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Friday, 11 January 2019

Bicycles replace horses

At the end of the 19th century, the bicycle was a cheap alternative to the horse for many people in the bush. Bicycles needed no feeding, so bikes quickly became a popular form of transport (and sport), after a lot of development that began with primitive velocipedes, which unsurprisingly failed to catch on at first. Some of the voyages were epic:

The spirit of the Nomad is evidently very strong in Mr. Francis Birtles, a calm-eyed, wiry-looking Australian, who called at "The Daily News" office this morning to announce his future wanderings. Mr Birtles contemplates a journey into the great unknown interior of Australia on a bicycle, and in this weather he is likely to find the trip sweeter in contemplation than in realisation.

Speaking to a reporter, he said: "I have been a wanderer for ten years since I left my native State, Victoria. For the last five years I have been in South Africa, and have travelled all over that country with the mobile columns of the constabulary, from Capetown to Koomati Poort, and from the Orange River to the Limpopo. As a cyclist, I have done a deal of racing on the Transvaal roads, and have crossed the Karoo and Kalahari deserts. Now I want to ride from the Indian to the Pacific Oceans. Next Wednesday I shall mount my machine at Fremantle, and will call at the Exhibition at Hay-street East for a final send-off at 4 p.m. From Perth I shall ride to Laverton, and will then strike north-easterly to cross the border into South Australia. I want to go through country which has not yet been traversed, and if I get through all right will come out near Alice Springs, on the overland telegraph line. The ride to Adelaide will be comparatively easy, and then I shall cross to Ballarat, Melbourne and Sydney."

You are taking on a big task, Mr. Birtles, said the reporter, thinking of natives, waterless wastes, and miles of rolling sand dunes and spinifex, so bitterly cursed by well-equipped explorers.

"I know,'' replied the wandering one. ''I may have trouble with the natives, but I'll watch them. What will be the greatest difficulty will be finding water in unknown country. However, I shall carry a week's supply, and if I can't replenish it by finding water in a week, the country must be bad. I am sending my food supplies up to Laverton by train. All I am afraid of is a bad break-down in mid-desert."

Would be a bit awkward, wouldn't it? the scribe said.

Well, I'm going to ride a springframe machine of B.S.A. parts made by the Davies-Franklin Co., and, with ordinary luck, I'll get through." Why make the ride at all? "Oh," said the cyclist, "I fancy the trip. It will fill in time and will satisfy my passion for wandering. I'm only 25 years of age, and I've travelled a bit. No, I don't expect to make much money out of it, seeing that I'm paying all my expenses. I shall write all about it.

You may have seen my articles, "An Australian Trooper in Zululand," in "Life." I expect to be about two months on the journey, and, as I say, I have only myself to look after. No horses or camels to trouble about, so I ought to get through."
Daily News (Perth), 20 December 1906, 11,

In January 1907, Birtles had made it to Kalgoorlie. It has  to be understood that Birtles was an “adventurer”, alsways grifting for sponsorship or handouts, so in part, he was writing for unseen audiences. Here is part of a letter he sent back to Perth.

“I am travelling along quietly through the various inland towns; I will not be leaving Laverton before the end of this month. I want to catch the rains which generally fall in the beginning of the year. The people have treated me well on the 'run up' here. From Grass Valley, to Kalgoorlie the pipe tracks are good travelling. As for the main road it is best left alone. The roads over the ranges are very gravelly, the wheels skidding all the way. A man could make a hundred miles a day here. As for myself, I pedal along four or five hours a day on an average. There are so many people to see; that one loses a lot of time. But I do not mind: I am in no hurry. I feel in splendid going order now. I have had two water-tanks fitted to my 'bike.' They will have to carry me through the dry, country. The holding capacity of the two is five gallons. Pretty weighty, certainly, but I shall want it. In conclusion, I wish to thank you and all brother cyclists for your hearty send-off and good wishes.”
The West Australian (Perth), 10 January 1907, 8,

In February, he was back in Laverton.

A telegram form Western Australia states that the transcontinental cyclist, Francis Birtles, who was endeavouring to ride from Perth via the goldfields through to Alice Springs, in the centre of Australia, had, after many hardships, been compelled to return to Laverton. After leaving Laverton, Birtles struck due east into the Victorian desert, and endeavoured to get through to the nearest known water. 56 miles distant. He failed in the attempt, the country being found impassable, and after being away four days, during which period he cycled or pushed his machine 107 miles. Birtles was compelled to return to Laverton again. Whether the overlander has definitely given up his attempt is not stated, but it was a dangerous task to endeavour to cycle across the great Victorian desert in midsummer.
Evening Journal (Adelaide), 8 February 1907, 1,

Meanwhile, there were others on the road as well. Note the careful mention of their benefactors at the end:

Two cyclists, named Robert Lennie and A. Warren, left Perth yesterday at about half-past 12 o'clock, on a trip across Australia. The route which they will adopt will be from Perth to Coolgardie, via the old goldfields road, through Northam and Southern Cross. Thence, they will journey to Widgemooltha, to Fraser's Range, and to Balladonia, where they will be joined by Francis Birtles, who has failed to reach the McDonnell Ranges in South Australia from Western Australia. From there the three riders will travel to Port Augusta, where Birtles will leave them, and probably proceed to the MacDonnell Ranges in the interior, in furtherance of his search for the "long armed blacks." Lennie, who is secretary of the Bonnievale Cycling Club, and a member of the Council of the Goldfields League of Wheelmen, and Warren, will then proceed to Adelaide, Melbourne, and Sydney, their object being to break the record from Perth to Sydney, which is said to stand at present at 31 days. Both men carry light equipments, their Davies-Franklin machines being fitted with path-racing parts, and heavy Dunlop tyres.
The West Australian (Perth), 26 February 1907, 6,

Birtles pushed on to Adelaide, but there was to be ill-feeling ahead: I leave it to the more patient reader to trace the rest of the tale.

Adelaide, April 16. Francis Birtles, the cyclist who left Fremantle on Boxing Day with the intention of coming to the Pacific Ocean, arrived at Adelaide this afternoon. He had travelled 3,185 miles. His worst experiences were in the early part of the journey, when he essayed to travel the coastal route from Western Australia, and was driven back for want of water. Finally he went through Laverton to Kurnalpi—a trip which cost him much difficulty through lack of water. After he had reached Eucla he had very little trouble.
The West Australian (Perth), 17 April 1907, 8,

In May, he reached Sydney, but Lennie and Warren were less than happy:

Bounder Blatherskite Birtles Claims Unentitled Kudos. A Blown-out Bladder of Bluff.
The following copy of a telegram received locally has been handed us for publication:
"Completed journey Indian to Pacific Ocean. All well. Fremantle to Sydney. Francis Birtles."

Our Sydney correspondent wired on Thursday morning as fol[l]ows: Birtles arrived at noon yesterday, boomed as the rider from oce[a]n to ocean. It is alleged he did part of the journey in the train to get a lead on Lennie and Warren, who arrived at "Truth" office five hours later.

There were no league officials to welcome them here, although Lennie, and not Birtles, is the accredited West Australian League representative.

Lennie is indignant at the scurvy action of the New South Wales League, and says they do things better in the West. The secretary of the Cyclists' Association welcomed them at the Gaiety on Thursday night.
The Truth (Perth) 11 May 1907, 6,

Still, Birtles kept it up, but when I accidentally passed his grave in Waverley cemetery as I walked from Bondi to Coogee, I had never heard of him. Still, there, he is, described as "The Australian Explorer", but back in 1912, that headstone was still three decades away.

Francis Birtles, the well-known cyclist, who has gained fame by circling, crossing, and re-crossing the Australian continent in his many rides in the little known territories of the north-east, north, and north west coasts, was, at the latest advice, going so strong that he should succeed in his attempt to lower the existing bicycle record from Perth to Sydney.

From advices received by Anthony Hordern and Sons the overlander has been forcing the pace on the wild track from Norseman (W.A.) to the South Australian border, and, despite his strenuous efforts, arrived at Nullarbor (S.A.), nearly three days ahead of his time. Birtles, who is mounted on a Universal bicycle, of B.S.A. parts, and Dunlop tyres, had ridden 1150 miles in 12 days 10 hours, and that over the worst possible roads, and it now appears as if he will be able to arrive in Sydney well up to his schedule of 30 days. The cyclists of New South Wales have followed Birtles’ ride with more than usual interest, as he has always started and finished in Sydney, and there will be a large crowd to welcome him on his return.
Sydney Morning Herald, 17 January 1912, 22,

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