1850 kilometres of remote desert 4WD Track, a homemade Solar Bike and a half-read copy of The Da Vinci Code. Sam Mitchell was looking for an outback challenge and he certainly found it. The Canning Stock Route, a historic suggestion of a road in the desert of Australia’s North-West, had never been crossed by a solar powered vehicle. A fact Sam intended to change.
This wasn’t Sam’s first epic journey; in 2013 he cycled around Australia on a solar cycle of his own creation. Carrying his own supplies (including welding gear) he pedalled out from his home town of Orbost in East Gippsland on a homemade recumbent tricycle. He even made the solar panels on the bike’s roof himself.
A New Challenge
It was in Western Australia, well into his solar-cycling gap year, that Sam first heard of the Canning Stock Route. His bike at the time was pretty janky and restricted to sealed roads, but the seed had been planted. Why was he so drawn to the disused stock route?
“I’d been looking at it for a while, I hadn’t done anything hard for a bit. It looked like it could be doable. And I wasn’t sure if it was doable. [It’s a] very unique challenge and a spectacular place to go.”
To be honest, Sam was pretty nonchalant about his first adventure. Some bush welding, extended waits at the post office and a rollover aside, the trip around Australia was a pretty great success.
Having begun studying Renewable Energy at UNSW, he’d need to take a semester off to take on the Canning Stock Route. In 2015, that’s exactly what he did. I guess you could say he’d enrolled in CSR101 – a course that would teach him more than any regular subject.
Sam set to work on the bike in Goongerah, on an off-grid property in the back end of nowhere. Once again, he was building the vehicle himself, using a mixture of found and purchased materials. In a way, that was part of the challenge.
“It was also partly a financial and access thing. I enjoy building it, that’s part of it. It’s very, very nice knowing exactly how everything works and how it all goes together.
On the first trip there was absolutely nothing I couldn’t fix without access to a post office, the internet and a TIG welder.
On the Canning there were more specialised parts on the bike and my chances of getting access to a Post Office were…more limited.”
There’d be no reclining on this trip: given the roughness of the track, Sam opted to sit upright, astride a Fat Bike (an ultra-wide tyred bike designed for sand and snow) and tow a trailer full of supplies.
The custom design, made with the frame of an old trampoline, included features that reveal Sam’s methodical approach, something that’s not immediately apparent as he talks so casually about the journey.
In particular, the trailer had the ability to be hitched in an offset fashion, so that the wheels would line up with the two ruts that the track was often reduced to. A feature that Sam later says was crucial to the journey’s success.
So what was Sam towing?
With 20 litres of water, 35 days worth of rations, solar panels, batteries and everything else an extended expedition could need, the trailer weighed in at 125kg. Crazy right? It all starts to make sense when you realise that he was going it alone, without so much as a support crew.
Going it alone is a theme that runs throughout the journey; Sam even went so far as to use the ride from Orbost to Halls Creek (4600km through the centre of Australia) as a test ride. “If the bike hadn’t been able to cope with that, there’s no way it would have been able to take on the Canning.”
The Canning crosses up to 900 sand dunes, and although Sam expected to have to drag the trailer up a few, he didn’t expect to be unhitching for almost every single one. As he describes those first few days a familiar tone touches his voice. The gaps between his words become longer and I can almost see his eyes lose focus. The mark of someone who’s been through something really bloody hard.
Despite the dunes being tougher than expected, preparedness was at the forefront of Sam’s mind. I asked him about how he prepared for the journey, both physically and mentally.
“Think, really think about all of the things that can go wrong, and how you’re going to deal with them before they happen. There was stuff that could have gone very wrong that I had some kind of plan for. It wasn’t always a comfortable plan, or even a very good plan, but I’d considered it. Then my problems weren’t big scary ones, they were just things to deal with.”
It was a long and difficult trip, did you go through many mindsets?
“Oh yeah absolutely, especially when there was a couple of weeks there where I was very ready for any excuse to have stopped.”
Fighting off those excuses?
“I’d pre-decided what constitutes as an excuse, cause I knew there would be parts where I wouldn’t be loving it. Just keeping on going was very, very important, [but a] pre-arranged set of conditions to pull out is as well, so you don’t push too far over your safety margins. Like doing half the trip with a broken arm or something.”
Once again I was reminded that Sam didn’t have anyone to lean on when the going got tough, and the desert landscape can’t have made it any easier.
Did you get lonely out there?
“Yes and No. Right before I started on the Canning I didn’t see anyone for a week out the back of Halls Creek, just waiting for tyres. Which is longer than I didn’t see anyone for on the Canning.”
“Sometimes I got lonely, but usually I was busy enough for it to not be that bad. Very occasionally I’d go and send an emotional support text to someone. Well not emotional support, but like pleasure, just to text somebody and say “hey how’s life, what are you up to?””
It became an indulgence?”
“It became a treat to send someone a non-critical text, I’d be waiting 5 days to do so. With Facebook and everything we can do that all of the time.”
A Well Read Expedition
When I saw Sam talk he mentioned reading a bunch of times. What was this lone adventurer reading while his solar panels soaked up some sun? Stirring recounts of other expeditions? The history of the Canning? Self Help?
“I was very weight conscious, so I left Falls Creek with a half-read, copy of the Da Vinci Code that I got from the caravan park. When I finished I couldn’t get another book quickly, so I started reading it again.”
“When I’d pass people they’d do the traditional thing, asking if I needed anything. And I’d ask to trade books. I think I swapped that for a copy of this navigation book, about how they mapped the oceans…it was really lucky [That I could get a trade].”
Despite the scarcity of books, one thing that surprisingly wasn’t lacking was water. The Canning follows the path of a series of historic wells, many still functional, that make the trip possible at all. And it rained! Apparently it’s not unheard of to get one big dump, but on Sam’s trip it stormed upwards of four times. Surely getting coated in mud was a real morale-crusher I thought, but optimism proved to be the best medicine.
“It was really gorgeous watching everything sprout, everything would be green. It would rain and then 3 days later there’d be plants everywhere. My gears hated me though…”
All up Sam spent a bit longer than a University semester travelling to and completing his expedition. Coming back to civilisation was obviously a little strange, but lasting effects?
“It made me really like the desert, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly how. And it possibly rose my standard of what’s a catastrophic event a bit more.”
The Next Adventure?
Sam was only home from his first trip for half a year before getting stuck into the Canning expedition, surely something else was in the works.
So Sam, do you have another trip planned?
“I can’t really think of anything hard enough.”
Do expeditions just start to get a little silly past this point? Though I guess people would have called your Canning trip silly and you proved them wrong.
“It doesn’t mean it’s not silly. Doesn’t mean it’s not silly at all.”