13/14 April 2019
127 kms (79 miles)
There is something about the angle of the sun. There is something about the temperature. There is something about the light winds and stable atmosphere that make autumn in Southeast Australia somewhat serene. It’s as if there is a collective sigh of relief when the temperatures become humane again, as if we’ve all survived another stupidly scorching summer and get to indulge in a just reward. Somehow the light, the temp and the atmosphere all beckon the outdoorsy to live it up for the few weeks each autumn where the weather is just perfect.
The weather is even more perfect this year because we are in drought. Last year we had less than half of our average rainfall. This year, so far, we’ve had less than a third of normal. We have had no rain yet in April. Soil moisture has reached a scary level.
But how is that perfect?
Well, it isn’t… for the farmers. But for the asthmatics and the general public who normally have to put up with very smoky skies throughout April… it is downright wonderful… because the fire danger period has been extended and the farmers are not allowed to burn off crop residue yet.
I’ve been trying to make the most of it by getting outside as much as possible. However, my body has had other ideas. The shoulder problems have gotten worse. The range of motion in my left shoulder has continued to diminish, regardless of my dedication to the physio-prescribed exercises. It means it is difficult for me to reach down to the left shifter and I cannot hold onto the handlebar for long periods.
The contracted joint capsule pulls on the muscles, meaning I get intense pain down to my elbow through my bicep and my entire trapezius feels like a claw gripping my neck and back. It is painful all of the time and excruciating 30 percent of the time. I’m not getting a lot of sleep.
Additionally, I broke out in a very bad case of hives from head to toe in late March. It lessened with the use of antihistamines, but came back with a vengeance along with some vomiting on the 3rd and 4th. It’s mostly gone away, but it has left me with a major crash to my energy levels. I am not really fit for riding very far right now, but we are going anyway. You just cannot stay inside on days like this, no matter how much your body just wants to lie around and do nothing whatsoever.
I need to drop the car off at Nigel’s so he can do an oil change this weekend. So I plan a ride out of there. No new roads, nothing exciting, but it’s all workable and the idea is just to get outside. I’m not sure my body is up for much adventure anyway.
So Nigel runs me up to Walla Walla – 20-some kms from his place. Normally, I would have no trouble including this distance in my ride. But things aren’t normal and I don’t miss the narrow road with bad seal and lots of traffic anyway.
We’re rolling away at about 10am. The idea is to first ride up to Morgans Lookout. The local Council got a grant to upgrade the site and I’m curious to see how they’ve improved the old vertigo-inducing stairs to the top of the rock.
It’s nice to be rolling. The temps are still cool. It’s nice to soak up some Vitamin D. It’s nice to feel the movement of my legs and to watch the back of the guys’ heads bounce as we proceed northwest. Ahhh, I am really meant to be on a bike. Always.
The road up to the lookout is just as corrugated as always, but the farmer who owns the land has gotten a heap of new fencing out of the upgrade. There are numerous safety signs plastered about now, and there are some nice interpretive signs outlining the history of the bushranger who used to hide out here in the 1860s.
There is also a sign describing Billabong Creek which runs nearby. The sign says that it is the longest creek in the world at 320-some kilometres. It is an impressive distance, and may be the longest in Oz, but I am skeptical about it being the world record holder – surely there are some creeks in some really out-of-the-way and unpopulated places that would beat this one.
The guys and I ascend the stairs to the top of the lookout rock. They’ve even put in steps at the bottom on what used to be some steep and slippery gravel. The upgrade to the stairs means you can’t really see down through the steps anymore. The handrails are an appropriate height and the stair length and width quite standard. What used to be a vertigo-inducing climb up narrow, wooden steps where you could see right down to the ground below has been brought into a modern era of work, health and safety laws. The views are still impressive, but there are no psychological mind games involved in getting up there anymore!
The guys and I enjoy the views for a few minutes before heading down to have a snack. A group of motorcyclists shows up – they’re from Sydney and heading down to the Murray River near Cobram for a week of camping. One of the guys is an ex-BMXer who still rides a single-speed Malvern Star around southern Sydney. He’s very excited to talk pushbikes for a little bit. Like a lot of guys, he’s very interested in the bike and the gearing and the shifters and how many parts I’ve replaced. I can talk that talk, but I’d rather brag about all the passes I’ve climbed than the number of chains I’ve replaced! For me, it’s all about the ride and not at all about the gear!
We’ve got a full day to ride just 70 kms, so the guys and I are in no hurry. After our snack, we head back toward Billabong Creek. There is public access to the creek on this road, so the guys ask for a float. I have floaties along, so I easily concede. We once camped down here on a ride out of Corowa. It’s not terribly inspiring, but it is an oasis of habitat in an agricultural sea.
The habitat oasis is looking a bit dodgy today. Remember that lack of rain? It means the creek is pretty scummy. It is still flowing a bit between the deeper pools, but there is a sheen of oil slick on there that doesn’t look too good. I ask the guys if they still want to float, and they say: “Well, yeah, we’re not swimming in it or anything.” And so they float for a little bit while I watch a heap of ants carry away parts of a honey bee along a log.
After the floatie session, we head past the Gum Swamp – completely dry – and then on toward the east across dry paddocks and freshly sown crops. There is a front coming through today. I can watch the clouds advancing in my mirror. Eventually, somewhere along the Cummins Road, the clouds overtake me. The sun and high cloud is replaced by thicker stratus – though the sun will return in a few hours time for the last bit of the ride.
There is little wind, but there are some convective currents getting up and about. The guys and I watch some pretty impressive dust devils whirling across freshly sown paddocks all day today. There’s not much else going on in the landscape – not a whole lot of movement or life or sound – so it is the feature that will likely become the memory of this ride.
I stop every 10 kms to stretch my shoulder. I’ve found that I can ride with my left hand holding onto the top tube next to the stem, and that position remains comfortable for long enough to relieve some of the pain. Still, it’s difficult to reach back to the panniers while standing over the bike, so I have to carry anything I want to get to in the right one, if I want easy access. Anytime I want to drink, I have to stop and get water out of the panniers – I cannot wear my Camelbak at the moment because of the weight it puts on already painful bits and cramping muscles.
Ride, coast, pedal, stop for a break. I am glad to be out here today. It is a gorgeous day. Yet, still, I’m reminded of the level of my current incapacity and it is frustrating. Very frustrating. The distance I am riding over two days at the very limits of current capabilities would normally be an easy one-day ride. I hate this broken body.
Of course, no one wants to hear or read about that. I get lots of ‘uh-huhs’ and rolls of eyes from most people if I say too much about such things. I wonder if I had problems or treatments that were visible, if others would understand the extent of my illness and extend more sympathy. Of course, I don’t really want that, but I really do wonder sometimes if people think I’m exaggerating the pain and fatigue and the impact on my life. I may just kick the next person who says, “Oh yeah, I’m tired all the time, too. I must have a bit of that, also.” Um. No. You have no fucking clue.
What I do love about this ride is that I remember the times I’ve ridden it before. I know where each road that branches away from this one goes. I know all the features in the landscape, the history of those areas, and what those things look like from the other side. I know this area so well, and I feel happy that I’ve ridden every single road, no matter how small, in every direction I look.
We have a bit of a headwind as we ride down the eastern side of the Fellow Hills. But they have put a new layer of chip down over the old and cleared away all of the encroaching vegetation on this single lane road. The last time I rode this, it was a patchwork of patches and holes and crumbling edges with lumps of grass growing right up to the edge. It was awful to meet another vehicle. Now it is no problem to drop off the edge without fear of getting thorn punctures or having to bump over big clumps of grass. The chip is large-diameter, but it does make it a lot faster ride than it once was.
Eventually we make it up to the Mountain Creek Road. I have always really enjoyed this one. There’s hardly ever any traffic, and the people that do pass always give heaps of room. It’s a scenic ride with the Yambla Range to the west and the Ralvona Hills to the northeast. The flat bits give way to infinite folds and gentle hills. It just feels… nice.
Today we turn off on the Fairbairn Road to climb up to Woomargama for the night. We’ll save the climb out of the Billabong Catchment for tomorrow. I’ve booked a room at the tiny motel at the tiny pub for the night. At the moment, I’m having trouble sleeping at home with two pillows either side of my body and my head propped up on another two… so I am certain that sleeping in the tent with my clothes for a pillow and no padding except a half-inch of closed cell foam on the ground is not going to work. So as much as I’d love a night in the tent, I think it is more prudent to sleep somewhere that I can prop my shoulder up in whatever position it decides it wants that night.
The motel room is all original. But it is all clean and comfortable and the shower is hot. It is cheap, too. It is all just perfect for what we need. I also decide to treat myself to a pub meal in the evening. I did not take a picture, as I feel really weird taking pictures of my meals in restaurants, especially when I am the only one in the bar and the owner is talking to me!! So just imagine a nice chicken schnitzel with some chips and salad. It was very tasty and I enjoyed it thoroughly.
In the morning, the sun is out. But it is a bit smoky. They are conducting prescribed burns up in the mountains, so the smoke has wafted out from there. Still, it is much less smoky than if the farmers were also burning right now, too!
We ride back to the Mountain Creek Road and then begin the gentle, six-kilometre climb to the top of the divide. The road is tree-lined and weaves along between the folds of earth – the taller Yambla Range in the background most of the time. The chipseal is not-so-great on the Murray River catchment side, but this is still one of my favourite roads near Albury.
We pop out at the freeway and ride this for a few kilometres until we can get off onto the old highway alignment. The new freeway goes over a gap and cuts out this old ‘elbow’ that went around that line of hills. It is hard to believe that this section was THE main road between Sydney and Melbourne until 2009! I love most things about Australia, but the road and rail infrastructure are 25 to 30 years behind the population growth and traffic/passenger volumes.
I’ve ridden this so many times, I could ride it blindfolded I think. Today it is just about being outside and enjoying the sun. We do have a head wind all the way down the frontage road, and the smoke is enough to make me a bit wheezy, so it is just a matter of concentrating on the feeling of the legs moving and the joy of rolling along on somewhat narrow tires suspended on air. Just rolling along.
I do get to pass over the toy bridge on this route – a bridge where locals started gluing toys to the railing some years ago. Originally there were some very creative characters and scenes. There are still toys there, but nothing too creative this time – just lots of tractors and other farm equipment lined up.
At one point, there is an option to take a gravel road down and over the very upper reaches of the large Lake Hume (no water up this high at the moment). The gravel road then eventually turns to chipseal and runs through Ettamogah and past the old cartoon pub there. The other option is to ride the freeway. Both rides feature a long gentle climb to Ettamogah.
If I’m northbound, I always take the old road, even though the gravel is ALWAYS in terrible condition. The northbound section of the freeway is the old highway, and the shoulder is a really rough, large diameter chipseal. The shoulder is also only a metre wide in places, which is no fun with that uneven chip and the vehicles flying by so close. HOWEVER, south-bound is the duplicated side of the freeway. It is all smooth concrete a couple metres wide. It is a much better ride than the shit gravel road or the northbound lanes.
So, as always, I just ride the freeway to the Jindera turn-off. It’s a bit of a slog today. There’s plenty of school holiday traffic out, the wind is in my face on that long, gentle uphill and my body is pretty much done. We are working from a really low level of base energy after the hives energy crash, so 70kms yesterday and 60kms today is a bit more than what my body would really prefer. So we just slog it out.
Luckily the headwind becomes a quartering tailwind once we turn off to Jindera and I sail it home sitting on 35kph with some effort on the pedals. Let’s close the ride out well! This area is now a thriving rural residential area, and the village of Jindera has seen a heap of development, too. This just means that there is plenty of traffic on this 100kph road and they are not patient. Consequently, I have to ride very defensively so drivers don’t try to squeeze past me in the lane. This means I ride out in the left tire groove, about a quarter of the way or more into the lane. It does what it needs to do, though, and I feel not one iota of guilt for making a driver slow down when they should and then pass me with the minimum legal distance! Still, it does make me appreciate those drivers on the Mountain Creek Road and other tiny, rural roads where the drivers are almost always polite and patient!
Nigel is happy to see me return. He was a bit worried about me and the distance I was hoping to cover. I take a shower, have a nap while he finishes off the car, then cut his hair and read the paper before heading home.
I’m happy to have put down some kilometres in perfect conditions. I’m happy to have gotten out for a night. I’m happy that I’ve recovered some capacity from this time last year when I still did not really know what was wrong with me or how to manage it. But still, it’s been 21 months since the mosquito bite, and I’m starting to get frustrated with my broken body and its numerous setbacks to, and glacial pace of, recovery. I want my life back. I just want to ride and ride and ride.