26-27 March 2021
The end is nigh.
The earth has tilted. Back the other way. The equinox has come and gone.
The sunrise is after 7am. We are pulling the last dregs of daylight savings. It finishes soon.
And the fire restrictions also finish at the end of the month. After 31 March, farmers don’t need a permit to light things on fire like crop stubble and debris piles.
So with the end of everything summer coming soon, it’s time for a ride out in the cropping areas before the farmers start burning stuff, and the air becomes way too smoky to breathe.
I finish up work a bit early on Thursday and we drive up to Wagga Wagga for the night. I’ve booked a motel and will leave my car out the front on the street while I ride. The motel manager says that’s perfectly fine, but he is completely perplexed that you would drive somewhere, leave the car for days and go ride around in a big circle on a bicycle. He understands that it’s a way to relax, but he doesn’t understand the escapism aspect. He’s Indian, though, and all of the Indian people I know think Australia is a very empty place (even in the built-up regions like this) and don’t feel people density in the same way I do.
For dinner, I treat myself to a Lebanese chicken curry and a veggie chickpea curry from a whole-in-the-wall place that’s been there for about 40 years. The tiny little shop is 2/3 filled by the open kitchen with a large centre table that is full of veggies being prepped for the meals. A large gas stove sits to the left, and the original menu boards still cover the wall. In front of the kitchen is a tall counter with a glass display fridge, a whiteboard noting what’s available that day and a large freezer on the side wall. A bench seat that can seat about 7 runs along the front window behind several wooden tables. A few chairs are randomly placed opposite the bench seats. And that is it. That fills the whole shop. The Lebanese family that runs the shop have always been super friendly and are again today. The cooking is all done by the grandmother that is in her 80s. You’d never know she was that old, but man oh man, when I open the containers of curry back at the motel, the smell is intoxicating. It’s just like grandma’s cooking, if your Grandma was Lebanese.
Some photos of the shop and food at the TripAdvisor site: https://www.tripadvisor.com.au/Restaurant_Review-g255061-d812686-Reviews-Nabiha_s_Kitchen-Wagga_Wagga_New_South_Wales.html
As an adult, my taste buds have migrated toward curries and cuisines with complex flavours and lots of veggies. I’ll take a curry from just about any culture, knowing that there’s going to be a million different spices in there and a very complex taste on the tongue. It is in such contrast to where I grew up in a meat, potato and fried food culture where there were few dishes with any complexity.
I’m tired. Work has been so crazy lately. Trying to cram 5 days of labour into 3 is probably nullifying the impact that working less hours was supposed to produce. So it’s lights out for the crew by 9pm.
DAY 1 – 66 kms (41 miles)
I don’t sleep well. The motel room is really nice. But the bed is soft and the pillow high and hard (the other pillows are all hard and high, too – I did check). It’s an expensive marshmallow soft mattress, not an old and saggy sort of soft. But still, I don’t think I ever really get comfortable. I hate soft beds, or rather, my back likes hard beds instead.
The idea is to not leave until around 9am, allowing everyone to get to school and work before I head out. But I’m awake at 7am, lay there for awhile and decide to just get going. As I’m loading up the car, an older Boomer couple are having a discussion, not quite argument, about how much and whether they still love one another. It’s odd. They’re well-dressed, they’re travelling in a new SUV and this is not a ‘budget’ sort of motel. Yet here they are having a trashy back-and-forth with no shame at 8.15am in the parking lot, as numerous other people are packing up to go. I can’t imagine conducting such a thing in public – I’d be embarrassed even in the room if the walls were thin. Sheesh.
I deposit the car on the street and pack up the bike. And then we’re off. I chose this motel because it’s on a residential street and right near the levee bike path along the river. I’ve stayed here before. It’s a perfect launch and return point.
The air is cool and the sun bright. If there was a bit more humidity in the air, you’d be able to see your breath. There is a bike path that runs along the top of the river levee, so we ride along with the metal barrier on our left and the river down below on the right. We are almost level with the second story of the apartments and homes that we pass. Further on, several bright murals have been painted on the back of the commercial buildings by the path in the business district on Fitzmaurice Street. It’s quiet and peaceful on the path, as if the world is starting the day with a yawn instead of a HIIT training session.
Sadly, they’ve decommissioned the Wagga Beach Caravan Park (the only affordable caravan park in town) and will turn it into more parkland as part of a redevelopment plan.
Wagga Beach is a pleasant park on the river, and the residents here are very proud it was named in the top 10 beaches in NSW. I certainly wouldn’t rank it in the top 10 out of the 721 in the state, but maybe it ranks up there in “inland river beaches”. Albury has a much nicer park and public river frontage than here, and the river water there isn’t nearly as gross, but I suppose Albury doesn’t technically have a beach.
Up in the parking lot for Wagga Beach is a COVID testing site. It’s not open yet. Who knows when they last had a case down this way? Australia has done a phenomenal job of suppressing, and at times, eliminating the virus. The regional areas of the country have been very lightly touched, and some local government areas have never had a case at all. It’s such a shame the federal government has totally mucked up the acquisition and distribution of vaccines, when the state governments and the public have done such a good job in the first half of the pandemic equation of suppression.
I roll over the river bridge into North Wagga and note that the free camp is absolutely bursting with caravans, big tents and long-term set-ups – maybe 40 or so. This place used to have about 10-12 caravans at any one time – people staying 24-48 hours on their way through, but it definitely looks like a lot of people are staying indefinitely, and the people that used to stay at the Wagga Beach caravan park overnight are staying here instead of at the expensive “Big 4” types of places in town.
We ride along in a bike lane through the flood plain near the river. You can’t see the river because of the low levee, but it’s close by. There’s plenty of traffic out and about heading to work, but the bike lane is sufficient. Eventually we turn off at Gardener’s Lane on an old road that has since been closed/cut-off by highway upgrades. Now there is just a small path that leads through an underpass.
The underpass is not gross, but there is a big puddle leading into it. I see some bike tracks in the mud so assume it’s passable. It is, but the depth is deceptive. It’s deep enough to get my feet wet on the pedals, and the bump up onto the concrete pad is a bit of a surprise. But I’ll take that over snakes, human shit and other debris any day.
The plan had been to ride out Old Narrandera Road to The Gap Road, but I quickly scuttle those plans. This area has had a huge amount of housing development, but the old road has not had any upgrades. The road has no shoulder or lane width, and any hopes that all the traffic would be heading into town are quickly dashed.
After getting buzzed by two SUVs and a gravel truck, I’m able to exit on the River Road. I assume it will meet back up with the Old Narrandera Road eventually. The gravel is in great condition and we quickly leave the congestion of humanity behind. We weave along the flood plain past fields of irrigated corn whose stalks are brown with autumn finality. We roll along past billabongs and dents in the earth that are old river anabranches. We listen to magpies and currawongs calling out as they sit high in the huge old red gum trees.
The gravel road returns to the main road at the base of the Malebo Range, but not before we pass two farmer utes sitting side-by-side in the middle of the road. The farmers are having a conversation, and the guy facing me looks at me with a very puzzled expression. Luckily, there is a bit of firm gravel at the edge of the road that I can use to get around them. I wave as I go by, but Farmer X just looks at me dumbly.
We have to climb over the Malebo Range. This uplift continues up to Coolamon in a series of small ranges, but the steepest relief is here at the river (the highest elevation is closer to Coolamon though). Looking at a terrain map, this range looks like a bit of a zipper splitting through less hilly terrain. The hills here are Ordovician metamorphic rocks (sediments deposited in an ocean trough that were then transformed through heat and pressure as the rock was uplifted in a time of crustal extension) and Silurian granites (magma intruded later in time but still during crustal extension when pieces of crust were being added to the continent).
There’s a moderate amount of traffic, a car passing one direction or the other every minute or less. I never get squeezed though, which is a good thing because I’m having all sorts of trouble getting up that darn hill. It’s only about 70 metres of climbing in 500 metres of distance (230 feet in 1/3 of a mile), but I am sucking air, wheezing and generally sounding like I’ve never ridden a bike up a hill before. It’s as if I have zero fitness. I am in all sorts of strife. I cannot get enough oxygen into my lungs. I feel terrible.
I finally make it, gasping, to the top of the hill. I’m concerned with my performance. I know I’m anemic at the moment (the bartonella kills off red blood cells, and I go in cycles of being okay to being anemic based on how active the bacteria is). So I know I don’t have enough red blood cells carrying oxygen to the places it needs to go, but that was the most pathetic performance in living memory. Sheesh. (So a bit later, as I climb plenty of more hills, I realise it was mostly just my asthma and not using an easy gear that was my problem. As the day warms and I’m not so “morning-raspy”, I have no trouble with any of the hills that come.)
We roll down the other side of the range along a tree-lined road. In the distance, the river winds along, denoted by the sinuous and heavy line of trees. In the mid-view are large, open paddocks dotted with sheep or cattle.
I want to get back up to the Gap Road, but I’m not certain which roads might work since I hadn’t planned on coming this way. I stop at the second road that takes off in a northerly direction. My paper NRMA map doesn’t have this level of detail, so I fire up the phone to have a look. While doing so, I eat those delicious vine leaves from the Lebanese place – so rich and savoury in flavour!
This road looks like it has a decent gravel surface and my phone show it goes through. So on we go… after the ute that just came over the hill passes by. The occupant is a super nice-looking guy who gives a friendly wave.
We work our way through the open paddocks, some waiting stubble burning, some already sprouting their winter crops. Most years, the farmers would wait to sow the winter crops until closer to the ‘autumn break’ when the winter rains begin, typically in late April. But we just got a big dump of rain from a trough and low pressure system that brought extensive flooding to the coast and some decent falls inland. So they must be feeling like the soil moisture is already there. That was likely the last blast of La Nina, the readings have all returned to neutral in recent weeks.
We come up to the intersection with The Gap Road and head west uphill on a chipseal stripe down the centre of the road reserve. We wander through open fields, past stubbled crops waiting for a new season and down through lots of cypress pine that line the road. The road eventually turns to gravel, but is in good condition. We spin our way uphill and coast the downhills. It’s a gorgeous autumn day and it feels good to be out on new roads we’ve never even seen before let alone ridden.
We marvel at the amount of hairy panic bunching in clusters in the wire fences and forming six or eight-feet high berms of grass at the road edge in the trees. Further along, it forms in drifts like sand and nearly covers the road in places. The weeds stuck in the fence look like the eyebrows or hair tufts that you might find adorning a Muppet. See link and video below for more about the panic grasses in the region.
Here is some more info on this weed (I actually know one of the people in the video, though didn’t know them at the time of the filming): https://theconversation.com/what-is-the-hairy-panic-tumbleweed-that-has-buried-a-small-australian-city-55074
We roll out to the Millwood Road. This is a good, sealed road that will take us all the way into Coolamon. We’re rolling along the waves in the sea of agriculture, enjoying the views from the high points and marveling at the moisture present in the troughs (this time of year most things would normally be bone dry).
We’ve got an increasing quartering headwind, but I’m making good progress and feeling pretty good. We’re gradually gaining elevation on the rollercoaster road, and I hope that the radio tower means we’ve hit the highest point. Not quite. But it comes along soon enough. The traffic is infrequent and courteous except for one SUV. There’s always one!
The birds scream at me in alarm from the trees, but mostly it’s just quiet. I pass one field that’s already had the stubble burnt. It smells a bit like wet, damp cigarettes for a few hundred metres and I’m instantly taken back to sitting near an ashtray pedestal outside a Greyhound bus station in New Mexico in 1996. That summer, I bought an Ameripass and travelled all over the western US, sleeping in parks, the bus stations and $20 motel rooms.
That experience cemented my learnings from the previous 18 months working part-time in a commercial kitchen. I had been raised to believe, like most Americans, that the only thing that stood in the way of success was how hard you worked. In that individualistic society, your wealth, your economic status, your health, your ‘success’, as judged by society, is totally dependent on you, and whether you worked hard enough to achieve it.
But my work in the kitchen and my experience that summer travelling around by bus was eye-opening. Some people can work just as hard as an executive at a corporation and never make it out of retail and hospitality. “Success” is not solely determined by hard work and what YOU do. There are so many other barriers that can prevent someone from achieving the same level of success no matter how hard they work. If you grew up in a two-parent family, with both parents that worked and were financially responsible, grew up in a middle-class suburb as a white kid with access to good role models and a good school, grew up male, grew up with a college fund and parents that emphasized education, grew up with parents that had connections, grew up with access to good health care and nutritious food… well, you got a huge head start on a lot of people.
That was a big revelation when I was 20, and since then, I’ve never taken for granted what now would be termed ‘privilege’. I suppose I was ‘woke’ back then to that idea, but it did not yet have any place in the ‘culture wars’. I just knew that I was a very, very fortunate person to have had the upbringing that I did, and I did not think that the people I met in those situations ended up there just because they didn’t work hard very hard or ‘want it bad enough’.
So those thoughts fill my head for a few kilometres and get us up and over the last big hill. The last six or so kilometres into Coolamon are pretty flat, as we cross a wide plain with the wind in our face. There are hills from that zipper of a range off to the right and we feel like we are on a plateau of sorts.
Coolamon’s population is about 2000. It’s only a half hour from Wagga Wagga but doesn’t appear to be a popular commuter town yet. There are some new residential homes in town, but it’s still a pretty small town. One pub Is being renovated; the other pub doesn’t look particularly good or bad. We’re still in the front-to-kerb part of the state, meaning cars don’t reverse into the street parking spaces. Somewhere north of here, the opposite becomes the norm. Interestingly, that line also coincides with where the Victorian-based AFL footy (the one that looks a bit like aerial ping pong) becomes less prominent and the NFL rugby is more popular.
The main street has a treed park area down the centre of the street with the requisite war memorial. There are picnic tables and benches to sit at. There are a couple cafes, a bakery, and all the other basic amenities occupying the original buildings.
I sit on a bench and eat a bit of food from the panniers, wander around taking some photographs, and then go up to the Fire Museum. There is an extensive collection of everything fire brigade-related in the old one-truck fire house. The caretaker is also the owner of the collection. He’s been collecting for 40 years – all manner of stuff from hose fittings to breathing apparatus to model fire trucks to helmets to uniforms from around the world. There is no one else there, so after doing the COVID sign-in for contract tracing (every business, museum, arts place, etc in Australia requires you to sign-in before entering – though each state has its own check-in app or rules on written entries), the caretaker gives me a personal tour of his collection. His stories of how he got various items is nearly as interesting as the items in the collection themselves.
More info and some pictures of the collection here: https://coolamonfiremuseum.wordpress.com/about/
After this, I go down to the caravan park. I had first thought I would just camp in the state forest at the edge of town, but they’ve built a bunch of mountain biking trails there, so I figure it would be busy. The caravan park in town is just manicured grass with marked out spaces. There are no unpowered sites – $20 for a powered site. The woman sticks me right next to some people with a canvas fold-out camper trailer tent. Their little annex directly faces where I’m supposed to set up my tent. Ugh. At least being right next to a caravan of some sort means sounds are muffled since they have a bit of a wall instead of cloth between me and them.
The people from the site next to me return soon after. Queensland plates. The woman scowls at me; the man says nothing. I’ve set my tent up close to the road to be as far away as possible, but that’s the best I can do. They immediately light up cigarettes. Ugh. I think about packing up after dark after I have a shower and heading over to the forest.
In the meantime, I ride around the rest of town to check it out. I check out the mountain bike tracks in the state forest, too. It’s a nice initiative, but the single-track is not all that challenging, and I actually find the fire trails are rougher from erosion! I do regret not just camping up here though. Lesson learned – stay at caravan parks only as a last resort or when you really, really need a shower.
I return to the caravan park near dark, take a shower (amenities are very clean and there is hand sanitizer easily accessible), then crawl into the tent, put my ear buds in and turn them up so I can’t hear anything but the roar of punk music in my ears. Whenever the neighbours light up a cigarette, I stuff my head down in my sleeping bag to act as a filter.
I sleep well, but do NOT stay here if noise bothers you. The grain silos are just a couple blocks away and the fans are LOUD. All night long they turn on and off in 3- minute intervals. If you were sensitive to noise, it would be as bad as listening to mining or logging equipment beep-beep reversing all night. Luckily, the noise doesn’t bother me and I sleep soundly on the soft grass.
DAY 2 – 121 kms (75 miles)
I have my alarm set for 6am. Sunrise isn’t until 7.20am, but I figure we can ride in the dark for a little bit and watch the sun rise. I’ve got my head torch for a front light and my rear blinkie light, and I’ll just get off the road if someone comes along. I haven’t ridden in the dark in ages, so I’m actually excited about the idea. This is how I know I’m not old yet – I still like switching things up and doing things different. I’m not stuck to routine, and I still really crave novelty.
The original plan today was to ride to Temora. But they’ve had flooding up that way and a major road is closed with detours on the old back road I’d planned to use when leaving town the following day. I finally figure out some gravel alternatives, but then find that they are closed to due to flood damage. I could leave the same way I ride in, but that does not appeal.
So last night I decided to skip Temora and just ride north for a ways and then turn back toward Junee (which was to be my third night). There is a front due to come through today with windy northwesterlies predicted ahead of it. If I get going early, hence the 6am start, I should catch that as a tail wind instead.
At 5:41 am, there are a few drops of rain on the tent. Hmmm…. I have misplaced my rain coat and did not bring it on this trip. I did bring a trash bag, in case of emergency. The rain chance up here was only 20 percent, with 0- 0.4 mm forecast. So I wasn’t particularly worried. But that almost random pitter patter wakes me up with some concern.
I check radar. It’s a tiny white patch with nothing else around it – just a moisture anomaly in the sea of cloud. Still, it’s a good enough wake up call. I pack in the dark. There’s enough lighting around that I don’t need my torch. The loudest noise of me leaving is the sound of the amenities block key clunking in the metal return box as I head out in the calm, dark air.
Ahhh, this is good. It is nothing like the night rides of university when I rode with the boys along the irrigation ditches, off dirt jumps and down kerbs and stairs, etc each night on my BMX bike. But still, it is fun to ride by feel in the silence. There’s a climb and a downhill to start, then we ride across a flat plain punctuated by roadside trees.
My front light flashes off the reflector posts and for 15 minutes we ride in complete darkness. Slowly, off to the right, first light appears, slowly turning everything from black to grey. Only two vehicles pass me in the darkness. They come from behind and are big work trucks of some sort. I pull off the road, and they pull over into the other lane. I watch their taillights recede for several minutes. It is pretty flat!
First light silhouettes the trees – black erratic forms of foliage spreading into the sky. Gum trees are a bit like oak trees – they don’t grow in rounded tufts like the trees in nursery rhyme books. The silence is only interrupted by the sounds of the handlebar bag zippers jingling as we bump over cracks in the chipseal and the low hum of my tyres on the seal like atoms in motion in electricity wires. Eventually I hear kookaburras cackling in the distance, and so the day can officially begin.
Nature then rewards us for rising before sparrow’s fart. The sunrise is spectacular. The sky is mostly cloudy to the west and south, but there are patches of bare sky to the north and east. Out here on this big plain, it’s like the dome of a man’s head with the first patches of balding appearing to the front and side.
Some of the clouds have an interesting squiggly pattern within them just before the sun rises which I find quite interesting. But just as those squiggles seem to stretch and diminish, the orb of light reaches up and illuminates the under sides of the clouds in bright oranges and pinks. The pinks form wisps of colour in 360 degrees, even on the clouds behind me. This is good stuff!
Not long after sunrise, I get passed by a couple cars. We turn northeast just before Rannock (if we had gone to Temora, we would have headed on straight) and start back into the low hills. There is granite that outcrops on top of some of the hills as jumbles of boulders. Other outcrops are long, flat slabs that look like a whale about to breach the surface in that sea of agriculture.
Up and down we go, enjoying the views from the highpoints. Traffic steadily increases to one car every 1-2 minutes, so I’m ready to turn off on the Marrar Road when it appears. Interestingly, the cluster of humanity that all left at a similar time from different points occurs at that intersection. I pull over to read a sign board about the old settlement here. Six cars from various directions come through the intersection in that time, and one old, rusty ute with an old guy and an even older guy in it stop next to me while they sort through some papers. The even older guy has been around for a long, long time, and he looks at me as though I’ve arrived at this very spot on earth from a planet far, far away.
We roll up and down the hills, through the valleys and along a nice tree-lined road. The granite continues to give some good relief in places. The road reserve is wide – it’s a travelling stock route – and I see all sorts of places that would be good for camping. Note to self in head – I am always looking for camping spots in case I ever go that same way again.
The wind picks up as I’m snacking on a banana and some chocolate. It continues to gain strength and is giving me a good push as we roll along those old sea sediments and granite intrusions.
The road goes to a single lane down the centre once we hit the Junee Shire boundary. The pavement is poor (it was a nice, wide road in Coolamon Shire) and chunky in spots. I thought Greater Hume Shire had crap roads – but Junee can share the award. I see five or six cars, all going the other direction along this road, but it’s not too hard to get over on the gravel when I meet the other cars.
We reach a high point, and I’m lucky I don’t encounter any of the cars on the nice downhill runs between hills. It’s much harder to pull over onto the gravel when you are doing 50 kph versus when you are doing 10kph on 35mm tyres.
We are dropping down into the Gilmore Fault. To most people it would look just like a valley, but that big drop as we head into Old Junee and then down to the rail line in the valley is a spot where the earth has moved. The hills to the east have much steeper relief than what we just came through.
I’ve been through Junee before, but have never stopped. It was founded as a greenfield site when the Main Southern Line between Sydney and Melbourne was built and reached here in 1878. Everyone moved down here from Old Junee, eight kilometres west, when the rail came through. A guy by the name of Crawley bought up a bunch of the land on one side of the tracks, but would only lease the land. Another guy bought land on the other side of the tracks but sub-divided and sold. This led to a competition between the east and west sides of town, and the town is still split by the train line.
There are a HEAP of pubs though for all those thirsty punters getting off the train. By the early 1920s, they would have had a choice of 5. The town is quite hilly, but I ride around a bit looking at all of the old buildings. Australia does a better job than America in preserving and continuing use of original buildings, but for some reason this town just feels run-down. It is in stark contrast to Coolamon, which is less than half the size, whose original main street felt like it had been spruced up along the way. Junee has an intermodal rail yard, a huge grain handling facility, and just outside of town is one of the state’s bigger prisons. So you’d think there’d be some money here.
I’m disappointed in what’s on offer here in terms of food. The licorice and chocolate factory is THE place to be, and it’s crowded with people. But other than that, the takeaway shop is closed, the other café is for sale, and the café attached to the museum has a pretty limited menu and just one poor, harried woman trying to get to all the food orders AND make coffee.
Junee does have some interesting attractions. There is a motor museum that has a whole bunch of old Fords. There is an old mansion, Monte Cristo, that you can tour. There is also the roundhouse museum. It was one of NSW’s largest, and half the building is still used to service locomotives to this day. The other half is a museum. But I don’t visit these today. I want to do the Fords and the railway museum with Nigel someday.
But I do visit the museum run by the historical society that is housed in the old Royal Hotel from 1914. The volunteers are all extremely helpful. They have exhibits in all of the old dining areas in the downstairs of the pub, and in each of the old accommodation rooms upstairs and out the back. There are also two sheds of farm machinery and tools.
So of course it has all the same stuff that every other rural museum has on offer. I always am most interested in the old photos – looking to see what the area looked like in the past and as it developed. So I spend 45 minutes or so going through all the rooms and examining the exhibits. It does make me laugh, though, as historical society collections are always based around what is donated, so sometimes there are some interesting collections. My favourite was a tiny museum in Montana that had buttons and pins covering the entire ceiling of the building basement – because what else do you do when someone donates deceased Aunt Martha’s entire button collection.
Post-museum visit, I stop at the IGA and pick up some food for lunch and tonight. I’ve decided I’m not going to stay in Junee tonight. I don’t like the feel of the town, and there are some really squirrely-looking people about. I don’t know if they live in town to be closer to their partners in prison or they are just here for the weekend for a visit. But I don’t want to leave my bike alone for very long, and I actually locked it when I went into the museum – something I very rarely do in rural Oz. I wasn’t all that impressed with my first glance at the caravan park on my way into town, either, and after last night, I am not wanting another experience like that!
So after I get an array of food, I take it down to the park/footy oval. The wind is really pushy at this point, an unpleasant personality of gustiness and sustained pestering. So I ride through the park and find a spot to sit in the lee of the change rooms for the footy oval.
Over at the edge of the property is an old cottage, a couple hundred metres away. There’s an old guy watching me from a window. I eat. I check the forecast. I check the wind – it’s a sustained 25kph with gusts to 45kph. Wow – that is not going to be fun when I leave town.
As I’m sitting there collecting hairy panic next to me (I’ve created an eddy for the weeds to collect against), a cop car zooms out, drives past, circles around in the parking area behind the building and leaves again. Did that window-watching old fart call the cops on me? Sheesh.
After I eat the Greek salad and the “nutty brown rice” salad from the IGA deli, I get up to put them in the recycling bin. The man comes to the window again. For the next hour, as I rest and eat, anytime I move from my seated position, that old bugger is watching me.
Another cop car with highway patrol marking comes and goes. It then heads up the hill to the prison. At this point, I figure they must be looking for someone. Maybe there’s been a jail escape!
Around 12.45pm, a parade of cars heads out the road toward the prison. Visiting hours must start at 1pm!
Finally, I get my stuff together and get ready to head out. This town just gives me a bad vibe. I really don’t want to ride into that wind, and 70-some kilometres to this point is quite enough, but I don’t want to stay. I’ll find a place to camp in a road reserve somewhere.
As I’m leaving, on the other side of the park, I see another cop car circling. Then, I see a police van in town that circles around behind me and gets caught in the roundabout behind me. Sheesh, the town is crawling with them!
To get out of town requires climbing two huge hills. Into the wind. The first hill has an adjoining path that weaves us up the hill. We get good views back to ‘downtown’. Then there is a bit of a downhill, and then the second big-arse hill riding in the shoulder of the main highway. The police van passes m again just as I summit this one.
The downhill into the next valley is long, and I expect that on some days it’s a really fun downhill. But we have to pedal into it. Ugh. But the clouds getting pushed ahead of the frontal boundary are puffy and dramatic, and I enjoy watching them move at speed. And all the cars give me plenty of room as I get buffeted around the shoulder.
At the highway junction, there is a café/roadhouse. I did not see anywhere to fill water in town without going in a public toilet (still avoiding those where possible), so I am able to fill up here. I also grab a juice and then sit on the edge of the parking lot and try to get the oomph to keep going into that wind.
We have to ride the main road for about 500 metres before we turn off on another back road. We crawl into the wind, but the hills here are aligned so that the climbs are on the north-south alignment, and it is generally gentler in the valley troughs going west into the wind.
It’s all big, open, cropping country. The road reserve is narrow. Finding somewhere to camp is going to be hard. But who cares – something always works out.
We climb to the top of a hill. A sealed road heads south – the direction we need to go to get back to Wagga. We’re using tiny back roads between the main Olympic Highway and the main road to Coolamon. I take the sealed road. I don’t really have any idea how this is going to work out, but my map seems to make this look like it will be okay. Well, if that road on the ground is actually the road I think it is on my map – I don’t have names to match.
So off we go, riding the waves of hills south. Fly down, crawl up. Luckily, the wind is a bit quartering tail on the southbound sections. And so it goes. We go south for a bit on the rollercoaster, then get gentler terrain heading west into the ferocious wind, then more rollercoaster going south.
I’m getting tired. Somewhere in there I hit 100kms. That’s the most I’ve ridden, loaded or unloaded, in a couple years. I’ve still got oomph though, so on we go. I see a couple places that the tent could be pitched in a pinch, but I’ve still got a couple hours of daylight left and don’t just want to hang around waiting to put up the tent. There’s little tree cover in this big cropping country, and the houses frequent enough, that I know someone would come and see what I was up to. I’m not getting friendly waves from the few locals that pass, so I just keep going.
And going. Up and down. It is beautiful in a big sky sort of way though. And there are no flies or swooping magpies or heat. So those are big wins. And those moody cumulus clouds scudding along on the frontal boundary are dramatic and add depth and height to the big sky view.
We do 52kph down one of those hills which feels a bit gnarly travelling that fast as the quartering wind buffets me a bit sideways. You almost feel like you could be lifted and deposited an inch to the left as you travel forward very fast. On another fast downhill, past the Coursing Park Recreation Reserve, a tractor comes out of a field and tails me for a few moments, but I don’t move over, I just fly. It then turns off before I get to the next uphill.
We finally come down one really long hill into a flat valley. I turn east and fly along on good gravel. Then I turn south again on more good gravel and we climb around a hill. There’s one decent camping spot in there, but goodness, I’m only 10 kilometres from town now and have got 1 or more hours of daylight left.
We’re going big baby. We’re going the full monty. We’re going the whole way back to the car (having lugged enough water and food for a dry camp tonight!). I am so proud of my body today. We’re going to end up with well over 100kms with a light load. That is even good when I’m healthy, especially given the climbing and wind involved. You go, you good body, you.
I do need to pee though. We’ve been in open country for a long time. Just as I get ready to pull over in a little tree-lined section of road, I see a guy running down a nearby road from some expensive houses ahead. For f**k’s sake! What is the timing with that? So, me being pretty camel-like, I suppose I can hold it a bit longer.
Then, it turns out, he runs the opposite way anyway. So now I’ve got to overtake a guy running – not jogging – running. He’s training for footy, based on his jumper, anyway. Thankfully, the road is a slight downhill, or I might have just closely tailed him for a long time. I find some more oomph, kick it up a notch, and leave him in the dust. I push hard on that sandy downhill. The road condition has deteriorated, but I’m like a horse heading back to the stable. I’m moving quickly.
I do have to stop a couple times for cars that absolutely do not move over or slow down. Arseholes. There’s a bunch of big houses on acreage out this way – rich people don’t care about the plebs. They just want to get home. But so do I, you bastards.
Onward. Downward toward the river. The road spits us out at a roundabout on the main highway. I don’t bother to refold the map to the city one and just ride by instinct and sense of direction. Luckily, I’ve got a good sense and the stable/car is calling. We weave around and get ourselves on Hampden Avenue. There’s no shoulder, but all the cars give me room. Thank you!
We pass the greyhound racing track, then pass through all the treed floodplains. Something BIG is going down in North Wagga. One of the pubs is chockers, there’s people going into the school and there are cars parked EVERYWHERE. In the middle of a pandemic – you’d never know!
The North Wagga community is a pretty united little place. They’ve been flooded out many, many times. The school is even built on stilts. The city council wants everyone to move out and then resume the land since it is right in the middle of the floodplain. But the residents won’t budge from their ‘historical village’ and are demanding the levee be raised. I don’t know where that is up to in city v. residents, but my guess is that insurance, or the refusal of it, will eventually have the last say.
And we are in our last kays. We’re moving up the bike path along the levee through town. All of the pubs that have outdoor seating facing the river and path are pretty full. People look to my bike with curiosity as I fly past on the path. We are riding down the end of one big day. I started before the sun came up, and the sun is now on its way down. I’ve ridden out the daylight hours and I don’t feel exhausted.
I roll past the Catholic church where the parishioners are just leaving a service. The Anglican, Catholic and Presbyterian (I think) churches are all on the same block, and they are busy! Saturday night mass before Palm Sunday must have just let out at the Catholic church. The church leader (priest?) stands outside talking with his red cape-like robe billowing in the wind as the low-angle sun lights up the sandstone. Nice.
And then we are down to the last kay.
And then we are done. 121 kms with around 600 metres of climbing and winds gusting to 45kph this afternoon. It is totally not what I thought we would do today when I got up at 5.41 am. Of course, the cruel thing is that my body will generally let me do too much, and then it will crash a couple days later and I’ll have absolutely no energy at all. So we’ll have to see how we pull up later.
I call Nigel. He has rung twice – because I have not texted to say I’m safe yet and it’s getting pretty late to be on the road. He wonders if I’ve gotten wet. Nope. They’ve had some showers down at Albury. I make plans to stop at his place on my way home, as I have some receipts for him in the car and he agrees to give me a really good back rub (my neck and shoulders are a bit sore).
I still need to pee. But I drive the 1.5 hours back to his place in the setting sun, passing over wet pavement but never through any rain, and watch the day end as the kays pass by considerably faster.
I get to Nigel’s place. He does not get a hug. I just say, “I’ve got to PEE!” as I run into his house. I’ve needed to pee for about 4 hours. Nevermind. The back rub is fantastic. I feel like I may never get off his living room floor. But, eventually, I pry myself up and out the door. I get in my door and in the shower at about 8.30pm. What a big, big day!
(So that ride was last week. I pulled up very well. Totally surprised myself with no real dip in energy physically. Work wears me down quickly though – it’s so high stress and so busy that I know that it is what is holding back my recovery. That 121 kms gives me hope though that once I get rid of that job, I’ll eventually be able to tour again, and in a way that is meaningful. Riding 50kms a day is not my idea of how I want to tour – I really need to be able to do 100kms. So that long ride on the rollercoasters of the Riverina re-ignites the dream.)