22/23 March 2020
98 kms (61 miles)
There are times when you’re riding and the shifting is smooth. The terrain is gentle and there is not much thought or effort required to maintain cadence. And then there are times when the hill is deceptively steep when you are in unknown terrain and you get caught in a gear that isn’t appropriate for the grade. Sometimes you manage to shift into an appropriate gear at the last moment, or with a bit of a grinding clunk. And then there are times when you attempt to shift too much under too much strain, and you end up throwing the chain right off the cogs and finding yourself completely stalled in the middle of a steep uphill. If you’re lucky, you don’t fall off the bike, too, as you throw the chain.
Well, the world threw the chain this week.
I called this journal “Shifting” because I thought it would be a year where I would have to continue to shift my riding goals and priorities because of my health. I had no idea at the time that I would be shifting my entire life, like everyone else, to avoid contracting a disease to which no one has immunity. Journal title this year – how apropos!
In one of those ways of the world, we’ve had the most gorgeous March in a very long time. The weather has been perfect nearly every day. We got much needed rain in a two-day deluge but have had warm (not hot!), sunny and stable days just day after day. The world is in complete chaos and we are having the most gorgeous weather I can remember in many, many years. It is SO incongruent.
This ride did see a lot of shifting in itself. This is actually my Plan D for the weekend.
PLAN A: Pick-up veg box and then go up to Albury to a music festival with Nigel to see one of my favourite Australian bands that have reformed for the tour: Hunters and Collectors.
Concert – like all mass gatherings – cancelled.
PLAN B: Go ride in the hills behind Tatong and Tolmie.
They light a planned burn up there on Saturday morning – so that’s out.
PLAN C: Go do another Strathbogie ride.
The wind is going to be 25-30kph out of the south and I can’t figure out a route that isn’t going to involve a big headwind.
PLAN D: Just go north with that wind and do some more new roads in the national park. That works!
So I go to the local farm and pick up my veg box for the week on Saturday and spend the afternoon cooking up food for the week ahead. I love being able to get fresh, organic veg each week and support a local business. Once you start ordering veg boxes, it is very hard to go back to tasteless supermarket veg!
Many places do CSA boxes in America, and there are lots of opportunities like this in Oz, too. This is my farmer, but find one in your local area and give your tastebuds a treat and your body some nutrients from food that has only travelled a few feet to your transport!
Sunday sees us heading out with four litres of water. Normally I would just take a litre and make a short diversion into Chiltern to fill up enough for the afternoon/night and the morning tomorrow. But we are social distancing, and that means I’m not touching any public water taps and not going anywhere near people. So all the water we need goes with us from home. Heavy!
We roll along roads we’ve ridden many times. At first, the wind is light and the air is cool. It feels so much like autumn. Exotic trees are starting to get a yellow tinge or a yellow leaf here or there. There is a tiny bit of green emerging in the paddocks from the rain from ex-cyclone Esther a couple weeks ago. The sun angle is definitely angled. That is not a high overhead summer sun. It takes some of the glare away and gives more definition to the landscape. Autumn is definitely the most stellar time of year in this region.
It is all familiar and I let my head wander as we traverse the flats on quiet, rural roads. I am such a lucky person to live in a place like this. Last weekend, I was supposed to go to another music festival in Melbourne. That one didn’t work out either. Last weekend also marked 22 years since I met Nigel on my 22nd birthday and my life became forever entwined with Australia.
If you don’t know the story: it was a full moon, my birthday and a Friday the 13th all rolled into one. I boarded a bus in Lorne, Victoria and immediately noticed the blue eyes of the driver. He must have noticed something, too, or it was a predator-prey situation and he thought I was the weakest one to go for! So that night, after his shift, in a tiny town on the Great Ocean Road, we had some drinks together. He kept trying to convince me to let him give me a birthday kiss. It wasn’t love at first sight. It was alcohol and the recklessness of youth. When I said goodbye to him, I took his mobile number and didn’t think I’d ever see him again. I ran into him again by pure chance two weeks later in Adelaide where he was overnighting on his run. At that point, I agreed that I would ring him when I got back around to Sydney in a few months. I did… and the rest is history. 22 years of it so far.
And so the song below was one of ‘our songs’. It is by the band we were supposed to be going to see yesterday at the music festival that was cancelled. This song was always so appropriate because the first three times we saw each other we never thought we’d see the other again. It is also appropriate because we came from different parts of the world and I rode on his bus – pick it out in the lyrics. (And at the beginning of the video, given the current virus, stop yourself from thinking, “Stop touching your face!”).
So I think of Nigel and 22 years of association with Australia. I think about how Australia is my home now. I don’t know when it happened. When the 9/11 terror attack happened only a few weeks after I moved to Oz permanently, all I wanted was to be home with my family. I know I still felt like a foreigner in 2004 when I struggled to find any work when we first moved to Albury. I took out citizenship in 2006 and think I felt like Oz was one of my homes at that point. And somewhere after that, Oz became my home. That was very apparent by 2010 when I did my first big bike tour in America and felt like I was just visiting. And now, in this major world event where everyone is reducing their world to their tiny family unit, I do not wish I was in America. I just wish I could have my family here, and I am wondering what will become of my planned trip to Colorado on 23 August.
I have options today to make this ride harder and to ride some new roads in the edges of the hills. But I don’t feel like it. I just feel like pumping out the kms on the bitumen and feeling the wind push me north. The frontage road is not exciting, but today the need is to just feel the speed and the mechanical wonder of bike and human proceeding forth. It’s a day to feel like you are part of the bike, not struggling up some loose gravel. That will come later. Right now it is just feeling my legs pumping the pedals – far away from all the other humans. I can look over to them on the freeway, but they are contained within glass and pose no threat to me travelling by at 110kph. (Still, you can’t tell that people are reducing their travel – it’s as busy over there as any Sunday – we’re supposed to be home unless we are going to the store or exercising solo).
And so we soar up to Old Cemetery Road, ascending and descending the outer flanks of the hills as the road heads north then northeast. From here, we are going to link together some of the boundary roads in the national park we haven’t ridden before. Then we’ll try a couple new roads down the other side of the range that look like they’ll be mostly rideable on my touring bike.
I stop first to have an apple and to check my phone before turning it off. I DO NOT look at the news! As a far outlier introvert, the normal news cycle and interaction with people in daily life has me exhausted by the end of the week anyway. These past few weeks have really ground me down. All that panic (which I strangely have none of at all for some reason) has me craving some real peace and quiet and total solitude! I can’t see how people find it hard – I do it as much as I can and think two weeks in my home with no contact would be pretty perfect, particularly if no one was allowed to call me either! The phone does reveal that Nigel has finally sold my car. I am overly happy that saga has concluded.
And so we begin the climbing toward the range – gentle climbing on bitumen past a few farmhouses and then more gentle climbing on gravel between the overarching trees. I take off on a new track that curves around to the area near the old water reservoir for Chiltern. The road curves along the slope with a swampy creek below. It is flogged forest, but it is pleasant and I’m enjoying the quiet.
I come upon fresh horse shit and then see five vehicles with trailers at the next road junction. I examine the hoof prints in the gravel and they aren’t going down the next track I want to take. Good. I don’t mind coming up to horses on the track, but I hate when I have to meet them when I’m coming from behind.
We roll along this sandy track with plenty of spots that grab and suck the wheels for a moment. We pop out to the edge of the forest to great views of Mt Pilot and the Black Dog Creek valley. I’ve not seen Mt Pilot from quite this direction before. With the lower-angle autumn sun, its steep granite slopes that drop off to the west are quite pronounced. Gorgeous!
I love piecing together landscapes in my mind. I love looking out in the distance and knowing what each road on that range looks like to ride. I love the memories of different rides in different parts of the landscape before me. I love knowing the landscape so well that I know where all the roads run and what they look like at each end.
It makes me a little nostalgic for all those rides I did out of Jindera – where I’ve ridden most every dirt and sealed road between Jindera-Rand-Lockhart-Wagga-Gerogery. I think times of huge change and drama like now make everyone a little bit nostalgic for good times past.
I continue on the sandy road up to a pine plantation. I skirt the plantation and think about how it’s a bit like my life has been. Colorado on one side – Australia on the other: how many people have spent nearly 3 weeks of their life above the Pacific Ocean in a tiny metal tube? Well, besides all the ex-pats, pilots and flight attendants 😊
I still love the smell of pine though and how it transports me back to really good memories. Partway through our skirting of the plantation, on a gentle uphill in the mid-day sun which feels like it should be 3 or 4pm, I decide we should have some lunch. Luckily, my gut problems have receded and the reflux has gone. I can eat most things again and my digestion is edging back toward normal very slowly.
Today I will share with you one of the secrets of the world, in case you have not discovered it. I found it by accident at age 19. Very sharp or aged cheddar cheese and dark chocolate are one of the best combinations in the world. Sweet, bitter and salt all together in one go! I don’t know how many hikers and backpackers have accidentally discovered this combination, but it’s one of the best backcountry accidents you could ever encounter.
Now, in the mountains of Colorado, you can pack chocolate with no worries. It is not generally hot enough to cause a mess. That is not the case in Oz. So we don’t have dark chocolate today, but we do have M&Ms. And M&Ms are one of my favourite forms of chocolate. So I sit there by the pines with foods I associate with time spent in conifer forests. I think of all my friends from my Colorado days and think about how I still have friendships with all of those people I hung out with then. You never again form the types of friendships that you do at university. Life only puts all those pieces together in just the right way in a very short time of life.
As I’m eating chocolate and cheese for lunch, the horse riders come down the hill. I hear one of them say, “There’s a person ahead on the left. With a bike.” As they advance, I say hello. The closest one (don’t worry, they are at least 20 feet away) says hello. I have been told numerous times that you should keep speaking and maintain a conversation so that the horses can figure out what you are and not get spooked. I say, “It’s a beautiful day to be out, isn’t it?”
The nearest person, a teenager, smiles. No one says anything. And they all give me that look that I got all the time in Tumut when I was trying unsuccessfully to find work way back in 2002: who the heck are you and where did you come from? It is the look you would give an alien if it just walked down the steps of a spacecraft.
I can only figure they have made the assumption with my accent that I do not belong here. They may be suspicious that I am carrying the virus, since the greatest number of positive virus cases from travelers coming to/returning to Oz have come from America. Or maybe, with the panniers, they think that I’ve been riding around and don’t know about the state of the world. Whatever the case, they are decidedly unfriendly and perplexed.
After lunch, I continue up and around the pine plantation and then take another track on the edge of the national park. This one has more nice views over the Black Dog Creek valley and up toward rounded, granite outcrops ahead. We roll along underneath the rocky slopes and outcrops of Mt Barambogie. It is a picturesque and undulating track with massive boulders and long rocky outcrops begging for exploration, or at least a few minutes of gazing at this big bubble of 370 million-year-old magma. The angle of the sun highlights the pitted surfaces, the chemical stains and the lichen that grows in streaks like rashes.
This track is really sandy, and quite eroded in parts, so on occasion I have to get off and push through the sand or deep erosion ruts for 20 feet or so at a time. I also meet a father and son on motorbikes who decide to turn around and come back through again after the first pass. The only downside, other than all that noise and their contribution to more track erosion, is that both times when I have to stop to let them go by are in places where I can’t easily get rolling again and have to push the bike to better ground.
Later, I meet a group of eight dirt bike guys all digging into the sand when they accelerate around a fallen tree. I can see why they like the track though. It’s scenic, it’s undulating, it’s sandy and it’s eroded enough to be challenging for them.
At the bottom of this track, I could take some more new-to-me tracks over to the main C-road. I could also use those to get me to the rest of Gidleys Track – but I have no desire to go anywhere near THAT track again!
But I don’t feel like either of those today. Instead, I head up Settlers Road. I have done it before, but it sets me up to directly link into Davitts Swamp Road – which is the track I want to take out of the park tomorrow. So we head up through the open forest through tall trees not burnt in the 2003 fires.
We round the first switchback and keep going. My fitness is not great, but my body is doing so much better than I expected. I do have to push around the second switchback when I run out of traction. I didn’t make it the other time I rode it either. I really like this road as it climbs out of one drainage and into another.
We finally gain the ridge and I start into Davitts Swamp Road. It starts to descend and I decide I’ve had enough for the day. The forest up top is open and I know I can find somewhere to camp easily. I’m not tired or aching, which is a good way to end the day. I’m not sure how many flat spots will be found further ahead as the road descends the other side. Plus, I can hear some motorbikes down there, and I don’t’ want to meet them when I’m flying downhill.
So I wander off into the open forest and find a spot a few hundred metres in. I carry the bike over after I find a spot that only requires stick removal. I set the bike against a tree. I pull out the tent groundsheet, spread it out, use the tent pannier as a pillow and have a nice late afternoon nap in the sun.
I then watch the clouds as they scoot along at speed. They keep popping up from the south, morphing into various shapes as they go overhead and then dissipating off to the north before they make the state border. And then, after 45 minutes of this, as the heat of the day dissipates, the clouds stop their advance and disappear. Aaahhh…. it is so quiet and all the craziness of the world feels far away. I needed this.
The low temperature tonight is only supposed to be 6 degrees, so I did bring along a long-sleeve wool undershirt, my warmie jacket and my winter hat. The day does cool quickly as the sun goes down since the wind remains moderate. I climb in the tent and have dinner, then doze off and on as I listen to my ipod.
I crawl out of the tent to watch the stars and satellites for a bit. Strangely, the shooting stars seem to be social distancing tonight, too. Most of the time, Oz has many and bright shooting stars. But I’m just not seeing them tonight. There are plenty of satellites, but no meteors. Maybe they know to avoid earth right now, too. I have a rule that I must spot two satellites and two shooting stars before I go to bed. I have broken that rule a lot since getting sick, since I’m usually asleep in the tent before dark given my energy levels.
I do spot two satellites quite quickly. I wait around and leave my head hanging back to take in as wide of expanse of sky as I can. I gaze at Orion and ponder the loss of light in Betelgeuse and whether it seems brighter again. I can’t tell. I swivel my head to see the Southern Cross. Finally, I spot one shooting star and make a wish. Then I call it a night – two wishes seem a bit greedy in times like these.
I wake before the birds. We’re right at the end of daylight savings, so sunrise is not until nearly 7.30. I lie there all snug in the bag. I’ve slept well. My thermometer says 5 degrees. I spent forever researching sleeping bags and quilts last year. I finally decided on a bag. To get the temp rating I wanted, the quilts didn’t really pack much smaller or weigh much less. And a quilt would require me to get a new air mattress. And I’m still quite happy on the closed-cell thermarest I’ve owned for 25 years. So the bag has kept me cozy all night and I never needed to add the warmie jacket which means I could use it as a pillow. I do think this will keep me warm down to about 25F, so all is good. As a cold sleeper, I hate being uncomfortable at night, so I’m happy with my decision. Thank you to my parents for funding the bag!
I pack in the pre-dawn and realise this will be my last ride without my cotton gloves. My fingers are a bit nippy pulling apart the tent!
And then we go rolling downhill in the first light of day. There really is nothing finer than that early morning light glancing off the eucalypt leaves at low angles in a bright orange glow standing out among the grey shadows. It really is a magical time of day.
This is a great road. I have to walk down a couple really steep and eroded bits, but there are only a couple of those. Most of the time it is a rolling descent through open forest where the road falls away to a drainage on one side and reaches up to the hillside on the other. We dip down and climb out of small ephemeral creeks and pass an open area with long reeds and pooled water in a depression between hills. That must be Davitts Swamp. This may become my new favourite road in the park (though doing 65kph down McGuinness Road is a different kind of fun!).
We drop down to a small creek that actually has water running in it with a pool of water over the track that is 6-8 inches deep. It runs between outcrops of granite. This is all good stuff.
We drop further down between rising hills as the sun brings out more definition in the landscape. We’re still in shade, but the greys of the dawn have turned to pale greys and greens of bark and leaf. This is just fantastic and I take it slow just to make it last longer!!
I reach the junction with Lonies Gap Rd and Mulls Track. I choose Mulls Track just because the topo lines have a bit bigger spacing and I shouldn’t have to get off and push as much.
This track is even better than Davitts Swamp. It is mostly a gentle grade with only a few steep bits here and there. 99 percent is rideable. It descends along a drainage with rocky outcrops and boulders on the left and open-treed hills to the right. There are flat bits where drainages meet. There a zillion good campsites along here, and none that you could get to by vehicle. This is only 30kms from my house, so I will come back here just to camp for the night on the bike again.
We come to an open area where the creek falls through 25-foot tall rocky outcrops. From the top of this, there are good views over to the hills on the other side of the Reedy Creek valley. What a fantastic morning this has become.
I pedal up and around the base of Kangaroo Hill with its steep and rocky cliffs at the top poking out through the tree cover. This part of the park did not burn in 2003 and it is much less scrubby. There are greater numbers of large, living trees and fewer snags.
We roll on around and can smell the campfire smoke of people down along Reedy Creek. And then I can see them far below. We descend in a series of curves to the main road. We just did this one a few weeks back. There is a bit more water in the creek now, but it still smells pretty rank, so it is not hard to convince the guys not to float.
At this point, the guys politely request to be removed from the handlebar bag. We are going to have to ride that terribly corrugated section of road where we lost Kermit a few weeks ago. He is not wanting to relive that experience, so they get zipped in the handlebar bag instead.
They’ve regraded the road since we were last here! It is in much better condition. However, you can already feel where the corrugations are starting to form again, and it has only been three weeks at most since it was graded, so that tells you how quickly this road deteriorates. Nevertheless, it is pretty smooth for me the rest of the way out of the park, though Kermit and Verne stay tucked away til we reach pavement.
We roll through Eldorado, wishing we could stop for a chocolate milk. But no, we are social distancing, so we ride on through. We turn south into the wind, thankful it’s only a 10-15kph headwind instead of the 30-35 of yesterday.
I do grab one new road. There is a small dirt road that parallels the main road – Pyle Road. So we grab that one today. Unfortunately, it is not a fun ride most of the way. Much of it has that grey-blue road base (I always cringe when I see that ahead) that has fist-size and larger rocks in it and lots of big, loose rocks at the surface. There are only a few places where we can find any smoothness down the very edge.
So we bump and zipper-jingle our way down that one slowly until we hook back up with Newtons Road. This is all stuff we’ve done many times now, and I just pedal on into the wind toward home.
It has been a really good ride and my energy levels have been good. That stupid bacteria is still there and its activity comes and goes like sine waves. Many symptoms have receded, but the fatigue remains and the leg pain comes and goes. I’m also slowly realizing that I think I’ve sustained hearing loss in my left ear, and google searches of academic papers suggest this can be a consequence of the bacteria. The leg pain could also be permanent nerve damage, though I’m not ready to cede that one since the pain comes and goes and only the heaviness is constant.
So whenever I read that this new virus causes only mild symptoms in 80 percent of people and serious symptoms in less than 5 percent, I think about the official stats for West Nile being similar or even less serious. And with that one I ended up with permanent brain damage (i.e. short-term memory loss and word recall issues), ongoing neurological issues and a compromised immune system that allowed the bacteria in that I can’t get rid of completely. So you can bet that I’m taking this new one seriously given my immune system is still working with that chronic bacteremia.
Riding and getting out in the sunlight is good for me, though, and I’ll continue to ride as long as I’m able. I wish this had all gone down in the past two years, though, when I was home all the time anyway because I had no energy whatsoever. Now that I’m ready to rebuild fitness and do a lot more riding is not exactly the best time to have to stay home all the time. I just did that for 2.5 years!!
We do get to mark off some more roads on our map today. The scale is too small to mark off roads on our big wall map, but we do get to mark off some roads on the park map.
I get home to the news that the shut downs have increased and no one is supposed to be doing non-essential travel. International travel is banned. Various state borders are closing. We’re on an exponential growth curve of cases… and our country is sort of middle of the pack in all of this. A bunch of countries are much worse off and the US is heading for catastrophe.
Yep, the world has thrown the chain.
(Please note, I’m writing this a week after I did the ride. Overnight rides are now out. More restrictions are coming soon. And I’ve been doing 10 hour days this week at work, so haven’t had the time or energy to write this up until now. I never ever ever need to hear the words “contingency”, “business continuity” or “unprecedented” again!).