148 kms (92 miles)
Everything is confused. The humans. The flies. The plants. The birds. Perhaps this is what happens when you cross a pandemic with climate change. It’s like a cross-crisis punnet square with inheritance probabilities that edge toward certainties.
The evidence is subtle, but it’s been everywhere on my rides. There have been few humans clogging the roads the past six weeks. The Melbourne tourists have been pleasantly absent. But even as the humans become impatient and start to refill the roads and shops, the skies are still empty of contrails. Who would get in a confined space with other people right now if they didn’t absolutely have to? There is too much uncertainty – human movement is still an aberration in long-term trends at this point.
Starting toward the end of March, just as the humans retreated to their homes, the fly population also exploded. What? Normally, late March and April are some of the least fly-ridden times of year. But this year, the flies were almost as bad in April as they usually are in November. You could not open the house door without getting several inside. There would be 10 or so sticking to you if you stopped during a ride (not as bad as Nov/Dec when it would be double that). Was it because the autumn rains came early, but the temperatures stayed warm? What weird climatic combo led to that this year? The flies have started to subside again as we get some frosty mornings, but man, that was weird.
I’ve seen several trees with buds bulging at the same time as they are still losing their leaves. It seems like the buds don’t usually do that until at least July. The agapanthus in my front garden, which hasn’t flowered since January, just threw up another flower stalk. I neglect that plant. My neighbour has many of these plants and cares for them with the attention to detail that only comes when you are retired and have the time. None of his plants have flowered again, and he is in awe at my plant’s late-season hurrah.
So things have just felt weird this year… not just the pandemic and its far-reaching impacts, but also the early rain and cooler temps followed by some dry weeks with warmer temps. It sorta felt like winter was mid-March to mid-April and spring started really early in May. Well, not really, but even after 20 years of living in Oz, it still feels totally weird for the landscape to green up at the end of autumn and then brown off in spring.
SATURDAY 16 May – 55kms (34 miles)
I’m thinking about this, as I head out on the bike on Saturday. The weather is warmer than it has been for a couple of weeks. I’m riding in shorts and my fluoro shirt. It’s in the upper 60s F. The sun angle is low, the grass is iridescent green in places. There are puddles by the side of the road and water trickling or running through the drains and ephemeral creeks. It feels like spring out here among the paddocks where the exotic trees are absent. With their brilliant and colourful change of colours this year, the exotic trees make it obvious that it is autumn, but get away from them and it feels like spring.
We are not allowed to do overnight trips yet, or I would have made this a three-day ride. Instead I’ll do bits of that route today and more bits of it on Monday.
I do pick up a new road today that has been bugging me on the map for a long time. The Oxley-Greta West Road runs a long diagonal across the flat paddocks between the King River and 15-mile Creek. It has been begging to be ridden for ages. So today, I pick up that road and some portions of a few others I haven’t ridden.
The Oxley-Greta West Road is in good condition and looks to get frequent maintenance. I’ll use this one again in the future to get to other unridden roads. The gravel roads in this shire can be pretty bad, so I never get too excited about their possibilities until I’ve ridden them.
To start, the road skirts along the course of a creek before the creek meanders away and the trees recede with it. Then there are long views across the bright green paddocks. It is a pleasure to ride in nearly windless conditions at a temperature that is warm enough not to make your nose run but cool enough not to sweat much.
We circle round the valley, flirting with the ends of the foothill spurs once we get past Moyhu. There’s nothing exciting about these roads, but it is more about getting out, enjoying the good weather and getting in some kms today more than anything else. Unridden roads aren’t always dramatic, but it is always good to mark them off the map.
I do come across two cyclists on Allans Lane. It’s kind of an odd place to meet other cyclists, but there are more out and about than usual, so that increases the chances. They are on road bikes, and the gravel has some fairly large diameter rocks and corrugations, so they don’t look like they are having much fun. I think they would have liked to stop to chat, but I just wave, say hello and keep pedalling.
Everyone is a potential infection source, even though we haven’t had any new cases in the region in about a month, and even then it was only one couple who had travelled overseas. Really, I’m just using that as an excuse. You know that I’m an introvert and don’t want to talk to anyone on weekends anyway, as I’m peopled out from work interactions by then!
Allans Lane is one of those gorgeous tree-lined tunnels. The southern part of the road has a very chunky cobblestone-type surface down the middle that is spreading to the edges like honey on a board. Luckily, there is still a nice and smooth clay edge that varies in width between bike tyre to car tyre. So we sail along under that tunnel of trees on that thin edge.
Allans Lane also follows the paddocks of thousands of cattle. It’s not quite feedlot, but it’s free range at close range, and many of the paddocks are nothing but mud. It’s all a bit stinky, and even stinkier the further north you go. In summer, at my place, when the wind is out of the southeast, the smell of shit, cows and ammonia is strong enough to want to leave the windows closed! And I’m about four kms from the closest feedlot paddock!
Allans Lane crosses a couple east-west roads. I debate about taking one of them over to the Milawa-Bobinawarrah Road but decide, instead, to continue on and grab the one portion of Allans Lane I’ve not yet ridden.
Mistake! Allans Lane becomes moderate-size loose gravel with bigger chunks. There’s no tyre track to follow, so it’s slow and slippery with some added bumps when you can’t avoid every big piece of gravel.
Robinson’s Lane is even worse. It is even bigger and looser gravel that has been dumped and spread quite recently. This is incredibly slow and squirrelly. It is so bad that I get off the road and ride in the road reserve where the cattle have flattened a path! It is slow, but not nearly as bumpy and slippery. Once this peters out, I return to the road and curse my way through the final kilometre. The last time I rode this nine months ago, it was just pot-holed dirt and quite rideable. We won’t be riding this one again going forward!
It’s not a long ride today, but I get some new roads and my body doesn’t protest too much. I’ve recovered enough I don’t need to spend Saturdays sleeping anymore, but I’m still not well enough to go about my merry way after the work week without consequences. The rebuild is slow – like brick by brick instead of an entire wall at a time. We’ll get there someday. Slowly.
SUNDAY 17 MAY – 20kms (12 miles)
30 years ago today, American time, Jim Henson died unexpectedly after a short bout with pneumonia. He is the only person I’ve ever considered anything like a hero. I have always deeply admired his creative and technical genius, as well as his outstanding leadership skills. Kermit and Ernie have always been a huge part of my life. I still remember vividly when I learned that Jim had died – that punch in the gut pain that someone is gone.
So Kermit and I get up very early to watch a special gathering of Muppet performers who worked with Jim. They discuss what it was like to work with him and funny stories from back then. It confirms that he was an incredibly brilliant and driven man who was also incredibly kind and gentle. It is very much worth the early start and just makes us miss him and his work even more.
So after that early start and my weekly phone call to my parents, we just go for a short spin on the mountain bike in the late afternoon. It’s good to have a day of rest since I didn’t do so yesterday. In the evening, I watch The Muppet Movie for the billionth time with Kermit. In a different life, I would have been a puppeteer.
MONDAY MAY 18 – 73 kms (45 miles)
It is warm. Like shorts and t-shirt warm. It is sunny. It is always nice when the weather strings three perfect days together on a weekend. It always feels cruel when the weather is nice when you are stuck inside at work and then it rains all weekend. (Not that we ever complain about rain).
I head down to Benalla in the morning – it’s about a 30-minute drive. We can drive places to recreate again – we just can’t spend the night. The route today links up two parts of other routes I had planned as part of longer rides. Today, we’ll pick up most of the Tatong-Benalla Road we haven’t ridden and several other new roads. It’s about 75kms and 275 metres of climbing. It seems about right for my body, sad as that is!
I take off on the bike paths near the river – there are heaps of people out walking! I weave through everyone, exhaling as I pass 😊 I exit the path a bit too early and wander around a neighbourhood with nice mid-century houses before I find my way to the C-road.
We wander over the flood plain of Holland’s Creek through large stands of river red gums and knee-high grass. The Samaria Road takes off to the right (we rode that in 2017) and we head up a new road to us. We trek up the wide valley, gaining elevation that can’t be seen. Off to the left is Hollands Creek. We ride up onto an undulating platform between that creek and Blind Creek further away off to the right. Hollands Creek is a major drainage for the hills above Tolmie; Blind Creek is a smaller tributary of the Broken River which flows even further off to the right.
The scenes are familiar – big skies, big paddocks, scattered eucalypts. Cattle and sheep graze; there is little cropping here. But it’s nice to be in the expanses of another valley looking at different background hills and mountains than the wide part of the Ovens and King valleys where I live. A change of scenery is always nice.
I’m cruising along uphill with a fairly hefty quartering tailwind. It is more cross than tail, but I am sure it is helping more than hindering. I’m thinking about what a gorgeous day it is and how nice it is to be able to ride in this temperature without being swooped by magpies or swarmed by flies.
Not long after this, I hear the call of a magpie and see its shadow flying above. I again think about how nice it is that you can ride in pleasant temps without swooping magpies like you must endure in spring.
And then, that damn magpie, whose shadow has been hovering above, freaking swoops me!! No, it was not just an accidental fly-by. It is a definite swoop with the click of his beak and that unmistakeable call as he comes close to my helmet. WTF?!! IT IS MAY!
Just to let me know that it wasn’t accidental, he swoops me two more times. Bastard. Is that the latest swooping ever or the earliest? What do you even call a magpie swooping in May?
The end of November is the latest I’ve ever been swooped; the earliest was the first week of July. Normally it’s somewhere in the last two weeks of July that I get swooped for the first time in ‘spring’. May is just completely ‘unprecedented’, to use the most overused word in Australia in 2020 (we had drought and bushfires used with that term before COVID, so we are all over that word over here).
As I ride on, I think: “you know, they talk about all these horror scenarios for climate change, but I think I’ve just discovered the one that will be the worst. Cyclists will get swooped by magpies year-round!”
Yes, I told you everything is confused. The humans, the flies, the plants… and the birds who are nesting in autumn instead of spring!
Shortly after this, we turn off on Rothsay Road. My map, and Google, both show this road going through. There is a signpost at the beginning of the road missing its sign. I figure it is one of the “Significant Roadside Area” signs that someone has ripped off the post. That sign indicates that the road reserve is designated for nature conservation and it is illegal to take firewood from such areas. I see plenty of evidence of people collecting firewood along the road, so that is my best bet. I hope it wasn’t missing a “No Through Road” sign.
The road is little more than a two-track for its whole length. It climbs and falls as it gently trends upward. It weaves between the hills on this raised area between creeks. It is lined by thick trees for most of its length. Some sort of wood lot with stringybarks accompanies us for a couple kilometres, too.
This road is pure delight. This is the type of road I’m always seeking when I’m scouting new roads. It is perfect because it really isn’t a road. And somehow the farmer has never succeeded in getting it closed and incorporated as part of his land. It is just the perfect ride – as long as you aren’t hoping to go far or fast.
At times, the tree cover is so thick, it feels like I’ve wandered into a Hobbit world or some sort of fairy tale where an ogre, Little Red Riding Hood, or a troll might cross my path at any time.
Further on, in what feels like the middle of nowhere, given the current location of the main roads, we come across the Rothesay school site. After the state of Victoria passed legislation creating public, secular schools in 1872, the locals petitioned to have a school built. There were 22 children of school age from six families!
Sometimes I think that the reason all the little schools did not survive is because there are fewer families in the area in the present day. However, in this instance, I suspect there are still six families in somewhat close proximity to this location – they just wouldn’t have 22 kiddos among them!
There is nothing to indicate what the school or its surrounds looks like. Interestingly, one of the past Prime Ministers of New Zealand was born near here and attended this school. Apparently, there were several schools on the site over the years.
Some parts of the road reserve have been fenced into sections so that they can graze cattle within sections. However, I’m lucky that all the temporary gates and wires are down and the cattle elsewhere. Manipulating all those wire gates and a bunch of cattle would not have made the ride quite as fun!
Toward the end of the road, there is a section that has been reduced to a streambed of rocks where water has drained out of a field and down the road. We walk this bit and then head on to cross the current Tatong-Swanpool Road (which was the original route of a small railroad branch line from Benalla to Tatong – closed in 1947). We then climb up a short, steep hill, have a snack at the top, and then cross the original Tatong Road.
From here, we wander along the edges of higher hills as we look down over the valley and over to the Strathbogies. The road is in good condition and we fly along a few times downhill (this must be where my cycle computer registered a 54kph at some point today). We end up in Moorngag (a locality with a public hall and nothing else). We then head on toward Swanpool on a long, sealed downhill to the Broken River. Woo-hoo! (That was a new road, too).
We cycle from Swanpool out on the road to Lima East. The Strathbogies provide the bumpy backdrop of hills. Green paddocks with dairy cows, scattered old farmhouses and rows of trees along fence lines provide the middle and foregrounds. My only concern is that hefty wind that we have not had in our face yet today. We’re just about to complete the first part of the loop, so you know what that means!
We do turn back west and then northwest on a road we’ve ridden before. We had a failed attempt at a tour that included the Strathbogies in May 2018. I ruined a rim up halfway down the plateau and had to call for a ride. I then went back to the Strathbogies a bit later in the month to complete what I’d started. I rode this road on our way back to Violet Town on that re-do trip.
Somehow that wind is not too terrible. It is never a direct headwind. I am not sure how I manage that the entire day, but I do!
So as I pedal with that forested volcanic blob rising to my left and the valley of the Broken River to my right, I think back to that tour in 2018. I was still trying to ‘recover’ from the mosquito virus and still doing way more than my body could handle. At least now I intimately know my body and all of its signals.
As a cyclist, there is a tendency to just push through and ignore the pain. That is actually a good tactic for cycle touring… or you’d never get anywhere! But it is not a good tactic when you are very unwell and have significant neuro-immune issues! Sheesh, how long ago that ride seems, and it was only two years ago. I feel like I’ve lived and aged a lot more than that these past two years!
Not long ago, I confessed to a friend that I was frustrated with how slowly I am regaining energy and fitness. I feel like I’m stuck on easy 50 kilometre rides and can’t do much more than that without causing myself consequences. But his advice was soothing. He said to remember that I was stuck on 30 kilometres for the past two years. If I can stick on 50 the rest of this year, then get to and stick to 70 all of next year, then I’ll be ready to move up to 90 kilometres by 2022 when I’m hoping to next tour. And he suggests 90 kilometres might be a good distance to stick with going forward for a daily average. I suppose I could be okay with that.
It is such a fine line now between pushing myself a little to gain fitness and pushing too hard and setting myself back. And that level can vary depending how much energy I’m carrying after the work week. Today’s ride won’t end up hurting me much more than the flat ride of 55 kms on Saturday, because I was more well-rested heading into today. It is such a drag to always be incorporating these extra factors into a ride. Boy, do I miss just being able to look at a map, decide where I want to go, and then go!
My good friend, who has known me for almost forever, keeps reminding me that I am not starting from zero in my return to fitness either. He says ZERO is when you’ve been sitting on your butt for a few years and then start to ride again – like I did on my tours after my PhD and Post-doc. This, he says, is starting from negative territory. He reminds me that there have been times I had so little energy I had to crawl to the toilet, times when I couldn’t eat anything without major issues, times when he’d call and I’d sound like a zombie because I had no energy on the weekend to do anything but shower and reheat food.
So yes, he has a point. I was very, very unwell, as recently as last June. I get that. I know I’m still not fully recovered. I’m still operating at 70 percent of normal capacity, and I still have times where I absolutely cannot do anything other than stop and rest.
But still… I’m doing everything I can to get well. I’m eating healthier than anyone I know. I maintain super sleep hygiene. I get out in the sun and fresh air as much as I can (work is BUSY!). I work really hard not to stress about all the stressful things. I practice gratitude daily. So it is hard for me to accept the really slow progress!
However, I make good progress while I’m thinking about my body’s betrayal. We’re rolling down another tree-lined road skirting the plateau. The road is less busy than the other time I rode it. We have one climb, the high point of the day maybe, over an outlier of the plateau. It’s followed by a nice long downhill out the other side where I stand and let gravity and momentum do things I don’t really understand but very much enjoy.
We then turn off down a new road that is sealed and tree-lined.
It’s not long until we turn again onto the gravel Reef Hills Road. This takes us across low ground that is swampy in places at this time of year. There is one field that has been cropped, but the rest is grazing land dotted with cows and large river red gums.
The road is in good shape and we turn for the low hills of the reserve. I love how it is only 2.30pm, but the light seems low, like it should be 4.30 or 5pm.
I really do love the different seasons and enjoy the short winter here. I love cuddling under blankets and the occasional grey days – sometimes in summer, you just wish there would be some clouds in the sky, let alone a full cloudy day. Cloudy days make me think of my childhood because Colorado, as a young adult, was pretty sunny year-round, too. Cloudy days make me think of reading books curled up on the couch and of playing outside in the cold and coming inside to the warmth (and if you knew how cold my parents kept the house, you would laugh at that). So I like cloudy days here and there. They break up the monotony of weather and give me a sense of security and long ago memories.
I also love days like this where the weather is a perfect combination of low-angle sun, warm temps and a headwind that never really finds me. We’ll take more days like this please. Like… next weekend.
The park is just spindly regrowth. There is a shooting range in it. People go fossicking here, for what I don’t know. There is a little picnic area, which I would have taken a photo of for you, but there is an older guy there with a mini-bus that has been hand-painted in camouflage which indicates to me that he probably isn’t the sort of guy who likes to be found, or spoken to. So I continue on.
Once out of the park, there’s a short section of highway you must navigate that includes the on- and off-ramps and the bridge over the freeway. It could be a bit hectic as there really isn’t a shoulder, and what is there is filled with glass. But the wind gods have talked with the traffic gods and given me free passage and good timing today.
Once over the bridge, I turn right and head past the garden nursery, then past some lifestyle blocks on a couple acres each. This leads into new housing that is so packed on top of one another no one would dare grow anything larger than a dwarf cherry tree. One tiny block has a 1.5 X 1.25 X 1 metre substation electricity box taking up most of the space between the house and the footpath for all the underground power. Goodness! That is the view out their only small, front window! I sure hope they didn’t pay much for that place!
I weave my way onward past a large Freemasons building that looks like a retirement home. My only thought related to this: rich, old, conservative white men. Beyond this, we roll into small, crappy public housing type homes from the 1950s and 1960s. And then after a block or two of this we get into nicer mid-century homes.
I don’t have my phone on for google maps, and I didn’t bring a paper map with me, so I’m winging it. As this smaller street (Thomas) looks to join a more major road, I turn right and toward the river on Benson Street. The contrast through here with those new developments could not be starker. Here, the homes are all set well back from the road, and there are large trees providing plenty of shade. Large plane trees line the street, coating the nature strip in thick layers of golden leaves. The homes are all on 850 square metre or larger blocks. Back in the new development, the homes are crammed onto blocks 500 square metres or less. The homes themselves are set back no more than 15-20 feet from the street. The homes are so close together that you could jump from one to the next all the way down the street.
I roll down to the end of Benson Street. It dead-ends at the river reserve. So I turn left, deep within residential suburbia now, and ride past many really beautiful mid-century homes. And then, right there, is an entrance to the bike path. I could not have plotted a better or more direct route back to the river reserve if I’d tried!
There are heaps of people out on the trails walking. And playing in the park and at the skatepark, even though those facilities are technically closed. It’s a gorgeous day with rain and cooler temps forecast throughout the coming week. With so many people out of work, I guess there isn’t much else to do and everyone is getting outside before the rain Tuesday evening!
I roll on back to the car and conclude that this was a pretty perfect ride. I would do Rothsay Road again in a heartbeat. I look forward to coming back and grabbing a few more of the roads further up the valley and also up onto the Toombullup plateau between Tatong and Tolmie. I’ve ridden the main road up to Tolmie before, but there are several valleys that branch off the plateau that I have my eye on. The geology up there is related but different to the Strathbogies, and I am interested in exploring that. That will be a spring thing though – as the seasonal road closures will come soon, as well as temps not as pleasant for riding, since much of the plateau sits above 700 metres.
I will leave you with a relevant example of Jim Henson’s technical and creative genius in this video and a quote below that from Jim Henson via Kermit (though, unlike the quote, I always pull over to have a picnic with my frog… and turtle, instead of a pig).
As you start traveling down that road of life, remember this: There are never enough comfort stops. The places you are going are never on the map. And once you get that map out, you won’t be able to re-fold it no matter how smart you are. So forget the map, roll down the windows, and whenever you can, pull over and have a picnic with a pig. And if you can help it, never fly as cargo (this is a reference to The Great Muppet Caper).