The Warbys – Mt Samaria State Park: Pushing…
Sunday March 19, 2017, 57 miles (92 km) – Total so far: 103 miles (166 km)
The morning is cool and silent as I wake to the grey of night turning into day. We’re near the end of daylight savings, so sunrise isn’t until 7.20am. It’s 6.40am now and I soak in the quiet and the first few rustles of day. It’s as if earth has a resting pulse and we’re packing up between the long, slow beats of life.
Somewhere after first light, but before the sun crests the range, we are rolling on the bitumen on the downhill out of the park. We tumble on down at speed following a creek drainage, just like all the rocks and sediment flowing off the range. I am not a morning person in my normal life, but the time just around dawn is my favourite time on the bike.
We ride along the ‘back’ side of the range in its shadow across harvested fields and dry pasture. As the sun crests the range, we ride in and out of shade and the long golden rays of low-angle sun. It is still quiet and cool – the pulse of the day just barely starting to quicken.
We round the range and head southeast into a large basin. Prior to European settlement, it was a gathering place on the edge of several clan areas – though claimed by the Bangerang, I think. There were around 8750 hectares of wetlands ringed by low hills. It would have been a very important source of food, textiles and shelter.
In the 1970s, the government decided to build a water storage for the Broken River here. They bought up all the farms and built an 8 or 9 kilometre-long dam wall and diversion structures. They then filled the basin with water from the Broken River. The project (Lake Mokoan) was supposed to provide more water security for irrigators downstream. Alas, after some good years in the 1970s, the lake continually experienced water quality issues and low water levels, such that the water was not usable to downstream irrigators. After much debate, political posturing and all that comes with reversing such a big decision that used so much taxpayer money, the dam was decommissioned around 2010 or so.
In the years since, they’ve done a considerable amount of work to build a cafe/interpretive centre, bike paths, public art, interpretive programs and to implement an ambitious restoration plan. They hold lots of events, citizen science monitoring projects, planting days, bird count days, etc. It’s a long work in progress, but they’ve got a fair amount of taxpayer money from somewhere to attempt the transformation.
However, if you are riding through the area today, it still looks pretty much like an almost empty lake with acres and acres of drowned, dead trees and foreshores devoid of recreationists. I have been out here a few times and read all of the interpretive boards. I’ve done the bushwalks, and I’ve ridden over the dam wall to get in and out of Benalla a few times. The social story of building and then decommissioning a dam in the space of 40 years is as interesting as the biology and restoration.
The roads are quiet. The gate to the dam wall is unlocked, so we don’t have to hoist the bike over any fences today. Then we are up on the dam wall heading toward the mountains we’ll climb into today. There is a sawmill outside of Benalla that is always giving off so much air pollution that you can smell it and see it as you cross the dam. It always amazes me that they are allowed that level of pollution in 2017!
The dam wall was breached at the outward diversion structure, so I always have to get off the bike and walk it down and up the steep dip. But other than that, the dam wall has a good gravel surface and nice views over the basin. At its end, you veer onto a management track that takes you out to a gravel road. This connects to a back road into Benalla and you never have to get out on the Benalla-Yarrawonga Road (busy, no shoulder, trucks).
Benalla is a bit of a ‘struggle town’ with a low socio-economic base. But it’s got a fantastic art gallery and nice walking paths along the Broken River through its heart. For the past few years, they’ve had a “Wall to Wall” art festival where large murals are painted on buildings by visiting artists. There is a cool one with race cars just by the library.
After stopping to get some drinks, fill my Camelbak and two litres of water and check weather forecasts, we head out of town on the Samaria Road. It is tree-lined and flat to start. It traverses the edge of the big Broken River basin and slowly starts to climb to the uplifted hills. It’s narrow and you’d think it would be a backroad, but there is a surprising amount of traffic using this as an alternative route to Tatong and Swanpool. There are signs warning of cyclists, and I see several roadie groups out training. They all have SAG vehicles with warning lights. One group that passes me from behind has a passenger in the van who leans out to get a shot of the roadie group passing the slow touring cyclist!
After the Tatong and Swanpool turn-offs, the road narrows further, the hills go rollercoaster and we enter the crumpled earth of the uplift. Soon, our road turns to crappy gravel and there are a few pointless hills to climb before we make it to the park boundary. We climb a couple more pointless hills on the slippery red clay and then we turn to the long, continuous climb up to Mt Samaria.
Much of the climb is too steep and loose for me to ride. So for the next couple miles we push the bike most of the time. The road is in a really poor condition and it wouldn’t even be nice to drive.
It is hot again this afternoon, so I’m soaked with sweat pretty quickly. Push. Push. It is slow, tedious and sometimes brutal work. Sometimes I can only push for about 500 feet at a time before I need to take a break. The bike slides around, my feet slip and it is just slow progress getting all that weight up that steepness. The march flies circle and buzz, the sun beats down and I trudge on. It really sucks to average 1 or 2 mph per hour. But I think you know that!
We wind around from ridge to ridge, crossing occasionally on saddles. The vegetation is all pretty scrubby and dry down this low. We are traipsing across Silurian sediments uplifted in the Benambran Orogeny as we push. Not very exciting – that’s the story with a whole lot of the area where I live. This area was under an ocean in the Silurian.
BUT… as we climb higher we can start to see Mt Samaria and its ridge. The peak and the adjoining ridge are extruded volcanics. The rocks appear craggy, rough and grey – in contrast to the yellow, tan and light orange sandstones and siltstones giving us such a slippery uphill. We won’t actually cross the volcanics on the road though. We’ll pass underneath and the Silurian sediments will give way to Barjag granite – emplaced under the surface at a similar time to the the extruded volcanics.
This is where bike touring brings out your personal traits of grit. Push. Hot. Flies. Slippery. Dusty. Dirty. Push. At least there is no traffic. As we get higher, the vegetation starts to change and the manna gums get bigger. At one of the last turns below Mt Samaria before the road crosses onto granite and the surface becomes reasonable, there are fantastic views to the southwest. You can pick out the Barjag fault below, you can see the different drainages of the Goulburn and Broken Rivers, and you can see the Strathbogie Plateau (an elevated area that has granite and all the volcanics of a collapsed cauldron). This area was very volcano-ey in the Devonian.
Finally, the road backs off the grade and we ride into big trees. Of course this area was extensively logged well into the 1920s, so all the massive old growth is gone, but some of the regrowth is still impressive. Importantly, it’s also shady! It has been a very hot upward incline for the past couple hours.
We ride along on a good surface with gentle undulations through those large trees. I see one 4WD, who doesn’t slow down for me at all, so I guess I’m glad I got off the road. I really do not like 4WDers’ attitudes, and this trip will confirm that. He is just the first.
We finally come up to the camping area near the old sawmill. You can do some walks from here along the old timber tramways, and the camping area has a permanent creek. I stop to fill my remaining two water bottles and pop in purification tabs. There is no one at the campground, so I think about staying here. It’s nice and shady and the four sites are all pretty private.
But, I decide it’s still early enough someone else might come along, so I’ll head a bit further down the road to a walk-in site at Camphora. There’s less likely to be people if they have to detach themselves from their vehicles. So on down the road we go, passing the old kilns on the way. The forest is quiet except for the intermittent calls of lyrebirds.
The Camphora campsite is a disappointment. The mozzies are ferocious and I have to do a fair amount of work on spiders and webs to make the toilet usable. The area has been burnt in a planned burn or fire somewhat recently, so the whole area is just turned dirt that is lumpy and not attractive to set a tent on. The little creek here is dry. I wish I had stayed back up the road!
But it is quiet and there is a picnic table. I stand naked on the table’s seats and use some of the 4 litres of water to cool down with. I also rinse off the mega amounts of dust and dirt that have clung to my sunscreen and sweat. It’s ended up a pretty tough day. But it’s also meant that I haven’t really had time to think or dwell on any sadness. Everything has been directed outward today to the landscape – social and geological. And that long, hard push narrowed down my thoughts to “UP. PUSH.”
I settle into the tent. I’m out-of-shape, relatively, at the moment, but I’ve gone better than I thought I would. Now who was the fool that planned the route so that we would be camping at the top of ranges on the first two nights which would require lugging water? We should fire her – or at least tell her a more gentle start might have been good!