Forest gumption – Day 5

Road and personal high point: Stacey’s Bridge to 33 kms from Benambra (bush campsite)

Monday February 29, 2016, 31 miles (49 km) – Total so far: 402 miles (647 km)

I am awake early – in the quiet. Surprisingly, there are no sulphur-crested cockatoos, corellas or kookaburras piercing the calm with their raucous calls and shrieks. It is quiet enough you can almost hear the sun scraping its way up the sky toward the top of the ridge. I feel good. I’m not sore, my legs don’t seem too bad. So off we go.

There is no tease. There is no false flat or gentle grade to fool you into thinking that the climb is going to be easier than you had imagined. No, the Corryong-Benambra Road takes off climbing from the Stacey’s Bridge campground with an incline that could be intimidating if you weren’t expecting it. Oh, the pavement is a bit of a tease. It angles up and around the corner, like it might continue for a while. But it peters out just around the bend.

Sounds fun. But who cares about fuel? How far to the next COLD DRINK?

The first four miles are a continuous climb. It is a bit steep but manageable. I thought it might be so steep that I would have to walk. It is not. It can be spun. Slowly. With lots of breaks – like every half to three-quarters of a mile. The surface is good, too. I thought it might be so bad that I would have to walk. It is not. It is in surprisingly good shape. So up we climb in all that quiet and the shade of the ridge.

The road curls up the eastern side of the deep, incised valley that contains Stacey’s Creek. We are quickly high above the creek on the cliff-side, weaving in and out of each minor drainage. The road is a squiggly ascent that draws us closer to the tree tops in the distance as we climb. There are a lot of corners – and most of those corners contain quite loose gravel. I try to ride to the high side of these steeply angled bits of road, but sometimes rocks pick up the front wheel and when it lands, it is at such an angle that it slides down the steep, loose dirt. I have to put a foot down lest the whole bike slide out from under me. I get cluey after the second or third slippery slide through these tight corners. Heading into the corner, I ride through the thick mound of pea-sized gravel that’s been flung to the high-side of the corner and pedal up onto the flatter but ungraded part of the road. This works much better.

There are four miles of steep gravel to start the day. But this gives us most of our elevation gain for the day in one go. This is our view for much of that first hour.

And so we go. Up. Slowly. Spinning. Weaving. Lungs heaving. Heart thumping. But pedalling. About 3 miles into it, I hear a vehicle coming from behind, so I pull over to the edge. It’s a local – an old guy in an old ute. He smiles hugely and waves even bigger. Then he’s gone. And it’s just me, the guys, the bike and the white noise crunch of my tires on gravel. It takes us 1 hour and 15 minutes to do those four miles.

Climbing. Slowly. The grade is manageable. I need a short break every half mile though.
Drunk cyclist? No, I just tend to weave a lot when going that slow and picking my line.

Sure enough, right at the 6 kilometre (4 mile) mark, where the Gibb Range Road takes off downhill, the road flattens out. The guy yesterday was right. We leave Stacey’s Creek behind and go weaving along near the top of a ridge. We are still climbing but the grades are all quite mellow now. The tall forest is open through here – burnt in the 2003 fires but not severely. We start getting really nice views off to the forested ridges in the distance. It’s a sea of trees on a 50 million-year-old swell.

My heart is full of joy – endorphins coursing through my cycling-junkie veins. The road continues to have a good surface, the views continue to impress and I can’t imagine how I kept putting off riding this road. I suppose the steep climbs and gravel surface kept me thinking I never had the fitness to pull it off – until I just told myself to ‘get over it. Go ride it. Walk bits if you have to’ a couple months ago when I was rejigging the route for this tour.

About 6 miles into it, we start getting nice long views out over the ridges.

2.5 hours have gone by since I started riding, and I see my second car for the day. It’s an on-coming Subaru wagon and the driver stops as he pulls up to me. He and his wife are older folks – older than my parents but not ancient.

The driver says, “Oh, I’m so sorry about the dust. I slowed as soon as I saw you.” I tell him it’s no worry at all – it’s all settling now that he’s talking to me anyway.

“You’ve done the hardest part. The rest is all like this,” the man says. His wife gives me a sweet smile. She is beaming at me – like she is as proud of me as she would be her own daughter.

“Well, that’s good. Very good to hear.”

“Where are you heading? Do you have enough food and water? We’ve got extra water if you need it,” he offers.

“No, I’m good. I’ve got two days of supplies and a way to treat water, too. I’m heading to Omeo, but I’ll stop and camp somewhere on the other side of the gap.”

“Well, you are just the most amazing girl. Keep it up. You’re more than halfway to the top.”

Then they pull away at a crawl to keep the dust down and I pull away at a crawl up the slope. They lie. I’m not more than halfway. I’m probably just halfway. But never mind. The surface is good, the views are great, the forest is silent, the sun remains behind the trees and the only steep bits are short-lived when we cross from one high ridge to the next.

Somewhere around 11 miles into the day, we hit the road high point at 1342 metres – or so a road guide says. I think the next little hill is probably higher but it doesn’t have any signage to note the location – where this hill has a crappy lookout over to Mt Bogong and Dartmouth dam. You can’t see Dartmouth today – the early morning haze is pretty thick and the regrowth trees hide much of the view. But who cares – we made it!! I’m really pleased with how well I rode this morning. Oh, yes, I was slow, but I pedalled it all – even without touring fitness built and not being used to this much weight on the bike. Yee-ha!! I love to blow away my own perceived boundaries of what I can do on the bike.

Road high point. A climb of about 1000 metres in about 11 miles. I’m really happy with how I’m climbing/riding today.

From the high point, the road undulates along on top of the ridge for awhile. This area looks to have been severely burnt in the 2003 fires. There are the stark white, forked skeletons of alpine ash trees reaching into the deep blue sky. The skeletons are crowded at their bases by a wall of regrowth that hugs the road side – a million seedlings turned saplings straining for the light and space. Here and there a grandfatherly alpine ash survivor towers above the saplings – somehow outliving the inferno and harsh soil conditions post-bushfire.

This area was pretty severely burnt in the 2003 fires. You can see the skeleton alpine ash, a survivor and the wall of regrowth on both sides of the road.
Great views all along this road until you start dropping down at Sassafrass Gap.

Now we are more than three hours into the day and I am just about to Sassafrass Gap. The undulating road on the ridgetop has had a more challenging surface – with much more loose rock and corrugations – but I just weave around and find the best line. I get over to my side of the road when I hear another oncoming vehicle. It is another Subaru – with an older woman in a huge sunhat who grins and waves wildy. Sheesh – keep your hands on the wheel, woman – that drop-off over there would be deadly, the gravel is slippery, you are on a corner and your smile was encouragement enough!

I stop for another ego photo at Sassafrass Gap – not for the celebration since we did that back at the high point, but just for the memories that we finally rode this road after it being on my ‘to-ride’ list for about 10 years. After looking at it on the map for so long, it is such a joy to actually be here!

Woo-hoo! I’ve been looking at this spot on the map for ages, and now, we are finally here. Ticking another road off my “to ride” list! The road high point is actually a few miles back.

The road starts into a steep drop from the gap. It’s bumpy and loose enough that I’m going almost as slow down as I was going up! But the views are tremendous – rounded mountains, long ridges and hillsides of burnt alpine ash and the carpet of regrowth. (Alpine ash reproduce by seed – fires are usually stand-replacing with a fire frequency of > 100 years… until recently when three major fires occurred within a decade. No, climate change is a farce….).

A little ways down the slope, I see a guy on a dirtbike with panniers heading up. We both nod – we both need both hands on the bars on that corner. He is my fourth vehicle in four hours. I continue weaving all over to find the best line. The further down I go, the worse the road gets until it’s throwing out a combination of big, loose rocks, loose gravel, thick dust, chunky rocks, surface down to road base, corrugations and sometimes several of those at once. It is a tough, slow go down that steep, shitty surface. I’m almost constantly on the brakes, bumping and bouncing my way down. Poor Verne’s neck has got to be sore now! (The road will get better again at Trolley Wheel Gap.)

Another burnt hillside with a carpet of regrowth.

The views of the tall forest and the ridges growing higher in these tight valleys is more than compensation for the tricky ride down, though. My arthritic fingers don’t do that much brake squeezing all that well – so I have to stop and uncurl them and let them stop searing and throbbing every few kilometres. It’s another hot day, but not quite so hot up this high, and combined with the dust… I am one sweaty, dirty woman right now!

There were many tight corners with steep cambers on the way up and down. It looks really fun, but in reality it was very slow going on 37mm tires. I had to pick my way slowly through all the loose dirt and gravel and try to keep the front tire from sliding down and out sideways.

Down, down we go. In total today, I will see 4 cars and 4 motorbikes. It averages out to about 1 vehicle per hour – however, I encounter 3 of the motorbikes and 1 of the vehicles all between 11 am and noon. From Trolley Wheel Gap to my campsite, I will see not a single vehicle. That fourth and final car comes up behind me when I’m on a relatively straight bit. I’ve heard them coming for quite some time, so I’ve pulled over to the mounded dirt on the side of the road. They turn on their indicator and pull up beside me in an older four-wheel drive LandRover.

The wife, a woman in her 60s with curly grey hair and an upper-body that indicates strength and no-nonsense, is driving. She says with exuberance, “There you are!! We’ve been following your tracks for so long now. We keep coming around each corner, saying, now we’re going to catch him! And now, we’ve finally caught you – and it’s not a him, it’s a her!”

I laugh and say, “Ha! You like those weaving tracks going all over the road?”

She laughs and says, “We were really surprised how far you’d ridden before we saw you.”

Her husband pipes in from the passenger seat, “Do you want to throw your bike in the back? We’re heading to Omeo and we’d be happy to take you.”

“Oh, no thank you. I’m fine.”

“Where are you going? And where did you start? We can take you with us.This
road would be awful on a bicycle,” the wife says. The way they speak to me, it makes it sound like they think I’ve gotten on this road by mistake and didn’t know it was steep, winding gravel.

“No, I’m fine. I’m taking it slow. The road is pretty crap here but it was pretty good up til the gap. I started at Stacey’s Bridge this morning – about 7am. I’m heading toward Omeo, but I will stop and camp somewhere up ahead tonight and get there tomorrow.”

“Well, aren’t you just the most amazing soul. We are heading to Omeo to spend the night. We’ve left our caravan at Corryong and thought we’d do a side-trip. You are one tough lady, but are you sure we can’t give you a lift a ways?” says the husband.

“No, really, I’m fine. I’ve got two days of food, a tent and all that. My panniers have everything I need.”

Then the man asks the dreaded question, “What about punctures? How are you going with those?”

“I’ve been lucky so far. None. But I’ve just been waiting for one. This type of road is really good at giving punctures.”

He laughs and says, “Oh, yeah they are. I hope I didn’t just jinx you.”

They ask again if I want a lift, and once I refuse they finally head off, pulling away very slowly and politely to keep the dust down. All four cars today have been very encouraging and all the motorbikes waved or nodded. It’s like we were all fellow road warriors on the road today.

What a gorgeous road! I will only see 4 cars and 4 motorbikes today and no caravans. Most of the day I average one vehicle per hour – but between 11 and 12 I see half of the vehicles for the whole day.
Still heading down. Does life get any better than this?

Down, down. Will we ever make it down to the Gibbo River? It seems to take forever to lose the elevation. I cross Cooper (maybe it’s Donovan?) Creek on a tight, hair-pin turn and pull up just beyond. It looks like good water and I will need to treat several litres for rehydrating tonight and to get me to Benambra tomorrow. The Katadyn tablets I carry take a couple hours to disinfect for giardia and amoeba parasites, so it would be good to get some water going now as we’re riding. To minimise the weight heading up the hill this morning, I’ve only carried two litres in my Camelbak (almost gone now) and a litre and a half in my panniers with water I treated at the campsite last night.

I walk up to the culvert and have a good sniff. I can’t smell any rotting carcasses in the immediate area, so let’s go. I scramble down the rocks and through the blackberry canes to fill two of my bottles. I’ve purposely bought 1-litre bottles, so I don’t have to do any measuring or estimating – just pop a tablet in the bottle. If I go down with water-borne parasites later, I’ll never know which creek was the culprit – I’ll end up treating water out of four different wild sources this trip.

The last picture ever with my Montana tinsel. The road will bounce off one of the streamers tomorrow and I won’t realize it until somewhere down the road.

Finally, the road meets up with the Gibbo River. We cross over a wooden bridge and then start looking for somewhere to camp. I pass by some private inholdings at Kings Flat. Not far beyond this, at about the 33km road marker, I find a track that leads down to the river and a bush campsite. I’ve already tried three or four sidetracks and bush sites that were not all that great, but this one is perfect. There is a cleared area with some shade and a short path down to the river. What makes it perfect is that there is a deep hole in the river – at least 6 feet deep – that you can jump into from a rock or wade into among smooth, rounded stones.

First things first, I fill my other two water bottles from the water cascading over the rocks that runs into the pool. I pop in the tablets then head back up to get Verne and Kermit and my thongs (flip-flops). Then super-dusty Em, who looks like she’s been playing in a sandbox all day, flops into that water like a big-arse whale. Does that ever feel delicious!!!??? I go in fully-clothed to rinse off my riding gear, but all the dips after that are sans clothes since no one is around.

Bliss, bliss, bliss!! Today I exceeded my expectations on riding ability, the road was beyond gorgeous, there was so little traffic, the weather was great though a bit hot, and I never really had a worry. I was just out there in the middle of nowhere making my way through a whole bunch of beauty on my bicycle. The joy and vitality was just pouring through my veins today – and to top it off with a perfect swimming hole and a quiet, secluded campsite… well, I really am one of the luckiest women alive!

The guys are happy to be down in the habitat at the end of the day. It was a pretty rough, bouncy, vibrating ride today and poor Verne’s neck has to be really sore!
Found a bush campsite off the road a bit that was right next to a six-foot deep swimming hole. Absolutely perfect! I was so hot and covered in so much dust, this was like heaven. No clothes required either after the first rinsing dip, since no one was around.

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