The residual refrain: Day 8

Darlimura – Stratford: ‘This is how cyclists die’

Saturday March 25, 2017, 71 miles (114 km) – Total so far: 379 miles (610 km)

It sounds like a painter has finished up with the latex, rinsed out his brush and is now flicking out the water onto my tent with quick, hard flicks of his wrist. The rain is light and sporadic, as if individual clouds have just had enough and decided to drop whatever they hold so they can move more quickly to the east.

There are a few light showers in the early AM, but when I wake at 6.30am and check radar, there’s not much out there. The clearing behind this weak front is already moving in. It will be hit and miss whether we are unlucky enough to get under a particularly sodden cloud this morning.

I ponder my options for the day. I had originally planned two different ways to get over to Tara Bulga National Park: 1) via Morwell River Road and Morwell Falls; and 2) a more direct route using the Budgeree Road. But I don’t feel like heading up there. I’ve been there before and delighted in the massive tree ferns and towering ash that hang out in the cool temperate rainforest. It is a gorgeous place, and worth a visit if you have never been.

But I don’t want to go and be reminded of what this whole area once looked like and what magnificent forests covered these hills. While I enjoyed the ride yesterday, I also could not help but think about how Europeans had absolutely massacred the environment. So I just don’t want to be reminded of all that loss on top of all the loss that is already whirling in my head.

So I decide to give the national park a miss and head for Traralgon where we can pick up a rail trail toward Heyfield. I then look for updates on the fires burning near Dargo. My original plans had been to head to Licola from Heyfield and then up to Moroka and Bryce Gorges before heading back down the Marathon Road to Briagolong. But the night before I left Albury, fire updates indicated some of those roads were closed.

The roads are still closed. So I’ll have to give those a miss. Now how do we get to Traralgon? I just don’t see any good backroads. I hadn’t settled on anything before the trip either. It looks like some “C” roads are really the only option. I’m not a big fan of those.

I pack up the tent under threatening skies and resume the run on the rail trail. It heads into forest, over some long-ish bridges and through a tight valley. That is one good rail trail! It spits us out in the middle of Boolarra. They’ve really done up the park, and there are new toilets. A bushfire in 2009 caused damage here and I suspect this is fire recovery money that’s allowed for the upgrades. There are even bike racks in the shape of bikes. There is a general store/takeaway/newsagent open. I just refill water, eat, brush my teeth and glance at the dark clouds.

A touring cyclist couple my age or younger rolls up to the takeaway shop from the opposite direction I’ve come. I am sitting over in a picnic shelter. I don’t know if they’ve seen me, but I don’t bother to go over to chat. If it had been a solo cyclist, I most certainly would have gone over to say hello. I know I’m awful, but I don’t find cyclist couples nearly as interesting to chat with as solo cyclists. So the introvert in me, who doesn’t really like to talk to anyone, wins out. Shame on me, I know.

I head out on the road toward Churchill. There’s a massive shoulder and a whole lot more traffic than one might expect. They’re going both directions, so it’s not an event. The road heads through forest and out of the hills. We round the corner of the hills into open and rolling fields. The smoke from the three power stations (Hazelwood, Jeeralang, Loy Yang) is visible at times, but stays mostly hidden by the topography. There are massive coal seams in the LaTrobe Valley and much of Victoria’s power is generated by the coal mines and power stations here. One of the stations, Hazelwood, is closing next week though, after first opening after WWII. The owners have found it uneconomical to upgrade or continue operating. As much as the conservative politicians want to keep it around, coal is on its way out.

There’s rain over the hills. We pedal in the wide shoulder. The cars speed by. Where are all these people going?

I roll into Churchill. Wow – it’s a shitty, planned place absolutely full of public housing. I’m not sure if I see any private housing at all on my way through. It looks like it was all set up in the late 1970s, and then sorta forgotten about since then. There’s an old early ’80s strip of shops with a newer Safeway next door. But it’s a really sad place with a whole heap of traffic on this Saturday morning.

Now I must head northeast on the C476. It immediately loses any sort of shoulder. Some of the traffic has gone toward Morwell, but half or more have come this way. Shit. This is not going to be fun. I’m constantly looking at the map for alternatives, but there is nothing that’s really going to help. Shit.

I pedal hard. There are hills. There are winding bits. There are straight bits. And way more cars than the road was designed to handle. This is soooo not fun. Most cars are good to start, but the closer I get to Traralgon, the more aggressive and impatient they get. C’mon, it is after morning tea time and before lunch! If you are not somewhere right now already, there is nowhere you need to be on a Saturday in a rush like this.

It gets worse. The lane width is not good. I’m routinely getting buzzed with less than a metre. I get angrier and angrier as it gets more dangerous. I can see what’s going on in my mirror, so I’m never surprised, but some of the cars are just so close I can feel myself go almost rigid on the bike in anticipation. I shout curse words in my head. I contemplate the downfall of society when no one can see a fellow human as anything but an object in their way. I contemplate the impatience technology has thrust upon us. And I contemplate death. I think, ‘this, this right here, is how cyclists die. Impatient drivers. Inadequate roads. Objectifying ‘out’ groups’.

A road takes off for Loy Yang. Great! Some cars go that way. But not enough. The bogans keep skimming me. Bogans? Yes – it is predominantly late model hotted-up sedans and newer, high-powered utes that are not slowing down or moving over at all for me. Bogans. Let me objectify them since they are doing it to me. Fuck them. Fuck this. I don’t want to die today. On a shitty road heading toward a shitty town.

A ute with horse trailer turns from a side road. He flashes his headlights. At me? At the car bearing down on me? Or the car behind that? Who are you warning about what? The car behind me is so close when he passes at 100kph or more, he fills my entire mirror. How he doesn’t actually clip a pannier is probably only because I’ve moved onto the absolute edge of the road. How I don’t actually crash or lose a tire off the edge is a mystery, too. The car behind passes just as close but at least appeared to take their foot off the gas. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. That is all my mind can think. I’m so angry. It just doesn’t have to be like this.

I roll into Traralgon. I don’t have a map of town, so I go by instinct. And then I see a bike/pedestrian path and head down that. I pass a couple wearing black jeans and tight tshirts. The guy has one of those big-brimmed baseball caps with a Fox dirtbike logo on the side (and presumably the front, but I didn’t see that bit). They both have more tattoos than visible skin. Who gets a tattoo on their neck!? I slow down, yell out “PASSING” and go around them on the grass since they are taking up the whole bike path. They yell out nasty things in return. Ohhhh, don’t even….

The bike path turns into a footpath that goes under the rail bridge and stops at the main highway. I cross with the pedestrian light and then rejoin that road. The downtown area is pretty big and there are heaps of people around and heaps of traffic. I negotiate through all that and find a park.

I’m alive. I’m angry. I’m full of adrenalin. I should get some food here. I should refill water. I should do lots of things. But all I can do is figure out a way to get out of this bogan hellhole. The park I’ve ended up in has a very impressive playground area with various themes. And that is the only good thing I have to say about this town.

I negotiate my way through new development out to Marshall’s Road. Marshalls Road is closed. Oh no, don’t even…. I roll around the barriers. They are not working on the pipes, etc. and I don’t know another way to get over to the rail trail. At this point, I would have carried the bike over fences and mud if I had to. And, nevermind, all the cars just go around the barriers, too.

I am not a fan of Traralgon. Bogans galore, traffic galore and not all that pretty. This summed up my feelings of the place. Power station (Lou Yang) smoke in the background, construction in the foreground, closed road I ignored, and no aesthetics whatsoever.

We finally make it over to the rail trail. Thank you. The surface will vary. There is never any real good signposting. And it is really flat and boring for the most part. But there are no cars. Let us traipse across the plains on gravel and the slow bleed of adrenalin draining from my nervous system. All that energy propels me at some impressive average speeds across the low-lying land as the sun reappears.

Gippsland Plains Rail Trail. Boring, flat, varying surface – mostly not-so-great. But it kept us off the C-roads and alive, and for that we are grateful.
Bathroom door at Glengarry. A mama kangaroo with joey smoking a spliff and saying “Hoppy Christmas”. How very Traralgon.

I finally stop at Toongabbie. I haven’t eaten much at all today. I need to refill water. I need to just stop and recompose myself. Luckily, there is a big shade tree with a bench below it, and the general store has chocolate milk. All will be right with the world again. I just need to do a bit more pedalling.

Nice, shady spot with a tree bench at the general store in Toongabbie. A welcome rest break.

After the rest break and water refill, I head back out on the trail. The ranges in the distance line the horizon – dark green hills rising from the flatness. I’m disappointed we can’t head up there. But thinking about all of my loss, the loss of all those trees in the Strezleckis, and all of my anger at being endangered by impatient drivers just pushes me down that trail. Fast. I stomp out all that angst on the flat Gippsland Plains. I see two people out on the trail but it is mostly my own. On one of the sandy bits on the way into Heyfield, I rip through those slow, grabby sections like I’m on a road bike on fresh asphalt. Aaarrrrrggghhh. Be nice to me, world, just be nice to me, god damn it!

I stop in Heyfield for some photo ops with the guys. There’s more cool playground equipment. The town is pretty dead today. It’s a timber town and they just got word that their mill may close. More on that later. I’m too pissed off today to even touch that one.

Guys with a wooden wombat in Heyfield.
Frill-neck lizard chomping a turtle in Heyfield.

I ride on. Hard. Flying down that trail. But it works. By the time I get to Maffra, I’m okay again. I’m still pissed off about the bad drivers, but not in a ‘she’s screwed up’ way. Just annoyed. I’ve ridden out the anger and sadness for now.

Maffra, though, is a disappointment. It has a cool main street that says the early 1900s was a good time for this town. There are double-story brick buildings for the length of the main street. They are set back from the main road such that there are service roads for parking down each side. But it’s late Saturday afternoon, so all of the shops are shut. The teenagers are all congregating outside the IGA. The town caravan park, next to the CFA station, is incredibly unattractive: long grass, mud, a few tall trees and an ancient amenities block. There’s an “RV Park” at the golf course, but that doesn’t sound good for a smelly cyclist with a tent.

So on we go. It’s getting on 4.30pm. Who knows where we’ll end up, but Stratford is not too far, just another 6 or 7 miles. Let’s hope it’s better than Maffra.

Typical views on the Gippsland Plains Rail Trail.

Just to keep with the day’s outpouring of energy, I decide to see how hard I can push it to the end of the trail. My legs are burning. My lungs are heaving. This is not a recreational cycling speed on a recreational cycling trail. This is every ounce of Em screaming inside and letting the bicycle do its work. We fly to Stratford.

The caravan park is on the river. It’s pretty full. But I need to charge stuff and get clean. So $15 is a good deal for that. I go set up amongst all the big-arse caravans and then head up to get a couple days of food from the IGA. Then I shower and shave. Amazon woman legs, begone.

I charge electronics in the camp kitchen while I ponder maps. The woman at reception confirms the road closures, so I wonder what else I might substitute for those three days. Reading the maps is a comfort to me and draws me back to the touring groove. But I still can’t sleep when I go to the tent just after dark. I lie there spent, but awake, for a long, long time.

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