Total Kilometres: 107 kms (67 miles)
Total Kilometres 2018: 2212 kms (1374 miles)
Autumn this year has been like one of those sunsets that you think has finished, but then the colours develop right at the end and linger for what seems like forever. Summer went well into autumn this year, and autumn has continued long past when we would normally get our ‘autumn break’ and the start of our rainy season. The leaf colour on the exotic trees has been pretty spectacular this year as well, also developing quite late and lingering on and on. What a spectacular backdrop that provides for another weekend of marking roads off the map.
The plan this weekend is to drive down to Myrtleford an hour away. The town sits at the junction of several valleys in the shadow of Mt Buffalo and the foothills of the Alps. We will ride up to Lake Buffalo on Saturday as a warm-up. This is a gentle and short ride of 43 kms. Then we’ll spend the night in town so we can get an early start for a loop up to Stanley high on the Beechworth Plateau. For once we are completing a version of Plan A, instead of a Plan B, C or D!
Day 1 – The most perfect day in years – Lake Buffalo Return – 43 kms
This weekend plan allows me a sleep-in on Saturday. The exhaustion means I start really dragging toward the end of the work week and desperately need a good, long sleep by the weekend. So today I don’t wake until 8.30am. I leisurely pack the gear, hang out some washing on racks, clean the kitchen and then finally hop in the car at 10am. The drive to Myrtleford is uneventful.
We are heading out of town on busy Standish Street by 11.15am. We pass over the Ovens River (road too busy for a bridge shot) and through the outlying town streets. There is a gentle climb as we pass the Buffalo Creek Road – they are water mining up that road and there are big b-double tanker trucks coming and going from there seven days a week. Last I knew they were trying to expand operations which would mean even more big trucks driving through residential areas every day of the week. We’ll see more of the water mining story tomorrow at Stanley.
We climb onto the eastern wall of the Buffalo River valley. There are lots of homes along the road in the lower part of the valley, and I am getting passed by cars every 15-30 seconds. The road is pretty wide and 85 percent of drivers do the right thing, but it is still a lot more traffic than what I normally ride.
I think the traffic should die down after we pass all the housing and proceed into the 100kph zone, but that is not the case today. I start wondering if there is a fishing tournament or something up at the lake. I’m still getting passed by cars every 30 seconds or so – some not as polite as they should be!
The road undulates along the wall of the valley with views down over the river flats and over to the pine plantations of various-aged trees. That is more pulp, plywood and veneer being grown over there. After a while, the long tongues of Mt Buffalo recede into the batholith itself and the valley widens. The road flattens out as it curves along the floodplain. Views of Mt Buffalo dominate to the left – pine plantations mixed with native forest on the hills to the right.
At Nug Nug, there is a gathering of about 25 cars and their occupants in a reserve next to the river. So that’s where all the people passing me have been going! There are milling about and a bagpiper is playing next to a chained-off rock. I’ve got no idea what is going on, but people are dressed in a variety of colours and levels of formality, so I don’t think it’s a wake or something sad. I pedal on by.
Traffic lessens but is still more than I would expect. Further on, I see a sign that says WEDDING on a gate with white balloons. The property across the road has several cars parked on the lawn. I recognise them from passing me earlier.
We travel on up the valley. We pass through all the smoke of farmers burning off wood piles and past a huge orchard. I haven’t been up this way since about 2010 – and I’m sure that orchard was not there then. It is huge and the cherry trees look to all be covered with netting. The irrigation dams are extensive and the trees all look really young. It seems odd to have so much investment in apples and stonefruit when so many people are getting out of that business. I pedal on.
I see a female cyclist who says hello and a male cyclist further on that nods as he powers up a gentle hill I’m cruising down. But the rest of the world travels in cars. It’s a shame on a gorgeous day like today to be locked up in a metal box.
And yes, the weather today is PERFECT. It’s the most perfect day I can remember in years. It is completely clear. There is no wind. The temperature is 20C. There are no annoying flies or attacking magpies. The sun is low enough to give you a dose of Vitamin D but no sunburn. It is a day to bask and to remember how perfect it was when it is cold and rainy in July or searing and inhospitable in January.
The guys get in a nice, long float at the lake. I just bask in the sun while they gently and slowly float back and forth on their tether. The lake is quite low, but there are still fishing boats and picnickers around. You really need to be outside on a day like this!!
We then head down to the dam wall for some pictures before making our way back down the valley the same way that we came.
We stop for some bridge pics and discover that the gathering we passed earlier was to commemorate 150 years of land selection in the valley (the Aboriginal people of the area may have a different take on that). The new plaque was unveiled today, and the original land selectors were the McGuffies – which explains the Scottish bagpiper!
In the beginning, the valley grew a lot of market crops for the nearby mining communities. There was also dairying, and later on, tobacco and hops. Myrtleford was the center of a large tobacco industry, and there is a huge factory and cooperative building on the outskirts of town that now sits vacant. Tobacco was totally phased out by 2006, though the distinctive kilns litter the Ovens, King and surrounding river valleys. You can read more about it here.
There are slightly fewer cars on the return ride. I am soaking up this gorgeous weather. This is mid-April weather – not late May! Once back to Myrtleford, the guys and I sit in the park and enjoy our own picnic – OJ, cherry tomatoes, hummus, mushrooms, crackers and a chicken and quinoa salad. I’d thought about getting a takeaway burger or chips, but I’m feeling more salad-y today. Any picnic is a good picnic on a day like today.
As the sun gets lower (it is dark before 6 now and pretty dusky by 5), we go over and check into our motel. The woman who runs the place is very kind and has turned the heater on for me. When she finds out I’m riding tomorrow, she asks if I would like her to leave the room uncleaned until I return from my ride. That way I can take a shower. She doesn’t have anyone booked into that room for the next night. I tell her that it’s okay, as I am just going straight home and can put up with my own stinky self for an hour drive. She tells me it would be fine and that people do that all the time. She is VERY used to cyclists and their needs. (Myrtleford is on the most popular rail trail in Victoria – and because it is sorta halfway between Wangaratta and Bright, people often use the town as a base). The room is small and basic but quite adequate. There is a carport so I don’t have to deal with frost on the car in the morning. I can definitely recommend The Rails Motel if you are in Myrtleford and looking for basic, cyclist-friendly accommodation. The old hotel on the property is currently vacant – so it’s quite quiet, as well.
Day 2 – A three-gap day – 66.88 kms
I have had the Myrtleford – Stanley ride in my sights for a couple years. I have several three-day rides planned out that incorporate the big climb from 200 metres at Myrtleford to 800 metres at Stanley. The climb has two steep sections of a couple kilometres over 9 percent.
But I’m no shape for that climb at the moment. Oh, believe me, I did think about. And my first thought for this weekend was to do the ride we are doing today in reverse, so I could finally do the big climb. But I know I do not have the fitness for it. I have only the most base level of muscle and cardio fitness after six months of this sickness. I know that I will feel like a shitty zombie for 3-10 days if I do too much exertion. So I do the smart thing, the mature thing, the thing that is so against my nature – I back off and do the climb the easy way… in reverse.
The day is off to a good start. I wake naturally at 6.30am. Yes, it would be no trouble to go back to sleep, but I’m wanting an early start (sunrise is 7.13am). I feel okay and I have no tingly muscle crap going on from yesterday. I feel almost normal. This is as good as I get these days.
I pack up, park the car where I did yesterday and take off down the rail trail. This is the one section of the trail I’ve never ridden. I rode Myrtleford to Bright return several times between 2005 and 2010. I’ve ridden other bits and pieces many times to hook up various roads, but I’ve never ridden the section between Myrtleford and Bowman. Today is the day to link up those sections of the map – yippee! You know I hate unfinished lines on my map!
A long row of flaming red oak trees escorts us out of town. Then the trail begins a gentle climb through forest mixed with pasture. We are near the road and sometimes a bit above. The forest that reaches down to the trail is public land – and it looks like you could easily find a camp spot 100-200 metres off the trail before the hill gets steep. There are two forest sections – one just before Taylors Gap and one just before Gapstead Winery. Either would be suitable if you didn’t mind riding 5 or so kms out of town to camp (Myrtleford has expensive but basic caravan parks and lots of NO CAMPING signs around town).
We catch the first rays of sun coming over the hill just after we pass the winery. This is a nice section of trail. The gentle climb to Taylors Gap has forested cuttings to ride through and great views in our rear-view mirror of Mt Buffalo. The trail crosses the main highway and runs for a hundred metres or so on the old highway alignment. It is our first gap of three for today.
The next section – the downhill to Bowman – is probably the best section of this rail trail. Most of the trail travels through pretty flat and boring bits in the valley near the road. Even the sections between Myrtleford and Bright travel pretty close to the road – its redeeming quality up that way are the constant views over to the mountains and surrounding ridges. But this section today travels on the opposite side of a hill and ridge to the main road. It is one long cutting with a deeply-eroded creek and open, spindly forest on one side and the big bald ridge on the other.
Several kangaroos pace me for a bit – lazily hopping along above me on the hillside. Further along, two dark, stocky wallabies dart across the trail and down into the erosional fins of the creek. Close to Bowman, I see a couple of humans out for a morning walk on the trail. They are all rugged up – I’m coasting downhill in shorts and a light jacket. I propose I’m burning more calories than they are, overall.
At Bowman, we turn northeast on the road. We cross the main highway again and head into the Murmungee Basin. This is a mostly flat horseshoe-shaped basin ringed by the Beechworth Plateau. The plateau is a granite batholith, just like Mt Buffalo and the Strathbogie Plateau we rode several weeks ago. It is similar in age, too. There are no volcanics up this way – just these big masses of molten magma that cooled beneath the earth’s surface.
We ride across the basin in the misty morning with views to the rim of the basin and over to our next gap for the day. The baby lambs cry out for their mothers as I ride by; the cows are less flighty. We turn left at the tennis courts and Memorial Hall (yes, every locality has one) and ride onto gravel. The climb begins after we cross Burgoigee Creek.
We tilt up toward the rim and the gravel remains pretty good. I’d always rather climb than descend gravel – so that is one positive about climbing to Stanley the long way – the steep descent will be chipseal – all the climbing today is on gravel.
The climb is gentler than I expected and we are passing up through the dent in the hills quite quickly. I’ve not yet seen a car this morning, so the quiet and the climb are soothing. It is not enough to send my muscles into their early anaerobic switch, so all is good as we roll up between the rounded masses of earth.
We join up with the Diffey Road – another winding, forested gravel road that climbs to the top of the plateau. It parallels, but is not always in sight of the rail trail, and I’ve always thought I would ride the road someday for a change. It is just as scenic as the rail trail and has more curves and undulations, so it is actually more fun to ride.
I jump on the rail trail where the road crosses it and complete the climb to the plateau. Once again, I’m going up the Beechworth trail when most everyone else goes the other way. I don’t see anyone out today, though. It’s surprising. It’s a weekend and it’s warm. Maybe Sundays are for slow starts for most.
Once I make it up to Fighting Gully Road, I exit the trail. I skinny myself and the bike around the gate on a precipitous drop-off, thinking this is easier than fumbling with the gate chain. Fighting Gully Road curves through a forested dip in the plateau and then climbs through open fields dotted with lifestyle homes on various-sized blocks. The road is sealed through all of the homes but then becomes a pretty terrible surface for the rest of the climb to Buckland Gap.
We’ve been climbing for about 20 kms straight now and we’ve got just a couple more kms to go before the hard part of the day is done. But those two kilometres from Buckland Gap at 575 metres to Murmungee Lookout at 757 metres are the hardest part of the day.
The gravel is good the whole way, but there are very steep sections. They are too much for my fitness and tire grip today. I’m not sure I could ever make all of them, even in prime fitness. Maybe on a mountain bike? But today I hoof it up the really steep bits. I can see fresh footprints from this morning – so there are two people up there ahead somewhere. I add my hoof prints and tire tracks to the road.
I meet the owners of the shoe prints just at the top of the last steep hike-a-bike. The couple is walking back down with a tiny dog. They are well-dressed in expensive hiking gear and designer tshirts. They look like they stepped out of an LL Bean catalogue or something! I, on the other hand, have cycling shorts from ALDI (which are fantastic by the way), a fluoro shirt that is too big for me that I got for $4 on end-of-season clearance, and old Keen shoes that have done more than 20,000 miles on the bike. I have snot dripping from my nose, a raspy cough that is the remains of a cold, and sweat sliding along my brow. I do NOT look like I stepped out from a catalogue page. I look more like an extra from The Cutters team from Breaking Away.
So we finally make it to Murmungee Lookout. The views are slightly obscured by the mist today, but I love lookouts because they help cement the map in my head to the surrounding landscape. The landscape and the map in my head mix with the paper maps I plot routes on. I can look across the landscape to all the places I’ve ridden and all the places still on my list. I combine those all with the memories of riding that topography, and it all comes together in my head.
We enjoy the sun. The clouds are coming and going. The wind is building, but it has so far been neither a help nor hindrance. The big high pressure system that has been providing us with great weather for days is slowly moving off to the Tasman Sea. The front behind it is sending out clouds that will build over the next few hours. We will make it back to Myrtleford just as the overcast high cloud moves in.
I eat a banana and a chocolate bar. I have a teeny bit of tingling in my legs, but not too bad for the amount of climbing we’ve done today. I’m pleased. The guys seem pretty happy, though Verne admonishes me for climbing three gaps instead of three peaks.
“Wouldn’t a three-peak day be more impressive than aiming for the three low points in a range?” he asks.
“Yes, Verne, it would. But your Navigator/Helmsman/Engine has lost a few cylinders and can’t do peaks at the moment.”
“Well, okay. But we do get to go for a float today, don’t we? I mean, if we’re doing low points, at least we could do liquid low points, yes?”
“Yes, Verne, you will get a float today. I promise.”
We head on through the forest on good gravel. The trees in the next section are larger. They survived the 2003 fires and were not in the initial run of the 2009 fires, so this section is quite open with tall trees. There are some sections that are obviously 2003 regrowth – all a similar skinny diameter and spacing.
I could ride roads like this forever. There are a couple more roads up here in the forest that I’d like to do at some point. Every time I mark a road off my map, I plot out a couple more!
The forest here has been logged and flogged and mined. This was part of the goldfields that made Beechworth rich in the 1850s and 1860s. It’s hard to imagine thousands of people living up here in the forest and what it would have looked like with so many trees being logged to support the mining and all of the blasted earth from the high-pressure hoses and sluice mining.
Eventually we hit our high point – something over 800 metres – and we start our descent into Stanley. Off to our right is pine plantation. The plantations up here were planted on the ripped up soils of the mining claims after the rush was over and the 1939 fires roared through. Further land was given over to the pines in the 1950s and 1960s and a sawmill operated in Stanley until the early 1980s. Now the pines are trucked off to mills in Myrtleford, Albury and Wodonga.
We roll out of the forest and through small lifestyle blocks. The walnut and chesnut trees are a vibrant yellow-orange. Whole hillsides are glowing. After the mining boom was over, some miners stayed on and started farming. Potatoes never made a big go because of disease, but apple, berry and stonefruit orchards expanded across the plateau. Nuts (walnuts, chestnuts and more recently, hazelnuts) were planted, too. The berry farm up here is famous for its pick-your-own opportunities in December and January.
More recently, the locals of Stanley have been in a fight to stop the latest form of mining – water mining. They have recently lost a court fight to prevent a farmer from sinking a bore and selling all of his annual water rights to a bottled water company in Albury. So now, just like in Myrtleford, B-Double tanker trucks rumble through residential areas several times a day, trucking water away for bottled water.
The locals here are very concerned about what it will do to the aquifer, since all of the orchards here are reliant on irrigation. To me, it is environmentally disgusting and smacks of a lack of responsibility to community. Of course, the government is to blame, too: How can you give out water licences when you do not have a scientific understanding of how much water is actually there and its rate of replenishment?
Water mining has all the attributes of being the next big thing – and the three Councils up this way are so concerned about it that they have formed a working group to coordinate and form policy around it. You can read about Stanley and its fight against water mining here: here and here.
I don’t go into town – it’s just a pub and a general store, the school closed in 2013. But I do stop for a snack next to one of the old mining dams. Verne is very angry that I don’t have the floaties along to float in a very nice setting. Please don’t tell him that I didn’t bring them because I didn’t think we’d use them. Please tell him I forgot – that’s my official story.
After a picture by the dam, we head across the rest of the plateau and then start into that steep descent. I do see three cyclists going up today. I feel a bit guilty, but I promise to come do this one uphill with a load once I’m healthy again. I think I am doing well right now for the crappiness of this disease.
We fling ourselves downhill. The burnt white trunks of dead trees poke above the regrowth in every direction. The 2009 fires burnt through here on the wind change – the 32 kilometre flank of the fire became the fire front. It was ferocious enough to collapse a building with thick walls and melt communication equipment on top of Mt Stanley. 38 homes were lost in that fire, and just up the road from the bottom of our downhill run, two people were killed while trying to defend their property. The fire roared through around midnight – imagine how terrifying it would be to have an explosive fire arrive in the middle of the night. Given the evidence of the fire still remaining today, it is amazing more people were not seriously injured or killed that night.
The twists and curves back off as we roll through pasture at the bottom of the run. We are finally deposited at the bottom of the hill where Myrtle Creek meets Barwidgee Creek. The final 10 kilometres are down a fairly tight valley on a C-road. This one can be pretty busy, but it’s not too bad this Sunday afternoon. There’s no shoulder and not a whole lot of lane-width, but everyone but one car gives me plenty of room. The two water tankers from the water mining on the Buffalo Creek Road on the other side of Myrtleford also give me plenty of room. Still, I generally avoid C-roads as much as I can – too many chances to get squeezed.
We roll into Myrtleford just as the high clouds dominate the sky. Even though it is warm again today, it feels cooler with the cloud. I make good on my promise and give the guys a float in the Ovens River just above Nimmo Bridge. They get a bit wet and spend the drive home basking on the dash in the limited sun.
It has been a fantastic ride. It felt challenging, yet not too much for my body and its screwed up cellular metabolism. We confirmed we want to ride some of the roads that have looked good on my maps. I feel good – I have enough energy when I get home to make up a big pot of soup for weekday meals and cut up all the veggies for stir-fries through the week, too. I never got the tingly stuff in my legs advancing too far. The real test will be Tuesday – to see if the post-exertional malaise sets in. And even though I have random bad days and setbacks, I really do think I am very slowly getting better. It’s a progress I can’t really see or feel, but I am certain that these rides aren’t causing me as many problems as they were earlier in the year.
Stay tuned – it looks like more good weather next weekend. Where will we go?