The old guy is driving an early 2000s 4WD Landcruiser. There are extra water jerry cans, recovery boards and a shovel on the roof rack. He stops beside me at the intersection of a logging road and the Princes Highway. I’m refolding my map after a long morning riding up and down the gravel roads in the hills. It’s been a morning of burnt and logged trees as far as the eye can see.
The man asks me which tracks I’ve been on, their condition, and if the tracks seem like they’d get impassable after rain. I tell him what I know. He’s off to bushwalk up two of the peaks over the coming days, but he doesn’t want to get stuck if the coming rains are heavy.
I wish him luck on climbing those peaks, as I don’t think he’ll have any track to follow, even if there once was one. The fire regrowth is so thick that I’ve been stymied from riding some of the tracks I’d hoped. Some roads are still closed, and other roads that are open are so thick with vegetation that they are impassable.
Poor Verne, Kermit and I have been whacked by young vegetation on the road edge for kms upon kms the past six days. So I can’t imagine any bushwalk is going to be anything but a cross-country bushwhack and navigational nightmare.
He’s not too fussed – it’s really just about getting out and going somewhere new. When he asks where I’ve been before the last few tracks, I name off a few roads and locales.
He replies, “Well, THAT is a very big undertaking. Good on you. You must be a very hardy soul, with a durable bum and a reliable bike.”
I laugh and say, “Well, I guess you could say that.”
And then we both head on our respective ways, trying to get somewhere else before the rain comes.
It’s been another great few weeks on the road, and I can definitely say I’m very comfortable with the limited resupply remote riding now. I even skipped the first resupply town out of Orbost because I was covering ground more quickly than expected (due to all the closed tracks preventing diversions). My food supplies were okay, too. Riding into the resupply ‘town’ would have added two days for no reason other than to be tempted to buy more food I didn’t need and/or shouldn’t eat. So on we went through the forest.
We were able to see some pockets of gorgeous old growth trees and some areas of rainforest down in the gullies that escaped the 19/20 fires and the loggers before and after. We stood in awe in those sections of forest and pondered what it might have once looked like before the loggers went nuts in the 1950s and onward.
We also continued to prove that I can sleep just about anywhere, and a closed cell ¾ length foam pad purchased in 1994 is still plenty sufficient for my comfort. I can’t sleep well if I’m cold, but I can sleep fine on just about any surface. One night we slept on cobblestones in the dry part of a riverbed. Two nights later we slept on jaggedly slates in a disused quarry. Two nights after that, we slept on dried clay with embedded rocks and sticks that had been lumped next to bridge repair works.
Our plans for exploration were hit with many closed roads, literally burnt bridges and areas where the fire regrowth made riding unpleasant and difficult, or in some places impossible. So, unfortunately, we couldn’t ride all that I’d hoped and had to stick mostly to the main logging roads. I think maybe in 4-5 years time, it would be worth a try again.
Seeing the scale and severity of the 19/20 fires was almost unbelievable, even for a geology nerd who is used to thinking big. The fires burnt 80 percent of the forests in East Gippsland. The stats in the post-fire Inquiry reports I’ve read related to fire growth, perimeters and fire front size are just staggering. At one point, the fire burning toward Cann River, the resupply town I bypassed, had a 42 kilometre-long fire front (not flank)!
So maybe we’ll come back after forest recovery is a bit more advanced and they’ve finally ceased the horrendous flogging of the native hardwoods which looks so disgusting in that burnt landscape.
A bright spot after all that solitary hard riding through epicormic growth and dead trees was the coastal town of Mallacoota. I’ve near been a beach or coast person whatsoever, but it was the first beach town EVER where I thought: ‘maybe I could be a beach person’.
Mallacoota became a hell-on-earth for a few days during the 19/20 fires. I’m sure you saw images of it on the news internationally. The town lost 127 homes, but the little CBD was spared. At first glance, you wouldn’t think the town was impacted too heavily. But there are still many, many homes that have not yet been rebuilt due to shortages of labour and materials.
Check out some footage and a timeline here: https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/cut-off-how-the-crisis-at-mallacoota-unfolded-20200117-p53sdn.html
The town is 5.5 hours from Sydney and Melbourne, so it’s low-key and not overdeveloped. It’s a one-block main street with 1 pub, 2 tiny supermarkets, a post office, art gallery, pharmacy, a couple cafes, a bank and one servo. It’s touristy, but not touristy and has an artsy feel to it. And everyone was sooooo friendly and super-impressed with my ride. They mostly see cyclists doing the standard lap around Oz, so many people were quite interested in my mountain tour of personal design.
And rest easy, the good people continue to find me and offer me stuff, even on those remote forest roads. On numerous occasions I had guys in 4WDs stop to ask if I was okay if I was stopped or camped near the road. Several times they even stopped ahead, did a U-turn, and came back to check. I’ve never had this experience on the more ‘front country’ roads I’ve ridden, but it does seem people look after each other in the backcountry.
The owners of the caravan park I stayed at in Mallacoota (Beachcomber) ensured I had their phone number when I left, with instructions to ring them ‘if I got stuck somewhere’. A forestry officer stopped for a 40-minute chat in bumf*ck nowhere NSW, imparting 45 years of interesting forestry knowledge and two litres of water on me.
And on a cold, rainy night in Bombala, a nearby caravan couple shoved a hot cup of spaghetti bolognese under my tent vestibule flap and said, “Hi, tent person, it’s some hot spag bol with parmesan cheese. We always have to feed the people doing it tough in tents in the rain.”
So the trip has drawn to a close. The final two weeks of March were pretty wet – a very early autumn break this year. I bought 10 days of food in Bombala with the hope of stretching those supplies to 12 days, so I could sit out Easter weekend somewhere.
Oz gets a four-day weekend for Easter and the entire population goes camping, so I wanted to stay off the roads then. The plan was to ride back UP McKillops Bridge road, then up onto the Nunnett Plains for Easter, then down to Ensay and Swifts Creek, over to Omeo and then on new-to-me tracks to Mitta before finally getting back to Albury near the end of April. The idea was then to see what work was happening in Albury with the hope of finding a six-month admin-type contract role. If that wasn’t a go, then I would start heading north and see what work might be on offer for winter along the way.
However, you know the saying about best laid plans. After riding in 12 degree temps, a direct headwind gusting to 40kph, and rain the last 12 kilometres to Delegate, I got the tent set up, got dry and started to relax.
Then Nigel rang. They’d called him with a date for his day surgery. He’d only seen the surgeon a couple days before. He’d been put in Cat 1 – surgery within 30 days. Only he got a date within two weeks.
Well, crap. I’m the one that pestered him to go to his GP and get a referral to a surgeon. So I couldn’t really tell him to find someone else to take him/pick him up. Plus, he’ll want me there if he gets bad news.
So I needed to be home by the 13th. Plus, if I got shortlisted for a job in Albury I applied for when I was in Mallacoota, interviews would likely be that week, also.
So I spent the cold, showery afternoon in Delegate coming up with a new plan. The four days over Easter where it’s not too safe to ride presented a big problem. It would be difficult to make it back to Albury in time if I didn’t ride on those days. Then, with the rains having started for the winter season, I would be forced to ride every day even if the weather was atrocious and unsafe re: visibility.
So, somewhere in the afternoon, I conceded that Part 2 of Unscripted was pretty much over, and I needed to just ride to Bairnsdale and take the train back to Albury. Bikes aren’t allowed on coaches in NSW or VIC, so it seemed the easiest option.
I could ride to Bairnsdale in a few days and be home BEFORE all the Easter craziness. It was a huge let-down: one minute I’m ready for a 12-day ride without resupply, the next minute I’m taking four or five days to ride to Bairnsdale and finish out the trip on a train. But that’s how things go, and being an optimist I immediately thought: ‘well, at least I won’t have to ration all that food now’!
And so we rode to Bairnsdale and took the train home. However, I did get to ride most of the Gippsland Lakes Discovery Trail (a rough gravel route that follows an old tramway through the forest) on my way back that I had missed on the first go due to COVID recovery and front tyre issues. So that was one bonus.
And just like that, Unscripted Part 2 is over.
I did get shortlisted for the job. I have an interview on the same day of Nigel’s day surgery. Cross your fingers for me.
So I’m in a holding pattern until I get the results from the interview and Nigel gets his results, too. If I don’t get the job, and Nigel doesn’t need further help, then I’m a free agent again. If I get the job and/or Nigel will need more assistance, then it looks like the road has led me on a 6,000 kilometre wandering path back home.
I have one more post to write about ‘the roar’ in the next few days, and then I’ll start writing up each week for January to March.
I really don’t think it’s truly hit me that I’m done for now. I was on the road for six months, a few weeks longer than my longest tour previously. I’ve always wondered how long I could be on the road before I wanted to be stationary for awhile. And I suppose I still haven’t answered that question, as I’m definitely not ready to be finished. I still have six months of tour budget left and I’m ready to keep going, albeit somewhere warmer and less wet.
But I do have responsibilities to others, and the job would be too good to pass up if I got it, so maybe we’re here for awhile. It’s not a terrible thing. I’ve now been all over Victoria and not found any other place I’d rather be if I have to be in a place with a roof. We’ll see what pans out… I’m still not ready to write a script for the future.