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Vastness envelops intrepid cyclists

The latest in a series of reports from Beth and Pete Sutch, originally from Largo, as they bicycle around the world.

As our one-pot evening meal bubbled away atop our camp stove, a motion in the vacant campground caught our attention. Off in a far corner appeared a young girl shining a flashlight beam to and fro in the waning light. After a few minutes of diligent searching, she walked over our way.

"Have you seen my baby kangaroo?" she asked in a serious tone. "Her name is Jill and she is lost.

Caught dumbfounded, we looked at each other, trying hard to suppress our smiles. "Sorry, we haven't," came my reply. "But if you'd like, we'll gladly help in the search."

For the next several minutes we all looked for the little thing but had no luck. Looking a bit forlorn, our new friend, Kelly, turned to leave. "By the way," I asked, "if you do find Jill, would you mind bringing her back for us to see? We've never seen a kangaroo up close before."

Suddenly a smile appeared on her face. "I sure will," she excitedly replied, and with a renewed burst of energy she ran through a hole in the back fence.

True to her word, Kelly returned later, accompanied by two playmates and tenderly cradling something in a blanket. Protruding upwards like a furry telescope was Jill, the baby rock kangaroo. We learned that Jill's mother had been hit by a car and how these children came into possession of the tiny marsupial. At only 4 months, Jill would have stayed inside her mother's pouch for at least eight more months. Instead, Kelly's family became Jill's caretaker until it would be released at the Wildlife Refuge Park.

We took turns examining this unusual animal, which was about the size of a human infant but would grow to be about 4 feet tall. Reluctantly, we handed her back to Kelly.

Our arrival into Northern Australia at the end of October was not one of our best-planned decisions. During that "build-up" period (pre-monsoon season), Australia's top end becomes oppressively hot and humid. A temperature above 100 degrees is common. Nevertheless, we decided to have a short bicycle-touring experience in the outback.

We followed the narrow Stuart Highway as it led us southward from the city of Darwin. "Make sure you carry plenty of extra water," we were advised, "because of long distances between water holes."

In addition to filling up the three water bottles that fit into the cages on each of our bikes, we strapped on extra 1.25-liter plastic bottles of water onto our rear panniers (carriers). For once we were glad to be toting the extra weight in fluids. Nowhere in our previous 34-nation cycling tour had we encountered such a vast expanse of inhospitable landscape. We felt so small and insignificant, when at times we could look in all directions and see nothing but bush for miles _ waterless river beds; orange termite mounds as tall as a man; and pale green eucalyptus trees.

And yet, somehow, many varieties of birdlife seemed to flourish _ cockatoos, galahs, brilliantly colored parrots and our favorite, the short, squatty kookaburras with their cackling laughs. What a raucous noise these birds created as we rode past. Unfortunately, other flying creatures were also abundant: bush flies. They incessantly buzzed into our eyes, noses, ears and mouths.

Satisfied with our one-week journey in the Northern Territory, we boarded a large air-conditioned bus for a luxury "cruise" to the east coast. Neither of us could get over the fact that one hour of highway driving was equal to a full day of bicycle touring.

After 28 hours and four videos aboard the bus, we were back on our bikes and pedaling in the "Sunshine State" of Queensland. Having been born and reared in Florida, we instantly felt at home. However, here too much sun has become a major health concern and melanoma cases are alarmingly common.

The outback-type weather continued as we headed south down the coast. Our daily routine was to cycle in the morning, relax in the afternoon out of the sun and continue onward a few miles in the evening. Steamy head winds made most days long and arduous. We kept wet cotton socks around our water bottles, using evaporation to keep the water cool.

To our dismay, no relief from the heat could be found for our bodies in the nearby ocean. The turquoise water looked inviting, but locals and posted warning signs told us otherwise: "Beware of Box Jellyfish _ during the summer months of October to April!" We also had to forgo taking a dip in the rivers because of a chance meeting with a "saltie" (estuarial crocodile). In the end, we found dunking our heads under town water taps cooled us.

After our previous eight months of cycling through Asia, where we relied totally on hotels and restaurants, it was nice to be finally reunited with our tent and cook kit (mailed ahead from Israel). What a joy to be fully self-sufficient again: able to camp where we pleased and to cook what we wanted. Forests, sugar cane fields and roadside rest areas provided great one-night stays complete with quiet seclusion and star-studded evening skies.

Our address book was full of Australian invitations for visits. Genuine Aussie kindness and hospitality warmly welcomed us, and we found the meat-and-potato diet much to our liking. In fact, commonly served lamb roast dinners caused Pete to gain about 7 pounds.

"You two must be keen to be traveling on "pushbikes,' " was the common Aussie slang we heard daily. In time, we came to understand "Australian English." Shortened words seemed to be the rage _ "ta" for thanks, "brekkie" for breakfast, "uni" for university. Most confusing was the use of "tea" for dinner and "cuppa" meaning tea.

Australia might be labeled as the flattest continent on Earth, but there are still some challenging hills. The Great Dividing Range, much like our Appalachians, follows the Australian east coast, providing the landscape with gentle undulations. It was in these mountains that we toned up our hill-climbing muscles and happily unpacked our winter wear. Coming at the end of our three-month visit, the cold mountain air was good preparation for the next country on our itinerary: New Zealand.

After 2{ years of pedaling eastward around the globe, on April 9 we'll be landing back on in the United States for our final leg of the journey.