Changing Gears: A Pedal-Powered Detour from the Rat Race

Expecting a book about bicycle touring of the east coast – from Melbourne to Cairns, I was surprised to find that there was so much more to this book.  Indeed, Greg Foyster’s account of this eight month journey of discovery, was a personal quest for self.    The trip culminated with an invitation to view a total eclipse of the sun at the Aboriginal settlement of Yarrabah in Far North Queensland.

For years before the tour, Greg Foyster had been torn between his highly successful career in advertising, and his belief that the world was over-materialistic.  Finally, in 1998, this caused him to leave his job and become a freelance journalist, writing about environment and sustainability issues.

The whole purpose of the tour was to research alternative ways in which people live, sustain themselves, and nurture and impact upon their environment.  Along with his cellist partner Sophie, and using the necessaries of life postulated by 19th century American philosopher Henry David Thoreau as a guide, Foyster set out to find the possibilities for shelter, community, food, work, clothing, technology, money, health and spirituality and environment.

The book is about the people encountered (deliberately and by chance) along the way, and the communities and alternative lifestyles explored.  All this, travelling in a sustainable way, by bicycle, with a budget of just $10 per day.

Greg was a commuting cyclist.  Sophie was not a cyclist at all.  So preparations included purchase of bikes and gear, including a tent (a second hand Aldi tent for $50 which was barely adequate but, apparently, lasted the distance).

After a training trip to Tasmania, and forays to look at sustainable lifestyles and housing in Melton and central Victoria and community living at Murandaka co-housing complex in Heidelberg Heights and Moora Moora commune near Healesville, they were finally off through Gippsland towards the border with New South Wales.  Initially, the whole adventure was difficult.  It took two days to leave the suburban sprawl, there was, as yet, no routine for cycling and camping and a knee injury led to an enforced stay in Koo Wee Rup.

As they travelled, they focused on Thoreau’s needs.  In Bega, a farmer’s market yielded fresh local produce and Greg pondered on our manufactured need to have all things available everywhere, with huge transport costs and ignorance of what is actually local and in season (and cheap).  Even roadkill was on the menu at one stage – and this from a pair who were vegetarian.  As they cycled, their philosophies changed.

From Bega, the pair faced the formidable climb of Brown Mountain to the Monaro Plains.  In Canberra, Greg researched the rat race, with the average citizen on a treadmill to produce enough money to live an affluent lifestyle based on acquisition of ever more ‘stuff’.  Visits to downshifters followed (after a visit to ‘Workaholics Anonimous’ for Greg).

Even in the most affluent suburb of Vaucluse in Sydney, Greg and Sophie visited Alexia, who lives in a flat and practises and teaches permaculture.  Greg also did a spot of unsuccessful dumpster raiding for food before visiting ABCs Costa Georgiadis and his community verge vegie patch.

After Sydney, the pair continued north through Tamworth, Armidale, and spent time in the alternative lifestyle ‘Rainbow Region’ around Nimbin.  On the way they met John, who has been walking the highways between Queensland and Melbourne for many years, living off the coins and leftovers he finds on the side of the road.

Warnings abounded, once in Queensland, that it would be suicide to attempt the Bruce Highway between Townsville and Cairns.  There was little alternative and the ride was achieved (with the usual detours to visit interesting people).  By this time Greg was passionate to learn more about the flora and fauna of the region through which they travelled.

After their eight month trip, Greg and Sophie made their date with the eclipse, before loading the bicycles on the train for the journey home.  Greg Foyster concludes the narrative with a list of adages like ‘Work with what you’ve got’, ‘Time is life’, ‘Ignore the c-word’ (can’t), ‘Stuff breeds stuff’ and ‘Simple living isn’t so simple’.  Sophie’s contribution is a list of ‘Eleven stupid things Greg did’.

The book is entertaining, enlightening and amusing.  It’s a true cycling book – about cycling as part as a lifestyle – without being a book about cycling.  Highly recommended.

My personal conundrum.  In trying to be sustainable, I prefer to use libraries rather than constantly buy new books.  But how can I make a contribution to an author of a book I really appreciate if I’m not paying a royalty?

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