The residual refrain: Day 3

Mt Samaria State Park – Alexandra: Dirty, dirty girl

Monday March 20, 2017, 65 miles (105 km) – Total so far: 168 miles (270 km)

There is a very high chance of getting wet today. In fact, things are already wet. It rained for several hours through the early AM. My leaky tent leaked, but the extra plastic sheet I brought along has diverted the wet to places on the tent body that means my gear and I stayed dry. That’s good – the plastic sheet idea was untested prior to the trip.

I can get a couple bars of phone signal, so I check the radar. Hmmmm…. yes, there is rain out there. This trough is weird, as the rain is sinking down from the north out of a tropical system. Normally, our fronts come from some westerly direction. This northerly sinking stuff also means it is, and will be, incredibly humid today. That’s not normal either.

Still, we should have time to get to Mansfield before any of the rain returns. So I pack up the tent wet (I usually do this – I never wait around for it to dry) in that warm, humid air. The mozzies seem to float and hang on the air, as if they don’t exactly know how to fly in such moisture. The light seems to hang on the air, too. The few rays of sun that occasionally filter through are visible in the moisture – tons of droplets of sunlight scattered.

As soon as we get on the road, it starts to snow. Well, not that kind of snow… but there are hundreds of little insects with papery wings that flutter through the air. Their few moments of vitality and reproduction in their short lifespans is today – right now. The flurry of activity is not unlike riding through snow flurries. Their little bodies gently smack my face as we ride through clouds of these moth/flying ant-type insects. Their brown bodies are tiny compared to their papery wings. At times, as I pedal up and down the gravel, they are so thick, it is like a snowstorm. A few end up mired to the top of my handlebar bag where the moisture from the air has settled. I wipe the little bugs away – it’s a bit sad to watch their writhing bodies with their wings stuck to the wet.

Eventually, our road starts to drop off the range. Some of the road is rocky and rough. Some parts are rough and steep. It all winds down through fairly open forest. The shafts of sunlight break through, blinding me on eastward runs. The air remains thick and heavy. We leave the bugs up on top. I do get off and walk the bike down some bits, particularly toward the bottom when we get into the pine plantations. My arthritic fingers can only do so much constant steep downhill pulse braking before they scream in agony. I can walk the bike almost as quick as I can ride the steep, rough stuff anyway.

Down the bottom is a creek. There’s a nice picnic area and small camping area here. The creek is rock-bottomed and running low today. It sits deeply incised between the gentle hills to the east and the uplifted range we just came down. There’s a fault running through here that lifted the Blue Rag Range – if you look at the terrain map above, you’ll see the abrupt drop.

Time for some bike porn, a trip to the toilet and perusal of the interpretive boards. It appears this has been a picnic spot since settlement. Then it’s on down the corrugated gravel road out into the Mansfield basin and into pasture and cropland.

Some bike porn – bottom of the Blue Rag Range on the way to Mansfield.

The main road undulates along on gentle hills. There’s not much traffic and everyone gives me room. “C” roads (e.g. C123) are a real crap-shoot in Victoria. None of them usually have shoulders, but some have insane amounts of impatient traffic while others only have light-ish traffic. The crap-shoot nature of them means I tend to avoid them. But all is good today.

Mansfield is buzzing. There are a heck of a lot of people around for a Monday that is not school holidays. Mansfield is a popular spot in ski season as Mt Buller is just up the road. It’s a popular spot in summer as it is a good supply point before heading into the mountains or down to the massive Lake Eildon. I stop long enough to grab some drinks (it will be hot and humid all day) and fill my Camelbak. I also check the radar. Hmmmmm….. yep, that stuff is sinking down this way. I can see building storm clouds to the north, and radar concurs, but we’ve still got some time to throw down some miles before it hits. Let’s go!

The main roundabout in Mansfield has this large memorial to three policeman killed by Ned Kelly (famous Aussie bushranger) and his gang at somewhat nearby Stringybark Creek. (I’ve been there on the bike last April). The funds were raised and the memorial built in less than 3 years – Kelly was still on the run when the memorial was finished.

From Mansfield, we head out on the Great Victorian Rail Trail. It opened in 2012, though this section out of Mansfield to Bonnie Doon has been around longer. The trail mostly follows the Goulburn River valley downstream. The surface is good most of the way between Mansfield and Molesworth – it’s only a bit rough to the west of Merton Gap. The trail is mostly downhill from Mansfield to Molesworth, too, so I can maintain a pretty high average speed as we race those rain clouds.

A cutting on the Great Victorian Rail Trail on the way to Bonnie Doon.
Approaching the bridge over Lake Eildon at Bonnie Doon. The lake is a major storage on the Goulburn River. Bonnie Doon is very popular with Melbourne holidaymakers and was made famous in the movie “The Castle”.
On the bridge – water underneath today. This is a far end of part of the reservoir so it often doesn’t have water (at least not in the 2000s).

We fly along. There are a decent number of people out on the trail today. Between Mansfield and Bonnie Doon, I encounter about 10 people. After Bonnie Doon, the tracks in the gravel after last night’s rain peter out. I’m still following a few folks, though. They seem to have stopped at Maindample for a BBQ provided by a SAG vehicle. Lucky riders 🙂

We continue on down the valley – dry grasses reaching up onto bald hills. The wind starts to strengthen as we close in on Merton. I pass some riders. I then stop to help an arrogant older guy with a puncture. He’s doing the trail on a road bike and his tires have not protected him through those rougher bits. I lend him my pump, but I don’t have tubes that will work for him and his attitude means I’m not breaking open a new glue tube for him. Yikes – I’m glad I’ve never had to work or live near that guy! Luckily, the people I passed earlier also stop to see if they can help. I use that opportunity to retrieve my pump and get the heck outta there!

I do get some company, though. The man from the couple stays behind to help, but the woman rides with me. They are retired and are doing the trail with another couple. They are staying in pubs, motels and B&Bs along the trail. Today, at 50 kms, is a long ride for them as they normally only like to do about 30km. They’ve got accommodation in Yarck. They like riding the various rail trails and have done this one before. They are off to do the Otago Rail Trail in April on a supported ride.

At the next road crossing, we catch up to her friends, so I bid adieu and continue on. I guess a lot of people leave at similar times from various points along the trail. And everyone going either direction seems to hit the stretch between Merton and Cathkin at a similar time. I don’t see anybody fully-loaded, but there are a fair number of people with rear panniers pedaling each direction. Once I get past Yarck, though, I don’t see anyone else.

Somewhere after Merton we got stuck behind this tractor for a couple kms. We’re on a downhill here, so we could have easily gone faster, darn it!

Since Merton, the tail wind has been strengthening. The storm clouds stay hovered off to the north, and I’m surprised I’ve made it this far without getting wet. It’s been a hot, humid and partly sunny day all along the trail. I had thought about cutting over to Alexandra on the Spring Creek Road rather than the trail (since I’ve ridden the Merton to Molesworth section before). But there would be a fair bit of climbing on gravel to get over the range the rail trail goes around. I figured that would be slower than 10 extra kays on the rail trail. I think it’s been a good decision. At some points on the trail, I’m able to average 17mph.

I am filthy today! Both my legs are absolutely covered in filth like this. And NO ONE else that I pass on the trail (and I would say I saw about two dozen people today) has dirty legs like this! WTF?

I finally stop for a break just after Cathkin. Hot, humid, sweaty. And FILTHY. I don’t know how I’ve done it, but my legs are completely covered in black trail dust. I have seen no one else on the trail that has managed to acquire such a degree of dirt. I tell myself it is because I’ve been so speedy and flinging up so much dust – everyone else must ride slow. Ha!!! I don’t think that is it, but whatever it is, Pigpen has got nothing on me today!

Rail trail diverging from the road at Koriella – so that it can do some curves to get down to Alexandra more gently than the road. Nice views from here!

The rail trail splits at Cathkin. The main line heads on down the river valley and a spur line heads to Alexandra. I’ve always heard there is a big climb to Alexandra, but it doesn’t feel all that steep to me. It doesn’t look all that steep either. I don’t think it feels like it ever gets over 3 percent or so. Whatever. I was expecting more of a climb, but I won’t complain when it’s easy. Ever!

The trail heads along through an avenue of regrowth gums. The shade is welcome – it’s almost like an honour guard of trees through here. It’s like their branches are swords or guns reaching over the trail to escort you through like royalty.

We finally get up to the gap at Koriella. There are nice views from the top over to Alexandra, the Cathedral Range and the lump of mountains that are all the old fill from another collapsed cauldron (Cerberean, I think).

Views toward Alexandra from Koriella on the Great Victorian Rail Trail.
Heading down toward Alexandra through another cutting on the rail trail.

I stop for a few moments to enjoy the view, but the storm clouds are starting to really build in all directions. So I skedaddle. This is a really nice section of trail as the old rail line weaves down along a ridge. There are nice long cuttings, sections of fill and a fast downhill heading into town. Good stuff!

I stop for a few moments at the trail end to look at the town map. You can camp at the showground or the caravan park. I opt for the caravan park, simply because it is on the road out of town I need to take tomorrow. There’s not a lot of time to ponder, or I’m going to get wet!

And some more bike porn – end of the line on our second rail trail (we rode a bit of the Murray to Mountains trail near Wangaratta on Day 1).

I ride on through town. I’m not overly impressed. It’s an old timber town that is the local service town. It all looks a little run-down and has-been, but I really don’t give it a proper look. I’m through town and on the road out in minutes.

The Alexandra Tourist Park is a misnomer. The park is pretty much full of permanents. There are only about 3 tourists – the rest of the park is old caravans with annexes and various other combinations made permanent. The reception woman is friendly, though, and insists I set up somewhere between some of the permanent vans because I’ll have good grass and shade. It’s not ideal, but at $15, I’m not too picky. I’m paying for the shower, fridge in the camp kitchen, and the laundry tub to rinse out my dirty gear.

So I set up next to an ancient van that has Xmas lights and a million potted plants adorning a makeshift patio. After I get set up and get all that black grime cleaned off, the woman in the van comes out to meet her neighbour. She’s got a pit bull sort of dog on a short lead, a frumpy long dress and a gravelly voice that belongs in a quarry instead of a larynx. After she checks me out, and judges that I’m not a threat I assume, she heads off to walk her dog.

The storms come pretty soon after. It pours, it thunders, it wallops the earth with big, fat drops. The leaky tent leaks. But the plastic sheet does its job. As the storm subsides and the sun sets behind dark and moody clouds, the caravan park comes to life. All those permanent caravans have permanent residents, and the conversations I hear, the vehicles that pull in and the life that is revealed through evening routines makes me feel so grateful to have been born into a good family with positive role models and guidance.

One man has an enormous big-screen TV that takes up his entire annex. The entire caravan park has to listen to the bass thumping from it, even when it is not turned up loud. One woman with a walker wrestles her way through grass and puddles to the amenities block, not long after returning home in a “patient transport” station wagon. Another man works on his car, until slamming the bonnet, cursing, and then sitting down for his sixth cigarette in the last hour. I suppose there are many ways you might find yourself living in a caravan park. I’m not naive enough to think that it is all down to bad choices. I know the marginalised, disadvantaged and most vulnerable in our society end up there through a multitude of personal, social, structural and institutional factors. You’ll never see me vote to cut social welfare – even though I’ve never, and hope to never, need those payments.

So I reflect on how grateful I am as I listen to the woman in the caravan next to me watching “married at first sight”. Wow, that’s a crappy show – even if you are only listening to it! I feel sorry for the woman in the caravan as a man in her van has a long and sad conversation on the phone for quite some time. I fall asleep to the man complaining about his back and a need for surgery. I may have some big changes to make in the coming months that seem a bit daunting, but I am grateful for having the love, support and upbringing that those changes can be taken in stride. I may be losing a tremendous amount from my life very soon, but even with all of that loss, I will still have more than most of these people could ever wish to have.

Kermit having a conversation with a frog on the door of our tent.

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