We start the trip in deficit. Yesterday I drove to Eildon straight from work. Upon arrival at 6.45pm, the petrol station, the takeaway shop, the pizza shop and the supermarket were all shut. The nasty, unmaintained pub required previous bookings. So there was nowhere to get food. I had not eaten all day and had spent two hours through the day at work doing sweaty physical labour to clean out a shipping container. So I was hungry.I was a bit concerned with my food supply anyway. I’d already figured out how I could ration the food I brought over four days. Weight vs energy needs are always a concern when doing steep gravel roads with no places to resupply. So, cautiously, Thursday night I ate one package of Madras lentils and the last 1/3 of a bag of corn chips. I went to bed hungry.
This morning we are rolling at 6am – just after sunrise. The motel owners have been kind and are letting me leave my car there (I buy them a bottle of wine on my return in thanks). I do think you could probably stealth camp at the Oval though – most other places around the pondage have ‘no camping’ signs, but because there is no vehicle access beyond the parking lot at the Oval – there is no demand there. You could set up behind the kiosk.
So we climb up first thing toward the dam wall. It’s a massive thing sitting over there. We pass the cemetery which sits under the massive high voltage power lines. The span over the lake just over the hill is the longest in the southern hemisphere at 2.2 kms. It’s an industrial feel until we turn right and up toward the marina, boat ramp and campgrounds.
I’m glad to be riding this before all the people with boat trailers start. It’s narrow, winding and slow as the uphill is not shallow. We get a good downhill to the marina – and I’m even more glad I’m not here on a summer weekend when I see the size of the boat ramp parking lot.
Beyond the marina, the road turns to gravel. It’s just been graded in the last week, so it’s a smooth ride mostly for me up and down the steep hills. We are going up and over the end of each little spur that reaches down into the lake. There are 8 camping areas scattered along here – bookings required. I am so glad to be doing this without traffic.
Beyond the campgrounds, we cross Jerusalem Creek where the creek ends its run and gets lost in the lake. The ford has a concrete bottom, so it’s easy.
We then head up the Jerusalem Creek Road passing the walking track to The Pinnacle. The creek runs fast off to the right as we slowly work our way uphill on good gravel. The forest through here has been logged within an inch of its life, but it’s national park now, so it should be nice a few generations from now (if the land status is not changed by greedy governments and the privatization of every public asset).
We cross the creek again through a deeper ford, though the current isn’t as strong. The other creek crossings all have bridges.
Up and up we go. It is quiet. The corellas and sulphur-crested cockatoos aren’t around here, just melodious and chirping birds. The air is still. It’s not hot yet. There are pockets of the remains of temperate rainforests along the feeder creeks. The road remains well-surfaced. Ah, this is a good start.
We climb further and round the hill. Our final approach to the main road is along an open and long, straight stretch of creek valley. And then we pop out on the Jamieson-Eildon Road. We have about 5 miles maybe on this one to catch our next gravel road. This main road is just fantastic – I rode it the other way in October.
Finally, we get to the Eildon-Warburton Road. It has a great surface to start and we ride through an extensive planned burn area. I imagine this also burnt in the big 2009 fires (this is about the eastern extent of the Murrindindi fire). The trees are all black. There is little groundcover. This was probably burnt last fall. The trees have been thinned here, too, so it’s a little like looking through bars in a jail cell if those were expanded 3-D and depth added.
Still, the road is beautiful. I know they are logging this area, maybe not actively at the moment, but it is in rotation for native hardwoods. Yet, they’ve got the visual amenity right, and there is nothing shockingly ugly from the road. It’s all just various stages of regrowth with a variety of understorey depending on the last logging or round of fire. It’s a good ride!
We climb and climb. The road surface worsens, but is good for the most part. Toward the top, they’ve redone the road with a pink-coloured gravel and it is awful. It’s very loose and has fist-size and larger chunks of angular rock all through it. Those bits are tough, particularly on uphills. It’s like cobblestone or loose cobblestone with sharp bits. I curse these parts.
Still, I’m having an awesome time. I’m alone in the forest. There is no threat of rain or severe weather. What wind there is doesn’t come into play deep down in the forest. If anything, it is a refreshing breeze on occasion. Because it is hot. Quite hot. Even though we are going to hit 800 metres, it’s still going to get into the low 30s today. I am lucky, though. We are passing in and out of creek drainages that feed the main valley. Most of the creeks are still running. So I can stop and dunk my shirt in the cold water of a random creek every 30 min or so. The biggest problem is finding your way through the rampant blackberries (not native – massive problem here) to get to the water!
The south-facing slopes have lusher vegetation – it feels like the air becomes richer and more oxygenated through each of those sections. Delicious! And so we go. We climb a million steep, short hills on our sustained climb up. We get into a rhythm where we roll down to a creek crossing then climb back out as we go up and around the next spur. After the spur, we head back into the hillside and down to the next feeder creek. Then up out toward the main valley and around the next spur. This is our rhythm for the three days. In, out, down, up. Ad nauseam.
Four, maybe five hours later, I have no idea, we hit our high point for the day just below Cold Weather Hill. We are at about 825 metres – it is most definitely not cold today!
At this big junction, we meet up with the active logging roads. These roads have a good surface and UHF number signs. There are no trucks working today. We commence a long, mostly straight descent down a narrow creek. I work the brakes and enjoy the nice forest. This has been a great ride today. And, shush, don’t say anything to anyone, but the sticky flies have been pretty much absent today, too. I cannot tell you how grateful I am to do nearly 4,000 feet of very slow, gravel climbing today and not have those nuisance flies clinging all over my face!
At the bottom of the descent we arrive in a flat area thick with riparian vegetation. There are multiple options down here, but we take off down the Vans Road as a shortcut to the Big River Road.
I stop just after the first bridge and lay the bike down. I go down to the creek and dunk my head and shirt. We’re down lower again and it is mighty hot. It is all I can do to stop myself from just lying in the creek in the shade of the bridge for awhile!!
But I force myself on. There’s no good place to camp here, and I don’t want to relax until the day is done. We’ve only got a few miles to go before we can get to a series of campsites along the Big River anyway.
So on we go. We are back down to scrubbier, drier forest down here that reaches into the riparian veg of mid-storey bushes and thick undergrowth that line the creek. But the road itself is an absolute joy. It has a wonderfully smooth surface with no loose or big rocks. It stays just above the floodplain with only a few very short, steep climbs. Mostly it is just a downhill dream. It’s gentle enough I can just let the bike run – flying and floating along as the forest whooshes past. I’m up out of the saddle, knees flexed and acting as shock absorbers, body and hands loose on the bike, just feeling the flow as we fly along. Good, good stuff.
Vans Road dumps us out at Arnold Creek and the Stockmans’ Reward camping area. There is no one here, and there is a toilet, but the vehicles have bog-holed the place and there is no grass anywhere – it is all soil compaction and vehicle-erosion everywhere not fenced. It’s ugly. I don’t want to stay here. So on we go.
I head over the bridge where the Big River comes in from the right. And then it is up a steep hill on a fairly newly laid, chunky surface with big, loose rock. Yuck. It’s the kind of gravel they put on roads that see a lot of use. Ugh. Sure enough, a Jeep comes flying around the corner, doesn’t bother to slow down when he sees me and doesn’t bother to move over either. He passes me with about a metre to spare, even though I’m in the middle of my side of the road, and it is more than wide enough for two vehicles (unlike the other roads I’ve been on today). Bastard. But who cares – I’ve only seen two cars in eight hours! One at 6.45 am and now this one at 2pm.
I pass the first turn-off and then decide to go have a look at the Dairy Flat campground. There are heaps of named but informal camping sites all along this road. The only trouble is that the road stays very high on the valley wall most of the time, so you have to ride down steep access roads to get to the river. You’ve got no idea if anyone is occupying any of the camping areas until you’ve gone down the hill.
I strike it lucky. There is no one down there. It’s not the most picturesque site ever – a few big trees, several huge fire rings that have rubbish in them, tons of dust (again, allow vehicles free reign and they will trample everything into mud and dust) and no real inviting place for the tent.
BUT, we are right on some very nice rapids and just downstream is where the Torbeck River meets the Big River. Get down on the water and it’s a nice spot. Plus, I’m lucky and no one comes down to camp. Good enough – we had legs left but it is too hot to want to pedal further.
We laze away the afternoon and evening – rounds of sitting in the river mixed with sitting on the shore in the shade. The guys break out the floaties. It has been a most excellent day. It cannot be in greater contrast to the week I graduated from college 20 years ago when we’d had windchills of -20F during Finals Week that followed a blizzard. There was still mounds of plowed snow in the parking lots at the graduation ceremony. And today it was 90-93F all afternoon! Twenty years and 12,000 miles away in a different hemisphere….
I wanted to get going early today, as early as possible to beat the heat and any traffic on this gravel road. I need all of the road to ride well – going from outside corner to outside corner to stay off corrugations and chunky rocks.
I don’t get going quite as early as I’d like but 6.30am is acceptable. Immediately, we are back to Up, Down, In, Out on that chunky grey gravel. The valley tightens right back up and we are smooshed between high ridges on either side. It is incredibly scenic.
Towards the end of the bulk of the campgrounds, that awful grey gravel ends and we get smaller diameter gravel. It’s much easier to find a smooth line. As we round the spurs, the road is often right down to the bedrock. At one point, there is the most spectacular u-shaped fold in the rock. If I’d been going uphill, I would have stopped to take a picture. It was that good.
We ride through lush vegetation in the feeder creek valleys and through messmate (?) along the main valley walls. We climb up out of the river and then along some flats. The views are just wonderful all day.
The gravel remains mostly good. We climb high above the river as we close in on the 25 mile creek camping area. I’m not even an hour into the day and I’m hungry. Not good. Normally I get a good two hours in before I need my first snack break. But I went to bed hungry again last night. My rations for today are three small granola-type bars, 1 package of yellow dahl and 50g of beef jerkey. Maybe a bit of peanut butter. So I stop to eat two granola bars high above the river in the shade of the valley wall.
A 4WD goes past. The driver looks at me with raised eyebrows and a wave. He’s alone and doesn’t have a lot of gear. And that is the last car I see until 1 or 2pm.
I push on up the hill. Wow – the views are gorgeous. You can look out to the rugged, dissected mountains that roll to the horizon or down the steep slopes to the river way below.
I get up to the 25 mile Creek camping area. From here on, there is the potential for 10 miles of walking. 4WD tracks can be real hit and miss on whether they are rideable or not. The steepness on this one looks okay – no topo lines tightly gathered in too many places. So it will all just be down to whether or not the surface is rideable.
Down we go. There are some immediate rocky bits, but we bump through them slowly. We are departing from the Big River valley for a while here, going around the back side of a ridge following a large creek, then riding back up and over the ridge back to the Big River side.
We soon have to ford the creek. The stones at the bottom are big enough and the creek deep enough (mid-calf deep) that I don’t like my chances of making it across upright, especially without a good run-up. It is also early enough in the day that I’m not keen to get my shoes soaked just yet. So I take off socks and shoes, stow them in a pannier and push the bike through.
We start back immediately into a steep climb that then backs off. We are heading up 200 metres in less than 5 kms. The road is good to start but then deteriorates as we round the corner into the sun.
Ugh. It is hot. It is very slow. But it is still incredibly scenic and quiet. I’ll take solitude about any way I can get it. I have to get off and push a couple steep sections where my tire spins out, but mostly it’s just a crawl uphill in the sun.
We get to the top where the Hope Track takes off. That one heads straight up a steep hill. No hope of riding that one! Our road heads down though, in the shade of the valley wall. We are high above the Big River again.
Then we proceed again with the In. Out. Up. Down. We stay high though the whole time. I filled a litre of water back at the ford. It needs two hours for the tablets to work.
All day, as I cross a heap of small creeks, I dump treated water into my Camelback and fill another bottle to treat. I keep track of the time and rotate which pannier the most recent bottle goes in. I’m probably lugging along an extra litre most of the day, because I don’t know which creeks are running and which aren’t. But it is even hotter today, so I’m not messing around with hydration. The whole process works very well. It is very scenic and beautiful and I can enjoy that because I know I won’t get overheated or too dehydrated. I’ve had heat exhaustion bordering heat stroke before and that was very, very unpretty. I’m lucky to have gotten out of that one unscathed in 2003, so I don’t mess around with water and wetting my shirt when available anymore!!
In. Out. Up. Down. Gorgeous scenery and lucky to be on the shady side of the river. As the sun arcs higher, we start to get more and more overhead sun. The road surface eventually goes to shit, too, on the downhill. All of this road is 2WD except the three-mile section just south of Enochs Point. This is very rocky with rock steps and loose boulders and everything else you can think of that makes something unrideable. We bumped the bike down these 5 kms walking alongside.
There is a small waterfall on the creek at Enochs Point. But the tracks to get down there are steep and I don’t want to come back up. Another time maybe. Besides I can hear someone with some sort of motor down there (probably a lawnmower – there are 15 private buildings down there), and I don’t want to get closer to that. So we just stick to the Big River Road and grunt our way up the hills and coast the downhills – always aiming for the smoothest line.
Most creeks are piped under the road or are just merely a few splashes to get across. But we do comes across two more fords. I am able to ride one of them – the second one has too big of stones.
With my shoes and feet now wet, I take the time to let the guys float untethered. Untethered!! I give them a series of runs down the creek. Hilariously, Verne gets stuck on rocks, stuck in eddies and even overturns in one standing wave. I can set him and Kermit down in the same place at the same time, and Kermit skims right on down the creek. Verne eventually comes down after getting stalled on each obstacle. Don’t tell him it’s because he’s fat, and light Kermit just floats over it all.
Finally, we move on to the established campsite. There are a couple more steep hills between there and our floating location. But I grunt up those and then immediately go down to the river and dunk my head at the campsite.
There’s a Dad there with two young boys. The kiddos are screaming and yelling and doing all the stuff you do when Mom isn’t around. But the camping area is huge and I can get a site with access to the river that is out-of-sight and mostly out-of-sound from the family. Their set-up makes it look like they’ll be staying through Christmas.
I go down for a proper swim. I stroke upstream, finding 4-5 foot deep holes as I go. After a bit, I flop over onto my back and float back downstream. I get the bike cleaned up (creek fords, bike grease, road gravel dust and drivetrains all together end up with a terrible mess and lots of squeaking, grinding and protesting by day’s end), the tent set up in the shade, eat the beef jerkey and the dahl, and confirm that I will definitely be able to finish out the ride tomorrow. Which is good. Because I have 3 tablespoons of peanut butter left.
Then I head down to the river to float away the hot afternoon with the guys. It has been another tremendous day – I highly recommend this one (probably not during school holidays, but any other time). What a tough, grunting, hot, sweaty pleasure it has been to pedal out the miles in such great scenery today.
The alarm is set for 4.40am. It means we should be packed and on the road just after first light. We’re going to try to beat the heat today and get back to the car by 10 am or so. I allowed four days for the ride in my planning, because I had no idea of gravel conditions and how much I might have to walk. There hasn’t been too much of that, fortunately, so the ride turns out to be:
Day 1- an 8-hour day of about 40 miles – not much walking/pushing whatsoever,
Day 2 – about six hours (including breaks and 3 miles downhill walking just south of Enoch Point) for 24 miles, and
Day 3 – 4 hours for 24 miles (including breaks and trying to stay conscious).
So I’m up and packing in the dark as soon as the alarm goes off. Even though I had a bit of a downhill angle on the tent, I’ve slept straight through. I rarely sleep straight through a night these days, so I love exhausted nights in my tent.
We’re on the road at 5.30am – plenty enough light to see, not all that close to the horizon yet. My pack-up routine, whether on an overnight ride or a long tour, always takes me 45 minutes. A quick day is 40 min, a slow day is 50 min. It does not ever change. Today is a slow day as I take advantage of the camping area having a pit toilet.
There is an immediate and steep climb out of the campground. My legs definitely feel a bit dead today. Nothing hurts, but there is just no oomph.
It stays very scenic. We ride high above the river again with long views. There are several very steep, tire-spinning climbs after we’ve bottomed out next to the river and climb back up the valley wall. But on we go.
There is a section of open river with rapids – and two day use areas with picnic tables alongside. It is a very pleasant setting, but maybe better in September or October than the height of summer. It looks like it would be pretty sunny and hot through the day. Still, it’s a beautiful section of river and were it afternoon, I’d give the guys a bobbing float below some of the rapids. But on we go.
I meet up with Eildon-Jamieson Road about 5 kms into the day. I inspect the derailleurs and chainring and decide we’ll be okay to get back to the car without cleaning up the chain further, etc. We’re back to pavement, now. I put a couple drops of oil on the chain, cross over the river and the associated campgrounds (no one in them), and then start the long, gentle climb.
I LOVE this road. The surface is mostly good. It is pleasant forest and streams and a variety of burn patterns all the way up. When I rode it in October, I said I’d be back. Here I am. I could ride this one again and again.
Back in October, I just had a very general road map for the area, so I had no idea what the climb had in store. I did not know gradients, climb length or anything like that. Today, I have the knowledge from last time, and a good topo map. Either way it is just a wonderful ride.
Because of the topo map, I know that the first part of the long climb crests at White Cow Gap. Then there is undulating road to Blue Gum Saddle. There is a ‘false’ downhill at the saddle. It definitely looks like the top of the climb. But there is a bit more uphill and bit of almost flat until you reach Dry Creek Gap. That is where the walloping fun downhill begins.
I slowly pedal on up. Wow, I love this road. I rode this around about the same time of day in October on a Sunday, too. And the same two cars (a ute with a flammable materials hazard sign, and a white Commodore station wagon) pass me in almost the same two places! Other than a bullet bike motorcycle which overtakes me just after Blue Gum Saddle, these are the only vehicles I see until I get to town.
Shortly before White Cow Gap, I realize I’m riding a lot slower and it seems to take alot of effort. As I close in on the gap, I realize I’m very light-headed. I’m not hungry. I do not have hunger pains. I have this aching pit there, but no hunger. But I need food. I know low blood sugar. But I don’t have any food. I ate the final 3 tablespoons of peanutbutter last night after much debate. I thought I would be better off eating it then, because I normally would not want any food in the time it will take me to get to Eildon today.
So that was a mistake. Not having emergency sugar tablets or something similar is a mistake, too. And I pay for it. I stop at White Cow Gap and get out the peanut butter jar. I lick the lid clean. I stick a finger in there and clean up every single last morsel of nut. I need something.
Then I pedal on. It is such a beautiful road, but I sorta miss out on that as my head retreats from the sharpness that is able to appreciate beauty. On we go. Up. Some down. Some curves. Go, Em. Go, Em. Oh shit, I’m in trouble. I cannot add the km distances on the map. I cannot really think at all. I am so light-headed, I don’t feel like I’m part of me.
I stop again at the Jerusalem Creek Road (where we came up on Friday). I rip apart the beef jerky bags looking for any morsels that escaped consumption. I peel apart the dahl pouch and lick it clean. I shake out any remaining crumbs from the granola bar and mixed nut bags. And that is all. I’ve even raided the rubbish bag. I am chilling with goosebumps. I’m all tingly, but I’m profusely sweating. Then I’m hot. Then I’m cold. This is not good.
We just have to get to town. 12 kms. The last part will be downhill. We just have to get to town. C’mon, Em. Stay conscious. Keep pedaling. I get back on the bike. I get to Blue Gum Saddle. I head down, I get to the flat bits, the motorcycle guy passes with a wave. I have to stop again. I’ve never been in this bad of a way so far from help – except that heat exhaustion episode in 2003. How many chances do I get?
I hang over the bike, head down. This is so not good. I feel like I’m going to puke. I feel like I could pass out at any moment. C’mon Em, we have to get to town. Get on the bike. Pedal, the downhill comes soon. C’mon Em, stay awake. Let’s go. We’ve gotta get to town.
For the past two days, I imagined what would be a nice reward from the bakery once I got to town. I’d passed empty Coke cans on the side of the road in the heat of the day yesterday and imagined how nice a cold can of Coke would taste. I thought about a lamington or a bee sting custard pastry. I thought about how I would go to the public toilets and get all cleaned up, and then enjoy a nice morning tea at the bakery mid-morning before it got hot. I imagined a banana from the supermarket after a nice sink bath once in town.
But I go from dreams of nice morning teas to just trying to stay awake and in this world. I have a big fear, not unjustified, that I could pass out on the bike on the big downhill and crash. This might not end nicely.
But luckily, I can’t really reason or think or do anything but try not to puke (just water!) and try to stay conscious. So I get on the bike, pedal the final bits, and then I get that great downhill. My head is so far gone, I feel like I’m in a video game with the forest rushing past. My eyes cannot adjust to the shade and sun of the tree canopy and its gaps fast enough – so it all just becomes a blur. Luckily, I’ve ridden so many miles in my life that responding to curves and finding the apex and leaning where needed is almost reflex. It saves me today. I do not have to think as I pummel down the final hill at 40 mph. I just go. Fast.
I had such a rollicking good time on that downhill last time – I don’t get that joy today. I’m just happy I’m ticking off the kms to get assistance.
I get down, I turn north on the main road, then turn off and over the dam of the lower pondage. There are some folks fishing. They look at me. I look at them in a daze. I have to pedal now and I’ve got absolutely nothing in me. Even the feeling of puking has gone. I at least feel now that if I pass out and crash, someone will find me fairly quickly. There’s not many people out, but it wouldn’t be hours like it would be up on the road through the forest.
Pedal. We are almost there, Em. Just a little bit more. My head is gone, gone, gone. There will be no cleaning up in the public toilet. I will be going directly in the bakery with 3 days of stink (I have had bucket baths!), a whole morning’s sweat, worn-out lycra that might be see-through, helmet marks on my forehead and grease and dust-covered legs. But there is no time for politeness. I am in big trouble.
I pedal across the grass of the little shopping complex. Some people are at picnic tables and their dogs go nuts at me. The people give me dirty looks, but it doesn’t even register. I lean my bike against a tree. I go in the bakery. If there had been a line, I would have just raided the drinks fridge and drank some choc milk right then and there. Luckily, there is no line. The young chick gives me the look like I’ve walked out of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but she is polite.
I have no thinking skills. At all. I grab a caramel milk from the fridge. I ask for a lamington and order the first thing I see in the pie case – a chicken and leek pie. So much for getting something really nice. I hand over a $20. I don’t even know what she said it came to. I take the change.
I wander out to the shade by the bike. I’ve lost the vision in the corners of my eyes, the rest is covered in stars. I feel 10,000 miles away from the here and now. I drink and drink and drink. C’mon sugar. C’mon sugar. I eat the lamington (sponge cake with jam in the middle and choc and coconut coating) and get coconut all over me. I could not care less. I lay back on the grass. No one is looking at me strangely. I wait. I wait. How long does it take to get that sugar from my gut into my bloodstream?
I wait. 15 minutes. And then I’m okay. Not terrific, but definitely back in the here and now. I eat the chicken and leek pie. It’s okay. Too bad I hadn’t spotted something else first.
I’m okay. I gave the guardian angel a workout today! I go across the road to the public toilets and get cleaned up and change out of my riding clothes. I become human again. Everyone else is packing up speedboats and getting ready for a day on the water. I go to the supermarket and get my banana, and some cheese and crackers (they should all be easy on my stomach, I think). I also buy some wine to give to the motel owners for letting me leave my car there.
And then it’s over. We ride back to the car, pack it up and head home in the heat in my car without air-conditioning.
It was easily one of the best rides I’ve ever done in Oz. Challenging, heaps of climbing, absolutely no traffic, gorgeous scenery, good campsites, plenty of creeks to get water. I would do this ride again in a heartbeat. At a cooler time of year… with a bit more food.