The residual refrain: Day 13

Timbarra River – Nunnett Plains: Running out of legs and light

Thursday March 30, 2017, 24 miles (39 km) – Total so far: 549 miles (884 km)

The phenomenal night sky disappears around 3am. I don’t see it happen, but I hear it. The rain begins. It’s steady – more than showers but less than heavy. I just curl up deeper into my sleeping bag and let the soil drink it up in the silence.

It’s still raining around 7am. I’m awake. The forecast is for clearing showers today. My plan is to just hang out here until there is some sign of clearing. I’ll be on gravel for the next two days, and any amount of time that it has to dry out a bit before I go slogging through it, the better.

The rain stops around 8.30am. My extra plastic sheet under the fly of the tent not only diverts the leaks, it also acts to retain a bit more heat. So when I fling back the tent door, I am surprised how cold it is out there. The sky remains grey and monotonous. Do I need to pee that bad? Nope. Tent door zipped back up.

Finally, around noon, the tops of the hills reappear and there are little bits of blue mixed in with the darker clouds. A group of uni students arrives in a mini-van. They appear to be taking water and soil samples. I don’t want to know – I’m drinking that water!

I commence a slow pack-up and roll out around 12.30. I could follow the river upstream and then take the Timbarra Settlement Road back to the Nunnett Road. Or I could just ride back up the 5 kilometres we came down yesterday. The topo map makes the Settlement Road option look quite steep, so I opt to go back up on gentle grades and new gravel.

The climb feels good. My legs were tired yesterday, but seem to have recovered well. We just roll on up steadily through trees dripping the weight of last night’s rain. I don’t know how far we’ll get today, but I don’t have any concerns now that we have water. The next sure source of it is the same river, just 30 miles further up the road. The river drops off the plateau through a gorge – we’re going the long way to the plateau via a series of ridges.

The gravel is good. This is the main logging road out of the forest, so it is well-maintained. Lucky for me, the gravel is a very decent diameter most of the time. Some of the logging roads in the pine plantations up where I live have really huge gravel (fist-size sometimes) and no good tire lines to follow. This is much better.

The road climbs. The road clearing is very wide, and there are many dams built to catch the road run-off for use in bushfires. Even though it is native forest, it feels very industrial. None of the trees are more than 50 years old, most would be less than 30. For the first 12 miles, it just feels like every tree I see has a use-by date. There is no ‘multi-use’ management. It is all about hardwood dollars.

Two empty logging trucks pass me. I hear them coming long before I see them, so I can easily get all the way off the road before they come rumbling and clanking by. A bit further on, I see two guys in a Council road maintenance truck. They flash their truck headlights and wave. A bit beyond this, a white forestry ute comes barreling down the road. He slows up when he sees me and then stops. He’s in his 20s most likely, and he is friendly. He smiles and says, “You’ve probably already seen them by now, but there’s logging trucks up here. (I nod.) So just be really careful on the corners, particularly the blind ones.” I reply, “Yeah, no worries.” Then I resume the climb.

It’s quite cool today, so any moments riding through the sun feel good. I’m still sweating of course, but the radiant heat makes you appreciate the way reptiles must feel basking on a log or rock. We just keep climbing. Even though the gravel is good, it still takes a lot of concentration to read the best line and avoid loose or large rocks. Some sections are steep, and I have to pull against the brake hoods to push power into my legs. We’ll gain nearly 3,000 feet of elevation with over 3800 feet of cumulative climbing in 24 miles today. However, I’m enjoying the hard, physical part of the ride.

All that logging puts me off though. So much of the trees are left in big rubbish piles after the clear cuts, and then the whole area burnt. It seems so wasteful. If you are going to annihilate our public forests, you should be required to make use of all of the wood, I reckon.

So much waste… there is certainly an industrial feel to the first 12 miles.

The trees get bigger after the first 12 miles, and it doesn’t feel quite so industrial all the time. The right side of the road was back burnt in the 2003 fires, and hasn’t been logged as recently, so it looks so much more diverse and healthy. Just keep looking right!

The road keeps climbing. Even when it looks like we are on the plateau according to the map, we still keep going up in gentle or steep steps. There are no good exposures of the rocks, but I wonder if these ‘steps’ are the different layers of basalt up here. This area is a high plateau of resistant volcanics – like the Bogong High Plains, only lower.

As the day goes on, we get bigger trees and it’s not quite so industrial feeling. Still, it feels like every single tree on this side of the range has a death date already planned. Sigh….

I really have to concentrate in the tight corners. Sometimes the steepness of grade combined with the steepness of camber is pretty daunting, but I know to ride to the high side, through the thick gravel sprayed to the side, and up onto the flat ungraded bit of the curve. There are still a couple of curves where I have to get off and push, though, because I just don’t have any traction.

All of the gravel climbing has been slow. I’m averaging five miles an hour. I’m probably not going to make the next crossing of the Timbarra River before late evening. So, once we get up to the Nunnett Plains Scenic Reserve, I start looking for a place to camp. The right side of the road remains a bit wild and wooly with the 2003 regrowth. The left side of the road shows a bit more promise.

There is no sign to indicate that you have reached the scenic reserve, but it is obvious in two ways: 1) the road gets a bit crappy for a bit (log trucks must not come this way); and 2) it is where all the cow, brumby (wild horse) and domestic horse shit starts. Eventually, you start getting nice views down into the open plains, but the shit is the start.

Nunnett Plains Scenic Reserve. We are up over 1000 metres here. It is cold and windy.

The trees flow down from the higher ridges and scatter onto the plains. But the cold air prevents them from growing too far into the plain where that cold air pools. It is very scenic, and there are big trees. But there are also a bunch of cattle. Sigh….

I stop to take ‘stock’ of the situation. I’ve been passing very fresh hoof prints and piles of domestic horse shit on the road. The cow shit is of varying age. One of the little tracks leading down into the open area of the plains has fresh vehicle tracks whose owners obviously enjoyed bashing through the muddy bits (grrrr…..). I stand at the top of the track and inhale deeply. If there are horse people up here, they will have a campfire.

Sure enough, I can smell woodsmoke very faintly from somewhere on the plain. It is very windy, and it is not blowing my way, but I’m sure I smell it. On the far side of the plain, there is an old hut and some cattle yards, so I’m sure that’s where they’d be. Still, I don’t see a good spot to camp here that doesn’t look like it would be really cold. So on we go.

I hear a chainsaw off in the distance. My guess is that whomever owns those cattle is up here rounding them up to take them back to lower elevations for winter. It snows up here in the colder months. 1100 metres is high by Australian standards.

I enjoy the big trees and the glimpses through to the open, grassy hollows. I avoid the many, many tall piles of brumby shit on the road – it’s their way of marking territory.

Finally, I see a good open area with flat ground up above the road. It’s 5 pm. We have enough water to get us to the river tomorrow to refill. If I were to ride those six extra miles today, I would not have much daylight left after getting there. Plus, it will be much colder near the river. This should be a warmer option and let us set up camp at a more relaxed pace.

Road coming down out of scenic reserve near Pigs Plain Road.

The relaxed pace of camp set-up lasts about 30 seconds. It is cold – around 8 degrees celsius. And it is very windy. And I am very sweaty. That wind on that sweat at that temperature freezes me whole in less than a minute. I wrench off my shirt and grab the first dry thing from my pannier – my warmie jacket. I quickly assess the area for the least lumpy and shitty space to pitch the tent. I squeeze it in between cow pats, deer shit and rocks.

I get everything in the tent, pee and then get inside to get warm. I’m shivering. The sun is just about to go behind the hill and trees. I put on my tights and then my zip-off pants. I put on my wool socks. I put on my two dry tshirts, my wool thermal layer, my warmie jacket and then my raincoat. I put on my winter hat and cotton gloves. That is pretty much all the clothing I have with me. I then slip in the sleep sheet and then into the sleeping bag. I zip everything up. Then I curl up on the sleeping pad in a fetal position and commence re-warming. I’m a cold sleeper, so it’s not good for me to start the night cold!

The ground is so cold and damp, I can quickly tell when a body part strays off the sleeping pad. Once I’m finally warm again, I decide I’ll put the extra plastic sheet down beneath my pad. I only have a 3/4 length pad, so I’ll unfold the plastic sheet a little for my legs….. Ah, that’s better.

Camp for the night – just off the road. We are at about 1140 metres here. Hopefully, even though it is cold here, it will be warmer than camping on the plains or down near the river where the cold air pools. We can hear deer bugling as we set up the tent.

I roll back into a little ball. I should eat and drink. But I’m not hungry or thirsty. I just want to stay warm. It’s only 6.30pm, but I drift to sleep for a bit. There was a fair bit of climbing today, and the gravel makes it twice as hard. Plus, I haven’t been sleeping well most nights. I think my body just wants to rest. So I do. Until I hear the rain….

What? What? Rain? The sky was clearing! There were no dark clouds! What? No, no, no! It is already cold and wet. And I put the extra plastic sheet beneath my sleeping pad. Now I’ve got nothing to keep the leaks from dripping into the tent. No, no, no! Mother Nature, please be nice to me! I don’t need any sort of ‘challenge’ to prove anything to myself. I have frozen my arse off before and survived and felt more confident and all those sorts of self-affirming things that outdoor challenges do for you. I REALLY do not need that tonight. I do not need to be wet. I don’t even need to be cold. I just need to sleep, thank you.

I don’t know if Mother Nature listened or not. I do not see Her as a benevolent or malevolent thing. She is just science. In your face. Sometimes it’s a pleasant breeze and warm sunshine on your cheeks. Sometimes it is wind and sleet. Whatever the case, we just get light, pitter-patter showers interspersed with a few minutes of harder splats of rain here and there throughout the first half of the night.

But I am obviously exhausted in every possible way. I wake up a few times to the rain. I shine the torch on the tent mesh. It’s wet in places, but the rain hasn’t lasted long enough with each shower for it to start flowing through the mesh. Thank you. I note that the precipitation has remained rain – not snow or sleet. Thank you. I stay pretty warm. And I sleep for almost 12 hours straight. The lesson today: Flog yourself. You can’t be sad when you are exhausted and sleeping that deep sleep of rejuvenation.

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