Travel book of the week: Bush ranger on a bike

Cold Beer and Crocodiles by Roff Smith (National Geographic, £17.99)
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The Independent Travel

It was hard to feel hopeful that a book about Australia entitled Cold Beer and Crocodiles, with its suggestion of Four-X ads and movies about leather-vested tough guys called Dundee, would get beyond even the first layer of my homeland. But it does.

It was hard to feel hopeful that a book about Australia entitled Cold Beer and Crocodiles, with its suggestion of Four-X ads and movies about leather-vested tough guys called Dundee, would get beyond even the first layer of my homeland. But it does.

Expatriate American Roff Smith, who at 38 has spent most of his adult life in Australia without feeling he really knows it, throws in his job as a journalist in Sydney to cycle around and discover the "real" country. In the nine months and 10,000 miles it takes to do this, his view of his adopted country (and, yes, himself) is tested and re-formed.

Smith is by no means the first to undertake such a journey (that was one Arthur Richardson in 1899, somehow in only eight months). In fact, many long-haul cyclists travelled Australia in the early days of European settlement, and bicycles played an important role in opening up the outback - unlike other forms of transport, they required no water and were easy to fix.

From shaky beginnings - he is almost run over by a red-light-running psycho as he negotiates his way out of Sydney's suburban tangle - Smith's adventure takes flight. He travels up the northern New South Wales coast to the paradise lost that is Queensland's overdeveloped Gold Coast, then through Brisbane to the next paradise lost - the Sunshine Coast - all the while trying to outpedal the ever-expanding coastal sprawl.

He heads into Queensland's Deep North, where generous hospitality can also come with large helpings of red-neckism, then Smith heads west, and has his first real encounter with "the outback". He observes that these days it is more a place of the imagination: Australians prefer their leafy, well-watered suburbs near the beach to the potential harshness of the bush. His exposure to wind, heat, rain and tough terrain makes him appreciate early chronicler Henry Lawson's description: "There are no mountains in the outback, only ridges on the floor of hell."

But there is a spartan, elemental beauty here, too, and after a week on a sheep property near Longreach, he feels his whole relationship with Australia has changed. In Bidyadanga, in Western Australia, he stays with an Aboriginal community and notices they understand without question why he is journeying through their country. For them, sympathy for the land is what counts.

Apart from the trials of loneliness, injury and illness, there are dangers: the monstrous trucks that leave "skidmarks" of roadkill in their path, storms and the sheer hell of crossing the arid Nullarbor Plain.

By the end of Smith's journey you might not be closer to understanding the book's title - he doesn't meet a crocodile, and there is less beer drinking than you might expect - but you'd be a lot closer to understanding the country.

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