25-28 October 2022
193 kms (120 miles)
Total trip kms: 925 (575 miles)
Day 18 – Casterton to Penola – Gunditjmara, Jardwajali Country – 102 kms
The world has reduced to such a small space – a couple hundred metres in any direction. It is wet and cold and the foggy mist quickly clings to my face, raincoat and rain pants. It is quiet, the world muffled by moisture. It’s like those silent mornings as a kid that excited me so much knowing there had been a big dump of snow and we’d get to go sledding.
I climb up out of the valley protecting Casterton on a curvy gravel road. Eventually we get up onto higher ground and cruise north in that little world of fog and wetness. Buildings occasionally emerge from the cloud as we pass, cars covered in millions of water droplets, their owners still enveloped in the warmth of home this early morning.
With no long views, the sense of hearing is heightened and I note the croaks of frogs, the gurgle of water in a nearby drain, birds flitting, the breeze lightly ruffling the leaves on messmates. It’s mostly quiet, but the high-pitched annoying screeching of the sulphur-crested cockatoos comes at one point, but even that piercing squawk is not enough to part the low clouds.
I watch ghost trees through the mist, their light-coloured bark or dark trunks appearing out of the thick air. I pass blue gum plantations, hundreds of skinny straight trunks like a heap of little Nigel legs, if only Nigel’s legs were straight.
My tyres pick up the moisture and flick wicks of water forward. The bike is well and truly grimy at this point. White sand sticks to the downtube and mud from many different catchments peeks out from inaccessible crevices.
We roll between pine and blue gum plantations on private land and through some ‘state forest’ that is given to radiata pine. Sheesh, if you can grow those on sand out here, why have we decimated so much of the good soils and biodiversity in the Northeast with softwood plantations?
Steeles Lane has had a major upgrade, but once to the end of the pine plantations, the wide, smooth, big, gravel abruptly ends and becomes two large puddles (no! no more wet feet!) on a sandy two track amongst scrub regenerating from past clearing.
I’m trying to get back to the main road but thought I might link up some back roads to see some veg and not have to fight with traffic. But Steeles Lane past the upgrade is hard, sandy work. I ride the edges of those first big puddles and slosh through standing water for awhile along a fence line. We ride for several more kilometres on the two-track to our next road, Tylers Road. But Tyler’s Road looks like just a road reserve and has a huge PRIVATE PROPERTY sign on the gate.
Now, back home, if the gate wasn’t locked, I would just ride on through. There are lots of public roads that are nothing more than a dirt path that traverses through private property. And you have every right to ride it. But I’m not sure how that works here way out west.
So I turn around. I can take the Big Sandy Track further west and then backtrack to a small sealed road and eventually get back over to the main road.
Of course, Big Sandy Track is sandy, and it’s not a ride I could have done on my old touring bike. So I give myself a crash course in sand riding. I know the basics: gear down, keep spinning, keep spinning and keep the weight off the front.
I’m enjoying the different vegetation types – it’s so different to the Northeast. But Big Sandy gets big puddly in some low points, and I come across a huge puddle that looks like it could be knee deep or so. There’s no way around it, and even the edges look deep. I scout around a bit, but I don’t see any way to get around that. Or through it without getting very wet. Plus, beyond this point, the track looks to whittle down to not much but only sand.
Hmmm…. the idea was to get up to Dergholm State Park by around 11.30 or so after about 60 kms of backroads and highways. But even if I can get around that body of water, which I can’t, we’re not going to get to the campground before the rain comes.
So I give up on Dergholm and resign myself to some forest riding that will allow me to see some different types of vegetation. Who knows where we’ll end up. I do have 4 litres of water on-board and at least 4 days of food, so I’m not worried. I can plonk down anywhere not squishy, though that is not super-easy to find right now!
So we backtrack a little to another track and wander around for awhile – always trying to head south and east back toward Steeles Lane. I’m not lost, but I don’t really know where I am for awhile. The sun is trying very hard to poke through which is not a good thing, really. That will just mean the winds will pick up, the atmosphere will heat up, and the rain and storms will come quicker.
I get back to Steele’s Lane eventually and ride this to another road heading west into the forest again. I have not seen a vehicle in about 2 hours, but a private forestry ute comes screaming up that road. I get over to the side. I doubt he ever saw me at all – he had to have been doing 100kph on that rough gravel. Whoah!
There’s some water over the road, but we get through without getting our feet wet. There’s some really rough gravel that would have been torture on my other bike. And then there’s sand. Lots of sand. I learn quickly how to read it and what it rides like with a little bit of stabilising grass, what it rides like when there’s been a tyre track down it, and what it rides like when it is just like a linear beach. It is instructive and I really enjoy all these different trees and mid-story plants along the way. But all the while the clock is ticking on rain shower development.
I’m on a road that is marked with an orange dotted line on my regional map. Back home, this type of road on the map would indicate a good, wide gravel. I’ve learned that I need to stay off the tiny, grey-dotted lines – they are like ‘dry weather only’ roads and are too sandy or too muddy to ride right now.
But as I progress along Old Telegraph Road, I come to understand that orange-dotted is not necessarily good gravel out here. (And before you go on about open street maps and the wonders of GPS… well, those are even worse because they give you no indication of whether the road you are looking at is formed or not. At least the orange vs grey gives me some idea of that).
Old Telegraph Road has a new chunky layer that isn’t even all that fun on Atlas. I’m trying to look at the trees, since they are much shorter and darker-leafed than anything back home. But I really need to keep looking at the road so I don’t ride over anything too sharp.
Old Telegraph Road goes on like this for several kilometres until we reach more pine forest. And then the road becomes nothing but a high tide of ankle to calf-deep sand. I also come across the first people I’ve seen in another 1.5 hours – forestry contractors thinning the pines. There is a red ribbon across the road in front of me saying “NO ENTRY”. I laugh. Yeah, right. I am not turning around. And I can see them working down another track. The lack of entry for me is just the lack of rideability!
However, some time long ago, they chopped down the outer two rows of trees in the plantation, and there is some stability in that sand. I think I only need to go another kilometre to get to a road that will eventually take me out to the highway.
And so I proceed – riding near the sandy beach that is the road, but not on it. I do get down to Paramount Road. It is more of the same – more of me riding along old pine rows adjacent to the road. Eventually, a less sandy track emerges next to the sandy fire break road, and progress is easier. But gosh, it’s well past 11.30 and well past 60 kilometres. It’s not quite the day I’d thought was going to happen!
The road winds about and we do see some nice remnant bush at the edges of the Lake Mundi Preserve. It is mostly a sandy gravel so our progress is quicker. Another hour goes by.
Just as we get close to the higway, I see a farmer out near some sheds. It smells a lot like wood-fired pizza and I wonder just what he could be doing that smells like burning dough. Or maybe I’m just hungry? I’ve never been a big pizza person, though, and I’ve been craving rice krispie bars for days, but whatever the case, it smells like pizza for a kay.
The old farmer in the ute rolls up beside me about 400 metres from the highway. He looks at me curiously with furrowed brows. He asks, “Are you lost? Or are you just passing through? Do you need help?”
Sheesh. Do I look in distress? That was a slightly convoluted and difficult ride, but it was all rideable on Atlas, even if not always on the ‘track’. I reply, “Oh, yeah, I’m fine. I’m heading up to the highway and then on to Penola.”
He looks at me, shakes his head, and says, “Where did you come from?”
“Oh, I was just riding around up in the bush there looking at the different vegetation,” I reply.
He laugh-grunts and says, “I reckon that would all be pretty hard on a push-bike, lady.”
I laugh and say, “Yeah, that was probably a bit sandier and a bit wetter than I’d anticipated. But I’ve got big tyres, so I was able to push through.”
He tells me to take good care, watch out for the rain coming and then he is away.
I sit at the Lake Mundi CFA shed to finally have something to eat. There’s concrete to sit on there. I’m not being super kind to my body today. BUT, it is being amazing. My digestion is doing fantastic on tour so far, and I’ve been withdrawing some of the motility supports with great success. Maybe all those nerve cells that control the migrating motor complex are finally healing and regenerating. Maybe, at some point, I won’t have to carry around a kilo of pills.
The road to Penola is a C-road – and I avoid those as much as I can. But this one is really quiet and there is not much traffic. So we roll on towards Penola through scattered red gum forest, more plantations and open grazing land. We do eventually get rained on several times and we’re fighting a 30kph direct and quartering headwind.
But I get there, head down, churning it out. Feet and gear wet again.
I spent the night in Penola in 1998, as it was an overnight stop on the backpacker bus. I remember it being a dead little country town that looked like it was straight from 1956. I even took a photo of the main street back then because it was such a time-warp. And back in those days of film cameras, you didn’t take photos of just anything.
Penola’s main street is still a bit antiquated, but since 1998, it’s become a ‘wine trail’ town, so the shops have gone upmarket and the grotty backpackers is gone. There is a hostel in town, but it is more like private group accommodation.
There is a new Foodland supermarket that is well-stocked though, and I get some hummus and veggies to go on my remaining gluten-free wraps (gosh, those wraps really open up possibilities for eating, I will probably have to get more). What is weird is that there is a huge section of American food in there – Hostess products, Lucky Charms and other stuff. Totally weird. I didn’t do a detailed survey, but trust me, there was a lot of American junk food on that one aisle.
My preferred sleeping arrangement for the night would be to just roll out the sleeping bag at the footy oval in one of the team shelters. I really don’t need any facilities tonight. Unfortunately, the free camp in town is for “self-contained vehicles” only. This has become a huge problem. In the past, it would just be some public land near town and it wouldn’t really be formalised. But now, there’s a discriminatory thing going on, that only RVS can stay.
I would argue I’m fully self-contained. I can shit in a bag, and pee in my wide-mouthed bottle. I’m skilled enough with 25 years of experience that I can even do that IN my tent without worry. AND, if you say I have to have shower facilities on board…. well, I always carry wet wipes, and who doesn’t go without a shower every now and again. Damn grey nomads… before they all retired and hit the road in mass, none of this was so regulated!
Off my soap box and down to the caravan park. I’m not wanting to fight the system in a town that’s fancified itself as the Coonawarra wine region (Australia’s best cab sav apparently). And I can’t just sleep at the footy oval as I’d hoped with my stuff all packed and ready to go for an early AM start. The Penola Show is this coming weekend and all the carnies are already here. The oval is busy.
The caravan park is old and the showers in a demountable building. There are worker cabins full of people for whom English is not their first language. And then there are the grey nomads sipping wine at their fold-out tables next to their vans. Unfortunately, the proprieters have lumped everyone in adjoining sites, and I’m stuck between a big Mercedes campervan and a $100,000 caravan being pulled by a $75,000 Land Cruiser. Boy, are they going to be happy to hear me snore all night and then pack up at 5am!
Day 19 – Penola to Naracoorte Caves – Marditjali, Meintangk, Ngarrindjerri Country – 68 kms
I’m a nerd. You know that by now. And I’ve really been looking forward to visiting the Naracoorte Caves. It’s World Heritage-listed and has a super rich array of Pleistocene fossils. The site is known for having a huge collection of ‘megafauna’ fossils – the huge ancestors of today’s marsupials which went extinct about 50,000 years ago in a period of dramatic climate change. There aren’t many places with such a thorough record of 500,000 years of history.
Showers and a westerly wind are forecast again from mid-morning, so I’m hoping a super-early start might get me there before the rains come. I have a campsite booked for two nights at the Caves.
But in the darkness, as I pack up, it is apparent that the showers are already here. Everything is wet. The tent is sopping, even with the 25kph wind. Ugh.
I’m rolling out of town at what would be first light. I have been advised not to take the highway because they are doing roadworks and the road is pretty narrow. So I’m taking a big swing out to the west, crossing the highway, and then backtracking to the caves from the backside.
Ugh. The wind drives the rain into my face. It is cold. It is very wet. It still feels like winter. I don’t know what the wind chill is, but it cannot be more than 5 degrees. I feel sorry for myself as I fight into the wind across flat ground.
I do tend to be an optimistic person, however, and I am glad that all the low cloud obscuring any views is just obscuring boring, flat cropland. It would really suck to have a day like today when you were riding the Canadian Rockies or some other scenic place. At least I’m not missing much scenery as I drip and snot my way across the landscape.
The clouds remain low until we’re almost back to the highway. Had the weather been decent, we could have stopped at Bool Lagoon. It’s a huge wetland site that is RAMSAR listed. Even though I’m not a bird person, I would have enjoyed walking along the boardwalks and thinking about how the wetlands ‘sit’ within that landscape. But not today. It is completely 100 percent crappy out.
The skies get a bit better as we cross the highway at Straun. We ride up and over the sand dune range on a pleasant road to Joanna.
We ride north as the rain returns in driving bursts through the Wrattonbully wine region. I’m loving all the sinkholes here and there but not loving all that mist, drizzle and driving drizzle pelting the hood of my raincoat or pelting my face when the wind is head-on. And boy is that wind a bother – it’s 30-35kph gusting to 45kph. Struggle, struggle, pedal, pedal. We are a nerd on a mission.
The road pulls us up to the top of the little range and I get to the visitor centre around 11am with everyone else who left town 12kms away after a relaxed morning and brunch in a cafe. Nobody else looks soggy. Nobody else appears to have wet feet.
I buy a ticket to the fossil cave tour for tomorrow morning and then go do all of the surface hiking trails that look at all the cave entrances.
This site was World Heritage-listed in 1994 and about $9 million dollars was invested in a visitor centre in 1998. I thought that the fossil centre might be pretty engaging and so allowed myself a couple days here. But it’s quite disappointing. The interpretive stuff in the lobby area is sparse and really just a thumb-nail sketch. They’ve found diprotodons here but don’t even have a fossil skeleton on display (I have seen one – at The Mammoth Site in South Dakota!).
Out the back is the ‘diorama’. You are supposed to pay to get into this, but the visitor centre guy told me to just go for it since I’d ridden here, I’m super nerdy and I’d paid for a couple nights camping. The diorama is a bit like Pirates of the Carribean, only you walk through instead of being on a boat. But, just like the Pirates ride, it’s dark in there and there are animatronic megafauna doing jerky movements.
Now some people would think this is great. Based on the science and the animal skeletons found, they’ve tried to recreate what the animal would look like with flesh and fur, and what its behaviours would be and what the habitat would have looked like. But I just find it dark and creepy as I walk through.
And man, is there a roof leak somewhere – the mould smell in there is overpowering, and I’m sure that wasn’t a part of the exhibit! Plus, some of the lighting is broken, so you can’t read the interpretive material, and it is hard to see all the detail in that darkness. I would much rather have seen a big collection of the reassembled skeletons with illustrations of what they may have looked like. (Think Hall of Elephants at the Natural History Museum in Lincoln, NE – that was really well done!).
So I’ve knocked off the Fossil Centre in just over an hour, and done all the walking tracks in the intermittent rain. Really, I could have done the cave tour this afternoon and didn’t need two days. How underwhelming for a World Heritage site.
I head down to the campsite, set up my tent in the grass behind my hardened gravel site after trying to get the tent a bit drier in the picnic shelter first, and cook up some late lunch with the stove down in the picnic shelter sink to keep it out of the wind. The water here is not potable, but the website suggested it was, so I didn’t bring nearly enough water. I cook with the tap water, bringing it to a boil, but it is so hard I can taste all the minerals and am not sure what it will do to my guts!
Tent set up. I get in there to get out of the rain and wind, which is now gusting to 45kph again. I crawl in my damp sleeping bag and look at the weather forecast with dismay. No, I didn’t need two days here, but I couldn’t have done much riding tomorrow anyway. The forecast is for more showers and winds 35-40kph gusting to 55kph. We couldn’t have done much with that!
Day 20 – Naracoorte Caves – Marditjali, Meintangk, Ngarrindjerri Country – 0 kms
My guts have handled that hard water okay. Yippee!
I take off to do the rest of the “World Heritage” hike and the hike out to Stoney Point before my fossil cave tour at 10.15am.
I slip my feet back into my wet socks and then back into my wet shoes. My feet have been wet since we left Echuca with only a brief respite of light dampness on our second day in Casterton. I’m starting to wonder what happens when your feet get no respite from being pruned!
The track is through remnant and regrowth forest. It’s pleasant if you take away the rain and wind. There are many natives blooming. The track is through grass though, so now my feet are squelchy wet instead of just wet. A bit annoying to be honest!
The cave tour has about 15 people. The tour is also a bit underwhelming. We spend 15 minutes in the first chamber with 5 minutes allowed for photography of the formations. However, if you’ve been to Mammoth Cave or other caves with amazing formations, you’d just shrug your shoulders at the stalagmites, etc here. Most of them have been broken off back in the early 1900s tourism anyway. Plus, this tour is supposed to be about the fossils they’ve found, not the cave formations!
The guide is very knowledgeable obviously. But the material covered is just sort of off-the-cuff and in response to questions asked. I suppose I’ve been spoiled by the excellent walks and talks in the National Parks in America – it’s rare to come across a ho-hum interpretive session there.
We do get to see the original fossil excavation site, and the sites behind that they are working now. There’s a bit of talk about the different megafauna found and some of the new species discovered here (including a 5-metre constrictor snake!).
I’m more interested in how this rich fossil history has contributed to our understanding of the Pleistocene extinction events than the fossils themselves. What have we learned from all of the work done here? So I do get to ask my burning question: Does the work at this site contribute any knowledge as to whether the Pleistocene megafauna extinctions evidenced here and the current Holocene extinction event (which we are currently experiencing) will be considered separate extinction events or just one extinction event?
The world has experienced 5 major extinction events, and it can be argued we are undergoing the sixth. But, extinction events (think dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous), have typically been separated by millions and millions of years. If the Pleistocene and Holocene extinction events are considered separate, then they are only separated by thousands of years. That is a mere blip in geological time. Maybe it’s just been one extinction event starting in the Pleistocene. This is a current debate among certain nerdy circles.
However, the intrepretive guide doesn’t know or have an answer. The work here doesn’t really support that conundrum either way. She does think it is an interesting question though, and does think that the work here supports the theory that the megafauna extinction was caused by climate change instead of the arrival of humans. (That is important, because there are about five theories as to why the megafauna around the world died out).
So I leave the $35 tour a little underwhelmed. I guess I just need to do a tour where all the people are academics and paleontologists, and I’m the one with superficial understanding of the material, instead of the one with a lot of other background knowledge!
I spend the afternoon holed up in the fluttering and flexing tent. The gusts are up to 67 kph. It’s wild and wooly and cold and wet out there! I cook dinner in the laundry room, as I just don’t think the stove flame is going to hold up against those gusts. The forecast rain yesteday was for 0-2mm and we got 3mm. The rain forecast today was for 0-2mm and we end up with 5mm. Ugh. Cold and wet and all my gear is damp (except the electronics and meds which I keep in dry bags and don’t pull out in these conditions).
Day 21 – Naracoorte Caves to Naracoorte – Marditjali, Meintangk, Ngarrindjerri Country – 23 kms (12 kms to town and 11 kms in town)
The old couple in the caravan have felt really sorry for me. The woman brings over a hot cup of tea in the morning as I lay my tent and gear out in the picnic shelters – hoping to get them a tiny bit drier before packing up.
The older woman says, as she hands me the cup of tea, “It has been so miserable the past week. We couldn’t imagine being in a tent. I took the liberty of giving you milk and two sugars.”
Now, I’m not supposed to have any of that. Black tea is high in oxalates, dairy is super inflammatory and causes many issues, and sugar is a no-go. But I gratefully accept the cup of tea and tell her that, thankfully, I’m dry in the tent, but it’s just a pain in the arse trying to get anything dry since it’s so cold and has been non-stop wet. (The high yesterday was 13C and the high today will be 15C).
They have been on holiday for a couple months after visiting their kids and grandkids in Perth. The weather was good there, but they’ve copped rain the whole time they were in Victoria after visiting their other daughter in Melbourne. They are on their way home to Adelaide now. They’d planned to travel for a month longer but are fed up with the rain. She wishes me well and tries to give me some packets of biscuits and a tin of beetroot, but I decline.
I’d talked to some German backpackers in a campervan yesterday arvo. They arrived in Melbourne 6 weeks ago, fitted out the van and have been dismayed by the cold temps and rain. They had planned to travel for 6 months before finding work, but the ongoing wet conditions and being unable to visit various places means they’ve accepted work in Tasmania and are heading there now with the idea to work first and then travel later and hope the weather improves.
Not long after the caravan couple take off in their dry vehicle, the mother of a family in a rental campervan comes over. She also feels very sorry for me and wants to know if I need anything. She says, “oh my god, I could not do that in a tent. I would’ve slept in the laundry last night!”
She is from Mt Gambier and she, her husband and their three kids are home visiting. They are doing some 2-3 day trips around the region in the rental van, but the rain has been a bit much – the campervan is very confining for three kids under 10! They actually live in the Northwest in the USA and are really feeling the cold since they’ve just come out of what was a really nice summer. They’ve got four weeks in Oz to visit family and do these little trips. She’s a cyclist and runner and is interested in the bike and where I’m heading.
Once the tent is not dripping, I pack everything up and head into town. The forecast is for 0-1 mm, but it’s already done 1.6 mm by the time I start down the road. The showers are not constant today, and there are some sunny breaks in between. But don’t put your laundry out, because as soon as you think the showers may have dissipated, another cloud will let go and give a good soaking.
There is a trail between the Caves and town. But it said something about “pine plantations” and “sandy tracks”, and I thought, “yeah, I’ve had enough of that for a bit.” So I just head into town on the Old Caves Road.
Naracoorte is a town of about 5,000. It’s busy and a bit chaotic. There seem to be three parallel roads with businesses on them and several roundabouts right on top of each other on the western end of those roads which connect them. It feels like people are just going every which way!
I’ve come to the conclusion that SA drivers are worse than Victorian drivers (which are worse than NSW drivers). The SA folks gun it from every corner, brake hard and are terrible at using their indicators in roundabouts. They also travel well above the 100kph speed limit. Nigel had always told me that VIC drivers were worse than NSW. I thought he was just biased since he grew up in NSW. But after living in Oz awhile, I came to agree with him. So my SA observation isn’t biased, I don’t think, but gosh, the drivers here keep you on your toes (wet toes in my case)!
But still, I ride around town, check out the churches on the hill (they’re all congregated up there), check out the parks and get some food and find a place out of the 45kph wind to eat.
I also find replacements for all the things the rain has killed:
- My headlamp, which was some cheapo one that I’ve had forever but was incredibly light and reliable, started to cut out some days ago, and now it doesn’t turn on at all. So I find a basic one at the supermarket (because all the ones at the hardware store were no better but much more expensive).
- I find a cable bike lock for $5 at a discount store. The lock I started the trip with has gotten so rusty no WD-40 or bike lube can remedy it. I can no longer get the key in the lock. I just have a simple cable lock – just to keep someone from riding away with the bike, so it’s not a huge loss.
- And I get another pair of socks. I’ve been wearing the same wet pair for many days (obsessively guarding the one dry pair for tent time). But they have become rancid. I’ve never had a piece of gear or pair of shoes or socks smell that terrible before. The odour is like really, runny squishy mud and Doritos corn chips. Yeah, weird, but really, really terrible. There is nothing to recover those. I gave up on them and have just been wandering around without socks the past two days. So I now have a new pair of socks to ruin.
The caravan park here in town looks pretty nice and there might be shade in summer. But if you just need a patch of grass and a hot shower with no concerns about shade (it is only 16C today), the Showgrounds has cheap camping, too.
I get all my gear organised for a 5am wakeup tomorrow. We want to be rolling by 5.30am. We aren’t going to beat the forecast showers, but I am hoping to beat some of the forecast heavy winds. We’re going to make a 100 km dash to another town and then hole up there for three days for the next big round of rain.
Yep, I’ve been on the road 21 days and had 9 days with no rain. And I’ve just had 8 days straight with rain every day. And I have not yet had a day on the road where wind speeds were less than 15-20 kph sustained. I have had two days of tailwind and all the rest has been in my face. I’ve had wet feet since Echuca. But, on the plus side, the flies have not yet been pesky and the mozzies have not been all that bothersome since starting to ride again in Warrnambool.
Here is a related article:
And this is what we are going to sit out Sunday to Tuesday: