One hundred and five years ago, Edward “Ryko” Reichenback broke the speed record for riding across Australia south to north, covering 3,000 kilometers, or almost 1,900 miles, in 28 days. He set off from the post office in Adelaide and finished at the p.o. in Darwin four weeks later, having suffered no major mishaps but losing riding partner John Fahey to a sprained ankle a week into the ride.
As you can imagine, long-distance cycling in 1914 was very much a DIY affair. Especially cross-country. Ryko managed to fasten a carbide headlamp to the handlebars so that he’d be able to ride at night, through the impossible blackness of night in the middle of the Australian wilds. Ryko tracked the distance he covered on a rudimentary cyclometer. He also adopted the crouching style of the road rider, increasing his efficiency, employing drop bars, not yet the standard for long-distance cycling.
Despite the ominous looking photo up top, titled “gauntlet of spears,” Ryko got on well with the indigenous people, who, judging from this picture and the one below, were plenty willing to ham it up for the camera. It was Australians who caused him trouble: Although Reichenback shot more than 3,000 photos on his trip, his Sydney apartment was burglarized and all of his images were stolen; what remains today are prints that he’d sold for four pence a piece and were collated into a collection for the Northern Territory Library. Worse, in the early years of World War I, Ryko’s Germanic last name, as well as his passion for traveling and photography, led people to conclude he was a spy for Germany, though he was Australian born. (A penchant for travel and a German name was dangerous for many global wanderers in the early 20th century, with accusations of spying quickly and easily cast about. See the incredible story of Oskar Speck, who kayaked from Germany to Australia, seriously, for another example).
Ryko’s name was eventually cleared, but in 1917 he moved out of the Darwin area to Sydney to avoid problems. There his photos were stolen, as if the trouble had followed him south.
Ryko’s photos from the trip were some of the earliest and best photographic images of Australia’s Aboriginal cultures as well as wildlife in the Northern Territories. He frequently rode into the bush to photograph animals and the hunters tracking them. He’d return to his home in Darwin, where he remained after his ride, develop photos, and sell them, as well as prints from his cross-country ride.
Those photos that were stolen have been lost to historians and anthropologists, though undoubtedly, many exist in private collection, the owner perhaps unaware of their significance. The remaining photos are a treasure of Australian history, their quality no doubt a result of Ryko’s ability to make fast friends with people regardless of where he was, as well as his appreciation for discovering new places.
This appreciation stayed with him. After leaving Darwin, Ryko took a job with a railroad company in central Australia. He toured when he could and fell in love with botany and seed collecting; he also cultivated an interest in astronomy, benefiting from the clear air of rural Australia.
Ryko died at age 75, in 1968. His accomplishment would be solid today, but was ultra-impressive for the time, and was celebrated a few years ago with an exhibit at the Northern Territory Library, as well as a ride by his then 68-year-old granddaughter, who pedaled a section of the route.
Photos: Northern Territory Library