Unscripted – Second half Week 17 – Wellington River to Zeka Creek

15-17 February

334 kms (for the whole week)

Part 2 kms: 1653

Total trip kms: 4901

15 February 2023 – Wellington River to Moroka River – Gunaikurnai Country – 60 kms

There is much crashing through the bush and through the river as I contemplate another early start. I think it must be deer as it is not the sound of a hopping kangaroo. But when I get out of the tent, I can see that it’s a big wild dog heading uphill across the river. A short while later, another black one barks and follows behind. I wonder if they are the animals I heard around the tent last night. Bit creepy. 

The gravel road and start of the climb are immediate. There is nothing to do but get on with it. There’s thick small gravel, exposed rock and lots and lots of corrugations. This would be do-able but very rough in a 2WD. It’s scenic, though, and the grade is very consistent as it pulls us up and up. There are places where they sliced a spur in half to put the road through it. The road was put in for logging between 1959 and 1962.

The saddle arrives right on time. 2 hours and 15 minutes for 15 kms or so, but I never had to get off and push anything. The climb never really had any downhill – just up and up at varying but rideable grades. I’d do it again.

There are lots of signs warning about blizzards, but little chance of that with a heatwave forecast. 

I turn off on Kellys Lane and there’s quite a few camping spots set in thick snow gum. I see a couple people close to the turn-off but none after. It feels a bit Hobbit-like through here – granted I’ve never seen Lord of the Rings, so I’m making assumptions.

We climb a little through a sub-alpine mix that eventually opens up with views of a long plain. It’s quite shrubby. It was probably grassy before they started grazing cattle. It’s also been burnt and just all seems a bit flogged. Those bogs/fens/peatlands are so fragile and have had so much pressure from grazing and fire. This is probably another ecosystem on verge of collapse, though thankfully they finally ceased the grazing leases a decade or so ago. 

We pass a turn-off for a hut, then go right by another one. The TP brigade has been through here, and not discreetly. I just shake my head. Stupid humans. 

There were some nice campsites along the way where creeks ran down to the plain. We’ve already done over 1000 metres of climbing today, but I’m not ready to stop just yet. I’d rather have rest days on the other side of the mountains than run out of days to get to Wangaratta since I’ve got things booked in for then. 

There were two of these to cross. Rode through one but pushed through the deeper one. VERY COLD toes after this one. There were good camping spots upstream of both of these crossings.

We climb away from the plain on a steep and rocky climb. The final creek crossing has a bridge, so no cold toes again for me. 

We mostly have a downhill run to Arbuckle Junction – now famous for being where the guy that allegedly murdered an old couple in the Wonnangatta Valley was dramatically arrested by police dropping in by helicopter nearby. 

I now know where that grader I saw yesterday was going. I’m now riding a series of climbs and descents on freshly graded road. The surface is good for me on the very edge, further in is soft.

It’s pretty hot now as we climb along dry, scrubby hills that would have once had tall alpine ash giving way to snow gum. Not now. Logged and burnt. A lot. It does mean there are good views, though it is hazy today. 

I pass the Forest Fire Management crew who are working on the road. They wave enthusiastically. Then there are two b-double gravel trucks that go by slowly on the uphill. I get as far off the road and as close to the edge as I dare, but they still don’t slow down and blow dust all over me. Then I pass the guy in the grader who waves nicely, too. 

We climb on up to McFarlanes Saddle on loose stuff and then it’s all downhill for 12 or so kms. The surface is kinda shit, but the grade is such that I have no need to brake much. It’s a fun frolic on a road that zigs and zags. 

Down, down. We get back into lusher vegetation and taller trees as we head down into the Moroka River valley. We finally get to the river and find a campsite well away from the road down past 5 big bog holes which we skirt with the bike. This way we won’t get all the dust from the b-doubles travelling back and forth and rumbling over the bridge. 

The drivetrain really takes a lot of work to clean today after all that deep dust!

15 February 2023 – Moroka River to The Gorge – Gunaikurnai Country – 34 kms

I had a plan to ride out and back to the Pinnacles today. It’d be around 35 kms return. Then I could decide if I wanted to do another 30-35 kms up the plateau to another water source. It’d be about 550 metres of climbing in the first part – 450 metres in the second. 

The Pinnacles would have great views over some of the stuff we’ve already ridden. But that’s where the gravel trucks were going, so it could be a super slow ride. We could leave the tent here and go without gear. Not so sure I trust humanity enough to do that. Plus, we’ll get good views from the Howitt High Plains, so I’m not missing the only place with views. 

Then, when I see how foggy it is this morning, I decide to give it a miss. So, nup, not going up there at sparrow’s fart. We’ll just retrace part of our ride from yesterday back to a water source. I’m conscious I do need to keep moving since I have a date I need to be in Wangaratta. I don’t really like having to think ahead, but who knows what sort of track conditions we might encounter ahead.

The fog eventually lifts as we ride back up the river valley. It’s gone by the time we’ve climbed to the part of the road that clings to edge of the range in the open.

Can you see the road gash on that hill opposite? We’re heading back up there.

The two gravel trucks both slow waaaay down when they see me today. Yesterday they blew right by. Maybe they never saw me on the edge. I wonder if the FFM guys told them to slow down or one of them figured out I was a chick. Whatever, they are very courteous today! Of course, I get off the road for them to go by, too. Share the road. They pass me heading out, then heading back, but I’m off their travel path before their next return. 

We head up and around the ridge at Mt Arbuckle and back down to The Gorge. We went by here yesterday. There are some nice campsites further up by tributary creeks, but I don’t want to push the 1.5 kays up that steep rocky hill to come back this way again tomorrow morning. 

I go down the road toward the horse camp to check it out – but not to stay. There’s likely horse people to come and who wants to camp near horses? The flies are bad enough as it is!

As I go down the road, I can see some saddle gear out on a rock, so I don’t proceed any further. I just turn around and set up camp where there is grass and shade and an old fire ring. 

I’m 20 metres from the creek and 50 metres from where I can easily get water to filter. There’s a nice little cascade there where the guys get a float. 

Verne is very cheeky. I’ve set them out without a tether and when I’m ready to go back to cook some food, he keeps floating away from me up toward the falls. He then floats back, just out of reach and then heads back to the cascade. The water is deep enough that I’d get my shorts wet if I go after him, so I just wait until he finally gets out of the eddy and floats down to me. Cheeky bugger, I’m sure that smile was even bigger than usual. Kermit floated right back to me when I said, “hey guys, let’s go.”

It’s supposed to be over 100 degrees F down in the valleys today. It’s comfortable up here at 1500 metres, but I wouldn’t want it any hotter. I’m so glad it’s been a cool summer – typical summer touring temps would not have been fun. I’ve been very fortunate that water has been pretty easy to come by, too. All the creeks are still running. 

In the evening, a guy comes up from the horse camp to check me out. Once he realises I’m harmless, he invites me to come down and have dinner with them. They are from the Kinglake area and like to come up here to ride their horses on the high plains and peaks. They do repairs to the horse yards to give back and have been coming up here for about 20 years. They tend to camp on the Nunnett Plains (where I camped near horse people when I had covid in Jan) over Christmas because it’s less crowded there. He thinks this area is starting to get a lot more people than it did in the past. 

I tell him that there have certainly been more people than I expected, and that other areas I’ve ridden I have sometimes gone a couple days without seeing anyone. He wishes me a safe ride and then takes off back to camp since I’ve declined dinner. (I’ve already eaten and would rather have a quiet night than breathing campfire smoke and chatting to horse folks).

17 February 2023 – The Gorge to Zeka Creek – Gunaikurnai Country – 41 kms

Oh, no, I just can’t do 5.15am. I manage 5.50am. I’m on the road at 6.30am, just as the sun rises as an orange glow – like fire setting the sky behind the trees alight. 

The sky is otherwise cloudy. There were some drops of rain around 3am, so I reached out then and zipped the fly closed. Now the wind is already up, gusty and in my face. There were moderate winds forecast for the valleys, which means it is a bit blustery up here. 

We climb along a snow plain between ridges and then up along the ridges themselves. The snow gum regrowth is thick in places, but we also get some good views through the grassy plains. 

We climb higher as that gorgeous sunrise tries to lift the grey clouds above. It is always awesome to be alpine and high in the landscape. It’s just a bit sad about how burnt it all is, knowing it won’t really have a chance to recover before the next fire comes. 

We pass the airstrip they use for firefighting – the highest airstrip in VIC apparently (I guess the Mt Hotham airport is lower because it sits down closer to Dinner Plain?). We are above 1600 metres here. The highest peak in Victoria is 1986 metres. 

We get views through the regenerating snow gums as we travel along the high plains. I wasn’t sure Moroka Road was worth the effort, but this sure is! The cowboy I spoke to yesterday said that 20 years ago, you might see one car a day, but now this route is very popular with the 4WD crowd. He doesn’t seem to like 4WDers. But it’s easy to see why it’s popular. Oh, the views!

Dimmick Lookout is worth the 1.8 kms of bog holes, erosion ditches and poor surface to get out there. It’s a different perspective than the other views we’ve seen and shows how ‘down’ is so impressive here. The most impressive views in VIC aren’t looking up at the mountains but looking down at those super steep drops to forested valleys in a maze of drainages. It’s impossible to separate out distinct river valleys, as the tributaries can be just as deep. The sedimentary rocks tilt steeply with dramatic horizontal banding. The geology is so different to all the mountains on normal faults back in the Rockies. 

We drop down through nice snow gum woodland that transition out to peaty plains. There is a brief rain shower while I’m at Bryce’s Gorge. I take shelter in the dunny while it passes. This is a nice, protected camping area in the trees. No one is here. I’d love to come back to do the walks out to the edge of the plateau where waterfalls drop off the precipice. I’m not super comfy leaving the bike and doing an 8 km walk with all the potential 4WD folks about. 

Camping and picnic area at Bryces Gorge.
Never seen a bbq grill like that before.

We climb up a steep section to a turn-off for a telecom tower. I grunt up that hill okay, but it’s not an easy one. The toilet sucker truck goes by while I’m a little ways up the tower track having a drink of water. I was just passed before that by an AWD. The road surface varies from recently graded to very rocky – I’d be worry about scraping car parts off the bottom of something that didn’t have high clearance. 

After a bit more of a climb, we have a sharp dive down of a few hundred metres off one high plateau. This deposits us onto a saddle in an area called Bastards Neck. The topo lines on this looked really intimidating last night on the More to Explore App, but it’s actually an easier climb than that short, grunty telecom tower hill a ways back. 

This is one of the things I love about riding. I have a pretty good idea of how the squishiness of topo lines on the map is going to play out on the road. I can pretty much tell, at this point, how narrow the lines can be on the map before I will need to get off and push. 

But it’s always fun to see how it REALLY plays out. Sometimes it will surprise you. I never do route profiles before I decide where I want to go, because I’m afraid they would dissuade me from riding a lot of the stuff I’ve done. I just know to look at the topo lines on the maps so I don’t get myself somewhere impossible. But I also know not to look too closely, so I don’t talk myself out of it. We’ll make it up or down somehow if the grades are less than 30 percent. 

As we climb back up onto a plain again, an FFM ute passes me. I move over for them but don’t stop riding. They give me plenty of room. They are stopped up ahead, while one guy gets out and removes some road markers from the edge that told the contractors where to fix the road. I slow down and then stop behind them, so they don’t have to pass me again. However, they stop to chat. 

They aren’t involved with the logging injunction directly as they only do fire management work. But the injunction has put a pause on their fuel break widening (all those really wide airstrip type roads we’ve ridden – they’ve done a lot of them already!). They are waiting for the solicitors to tell them whether they could be held accountable under the same clauses under law that saw the other logging stopped. I tell them I did notice all the widening in a lot of places I’ve ridden. 

The guy picking up the signs is a young bloke. The driver is probably about my age. It’s good to see the knowledge being passed down, as that doesn’t always happen these days with all the job cuts and lean staffing measures. The guy about my age is a bit jealous of my ride and thinks I’m pretty inspirational. 

I tell him that a lot of people would kill for his job. He says he’d swap me his job for my bike ride in a heartbeat. We talk a bit about all the politics of working for government and how easy it is to get stuck in a job because the terrible stuff doesn’t outweigh the job security. We talk about restructures – his department has been through one recently that has significantly decreased morale and caused the really effective leaders to leave. I know that story well from my recent job AND the one before that! 

We come up to a sweeping downhill to a saddle that is open plain dropping away to the valley floor on one side joining up with a peaty plain that lies below Howitt Hut on the other. It’s quite eye-catching. Everything is big up here – the sky, the plains, the perspective, the views. The world feels expansive up here in such contrast to those deeply incised valleys below.

There is a short, steep climb to Howitt Hut where the FFM guys told me there would be water in the tank. There might be, but most likely not, because some bastards have broken off the tap and dismantled the connecting pipes. 

There is a nice outlook here, but there’s a heap of horse people up here camping which makes the area dusty and not as attractive as the grassy area back at Bryce’s Plain. 

From here, it’s a ride across open plains with a snow gum-filled ridge to the west side. I pull up the weather forecasts on my phone, download the topo bits for the next bit of my ride on the More to Explore app, and then text Nigel my location. I’m not sure when I’ll next have phone service as I drop down into the maze of valleys. 

Then I start down Zeka Spur track. It’s a steep, rocky track that drops you from the plateau to the Wonnangatta River valley. It’s super popular with the 4WDers. It’s a 1000 metre drop. But I want to stay high today since it’s meant to be hot (39C in the valley). 

However, I only have 2.5 litres of water. The FFM guys said that there’d be water a few kms down the track, telling me there’d be creek crossings, like it was something I might not be prepared for!

However, the first two “crossings” are underwhelming and there is no way to get water from them. Crap. I can ration my 2.5 litres of water the rest of today, but that won’t be fun. 

The second underwhelming creek crossing. No way to get water from this one.

This comes after bumping and thunking our way down 5 kays of rocks. There are numerous switchbacks with many huge, loose rocks churned up by the 4WDs in the tight, steep corners. Ugh.

I’m hot and haven’t eaten yet today. I’ve only had just a little water. So I’m feeling done. My map shows two more potential places where the upper bits of Zeka Creek might cross the road.  One spot is after a couple kilometres of steep uphill (because the track drops from 1580 metres to 1000 metres before climbing back to 1400 metres before finally dropping to 580 metres). I don’t know if I want to do that two kilometres and 400 metres of climbing right now.

The other potential creek crossing is right before the big climb starts. So I push and ride the bike there. And yippee! There is a little flow – enough to work with at least. It’s nice and cold. It’s a real bitch to climb down into the creek above the culvert that goes under the road, but it is do-able. There is just enough flow to fill my cooking pot to transfer water to my bladder and filter. 

Verne basking by the little creek with Kermit. There is just enough flow to be able to fill my bottles.

Plus there’s a spot a metre or so off the track where I can hang out and set up the tent. Yep, I’m done here before that big climb. I’ve got 7 kms of what we thought we would do tomorrow done and can push the bike up the 2-3 kms of steep shit first thing when it’s cooler and there should be little traffic. We’ll be out of the way today of all the people heading down into the valley for the weekend. 

It is not easy to clamber down here, but it may be the first time I’ve cooked dinner in a creek bed just up from a culvert under a road.

It is a good arvo. 10 vehicles pass by heading down into the valley. A couple of them do stop to see if I’m okay or broken down. Two more vehicles go by heading uphill.  They always talk about the Wonnangatta Valley as being one of the most remote in the state – but I’ve seen more vehicles here than about anywhere else since the beginning of January! Half of Frankston is down here for the weekend. 

How many times have I camped next to a road now? This is the last night before a tent pole breaks. And when it storms in the late afternoon, all of the road run-off goes right under the tent, leaving a very muddy mess of a tent bottom and ground sheet in the morning. But it was still the best and only option near water.

2 thoughts on “Unscripted – Second half Week 17 – Wellington River to Zeka Creek

  • It’s crazy to think of a blizzard in Australia. Is that for real? And is it the same thing as a blizzard in Minnesota? Just rhetorical questions, as I know such things can happen almost anywhere in the world at high elevations. Speaking of high elevations, I am very impressed by all of the high elevation pictures you took for this post. And the sunrise pictures almost look like the forests are on fire once again.

    I haven’t seen any of the Lord of the Rings movies either, but I read the books back in my hippy days, so I get the reference.

    Going back to your last post, I remember from your teasers about the story of the guy who called you a diamond. Again, I say “shine on you crazy diamond.” -Pink Floyd

    • Thanks, Greg. I think there are blizzards, and there are BLIZZARDS. You get the second kind. Having said that, most of Oz’s snow is of the snowman variety (i.e. wet), and I’d rather be in a blizzard with heaps of dry snow than a blizzard with lesser amounts of wet snow. At least here you can just wait a day and it’s done. I’ve never seen any icicles here that could compare to yours either.

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