In the late 19th century there was much respect for “the Overlander”. These were riders who rode across the Australian continent well before there were roads and motorised vehicles were invented.
In 1937 Hubert “Oppy” Opperman set-out to make the Transcontinental ride between Freemantle to Sydney. Arthur Richardson was the first rider to ever make the crossing, and whilst Oppy wouldn’t be the first. He was determined to make sure that he was the fastest. Planning to beat the record that had been held by Bill Read who had covered the distance in just under 19 days.
Hubert Opperman is one of Australia’s most decorated cylists who was sponsored by the Malvern Star bicycle company. At the time Malvern Star was Australia’s leading manufacturer of bicyles, and who’s name was associated with long distance speed records all throughout the late 1920’s and 1930’s. Largely in part to the great man Hubert Opperman himself.
He took down a large number of records during his cycling career. Oppy’s opinion was; “when you set-out to beat a record you’re not racing the other man. You’re racing the fella who’s going to come after you!” – Hubert Opperman
This was to be a very treacherous journey. In 1937 there was over 1,600 km of unmade road along the route. Some of the roads they took were barely goat tracks and predominately used by Camel and bullock teams. There were also long stretches of rutted tracks and soft sand where he was forced to carry his bike in some pretty intense heat.
The support crew
The ride was sponsored by Malvern Star bicycles, and led by Bruce Small, the owner of Malvern Star bicycles. Opperman came with a crew of five, including a mechanic Aubrey Melrose who’ experience with the Nullarbor was invaluable in helping the team navigate their way safely across the desert. This was to be Aubrey’s 8th Nullarbor crossings.
The party of five followed in two cars. One towing a special Romany Road caravan which had been fitted with sleeping berths and modern cooking facilities. Oppy planned to ride night and day. Looking at minimising sleeping to three an a half hours a day. This meant his support crew would have to drive through the night. Using the headlights from the cars to light the way.
Bruce Small promoted the ride. Telegraphing ahead to notify towns when they were likely to arrive. Arranging interviews with newspapers and radio presenters alike. The ride received great press coverage, and people throughout the nation followed his progress eagerly. Lining the route through country towns and massive crowds came out in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney to catch a glimpse of the great man.
Crowds were so overwhelming that warnings needed to be wired ahead in the capitol cities in order to protect Oppy;
“Opperman is badly sunburned and is in a highly nervous condition. Well-wishers are therefore requested not to pat him on the back or insist upon shaking hands with him”.
Hubert Opperman set-off from the G.P.O in Forest Place, Freemantle on 5 November 1937 at 10:40 am, riding a modifified 1937 Opy Cyclo Model. This was equipped with the English made Cyclo standard six-speed derailleur and balloon tires. A ceremony had been held by the Mayor of Fremantle Frank Gibson. Who had lowered the rear wheel of Hubert Opperman’s bicycle into the Indian Ocean, and presented Hubert with a letter to deliver to the Premiere of Sydney. The goal of the ride was to cover the distance in less than 18 days.
Oppy said “this would be the longest and toughest ride of my career. Harder than the Tour de France with its Alps and descents”.
The ride was marred by incidents right from the start. In Doodlakine, W.A he narrowly missed crashing into a stationery goods train at a crossing as he swept around a corner into the darkness. You can imagine the choice words he would have said after this incident.
An interview given at Kalgoorlie in W.A will give you an impression of some of the hardshipes he went through. “I have had a hard day. Rough roads, corrugations and sand have made my progress slow. After leaving Bulla Bulling I got on the wrong side of the line and had to hump my bicycle across country to find the right track”.
This was but the start of a number of incidents that would have derailed the strongest of riders. Rainstorms, hail, heavy and unfavourable winds greeted Oppy all the way from Freemantle to Adelaide, and after surviving the crossing over the Nullarbor, in particular the dreaded Madura Gorge’. This was the most dangerous section of the Nullarbor Plains. It went from the Nullarbor Plateau to sea level and composed of rocks at least a meter high & not suited for a bike, let alone the two cars that a modern day 4WD would struggle to get through.
“the desert was something I do not want to go through again!” – Hubert Opperman.
Oppy had a heavy fall whilst riding on slippery clay in the town of Wirulla, SA. This resulted in some abrasions, then experienced another fall at Yaninee. This time injuring his knee which he sought treatment for in Adelaide.
Wildlife was also big problem, particularly at night where visibility was poor. Opperman recalled: “It was night and I was riding on a sinuos sand road in deep ruts with the caravan directly behind me lighting the way. In the lights I saw this coiled up snake with his head in the air. Tongue poking out. And his head darting all over the place. I had to make up my mind if I’d hit the brakes. I would have skidded to a stop and the car would have gone over the top of me. The alternative was to run over the snake…… I could feel snakes crawl up my legs for the next couple of hours after.”
Opperman showed great tenacity, riding through the long stretches of ‘unsettled country’. Without communications, suffering sunburn and blinding ‘clouds of swirling dust’. He got lost, overcame crashes, a knee injury, boils, cysts, and survive numerous encounters with wildlife.
“At Nanwarra Sands, I had to pick up the bike and carry it for 10 miles in the soft sand. We learned that I could gain time by sleeping for only 10 minutes at a time, something I have never forgotten.”
During this period Oppy managed to find the time to pause in the middle of the baking Nanwarra Sands to observe two minutes silence for the fallen on Armistice Day.
In remote sections Opperman had to carry his bicycle over sand dunes while the midday sun blistered his exposed skin and in the evenings he suffering from the numbing cold.
Oppy was not suffering alone.
His exhausted support crew struggled to keep up at times. There was an incident where the car and caravan was driven over an embankment into a fence, costing much time.
There were also plenty of times when Opperman was seperated from his support vehicles. The terrain was very difficult to negotiate by car, and many times Opperman would ride off on the cars. With no way to communicate with one another, there were several instances where the team almost lost one another.
No matter what was thrown at him, Hubert Opperman kept peddaling. ‘It has just been one succession of battles . . . and there have been times when I have felt like cracking up, but I have managed to keep on going’.
Oppy arrived in Melbourne almost four days ahead of schedule, was greeted by the Premiere, Mr Dunstan who told him
“you have broken more world records in the cycling world than any other man and as a Victorian we are very proud of you”.
Parliament was suspended so that the dignitaries could welcome him.
Later into the ride, Oppy developed a nasty cyst on his thigh which caused much discomfort. He treated this with hot forments and a lot of HTFU! Something he was expert at.
Between Wangaratta and Chittern he fell asleep yet again riding and fell off his bike. Thankfully only injuring his pride, and forcing some much needed rest.
To the victor goes the spoils
Opperman arrived exhausted and dust grimed and horribly sunburned into Sydney. Reaching the Post Office at Martin Place 10:51 pm. Even at that late hour, a crowd of several thousand greeted the great man after covering 4,402km in 13 days, 10 hours and 11 minutes. This beat the previous record by over five days. Oppy concluded the Ocean to Ocean tradition of dipping the wheels of his bike in the ocean at Bondi Beach. Paying tribute to Bruce Small, who was instrumental in encouraging him and supporting him throughout the ride.
Following the epic journey Opperman took some much needed rest and played a bit of Golf.
Physically this ride took a great toll. When Hubert Opperman set-off on his epic journey, he weighed in at around 64 kg. He lost over 6 kg during the course of the ride.
What was most remarkable aspect of this ride was that Oppy’s record was not broken until 1969. Vic Browne covered the distance in 11 days, six hours and 47 minutes. Over very much improved roads.
- My Heritage