23/24 March 2018
Kilometres: 72.88 kms (45 miles)
Total Kilometres 2018: 1435 kms (892 miles)
Friday morning, my boss says to my coworker, “So you’re going at 11 today for study leave, right?”
Boss: Well, [IT Systems Guy], is on an RDO and I’m going at noon. So much for an IT department today.
I spin around in my office chair and say, “Um, while we’re on that topic. Do you mind if I take a short lunch and leave at 4pm today. I’m trying to get up to some state forest on the bike and get the tent up before dark.”
Boss: Oh, yeah, that’s fine. But aren’t you supposed to be taking it easy?
Em: That IS taking it easy – it’s only 30 kms!!
Coworker: Do you even have a ‘taking it easy’ mode?
And hence, I am off on the bike at 4.30pm, racing the end of the day to a campsite in a state forest about 30 kms from where I live. I packed everything last night (not much to pack for such a short overnight), so all I need to do when I get home is eat a bowl of rice and then roll out the door.
There’s a fair bit of traffic out as I head out of town on a terribly graveled road. It is washboard-y and sandy and I have to ride a fair way into the road just to stay off the mounds of gravel on the side. This road used to be a patchwork of bitumen pieces – I’m not sure if that was worse or better. Luckily, I don’t get overtaken by anyone through there.
I’m riding into a 10 kph northeasterly. The wind is light enough, though, that the farmers are all taking advantage of the conditions to burn off stubble. On the horizon in every direction are plumes of dark smoke or long lines of bluish haze. Where larger burns are taking place, a dark pink cloud hangs and looks more like a bushfire than a crop being burnt. The smell of burnt veg is in the air, sometimes thick and wafty, sometimes just a whiff on the curls of the breeze.
I have to ride the main highway for a kilometer or so. If you were to ride this mid-day through the week, there wouldn’t be much traffic at all. I know. I sometimes have to drive it to go out to our other office (1 hour north). But on a Friday afternoon at knock-off time, there’s plenty of cars and a few trucks. However, for the bit that I need to ride it, there is a little bit of a shoulder. So it’s safe enough. I wouldn’t want to be in it when two trucks were passing in each direction though.
I then ride directly into the wind on the gravel Morningside Road. It’s in decent condition. Only one ute overtakes me along here. He does so politely. Then it’s up the flats of the Hopefield Road. There are a lot of gravel and grain trucks that use this road, but they’ve all finished up for the day. I only get passed by one, and he gives me the whole lane. Other than that, one car overtakes me in these 10 kms, and I see a string of about five cars going the other way spaced about 1-2 minutes apart between 5.30 and 5.40 pm (they’ll all be in Corowa a bit before 6 pm).
We just roll along with the tall, thick trees of the travelling stock route on our right and the blinding sun and open, long-harvested paddocks on our left. It feels good to be riding and feels good to have a light load on. (I’ve gone with four panniers even though everything would easily fit in two – I just feel the bike rides better this way).
We roll past the grain silos. The low angle of the sun turns the silos golden. They are still in use. The rail line from Corowa to Culcairn used to come this way – someday, when I’ve graduated to an ebike or an urn, they’ll turn that into a rail trail. The rail line hasn’t been in use for at least 30 or 40 years.
A bit further along, we pass the Hopefield Cemetery. There are some gorgeous and big Callitris pine in there. It’s not crowded – if you need a resting place, there are certainly plenty of spaces available here.
Long and flat black bitumen. Sounds like a coffee. But it’s a string of chipseal that delivers us to Mahonga Lane – a new road for us. It’s hard to link good roads together out here. It’s also a flat, fly-ridden agricultural wilderness that is super-hot in summer. Therefore, I have not ridden out this way much nor have many plans to do so in the future. But I did want to go see the little spot o’ green on my map – a little patch of State Forest remaining among all the cleared land. I love Callitris pine and it looks like a little haven for them.
Mahonga Lane is just like Hopefield Road – just smaller and with some low, swampy areas that are dried up now. There are a few more trees along here and long views toward the hazy blue stubble fire smoke to the west and the big Goombargana Hill to the northeast (pronounced Goom – bar’ – guh – nuh). It is shrouded in a pink cloak of smoke this evening, and with the wind from that direction, burnt carbon fills my eyes, nose and lungs.
We roll up to the end of the pavement and turn off on Hill Top Road. We roll down between paddocks on bright red earth… that is VERY sandy. I about bite it a couple times. Much of what looks like firm earth is not firm. I sink in a quarter to half an inch. We’ve got momentum to save us.
I do have to walk my bike through thick sand where the road jogs, and then I have to push here and there up to the top of the hill (the road is well-named). The hill is just a vegetated mound of sand. I roll past some big agave-looking things. It seems the settlers were fond of this plant – I see it around when I’m out on rides in the ag areas first settled in the 1860s. I’ve never seen such huge ones, though. I feel like I’m in Jurassic Park or something!
Luckily, we get a bit sturdier soil at the top of the hill and for most of the next gentle downhill. There are still sandy patches lurking though – and every so often, the front wheel catches or slips right or left, and I wobble for a moment. We are riding through a beautiful little linear corridor of trees leading us up to the forest. It is quiet and I’m happy.
My happiness recedes a little when I have to push the bike through numerous sections of 50-100 metres of sand once I’m in the forest, though. It’s like the sand has all run downhill and settled here. I somehow don’t crash in all the sand traps and somehow make it through unscathed. Only a few curse words are muttered.
The name of the state forest, Lonesome Pine, is a bit of a misnomer. Some of the pine regrowth is very thick. I cannot imagine that any single pine is lonesome. In fact I can just hear this conversation occurring: “Hey, stop stepping on my roots!”. In reply, “Then stop stealing all of my light!” But the pines, as a whole, could be lonesome. This is a tiny patch of forest remaining in an immense landscape of cropland.
There are some big, old yellowbox trees scattered about, some coppiced from being axed many years ago. There are also some more open bits of forest, too. I’d love to know the ages of the different stands. Callitris is slow-growing and sturdy – it grows in even-aged stands. It was used for a whole lot of flooring and firewood, among other uses, back in the day.
I find a nice open spot – I’ve only got about 30 min until sunset. I encounter a first for me. The forest floor is covered with dead liverworts from the pine bark (?) or maybe it’s dead, mature leaves? It is dried and crunchy to walk on. It would be painful to sleep on. But its abundance all over the forest floor is just amazing to me. How long has it taken to accumulate this much? Surely, the pines don’t shed it all that quickly, or do they do it all in go when it gets dry? I have some investigations to do….
I grab a big branch and sweep off a section of ground (don’t worry, I’ll redress the situation tomorrow – I adhere to Leave No Trace). I’ve cleared snow, leaves, rocks, gravel and poo before to make a spot to camp – but a 2-3 inch layer of whatever this is is a first. At least I think that is a liverwort… maybe it’s the mature leaves from way up high… down here the leaves are scale-like not coral-like (anyone?).
(EDIT 25/3: The crunchy veg is actually a lichen groundcover. Very poor form on my part to clear it for my tent! Here is the explanation of it from Ian – a link to his excellent blog is below – the crunchy ground plant that you saw is a ‘coralloid’ lichen (so called because it looks like coral.) It’s a Cladia species. Next time you see some, try pouring some water over them. They’ll quickly hydrate and turn from spiky and hard to soft and spongy – then they’d make a wonderfully comfy mattress to sleep on.)
I don’t usually eat much through the day, so I’m hungry. I’m also tired. Tired enough that I wake up 20 minutes later with my bag of rice spilled across my belly and sleeping pad. Sheesh. I didn’t think I was fatigued enough to fall asleep eating! But there you go….
I drink some of the water kefir I brought along, eat a peanut-butter oat bar, clean up a bit, and then unroll the sleeping bag. I lie there and enjoy the complete silence. I cannot get enough of it, and there is so little of it in today’s world. I stretch out and relax. I drink that silence in like someone gulping air after they’ve been underwater too long.
The sun sets; the moon rises. I drift in and out of sleep in that consuming silence. The shadows of those spindly pines and their whisp-like lower branches look like veiny leaves or an artery with branching vessels on the tent fly. I love it.
I climb out to pee around midnight and revel in the blackness. There’s no light pollution out here and the skies are magnificent. It’s almost like there are more stars than space between. I spot several satellites and flare-like shooting stars. I wander through the forest, crunching along on those coral-like leaves (I’ve settled on the thought that the crunchy stuff is mature leaves/needles…) as I gaze upward. Darkness and silence – it feeds my soul.
I go back to the tent and listen to a couple of gentle Classical pieces on my Ipod. It suits the mood. Then I put on Xavier Rudd’s “Spirit Bird”. I ALWAYS listen to this one when I’m camping in the bush. It reminds me of where I am, whom has gone before me, and the struggle of the Indigenous owners of this land to retain their rights and culture (TREATY!). In the video below, the second half of the song from 5.00 forward, is the part of the song that brought both Nigel and me (and most of those around us) to tears when we went to an Xavier Rudd concert in Sydney in 2012. The entire audience sang the chorus in the middle with Xavier – the atmosphere in the concert hall was incredible.
But then… what the… oh dear… what the… I awake, some unknown time later… to this:
Sometime as I fell asleep, I must have inadvertently hit the shuffle button on the Ipod. There is a rarely-played Christmas album on there. I wonder what other songs I’ve subliminally listened to over the past couple hours.
The wind starts up about 2am. It is constant with some gusts – all caught up in the higher branches of the trees. My engulfing silence is gone – replaced by the whirl of the wind in the fine-needled branches above.
I don’t wake again until my alarm goes off at 7am. Sunrise. Yes, that northeasterly has turned north and strengthened as predicted. Our plan is to ride that wind home! It will turn northwesterly and then westerly ahead of a cool change later in the day – but we will catch the tailwind if we go now. Yippee!
I pack up and go for a cruise through the rest of the forest. It is a mix of dense stands and more open areas with larger regrowth. There are some massive pines and yellow box near the edge of the forest – I can only imagine how old they are. They would easily have been sizable at the time of settlement.
Even though I see heaps of kangaroo paths and prints all over the place, I never see a single roo. I spin my way through sand traps, push through longer sections of earthy fine grains, and just generally enjoy the quiet of the morning. I don’t know that I’ll ever come up this way again, but I’m very glad I came. This was the last weekend before daylight savings ends, so it was my last chance to make a dash somewhere after work on a Friday for the next six months. It will get too dark too quickly from next weekend onwards.
Our ‘road’ out of the forest is questionable. It is named but not ‘formed’ – which means it is an overgrown two-track for much of its length. But it is not a snake-y time of day, so I go for it. It is a thorny time of year, however, and a tire puncture is much more likely than a venomous puncture to a lower limb. Still, I’ve got two spare tubes and a bit of recklessness, so we proceed.
All is good – my legs get itchy from riding through grass, but it opens up further along. I love little roads like this – it defines, to me, what this area of rural NSW is all about.
Our little road jogs and then meets up with the Kardinia Road. This road is okay to start, but it quickly deteriorates into sand. Not just a little. But a kilometer of walking. This is not a road. This is a linear beach in a sea of cropland. Walk and push. Walk and push. The next kilometer has bits here and there that I can ride. But I’m glad to see pavement at the end of this one.
Now we just retrace some of yesterday’s route before crossing paddocks back over to the Riverina Highway. Still busy – it’s Saturday morning! We cross over the highway onto another graveled but sandy road. Luckily this one is rideable.
Then it’s down another lane with almost all rideable but sometimes squirrely gravel and sand. The wind behind gives us a good push. Then it’s back to the crappy gravel road we rode out yesterday. I get the corrugated side of the road this time on the way back in, but it is also slightly downhill and the wind is behind. So the momentum carries us through the crap (that’s how I have gotten through some less-than-fun parts of life, too!).
Once I get back to some decent chipseal, I give myself permission to push it just a little. Yes, I’ve been taking it easy, and I’m feeling fine, so I let myself pedal hard out of the saddle on that gentle downhill with a tailwind. I push right on up to 35 kph, then coast standing on the pedals, my body acting like a sail. Then I crank it out hard again and then coast. It’s been 20 hours of taking it easy – so give me 7 minutes of a little challenge, please.
We’re home. That was totally worth the time and effort. I get the tent and sleeping bag out to air and get everything in the laundry. Everything will be washed and dried before much-needed rain showers arrive around 4.30pm. Yippee – another overnight in the books!
If you would like to read more about the pines, this blog is written by a former professor at the uni where I did my PhD and post-doc. He is a brilliant and humble ecologist with a gift for writing:
And here is absolutely everything you might ever want to know: