Day 3: Wagga Wagga – Cootamundra: The bushrangers

Monday January 6, 2014, 74 miles (119 km) – Total so far: 189 miles (304 km)

In the cool of morning, we head off into a building southwesterly wind. If it is this strong at 7 am, I’m going to get a good push up to Cootamundra today! So much for the light wind forecasts….

I head back through North Wagga and turn onto the Oura Rd. This whole area was covered in waist-deep water in 2012. The road is flat as it travels across the floodplain. The river is a kilometre or so off to the south, though.

Eunon… yeah, I can’t pronounce this when I’m sober. I can’t imagine trying to do so when I’d had a few. (Note the name on the wine bottle is “just 2 hard”). This is actually the name of one of the first, very large stations settled in the area.

The easy riding is over at Oura. The road climbs away from the river and into the dry, grassy hills. Up and down, up and down, through a rolling valley, up, down – it will be the pattern for the entire day.

For example, the road steadily climbs a gully beside the creek. At the head of the gully, the road then steeply climbs the hill at the head of the gully. Then we go cruising downhill into the next valley. This road design accompanies me through my entire tour of the Southwest Slopes: up the gully/valley steadily, then steeply over the hill at the head or the hill at the side, then down into the next valley.

Looking at the road ahead from the top of our first decent hill just outside Oura. There will be many, many more hills to come.

After about 20 kilometres of up and down through the grassy, rounded hills, we roll into Wantabadgery. There is a recreation ground and a couple houses down in this valley. There is also a general store… inside someone’s house on the main corner. A sign out the front says, “Open When Awake”. Since it is only 8.30am, I’m not sure I want to test the occupant’s waking schedule, but I’m curious how a general store is operated inside a house. I’ve never been in a store where someone was selling lollies from his living room!

I stop to read the interpretative board and have a snack. The area I’m riding through today was the haunt of various bushrangers, including Mad Dog Morgan and Captain Moonlite (what a cool name). The latter arrived at Wantabadgery Station with his gang in November 1879 looking for food and work. When the gang was refused, they took up to 39 people hostage. Four police officers eventually arrived but were forced to retreat. The Moonlite gang then fled but were caught, and some members killed, in a shoot-out at a nearby property when police reinforcements from Gundagai (about 45 km away) and Adelong arrived.

One of the great things about cycle touring is that you sometimes feel closer to the history. You can really feel the distance and the terrain that the bushrangers and the police covered. You can almost pretend your bike is a horse. When I pass by the old house site where the shoot-out occurred, I can almost imagine the characters out there in the landscape.

After I pause at McGlede’s house site, where the shoot-out took place, I have to climb McGlede’s Hill Road. It is steep enough at the top I have to walk the final 150 metres.

Um, yeah, this one got a little steep. I had to get off and walk up at this point.

Once to the top, however, I get a ripping downhill through gorgeous hills of harvested grain. Huge, old gum trees line the road in places. The road twists around one small range, through open grassy forest and harvested fields, and then treats me to another flying downhill to the main Junee-Gundagai Rd.

Downhill. Whee! We’ll be crossing over the north end of that range in the distance a few hours from now.

I ride the main road for a kilometre or so to Eurongilly, a locality of decaying tennis courts, playground equipment, a war memorial and a new fire brigade shed. I then turn off onto the Eurongilly School Rd. In the first 500 metres, I see one grey nomad couple in a caravan and one local towing a box trailer.

Then, I break a record. For the next 1.5 hours, I do not see another vehicle on the road. I see some farmers out working on a stock dam, but nobody on the road. This is the longest I’ve ever gone without seeing another vehicle on a paved road.

The area I’m riding through is a low, rolling valley. There are undulating hills to climb, but it is low and relatively flat compared to the surrounding ranges. I’m a little confused for a kilometre or so, after seeing a gigantic skeleton of a gum tree in a pasture. The very tall tree is charred all the way to the top. Then I start to notice other areas where the vegetation looks like it is still recovering from fire. There are dead stands of native Callitris pine; there are clumps of bush skeletons.

Then it dawns on me – I remember there being a big fire near Junee some years back. It is interesting that you can still see some of the scars. The fire stats go like this: it was started by a cigarette butt in summer 2006 on the highway near Junee. It burnt 25,000 hectares (62,000 acres), affected 200 properties, and destroyed 10 houses, 4 shearing sheds, 1500 kilometres of fencing and more than 20,000 stock. The fire travelled 38 kilometres in one afternoon on the first day. 660 firefighters, 116 tankers and 10 aircraft fought the fire. Our ride takes us right through that old fire zone.

Finally, we pop out at the village of Bethungra on the main Olympic Highway. Bethungra was the haunt of the bushranger Jack-in-the-Boots. Bethungra is best known for its rail spiral, however. The Main Southern line between Sydney and Melbourne passes through here. When the line was duplicated in the 1940s, a 360-degree spiral was created so that the Sydney-bound direction had an easier grade. Before the duplication, the grade imposed a limit on load and required extra engines be attached to push/pull trains over the hill. This is the only full 360-degree rail spiral in Australia. If you look at the satellite version of Google maps, it is clearly visible.

I’ve actually ridden the train through that spiral, so I don’t go check it out. Instead, it’s snack time. It’s pretty warm out, so it’s time for ice cream!!

There were no lights on inside. The shelves were pretty barren and what was on them was in no particular organisation pattern. I nearly stepped on the proprietor sitting in the back while I was searching for the ice cream case.
I don’t think the restaurant is open anymore. I’m not sure if this has anything to do with the incident which saw the chef lose his hand.
Maxibon. The weirdest ice cream bar I’ve ever had. Half was like a crunch bar and half was like an ice cream sandwich – all with caramel ice cream with choc bits. It was good, but very strange.

From Bethungra, we head out on back roads again, to avoid the main highway. We travel on the Ironbong Road which skirts the edge of the Bethungra Range. We even get a flat reprieve for about 8 miles before we start doing the up and down thing again.

Skinny little road where I don’t see another vehicle for 45 minutes. Finally, some flat reprieve for about 8 miles.
The cattle are enjoying the left-overs from the harvest. Interestingly, this area was burnt in a 200 ha grass fire a week after I took this photo. Two powerlines clashed in the wind and the spark set off a fire.

At a t-junction, we turn right on the Dirnaseer Road. This is a proper two-lane road that even has edge markings at times. The best thing about it, though, is that it has almost no traffic and has been newly resurfaced in many sections. This area is quite scenic in a pastoral-backed-by-forested-hills sense.

The climb over the range takes me 10 or 15 minutes. I don’t stop to take too many breaks, however, because the flies are really awful today. Whenever I stop, I immediately have at least 6 around my face and 10 or more all over my legs. Inevitably, some of these stick with me after a break and continue to annoy me all the way to the next downhill when the wind whooshes them away.

Crest. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve seen this road sign today.

We roll our way up and down through the grassy hills and open and treed valleys all the way to the road junction with the main highway. This has been a particularly scenic backroad and the gusty and strong southwest winds have been a great help all day.

The final three kilometres into Cootamundra are on the main highway and again remind me why I avoid such roads. Cootamundra itself is a neat and tidy little agricultural town of 5,500 people. The parks and gardens are well-tended and attractive. It is the birthplace of Sir Donald Bradman, arguably the best cricket batsman Australia has ever produced. There is a statue of him near the Captain’s Walk in one of the parks.

Cootamundra is derived from the Wiradjuri word “guudhamang” which means “turtle”. There are some suggestions Cootamundra could also mean “low-flying”. Either way, Verne loves it. He says he’s a low-flying turtle. High flyers don’t sleep in tents and ride a push-bike.
Captain’s Walk at Cootamundra. The head of each cricket captain since 1860-something is placed along a walkway. Mustaches were big until about 1910. It is a credit to small-town Oz and Aussies’ love of cricket that none of this has been vandalized!
The old “Bank of New South Wales” – many of the old gold towns have gorgeous bank buildings.
How you know you are in a country town in NSW: the parking is all rear to curb.

The caravan park is quiet, the amenities block is clean. There are a few permanent sites and about 10 grey nomads overnighting. There is not a kid in sight. The caretaker says, “see that tree by the BBQ shelter. That’s where we tell all you pushbike riders to pitch. You’ll get good shade there all afternoon”.

I find internet access at the library. Free internet access is hard to come by in Australia – most motels, even the nice ones, still charge you. Hopefully, that is slowly changing. Here, I pay $3 for one hour of ‘wifi’.

I hang out for the 4.30pm BOM weather forecast update. I need to decide whether to keep heading north or start heading toward home from here. Crap. The hot weather is returning by Friday. Time to start heading back towards Jindera.

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