7-8 November 2020
Last weekend when I left Nigel’s house, I had this feeling that I was forgetting something. I get that feeling a lot these days with my short-term memory issues, and sometimes it ends up just a creepy feeling. And sometimes I really have forgotten something. Not being able to figure out what it might be, I drove home.
Upon arrival home, I discovered what I had forgotten. I left Verne and Kermit behind. Oops. Verne will not be impressed. But it’s certainly not the end of the world – they can enjoy beer, potato chips, lamb and other foods that I don’t have at my place. I’ll see Nigel again on the 14th, so they can rejoin me then.
However, the weather for the coming weekend looks fantastic. A ride is going to be required. But how can I ride without my crew? I am superstitious about having companions up front in the handlebar bag now that I’ve had my crew with me for more than 10 years. I’m going to have to find a replacement.
The plan for this weekend is to do the gentle ride to Myrtleford on the rail trail. It’s 40km from home and something my body can easily handle. We’ve booked a basic cabin at the caravan park for two nights with the idea that we’ll do a day ride on Sunday and then ride home Monday.
It sounds like a perfect plan. Very soon, Melbourne folks will be allowed to travel into regional Victoria. After being confined to a 5km radius from their homes and only allowed outside for one hour of exercise a day for almost three months, and a further two weeks confined to a 25km radius from their homes… well, the city is chomping at the bit to get out of town.
This means that as soon as the road checkpoints are lifted, we will be absolutely swamped with city people. So… let’s head up to Myrtleford to complete a ride that’s been on my list for a long time before all the city folks arrive. I expect all that pent-up demand to last all the way through summer, so this will be our last chance to get up there for three or four months without overwhelming crowds I expect.
Day 1 – 43 kms (27 miles)
We head out around 10.45 on Saturday. We? Yes, I’ve recruited Car Ernie for the ride. My dad has had an Ernie in his pick-up truck for many years now. A few years ago, my parents sent me a little Ernie so I could have a good luck car Ernie in my vehicle, too.
So Car Ernie fits in the handlebar bag and gets the nod for this ride. Sadly, Verne and Kermit are going to have to retire one day – their fabric is getting so thin that at some point their insides are no longer going to be contained and they will have to live a more sedate life. I have not yet gently broached the subject of retirement with them… but Car Ernie might be a suitable replacement. We’ll see how he goes this weekend.
So the wind was supposed to swap to the southeast and ‘become light’ in the morning. You know what that means. It swaps to a headwind but does not become light. It will not get light until sunset. Still, it is November and the landscape is green. It’s November and the temperatures are still quite nice. That’s not really normal, but what in 2020 has been! It’s perfect for riding and so that is what we do.
We’ve ridden this route so many times – over the Ovens River floodplain to Markwood and then up to Everton. Ride through Everton and join the rail trail on the other side. You could ride up to the trail on Diffey Road, instead of riding through the village, but the most aggressive magpie I’ve ever encountered lives up that way, so I’m taking no chances on that road until December. Besides, there’s a shoulder on the highway all the way to the next point the rail trail crosses the road.
We cruise along. Ernie’s head sticks up a lot further than Verne and Kermit. I can see people in cars looking over and trying to figure out what is in the bag. He is enthusiastic, but I can’t help but feel like his arms pointing straight forward are like pointing me down the road, trying to get me to centre up and ride a straight line that projects from between his outstretched arms. Either that or he is just practicing the moves the umpire uses to call a score in AFL footy!
I make good time, even with the headwind and a dodgy body. The magpies have all finished up along here, so we don’t get divebombed. That wouldn’t be a nice way to introduce Ernie to the road. And because Ernie has no expectations, he just sits up there and smiles. He’s not used to my pre-illness abilities, so there are no complaints about speed or proposed distance. I like this guy.
I cross over Taylors Gap and see a few couples on the trail in the last 10kms into town. Most people are wearing pretty fancy gear – jerseys, expensive jackets, matching shorts and shirts. I feel like the slovenly poor cousin in a 10-year-old pair of shorts and my cheapo fluoro shirt. Ride what you’ve got. Wear what you’ve got, ha!
It is busy in town. If you can tow it, it is on the main street. Cars with bike racks, utes with horse floats, 4WDs towing trailers with trail bikes, all sorts of immaculate vehicles towing various caravans, vehicles towing boats, vehicles with kayaks. Every sort of passive and active recreation is represented on the main street!
I ride up to the park on the river at Nimmo’s Bridge. There aren’t too many people up here, surprisingly. I find a picnic table in the shade and call my parents for my weekly check-in. I feel so guilty with this perfect weather and none of the election drama or covid problems plaguing their country. I’m just over here where it’s all feeling pretty safe and civil.
After my phone call, I tell Ernie he is going to get to experience a float session, just to see if this is something he might enjoy. He fits in Verne’s boat quite well. He looks great – his shirt is colour-coordinated with the boat!
And boy does that little Muppet love to float! He rides the little waves and zips all over the river at the end of the tether. I’m pretty sure he would love to be a crew member some day.
After a float, I head back into town to get lunch/dinner at the Vietnamese place in town. It is super busy and all of the outdoor tables taken at 3pm. How are they going to fit all the Melbourne people in when it is already this packed out? The tables aren’t even 1.5 metres apart like they should be.
I sit at a nearby bench while waiting on a takeaway salad and rice paper rolls. Once they come out, I take them down to a local park where I’ve eaten lots of snacks over the years. (I used to get a bag of small hand-cut chips from a takeaway shop in town after going bushwalking at Mt Buffalo – those owners retired some years ago so I don’t know a good spot for chips anymore). But man, this Vietnamese place is soooo good – it’s good it’s not in my town, or I’d spend way too much money on their salads, pho and rice paper rolls!
I ride over to the caravan park. The office manager is super-friendly. There is a Perspex barrier at the counter and there are only two people allowed in the office at one time. There is hand sanitizer on a table outside to use on the way in AND out. There is a two-page contract tracing form to fill out that takes me five minutes to complete – and I only have two overnight stay locations to detail in the past 14 days. The woman laughs and says it is pretty painful for all the people who are travelling around and staying at a different town each night.
I ask her if they have lots of bookings with the Melbourne restrictions being eased. She says, yes, they are looking to get slammed. And there’s no let-up before the Christmas holidays start.
I ask her if she is excited for all the activity after the quiet from the length of the stay-at-home restrictions. Her response surprises me: “Um, I guess”.
She says they have been busy enough as it is. They have so many regulations to comply with (that big-arse contract tracing form is just one) and so much extra cleaning they have to do, that all the extra people is going to be a real challenge. She is also very concerned about what will happen virus-wise once more people start moving around more (aren’t we all!).
She thinks it will be important to keep wearing the masks and she hopes people will wear their masks as required and no one gets to feeling entitled that they went through all those restrictions, so now they can do what they want. What would happen if the virus comes to town and it’s shown they’ve stayed at the caravan park? How much do those deep cleans really cost?
Another shop owner tells me that all the cafes already have all their tables booked out for various seatings and everyone is already at capacity with the density requirements, so how are they going to accommodate even more people? And no, they don’t want the density requirements lessened. They have not had a single case of the virus in town since the pandemic started, and so the town is a bit afraid of anything changing that.
It is eye-opening to me. I know that local residents in regional areas are divided about the city people returning, but I didn’t think the business people had reservations. All you hear on the news and from the tourism industry is about how excited they are for Melburnians to be able to return to the regions again.
But I guess if you were a business person you wouldn’t appear on the news and jeopardize your business reputation by expressing any doubts or concerns. Maybe the journalists have to go to a few businesses before they find someone who wants to be on camera. And what business person is going to admit to a Melbourne customer, who has just endured one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, that they have mixed feelings about them being there?
I wish the office manager good luck and head over to the little cabin. It’s got a teeny bathroom, and you’ve got to sit on the toilet sideways if you are over 5’4” tall, but it is quite sufficient for my needs. I hang out on the nice little verandah in the shade until the mozzies chase me inside.
Day 2 – 55 kms (34 miles)
Somewhere in the very early AM, I know that Pennsylvania has gone to Biden and he has won the election. I don’t really know this, but based on the alert notifications for texts, Messenger and email that keep my phone beeping for five minutes, I’m pretty sure my American friends are expressing joy, or maybe just relief. I don’t think America, or the world, could have endured another four years like that just gone.
Finally, my watch alarm goes off about the time the birds start up. The route I’m planning today is one that has been on my list for a few years. Actually, it’s only part of the route because I’m not well enough to do the whole thing. But I can do 50kms of it and save the other bit for another time.
We need to get going early though, as the first 15 kms are on the Myrtleford-Yackandandah Road which can be quite busy. Let’s get out there before everyone gets up and goes somewhere today.
We roll out of town past the old tobacco factory. Tobacco was a big deal in Myrtleford for a long, long time. You can still see all the old kilns all around town. After World War II, many Italian immigrants moved to this area as tobacco sharecroppers. But government regulation ended the tobacco industry in 2006 and this old factory has often sat dormant since then (it was a manufactured home factory for a little while).
The road curves up the lower valley of Barwidgee Creek. There are homes along the creek bottoms, but the hills rise steeply on either side with a mix of native and pine plantation forests. The sun has just crested the eastern hills, so I ride in and out of shade in the cool air. It’s cool enough that full-fingered gloves would have been nice for the first 20 minutes!
I see skid marks across the road and then see a battered car that has gone off the road where there is a culvert. It’s rolled once or twice and now sits in the muddy long grass. There’s police tape on the car, but the roof is not too smooshed in, so it’s likely the occupant(s) survived.
It’s only just on 7am, but I get passed by a car every 3 minutes, so it reinforces that it was a good idea to get an early start. There is a dampness in the air that makes the long grass fragrant. Mist wisps off the farm dams and makes them look like frothy witches’ cauldrons. The sun lights up the trees to the west. You can still see the evidence of the 2009 fires which came over the ridge and threatened the homes in the valley (and burnt down a couple further up). There are dead snags at the top of the ridge that look like multi-forked tiki torches or craggy spindle candles. They poke up out of the regrowth – a reminder of the intensity and ferocity that came through in the middle of the night that February (fire also came over these hills in the 2006/07 season).
We get to the top of the lower valley where the road curves up and into an area of rolling hills. I definitely wanted to get through this tight squeeze before the traffic picked up. Just as you get through this little funnel between the ranges and pop out into the wider valley, you pass the home site of the two people who were killed in the 2009 Beechworth fires. John and Sue Wilson were killed when the fire roared up through that little funnel as they tried to protect their home. The home has now been demolished and the fence, where fresh flowers were often laid, has been removed, too. Someone has a little camper down on the creek flats below, maybe it’s a family member – I don’t know if the property was ever sold.
As we roll through the wide valley, the sun on the wet grass shines down on the million tiny shiny droplets. It actually looks like frost covering the long grass stalks. The greenness is so striking this late in spring. Yay, La Nina.
I turn off on Black Flats Road. Uh-oh. It says “No through road”. My map and google satellite made this look like I could ride through to the Happy Valley Road. Maybe people used it as a cut-through and they’ve closed off the road reserve now. It’s not the end of the world though – we can do an up and back and then head over on Carroll’s Road (which we just passed less than a km back).
We climb up the hill slowly. My body feels good. There is no wind. The views are spectacular. You can trace where the 2009 fire came over the hill from Beechworth and burnt along the ridge to the south before crossing and heading north over the hills in front of us on the wind change. You can see other scraggly snags in all directions. There has been plenty of fire around and in this valley over the last 20 years.
I decide to turn off on Switchback Road and see if the Piris Road is still open. We crest and coast a series of steep rollers as we look down and across the landscape. Large, almost full dams sit in the low points and tall grass fills the paddocks.
The road is in good shape, but Piris Road (which is still a road on my map) has been fenced off and not any sort of track remains (well, it might be under all that long grass, but you can’t see it). Such a shame, that would have been good to ride. It also passes under a cone-shaped hill topped by a jumble of granite boulders.
So I continue on up to the end of Switchback Road. I can see where the road reserve for Hicks Lane continues on, but there’s not much track there, the farmer has all his cattle in there behind a gate, and I am not keen to find out that that road is now the farmer’s land. If we went that way, we could come out on Carrolls Road. I suspect the ‘road’ is still technically public. There isn’t a “Private Property” sign on the gate, and the gate is not locked. Maybe for another time.
So we head back over all the steep rollers, ride a little way up Black Flat Road and then soar back downhill to the main road. I ride back to Carrolls Road and start the climb to the crest that divides the Happy Valley from the Barwidgee Creek Valley we’ve just come from.
One magpie cries out and starts flying directly at me from the southwest. I prepare for his imminent swooping, but not long before me, he pulls up, shrieks and flies off to the east. It’s as if he saw me, started to swoop and then thought, “Hey, wait a minute, the season is over, I don’t need to do this anymore.” He heads off and lands on a fence post. I’m totally okay with that.
The road has more traffic than I was expecting, but it’s not terrible. I suppose it is a cut-through for people to get over to the Great Alpine Road without having to go through Myrtleford. Only one car passes me too closely. I flip him off, and the other three cars travelling with him (they are all the same sort of hotted-up utes) give me plenty of room.
The road curves up to the base of the ridge that burnt in 2009. There is pine plantation and native forest along here. Those pine plantations stretch all the way back to town – these are the plantations you see as you exit Myrtleford to the east.
We climb and climb, tucked in beneath the ridge before we finally top out and the road wiggles along. There is pine plantation on the right and views over the rolling hills down into the Happy Valley creek drainage to the left. It is scenic and particularly beautiful given all the late-season lushness.
I’ve driven this road once and it is well-known among cyclists. Not far from the intersection with the Happy Valley Road, the road drops steeply to Happy Valley Creek. The chipseal is good here and the road only has a slight curve at the bottom (signposted 65kph) and a long run-out. So you can bomb down that hill at whatever speed you’d like. My old PhD supervisor (who rides a skinny tyre road bike and weighs a fair bit more than me) has done 87kph down this hill.
And so, I hit that steep downhill and let the bike run. I get out in the lane, don’t bother looking in the rearview mirror and just fly. The wind rushes past my ears and all I can hear is the white noise of whoosh. My sensory world narrows to vision. And all the hayfever snot at the outlet of my nose gets dried up quickly into a ring of crust. Whoo-hoo!
It is at this point that I know that I am going to have trouble getting Car Ernie to ever get back in the car. His forward-pointing arms fling back wide, as if he is embracing the world in front of him as it speeds forth. It’s hilarious. His body language just says, “Gimme, gimme, gimee. Gimme more!”. That little guy has just tasted the freedom of the road and the wind in his hair at speed. He will probably never be the same again. We managed to hit 63kph.
The reality of that reward is that there is a short steep climb to the road intersection. The road sits partially up the side slopes of one side of the valley. The road runs within trees and between road cuts, so there aren’t many places to get a good photo of what the valley looks like. The road is a bit busy, too, though everyone gives me room.
We join back up with the main highway and cut over to the rail trail. The pub here, which caters to cyclists on the rail trail, has installed some TESLA charging stations, too. I’ve seen a few of these in various other places but have yet to see a car charging at one of them.
We roll on down the rail trail over the bridges and embankments that cross the Happy Valley Creek floodplain. We push on through Ovens – gazing at all the junk and firewood piles out the back of all the homes that abut the rail trail. Soon we are back to town – 50kms, even if we didn’t do the route we set out to do. The wind is just starting to pick up as we get back to the cabin. The crowds are just starting to swarm, too.
I shower and take a nap. Then we head out for a walk around town. I’m intrigued by the Mosaic Trail. I stumbled upon this the other night and I think it is just the greatest community initiative ever – all started by two women with some time on their hands and a desire to be naughty.
The link below explains the idea. I absolutely love the story of the women in the video and will donate to this cause – I think it is that great.
I wander along the river loop and take a few photos of the mosaics I like the most. I see a few others along the way, but I missed the wombat which I would have liked to have seen. If there are 70 mosaics to find now, and more being added, you could really have fun searching for all of them!
In the late afternoon, I head over to the main street (still quite busy on Sunday at 3pm!), find a spot in the shade in the community square and drink a milk while I watch all the vehicles go by. I had seen a bunch of Mustangs of all eras yesterday, and a fair few other hot rods as well. I figured it must have been a car club out for the day.
However, when I spoke to Nigel last night, he said this was the unofficial Bright Rod Run. Because events are not allowed yet, and the Rod Run was cancelled, this “Bright Rod Weekend” popped up. So it is like Rod Run Lite. The Bright show is one of the biggest in the country and one of the most famous. Unfortunately, in recent years, it’s gotten rowdy enough that they’ve banned alcohol in the past few years. Nigel had only found out about it from his car restorer on Saturday. It’s too bad. Since I had already booked the cabin in Myrtleford, he could have come down and gone to the car events (or just hung out and watched them all around) while I was out riding and he wouldn’t have even had to pay for a room.
So I go up to do what my Dad and Mom used to do back in Indiana. My dad is a Hot Rod guy and there used to be a huge car show (James Dean Rod Run) in the town of Fairmont near their home. (James Dean was from Fairmount, IN). So the night before the car show, he and my mom would take their lawn chairs to a fast food place on the main highway, get a cup of coffee and watch all the cars coming in before they attended the show the next day.
So I do the same. I sit in the shade and watch various hot rods coming and going. I have no idea what many of them are – but I can appreciate a well-restored vehicle. I came from a car family, married a car guy, but am definitely not a car woman! Still, I enjoy watching all the cars and feeling close to my Dad, knowing how much he would have enjoyed seeing all the cars. It is really hard not knowing when I’ll see my parents again and worrying about them because of the rampaging virus over there and no return of stay-at-home orders like there should be in their state. But at least I could talk to them yesterday and feel them close to me while I watch all the cars go by today.
Day 3 – 40kms (25 miles)
I’m up pretty early and heading up the climb on the rail trail around 7.30. The idea is to get to the road sections of this ride a bit after 9am, after everyone has made their journey to school or work. I feel good on the climb to Taylors Gap (it’s on the rail trail so is never steep, but it is pretty continuous for 5 or 6 kms).
The wind is giving me a push – that’s the usual thing in the mornings up in the valleys. There’s usually a good southeasterly in the morning. It feels so good to be on the bike. I’m happy with my body over the past couple of days – though we really haven’t pushed too hard. I’m just happy to be on the bike and not too tired to get out of bed.
I am feeling sad today, though. The bass player for Midnight Oil died yesterday, aged 62, from cancer. Midnight Oil just released a powerful new album where they’ve collaborated with a bunch of First Nations performers. And this week is NAIDOC week, so I’m sure they were hoping to do a lot of promotion of the album and the Uluru Statement from the Heart this week. So I’m a bit sad as I ride today and one of the songs on the new album sticks in my head as I go.
I really am not looking forward to going back to work tomorrow, but I am looking forward to a 10-day holiday soon. I have two different routes planned out depending on whether I’ll be returning from Nigel’s Bathurst drive with him or whether I’m taking my own car. Both routes are pretty gentle rides that I think I can manage. It will be good to be on the bike for more than an overnight in the tent.
Car Ernie is pretty stoked about the bike riding and floating thing. My loyalties are to my frog and turtle, but it’s fantastic to know I’ve got a riding companion sorted out for the future. The spirit of embracing the world with those open arms is just what I need in a riding companion. I’m still not sure how I’m going to coax him back into the car! The whole cycle touring thing, even just a tiny taste, is so addictive, and I do believe it’s just claimed another victim.