Tawonga Caravan Park to 3 kms north of Anglers Rest via Falls Creek
Saturday March 19, 2016, 52 miles (83 km) – Total so far: 817 miles (1,314 km)
Yesterday, as I was driving from work to the caravan park, the familiar sense of excitement and anticipation started creeping through my veins. I had packed up all of my gear the night before, took everything with me to work, and then tried to concentrate all day in front of the computer.
Then, at 4.30pm, it was time to go. And there I went – driving over the river, across the plains and up the valleys toward the mountains in my work uniform. It made me feel like I was 20 again and heading off for mountain adventures with the boys right after classes ended for the week at university.
As I drove, I also noted that the low, puffy clouds scudding across the sky at speed were nature’s messengers finally heralding autumn. Though the angle of the sun had felt like autumn for several weeks, Friday was the first day that the temperatures agreed. We even got a couple hours of light rain with the big cold front that moved out the heat, too.
The sense of anticipation only grew as I got my gear together in the tiny caravan – working from the small table and the squeaking and squawking double bed mattress. I only hatched the idea to do the 4-day ride on Tuesday, when the weather forecast looked excellent. Prior to that, I was thinking this weekend was just going to be an up-and-back to the Bogong High Plains. I’d missed out on Falls Creek on my original and rejigged Forest Gumption tour – so I wasn’t letting the summer end without doing that route!
However, with the weather forecast so perfect, the prospect that this is probably the last weekend before the skies go smoky from prescribed burns, and that niggling voice in the back of my head that keeps saying we really should ride the Great Alpine Road…. well, I told myself let’s just go and do the big loop.
So here we are on a very crisp morning, packing the last bits in the dark at 6.30am, and rolling out as the sun brings blue depth to the last of the overhead grey. I am so excited. I think today’s climb is quite achievable, but the four-day loop has 16,000 feet of cumulative climbing with some steep grades thrown in there. Can we do it?
I take the back way from Tawonga to Mt Beauty across the gentle folds of the valley. There are grazing paddocks, some wine grapes and some scattered houses strung along the road. Mist rises from the river into the cool air. You can see your breath. Welcome, fall!
I don’t stop in Mt Beauty. It was built in the 1950s as a town for all of the workers on the State Electricity Commission’s Kiewa Hydroelectric project. It has the feel of a planned town. All of the little 1950s cottages on tiny blocks are starting to look a bit worse for wear. I’ve always liked the idea of Mt Beauty – a little town at the base of the mountains – but I’ve never really liked the town itself. It gives me the creeps for some reason!
The road immediately starts climbing out of Mt Beauty. I’m feeling good. The excitement translates to energy and I’m spinning out those 5 percent grades like I have touring fitness. Just as I climb past the golf course, a kangaroo goes hopping across the road. Then a young man crosses on foot, walking. You’d almost think there was a biped crossing there!
The first 4.6 kilometres climb through the trees on good pavement. It is quiet and still. Fog rolls up the valley ahead and wisps curl off and reach back down to us as we head up through the green.
There is a cycling event on today called The Blind Challenge which raises funds for the vision-impaired. There will be cyclists riding the route to raise money, but also people piloting tandems with blind people as stokers. I don’t know when they’ll all overtake me, but at this point in the day, there is little traffic of any kind. Bliss.
So up we go. Between the 5 and 12 kilometre mark, the climbing really backs off, and there are even some downhills. But once you get past the bridge over the East Kiewa River, the climbing really kicks in and becomes pretty continuous. I’m feeling so good today, and the cars that pass me are being very cyclist-friendly. The rest stops for the Blind Challenge are all set up and the people manning them yell out encouraging remarks. Good stuff this morning.
We are well past 8am, and as the road climbs higher and I can occasionally see back down below, I keep looking for riders. But no one has caught me yet. The large trees and the green ferns along the hillsides shoot out ions that I absorb and transfer to pedal power. This ride is scenic if you just block out all the electricity lines going all over the place from the hydroelectric scheme. I’ve wanted to do this ride forever, though, so I’m stoked to be out here actually doing it!
Eventually we make it to Howman’s Gap. The support station here has people all rugged up in cold weather gear. I hear the one woman say to another, as I approach, “Should we offer her some of the food?” I don’t hear the reply. I don’t want to stop anyway, I’m in a groove. The first woman calls out, “Hey, you are doing great!” I am doing 5 mph, so there is plenty of time to say, “Oh, no, I’m just so slow. I keep waiting for the riders to catch me!”
From there, the climbing is continuous and consistent. I can feel it in my legs now. We’ve popped out of the alpine ash into the snow gums – their stark white skeletons pronged up against the grey of the sky. Push hard, Em! Come on! Let’s go! Let’s go!
Not too far past the resort gates, a group of four guys with jerseys from one of the local bike shops in Albury overtake me. One of the guys looks like he is really hurting – he is sagged all over the handlebars with his head down, just stomping out the revolutions. The lead guy says to me, “That’s a really good effort!”
I look over and fall in love with this thin, athletic and attractive 50-ish guy with bright eyes. I smile and say, “Ah, I’m so slow, but I’ll get there.”
One of the other guys, a young 20-ish thing with a handlebar mustache, asks where I’m from and tells me to have a great ride. Thanks – roadies don’t always reduce themselves to talking to touring bike riders. A bit later, as I’m one kilometre from the resort, the guys come flying back down. The man I’m now in love with (maybe it was just the exertion!) yells out as he flies past with a big smile, “You are almost there!”
As I’m closing in on my goal in that last kilometre, the first two of the Challenge riders pass me. Slowly. It’s like a truck overtaking another truck on a steep hill. Once they get to the resort edge though, they get to stop and indulge in a fantastic-smelling sausage sizzle. I still have another 50 metres of elevation to gain as I slog on into the village.
There is a bike cafe set up for the summer, but they only have Cokes in cans. I want a bottle, so I can sip on it all afternoon. So I go over to the tiny supermarket looking for bananas and a Coke. I have a sneezing attack in the store. I come out with no bananas. Instead, I have a $2 clearance package of cream sponge rolls.This needs to fuel me for the next 30 miles. Not ideal – but having anything open in the summer at the ski resort is a bonus.
It is cold and windy. Seriously. There is no trace of summer up here today. The low cloud whirls by on gusts of a southeasterly wind. The sun breaks through on rare occasion. I sit there trying to relax before we conquer our last 200 metres of elevation gain for the day. I want to let my legs have a proper break – because they are saying they are quite ready to be done for the day right here. I watch a steady stream of roadies reach the parking lot, turn around and head straight back down the mountain – their climbing finished for the day.
The longer I ‘rest’, the more antsy I get to go, and the colder and snottier I get. So after only about 15 minutes, I’m back on the bike and crawling up the rest of the hill out of the resort. A group of motorcyclists gives me a cheer and several waves, and then I’m back to having the road mostly to myself for the next 20 kilometres.
We roll across the Bogong High Plains, gaining our elevation in three short, steep-ish climbs. We pass the road high point at 1700 metres (5577 ft). This is my favourite part of the Victorian Alps – this rolling landscape of heath, snow gum and grassy plateau.
I love that it feels like autumn. I love that there are so few people up here. I love that the road is good and my legs agreed to do a bit more work. I love that I have the health and mental grunt to do this. I love it all right now.
Not far from the road high point, I see an older couple hobbling down the road. The wife is faster than the husband. Both are using trekking poles. Both have jagged gaits. Both also have big smiles which get even bigger when they see me. They are out doing a walking circuit where the path closely parallels the road for a bit, and they are just using the road for a break. The sight of them fills my heart with happiness – I sure hope my parents are hobbling along with big smiles like these folks when they are in their 80s, too.
I almost don’t want this part of the road to end. I’m having such a great time undulating along the plateau taking in the expansive views off to the ridges in the distance and the heathland rolling out toward the horizon toward Mt Hotham. All is good, but it’s also quite chilly, and I’ll be happy to get back down out of the wind.
Eventually, the snow gums reclaim larger areas of ground from the heathland and the road begins to drop. We head down and down, with a few small climbs here and there. I get passed by some motorcyclists, see a car club heading up, and get one 4WD on my tail who angrily guns it past me after two corners. No way dude that I was getting over into that gravelly shit – ‘far to left as practicable’ was where I was located. Sorry to delay you by 20 seconds.
Down, down. The snow gums give way to alpine ash – some trees scraggly, some well-recovered from the 2003 fires. Bark from the ash trees presents more road obstacles. Sometimes the grade is steep enough that I’m on both brakes pretty hard to maintain control. The road edge is all pretty loose chip from the chip-seal, so I try to keep out in the tire tracks as much as I can. Still, we are zooming down, down, down, and I really do not believe life can get much better than this.
The final two kilometres are so steep to be painful. I stop a couple times just to let me fingers rest. My front rim is squeaking so loud that I’m pretty sure everyone down below knows I’m coming! I come around the final corner hard on the brakes. The steep shit goes all the way down to the highway below and it is all I can do to stop before I roll out onto the highway. Then, I almost fall when I can’t get my foot out of the toe strap because my muscle is all tense. Gorgeous. Graceful. Nimble. Not me!
I don’t have a designated stopping point today. I’m just heading south on that gorgeous Omeo Highway which follows the Big River downstream. If I get up to Anglers Rest in 11 kilometres, I’ll stay in the nearby campground and get dinner at the inn.
But somewhere among the twists and turns, and the hairpins and twisties, I see a steep 4WD track heading down toward the river. Choice: 1) campground and hot meal vs. 2) solitude and crackers for dinner. Hit the dirt, Em. Let’s go check it out.
Luckily, no one is down there. I walk the bike down the steep and deeply eroded track and somehow manage not to dump the bike or slip and fall and pull the bike down on top of me. There are a few sketchy moments, but we make it unscathed.
It is cool, and the clouds have never moved out. But the spot is peaceful, and the wind is not so gusty down here. I set up the tent, force in some food, then lie on a log and contemplate life and my good fortune.
The water levels are up from when I came through a couple of weeks ago because of Friday’s rain. So I spend quite a nerdy while thinking about the miraculous wonders of the water cycle and the movement of water through and over the earth and up and down through the sky. I marvel at condensation, transpiration, evaporation – and the movement of this liquid in great curving arcs over the landscape. I think about how it isn’t all that far from the sea here, yet the river makes a big turn south of Anglers Rest to go back north and then enters another river before finally making it to the ocean more than a thousand kilometres southwest.
Contemplation of the water cycle completed, I contemplate life and how I’ve ended up here on this log in late March in Southeast Oz. I think about the paths not taken, paths aborted, paths taken and slogged along, and the paths that were zippy, gleeful jaunts. I don’t think I’ve ever taken a road – my life has all been off-road paths. And I guess I wouldn’t want it any other way. Because it’s all led me here… and this is one pretty damn fine place to be tonight.