Day 2: Lockhart – Wagga Wagga: The floods

Sunday January 5, 2014, 52 miles (84 km) – Total so far: 115 miles (185 km)

he cruel aspect of Australia’s climate variability is that floods often follow droughts. Dorothea Mackellar nicely sums up Australia and its climate in the famous lines from her poem, “My Country”. She writes:

“I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons, I love her jewel sea,
Her beauty and her terror – the wide brown land for me.”

And so, after more than a decade of drought in New South Wales and Victoria, 2010 and 2012 brought flooding to many regions.

The town we are heading toward today, Wagga Wagga, sits in a long, sweeping bend of the Murrumbidgee River and has endured more than 77 floods over 8 metres high since settlement. Extensive levee upgrades were completed in the 1970s after the benchmark 1974 flood which peaked at 10.74 metres.

The floods in 2012 inundated huge areas, including all of North Wagga (whose levee is lower than that protecting the CBD). At the height of the 2012 flooding, there were fears the levee would fail and the central business district of this city of 60,000 would go under. More than 8000 people were evacuated in the Wagga area, though the levee held. However, the city, particularly North Wagga, is still recovering from the flood which peaked just 0.18 metres below the record 1974 flood.

After 40 kilometres of riding through similar scenery to yesterday, I make it to Collingullie and the Murrumbidgee floodplain. A line of trees marks the river in the distance. It is hard to imagine this all under water just a couple years ago.

Collingullie has a pub. You can camp out the back if needed. It is here that I need to get on the Sturt Highway (it heads to Adelaide) for two kilometres to hook up to another back road. These two kilometres remind me why I fervently avoid the main highways in New South Wales. There is heaps of traffic, heaps of trucks, and they are all motoring along at a minimum of 100 kph. The shoulder is not consistent, and when it is there, it cannot be ridden. It is so lumpy and debris-strewn, and such a mismatch of sizes of chip-seal, that I’ve got to just hug the white line and hold on.

Finally, I reach the Mundowry Road which drops down into the major floodplain. Cattle graze under huge river red gums and white or grey box eucalypts (not sure which box species they are). The birds are loud and numerous. The humidity increases as I pass over a feeder creek with deeply carved banks. There is public access here and it’d be a great spot to camp. The road is in great condition – it looks new. It was probably repaved after all of the flooding. We meander through the floodplain among fields of corn and harvested hay.

Freshly stacked hay in the river floodplain. They were also growing irrigated corn here. The smell of the corn in the summer heat took me back to childhood.

Soon, we reach an old trestle bridge and cross the Murrumbidgee River. It is a large river by Australian standards. It is flowing pretty high. River height is controlled by dam releases upstream that provide water to all of the irrigation districts downstream. I’m still trying to get my head around how much water would have been flowing through here in March 2012, though. Nature’s scale can be mind-blowing from a human perspective.

Crossing the Murrumbidgee River on an old trestle bridge west of Wagga Wagga, 2 km west of Collingullie.
The Murrumbidgee River. Murrumbidgee means “big water” in the local Wiradjuri language. The flow is controlled by big dams upstream now.

Once we climb out of the major floodplain, we turn east on the Old Narrandera Road. The wind is a gusty westerly with an occasional southerly blast, contradicting the BOM forecast of a light southerly. The gusts blow me right on down the road. Yippee! The traffic is light-ish, the road surface good. The road reserve is wide and treed between open, brown paddocks. Way down to the right, the trees outline the river. It’s a good ride, today.

Typical road view on the Old Narrandera Road west of Wagga Wagga

As you near Wagga, you have to climb over the Malebo Range. It is quite warm by now, so I sweat my way up through the hills. The reward for 7 minutes of slow climbing while being swarmed by sticky flies is a steep descent that sees me hit 37.4 mph down the backside (I keep my cycle computer in miles even though Oz operates in kilometres. I’m pretty Metric/Imperial bilingual and ‘think’ and ‘convert’ back and forth pretty easily in my head).

The Old Narrandera Road spits you out at a T-intersection with the elevated Olympic Highway. However, there is a pedestrian underpass here. I think I see some bike tire tracks through the sand, so I go for it. On the other side of the underpass, there is thick sand, potholes and the local dumping ground for used mattresses and old TVs. I am uncertain for a moment, but the dirt path does eventually lead to an old road which then leads to Gardiner Rd. This is the bike route out to the university from the city centre, so there is a nice bike lane to take you all the way into Wagga. All of this was underwater in 2012. It blows my mind.

Wagga Wagga – look at that huge bike lane!

Wagga Wagga is a large (about 60,000 people), regional administrative city with a university, an army training boot camp, a small air force base and the whole array of state government offices. It doesn’t feel like a uni or military town, though. It’s just another regional city. It’s not somewhere you’d die to move to, by any means. It gets bastardly hot here in summer, and it’s not really booming with natural or cultural attractions, but it is clean and safe. It’s just sorta blue-collar country, and I fit in well with that.

We head on into the main part of town over the Hampden St bridge which has a bike lane/shoulder. Fitzmaurice Street has a HUGE bike lane. Here I come upon the only two traffic lights I’ll see on my entire trip.

After a stop at the information centre for the weather forecast, we cruise down to Wagga Beach, the city’s local swimming hole. There is a caravan park here (which is the first thing to go under when the river floods). It’s busy, and there are plenty of people at the park enjoying the river in the 32 degree heat, but it’s all low-key and laid-back. Works for me. We spend the late afternoon in the shade and wind just kickin’ back. The guys are happy to be near some habitat. Another great day.

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