Swifts Creek – Omeo: On the path of miners
Saturday April 1, 2017, 22 miles (35 km) – Total so far: 606 miles (975 km)
There is no easy way to Omeo. To get there, you’ll have done some climbing somewhere. Coming from the south, you’ve got a couple options: 1) the main highway over Tongio Gap (with dirt or paved options – old and new routes – at the top); or, 2) the Cassillis Road over an unnamed (as far as I can tell) gap.
Today, I’m heading up the Cassillis Road. I don’t know if it is the easier option of those two or not. However, by 10am today, I’ll know that it is a very pleasant and scenic ride with a lung and leg-busting kilometre or so of steep stuff as you pass under Mt Gingee Munjie.
But at 7am I am clueless about it all. Ignorance is bliss or at least a temporary stay of reality. I pack up a super-wet, dew-laden tent and head through town just as the sun starts to strip away the shadows in the main street.
The road immediately begins to climb through bald, dry hills. The recreation ground is out this way – looks like you could stealth camp there pretty easily if you didn’t want to cough up $11 at the caravan park. Beyond the recreation ground, the valley narrows a bit. There are patches of trees on the bald, dry hills – like when you shave but miss a bit. The road curves and a tiny road heads up a narrow gully. The main road passes between a cluster of houses and a grove of walnut trees. Then we turn into a narrow gully and climb a bit more steadily.
The gully goes on and on. I guess that is why they call this “Long Gully”. There are homes scattered the whole length of our ride to the top of the range this morning. Some are ramshackle old mining cottages. Some are meticulously maintained large homes on a few acres. All would be prone to bushfire and many to flood. It is definitely a peaceful, scenic, tight little valley with a nice cover of trees on this mid-autumn day.
At Tongio West, we pass an organic herb farm. Just beyond this is the Charlotte Spur Track. This will take you into the Cassillis Historic Area. This area had a gold rush in the late 1800s and there are lots of ruins and old machinery you can go see. There are remains of the old ore furnace and cyanide processing plant. Further up the road, there is a track that takes you up to the Jirnkee Water Race. At 77 kilometres long, it is the longest in the southern hemisphere. It was hand-dug between 1899-1903 and brought water over the Great Dividing Range from the Victoria Falls area (site of Victoria’s first hydroelectric plant – we visited there last year when we did a ride over the Bogong High Plains and Mt Hotham). The whole thing was a failure though. The construction costs went way over budget and the running costs outstripped gold production. It sent the company broke.
There are other old ruins next to the road as you head up the valley which widens out at Cassilliss itself. There’s a winery here, if you are into that. At 8am or so on a crisp morning, I’m not thinking about fermented grapes. I do stop to read the interpretive material that describes the towns, their size and what life was like here in the gold days.
Then it is on up the climb. The gully narrows again and we climb beneath 1000 metre mountains. The forest is fairly open but still shady. On one open hill to my left, I see dozens and dozens of kangaroos. Their paths traverse the hill and head down across the road into the forested area to my right. Those kangaroos must know to look both ways before crossing because there is no stench of the squished like you often get when you see such numbers of grazing roos.
Soon the valley gets even narrower and the climbing kicks it up. The road curves left and gets quite steep. Grunt. Grunt. We round a property with a steep driveway and then the road curves around to the right. Steep. Grunt. Grunt. But that new granny gear lets us climb walls. So I never have to walk any of it. I do stop for one rest break after the steepest part, though. I do not have prime touring fitness!
The grade backs off just as we can see the gap. There is a wallaby on the side of the road munching a few blades of grass. He’s sitting in the gutter. He sorta cocks his head, looks away and then looks back at me. He watches me with this look of disdain or disinterest. It’s hilarious – I know it’s wrong to assign human emotions to an animal, but I swear the internal thoughts of that wallaby were: “Ha. Stupid human. Look at that. Could she be any slower? Stupid, stupid humans. What are you going to do with them?” Disdainful wallaby never moves as I ride by. He just slowly turns his head to watch me go by. I’ve never felt so self-conscious crawling up a climb.
We summit. The other side of the gap is covered in a chilly fog. There are no views. So I don my thermal layer and start to head down. We’ve just done about 500 metres of climbing before too many people have made it out of bed. However, those that have emerged from the warm depths of a doona to go retrieve Saturday morning papers in Omeo have all been good about giving me plenty of room when overtaking. I see most of those cars heading back the other way a bit later – it must be the papers and coffee run.
The road drops, but then it starts climbing again. No good downhill run off the Divide here. In fact, we’ll be almost as high as the gap once we climb back up to the valley wall on the other side of Livingstone Creek. It is a beautiful ride,though, across open pasture. There are long views over the cleft of Livingstone Creek and the rolling hills above. You can see over to the Splitters Range. It’s a great ride – just don’t expect an easy cruise after the gap!
We climb on – the rollers giving us an alternating sequence of ‘up the gears, down the gears’. I’m not going far today, so the effort required is not a concern. We don’t need to save anything for later.
Finally, there is a long downhill with nice little whoop-dee-dos (what the heck do you call little uphills in a long series of downs?). The road surface here is broken up in places, but with very little traffic we can weave and swerve as required. Woo-hoo! 40mph before breakfast. Any gal has gotta love that.
I stop and have a look at the old “Oriental Claims” on the way into Omeo. The area was subject to considerable amounts of mining for a fairly long period. Some of the alluvium has been so blasted away by the high-pressure hoses that there are cliffs along the creek. This area has been done up nicely – there are picnic tables, a shade/rain shelter and a toilet, in addition to walking paths that lead to overlooks and along the various areas of claims. There’s no great place to stash the bike, though, so I take all of my valuables and don’t stay away too long (I’m not carrying a bike lock on this ride).
I roll on into Omeo. I like the setting of this town and the way it oozes history. I’ve been here a few times before (twice on bike tours) but never took the time to look at the historical area. So that is on my agenda today. I don’t want to head down the Omeo Highway today – preferring to let the weekend campers disperse before I head that way. So historic buildings of Omeo it is. This is worth doing, if you’ve got the time. I found it really interesting, and it was easy to put yourself back in time to when this was a gold rush town far from anywhere (it is still sorta far from anywhere!).
I head down to the park afterward to eat. I find a spot out of the wind, but in the sun (that’s been a theme with my trips to Omeo!). I check my email. More unsolicited advice about what to do with my life post-Oz. Sigh…. I want to write back: “Telling me that I should be excited about a life in America and being close to my parents is the wrong thing to say. It is well-meaning. And I will feel that way at some point later. But it also diminishes my loss. It says that all the things I had here weren’t very significant, and I should just be excited for the future. It might seem like the right thing to say – positive thinking and all – but that is just not the right thing to say to someone who is grieving. This is better, “Wow, Em, what you are going through is tough. I am sad for you, but please tell me if there is anything I can do for you” (if you mean that). And leave it. Please.
I will get to the point where I’m relieved to be closer to my parents and happy for the opportunity to remold my life in a new place, with new people, new roads to ride, new places to hike and new geology to explore. I know I will be okay and excited and happy and all those things again. But please don’t diminish my loss of so many things I hold so dear”.
I don’t say this though. I reply, “Thanks. It will be good to be closer to my family. I’ve been gone a long time. I hope you, XXXX, and the kiddos are doing well and enjoying spring. I’ll be in touch when I get back to States.” I am grateful to be cared about by so many, but it’s a shame we all have to feel so awkward in situations like this and that no one knows how to talk about failure or loss.
I check facebok. More loss. I see the posts about Mike Hall’s death. Shit. Shit. Shit. I don’t know why it hits me so hard. I don’t know him, I don’t even follow the endurance races. But I have tremendous respect for those athletes who push the boundaries of the sport and are such good advocates for cycling. I’ve only seen him in documentaries online, but this is such a tremendous loss. I don’t know what the race route was, but he was probably near here just a day before his death. Crap. I think of the cluster of close calls I had near Traralgon last week, and the 5-10 percent of drivers whom have given me less than a metre of clearance on almost every day of this ride. It only takes 5-10 percent. Actually it only takes one driver. And it just doesn’t have to be like this. This all happens just after Victoria decides not to pass a law requiring motorists to give cyclists a metre of passing distance. The politicians’ justification is that it would be hard to enforce and wouldn’t make much difference. (Insert favourite curse words here).
I head down to the caravan park in the afternoon. The owner tells me all the places I can set up the tent. I ask if he has a recommendation. He says, “Sun or shade?”
I reply, “Sun. Definitely. Last week it would have been shade, but autumn seems to have finally arrived.”
He smiles and directs me to a spot that will get sun right up until the sun recedes behind the hills. Again, I spread my gear out over the grass to dry while I eat and rehydrate. I like short days on the road after some challenging ones. Tomorrow is going to be a short day, too. We’re running down the days of the tour. We’re getting close to home. I guess I just don’t want any of this to end – this bike tour included.