Yorta Yorta Country
8 – 14 October 2022
248 kms (154 miles)
I had always envisioned this tour as a solo one. But it was evident before we even put one foot to a pedal that I was going to have company. Murphy decided to come along for the ride.
I know my grandfather, if there is a place you go after death, would be having a good giggle. He subscribed to the theory of Murphy’s Law (if it can go wrong, it will) so much that he even had a poster about it on his garage workshop door.
Nigel is going to take me out to Corowa (45 min drive) for the tour start. I ask him if he’d like to go and stay in a motel on Friday night so I can get an early start on Saturday, and he can have a night away from home. I’m always trying to help his mental health – and dragging him out of the house is one way to do that. Plus, it would be a nice treat to thank him for his considerable help in getting my gear ready for the tour and giving me a place to stay for a couple weeks.
But on Friday, mid-day, Nigel announces he is not feeling very well. He has a scratchy throat. No fever, cough or headache, but enough that we don masks and decide it’d be better if he didn’t stay in Corowa. The covid incubation period is just about right for the Midnight Oil concert in Canberra last weekend.
So I spend Friday night with Murphy instead of Nigel in Corowa. I don’t sleep well, fearing Nige has given me covid. I also have to listen to a Boomer man talk very loudly on his mobile til late in the room next door.
Day 1 – Corowa to outside Tungamah – 85 kms
The trip start is quiet, early and not celebratory. I’m just hoping to beat some of the 20-25kph westerlies predicted today. It is cold as the sun rises and my fingers are numb very quickly. The westerly is already pushing back the tips of the grass as we pedal over the Murray River bridge and through Wahgunyah where no one stirs yet.
Down Distillery Road and then down the main highway. I head down the first gravel road to the west, but it becomes dry weather only after a house and there is no road at the moment. It is all reflective water and tall grass. Nope. Turn around and add 1.5 kms total to the day.
We head west and south down gravel roads encroached by water as we’re chased by clouds of mozzies. Water covers the road here and there as the sodden earth can take no more moisture. Water runs down the roadside on imperceptible grades, all that squishiness finding its way somewhere.
We pass ‘swamps’ and low-lying fields that take on the characteristics of the wetlands they probably once were before being cleared. We cross over the Ovens River. It has spilled over onto the floodplain earlier, laid down all the grasses so they are pointing downstream and left pools of water for the mozzies to breed in.
We ride for several hours over low hills and through fields of barley, wheat and canola. Almonds Road takes us west for a long time. We’re finally on new roads from here on out. My heart beats faster with anticipation and adventure. We are on our ride!
But Murphy takes away some of that joy soon after. The land has flattened out after crossing the Benalla-Yarrawonga Road. The gravel is soft, but we still make really good time, even with the strong wind quartering into the front of my left elbow.
But then the gravel recedes after a driveway and there is about 100 metres up to the intersection that doesn’t have the top level of rock. It doesn’t look too bad, and all of the red stuff so far has been firm or only a bit squishy.
But this gets super squishy super quick. I spin through and make it for a bit, but then it is too much, and I come to a grinding halt as mud cakes to the tyres and fills up every space between wheel, cranks, chainring and frame. I put my feet down and start to walk the bike forward, my feet sliding every which way.
Eventually, forward progress comes to a halt and I go to dismount the bike. But my feet slide in opposite directions and I lose hold of the heavy bike, which of course, falls into a puddle. I frantically try to pick up the bike, as a ute is coming down the road ahead, and I know that Murphy is going to get him to turn down my road. I have not seen a vehicle in more than two hours, but now that I am stuck wallowing in the mud, that is when a ute will come. I try to pull the bike up, but it just makes my feet slide into the bike. I jump over the bike and push it up behind me instead and quickly push it over to the side of the road.
The guy in the ute waves, shifts down a gear and plows through the mud with ease. I walk the bike to the corner, the thick mud picking up all the gravel on the crossroad. I then spend the next 40 minutes pulling mud out of all the corners of the frame and off the tyres. There is so much mud that the cranks won’t even turn. I get mud EVERYWHERE. It is all over my clothes, the panniers, the grips… the… well, everything. My right hand fingernails get a spa-worthy mud treatment… for free.
Finally, I get the bike rideable and we head down the next road flinging mud all over the place as the tyres kick off the mud in the tread. Various bike bits scrape on other bike bits for a little while, but not as long as I would have thought. However, 500 metres down the road, I realise I have no bike computer. (Curse word. Or three).
For a moment, I almost don’t go back to the scene of the crime. Sometimes it is just best to flee and keep going. But I do turn around, ride back into the wind, walk around for a bit thinking that the ute probably ran over the computer and squished it in the mud. But no, I do find it unscathed and sitting on top of the mud where I did the mad scramble to get out of the road.
We arrive into Tungamah as the clouds take over the sky. It is cool and damp. It does not feel like October. I stop on the edge of town at the footy oval and sit on a bench to have lunch. I then find a discarded pen cap that is excellent for prying mud out of the suspension forks and other small spaces.
Tungamah’s main street is a couple blocks long and features low-slung, deteriorating buildings from the late 1800s to early 1900s. The pub up on the corner dominates the street and is putting out lunch-time meal smells. Bangers and mash, anyone?
Opposite the pub is a War Memorial and opposite that is a flower garden where a bank once stood. Further down the street is the old fire station and chemist/bakery. Historical signs are informative. The rail line spurred development here.
The Court House stands out on its own near the bowling club and rail-line – it was in use as a courthouse until the 1970s and used as various things until 2002 when fire codes etc prohibited its use. Now it stands forlorn behind a chain link fence.
There is a free camp along the creek in Tungamah, but it’s packed out with caravans on the Silo Art tourist trail. I’ve got time and legs to ride to Katamatite, and traffic is light, so off we go.
Just a few kms out of town, though, I see a sign for the Broken Boosey State Park. Broke and boozey sounds pretty bogan, but really, it’s a long linear park that protects vegetation on the sides of both of these creeks on their long runs through heavily cleared and irrigated areas of land.
There’s no sign prohibiting camping – just a sign saying “Absolutely no littering”. So I head down to where I see some old fire rings and find a spot among the mozzies that has no overhanging branches. Sodden ground and a strong wind makes me particularly wary of falling trees and limbs.
I quickly erect the tent and hop in to get away from the mozzies who are having no trouble circling and landing in that heavy wind. It’s about 2.30pm. I have a nap.
Murphy decides to have another laugh. As I’m snoozing away, I wake to the sound of a small explosion and the sound of all the air being released from my rear tyre. WTF? I quickly get out to see where the leak is, but the tyre is already flat by the time I get out there. There was no weight on the tyre as the bike was lying on its side on a pannier.
I pull the panniers off, get out my pump and start to pump the tyre. I listen for where the leak is but cannot hear any leak except from the valve. The seal seems intact all the way around the rim on both sides of the tyre. I cannot tell if there is a puncture in the parts of the tyre that have mud on them, but I’m quite certain that the problem is at the valve. Hmmm…. I am so out of my depth here. Did I say anything about a steep learning curve on the road?
Crap. I first try to put some sealant in around the rim hole where the valve comes through. Maybe there wasn’t enough sealant around the plug and hole. I let that sealant sit there for a bit. It doesn’t help. I think maybe I have damaged the valve when I topped up the tyres the other day. So I pull out my nifty valve core removal tool that I’ve never before used and find that at least it is easy to remove and replace valve cores. But this doesn’t help either. The tyre still won’t stay inflated and the noise all comes from the valve area (but it is so windy that I cannot pinpoint the exact nature of the issue). All the while, the mozzies buzz about. I’m in full rain gear and have DEET on my face, hands, wrists and ankles.
I’m very frustrated. What the fuck do I do? What’s all this rave about tubeless tyres? This is not an ideal place to get yourself stuck, and I can’t stay here more than overnight, as I don’t have very much water left.
So I decide I should clean all the mud off the tyre and do a thorough inspection to ensure that the valve is the only problem. I will pull off the wheel, remove the tyre, clean off all the exterior mud, clean out all that nice new sealant and put in a tube. Let’s go with what I know and what is tried and true.
So I pull out my little nylon bucket, slip and slide my way down to the creek edge, get more mud all over my shoes and clothes, and then take the wheel up to the road so that the sealant seeps into the gravel road and not into the soils next to the creek. I’m unsure about all this because I’m uncertain whether I’ll be able to break the seal on the tyre and whether I’ll be able to get the tyre off and then back on the rim. Some tyres require Herculean efforts and I don’t have that sort of strength built yet. I’m not even sure if I’ll be very good about working with the thru-axle and centreing up the rotor into the brake pads.
But it all works out. It takes forever to clean up the tyre and get all the sealant out. I get even muddier in the process, so decide to just clean the rest of the bike while I’m at it. Several trips down to the creek to refill the bucket ensue, but by 5pm, the wheel is back on, the tube is inflated and holding air and I think I will have self-rescued. But let’s see what that tyre looks like in the morning!
It’s kinda been a sucky first day; however, I am grateful that the valve decided to let go once I got to camp, it wasn’t pissing down with rain while it took forever to clean up and repair, and the creek had water so I had a way to clean up the tyre, bike and sealant. It was also a scenic place to slip and slide on that steep, muddy learning curve, and I did not get bitten even once by the clouds of mozzies hovering around.
I guess Murphy likes to hang out with dirty girls… or at least muddy, middle-aged women breaking in a virgin bike.https://ridewithgps.com/routes/41197748
Day 2 – Tungamah to Nathalia – 80 kms
It’s to be another day of southwesterly winds. Headwind all day. So I rise in the dark and start packing up. Things are still fiddly, but I’ve figured out the best way to pack the tent into the front roll. Not bad for the third night out with it.
The almost-full moon hangs low, bright and big to the west. It occupies the dark purple sky in almost direct opposition to the first rays of light in the east. My thermometer reads three degrees and my breath hangs in that cold, damp air. But it’s a gorgeous sight to see those celestial bodies rising and setting at the same time.
And most importantly, the tyre remains turgid and hard. Dirty girl done good hopefully.
I decide the most important thing this morning is to get to the next town. Let’s see if that tyre will hold. And if it doesn’t, let’s see if we can hitch into Katamatite where I can always ring Nigel and ask to be rescued tomorrow (not today – the great Bathurst motor race is on today!).
So, dressed fully in rain gear to keep away the cold and mozzies, blinkie light flashing and a westerly wind already in my face, we set off on chipseal to the west. The tyre is fine, and I seem to have got the rotor centred in the brake pads as there is no rubbing. Still, I ride nervously on that flat straight shot west.
We turn onto the main highway and the wind is a quartering tailwind up to Katamatite. It’s really just a wide spot on the highway, but it does have a petrol station, caravan park and public toilets with a water refill station where I down a litre for hydration before filling up bottles for the day.
Then I set off into the wind down a series of boring, flat roads through irrigation country. At least that hefty wind keeps away the flies – they can be terrible out here in dairy country. There’s not much dairy left out here, though, at least compared to what it once was I’m sure. The collapse of milk prices some years back and extensive water buy-backs mean much of the land I ride through sits idle. There’s a bit of dairy, a bit of cropping, a bit of grazing and a whole lot of mud today.
I ride into Numurkah on a back road and find myself riding through the opulence and palm trees of a country club and its various units and homes. I then ride through neighbourhoods of less expensive homes that get older as I get closer to the main street.
The main street is not all that impressive. It gives the impression of functionality and roughness and not all that much pride. I am looking for a place for lunch that is in the sun but out of the wind. There is parkland along a dammed creek, a skate park, a caravan park, a public pool and a Lions park. I’m sure they would all be nice on a nice day. But is 10.4 degrees with a “feels like” temperature of 6.8. The wind is gusting to 37kph. So I end up sitting in front of an old train engine quite close to the main road, as its the only place I’ve seen in town that has any chance of being warm.
After a lunch break, we head back into the wind through more irrigated land. Normally, people are pretty friendly in rural areas and will raise a finger from the wheel to say hello as they go by. But it is decidedly not friendly when I come across oncoming vehicles. I just get hard stares. But then I figure it out.
I’m really close to the Barmah Forest. They made it a national park in 2010, kicked out the timber cutters and cattle graziers, and prohibited a bunch of things that rednecks like to do. They also have a management plan for the feral horses that the locals don’t agree with. I’m also riding through the irrigated areas where a lot of water rights have been bought back for environmental flows. Sooooo… those locals have rightly picked out that the blue blob of raingear on the bike is a greenie!
Nathalia straddles Broken Creek. It’s a scenic setting and the main street is super-wide. The single-story buildings line each side with the street broken down the middle by parkland and parking areas. The IGA is large for the town size and has a good selection of stuff. The veg is pretty fresh and I pick up some bananas, as well as some broccoli and zucchini to go in my hot meals for tonight and tomorrow.
The caravan park sits next to the creek and is full of many old cabins and structures of various design housing permanent residents. There are three or four tourists in caravans, but it’s mostly a place of poor people with pets. The amenities block is old but clean, and the owner is a vibrant older women who drives around the little park on a mobility scooter but still gets up on a ladder to help a couple painting their cabin battleship grey to match some of the others. The owner asks me if I’m doing okay every time she comes by. Everyone is friendly, but gosh would this place be filled with a hundred sad stories of all the ways you can end up at the bottom of society.https://ridewithgps.com/routes/41197772
Day 3 – Nathalia to Barmah NP – 45 kms
The night is very cold, but I stay plenty warm. It’s one degree at 7am.
I’m not going far today, so I can let the sun warm things up a little before I head off about 9am. I talk to the Boomer in the $100,000 caravan next door as I pack up. He detects my accent and tells me all about the five American hot rods he owns, the Chevy motorhome he is fixing up, and how they like to spend a few months in America every year. How does he reconcile his wealth against all the have-nots surrounding him here? I’m uncomfortable with just $5000 worth of bike and gear!
Soon I’m heading along Broken Creek in that linear protected area – a strip of trees and grassland along the channelised creek. We’ll get 20 or 30 kms of meandering gravel road along that meandering creek. It’s quiet, and once you get over the human element of a channelled creek and regrowth trees, it’s just a supremely sublime ride. The paddocks and orchards and irrigated land is never far to the left or right, but the avenue of trees makes for a really special morning. I don’t hurry the pace, I just meander along like the creek.
At times, we have to make a straight shot across fields, and at one point, we cross over to ride the other bank, but it’s some of the most pleasant, flat, streamside riding I may have ever done. I see one farmer ute and one mail contractor between Nathalia and the road into Barmah. Bliss.
There’s not a lot to Barmah, and it won’t take much more water to start flooding Barmah itself either. But Barmah looks to be a pub, general store and a couple caravan parks.
Jabba the Bus is in town. As I go to fill my water bottles, have a snack and strap on the water supplies, I note that they have about eight staff, but no customers. So I roll over and try to talk my way into a Japanese Encephalitis vaccine. (They have JEV and COVID vax onboard and monkey pox from next week). The nurse is sympathetic and says she would definitely give me a shot if it were up to her discretion. The criteria are: over 50, outside at least 4 hours per day and living or working in river communities. I plea that I am along the river 24 hours a day, I’m almost 47 and I’m homeless. But alas, that doesn’t meet the rules, and there is not enough JEV in the world to vaccinate the number of people, in general, that live and work in border communities. Plus, it’s an expensive vax, so it has to be rationed, so it’s a no go for me. But I did try!
Jabba the Bus’ driver chats to me for a bit. She had another mozzie virus called Barmah Forest virus that took her down for a couple years. The first round laid her flat for about 10 days, then every 4-6 weeks after that for two years, it would recur, though thankfully a bit less severe each time. She now has long-COVID and we commiserate over brain fog and debilitating fatigue. We also compare notes on lost word recall and its frustrations.
Then I’m off over the bridge into NSW for a bit. My original plan had been to ride the dirt tracks along the Murray River and then cross here. I wanted to see the Murray River take that big swing south and ride along through the Barmah Lakes. The geology here is pretty amazing.
The 80 kilometre Cadell fault runs from Echuca to Deniliquin. Between 75,000 and 25,000 years ago, the fault surface-ruptured 4-6 times with magnitude 7.3 and higher quakes. This lifted the earth high enough over time (from 3-13 metres) along the fault that the river was blocked from its original course. Two large lakes formed and then eventually drained as the river changed course and took over the Goulburn River’s old route. The Yorta Yorta have oral history that talks about their ancestors going down to the lowest point on the sandhills surrounding the Barmah Choke and using their digging sticks to cut the new course.
I had wanted to do a thorough exploration of some geological sites associated with this, but alas, much of this is under water at the moment, or the roads I’d link to see the sites are closed. So maybe in autumn we can come back this way and check it out.
Today, however, I’m just excited to ride over the big-arse sandhill that the highway cuts through and look off to the south imagining the lower lake spreading over the area. I take off down the Old Barmah Road, hoping I can get to some of the park roads that will take me up into the old sandhills scoured from that lake bed. Unfortunately, though, there is water over the road in the form of its very own very large lake before I even get to the park. So I have to turn around and head back to the main road.
Murphy finally relents and presents a break in the fence along another section of national park. I take the opportunity to ride over the downed fence like the 4WD rednecks who destroyed it. I’m immediately besieged by a torrent of mozzies. I’m into my rain gear quick smart but still sustain four bites. Bastards – the numbers are just nuts.
This old state forest has a callitris pine plantation growing on the old sand hills and every mozzie who had been hanging out on a tree comes to suck blood. But I’m covered now as I push my bike up and over the dune. I don’t wander long before I find a nice spot for the tent. I dive in, nap and then read up on all the geology again, making myself sad that I can’t explore the area more. It is world-renowned as such a good example of a fault causing a river to change course. I guess we’ll just have to save some for later. I feel lucky enough that the 4WDers created an illegal entrance on an old state forest entry road that has allowed me access tonight.https://ridewithgps.com/routes/41197791
Day 4 – Barmah NP to Echuca – 38 kms
Orange hues paint the sky to the east in a smear of colour and cloud. It’s cool and the mozzies are up early for a feed. There’s a pine stump to lean the bike against. That makes it much easier to attach the fork bags and balance the bike for the rest. And then we’re off down the road at 6.45 am.
There’s a few commuters but they give the blue blob with the blinkie light plenty of room. Except for one SUV that intentionally buzzes me doing 130 or 140kph. We roll along the low flats of that old lake looking over at all of the trees growing on the old lake dunes. Then slowly, we get to the small rise that is the old Cadell fault. If you were driving or riding this, you wouldn’t even give this small gentle hill much of a thought at all. But that’s a really significant fault, and really, it could give way at a similar magnitude at any time.
We get up to the Cobb Highway and have to ride this for 5 or so kms until we meet with the old road. It’s very busy with all manner of vehicles. There is no consistent shoulder, and in some places absolutely no shoulder at all. So I spend a bit of time over on the dirt and the whole time looking in my mirror. I do glance over every so often to look at all the trees that sit down below this block of land. You can tell the trees sit lower – you are looking at their tops way over there, but I’m sure the reason why is lost for most.
Finally, we can get off on Old Deniliquin Road and follow that all the way into Moama. The surface is pretty terrible – a hard clay covered by sand. It’s corrugated AND potholed and sometimes both at the same time.
There are some boggy sections where the roadworks crew has just given up and literally covered the road in railroad ballast. No joke. I work my way around these as best I can and hope for no sharp, jaggedy rocks to puncture a tyre through the rest.
This road was a “3-chain” road back in the day, meaning it was three chains wide and used to move stock along it. This was a major stock route, driving heaps of cattle and some sheep down from Queensland and NSW to Melbourne back in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Moama had a major punt crossing at the end of this road that transported the stock into Victoria.
I actually hit town before I know it and just hop on a bike path when it suddenly appears. And then the river is right there.
I wander my way into town. Moama is just like all the little NSW river towns – a low slung single-story main street, holiday homes with palm trees whose owners must be trying to recreate the Riviera, and a huge RSL or bowling club that expanded and expanded through the 1980s and 1990s when pokies were legal in NSW but not Victoria. (They used to run free buses from Melbourne to the various NSW river towns so the city folks could come gamble away their earnings).
I find my way to the gazebo in the park. It is still cloudy and cold. It’s seven degrees and I’m shivery now that I’ve stopped. There’s a guy mowing the grass closer to the river. Once he comes my way, I swap him places and go down and find a spot out of the wind by the nice skatepark to cook up some porridge, p-butter and protein powder. It warms me up.
I wander over the old 1880s bridge, assuming that the footpath is the old rail-line section before the rail got its own bridge. I note all the water spilling over the banks on the NSW side of the river and have a good laugh when I see a turtle way down below doing the turtle version of a double pike dive, or at least a good bungy style jump into the water from a log. No slipping into the water for that turtle – it was a splashing launch, lol!
Echuca was once a VERY busy paddlesteamer port. It is the closest town on the Murray River to Melbourne (240 kms away). This river port is credited with opening up the sheep industry in rural NSW and Victoria, and was such a large port that a rail-line was constructed from Melbourne to carry all of the freight to the city.
I wander around town and check out the new bike paths constructed when they finally built and completed a bridge bypass of the Echuca-Moama townships this year.
I also wander around town a bit and am amazed at the number of pubs. There is one on every corner and sometimes a couple along the street in between. I look this up later, and yes, Echuca once had 60 pubs. Back in the day, these hotels had the pub downstairs and accommodation upstairs, and I suppose there were a lot of people to accommodate with such a busy port.
I soak up the sun in the park until I can check into my cabin at 2pm. I’m staying in a caravan park cabin for the next four nights. A significant rain system is whirling its way toward Victoria, and it does not sound like something that would be fun or safe to ride in, so I’m waiting it out. I’m able to get a 2-bedroom cabin with a full kitchen and plenty of space to spread everything out for $127 a night with my NRMA discount. This is the same price as a motel room so is a good deal. I’m sure we’ll work through the budget ramifications over the next few weeks. And I’m happy to have the days to finalise all the stuff I didn’t quite get done before I left Albury.
Days 5-7 – Echuca
“In the end the rain comes down, in the end the rain comes down… and washes clean the streets, of a blue sky town”.
It is a very wise decision to sit out these days and get a cabin in Echuca. The rain is significant and almost every river north of the Divide in Victoria is in major or moderate flood. Rainfall records are broken. The state Premier advises to avoid all non-essential travel on Wednesday. The road closure and warning symbols on the VIC Live Traffic app looks like a fair person’s freckles multiplying on a sunny day. There are more than 800 incidents on there at one point. Victoria is a state the size of Colorado, and at least 75% of it is significantly impacted by the flooding rain.
96 millimetres (3.78 inches) falls in Echuca in 36 hours. The rain is solid and heavy for much of the time. It’s windy and cold. It would have been miserable in the tent. And it has been excellent to have a dry space to spread out stuff to reorganise, dry out and clean up my gear, and finish off all the things that I didn’t get done in Albury before I left (e.g. computer stuff, devising up some rubber protective bits for my rear rack, swapping out batteries and more). It’s actually very good timing and I’m busy all three days organising, repairing, devising solutions and eating up lots of veggie nutrients.
Nigel invites himself out on Wednesday afternoon (it’s a 2.5 hour drive from Albury). He’s bringing me spare tubes so I don’t have to buy any. He’s also bringing my new phone I bought back in May. I was hoping to nurse along my old phone until December, but it holds so little charge, a swap now is wise since I’m going to need to refer to the VicTraffic app and EmergencyVic apps for flood and road closure updates a lot in the coming weeks.
He’s also coming out so I can help him update and modernise his resume, another thing we didn’t get done before I left. We do get it done on Thursday, and it looks professional. I wouldn’t be embarrased to hand it out – but, oh my god, getting that done was like pulling teeth from a stubborn, fire-breathing dragon!
The rain clears out on Friday. The westerly wind is strong and cloud-sized bursts of rain make their way through all morning. The town has been under a BOIL WATER notice since Thursday morning, so there is not a bottle of water to be had in town. I need to take 5 litres of water with me when I head out tomorrow, so Friday sees multiple rounds of boiling water, letting it cool down and then filling my bottles. Inconvenient but a heck of a lot better than what many people are experiencing across the state.
Nigel leaves Friday morning. I tell him to take Murphy with him. And to take Miss la Nina, SAM (southern annular mode), and Julian (Julian Oscillation associated with the negative Indian Ocean Dipole), too. This is meant to be a solo ride and all those folks are starting to cramp my style.
We head off for Terrick Terrick NP tomorrow. The weather looks good until Wednesday afternoon… then another heap of rain. Ribbit. Ribbit.
Here’s some links to info about all the flooding going on: