The final miles to Sydney were uneventful, an anticlimax after the glorious rides of the days before. But the city was a worthy adventure on its own and, after dropping off the bike and riding the train back, I dove in with gleeful abandon.
I can confidently say that Sydney is the most beautiful modern city I've ever seen. The following day saw me testing out one of the many bike shares that littered the city with broken-down and inconveniently placed cycles. Puffing from the exertion and the after effects of a long-since-broken fitness routine, I took the little city bike for a long loop along the water.
The emerald green bay was filled with small boats that clustered in front of an elegant skyline. The parks were sparsely populated with people, mostly older, who walked together in pairs and shielded themselves from the sun.
Riding up the kinds of hills that I hadn't expected to find outside of San Francisco, I passed row after row of pristine tree-lined streets flanked by expensive looking micro-mansions. Atop one hill, a school building stood sentry over the bay.
Continuing eastward, I rounded a peninsula filled with gawking tourists and passed the Macquarie Lighthouse which overlooks the Dunbar Head and the Tasman Sea.
Descending back down to the shore, I rolled onto the world-famous Bondi Beach. It was packed with sunbathers, swimmers and a few surfers who clearly didn't mind the calmness of the afternoon. Posting up in a pizza place overlooking the scene, I couldn't help but draw comparisons with the beaches of Pacifica and the bay-surrounded skyline of San Francisco. Topographically, the similarities were undeniable but Sydney had the distinct advantage of great weather and warm water.
The food was consistently more expensive in Australia than anywhere else I've been but they don't rely on tips and, overall, the country is just more socialist than you might expect. Healthcare is universal and other social safety nets function infinitely better than anything else we have in the US. To be honest, one of the first reactions I frequently got from others after my country of origin came up was a pitying look and the question "is healthcare really that expensive in the US?" It was doubly sad that I always had to revise their cost estimates significantly higher.
Heading back into town, I met up with the friend of a friend in an area known as "Wooloomooloo" (say that 10x fast) and got a fuller picture of the cultural landscape of the city.
I'd noticed during the day that, unlike other areas in the country, no one I passed and greeted really smiled back or responded. She confirmed my suspicion and the rumor that the enormously high cost of living in the city had created a one-dimensional culture of wealthy professional types and only a weak sense of community. For a city that was as breathtakingly beautiful as Sydney, it was hard to acknowledge how unsuitable it would probably be for any long-term habitation on my part.
The next morning we took the train to the bike rental shop and picked up my ride for the second leg of the journey and took it for a test run. It was my first time actually riding a Harley Davidson and I quickly decided that I hated it. Dubbed the "Noisy Toy", the bike was clunky, handled like a lead desk chair and was so loud even ear plugs didn't dull the pain of sitting astride for long periods of time. I've never liked Harleys much but this just confirmed all my suspicions about how poor they were as functional machines.
We took the bike for a scenic ride up to Wiseman's Ferry and had a really nice time out in the country air. Eventually, after several hours playing among the farms and winding along the river, we ran out of pavement and found ourselves picking our way along a sketchy gravel road. Discretion on a rental bike can be a virtue so we turned around and headed back to the city for the evening.
The next morning I set out early and took on the Putty Road, another best-of-Australia ride that wound through the mountains of several national parks to the west of Sydney and north to Singleton. Its popularity among motorcyclists made the cafe at the halfway point a must-stop place to hang out and chat with other riders.
As in Victoria, the riding wound through rolling hills crowned by farms and ranches... the best possible sort of day to spend astride two wheels. The underpowered 500cc engine struggled a bit with some of the inclines but we made it through another absolutely fantastic day of riding to a campsite next to a river tucked into the mountains.
The next morning's ride was everything you could want to wake up to. The mists hung low in the valleys and muffled the sounds of the birds and the bike in an almost surreal fashion. Dipping into the valleys, I could see the clouds scuttling up the hillsides to dissipate among the peaks in real time. The experience was one of deep connection with the land as we both shook ourselves awake together.
Hills, farms, clouds and contentment. The rides through the mountains north of Sydney had all the hallmarks of greatness and I soaked up every minute of it on the Noisy Toy before finally wending my way back to the coast for a date with Byron Bay.
You also have to be careful in Australia of the speed cameras -- whereas in the US it's common for people to go 10-20mph over the speed limit, I quickly discovered that a raft of automated speed cameras had bullied the locals to stay just under the posted limit at all times.
A long ride atop a less-than-comfortable saddle made me more than ready to soak up a bit of relaxation in Byron Bay. After arriving, I somehow thought I'd discovered a gem -- it was quaint, beautiful and vibrant in the way that only an expensive resort town could be. But the surfers and hippies who wandered the shores tricked me into thinking it was some sort of hidden phenomenon.
Several friends were more than happy to inform me that I had stumbled onto the most expensive real estate in the country. I guess I know how to pick em.
Before leaving for the final leg up to Brisbane, I stopped off at the famous lighthouse to grab a bite and soak in the view.
A long stint up the highway took me to Brisbane, the third-most populous city in Australia and the capital of the state of Queensland. Finally ready to step off a bike, I took the opportunity to stretch my legs and have a wander through the city.
The city nestles against the Brisbane River, which winds around the downtown CBD and is crossed by several large bridges. I stayed on the far side of the river atop a row of cliffs so got a great view of the city while heading towards the main pedestrian bridge. More than any other city I'd been to so far, people were outdoors running, walking, cycling and generally engaging themselves in fitness activities.
The downtown isn't large but it's well ordered. Outside City Hall, the plaza was filled with tents for an event and cris-crossed by the path of students and businesspeople strolling between activities.
There's no question that the overall vibe was more low-key and outdoorsy than the other cities I'd visited. The people skewed heavily towards college-age and physically fit. Though not as expansive as Melbourne or diversely endowed as Sydney, the city had plenty of the hip bars, cultural event halls and trendy restaurants that seem to mark a vibrant modern metropolis.
Breaking from the mould of a free-form travel vacation, my last days in Australia were spent reversing course and heading back down to the Gold Coast for a conference with ~40 other location-independent entrepreneurs. This same community had saved my bacon in Chiang Mai and it was great to have a long weekend of surfing, relaxing, and masterminding to grow together. Some of the friendships I drew from that experience have carried forward meaningfully since.
It didn't hurt that we were able to book two large mansions next to each other that overlooked the canals.
I came to Australia filled with the romance of it and left having fulfilled the large part of my dreams through miles of epic vistas and rolling country roads. It's true that neither Melbourne nor Sydney truly captured my heart like I hoped they might but each represented a great exploration and I left enriched by meaningful relationships that unexpectedly now span the continent.
I was surprised by a number of things along the way. For example, the image I (for some reason) had in my head of the freedom-loving independent rule-breaker Australian has been replaced by a much more chilled out and socialistic sort of character. And the raw splendor of the American West, which I'd projected onto the Australian wilds, resolved to a gentler sort of scenery which never quite hit the same hard-edged extremes but nonetheless filled my soul to the brim.
Regardless of the details, the back country and high country of Victoria, New South Whales and Queensland all had a certain wildness that you just don't get anymore in a place as crowded as the US. The roads were well maintained and sparsely populated. The campsites were clean and easily accessible. Basically, the countryside lies as an open canvas for you to paint whatever dream of freedom you harbor, and that's a vision I'll be back to relive.