass, crush a leaf in my fist, smell it, and stare. My rear axle broke, my disc made a lot of noise. I passed an immense carpet python, climbed a big hill, saw smiling faces in the bush – people who knew my name – and it was over. Presentations were at the pub, the winner’s trophy was made by a local man from local cedar. He told us where to find platypuses.
The next day Mike and I rode down to a creek and watched them surface and dive, wiggling down into deep green bush pools while kookaburras laughed.
When I got home from Transalp a week ago I’d been almost distraught. I’d lost something that came with the racing, with the relentless adventure. The adrenalin-provoking sense of being a stranger, a racer, a traveller. The constant victory of living like that.
I’d also come back to the news that my home had sold, and that I needed to find somewhere else to live ‘immediately’. And where should I go? Do I want to live in Brisbane forever? With my family in Sydney? What if I want to travel more? How much longer will this stupid PhD take? One thing I do know is that I am sick of being on my own – almost as sick as I am of people suggesting I get a cat.
So I’m glad I went to Mackay, because although I had spent the week before going to work, getting back into a routine, riding with my mates, I still hadn’t remembered what it is to be home. To be Australian. To be, even if you’re a city-dweller, a part of the rich nothingness: tame on the edges like the sea, wild and deep in the centre. Crowned with a sky cracked open like a raw yellow egg. It’s good to be home.
More event photos like the one of Imogen crossing the creek can be found on Ossyphoto.com