Two weeks with an electric cargo bike

A Babboe cargo bike  parked in front of a Belconnen sign.
A Babboe box bike in Belconnen

Oh, what fun it is to ride on a big wooden electric boat!

Sitting in the wooden box as we did laps of our block’s car park, my neighbour’s eldest daughter remarked that it was like a big boat. Six weeks after I returned the Babboe City cargo bike to the Canberra Electric Bike Library, her younger sister was still asking when she could go for another ride.

I loaned the Babboe for two weeks in December 2020. The Library is a pilot project of the ACT Government, and is managed by SEE-Change and Switched on Cycles. (Disclaimer, I am the convenor of SEE-Change’s Belconnen group.) It’s free, aside from the $30 insurance fee for individuals ($45 for households), which is waived if you’re a member of Pedal Power ACT (I am).

The point of the library is that because electric bikes are more expensive than non-powered ones, most people can’t afford the initial outlay. But they want to know if an e-bike suits their needs, and that’s not always possible if they borrow a bike from a store for a few hours or a day. The library solves that problem by letting individuals or households use the bike for two weeks.

The library was launched in July 2020 and comprises seven bikes, ranging from commuter bikes to cargo bikes and tricycles. I waited six months before it was my turn. I think a waiting list is a good problem to have, as it demonstrates there’s strong demand.

I borrowed the bike firstly to see if our greyhound would fit in it, as I wanted Dot to experience the fun of riding around Lake Burley Griffin. She’d jumped out of a Christiania cargo bike a few months earlier at the start of a test ride. (Didn’t get the bike; too wide for my laundry door). She didn’t jump out of the Babboe, but didn’t settle down either. Maybe if we’d used the Babboe Dog cargo bike, with its larger box?

Secondly, I wanted to see if I could replace short car trips – 30 minutes or less from my house – with the bike, for example, to the supermarket or hardware store. Turns out, it was easy.

Collecting the bike.
Borrowing the bike was a bit like using a rental car. I got a lift to the SEE-Change office at Downer, where Zuleka Chan, library project officer, marked off a checklist while we inspected the bike. Zuleka gave me the keys, and cautioned: Don’t look at the front wheel.

Because a cargo bike is longer than an ordinary bike, your eye is drawn to the front wheel, waaaay in the distance, and it fools you into forgetting your balance. “Just ignore the front wheel and ride,” Zuleka counselled. It worked.

I rode a few laps of the Downer community centre carpark, then headed back home via O’Connor ridge. This gave me time to get a feel for the bike, and how it performed uphill. Lower motor speeds weren’t noticeably responsive, so I increased them and found it made the climbs easier.

You can park your cargo bike at the front door of Bunnings. A staff member saw the bike and said “that’s a good idea.”

Carrying loads
At Bunnings Belconnen, I parked literally at the front door, locked the bike to a wobbly railing, and shopped. Bought a small work platform for my parents’ adjustable ladder. Outside, while munching on a democracy sausage, a Bunnings staff member saw my bike and exclaimed it was a good idea. I wished I’d bought heavier things, like paint or pot plants, so I could show others what it could carry. Or something magical at Christmas, like a #TreeByBike.

Riding the Babboe City electric cargo bike home from the Jamison Centre shops, with five bags of groceries, and a small ladder from a hardware giant.

Danger: Heavier load
After Bunnings, I rode to the supermarkets at the Jamison Centre in Macquarie, and pushed a trolley out with five bags of groceries – roughly a week’s worth for our two-person household. Moved the bags around the box to distribute the weight, and added the ladder on top. Pushed the bike off its stand, tried to pedal quickly, and starting toppling over. I caught the bike just in time, but it was close. Remember to slow down next take off.

Five bags of groceries and a work platform

Headed home, up long, gradual hills, on unsafe painted bicycle lanes, then separate bike paths, and narrow, broken footpaths on Belconnen Way. Rang the bike’s bell proudly when I reached our block of flats, to show anyone who cared that it was possible to buy a household’s supplies for a week and deliver it without needing to start a car’s engine.

As you can see from the pictures, over two weeks I rode the Babboe cargo bike everywhere. Several times to Downer and Dickson, to Lake Burley Griffin, and past several schools in Belconnen to get photos for Twitter. If I had kids, I’d definitely ferry them around in the Babboe, which was enough room for two small kids – say both under 10 – and heaps of their stuff.

Returning the bike
I rode the bike back to Downer on a Friday morning, handed the keys and lock to Zuleka, who gave it an inspection and asked me to complete a survey on my experiences. A quick and easy process.

There were a few downsides to the bike, but these were minor and didn’t spoil my enjoyment. The kickstand was noisy and bounced constantly. It needs tightening. The lower power settings weren’t effective on hills, so higher speeds are better. I needn’t have worried about chewing up the battery, as it was a workhorse and higher speeds uphill didn’t trim battery life. I charged the bike every second or third day, and never once ran out of battery life, or worried about range.

I can’t stress enough how much fun it was. Numerous kids of our neighbours in our block loved being passengers. I’m sure they’d love the experience of being taken to school on it. If you want to experience it for yourself, you’re invited to the ‘come and try’ session at the Downer shops on Friday 12 February from 10am-11:30am, or join the wait list on the Canberra Electric Bike Library.

Here’s another article I wrote for SEE-Change about replacing my daily car commute with an e-bike. I didn’t like being traffic. Who does?

Homesickness, 2005-style

Thailand’s former king, viewed from my former balcony, Wittayu Complex, Bangkok.


October 30, 2005

Hello there

Thanks for your concerns about my well being in Thailand’s restive southernmost provinces. I’m heading to Hong Kong on November 22 for a three-day course on how to survive conflict zones. AFP has run several courses before for people volunteering for Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ll likely put my hand up late next year for Kabul, but I’m not interested in Baghdad.

The insurance company has asked AFP to ensure their journalists can handle themselves when things turn ugly, such as police start shooting on a crowd. I’ve learned recently from Newsweek’s Joe Cochrane to smear toothpaste below your eyes when the cops are shooting tear gas around.

I’ll squish a tube in my back pocket when next I head south.

Thoughts on a silent night

Before my pool a bed of light –

Can it be frost upon the ground!

Eyes raised, I see the moon so bright;

Head bent, in homesickness I’m drowned

Li Bai (701-762)

From Songs of the immortals: an anthology of classical Chinese poetry.

(Penguin, 1994)

I am running on fumes. And the tank’s nearly empty.

In four nights’ time, I’ll be stuffed inside an Emirates flight to Sydney.

I’m about to have my first trip home to Australia in more than a year.

Eighteen days’ break – the first time I’ve seen most of my family in 18 months.

And as often happens when I’m nauseous with homesickness, I imagine Australia and my home town to be more rich and vivid – and with journalism job vacancies — than when I grew up there.

And so now I dislike being away, and thinking that none of this is worth it because much has changed to my family and friends since I last saw them.

And now I frown at thinking I’m missing out on my young niece and nephew growing up and discovering the world.

So I consider packing up all my books and music and notepads and moving back to Australia – a regular mood I usually pass through easily.

Except this time it seems far more difficult a hill to trudge up than the others.

This time it’s the toughest because it’s taken so long to get home to Ballina, in New South Wales state.

Before the Bangkok job was offered, I’d head back every April, after covering the Hong Kong rugby sevens for the Standard newspaper.

Once a year was inadequate, but all I could get in a city that does not offer four weeks’ annual leave, the way Australia does today, but may not in a year.

Then, when the Thailand job was mine, they said they needed me urgently, so I kept quiet about wanting to go home.

It didn’t seem sensible to mention my mother was arriving in Hong Kong, and I wanted to be there to see her and her friend.

So I left Hong Kong on the Sunday. Mum arrived that Friday. She couldn’t change her flight at the last minute for Bangkok.

This is my first holiday proper – aside from long weekends – in a year, when I spent a big break in West Africa and Ireland/London.

Day one is breakfast in Sydney before being met by a beautiful girl, Kaos, who’s also timed her trip back with mine.

My wonderful father meets us at the Gold Coast airport for day two, and on to Gabba cricket ground in Brisbane to see Australia play West Indies in the first test. I hope we can argue about John Howard in the car…

The weekend’s with my sister Charm, and the gorgeous Bree and Caelum, including a trip to watch Bree at the local pony club.

Finally, Sunday night in Ballina and my mother’s company, to regale her and dad with my adventures. And then bore them with talk of moving back and trying to live somewhere quiet…

A trip to Broken Hill in western New South Wales, or Mitchell in western Queensland — to get some red dirt under my skin — have been scrapped in favour of seeing more of the land around Ballina and Kaos’ Kountry near Coffs Harbour.

Tired of telling people no, I’m not from Sydney, I now say I’m from Bunjalung country, northern New South Wales. Although I don’t speak a word of Bunjalung, nor know any Bunjalung Aboriginal people any more.

I spent most of my first 19 years growing up there, but hardly explored the southern parts of it. I never once visited Bunjalung national park, and perhaps once briefly saw a bit of Broadwater national park. It’s time I saw both, or Broadwater at the least (if only to help dent my uncle Doug’s likely certain observation that few people visit the park, despite them claiming national parks are vital).

Sentimentality took root in me early. I can still recall the day my cousins and I found an echidna (a spiny ant eater, native to Australia) while playing in the grounds of Lennox Head primary school in the mid 1980s) and picked it up.

And the Aboriginal corroboree ring in the scrub across the road from their house in Stewart Street.

I want to see if the ring is still there, or is now a housing estate, like many of the places we used to play in.

My cousins used to know how to sing the “heads, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes” song in an Aboriginal language, which may have been Bunjalung.

They learned it at Lennox Head school, with its white and green uniform.

It sounded like: “Bo wollygin jindoo ginner, jindoo ginner.”

I wonder how much they remember?

Finally, after catching up with as many friends in Brisbane and Sydney want to meet me, I’m going to Orange to see Nan.

When I spoke with her in August – and asked about what she remembers of the war in the Pacific and Hiroshima ending in 1945 – it made me realize people my age and from a white, middle-class background have nothing to complain about.

Nan married my late grandfather during the war. About two days later, Pa was posted to far north Queensland to serve in the Royal Australian Air Force. They didn’t see each for 18 months, until after the war ended.

They lived off letters.

My generation, me especially, devours cheap international telephone calls with cards or on the Internet, e-mail, discount air fares and fast mail services, and still we moan about being separated from those we love.

So hearing that from Nan on a Sunday afternoon has made me pull my head in, despite all you’ve read above.

I’ll be taking notes, and grabbing some hair samples to help make a specimen of how people should be built.

After people like my Nan and Pa, well, they broke the mould.