Victoria Falls Historic Area to Bright via Mt Hotham
Monday March 21, 2016, 59 miles (95 km) – Total so far: 909 miles (1,463 km)
I bundled up last night – thinking it would be cold overnight at 1000 metres of elevation. But the clouds came in, and it was never very cold at all. Of course, we will be riding into those clouds as we get higher, but at least we are starting the day with a very reasonable temperature.
The road continues up the valley, partway up the side of a series of grassy hills. On the opposite side of the valley, the national park is a natural fence of trees strung along the upper reaches of the hills.
We dive down to the Victoria River and then commence the second sustained climb from Omeo to Dinner Plain (we did Climb 1 yesterday). This climb goes for about 5 kilometres with an average of around 7 percent grade. There is one short bit over 9 percent, some 8 percent bits and some 6 percent as well. But nothing is as steep as that one short bit of 11 percent yesterday. Still, the high humidity and the effort has sweat forming on my brow. The effort wakes up my legs. Again, they are not sore, but I can feel some fatigue in them today. And yes, I am in the small chainring!
The climb winds about the hills, drawing us up 300 metres or more in those five kilometres. The road curves into the national park where the alpine ash sprout up above the tall, barren road cuts. It’s not long before we find ourselves up in the snow gums, though, climbing up into the cloud. At times it is foggy and misty, but it is always cool, clammy and completely cloudy.
Once we’ve climbed the steep bit up onto the plateau, the road undulates along through the grassy plains and snow gums. The frost hollows are barren of trees and present a view of open, grassy meadows. The snow gums encroach on the hollows and line the ridges. They fall away down the hillside into the mist and gloom. Some stretches are more open and scraggly where the fires burnt hot in 2003. Some stretches have large, majestic snow gums that arch up and almost over the road in places the fire missed or spared.
We climb slowly upwards. Each of the frost hollows, or plains, has a name. Flour Bag Plain, Redbank Plain – they each have a sign with the name and elevation. Up we go. We get passed by several tradesperson trucks and trailers, but the road is pretty quiet. It’s just the guys, the bike, me and the gloom for long periods of time. Finally, the climbing gets a bit steeper (around 6 percent) for a few kilometres that includes “Slippery Pinch”, then we roll down to the entrance to Dinner Plain.
The architecture here is distinctive – the buildings all modelled on the old grazier huts and designed to easily shed snow. This area is big for cross country skiing in winter. I like the feel of the place, but the only other time I was up here, it was just like today: cold, windy, foggy and wet.
Today the place is dead – even the toilet block is still locked. A brewery has just opened up here, but it’s just on 9am and I’m not sticking around until 11am in the cold and fog until then. Another time. It is so cold, windy and wet that I don’t even get a proper ‘we made it’ photo. I just take a pic of the guys and the sign, and get back on the bike to get moving and get some warmth going again. We are at about 1600 metres here and my little thermometer says 39F. Brrrr…..
The public bus from Omeo to Wangaratta goes past and then I’m climbing alone again. We keep climbing through similar scenery to Mt Hotham. Snow gums, grassy plains and tons of cloud. Some of the fog is a bit thick but I never feel unsafe. Just at the resort gates they are repaving sections of road. There is a guy with an articulated gravel dump trailer standing by the road that just shakes his head, smiles and gives me a thumbs-up as he smokes a cigarette. Down in the roadworks proper, the stop/go guy flips the sign to SLOW and gives me a big smile. All of the guys standing around the hot-mix truck inspecting the mix, including guys that look like site supervisors, turn to look at the wet, bedraggled chick riding by. Two of them nod approval. The stop/go guy on the other side calls out, “It’s not all that much further!” I smile and wave.
We climb on up past Wire Plain and all the parking for the cross-country ski trails. We make it up to all the garages and work sheds. The off-season is the construction season so there are heaps of trucks, utes and buses idling or coming and going. The diesel fumes are atrocious and just hang in that foggy air!
We slowly climb up through the village. I’ve never liked the feel of Mt Hotham. It is just all these weathered-looking chalets and lodges strung out along the ridge in a line. There is no village atmosphere here. I pass by “The General” – the only thing open at all in the village in summer. But it is 9.45am and it won’t open until 10am. So I keep ascending through the fog along the strung-out line of buildings. This is the sort of resort where everything is up top, you ski down, then get the lift back up to the road.
I pull into the big parking lot, where a bunch of burly guys are working on various construction things. I park the bike by the door then head into the warmth of the transit lounge. After a toilet stop, I go out and get my food off the bike. To my disappointment, the vending machine is out-of-order, and looks like it’s been that way for quite some time. Way to go, Mt Hotham, that’s pretty shabby. No way I’m going back down the hill for 1.5 kms to the only store open, then back up 1.5 kms here. I had been hoping for a sugary drink but water, cheese and rice crackers it is!
I hang out for a bit, hoping the fog will lift so I can get some good views. But 45 minutes later my patience runs out. I head back out to the bike, put on all of my warm clothes, and prepare for the gnarly side of Hotham. It is so freaking cold! (I look at the Hotham weather readings that evening and see that it was 3.7C, or 38F, with a wind chill of -4.7, or 23F, at 11am when I was leaving the resort. I also note the relative humidity up there all day was 99% so the fog never moved out!)
There is brief break in the clouds, so I quickly pedal over to the Mt Loch carpark to get a road high point picture before the clouds regather. Then it’s the short climb to the actual road high point at 1845 metres (6053 ft) before we get the amazing descent.
The road dives down the Diamantina. It is spectacular and exhilarating. The grade here is over 9 percent for 1.5 kilometres. It has a short 18 percent section. The road has no guardrail. It is incredibly exposed. The wind is harsh. Joy, joy, joy!!! I nod at the two roadies grunting their way up.
At the bottom of this descent, there is a short, steep 500 metre climb for me that leaves me grunting and gasping. The wind sock down the bottom showing the crosswind is blowing straight out. The buffeting is almost fun – you’ve got to lean into it, but Beartooth Pass in WY was waaaay worse than this. Then the road curves along the spine of the ridge. It’s totally exposed with the road dropping away steeply on either side. Just gorgeous! It is so windy but so much fun!
After winding along the spine past isolated mounds of peaks, the road dives down the infamous CRB Hill – 1.1 kms of more than 10 percent for those going up. I fly down but have to feather my brakes in case the man standing on the centre line spraypainting blotches for the linemarking crew doesn’t see me walloping toward him at 38 mph. He does see me and backs up. I fly past him, zip through the Dungey’s Hollow chain bay area and try to use the momentum to get me up the next short, very steep 600-metre uphill grunt. I get almost up to the curve. I grunt it up the rest of the way, gasping along, and then stop at the top to disrobe.
I get back down to tshirt, shorts and tights now that we are out of the fog and into the sun. It is pleasantly warm, the wind is not so ferocious and it is just an absolutely perfect autumn day.
And from there on down to Harrietville, it is just a very pleasant cruise downhill. There are some steeper bits to give you speed, some shallower bits just to cruise along at 25 mph, and plenty of great views over to other ridges and back up to that impressive road above. Most of the traffic is going up, so I don’t have any stress at all about overtaking vehicles.
Back up toward the top, the line-marking crew went by marking the edgelines on the way up. It’s the same linemarking crew I saw going DOWN from Falls Creek on Saturday. The guy in the following lights-flashing car, who only gave me a slight nod on Saturday going up Falls Creek, recognises me now going down Hotham, and gives me a huge smile and whole hand wave. What a great day it’s been!
I stop in Harrietville to fill up some water bottles and use the facilities. I have a short chat with some people who saw me on the mountain (they can’t believe I attempted that on a touring bike, even if I did the easy side – I blush, it was not deserving of hero status). Then I’m heading down the flat-ish valley with tall, treed slopes for valley walls above. It’s a 1-2 percent decline, so it’s easy to keep some speed as you head down the valley among all the old tobacco farms. There is no shoulder, and a fair amount of traffic. However, there are so many cyclists that use this road, most drivers are quite good about passing and giving sufficient room.
I don’t have much for dinner on-board, so I decide I’ll ride into Bright to restock. They have a Subway there now, so there will be affordable calories available. Bright has always been a holiday town, but in the past five or so years it’s started to go really upscale and snobby. It’s a nice little town, with plenty of boutique shopping, a craft brewery and all sorts of fancy-pants designer stuff.
But I preferred the old Bright that was much more laid-back and affordable for the working poor like me. It has become one of those towns, like Beechworth, that now charge $8.50 or similar for a simple salad sandwich at the bakery (in the town where I work you can get one for $3.50 – normal would be around $5.00). So I pay $10 for a foot-long Subway Club with all of the salads and get 2.5 times more food than the $8.50 sandwich at the bakery that would have had the same ingredients but no meat. Cheapskate… maybe. If the bakery was charging the normal $5.00, I would certainly have gone there instead, but if you are charging me so much more simply because I happen to be in Bright, then I will consider other options, thanks.
I take the sub down to the park to consume. It is a perfect autumn day and there are plenty of people down there enjoying the day. They’ve put in a new splash park next to the creek and river swimming hole, and the kids are having a great time frolicking in the creek and among all the splash park features. I have to laugh at the one kid who keeps getting nailed with water guns and unwittingly steps out of the spray of one kid only to get nailed by another. It’s probably bullying, but he’s not taking it too hard!
Sandwich consumed, it’s time to think about what we want to do for the night. There are plenty of free camping and stealth camping options back up the valley, but riding all the way back up into the wind and then spending another grubby night dry camping doesn’t sound too appealing. It’s only 2pm, so there’s plenty of time to kill. I decide I’ll ride back out to the caravan park that is 5 kms out-of-town and see what they charge. It is in a good position to set me up for Tawonga Gap tomorrow. If it’s too much $$, I’ll keep riding back up the valley until I find a good stealth or free spot. The caravan parks in town all charge more than $30 for an unpowered site. No thanks.
Luckily, the caravan park outside of town only wants $25 for the night. That’s the going rate at a lot of places now, and that is reasonable for Bright. So I agree to the price. This caravan park is next to the highway, though, so if noise is a problem for you, keep looking. I’m tired enough that bulldozers just outside the tent would probably not even faze me.
The shower feels sooooo good. We’ve earned it this trip, for sure. I never see anyone in the toilet block, since I’m the only camper. In fact, there is only one other occupant in the whole park tonight, and they are in a self-contained villa. But just wait… this place is completely booked out at Easter. The open area where I’m camping, that I would be comfortable with about 6 other groups sharing the area with me, will be marked out with spraypaint on the grass for 27 sites. Easter is just crazy. It’s even bigger than Christmas for city slickers escaping the metro area and hitting up the regional areas for camping. I’m thankful I can be here now!
So tomorrow is just a short ride over Tawonga Gap back to the car. Most of the climb is pretty gentle, with only a few hundred metres in a couple spots around 10-11 percent. My legs are a bit tired, so it will be nice to get that final downhill. I’m so glad I talked myself into doing the loop. I’ve ridden the highest road in Victoria now… what a way to close out summer!