15-17 April 2022
120 kms (75 miles)
Daryl Brathwaite and John Farnham are like Vegemite – to be able to stomach them you need to have grown up with them. Otherwise, you just can’t understand what all the fuss is about.
While I’ve been hanging around Australia now for around 24 years, I still don’t like Vegemite. Or lamb. Or cricket or any code of footy.
But I do agree on one thing that is very Australian. Easter is for camping. Yes, Australians go camping en masse over Easter. The cities empty out and the people who may only use their caravan twice a year hit the road for the bush.
This year, the weather is fantastic, at least for Good Friday through Easter. It’s warm and there is only a light breeze on Friday and Saturday. The nights stay pretty warm. Because the Easter date moves about, late Easters in April can sometimes be quite chilly (though maybe less so with climate change).
So I’m heading out for three days with the rest of Victoria. However, I’ll stay on backroads for the most part and out of the way of all those out-of-practice people towing caravans. The plan is to do a simple ride to pick up a few remaining tracks I haven’t ridden down in the national park and keep ride distance to about 40 kms per day. I’m trying to conserve energy for the Midnight Oil on Tuesday. I want plenty of energy so I can jump around at the concert.
I am also still in the middle of that full-on antimicrobial regime and need to not push my body too hard so it can focus on sorting out the bacteria instead of dealing with huge amounts of physical activity.
DAY 1 – 40 kms (25 miles)
Clouds keep the UV index a bit lower as we head across town and out onto the freeway frontage road. It’s that time of year when the weather bureau starts saying you only need sun protection from 10.30am to 2.30pm. Add in some extra clouds and I don’t even bother with sunscreen on my legs.
There is heaps and heaps of traffic over there on the freeway going both ways. Lots of caravans of course, but lots of everything, generally. Everyone is on their way somewhere – the solemnity of Good Friday is quite lost in a largely secular society.
Today we are going to ride a couple gaps. This first one, Oates Gap Road, crosses a low point in the Black Range. The only reason to ride this road is to mark it off our list. It is much quicker to just follow the chip-seal around the range instead of scrambling up and over on gravel. But the road is on our map, and hasn’t been ridden yet, so up we go.
It’s a long, pretty straight shot toward the range. The road steepens to greater than 10 percent into a left hander. Then, the grade backs off below 10 percent the rest of the way. Then there’s a short climb on the other side and a sharp, squiggly drop with an eroded surface and a new layer of slippery gravel on top in the lower bits. The turns are very tight. And slippery. Disc brakes would be nice….
The flat road at the bottom is terribly corrugated. I ride up on the edge of the centre hump between the top of the hump and the corrugations.
And that was Oates Gap Road. Done. Don’t need to ever do it again.
We head across the valley and into the national park. We’ll do lunch at the picnic area and then head for some new tracks. All of our La Nina rainfall has not been kind to the tracks. I negotiate the erosion and the corrugations and the sandy bits. Still, it is a very nice autumn day and I would not want to be doing anything else but riding the bike.
There’s an old couple at the picnic area out for a day trip. They’ve got a Troopy with no gear inside, and the man has just finished making tea on a tabletop gas stove. I’m sure they’ve been married a long time. They say nothing to each other the whole time I’m there. He just simply hands her a cup of tea which she receives, and then she’s right back to reading her book. Their camp chairs both face the forest view, but they are five to six feet apart. He sits down and picks up the paper. It’s the comfortable quiet of many years together. Or it’s the quiet that comes when there’s really nothing left to discuss.
Another family comes and takes up the other picnic table not long before I roll out. It’s the only people I’ll see on the tracks over the next couple days. I had thought there’d be heaps of motorbike riders and horse riders to contend with, but it appears that the locals have all gone somewhere else or are doing other things. And the tourists are not in this particular spot. It’s a bit weird to have the whole place to myself when it is so busy everywhere else.
We head up to Lancashire Gap – two gaps in a day. I’ve never been to Lancashire, and can’t really even geographically locate it in my head, but I’m certain it does not look like this. But it’s a nice treed ride up through more bad road conditions before we take off uphill from the gap on Skeleton Hill Track.
I’m not sure why I’ve never done this one before. Probably because it loops back to the main road and doesn’t really connect anything.
It’s rough and rocky but the grades are rideable. We mostly climb going up the ridge, but there are a few descents to saddles before the track climbs again.
I love riding these sorts of roads because of the level of concentration required. You get fully immersed in the activity to the exclusion of everything else. Your mind doesn’t wander. You don’t worry about how many kms you’ve done. You don’t worry about how fast or slow it feels like you are going… because inevitably you are going slow!
You are just there, right then and there, moving from moment to moment, from exposed tree root to large rocks jutting up. You don’t worry about goals for the day or what you’re going to eat for lunch, you are just concentrating on that moment, totally lost in that immediate task.
All that work over winter to learn to focus on things in the present, to shut up my constantly chattering head, has really paid off. My mind shuts up when I want it to now, and I can really enjoy just being in the space of the present. And I can enjoy the tedious work of climbing rocky gravel tracks.
Near the top of the track, large granite slabs and tors line the ridge top. It is gorgeous and unexpected. There are lots of big granite rocks like this in other sections of this park, but not so much this one. It’s a nice surprise. It demands a closer look.
I lean the bike against a tree and trek up the hill above the road. It’s all quite impressive. In other parts of the park, the big granite like this has rather scraggly vegetation around it, but here, there are big trees and grassy understorey. I like it.
Then, I discover that nature has built the perfect tent pad on the southern side of the hill. It is out of sight of the road and has a great view over toward the Pilot Range. Nature’s tent pad is so great, in fact, that I decide that we’ll stay here tonight, even though it’s only 3pm. There’s no vegetation other than grass growing on the tent pad either, so all that is required is to clean away the kangaroo poo and some sticks. I’d planned to camp in another section of the park, but let’s stay here. Score!
The sunset is a good one, but I’m not in a good spot to take advantage of it. But I do enjoy watching all of the car headlights far down below as they traverse the valley. High beam, low beam. Taillights when they turn away. I feel like a bushranger in a hilltop hideout watching the comings and goings below.
DAY 2 – 47 kms (29 miles)
I wake at 6.35. Too early. I wake again at 7.45. Perfect. I take the “upon waking” group of pills and then lean back in the sleeping bag and let morning come slowly to me. It was not cold overnight and there was no dew. So it’s a dry tent to pack today. At 8.45am I take the next round of pills, and then we shove off.
Not far ahead, the road takes a hard left off the ridge. You can continue up the ridge until you hit private property, but the views are blocked by trees and aren’t much different to what we’ve already seen. So we just head down the steep, eroded track instead. Down, down, quick, quick.
Much of the top of the track is now down the bottom, and there are big sand patches of displaced track to ride through. Lean back, don’t let that front wheel catch, and let momentum whisk you through.
This could become my new favourite track. The forest wasn’t burnt in the 2003 or 2015 fires, and so it has a more mature feel. There have been enough planned burns to keep the forest floor grassy. Combined with those taller trees with full canopies, it gives a gorgeous morning aesthetic.
It’s quiet except for gentle bird song (no cockies here today!), and that low angle autumn sun slants through the trees with a golden light. Spider’s webs glint in the rays, those sticky net locations revealed.
There are more large granite tors to view, rounded rocks bulging out of the earth, sometimes impossibly leaning toward the earth, waiting for the moment gravity grabs hold. Further on, there is more undergrowth and a change in forest character, but it’s still a most peaceful spot. You can’t hear the freeway or rail line here, so in the absence of dirt bikes at the moment, it is a very calm and still atmosphere.
Further up, the track runs against private property again, and there’s a man on a push bike opening his gate. He looks up at me, and so I stop and say, “So it’s your tyre tracks I’ve been following!”.
He replies, “Yes, I go that way into town.”
We talk tracks in the national park and ways to ride to Wodonga and Wooragee. He asks where I stayed last night. I said I camped off Skeleton Hill track along the ridge. He’s got super slim and muscly bicycle legs. It’s obvious he rides most everywhere. We agree that the traffic in the park has been surprisingly quiet for an Easter weekend.
He then says, “Well I suppose that’s because there’s nowhere you are allowed to camp except off Depot Road. So they go other places.”
It’s a deliberate dig at me saying I basically illegally camped in his backyard last night. I had been getting the feeling that he thought of the park as ‘his’ and didn’t much care for people visiting. I know better than to try to take the conversation further. So I wrap it up and let him think I’m a nasty bastard for camping illegally in the park.
Lest you think that is what I’ve done, I rang up the Parks people back in 2015 and asked if people on foot could camp away from camping areas (the one in this park has no shade or toilet, so there’s no point camping there). And the reply was that you could walk in and camp anywhere you liked in national parks, as long as you stayed a certain distance from tracks and campgrounds. And so, since I carry my bike off the road when I go find somewhere to camp, I’ve always figured that counted as “on-foot”.
Would that guy like to see my shit bag and my other rubbish I’m carrying out? Would he like to see me each morning when I’m re-fluffing the person-sized bits of vegetation or grass I’ve depressed through the night? Besides, this park’s rangers are probably a lot more concerned about the illegal firewood collection and motorbike tracks than a person walking off track and setting up a tent for a night. But I don’t explain that to this guy because I know it would go nowhere.
Breakfast of a banana and the next assortment of pills is taken just before we get back to the Lancashire Gap Road. And then we work our way across the valley like all those headlights last night.
The roads are all so corrugated. Every single one I ride today outside the park and most within. Late autumn is always the worst for gravel roads. Winter rains dampen out the corrugations and road works are usually done in late winter and early spring. But boy are they all in crap shape today!
The flat bits of Pine Gap Road in the next section of the national park are super-corrugated, too, so I ride up on the centre hump to make progress. Luckily, where the tracks start to climb the range, the track conditions are pretty good. It’s only the flats that are corrugated.
I climb up through the forest, enjoying the prolific undergrowth from all the La Nina rains. I see bracken on the southerly aspects of ephemeral creeks. I’ve never seen bracken growing in such areas in the seven years I’ve wandered around this park.
I get up to Deep Creek Track. I couldn’t remember if I’d done this one with Link Road before or not. I knew I’d remember once I saw it. But we’ve done this, so don’t need to go that way to mark them off our map. Instead, I climb McGuinness track for a while, just enjoying the gentle climb to 400 metres, all alone in the forest while the rest of the world celebrates Easter Saturday in some other way.
We head over towards the base of Mt Pilot and out toward the main road. More corrugations. More sand patches. You gotta be on guard for those tire grabbers on this trip. The rains have washed a lot of sediment into low-lying sections of track.
Once we reach the main road, I am bewildered by the steady stream of traffic heading uphill. I’m only heading downhill for less than 2 kms, and I count 29 cars going the other way in that time. Sheesh! It’s almost like a funeral procession!
I slowly come to the realization that Beechworth has a big festival on Easter Saturday each year. Wow – I am so glad I’m not heading that direction.
We turn off the main road soon enough and head up to ride Martins Track – a fire track on the park perimeter I’ve not ridden yet. Today is the day. It’s not exciting – squished between a forest and a paddock. And it’s obvious it gets ridden a lot. By dirt bikes. It’s all chewed up and sandy, like all of their favourite tracks.
I also see the base of Gidley’s Track. I did the other end of it a few years ago, and it was so steep and eroded, I basically slid the bike down and slid after it, until I figured out that it was easier to just carry my bike downhill through the forest. So yeah, this end looks no better!
While I squish, slide, spin and wobble through all that sand, I start thinking about my upcoming tour next spring. I’m starting to think I should take the mountain bike on the first bit of it, just to test all the gear before I really go remote. I now have all the gear to carry stuff on the front forks. Now I just need Nigel to get the rear rack on (it requires a hacksaw and a file to install which I don’t have). My parents have been awesome and stepped in to solve global supply chain issues by ordering a front handlebar cradle from their local bike shop. They pick it up next week. I’ll get it when I go visit. So all the pieces are coming together, but there’s a lot of new stuff and the new bike to get used to. Maybe I should really break that one in before I get places where I could really get in trouble.
It surprises me to feel sad about this. I should be excited, new bike and all. But I really love The Wizard. How many thousands and thousands of kilometres have we ridden together? And I’d always thought of that southwest Victoria tour with that bike in my head. It seems like the mountain bike would be overkill for a lot of it. More thought required.
My good friend from uni, Evan, has sent some really nice thoughts based on my last FAQ post. So here’s his thoughts, if they might be helpful in your own life and planning re: social media and GPS units:
Hey Em, I loved the FAQ post. I totally agree on social media. I’ve never been on any of it, but screen time sucks in almost everyone. I’m so happy to see that you went through all of life – not just physical items – and got rid of all the stuff you don’t find valuable. We should ALL do that!
As for the GPS, I’m certain you’ve made the right decision. I have one I use for hiking, but it really is best with a route planned in that you track. If you had it on all the time for wayfinding, it would definitely eat up the battery life. And I think you’d find it frustrating to have to stop, zoom in and out every time you wanted to decide which road you wanted. It’d be nice to be able to just look down at a map and have it all right in front of you.
When I’m hiking, I don’t usually have it on much at all. So I can get 6 days life out of it usually. But I only use it if I’m uncertain which way to head – I don’t have it on and tracking me, and I often will just pull out the paper map for quick reference instead. I agree paper map back-ups are essential – I’ve done enough search and rescue trips finding ill-prepared hikers. I end up using the map and GPS together ‘off-piste’. It’s really useful when going cross country above tree line, but I foresee that is not the situation you’d use it! The only thing I was thinking is what if all the road signs were burnt in your big forest fires a few years ago. Would they have been replaced? Are you relying on them to match to your map for navigation?
But really for the type of ride you are planning where you don’t plan a route, I think the paper map is a super simple solution. I like simple! It keeps in the spirit of what you are doing. And I totally, totally love the purity and simplicity of your plans. I am so jealous!!! I love the thought of you out there on the road with no particular destination. It’s so perfect and fits your free spirit so well. Damn I miss you!
I also totally love that you still camp on the same foam pad you had when we hung out all those years ago. Your plans really reflect a level of confidence and maturity in your riding. When most people get older they want more comfort and certainty. But you are throwing that out and going the opposite direction. If you keep this up, you are going to be the most awesome 65-year-old woman the world has ever seen. Lol! Well maybe you will have upgraded from the foam pad by then? I really do hope to join you for a South America tour, but probably before we’re 65 – weren’t you thinking when we’re 55? I’m not thinking climate change will make that a real good option in 20 years? Whatever, I can’t wait to see what kick-ass thing you’re doing when we’re old. As for this big ride I can’t wait to read the updates and see your pictures of all those little dirt roads. We just don’t have anything like those here. So very jealous of you, but also so proud. I’m also so relieved you’ve been able to find a way back to health. I was very scared for you for a very long time.
Everyone needs friends like Evan, and I’m glad he’s given me some perspective from someone who has used a GPS extensively. (He uses it a lot in his work, too, but that’s not in his email). I was feeling comfortable with that decision anyway, but good to have that confirmed.
Now, to figure out how to rearrange gear with a different set-up and decide whether I should get a different set of tyres…. Why not? I’ve been throwing around heaps of money on gear lately! The tool set for a tubeless bike with disc brakes and a suspension fork is very different to my current one. This also means I’m going to need to develop a whole new skill set to go with the new tool set, too! Grumble, grumble says the girl who hates bike maintenance and repair.
We’ve made our way off that sandy track now and onto a main gravel road that is riding today like a… sandy track. Sheesh, the corrugations on this ride are nuts! But luckily, I’ve been able to avoid them all by riding down the centre. Sometimes this is a pretty huge hump of dirt, sometimes it’s just a super sandy and debris-strewn centre strip. It’s not often I aim for the centre and all the loose rocks there, but it certainly keeps us sane today.
Back to the sealed road for the last bits into Chiltern. I need to refill water and would like to get some orange juice. I see another 22 cars in about 4 kms. I am so glad Beechworth wasn’t in my plans today. It would be crazy! Spreadin’ covid like wildfire. It is fantastic that they think we’re hitting the peak of this wave right as Easter hits. I’m thinking the peak is going to be a bit higher than it might otherwise have been.
The caravan park and the cafes in Chiltern are packed out. But the only customer in the supermarket is a man buying cigarettes. I feel confident I probably did not get covid in the 5 minutes I’m in there (mask on of course). But the park is quiet and I find a nice spot to relax for awhile in the shade while consuming the next round of pills and then some lunch.
The late afternoon sees us heading up to the top of the small range outside of town and heading toward the one track we haven’t done in this section of the national park. I again have everything to myself. No one hangs out in Chiltern-Mt Pilot NP on Easter weekend apparently.
I pass a plaque on a fallen tree for someone born in 1980 that died in 2020. Around this tree is a pile of white rocks with messages written on it. I’m guessing it is a motorbike rider who died. (Yes, it was). Unlike the 2021 Baynes Gully Road accident site, there’s nothing super obvious about what went wrong here. But I guess it doesn’t take much to break your neck or knock your helmeted head hard at the speeds they ride if they are thrown from a dirt bike. Poor bloke never got the chance to catch covid. We were still a year away from having any community transmission up here on the date he died.
A bit further up I find a really nice open gully with lots of green grass. We had a big, tropical-style rain event in Wodonga back in February – over 40 mms in less than an hour – and that same storm hit Chiltern. All the low-lying bits that always flood, flooded again. This section of the forest has shown lots of areas where the water just flowed in sheets overland, pushing leaves and debris up against trees and overflowing the road drainages. We’ve been squirrelling our way through lots of sand patches. The debris flow in this gully is very impressive, and there are places where the water and debris banked up to a foot deep behind logs. Other quite large limbs have been moved downhill by the force of water.
But it does mean I’m going to find a soft spot to sleep. I carry the bike and then the gear about 200 metres up off the main track. I find a spot behind a tree, out of view of the track and nestled up against the rising ridge. The mozzies will be bad here, but it is a peaceful spot. I love nothing better.
I watch the moon rise at dusk. The huge orb sits low and bright in the sky. If it were a counterweight, it’d pull the sun back over and all the emerging stars, too. Do the Christians see any sort of special significance when the full moon coincides with Easter Sunday?
Regardless, that fat round disc rising slowly over the hill is so huge that it would stop anyone in their tracks for a few moments to gaze in awe. Sometimes nature’s hugeness is overwhelming, and even the people with their eyes stuck to their phones would have to stop and have a look.
Late in the night, I listen to the animals in the bush. Something is making rustling noises like a possum in a tree nearby. And I assume it’s that, until I hear “rustle, rustle, thump, whooooosh”. The whoosh goes over the tent before there is a thump and rustle, rustle of leaves in another nearby tree. How cool is that? It’s some kind of glider. I am not a spotlighting sort of person (I think it is kinda cruel), but I’m sure there is a happy glider out there and that, in turn, makes me happy.
DAY 3 – 33 kms (21 miles)
The mozzies are thick this morning. But for some reason they swarm my gear and not me. Maybe I stink too much. Like, “we’re attracted to a certain bacterial profile, and you’ve smeared that on your gear through touch, but the profile on yourself is just too strong!”.
I carry the gear back to the track. Then I carry the bike back to the track. I reload the bike and then grab Grevillea Track – the only one not ridden here. It rides fast through open box and ironbarks. Again, there are lots of sandy bits to grab the wheel, but I don’t ever lose it. I get close a couple times, enough that I put a leg out for balance, ready to plant a foot if needed. But we come through clean.
There’s no better way to start the day than a fast downhill through a quiet forest.
A massive hum greets us as we fling ourselves to the end of the track at a bee site. There are over 50 pallets here – with at least 4 boxes per pallet. The air is awash with bees and the sweet smell of honey. Wow – that’s a lot!
I head out of the park, through Barnawatha and then into the 15kph wind on Plunketts Road. Grunt, grunt. Spin it out easy. No hurry.
I can’t think of a time I haven’t had a headwind going ENE on Plunketts Road in the morning. Just the way it is. Grunt, grunt.
I do get to conduct a rear blinkie vs fluoro shirt experiment though. Some time ago, Nigel told me I really should wear fluoro when I ride. It makes you so much more visible. The red blinkie lights are not as eye-catching in daylight. So wear fluoro, he said.
Now, Nigel is super informed about all things road safety. And he has more hours on the road than just about anyone else you’ll meet. You can take a truck driver’s opinion as fact. So I started wearing fluoro back in 2016 or 2017 based on his concern/advice.
I do note when I drive that I do sight motorcyclists and bicyclists wearing fluoro much quicker than I do motorcyclists wearing black or cyclists wearing jerseys or other dark-coloured gear. But I was still thinking about upgrading my rear blinkie to one marketed as a daytime running light. However, I wasn’t convinced that daytime rear blinkies were going to be any better than my fluoro. I think the rear blinkies come into their own at dusk and dawn in low light. I have never found cyclists’ rear blinkies to be all that noticeable during the day when I’m in the car. The front blinkies are a bit better.
So today, a roadie comes up behind me, slows to chat for a couple seconds, and then scoots on. He has an expensive rear blinkie running, but it’s not that bright. He’s wearing grey, black and dark blue. I watch him as he heads down the long straight and up the hill ahead. Yeah, he’s not all that visible, and the rear blinkie is only visible for about 300 metres before it isn’t useful.
Later on, an older guy on super skinny tyres on a recumbent passes me. He has a super bright red blinkie behind his head. He also has a yellow fluoro jacket and a yellow fluoro helmet. This makes the experiment even more exciting since he’s got the low profile of a recumbent!
What is most reassuring is that even though his rear blinkie isn’t all that noticeable beyond a few hundred metres, you can see that fluoro jacket way, way up ahead. Of course Nigel was right. He’s always right when it comes to road safety. The fluoro really makes a difference. The rear blinkie not so much.
What is most exciting though is that when the guy is just a speck up ahead, he rounds a corner near the service station. And I can track him right through that corner. Of course his rear blinkie is not useful because my view of him is side-on.
But that is excellent to know because many of the bush tracks I’m going to ride will follow a ridge contour in and out of drainages. There’s lots of blind corners, so a rear blinkie is not all that useful. But most drivers will be looking a few corners ahead when they round an outside corner to see if anything is up ahead. So I am confident the fluoro will be eye-catching in that situation.
So experiment concluded. I’m not going to upgrade the rear blinkie as it has less value than the fluoro. I just need to think about how to best add some fluoro to my raincoat (which is blue) so that I’m super visible on rainy days, too. Nigel says orange or yellow fluoro are really about the same for distance at which you can sight it, so I’ll have a good think about that one. So many gear decisions!
By this time, I’ve made it back into town. There are plenty of people out and about. I pass a dour looking woman about my age who cannot manage a smile or acknowledgement of my existence. Then, not long after, there are three kids about 10 years of age playing on park equipment. They yell out, “Have a Happy Easter!” Not long after them, an SUV parks on the roadside and two children and a black lab tumble out. Bella, the black lab, is not listening to her owners at all. Thankfully she chooses to annoy a disgruntled teenager in all black sitting on the footpath. The teenage girl shoves the dog away. Of course, the owners don’t discipline the dog, they just think it’s cute and laugh at Bella’s antics. Ugh. At least it keeps Bella occupied and not running in front of my wheel as I go to join the road.
Across town. Along a bike lane that has cars parked in it. Through a roundabout with impeccable timing so as not to need to stop, but forcing cars in two directions to stop. Heeheeheehee! Up the hill, slowly, past a young couple out having a morning cuppa on the front porch of their dilapidated house. Cutting through traffic to get to the turn lane. Then up the final hill to home.
Easter is such a weird holiday here – all these images of rebirth and bunnies and eggs when it is a season of ending here. The trees are starting to turn, the days are much, much shorter and summer comes to a close with Easter being the last major camping weekend for most.
Still, I’m ready for winter this year. Because my winter will be one month long. I’ll jet off and miss July and August this winter. Not that I dislike winter. But I love my parents more, and I’m overdue on seeing them. 11 weeks to take-off!
Now just cross your fingers I don’t get COVID at the Midnight Oil concert Tuesday. Because we are going to see them again five days later closer to home.