Maree Stephenson has, at times, been “exhausted, physically and emotionally” on her 10 Desert Challenge record ride – but is absolutely loving it.
“Deeper the challenge, deeper the experience”, the Griffin resident said, from the remote West Australian town of Laverton.
She started at Woodford on May 2 and is on course to finish 139 days later in Birdsville on September 17 - becoming the first woman to ever achieve this feat.
However, the 1000kms from Yulara to Laverton along the Great Central Road, have taken her challenge “to the next level” … and beyond.
Permit issues almost stopped Maree in her tracks with an aboriginal council refusing permission to cycle through one area on safety grounds.
She challenged the decision, wanting to know exactly why. Legal bodies became involved and Maree had to sign an indemnity to go any further.
“This is not about putting my personal safety at risk,” she said, “I talked to local people and to my partner. I wanted all the information before making a decision.”
As a precaution, Maree camped well hidden behind dunes, bushes and down side tracks with no obvious tyre marks. Local police also monitored her progress.
“The first night I was on very high alert,” she said, “I’ve never experienced anything like that. I was so far out of my comfort zone. But there’s only so much you can plan for.”
The weather's a prime example. Maree was rained-in at Warakuna (on one of only three days a year it rains there!) and now regularly wakes up to frost.
A strong headwind on Sunday even forced her back to Leonora to stock up for an overnight stop after being unable to make a one-day dash along the Goldfields Hwy to Leinster.
However, the highway bitumen is a contrast to the Great Central Rd where cars sped over the corrugated surface to flatten out bumps. “You just can’t do that on a bike,” Maree said.
In fact, sharp stones on the shoulders punctured the tyres of Banjo, her fat-wheeled bike. At one point she stopped every few kilometres to pump them up, by hand.
At night packs of dingoes have wandered into the 53-year-old’s “wild” camps. Some have gone right up to the awning of her tent - and then scattered after a loud blast on a whistle.
“The wildlife out here is amazing,” Maree said, “the dingoes weren’t going to hurt me, but I don’t want them in my space. That whistle is a blessing.”
Meticulous plans have been made, but not all work out. COVID regulations, in the remote West Australian desert, recently closed an essential roadhouse stop.
“I really needed to top up supplies and recharge at TJ (Tjukayirla), but didn’t know this was going to happen,” Maree said.
“I had to say to the lady there ‘I really need your help’. She was so good. She sold me things and told me to go into the campgrounds where I’d be safe.”
It was another act of kindness which has been a feature of this journey.
Passing tourists, travellers and workers stop or slow to check Maree is okay. One group even offered her goulash and pasta which they were defrosting.
Maree has also received donations in tribute to Nigel Harris, who stopped and helped her earlier in the ride, but died in an accident while watching a desert rally days later.
One of his final social media posts was urging others to support Maree's marathon 10 Desert Challenge.
“There are less cars and I miss the contact at times ... human connection is like a power socket to me,” Maree said.
“But I am so close to the environment now, so open to everything around me. I’m finding such a sense of belonging. It’s never been more apparent.
“I knew this journey was going to be something else – and I’m absolutely loving it.”