Sat-Sun, Nov 4-5, 63 miles (100 km)
You know you are heading the right direction when a local asks you with a look of concern in their eyes, “Do you know where you are going”?
The question today comes from a Council worker in a b-double gravel truck that has passed me twice already hauling gravel for some road repair up ahead on Healey’s Lane. This time I’ve gotten off the single-lane road for him as I can see the cloud of dust up ahead coming my way.
When the Council worker with absolutely crazy eyes and a bunch of fuzzy, grey hair in a small afro asks me the question, I say, “Yes – up Bullhead Gap to Callaghan’s Creek!”
Of course, I am way down at ground level and he is way up at truck level, and his truck’s big-arse engine is idling, so it is hard to hear each other. He is certain I’m on the wrong road and don’t know where I’m going. Finally, our mimes, pointed fingers and snips of understood words leads him to say, “So when you get up to the top here, you are heading left?”
I respond, “YES!” And give him a big thumbs up.
He looks at me in alarm, those crazy eyes at first surprised and then narrowing in condemnation. He says, “You’re heading into the bush? Alone. There’s wild dogs up there”.
I nod yes in understanding. He responds, “Be careful. I’ll let the guys up ahead know you are coming.”
Seriously, if I were alone in the bush and that guy came up to me, I’d be more afraid of him than a wild dog. He was a rough-looking character and those eyes were pretty crazy!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. To get up there, I had to drive to Tallangatta. After a terrific and late night last night, I don’t get rolling on the bike up at Tallangatta until 11.15am.
At first we head along the rail trail, heading east. We’ve ridden this one many times in both directions. It is a beautiful day today – in the upper 70s, sunny, and the breeze isn’t too heavy. I think about what the landscape looks like from above as I traverse down below, loving that I know all the hills and topography so well. I know this landscape for 150 kms around Albury better than anywhere I’ve lived in my life. I look up ahead to a future ride over the ridge of Mt Granya. It’s been on my list for awhile, but I just haven’t gotten to it yet. There are so many roads to ride!
We turn off the rail trail onto the Yabba Road. We are heading up the Mitta Valley which is hemmed in by long ridges and spurs on either side. Today, in the lower valley, we are riding the more hilly side where the road rolls up and down through roadcuts at the end of spurs and in and out of feeder creek valleys. I’ve ridden this going the other way before – there are three big climbs along the way.
At first we follow the waters of Tatonga Inlet – where the Mitta Mitta River runs into the dam waters. This would have all been magnificent swamps and open woodlands before the Europeans came. The water is still pretty high, but about 8 or so feet lower than it would be at capacity.
As the inlet waters become more shallow and then become the river, the roads undulates as it climbs around the spurs. It is treed to start, then we ride into more open areas. This is all dairy country, and the last time I rode through here, I got passed by heaps of dairy tankers. But today, there is just a car every 10 minutes or so, and the riding is relaxed. The flies are pretty obnoxious, but they are not atrocious just yet. That is coming. I would take magpies all summer in exchange for the flies if I had a choice.
After one steep climb, I am able to see our adventure for the rest of today and early tomorrow. We’re doing a loop around the ridge in front of us, heading up one creek valley and coming back down the other. I don’t have a topo map for this area, just a Rooftop map, so I’m not quite sure what torture lies ahead. I don’t know where I’m going to camp. And it didn’t look good for water sources based on my map, so I’ve got 4 litres of water I’m lugging in my panniers and 2 litres in my Camelbak. But it is this sense of feeling prepared yet not knowing what lies ahead that makes my heart sing.
I roll down the hill and up the next one. I pass by a herd of dairy cows in very sad condition. Their spines and haunches protrude and there is no sheen in their coats. They look miserable. Further on there is a calf hobbling along, dragging a hind leg coated in mud and shit. I can only guess that this is a consequence of the Murray-Goulburn Cooperative fiasco. That dairy company, a local one that produced that “Kiewa Country” milk you’ve seen in my other journals, screwed up their milk pricing. So not only did they have to downgrade what they were going to pay farmers going forward, but they had a retrospective clause in the supply contracts that forced farmers to pay back money that they’d been ‘overpaid’ for a previous period. So farmers would not be paid enough to cover costs going forward and now also owed big debts (some $100,000 or more) to pay back money from the retrospective ‘overpayment’.
This sent many farmers in the area to the wall. Many could not afford to milk their cows, many sold off all or parts of their herds. Many picked up contracts with other buyers. And the local processing plant was forced to close. And here is the evidence of how a big corporation can fuck things up royally, and the people who pay the price are not sitting in the corporate office. You can read more about it here: http://www.abc.net.au/news/rural/2017-04-28/watchdog-takes-legal-action-against-murray-goulburn/8479316
Not too far along from the poor cows, we get to Healey’s Lane, our first new road, and the one that will lead us up into the bush. Behind me, one of the two gravel dump trucks that have passed me each way is slowing. I see a big “ROAD WORK – REDUCE SPEED” sign at the beginning of the road. Shit. I let the gravel truck pass. I look at my map. Alternatives? I don’t want to ride a one-lane dirt road with gravel trucks kicking up tremendous amounts of dust. I don’t want to deal with road works.
Finally, I convince myself to just go for it. It’s only two gravel trucks. The Council-owned portion of this road isn’t all that long. The worst that will happen is that we will get very dusty and dirty and have to walk the bike somewhere. They won’t be working up in the bush where the track gets steep.
So we start up Healey’s Lane.
I’m only about 1.5 kms into it when I can see the dust cloud that is the gravel truck coming back. That’s good. It means they aren’t that far up the road. Once the driver sees me, he slows right down. I think he is being polite about the dust, but he is actually slowing so he can stop and talk to me. The conversation above ensues.
After I’ve totally convinced that guy I’m crazy, I head on and it’s not far along that I reach the roadworks. They are just putting down new gravel. The tanker is spraying down the new load and I follow him through. The guy in the grader watches me. It is chunky and bouncy, but I make it through with dignity intact and no wobbling. The guy in the work truck at the other end gives me the look of death. Yeah, screw you, too. I’m a tough chick you nasty man, and the likes of you could never handle someone as independent, intelligent and determined as me.
We roll on as the valley gets narrower and the bush closes in. There is still much evidence of the 2003 fires that roared through here. As we finally cross into the state forest land, the bush is a bit healthier-looking. We head up as the gravel track becomes just formed dirt. It’s in good condition though, and the steeper parts are intermingled with shallower grades as we follow the creek upstream.
The trees give good shade and the midstory is scrubby and scratchy. It’s a bit jungle-y in a dry sclerophyll sort of way. You could film a lions, tigers, and bears movie in here! I come up to an open area that is quite suitable for camping. When I was looking at satellite views, this was the only really good looking place. I thought I might make a short day of it, since there will be nothing along the ridge we are about to climb.
But it’s only 1.45 pm. That would be a super-long day tomorrow. And I can only average about 4 or 5 mph on some of the dirt, mountain roads. We’d be better off getting up and over the ridge today.
So on we go. The rest of the climb up the creek to the big, 4-way track junction goes more quickly and easily than I expected. It goes so quick that I’m up to the junction long before I thought I’d get there.
Of course, the road we want goes up. And it goes up quite steeply to start. My legs have felt like lead all day today. There has been no oomph at all. The 4 litres of water on-board makes it even slower. But up we go, dead lead legs and all.
It is quiet. There are no screeching birds, just melodious song-birds. There are no people. After the roadworks guys, I won’t see another person until I’m back on tarmac tomorrow. The road is carved right out of the hillside – vertical roadcut on one side, steep drop on the other. It continues like this for miles and miles.
The views are fabulous through the breaks in the trees as we climb higher and higher. Frustratingly, we never crest the ridge, we just sit a few hundred feet below it the whole time. But I’m happy and content and loving all the silence. It’s just me, the guys and the bike. The road doesn’t look like it gets much use. And there are no fresh tracks whatsoever. No one has been down this one today. Good stuff. This is what makes my soul sigh happily.
At times, the track is too steep or too rocky or the loose stones too big to ride. So I get off and push. And so it goes for a couple hours. Push some. Ride some. Heading up, then eventually heading down.
At one point, I stop to take a picture of the mountains in the distance. I’ve been pushing the bike the last few hundred feet. As I’m taking the picture, I hear some crunching and such in the vegetation in the road cut beside me. I think nothing of it. There are always heaps of lizards scurrying about. But then, as I’m putting my camera away, the noise over my left shoulder sounds more like moving, dead leaves than scurrying. I look back and I see this big snake uncoiling in the foliage on a branch. It has a bright yellow band and is light green. F&&k………. I sprint. A sound like “Yaaaarrrrb” comes from my mouth. I push that bike up that steep slope faster than you’ve ever seen someone move a heavy bike on stones. I don’t know what kind of snake it was, but when one is less than 5 feet from you in the Aussie bush, it is best not to hang around. Chances are it will be highly venomous. (I didn’t get a great look at the reptile, but once at home, I look up snakes. It was either a highly venomous tiger snake – they tend to be aggressive, especially in spring – or some kind of python which are not harmful to humans).
The downhill is more gentle than the uphill and I can ride almost all of the down. Sometimes I’m only lightly on the brakes. We twist and wind around the watercourses before the road finally starts to head off the ridge on the opposite side of the Mitta Valley. This side is darker in the late afternoon shadows, and it is lusher over here, too. We’re still clinging to the hillside and wondering if we’ll end up just having to camp in a random pull-out.
The interesting part of this is looking at all the fire history. There are the areas where you can tell it burnt very hot in 2003 and the areas where the 2003 regrowth is going well. There are more recent fire scars and open bits of bush. And further down there is a large prescribed burn that goes on for quite a few kms. The trees are marked with yellow dots or bits of yellow caution tape to outline where the torch lines were. It’s interesting to see how it burned hot or cool or fully or incompletely – I suspect the burn was 18 months ago (not this past autumn but the one before) or 12 months ago in springtime.
We are deep down in the forest for awhile, zigging in and out of drainages in a mix of sun and shade. It is so quiet and I’m so happy. It’s been a really great day, minus the lead legs. I guess jumping up and down for two hours the night before a big ride can do that. We’ll climb more than 3500 feet over 33 miles today, so it’s no small elevation gain either.
Finally, we get down close to the forest boundary. The land becomes more gentle and the topography really lies down. It’s a bit scrubby, but I’m sure I can come up with something. I really don’t want to camp next to the road. I’ve not seen anyone, and the road looks like it gets little use, BUT it is a weekend and this is the sort of area that the illegal hunters (wild pigs, deer and dogs) ply in the night-time. Those are not the sorts of guys with which I want to have an encounter.
I drop the bike and go have a look around. A little ways down the road I find a nice little spot among several types of purple wildflowers. It’s flat enough, and there are no limbs or trees overhanging the site. It is approaching 5.45pm – it is most definitely time to get the tent set up and relax!
I had in my mind that today I would say my goodbyes to Grant Hart. He passed away in mid-September, and I haven’t had a chance to pedal out a goodbye yet. Grant Hart was the drummer for Husker Du – my all-time favourite band. I’d programmed a medley of the songs he wrote in Husker Du and later in his solo career and with his band Nova Mob.
But today I just didn’t have a feeling of goodbye in my heart as I rode. I was still on an emotional high from Midnight Oil last night. And then, as I rode all the steep bits on the road clinging to the hillside, I was just in the moment. I was just grunting out the climbs and thinking about getting my arse up the hill. My mind was so focused and so into the flow. That is one of the things I love about riding, and one of the reasons I ride: that focus and intensity that draws you into the ride and filters out everything else.
So tonight I listen to my Grant Hart medley instead as I set up the tent, lie down, relax and rehydrate. I then revel in the silence and the feeling of complete solitude. After rocking out with 12,000 people last night, there is not a soul anywhere close tonight. I’ve not seen anyone since 1.15 this afternoon. I reflect on how young I was when I first heard and fell in love with Husker Du (age 12 – same as Midnight Oil, actually) and how old I am now. I think about all the places I’ve been and all the events that have led me to be right here, right now – just hanging out in the forest in Northeast Victoria. I am sad and happy and content and full. I watch the full moon rise through the trees – a monthly cycle of wax and wane in a life of cycling and cycles. Yes, I am truly blessed.
So about 3.50 am, I awake. I’m not sure why. My pillow isn’t all that flash since I haven’t really brought extra clothes. My neck hurts a little. Or maybe it’s a sixth sense for potential danger. Then, in the far distance, in the silence of the night, I hear a vehicle. It’s coming down the same road I rode yesterday. Yes, the 4WD goes rattling past a few minutes later. Yep, I’m glad I persisted and didn’t camp along a turn-out. My tent can be seen from the road here, but only if you are looking for it. It is not in the line of sight from the road. I’m particularly glad I’m camped off the road when I hear a series of gunshots off to the north (the direction the truck headed) about 5 minutes later.
In the AM, I do not hurry. I let the sun get up and stretch its rays down to me before I finally start to pack up. Today should be easier than yesterday, so there is no hurry. And we aren’t going to beat the wind – it’s been breezy all night. So we aren’t on the ‘road’ until 8.30am.
The ‘road’ isn’t even really a track. It’s more of a path across some farmer’s paddock. But the views are nice and I have a look at the convoluted spurs and ridges on the opposite side of the valley. I’ve got plans to ride the road that goes up and over that one into the Tallangatta Creek valley, too. So many roads to ride!
We’ve got enough downhill momentum to get through the long grass, bumps, ruts and weaving tire paths in the paddock. And soon we are down onto a gravel road again, gently riding uphill through open pastures backed by the steep, forested hills.
We ride through a herd of cattle – but they are obviously used to humans as they don’t scatter much and they don’t take off down the road in front of me. We pass three homesteads as we weave upward on the ends of the hills that lead down to the creek. In the distance, we see a small herd of deer (feral, exotic pests) running across an open and steep paddock up into the bush.
The road tilts more steeply upward as we ride the edges of the private land and then up into the forest. The forest is pretty open through here, too. Eventually the grade backs off and we just gently head up. It’s a pretty glorious morning.
Today is the day to pedal out the goodbye to Grant Hart. I put the music on my ipod and say goodbyes in my head. Husker Du was a punk band that formed in the late 70s in Minneapolis. They are relatively unknown, but without them there would never have been Nirvana, the Pixies, the Foo Fighters or Green Day, among others. They were very influential but somewhat unsung.
Many fans are either big Bob Mould (the guitarist) or big Grant Hart (the drummer) fans. After the band broke up acrimoniously in 1987, people seemed to split into Mould or Hart camps. I’ve always appreciated both, and followed both of them in their post-Husker bands and solo careers. It was easier to like Bob – he gave up the drugs and alcohol and had a pretty stable career. Grant was erratic and haunted and a troubled soul. Yet, he was probably the better lyricist of the two. I think about him, Husker Du, and how the music has been part of my life as I ride.
For a good 40 minutes, we gently climb through pleasant forest. The road surface is great and I’m just pumping it out. Good stuff this morning. Eventually, I get a bit of a downhill and I think, “oh, that’s nice, a little bit of a break in the climb, that’s good.” But the downhill keeps going. And it keeps getting steeper.
What? Surely, we’ve not climbed to the gap already? I still don’t have a working bike computer, and my map doesn’t have any kms listed between points, so I’ve got no way to gauge these things. I could have ridden that gentle uphill on good gravel for hours – that was way too short!
We fly along downhill with that rocky ridge we’ve just circumnavigated in our forward view. It has long, vertical rocky cliffs jutting out in streaks among the vegetation. We are on the brakes the whole way – it is way steeper on this side than what we just climbed.
We can look down through the trees to the road below and on down the valley to its mouth and opening to the Mitta. There are some huge dams in the valley and someone is having a go with a private pine plantation on the side of one hill. It doesn’t have the orderliness of the HVP plantations that lease from the government, and I can’t tell what is rotating where. It’s a little odd.
Eventually we fling on out of the forest. The valley is very pleasant with tall grasses, showy weeds, tumbled granite boulders outcropping beneath that rocky ridge, and an undulating road on soft granitic gravel. The views are long over the lush paddocks to the steeply forested hills on the opposite side.
I still haven’t seen a soul. There are plenty of cattle, though, and I have to weave my way through a few herds. Consequently, the annoying flies of yesterday have turned into atrocious ones along this road. Ugh. Summer is coming.
We weave and climb and swat flies for probably 10 kms. It’s a long valley. Finally, we make it back to the main Yabba Road. Our new roads and our adventure for the weekend is over. It’s just a pleasant ride back on the Yabba Road back toward the car. For it to be the Melbourne Cup long weekend, we’ve escaped the crowds. I saw plenty of people towing caravans and motorbikes and camping stuff yesterday in Tallangatta, and Tallangatta will be a bit nutso when I get back there today, but we’ve luckily found the quiet. I only see a car every 10-15 minutes on our ride back today.
We hit up the rail trail again for our last part of the ride back to the car. I don’t see anyone out – this section is not as popular as that to the west. There are plenty of cyclists in town, though, so it’s a great asset for the town. I just pedal out the final five miles. My legs are really letting me know that we’ve done 6,000 feet of climbing in 60 miles with a whole heap of water onboard yesterday after jumping around for 2 hours Friday night. I’m one spent cookie, today.
But I’m glad I got the chance to say goodbye to Grant Hart in my head. It’s been six weeks since he died, and I really wanted some time to appreciate his work and send him on his way in my head. He is part of the music that has propelled me through life, and I am forever grateful for that. The two videos below show Grant back in his Husker Du days – the first video is Husker Du live at the peak of their performances doing my favourite Grant Hart song. The next one is the slick album production of one his best known, frequently covered, break-up songs.
So thank you, Grant. I am sorry your life had so much turmoil and tragedy. But I am grateful for your work and deeply appreciate its positive impact on my life. The song below is such a contrast to your wild Du days, but it is so fitting for the end. It is a quiet, raw, aching song leading to a powerful end – it is the best goodbye song you could ever have done.
“From the sky, I’ve fallen,
To suffer and to burn,
It is to the sky that I shall return.”
Radiate, Grant, radiate away….