Daniel Oakman and Susannah Hellman in conversation
*Speaker: Martin Woods (M), Susannah Helman (S), Daniel Oakman (D)
*Location: National Library of Australia
*Date: 29 July 2020
M: Hello everyone, my name is Martin Woods, I’m the Curator of Maps and Research Programs here at the National Library of Australia in Canberra. From wherever you’re watching welcome to this digital only event recorded by the National Library.
Through the internet we can connect with people and places around the country but it’s important that we take a moment to connect ourselves with the people and place in which we find ourselves. I acknowledge and celebrate the traditional owners of the land on which the Library sits, the Ngambri and Ngunnawal peoples and pay my respects to their elders past and present. I thank them for caring for this land on which we find ourselves at the Library.
In this special online event Library Curatorial Manager, Susannah Helman, is joined in conversation by former National Museum of Australia Curator, long-time cycling enthusiast and author, Daniel Oakman, to celebrate the release of Daniel’s latest work, Wild Ride, Epic Cycling Journeys through the Heart of Australia. Come explore some of the collection material that tells the stories of the people behind these great cycling adventures and the roads they travelled. Here at the Library there are books on many aspects of cycling, maps from the Australian cycling’s early days to the present, photos of cyclists famous or less so, pictures and stories about great cycling journeys of the past. About the only thing you won’t find in the collection is a bicycle but there are plenty out in the carpark.
Cycling forms a small but important and at times surprising part of libraries’ Australian collections. As a map curator and cyclist I’m keenly aware of the role of maps in cycling in the Australian cycling story and I’m pleased that some of our rare early Australian maps feature in Daniel’s book and in the stories of cyclists as they navigate sometimes vast distances, rough roads, the weather and other challenges. So please enjoy this conversation between Daniel Oakman and Susannah Helman as they discuss some of these fascinating stories in Wild Ride.
S: Hello, I’m Susannah Helman, I’m a curator in the Exhibitions Section of the National Library of Australia. We’re here in the Preservation Laboratories of the National Library and I’m here with Daniel Oakman, a historian, who’s written a new book called Wild Ride, Epic Cycling Journeys through the Heart of Australia. This book which is coming out soon uses some of the Library’s fantastic cycling collections.
So we’re here really to look at some of these objects in the flesh and talk to Daniel. So what would you like to start with?
D: Thanks Susannah and thanks for having me here at the Library. I mean the first thing I should say is the book is really a celebration of endurance cycling in Australia and it covers some of the most daring, audacious and influential bike rides that were ever undertaken in this country, the kind of rides that really changed people’s perceptions of the land, its people but also themselves and that’s something I was really keen to try and capture in the book and by exploring the collections here at the National Library I really hope to dig really deep and pull out those stories.
The book really starts in the late 19th century looking at some of the overlanding cyclists like Francis Birtles, Jerome Murif and goes all the way through to the modern phenomenon of bike packing and looks at some of the modern-day explorers, cycling explorers like Kate Leeming and her 25,000km ride around Australia. It also looks at some of the more eccentric bike rides that have gone on and here I’m thinking of Samuel Johnson, the actor, Samuel Johnson and his 15,000km unicycle ride around Australia. So it’s the full tour if you like of endurance riding in Australia.
S: So what really inspired you to write it?
D: Really inspiration came I guess from two points, the first was through my own cycling, and I will hasten to say that my riding pales by comparison to the people we’re talking here, but in some ways the feelings that you get by riding long distances are much the same and that’s that connection to nature, using the bike as a way of exploring the country is a unique thing to do. The bicycle puts the rider in a particularly interesting relationship to nature and the world around them so that’s something I thought I would like to explore historically. There was also a moment when I was looking at the Library’s collections while I was developing an exhibition about cycling when I was reading this book here which is by a rider called Jerome Murif and it’s called From Ocean to Ocean.
Now he was the first person to ride from Adelaide to what was then Port Darwin in 1894. He did this ride not necessarily to break records or anything, he just simply wanted to expose himself to the wildness of the country and so he did the ride over about two months and then he wrote this fabulous book about it, it’s an absolutely terrific account. In reading it really all the elements that I was looking to explore in his early period of cycling were there, there were encounters with the land, with indigenous people and also his transformation as he rode across the country. There’s a spiritual dimension to his work where he becomes almost part of the landscape so that really set up the guiding principle that I then started looking for in other cycling adventurers.
S: But how did you then choose I suppose which riders to focus on? Starting with him and then moving on through some of the people we see.
D: Yeah, good question so the criteria was pretty tough. So in the late 19th century, early 20th century there was a lot of cycling going on. It seemed to be that once cycling got going everyone was tearing across the country doing big bike rides so my criteria couldn’t just be that they were the first or the fastest or the longest, there had to be something else. In some cases, in a surprising number of cases some of these riders went on to write books, Francis Birtles for instance, Jerome Murif. Arthur Richardson who was the first person to ride around Australia narrated a book to a newspaper so there was a documentary record that I could then interrogate and really get a deep understanding of the kind of things they were going through. So that was really the major criteria. It just had to be something more so that deeper experience could then be brought out.
S: We have good examples of that, don’t we, here with some books and photographs and maps as well. Which collections would you like to focus on first?
D: Yeah, I can talk about one of the most interesting discoveries that I made while I was working here at the Library, was about this fellow called Joe Pearson or Genial Joe he was known to his friends who was really riding late 19th century, early 20th century and I knew nothing about him until I discovered these particular collections here. I have to say he was a cycle touring enthusiast, he absolutely loved New South Wales. He thought there was no place better in the world according to Joe. He did a cycle tour in the 1890s and went to Britain and Europe, did a big cycling tour and he enjoyed it but he came back and felt that really there was nowhere else in the world that compared with New South Wales. He wanted to really get city-based cyclists out into the countryside.
He often took groups on tours but his major influence was to create a map and he created maps that were specifically tailored for the cyclist and they contained all the things that cyclists want to know, how far it is to the next town, where they can stay, where they can eat, what the road’s like. These maps were so detailed that he would even annotate directing them, take this road because the surface is a bit better, come back this way, incredibly rich material for a cyclist to use. They sold thousands. The first one in 1896, I think, it had multiple editions into the 20th century and ended up being used as the basis for car touring in the 1920s, the 1930s. But he was an absolute icon in terms of New South Wales cycling and an absolute passionate enthusiast for the great outdoors and using the bike to improve your spiritual and mental health. His maps were something that almost every cycle tourist had.
It also had a particularly positive influence for women because with this sort of information they no longer needed a male chaperone to take them out into the countryside so groups of women could get together and with these maps they could get out into the countryside themselves.
S: So we’ve got an example of one of Pearson’s maps out here. What in particular is so special about this one?
D: Really what makes them special is the detail and this is one of the earliest ones. They actually got more elaborate as they went on and he would actually put out suggested itineraries and he would list the lodges where you could stay, what they were like, what kind of food you could get there as well as a lot more advice to the cyclist. For instance he didn’t recommend that you should smoke while you were actually riding a bike. So a fabulously kind of eccentric but also very practical way for cyclists to get into the sport.
I should mention that he actually went on to do some work for the New South Wales Department of Tourism and because he was such an enthusiast for tourism and scenic views he lobbied for them to erect signage by the roadside that directed people to where they could see different panoramic views or tourist sites. You can see that legacy today which is in the brown signs that you see along highways and roadways, that’s a direct legacy from his work. He also lobbied to have the little mileage markers that you see as you’re approaching towns, they’re often at 5km intervals. Very important for a cyclist if you didn’t have means to record how far or fast you were going. Again another legacy to Joe Pearson, hugely influential person in terms of Australia’s cycling history.
S: Is there something special about this cover that it came in?
D: The maps would actually come in these covers so he deliberately made them so you could fold them up into these folio size and put that in your luggage. It was just a thoughtful, practical design choice that he came up with.
S: Well used, no doubt.
D: Yeah, I hope so.
S: We have a very rich collection, don’t we, at the National Library of road maps.
D: Yeah indeed.
S: We’ve also got a photograph, don’t we, of a portrait of Pearson?
D: Yeah, I think underneath that one there there’s a picture of Genial Joe. If you do have a closeup of that ‘cause he’s not looking especially genial in that photograph and I believe that one was taken shortly after he became one of the first people to ride a bike to the top of Mt Kosciusko so you can forgive him perhaps looking a little bit stern but he was otherwise known as a very affable, genial cycle tourist.
S: He was in Tilba Tilba, wasn’t he?
D: Yeah, for that photograph, that was a part of his tour which included summiting Mt Kosciusko on his bicycle. Do you want to talk about Oppy?
S: Oppy, yeah.
D: Oppy, this fabulous poster here that relates to Hubert Opperman, better known as Oppy who of course is an icon of Australian sport, Australian cycling. Rose to prominence in the 1920s and 1930s in the beginning as a racer and as a motor-paced rider led the first Australian team to contest the Tour de France in 1928, set a slew of records around Australia and overseas but it was really his epic rides in Australia during the ‘30s that cemented him as a household name. I think this poster’s from 1934 when really he’s at the height of his powers. Malvern Star is the cycling brand that every boy wanted and Oppy and Malvern Star were pretty much synonymous for most of the decade and beyond.
My interest in him for this book was really to do with his crossing of the Nullarbor in 1937 and he certainly wasn’t the first but he was the fastest and it was something that nagged at him during his career, that he hadn’t really nailed this great epic crossing of his own continent. So in 1937 he completed that, he completed the journey with support so his manager, Bruce Small, was one of the owners of Malvern Star, travelled behind him in a special caravan and they made the crossing in 14 days. I mean it’s still an astounding achievement and it was absolutely jaw-dropping moments in Australia’s sporting history.
As I delved into the manuscript collections that relate to this particular crossing I discovered some really interesting material and we have some of it here and it related particularly to the way his ride was marketed, the way it was promoted to the Australian people. Now his manager, Bruce Moore, was an incredibly enterprising fellow, probably one of the greatest marketing minds in Australian history. Now given he was going to be driving the caravan he was going to be too busy to send off the press reports to the newspapers so he - I guess naturally in some ways – he wrote them before he left and you can see them here, they’re all neatly laid out with elaborate descriptions of what was happening, bearing in mind this was all before the ride has even taken place.
He’s just left little gaps here where members of his staff could then fill in the times that he was actually passing through a certain town and that could be then sent out to the newspapers and they would write up the reports. So it was an incredibly well crafted crossing. It did make me think for a while well did the crossing actually occur? ‘Cause in some ways there wasn’t many people to see what was happening out there, did it occur? But of course after a bit of hunting around it did occur, it was just that the descriptions that went with it were essentially imagined.
S: It’s all documented here.
D: All documented here in the Hubert Opperman papers which are a terrific resource.
S: Yeah, no, definitely and we’ve also got material relating to his later life as a politician -
D: Yeah so he went on to have another successful career, seven-year career in politics.
S: Fantastically rich and I think also what these objects demonstrate is I suppose the depth of the Library’s collection and how broad they are like we have posters and manuscripts and you pieced all of these things together.
D: And the photographs too which are particularly good.
S: We often hear about great male cyclists and you mentioned before that there are some great female cyclists that we might not be aware of. Did you want to talk a little bit about those?
D: Sure. Yeah, one thing I wanted to get across with the book is that we actually have a terrific history of female riders, female endurance riders, something that’s often overlooked in Australian sporting history. The book actually starts with a story about Sarah Maddox who was a pioneering female rider and she was riding in the 1890s and achieved national fame, partly because of the debate about what she was wearing which is something that she disliked intensely, that her riding prowess would be co-opted into a debate about whether women should be wearing dresses or knickerbockers and what was called rational dress. But she was an amazing woman, was blind in one eye yet she was the first female to ride from Sydney to Melbourne and also from Sydney to Brisbane. Again at the time these were astonishing journeys for a woman to take.
I also pick up on some female riders in the 1940s and two women in particular and they both wrote separate books about their journey. They were two young women from Melbourne, Wendy Law and Shirley Duncan, and they were 19 and 21 respectively at the time and set out from Melbourne firstly to Tasmania on a little cycle trip around Tasmania, partly to convince their parents that they weren’t completely mad. They suspended their jobs, put their boyfriends on hold and set out on this journey and they secretly planned not just to do Tasmania but in fact to do the mainland as well. So they came back to Melbourne and then set out on another two-and-a-half year working holiday cycling around Australia as they went.
Now they were actually sponsored by Malvern Star, the same people that sponsored Oppy but Malvern Star did not behave themself particularly well, very exploitative and they had to assert themselves quite strongly in order to get any kind of funding out of Malvern Star who were very adept at milking them for publicity as they moved around the country. So there’s lots of undercurrents there in that story about women who were then being exposed to commercial powers and Malvern Star was a significant one at the time.
Being two young women they were exposed to unwanted physical advances, they were attacked during their journeys and it was quite an eventful time of their lives but they then wrote two wonderful rich and detailed books that are here in the Library’s collections as well.
S: What a journey.
D: I can also talk about Kate Leeming which is another person that wrote a book about her cycling journeys. Now she’s still riding today, she’s currently planning to ride a bike across Antarctica but in the early 2000s she rode a 25,000km trip around Australia and through the Australian outback. It was actually a UNESCO-funded ride to promote issues around sustainability and climate change. Now she produced another terrific well documented book here called Out There and Back but she’s gone on since to do other epic journeys in Africa and South America.
S: So I guess one of the last questions I have is the Library continues to record the experiences of cyclists and adventurers. Can you tell us how you think the way cyclists have represented their adventures has changed over time?
D: Yeah, sure. It was interesting I think to actually review all this material and by the end of writing the book I was in fact reflecting on how little had changed because cyclists today are still recording their adventures in photographs, in writing, they're still writing books about them much the same way that they did in the late 19th century. Of course the technology has changed but the impulse to get out there into the wild under your own power and expose yourself to nature and the wilderness is still there, the same I think and as intense as it ever was. Probably the key difference is now that people can write blogs, upload photographs and text messages instantaneously while they’re on the ride whereas in days gone by they had to rush into a post office and send a telegram back to their family to let them know they were okay. Now it can happen more or less straight away if you have mobile coverage, otherwise you’re in fact back to a 19th century kind of cycling experience.
S: Would you say that kind of thing is reflected in what you’ve learnt about the Library’s collections as well? Was there something that I suppose surprised you though in the Library’s collections?
D: I think what’s fabulous about accessing the Library’s digital collections is that you can actually get access to a lot of the blogs and the material that’s being produced in abundance now. Cyclists don’t have to deal with a publisher or even a mapmaker in order to record and convey their journeys to other people, they can use all those aspects of the online environment and that’s such an important thing for the Library to keep collecting ‘cause that’s really where the big growth in these great records about cycling journeys is taking place.
S: Well thank you very much, Daniel.
D: Not at all, thank you for having me.
S: Thank you all for watching.
D: Right, thank you. I wrote Wild Ride because I’m passionate about Australia’s cycling history and once I delved into it I realised there were so many fabulous rich and detailed stories to tell. This book is available at the National Library bookshop.
Grab your helmet and join long-time cycling enthusiast Daniel Oakman alongside National Library curator Susannah Helman as they talk about Daniel’s latest book, Wild Ride: Epic Cycling Journeys Through the Heart of Australia, and the collection material that tells the stories of the people behind these great cycling adventures.
Australia is home to breath-taking landscapes, as rugged as they are beautiful. Some are driven to explore these places on foot, some from the air, but this book tells the story of the courageous men and women who explored this beautiful country on two wheels.
Please note: The photographs handled by Susannah during the filming of this event are reproductions made especially for this event from the original glass plate negatives held in the Library’s collection.
Wild Ride: Epic Cycling Journeys Through the Heart of Australia tells the story of the cyclists who were overcome by the need to venture forth on two wheels; the courageous men and women who undertook some of the most epic bicycle journeys of all time. While many of Australia's bicycle pioneers rode to beat records or be the first, others rode for no other reason than to immerse themselves in the wild. They willingly surrendered themselves to their fate in a land at once majestic, magical and hostile. Fortunately for us these bicycle pioneers were not content to merely ride. They wanted to share their experience with other like-minded folk and Australian readers devoured their stories; heady accounts filled with unbridled wonder, drama and derring-do.
The journeys retold in this book are a thrilling reminder of a period of exploration largely forgotten in the age of the motorcar. We might simply choose to enjoy these pioneering feats vicariously from the comfort of our armchairs. Or, we might be inspired to venture out on our own pedal powered explorations. At the very least, they will make our excuses to not go for a ride seem rather feeble indeed!
About Daniel Oakman
Daniel Oakman is a museum curator, historian and bike rider. He has curated exhibitions about bicycles, cars, cities and urban design; including Freewheeling, a ground-breaking travelling exhibition on cycling in Australia.
As a writer, he is best known as the author of Oppy, the gripping biography of Australia's greatest endurance cyclist, Sir Hubert Opperman.