Day 4: Cootamundra – Tumut: The road

Tuesday January 7, 2014, 62 miles (100 km) – Total so far: 251 miles (404 km)

Some roads are a joy to ride. They sweep away through sinuous curves, inviting the cyclist forth into a landscape of long, gorgeous views. Other roads are more of a chore. Their surfaces may be poor; the scenery may be dull.

We’ll ride a variety of roads today – none particularly outstanding nor dull. The views will be a scenic, dry pastoral set within a landscape of hills which will get larger and more treed as the day wears on. The road surface will go from very shit to acceptable. Australia has a lot to brag about: however, its road infrastructure and road surfaces are not on the list of things to write home about. It is the downside of a big country and a small tax base. My wrists and the heels of my hands already hurt from all the shaking and banging of three days on rough, chip-seal roads.

Our ride this early, chilly (bliss!) morning, sends us along the valley of Muttama Creek for the first few kilometres. At Brawlin, we climb a hill or two away from the creek on a road with a pretty shit surface. We then follow the undulating edge of the wide valley. Five of the six log trucks which pass me give me plenty of room. The other driver could use a bit better road manners. I’m ready to get off this main-ish road and onto the tiny Burra-Gundagai backroad at the village of Muttama.

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Muttama Hall 1925. Though there are few homes left in this little village, and the tennis courts are decaying, it does have a new, 2-bay fire brigade shed and plenty of farmers still left in the region. The village was founded when gold was discovered nearby. A railroad branch line off the main Sydney to Melbourne line passed through here on its way to Tumut. It has been abandoned for many, many years.

The roads to the town of Gundagai (our lunch stop) have been immortalised in bush poetry and song. There is the song, “Along the road to Gundagai” by Jack O’Hagan that starts out:

“There’s a track winding back
To an old-fashioned shack
Along the road to Gundagai
Where the blue gums are growing
And the Murrumbidgee’s flowing
Beneath that sunny sky….”

There’s also the poem, “The road to Gundagai” by Banjo Patterson, that begins like this:

“The mountain road goes up and down
From Gundagai to Tumut town
And, branching off, there runs a track
Across the foothills grim and black,
Across the plains and ranges grey
To Sydney City far away….”

Finally, there’s the poem, “Nine miles to Gundagai”, a traditional piece made popular by Jack Moses. A couple excerpts from this include:

“I’ve done my share of shearing sheep,
Of droving and all that;
And bogged a bullock team as well,
On a Murrumbidgee flat….

But that’s all past and dead and gone,
And I’ve sold the team for meat,
And perhaps, some day where I was bogged,
There’ll be an asphalt street….”

Indeed, most of those make-shift tracks that bogged the original bushmen, as they took up land near Gundagai between 1830 and 1850, are now paved. The main road between Sydney and Melbourne, the Hume Highway, passes through Gundagai. This major highway was finally duplicated in full last year (2013). There have been many changes, but the scenery described in those poems still describe the landscape today (though there are far less trees).

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More hills on a tiny backroad (Gundagai to Burra road) today. I think the one ahead might require some walking at the top… but we made it up.

My road to Gundagai this morning is hilly. For quite a while I’m riding up in the hills, high in a landscape of dry grass and more dry grass with an isolated tree here and there. Finally, there is a long descent to a tree-lined creek and narrow valley. We follow this creek for awhile and then commence a long climb to the head of a feeder creek. A farmer slows to chat with me when I’m near the top of this. He tells me I’ll have a nice 14 kilometre downhill all the way into Gundagai when I reach the crest a kilometre ahead. He is correct. We leave the treed slopes and open pastures behind and descend into more dry and grassy hills all the way into town.

Gundagai sits at the confluence of Jones Creek and the Murrumbidgee River. The town was swept away in a flood in 1852. The flood killed 89 people, a quarter of the town’s population at the time. 1,900 people live here now on higher ground.

Gundagai is the home of the Prince Alfred Bridge, the first iron truss bridge built in NSW. Constructed in 1865, it is still in use today, though the configuration is slightly different. (It is bouncy on the wooden-planked pedestrian walk when trucks rumble over!). The approach bridge over the floodplain to the north is one of the longest bridges in NSW, though it is no longer in use. The nearby rail bridge also has a long approach – more than 819 metres.

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The old railroad bridge approach crossing the Murrumbidgee floodplain at Gundagai. The old auto bridge approach to the Prince Alfred Bridge can be seen in the distance.

After our lunch break, we head out of town on the Brungle Road. It is the back road between Tumut and Gundagai. The main road, the Gocup Road, is heavily used by log trucks so is best avoided.

Just after the little bunch of houses in Jackalass, the road climbs fairly steeply for a couple of kilometres over a small range. The crest of this hill provides a fine view of the Snowy Mountains in the background and the foothills in the middle ground. In the foreground, we can trace the road’s path down in the valley we’ll be riding through. Very nice.

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There is a fairly steep two kilometre climb out of Jackalass. Now, we get the downhill to the Tumut River in the valley below. We’ll be passing just to the right of that forested hill on the left (Minjary NP) before climbing more hills into Tumut.

We stop to enjoy the shade for a bit where the road crosses the Tumut River. The river originates high in the Snowy Mountains, but its flow is all controlled by dams which are part of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme. It flows high in summer and low in winter – exactly opposite to its natural flow regime.

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Oz’s River Red Gum trees can be massive. Note how my bike is just dwarfed by that huge trunk of that tree. The first branch is a good 25 feet off the ground.
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Lunch break by the cool Tumut River. The guys enjoy some habitat and a break from all of the vibrating and bumping down the crappy Australian roads.

From the river, the road undulates through another wide valley with lightly forested slopes. Near the little village of Brungle, the Tumut River turns southwest and the road heads southeast. Damn! It would be much easier on the legs if the road would follow the river valley into town! But no, we steadily climb a narrow-ish valley at the base of forest in Minjary National Park. The slopes of this mountain are rough and rocky and mixed with various species of eucalypt. At the base, herds of cattle graze in open fields.

Near the head of this valley, we have to climb over the ridge at the side. This is steep, narrow and curvy – the road almost manages a mini-switchback on the way up. Then there is a bit of downhill followed by many, many more small hills. We have definitely done a fair bit of climbing today. The traffic has started to increase here, though, as we get closer to Tumut and greater home density. Even though we lived in Tumut for two years, I’ve never been on this road. It is a much more scenic gateway to Tumut than the Gocup Road.

Finally, I reach the last stretch into town. A few hundred metres before the Tumut River bridge on the edge of town, I stop in the road shoulder. The wave of heartache and sadness that washes over me is not totally unexpected. Tears form in my eyes.

This stretch of road is not scenic. It is not somewhere to be immortalised in song or poem. But it ended the life of a teenager and forever changed the life of a man.

Early in the morning on 27 December 2003, my husband Nigel was just starting his first run of the day in his logging truck. After he crossed the bridge, he began to accelerate out of the 50 kph into the 80 kph zone. Soon after, he noticed that a ute approaching from the opposite direction had started to drift into Nigel’s lane. This happens fairly often on the road because of driver distraction – so in the first 1.5 seconds, Nigel was not especially alarmed as he let off the accelerator and flashed his headlights at the driver.

But the driver continued toward his truck. Nigel immediately braked as hard as possible and steered his truck toward a dirt pull-out over a culvert. He flattened a road sign, but never made it to the pull-out. The on-coming car crashed head-on into his truck. The entire incident took just over three seconds (corroborated by the truck’s tachograph and the accident investigation team).

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The spot where three seconds of time changed Nigel’s life forever. There have been huge changes here since 2003. At the time of Nigel’s accident, the road was just a narrow, shoulderless, two-lane road through here. There was a dirt pull-out for the driveway where the culvert is located. The road has been repaved, substantially widened, a wide shoulder added, and street lighting and a dedicated turning lane installed at the intersection. None of these changes would have likely changed the outcome of his accident, though.

The sweet, kind man I married was not the man that came home early from work that day. The trauma of the accident, and the trauma from trying to keep the critically injured driver alive until paramedics arrived, was the catalyst for significant mental health issues, including anxiety, depression and addiction, which continue to haunt Nigel to this day.

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Photos from the accident and a huge headline were in the local paper a few days later. The driver who died was from a prominent family in the area.

There were days when Nigel was suicidal in 2005 and 2006 when I wished he’d died that day, too, just so he wouldn’t have to endure all the inner turmoil that came after. That day I lost my husband. Somehow, over time, I’ve been able to put my grief in the past. Such is life. But I still grieve for Nigel – every time I see him spiral downward or lurch into a new crisis. I wish I could give him my strength, so he could find some peace and resolution. But life is not like that. And so I stand here on the side of the road and shed a tear for the angry, sad and bitter man that inhabits the body of the sweet, gentle man I married.

Then I ride on into town and procure an unpowered site among the throngs of Sydney-siders down here on holiday. The caravan park manager says she takes her hat off to us bicycle tourists – she doesn’t know how we do it. The guy behind me waiting to check in says the same. He’s always been amazed the few times he’s seen us on the road.

I smile and thank them, but I feel somber and serious – the road has given me so much joy and so much freedom over the years on my bike. But in three seconds in 2003, the day before Nigel and I’s third wedding anniversary, the road claimed my husband and our future dreams together, too. Sigh…. I guess life is like travelling the road – it has its ups and downs as you head forward into the unknown.

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