Nunnett Plains – Swifts Creek: Not for the faint-hearted
Friday March 31, 2017, 35 miles (56 km) – Total so far: 584 miles (940 km)
It’s 3 degrees Celsius. It is wet. It is cold. But the sky is clear and the sun is sprinkling rays through the spaces between the boughs and leaves of trees. Autumn has the most glorious mornings. Tell that to my arthritic fingers, though. They are none too happy at bending and packing a tent in that cold and damp. But I’ve done this thousands of times, so I can do it blindfolded and with fingers that work like sticks.
The road is still soft and grabby. But the surface is good, and there is no traffic. After the forestry guy in the white ute yesterday, I’ve seen no vehicles. The scenery continues to improve. There are more tall and skinny ash trees (they grow tall before they grow wide) and a bit more undergrowth in spots.
I take a chance on the Nunniong Plains Track, rather than the main road. In a way, it’s a cut-through. The main road just loops around and this cuts out the loop. I don’t think it will actually save time, but it will be a good change from the wide clearing of the main road.
I’m immediately glad with the choice. I see three lyrebirds up ahead. You often hear their call, but you rarely see them. They sound a bit like a high-pitched cracking whip, but they can imitate all sorts of other sounds and birds, too. They are sort of like the Australian version of a peacock with a feathery swirl of a tail and a long, pointed head. I’m just happy to see some Australian natives instead of feral and domesticated animals!
The track has a lot of erosion, and I can’t ride bits of it. But I’m thankful for the more natural setting as the track drops us down to the plains of the Timbarra River valley. The river is narrow enough to hop across up here, as it descends the tilted plain through tall, cured grasses. We roll across a little bridge. All of the grass that has grown on the track is crunchy with frost. Steam rises from the water. Steam also rises from a fresh pile of brumby crap.
The track rises in steps from the river. Again, the erosion is bad enough there are bits I can’t ride. But I’m not pressed for time today, and walking speed is just fine to enjoy the dense trees and scattered plains. There are two good camping spots a little ways to the west of the river, if you are here in summer and aren’t avoiding the cool temps of frost hollows in spring and autumn.
The trees grow in clumps and ring the edges of the plains. Between the plains, the trees are scattered like woodland. It is a very pleasant aesthetic if you ignore the cattle. As the sun rises above the trees, it pours light onto the open grasses which shimmer with a thousand droplets of dew poised on thin blades.
We eventually rejoin the main Nunniong Road. Again, like each area I’ve visited on this tour, I wish I had a couple weeks up here to explore the various tracks with a geology map and topo map in tow. Damn, there is just so much left unridden. So much left to explore. So much…. nevermind, I’m grateful that I am here now, grateful for the time that I’ve had and the good health to enjoy it. Onward.
The road continues to climb. There are flat bits. There are downhills. But we are still trending up. The topo map indicates I was around 1140 metres last night, but we’ve still got close to 200 metres to climb before one very long descent off the plateau ahead.
The forest is not nearly so flogged on this side of the plateau. Oh, there are still clear cuts, and the trees are all relatively young, but it is much more scenic and diverse over here. I don’t make any effort to pedal too fast, I’m just taking it all in.
We eventually reach the edge of the plains and begin the drop off the plateau. Beware, if you are heading westbound, you will still be climbing right up until you reach the “Escarpment Track”. Then it is a lot of down. A lot. Like 20 kilometres give or take. 3,000 feet (1,000 metres) of that comes in just eight miles.
The surface is good to start. The road is cut into the hillside along cliffs, bright green ferns and tall trees. It weaves along like a slithering snake on the move. Rolling, rolling, rolling, we keep on rolling.
We pass by “The Washington” an old steam engine that powered a huge winch (which is also still there). The winch was used to move big logs onto logging trucks and the like. It gives some sense of the size of the original trees – there aren’t any trees needing anything that big these days! There are some interpretive signs that explain how the winch worked and the history of the men who worked in this area. This is a great stop for aching fingers or overloaded cardiovascular systems, depending on which way you are heading.
Further down, we start getting great views into the complicated mix of ridges, spurs and ranges ahead. I wonder where our road goes?
Down, down, down. Our road swaps sides of the ridge a couple times. Yes, the views are just fantastic. But the surface is worse further down. It gets rockier and much more slippery. There is a layer of gravel on top that is a bit dicey if you get any sort of speed up. The corners are just too numerous and the surface just too slippery to go fast. The further down we go, the slower I go! I’m picking my way through exposed rock, that slippery stuff and erosion ditches. This is nearly as hard as going up.
I do think ascending this side would be the better option. Yes, it is steeper than the other side, but you’d get it all done in one go, and the grade is much more consistent. You could also take the time to really look at those awesome views. I’m looking down too much to fully appreciate the surrounds of rock and ridge. The other positive of going up this side is that there are numerous, permanent streams to get water from – the other side lacks water except for the Timbarra River. I don’t think this side has any bits that you’d have to walk, because, generally, if I can ride down something, I can ride up it.
Down, down. I am not scared of heights. I am not scared of downhills. I’m not scared of gravel. But wow – the steep drop-offs, tight corners, slippery surface and the outward camber of the road in places, even fills me with a little apprehension on occasion. I’m not worried about my own safety, because I’m going super-slow, but wow, you could really get in trouble quickly if you had much speed.
How easy it would be to fly off a cliff and never been seen again makes me think of the times Nigel was very suicidal in the mid-2000s. I found out later he even had trees picked out that he could drive into at high speed. He still has suicidal ideations, but not like those days. My memories of those days is just feeling so incredibly helpless. Yet even now, at one of the lowest points in my life, I just cannot fathom how you could ever feel so hopeless that you’d want to die. I am so grateful that I don’t know that feeling – that those steep drop-offs scare me rather than present an opportunity. Things are crap. But they won’t always be. I will be okay, and I’ll tackle starting over like a big challenge. I’m resilient. I always float to the top. How lucky am I that I’ve never known such hopeless desperation.
There is a huge crashing noise back up the hill. Sheesh, that was loud. What was that? I first think it was a big rock fall or something. But then I realize it is a big truck bouncing and plunging down the road. I immediately find a spot in the gutter next to the cliff on a straight-ish section where I can wait on it. A minute or so later, a woman in a DELWP ute comes by. She sees me, slows down and points behind her. I nod yes, give a thumbs up and she continues on. The truck is a flat-bed semi carrying a bulldozer. He slows right down for me and waves.
I have to stop again a little further ahead to wait on some motorbike riders to pass. They aren’t going very fast either, and they are so strung out, I have time to eat a muesli bar while I’m waiting for all of them.
Eventually the road spits us out next to the Tambo Valley Golf Course – a scenic course set between the tall ranges. They are holding a wedding, so I encounter a bit more traffic down to the main road than you otherwise might. We pick up the Tambo River here and the main river valley. This means it’s a gentle ride on into Swifts Creek between bald, dry hills and higher, forested ranges. Traffic on the main highway is pretty sparse – everyone but one campervan gives me plenty of room.
You pay for the caravan park at the general store in town. The man there gives me a discount because I’m solo. I’ve bought $20 of food and cleaning stuff, so maybe that’s part of it, too.
I set up the tent in a spot that will see sun for the longest period, and get everything set out to dry. Most things are pretty damp from the humidity and coolness of the past couple days. I use the multi-purpose cleaner to clean up the drive train. Four days in a row of lots of gravel, and a couple days of that being wet gravel, has it really gritty. Even though I really dislke this chore, it is cathartic and meditative to spin the pedals and clean the gunk out between the pins of each link. It’s a chore with a visible difference, too, so that makes it bearable.
It feels nice to lie out flat on my back and relax on the soft grass. I bask like Verne. He and Kermit head off to check out the river and playground. I’ve shaken, rattled and rolled those poor little guys up there in that handlebar bag today. I feel good. I’m relaxed. It’s just a warm and perfect autumn afternoon. Whatever they say about bike riding and exposure to nature being good for your health must be true. We’ll take a few more days of this, please.