20/21 July 2019
70 kms (44 miles)
There were times when the earth warmed. This happened over thousands or hundreds of thousands of years. And then there were times the earth cooled, over thousands or hundreds of thousands of years. And it did this again and again, on timescales too huge for most to comprehend. There were five mass extinctions along the way, wiping out 70 – 96 percent of life on Earth each time.
And then man arrived. And then there was the Industrial Revolution. And then the climate began to warm at unprecedented speed – in a couple hundred years instead of thousands or tens of thousands. And so also began the 6th mass extinction event – we are living it now.
I’ve gazed at the KT-boundary in walls of rocks – that thin line of history 66 million years ago that saw 76 percent of all life wiped out. Such a thin line. And so we tread another one now.
Anyone with any understanding of geology and the time scales involved cannot help but be alarmed by the trend lines on those climate graphs. There is nothing to believe or not believe about climate change. You either understand the science or you out yourself as scientifically illiterate.
Yet those humans and their contribution to a rapidly warming climate are helping me set my own record this weekend.
I don’t normally camp in winter. It’s not especially cold here – our record low is -6C. But it does get just below or above freezing on many nights. And winter is our rainy season. So it is mostly too wet, or too cold, or too cool and damp to want to camp.
The earliest I’ve previously camped out in winter was 8 August. But this year we are blowing that record out of the water and pushing that back to mid-July. We’ve had plenty of cool and cold days this winter. We’ve had a bit more rain than last. But we’ve also had way more days of 14-16C (ave is 13C) than we should. Our winters are already getting warmer and drier overall.
Today’s high will be 15C. It will be a bit windy. Tomorrow’s high is to be 13C with showers developing. Overnight, the low is supposed to be 5C. How can someone not go on an overnight ride with those conditions!!?
Nigel comes over to spray weeds and replace the battery in my car. Then he takes me, the bike and gear and drops us off at the start of a gravel road on his way home. I love how he unceremoniously dumps my gear and me at the side of the road. The bike and gear are unloaded in a pile, he gives me a quick hug and kiss, and then he drives away. Truly, I do love this. I love that he has the confidence in me to not feel like he needs to stick around to make sure I’m okay and see me away. Or…. he may have just been hungry and wanted to get home to lunch.
Nigel did query why he was dropping me off on this particular road. My reply: “It’s on the map. And I haven’t ridden it before.” He seemed satisfied with the answer – he is a road trip guy at heart anyway.
I load the bike. You cannot underestimate how grateful I am to be out here, how grateful I am to have returned to the land of the living, how grateful I am to feel a bit better. I still feel pretty shit, but I am no longer short of breath just walking around the house, and I am no longer so fatigued I cannot scrape myself out of bed. It is all relative.
I am out here today saying “Fuck You” to the identified and yet-to-be-identified diseases that have been dragging me down for two years now (this is approximately the weekend of when I contracted WNV in July 2017). I am out here today to set a personal winter camping record (my American record is waaaay more impressive!). I am out here today to test out the new sleeping bag my parents funded. I am out here today to ride new roads. I am out here today… because there is nowhere else I’d rather be than on my bike.
And an overnight ride is finally something I can manage again. Just. Please don’t get excited about distance or speed, because low and slow, like cooking BBQ brisket, is how these days go down.
Our first road is a new one – Popes Road. It climbs gently away from the river past grapevines and fat, grazing sheep. We roll up the roll of earth with Mt Ochertyre to the left. The clouds scull forward to the southeast and I love watching the patterns of shade swill across the bright green pastures. Small black dots that are cows in the distance are swallowed and then spat back out by the moving shadows.
The road dips off the rise as a huge expanse of valley and sky spread out before me. I love the big skies of Oz. Popes Road isn’t the best surface and I spend most of the road riding in the spirit of papal politics – on the right. Cyclists always choose the best line – there are no politics in saving your arse… or looking for comfort… or aiming for smoothness. Okay, maybe there is, but not in this context.
I do get passed by one 4WD Landcruiser with three occupants. They don’t move over and neither do I – there’s loose gravel that will catch a wheel any further to the side for me. I catch up to the vehicle pulled over to the side of the road as I turn onto Fernbank Road (another new one). The guys quickly stub out their cigarettes and get back in the vehicle, but not before I’ve passed them. I don’t know what was going on with them, but I can tell you it was dodgy. They re-pass me and I do not see them again.
We pedal up and down the gentle rollers with views over to the Barambogies. We turn onto the old Howlong Road (another new one, but eyed off many a time). It is a series of long rollers on chipseal. If you close your eyes, you might think you are pedaling Iowa. I spin my way up the hills slowly – letting the bike do as much of the work as possible. Not only am I far from healthy – I’ve lost all of my muscle and fitness, too.
I love the road elevator and watching the sky and horizon as I climb. I love bombing down the other side of each hill. All this earth used to lie at the bottom of the ocean before uplift and continental accretion rendered this land rolling hills far from the beach. Still, I imagine these hills as ripples of sand on the bottom of the ocean with thousands of metres of water above.
Old Howlong Road spits us out at a tri-intersection. We head up Fishers Road – we did this one not too long ago. I enjoy the smooth clay surface – already deeply grooved by traffic. I enjoy the views as I slowly climb the hill. And I enjoy the sighting of the first wattle blooms of winter. I’ll see plenty more on the ride, but these are my first of the season.
We continue on Fishers Road, skirting the national park. We could ride the tracks inside the park at the edge, but I’ve done them before and haven’t ridden the roads through private land just outside. Gotta get them new roads!
I pass a new housing development – Barnawatha Park. I laugh when I realize that it looks like every property has three acres, three horses and a dressage ring each. Aspiring fancy gate people, but not there quite yet.
I head south again on McKeone Road. Road it is not. It is just a two-track with plenty of big puddles the 4WDs have enjoyed bashing through. I don’t know why Councils bother putting up “DRY WEATHER ONLY” signs because no one pays any attention.
I’ve been riding for a while now. I think I started about 1.30pm. The sun sets about 5.25pm. I don’t really know where I’m going to camp tonight. I look at the sun. I’ve probably got 1.45 hours of sun left. I think that gives me enough time to do the next bit through the national park, and so we turn into the park instead of away at the next intersection. I’ve ridden all these roads, too, but I love the spookiness of the forest on the back side of the ridge with the low winter sunlight filtering through the trees. It is such a contrast to the harshness of summer.
I see horse, motorbike and vehicle tracks all fresh from today but see no one. We climb gentle hills and flow down gentle descents. Klotzs Track, Langs Track, Powerline Road, Magenta Road, Greenhills Road.
I am tired, and my muscles tell me they are not used to doing this. Our last lightly loaded ride was back in March before the latest round of feeling like death. But I don’t have that awful cramping, tingling motorneuropathy in my legs – the sign that I need to stop and rest or pay the consequences. So we continue on.
The guys and I bomb down the rollercoaster hills of Greenhills Road. Three kangaroos dart across the road in front of me and then sprint down the road beside me, before careering off in unison back to the bush. We lean the bike right into the last corner near the old battery site and appreciate the grip of dirt in winter when there is moisture holding everything together.
There is water under the bridge. But I’m not over it yet. Because I’m actually going under the bridge. (see what I did there…) There are two underpasses to get you under the rail line and the freeway. The second underpass is filled with water. Oh, it’s not deep – only a couple inches – but you can see how high it can get based on the high water marks! Even though it is only a couple inches deep, it is quite murky. It is also not all that warm today and will be pretty cold tonight. I do not want to ride through with abandon and hit something under that murky water that makes me need to put a foot down. A soaked shoe is so very unpleasant at this time of year.
So I take the easy route and push along with one foot on the raised footpath all the way through. I’m getting cautious in my old age. Really, it’s all about wet foot potential, but I do think about how much fun I would have had with that length of water when I was a kid.
We head up the road to Yackandandah for a short bit and then turn off on Ballarat Road. The surface of this one is good and I make good time on the very gentle climb. This is the long way to Lancashire Gap. I’m tired and decide that I will just find a spot to camp somewhere along this road.
Originally, I had planned to ride the Skeleton Hill and Koala tracks and find somewhere along there. But my memory is that Skeleton Hill track is pretty steep and loose, and that is not what my body needs right now. There is also the possibility of it being hard to find flat ground to camp.
So I cruise on forward in the late afternoon quiet. Finally, near the intersection with the far end of White Box Track, I decide to walk down off the road along a ridge and look for a spot. I quickly find a flat-ish spot. It will be flat enough for the width of my body in the tent, and it’s a bit behind the hump of the ridge, so I’ll be enough out-of-sight of the road not to get any headlights from passing vehicles, should there be any.
I set up the tent – ah, it’s been too long! The ground is cold and wet, but at this time of year, I always put down one of those emergency space blankets beneath my ground pad and it is pretty sufficient.
I go for a walk up to the top of the ridge to try to stretch out my calf muscles and try to shake out some of the stiffness in my shoulder and arm. That stupid shoulder hurts less these days, but the range of movement is still very poor, and after a few hours on the bike, it is extra stiff. I also have a new issue developing in that arm, and I’m unable to extend my elbow fully, so I want to get everything as loose as possible before I sleep on the hard ground without a pillow to hug (which used to be absolutely essential for sleep, but is now just helpful).
The sun goes down too early. It is still winter, after all. The chill comes quick. It drops from 14C to 9C in about an hour and a half after dusk. But lucky me has a nice, warm puffy jacket that folds impressively small which I’ve brought along. And I have a brand-new sleeping bag rated to 15F (which means I should be comfortable in it down to a bit below freezing). So I rug up, cuddle down in the bag and relax. Aaaaahhhh. I so needed this.
As darkness envelopes the tent, the temperature stays around 7C. I listen to my ipod. I think of all the ways I’m grateful for my present life. There a fair number of fairly crappy things going on at the moment, but I am always grateful for the chance to ride – maybe even moreso after two years of feeling like crap. I am grateful I haven’t felt like death every day the past two years – just some of them.
I hold off on getting out to pee. I stay wrapped up and nicely warm in the bag until 9pm. I know I can make it through til at least 6 or 7am if I wait until then to pee. Sigh… all these extra things to consider when camping in winter.
I crawl out of the bag. The stiffness in my bad joints is pretty scary – you shouldn’t have that at this age. But at least it has lessened in the past 10 days. Still, it makes it more of an effort to get out of a tent pointing uphill!
The Milky Way cups the earth. It is right overhead. There is enough of a breeze that the dark leaves flitting above appear like dark stars twinkling among the many other winking pinpoints of light. I stand with my head back, just standing and gazing for quite a while. The temp has stayed around 7C, so it is quite nice. I love being all alone in the forest.
I think about grandiose scales and tiny human beings. I think about miniscule humans going to the moon 50 years ago. I think about what I will be doing in two months time – changes are coming, I’m just not sure what they will entail at the moment. I think about all the places I’ve spent time gazing at the stars from my tent in a forest or above treeline.
And then I head to bed. I am very, very tired.
In the morning, I wake around 7am. I’ve woken through the night – the shoulder is still an issue and wakes me with pain here and there – but I’ve been able to go back to sleep each time. My attempt at testing out the sleeping bag has failed – it only got down to 5C overnight and I never felt cold.
The clouds are gathering. The wind through the night has meant that the tent is pretty dry to pack up. Even though it’s been a while since I did an overnight ride, I’ve toured enough on this bike that everything has its place and I can pack up in no time. Granted, I wasn’t carrying much at all (I could have packed it all in two panniers – I just think the bike rides better with four).
It is cool enough to wear my tights under my shorts and use long-fingered gloves. We only have a short bit to climb to the top of the gap before a fast downhill. Lancashire Gap Road is not in very good shape, but I fly down it anyway – mostly sticking to the raised mound of gravel in the centre to stay away from the many deep corrugations and holes. Yippee!
I do meet two cars, but luckily this is once I’m back to pavement. Neither wave – both give me the look like “where the hell did you come from?”.
I roll into Chiltern. They are having a music festival this weekend called the Chiltern Jam Sessions. Several venues around town are hosting open mic, poetry and jam sessions. There are supposed to be a bunch of buskers. But nothing much is happening at 7.45am. All of the venues hosting events have been covered in knitted decorations. There are hay bales with pillows along the footpaths. I hope they have had a good turnout because the motel looked pretty empty when I went by.
I stop to refill water in the park and then stop at the bakery. It’s not busy yet. I get a spinach and cheese quiche and a cinnamon scroll. Very soon I will be back to not eating any of this sort of stuff, so I’m enjoying it while it lasts! Everything I’ve purchased here has always been good – but the quiche is just okay and not worth the cost. The scroll is good – so I think maybe it is just best to stick to the baked goods and sweets case to not be disappointed.
I head out on the Howlong Road and get two close passes just out of town. One guy towing a trailer not only passes me too closely, but is far enough into the other lane to force the oncoming car to slow down. Sheesh. But after that, I don’t see many vehicles at all… and it’s a very peaceful ride home.
I take the Cornishtown Road toward Rutherglen. I’ve ridden it many times. The moderate wind is a quartering tailwind, so I make good time even though my muscles are weak today and telling me how I out-of-shape and how unwell I still am. I pass by several roads I keep telling myself we need to ride. I tell myself to look them up on the map when I get home. If we are going to come and do a day of these roads, it needs to be soon. There’s no shade out here in summer and I’m not likely to live as close to this in coming months.
We roll along in the cold morning air. My nose runs. My lungs are wheezy. I am a body full of shitty things you do not want! But I’m enjoying myself. I’m going to make it home before it rains, the landscape is in that very short period of time each year when it is green, and my bum doesn’t hurt. I am grateful for small things.
Along the way, I see a new farm sculpture. And it happens to be a really well done guy on a penny farthing. How cool! He is new since the last time I came this way. I really prefer riding new roads, but a new sight to see on an old road is good… especially if it involves bicycles.
I contemplate stopping in Rutherglen, but I only stop long enough to get a picture of my bike by the grain silos for the CYCLE365 Monthly Challenge of “monochrome”. Then it’s on down the rail trail toward home.
The sun is trying to come out. But the clouds are still winning. The angry magpie is not yet swooping – I only think about this possibility as I come into his territory. But he’s nowhere to be seen. Yet.
I get up to one of the trail-side benches and decide to eat the cinnamon scroll (I generally can’t eat cinnamon during a ride because it causes reflux). As I sit there eating, a man and woman ride by – the woman on a very squeaky post World War II Dutchie bike. She still rides faster and more elegantly than her partner on a newer, non-squeaky mountain bike. Another older guy rides by and waves.
I check radar. Yes, there is rain a few hours away. The wind is strengthening and we’ll have it right in our face for 6 of the last 8 kilometres. But it has still been a good ride. And I’ve broken a record – however unimportant.
I pedal out the final kms on Federation Way. I make my way over the Murray River going unbelievably slow into the headwind. But I spin and smile. I try not to think about how much muscle mass I’ve lost that my quads are tired and we’ve only ridden 70kms in total over two days!
A hot shower feels good once I get home. I spread the tent out all over the living room to dry. I shower. I eat some soup. And then I sleep for three hours straight. Maybe I’ve overdone it a little. I was close to bed-bound just 14 days ago. The biggest test will be in about 48 hours – the post-exertional malaise is a sneaky bitch. She makes you think you’ve actually been able to do something physical and that you might be getting better – then she strikes you down two days later. It may be one of the more cruel things I’ve had to mentally deal with over the past two years.
The ride has been good for my emotional health though. I need my bicycle like other people need their evening wine. I need nights in the tent like most people need a real bed. But what I most need is a functioning body. I go to the rheumatologist next Tuesday. I’ve waited three months to get in. Please send all the good juju you can that I may finally get a helpful diagnosis and access to medication that can help me get back more and more of my previous capacity. Nerd Em really needs to go adventure again!