The residual refrain: Day 12

Bairnsdale – Timbarra Bridge: Climbing the mobile phone tower hill

Wednesday March 29, 2017, 69 miles (111 km) – Total so far: 525 miles (845 km)

Hellooooo, Autumn. Welcome. Once again. I love your crisp nights, warm and sunny days, your lack of flies, and your still and stable air masses that park overhead for days on end. You are my favourite season – in the northern and southern hemipsheres.

The cold front the day before yesterday ushered in autumn. Before that, the ride still felt like summer. Hot days, warm nights, occasional storms. Dry. Dusty.

But yesterday morning and this morning have been nippy. The crispness in the air mirrors the crispness of the apples now being harvested. Yes, autumn is so much more preferable to summer. The only drawback is the short daylight hours.

But we are making the most of the daylight hours today. We greet the sun just as it makes its first appearance. It will blind us nicely for the first couple hours, as we head eastward on the East Gippsland Rail Trail.

Rail trail number 6 – East Gippsland. The ‘paved’ section to Nicholson has a really crap surface. It improves after that until you get into the forest east of Bruthen.

The trail is paved to start, but the pavement is in pretty bad shape, so it’s actually rougher than good gravel. However, we are crossing paddocks in that long linear corridor rather than balancing on the white line of the highway, so we’ll take it. We roll through flat pastures with occasional glimpses of the flat, grey expanse of Lake King to the south. It is part of the “Gippsland Lakes”, the tidal lakes that drain the major rivers into the Great Southern Ocean. We are only about 15 kilometres from the ocean here.

First thing this morning, we crossed the Mitchell River. We next cross the Nicholson River at…. yeah, you guessed it, Nicholson. Later in the day, we’ll cross the Tambo River at Bruthen. We cross the rivers in their last gasps of freshwater runs to the ocean. We cross them in their placid and slow meanderings – silvery ribbons twisting through the flats after their straight, plunging runs down through the mountains.

Fog is lifting from the fields. The low sun angle gives a golden glow to everything. It is truly a Midas morning. The mist wisps and twirls and moves like horizontal smoke across the surface of the Nicholson River as we pass over on a very tall bridge.

Wisps of mist coming off the Nicholson River.

From here, we start climbing gently. The surface is pretty good most of the way to Bruthen. The trail winds upward to Bumberrah far away from any major roads. It is peaceful. There are a few cuttings and many nice views of the rural pastoral. There are some remnant bits of bush and there is a really nice forested section between Bumberrah and Mossiface where the bellbirds chase us along with their ringing, territorial calls. At one point, there are really nice views over the rolling hills and forested mountains ahead. It’s a very pleasant trail on a very pleasant morning.

The rail trail at Bruthen has an underpass under the Great Alpine Road, so you need to follow some signs to get into the business area. Bruthen is one of those little towns with a good vibe. It’s just GOT it. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but I’m sure it has to do with embracing change, welcoming diversity in people and business opportunities, and having a few passionate people who drive it. There are a whole lot of towns just this size all over Victoria. Some are pretty dead, but some are thriving little spots. Geographical location no doubt plays a role; road and rail connections, etc also play a part. BUT, some little places just defy it all and thrive.

Bruthen is busy – lots of people coming and going, lots of motorcyclists stopping for a toilet and coffee break. There are plenty of locals, too, even though the town is tiny. I stop to eat a pint of strawberries – a treat you only get on the first day out of a town. They don’t travel well for much longer than a morning. I watch the ins and outs and passers-by. If you were wanting to ride the full length of this rail trail, this would be a great little spot to break up the ride. Nowa Nowa, the next town to the east, has far fewer services and no vibe at all.

Bruthen was busy at 9.45am! Heaps of people coming and going from the bakery and cafe. There was also a pub, a takeaway shop, an info centre, a brewery with a deck with great views, post office, garage shop and a petrol station. Good spot to break up a ride – there was a caravan park or a good stealth spot at the oval. Nowa Nowa had far fewer facilities.

I’m impressed with Bruthen. Then, as I’m rolling back out of town, a man approaches me. He says, “Were you looking for the information centre? I’m just going down now to open it up.”

I tell him, “No, I’m just passing through but this looks like a great little place”.

Darn it, I feel soooo guilty for saying that. It’s obvious they embrace cyclists and the money they bring. Everything is very well-signposted, landscaped and well-maintained. I feel like I should just go to the info centre just to be polite, since they are obviously trying very hard as a community! Nevermind, I will write the Council a nice letter when I get home.

From Bruthen, the rail trail enters the forest. We gently climb through the flogged trees. It is pleasant, and that low sun angle gives the forest a very muted pallette. It’s like the painter has blurred the lines a little on the edges of objects in contrast to the defined edges painted by a harsh summer sun. It’s a nice ride – just don’t look too close at that forest – there’s not a whole lot of diversity and it’s obviously been subject to much logging over the years.

Eventually, the trail meets up with a buried, high pressure gas pipleline. This means that the clearing through the forest is very wide – you feel like you are riding down a logging road rather then the intimacy of a rail trail. We do, however, get a nice long downhill through a lot of this, all the way to the trestle bridge.

I pass a couple on mountain bikes who are just saddling up after a snack break. Based on the tire tracks on the trail, I think they are going my way. But I never give them a chance to catch up. I plummet down that gentle downhill like I, too, am on a mountain bike instead of a fully-loaded touring bike. The scenery is nice, but not outstanding, so I have fun pushing it hard and trying to stay up above 20 mph. The trail is a bit rough, with lots of erosion ditches, sticks, branches and exposed rock in places, so it’s fun to ride fast and hard and engage the bike handling skills.

The Stony Creek Trestle Bridge is very impressive. It is the longest on the trail at 270 metres. They’ve done a lot of work at the site, and there are benches, overlooks, a toilet and interpretive boards. There are a few cars and a Green Corps team (this program won’t be around much longer; the conservative government axed the funding even though the cost-benefit analysis was positive). I pedal on, push my bike up the steep bit on the other side and then zoom into Nowa Nowa.

Stony Creek Trestle Bridge. They’ve done a lot of work here… and there are interpretive sign boards, benches and a toilet now.
Stony Creek Trestle bridge from below.

Just as I’m pulling into the general store in Nowa Nowa for a choc milk, a truck driver in a gravel dump truck pulls in. The guy has the stereotypical look of a truck driver that you just formed in your head. He walks over to me and says, “I’m jealous. I’ve always wanted to do something like you’re doing. But I’m too out-of-shape these days and I want to save the money to retire to the coast. But you go have fun for me, lady, I wish I was with you!”

From Nowa Nowa, we head out of town on the Old Buchan Road. It is signposted on the highway as a “No Through Road”, but rest assured, it goes through. On the way out of town, it passes a mountain bike park. It’d be a perfect day to ride it- there’s no one else there! The Old Buchan Road has a great surface and I see no vehicles at all. It gently climbs through more logged and flogged, but pleasant and quiet, forest. At one point there are nice views over to other ridges, and another section is curvy and cut into the hillside. I test the traffic levels by stopping to pee in sight of the road – nope, there’s no traffic on this one.

Old Buchan – Nowa Nowa Road – good surface, not a single car. Aaahhhh….

We eventually rejoin the main Buchan Road. The road doesn’t really go anywhere and doesn’t really connect anything, so I’m surprised when I see a vehicle going one way or other every minute or less. One semi-truck passes very close – one of those where you are glad you aren’t seeing it from a third party perspective because you’d probably never ride again. At least I’m experienced with the whole suck and spit thing, and I don’t even wobble in the wash of the truck’s wake.

I don’t have a set destination for the night, but it’s getting on 3.30pm, so anything from here forward is fair game for a tent pitch. I could go into Buchan, but I’ve been there before and don’t feel like paying for a tent site or facilities. I’ve also read some information about the “Avenue of Honour” – trees and memorials dedicated to locals who served in the various wars – at Buchan South. It sounds interesting, so I turn off on the Buchan South Road.

We immediately start into a gentle climb with forest to our left and mixed forest and pasture to the right. We climb for a while and then descend into the locality of Buchan South. I was hoping for a community hall with an obvious place to camp out the back and a water spigot. That’s not happening. The “Avenue of Honour” is a bit underwhelming – not worth the extra effort to get here, really.

After about 10 minutes of reading plaques, looking at the trees and enjoying the shade, we head on out. We turn onto the Buchan South – Gillingall Road. Oh dear. That is seriously UP. That is a lot of climbing just to see a war memorial. Ugh. But the super easy gears mean I climb up that wall of a hill like the eensy weensy spider up the water spout.

Just before the top, I see a spot where I can get off the road a little bit. I figure that we are high enough here that we have got to be able to get a ping off a mobile phone tower somewhere. I want to text Nigel before I head into the forest, because it might be a couple days before I have phone service again.

Great! I’ve got 4 bars of service. I text him “Near Buchan. Heading up Timbarra River. May not have service til Sat.” He has a route outline at home and won’t get panicked until Sunday if I haven’t texted. Business done, I pedal up the last of the hill. And lo and behold, what is at the top of the hill behind some trees? The mobile phone tower.

We lose the pavement and still have one more steep hill to climb on gravel before we join the Timbarra Road. There’s a caravan park way down the hill – it looks nice and shady from up here. But we keep on. The views are great from up here, but I would recommend sticking to the main road.

Don’t bother going through Buchan South on the way to the Timbarra River Road. The Avenue of Honour is not all that impressive, and you will get to climb two huge, steep pointless hills as a reward. Here is the view from the one that had the mobile phone tower on it.

We join the Timbarra Road. It’s paved as it winds its way up through farmland to a ridge. There’s forest in the distance, and the hills start to bunch closer together as we approach the state forest. Up, up we go.

Views from the Timbarra Road over toward the Snowy River wilderness areas.

We enter the state forest and the road continues to climb. And climb. None of it’s steep, but we are gaining a ridge and riding away from water. This is a concern. I didn’t fill up bottles in Nowa Nowa – a huge oversight on my part. I think I thought I would camp at Buchan South or that little caravan park. My medium-term thinking did not match my long-term thinking today – leaving us a bit screwed in the water department. I look at all the creeks we cross, but ‘Spring Creek’ does not have water in autumn. Still, it is a really enjoyable ride.

Climbing up to Dinner Hill saddle on the Timbarra Road not long before dinner time.

The sun gets lower. The forest is thick and dark in the shade of the mountain. I feel like I’m riding into a fairy tale. I almost expect to see a glimpse of red as Little Red Riding Hood runs from tree to tree. I look for the stalking gait of a wolf. Late in the day, the low angle sun of autumn gives this place a very different look, I’m sure, to summer.

We finally reach Dinner Hill Saddle. Phew. My legs are pretty tired. We’ve ridden a good number of miles today, nearly all on gravel. But, wait. There’s more! It’s a saddle not a summit, so we still have to climb further up the ridge. The trees are tall and we are getting views down into the gorge. But I’m ready to be done.

I decide we will have to ride down to the Timbarra River, rather than finding a dry camp up on the ridge. It will mean a climb back up first-thing tomorrow, but I don’t have any water for tonight or tomorrow. And I know there isn’t going to be any tomorrow for at least 20-25 miles of uphill gravel. We don’t have any choice really but to go down.

Heading down to the Timbarra River on freshly pea-gravelled road. Thanks for the good surface!

So at the junction, we head down instead of up. They’ve just recently resurfaced the road, so it is in great shape. They’ve left 50 metres here and there without the new gravel, as if to just remind you of the good work they’ve done and how bad it was and could be. We start seeing ferns and mosses in the sheltered gullies and get nice views over the river as we descend. Finally, we make it to the bottom. Amazingly, there is no one camping at the first camping area at the bridge. So we just stop and set up camp without further exploration.

There are a bunch of camping spots further upriver and an area of private land and farms. I am not real excited about water quality in a place like this, but I just try not to think about all the gross things livestock and humans do near water. I fill my bottles and get the tablets in. I’m sure it will be okay….. Yeah, just don’t think about it too much.

The guys and I go play in the creek and ride the bike up the river a bit to see some of the other camping areas. Then we get everything ready for the rain that is coming tonight.

Looking down to the Timbarra River – we’ll camp down there tonight. Running out of daylight and puff.
Guys on the Timbarra River – I do my best to get them some habitat each day 🙂
The crew – navigator/helmsman/engine, Commander, mental health therapist/negotiator.
End of the day – shadows and darkness are coming.

Before the ride, I wondered whether this trip would distract me from my grief or compound it. I’ve found that the days distract – there’s too much else to think about. You get caught up in the ride. You’re listening to your body, the road, the traffic, and the interaction of all those. Am I hungry? Thirsty? Which road should I take? Where does the next road I need turn off? What gear do I need to get up that hill? I wonder which mountain range in the distance that is? You just think about the ride and the scenery and the logistics. Maybe it would be different on flat, straight terrain, but this trip hasn’t had much of that.

But the nights are hard. It gets dark early. I don’t have books or movies loaded on my old Ipod. There’s a lot of time to think. There is a lot of time to reflect on the day and the ending of all that I’ve worked so hard to build for the past 19 years. Yes, the nights have been really hard.

To further compound things, the Southern Hemisphere sky has been putting on its nightly show in spectacular fashion. The moon phase has meant the sky has been very dark. Down under, the night sky is just phenomenal. The shooting stars are so numerous and so BIG! Some are like flares flashing across the sky. There are always at least a couple satellites to spot at any given moment. The Milky Way is a long creamy swath across the entire sky – it seems to have a thousand more stars in it than when I gaze at it in the mountains of the American West. Orion is ‘upside down’ but always seems so much closer. Until you’ve seen the night sky in Oz, you just don’t know what a brilliant display the Universe is actually putting on.

So tonight, I lay on the picnic table in my sleeping bag, staring up at that phenomenal sky. I just think about how much I’m losing all in one go: my house, my car, my job, my Aussie friends, the culture I’ve called ‘home’ since I was 24, 4 weeks pro rata annual leave, healthcare (and a system that is not totally insane), a lot of my sentimental things I can’t afford to send back, my husband, and the relationship I’d hoped would last forever and fought so hard to preserve.

Any one of those would be a lot to lose in a year – all of them at once would leave anyone gutted, I think. But, it’s the right thing to do. My head and heart have all sorts of protests on the matter, but that gutted gut still says it is what we must do. And my gut is never wrong. It’s just so hard to think about all that is left undone and all that could have been. About 4 seconds and one fatigued driver in 2003 was the catalyst that changed everything. Be tough, Em, be tough. There will be more picnic tables to lie upon in quiet, dark and unpopulated places; there will be more roads to ride.

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