8-10 March 2023
Total Part 2 Kms: 2509
Total Trip Kms: 5757
8 March – Leatherbarrel Creek to Jindabyne – Ngarigo Country – 52 kms
The wind absolutely ROARS through the trees at the top of the valley walls all night long. The sound, even down in the narrow valley where the creek runs, is intense. It is like being in a car wash with the SHHHHH sound of the spray on the top of the car simultaneous with the scrubbers throbbing up top and the loud thumping and whirring of all the brushes.
I’ve not had phone service since Khancoban a couple days ago, so I don’t know that there is a severe weather warning for wind speeds up to 110 kph. I find this out later today at the Jindabyne caravan park when I speak to a woman who was kept awake all night by the wind and the worry that the caravan next to them might roll.
The wind is not so terrible down in the tent – it’s just that noisy carwash sound that is thankfully not accompanied by water. However, I tell myself that if I hear the wind back off, I’m just going to get up, pack and start riding, regardless of the time of night or morning. I don’t know if the 0-6mm rain forecast from a couple days ago still holds, but a strong northwesterly indicates a strong cold front. And when that northwest wind dies off, the front is upon you and rain is imminent. The wind will eventually swap to the west and then southwest, as the cold front passes, with the wind regaining strength as it goes.
I get up at 5.20am. The wind is still blowing hard, but not like it was earlier in the night. There are no stars. I don’t bother to be quiet as I pack up and brush my teeth. When I use the fire pit to spit out my toothpaste, I’m not more than two feet from the head end of one of the swags.
But who cares? The clouds are in, the wind has lessened, there could be rain coming. Those two swag guys were the ones who chose to camp right on top of me.
The climb out of the creek is steep, but I enjoy the first 15 minutes riding in darkness. I don’t know if my legs are tired or not. How can you tell when you start the day immediately riding into something over 9 percent in grade on cold muscles? I figure if they still feel ‘cold’ after 10 kms, then they’re never going to ‘warm up’ and are just tired.
This second half of the climb from Tom Groggin to Thredbo is easier than the first. There are still some steep bits, but there’s also some shallow bits between sustained climbs.
There are views off to the right, eventually, as night creaks into day. The range in view is cloaked in cloud with moody blues swirled about like Van Gogh decided to paint ‘Non-starry Morning’. We round corner after corner, ascending the tight twisties as the yellow road lines and red snow poles indicate we’ve reached the snowline.
I pause for a photo of The Pilot, a lone peak in a large wilderness area, just before the road rises into the dead Ash trees from the 2003 fires. We roll into an area that looks like a tongue of the 2019/20 fires has lapped down the slope – burnt trees burnt again. It’s very stark through here!
Then it’s not much further to the crest of the Great Dividing Range and Dead Horse Gap. This second half of the climb has gone steady and fast. It was easy to get in a groove and elevate UP.
After requisite photos at the gap, I put on my red warmie jacket for the downhill, as it is probably no warmer than 3-5 degrees C. The heat generated while climbing doesn’t last long! The sky, which looks no worse than it has since first light, lets loose a couple warning rain drops. So we take off quickly to get down off the higher bits should the clouds really let loose.
But the rain starts in earnest as I fly down the narrow road to Thredbo. Snow gums creep down the slopes to the creek below the road. We ride up on the valley wall, soaring over the lifts and falls in the asphalt as we bomb downhill. This valley is a major fault line and I’m trying to enjoy that as we go. It’s pouring rain and very cold, but you cannot wash the geology nerd out of me.
Do I waste time going into the village to check out the radar under an awning somewhere? Or do I just keep going on the bypass? I stop to put on my raincoat and put the guys away (who love that they’ve gotten pretty wet over the past few kays). I decide to just keep going. The rain is coming from over the ski slopes, but there is brighter sky down the valley. Can we catch up to that?
There is heaps and heaps of traffic – will they hold the mountain biking events in the rain? I would imagine the lifts are all on a wind hold, but who knows? There is a bit of a shoulder for the most part, and most drivers give me room. Everyone has their windscreen wipers on medium or fast – the rain is doing a good job of it as we get on down the valley below Thredbo (there is a single track trail you could use from Thredbo for a ways if the weather was nicer).
There are also heaps of roadies out for their morning ride from Jindabyne. They’ve probably all just had a nice warm coffee in Thredbo! The roadies don’t gain or lose me all that quickly, so I’m doing well given all my extra weight and rolling resistance. One guy says something in an encouraging tone as he passes by. Further up I find he has pulled off the road and is taking a photo of me. (Animal on parade yet again!).
Another female roadie who is in her 50s or so, slows to chat for a bit as we careen downhill on that wet pavement with the rain splatting into us sideways and the wind shoving us from different directions. Further down, some guy that is as thin as a whippet and makes 46 kg Nigel look fat, laughs at me as he goes by. I think it is a laugh of part appreciation, part incredulous sneer and part fascination. The laughing is definitely AT me and not at the absurdity of a middle-aged chick on a mountain bike averaging 30 kph on a downhill in a rainstorm.
The valley widens and the snow gums thicken on the slopes. The chipseal is quite good much of the way. My gear and feet and shorts are all quite wet, but I’m quite cosy with warmie jacket and raincoat on.
There is one section of uphill for a bit after the skitube turn-off, but I knew it was coming from studying my topo maps last night, so I’m not surprised and just grind it out with intermittent roadies passing by with the now intermittent rain.
It’s very blustery with the wind coming from all quarters at various times. Yee-ha! It has been a very wild, wet and wooly, windy ride down valley today! But it was also quite exhilarating – particularly since I was riding quite hard, partly to try to get out of the rain and partly to keep a good pace to not embarrass myself with the roadies. I’ve got to uphold some sort of reputation for touring cyclists and bikepackers.
There is a sweeping downhill around a curve as you descend to Lake Jindabyne. I think of Syd who used to live here, and whose adventurous heart is still likely here. He’d have to feel like he was coming home any time he rolled down that hill. The downhill has great views of the lake as it flings you down to a t-intersection. Then there are just two smaller hills before town. As I’m cranking up the first one, a roadie passes and says, “Jesus, what a good effort, mate!”
There’s sun in town, but it’s only 9 degrees C. Autumn is here! I ride up to Nuggets Crossing Shopping Centre, ignore all the beautiful bakery items, get an orange juice and sit at a table in the courtyard and peel off all the damp stuff and put on dry stuff. I then look at weather updates, go through and delete emails, send check-in text messages and make up my shopping list.
I peruse the aisles at the newsagent for greeting cards for Nigel and Don (my old Corowa cycling friend). I have had so little phone service that I’ve been sending Don cards from each town I pass through to say hello. Today I find him a cute puppy card. Nigel gets a neat one that has illustrated native animals on it. It’s my way of sending a hug when I can’t be there in person.
I go over to the Woolies (was it always a Woolies? Seems like it used to be an IGA or something). I restock food – the next stretch has no services until Orbost. It will be a minimum of five days, so I buy food for eight.
I pull food items out of boxes and bags, recycle those and then pack up my fork bags. I then go find a spot in the park along the lake front that is in the sun, out of the blustery wind and away from people. It happens to be within view of the Strezlecki monument – a European explorer that was supposedly the first white guy to climb Oz’s highest peak. He named it after another Polish guy and hence the name of our highest peak and associated national park: Kosciuszko. The traditional owners, the Walgalu and Ngarigo peoples know it as Kunama Namadgi (meaning snow and mountain). Seems like it would be about time to have a dual name for the peak?
I consume half of a roast chicken there in the sun with my dessert fork (some people cut off their toothbrush handles to save weight – I’m not that bad, but my spoon is plastic and my fork is tiny). I pack the other half in ziploc bags which I will freeze at the caravan park tonight so I’ll have it for lunch and dinner tomorrow. Town luxuries!
I write and then mail the cards to Nigel and Don before heading down to the caravan park. It is packed out with people here for the mountain bike comp. But hey, it’s great to see some people under 65 in a camping area for once!
It’s very different to the time that Nigel and I washed up here in March 2012 after getting flooded out of Jacobs River. We had to use 4WD to get back out of the national park and to cross some of the flooded roads on the way back into town. At that time, I think we may have been the only people in the whole caravan park! That flood closed the Barry Way for quite some time – we were lucky we got out in time!
There are not many sites left to choose from. They all suck. They’re all open with no protection from the 50kph wind blowing off the lake. So I just take a site from the available options, wrestle the tent in the wind and gratefully use the mallet offered to me by the folks at a neighbouring site to really get the pegs into the hard ground. Later, I’ll help three other people hold down a large tent for some woman as she gets her tent pegs pounded in.
As I go back up to the office to let them know which site I took, the groundskeeper stops his golf buggy to chat to me. He’s probably in his 50s and has lived here a long time. He asks if I got my tent set up okay or need some stronger pegs. I assure him it’s all good.
We then have a 10-minute chat about all things mountains, Jindabyne and bike travel. He has very unkind words about the National Parks and Wildlife Service and their lack of planned burning. He also has unkind words about the park patrons that keep coming to the office complaining about the untidiness of the place because of the leaves on the ground.
I have a good laugh with him – it’s autumn, so the trees are dropping their leaves. The wind is also blowing a gale and assisting the trees with their leaf loss. He could spend the whole day on the leaf blower and still not keep up (and then people would complain about the noise). He does wish me well on my trip – I guess he saw me as a slightly different type of customer that he could rant to without fear. I still prefer the days in the mountains when I don’t have to see or speak to anyone, but this was a much better interaction than the ‘animal on parade’ sorts of interactions the past few days.
It is so cold and windy that I just retreat to the tent and hang out. The sun has gone, covered in clouds. There are rain showers off and on until sunset.
I stayed here 25 years ago in February (it wasn’t busy then at all) and froze my butt off by the lake in a hefty wind then, too. On that original trip, I then hitchhiked up to Thredbo, stayed at the YHA hostel (it was $13 for a dorm room in summer then; it is now $45 for the same), spent a week bushwalking all of the tracks, climbing Kunama Namadgi after an overnight snowfall, and then hitching back to Jindabyne.
That was only about six months after the Thredbo landslide and the mood in the village was still quite sombre. The landslide area was still an open scar on the landscape and was still fenced off. There were still flowers in the fence in memory of those who died. Back then, there wasn’t much of a summer tourism industry, so it was nice and quiet and I had the highest peaks all to myself. I would bushwalk up the slopes and wander the peaks and then take the ski lift back down at the end of each day (the lift guys never checked to see if I had a pass like they would if you were heading up 😊).
Those are all really good memories and I’m grateful to have them. I had no idea then that I would end up meeting Nigel about six weeks later and that Oz would become my permanent home. It’s amazing what trouble you can get yourself into when presented with opportunities and you say ‘yes’.
9 March 2023 – Jindabyne to Jacobs River – Ngarigo Country – 54 kms
Another early start to try to beat the wind. It’s already up and going for the day, but it’s not terrible just yet. The traffic is though – sheesh! The traffic is just nuts going in and out of town at 7.15am. I think it will get better when I get past the industrial estate. Marginally. I think it will get better when I pass the Delegate turn-off where the traffic used to die off. Nope. There’s no road shoulder and I get buzzed by several tradie vehicles.
I’m 15 kays out of town before the traffic passing from behind lets off. I’m well past Moonbah by then. The inbound traffic going the other way is pretty constant until after 9.30 am. Who knew so many people lived out here these days!? I do see three rural subdivisions that are new since I last came this way and count at least 14 new homes. And who knows how many are tucked back there in the hills that you can’t see.
We undulate up and down through snow gum woodlands and frost hollow plains with views to forested ranges in the distance. We’re riding over a lumpy landscape with three dives down to a meandering creek after Moonbah (where we needed 4WD to get through in 2012).
I take a picture of the decaying bus that Nigel and I have watched deteriorate since we first started coming down this way together in 1999. It used to signal to us that we were just about to the national park. Ohhhhh…. car people… the bus is 10 kms from the park boundary! I don’t feel like I’m ‘almost there’ today.
The road is really corrugated and down to base rock in a lot of spots. It improves as we get into the national park. And damn, if I had only been one minute quicker! Then I could have got a photo of a caravan overtaking me much too closely as it passed the sign that said “Road unsuitable for caravans”. But I just miss that opportunity.
The road begins its drop through regrowth forest and bright, short and scruffy trees. We sail past the Wallace Craigie lookout because the two caravans and two cars that have passed me are parked there, and I don’t want to get stuck behind them on the downhill. I know I’ll likely outpace them until we get to the flatter bits where Jacobs River crosses the road. I do have photos from here from a couple times along this road in the past.
The trees have regrown since the 2003 fires, so you can no longer see the road winding ahead down the hill quite so explicitly. The 6-12 inch deep erosion ruts, and the protruding rock base, mean I can’t let it really fly, but I’m still getting up to 40 kph between corners and road obstacles. The road drops right off hundreds of metres, so you really don’t want to miss a corner, but yee-ha! That is fun! It would be do-able on a touring bike, but it would be much slower and not nearly as fun. I would say the condition is just about average for all the times we’ve come down it though. I’ve seen worse and seen better.
We zing right on down. After camping down here for 25 years, I finally get to ride the road! I’ve always wanted to do this one! It’s so much fun testing my bike handling skills and ability to read the road ahead and react to the varying surface conditions – all while admiring the slopes that grow higher and higher above us as we descend.
I get down to the sandy and corrugated flats past the river bridge and push it hard. The day tripper cars overtake me here, but I never see the two caravans, thank goodness. The entry road into the campground is in really bad shape, but I’m amazed at all the grasses and groundcover. We camped here at least twice a year during the Millenium Drought (which lasted from 1997-2010) and got used to there being no groundcover really at all. So it looks really different to the bulk of my memories.
No one is here! Yippee! I get our favourite spot. I note all of the changes since I was last here with Nigel. I take photos of all the different things, so Nigel can vicariously see how it has changed. They have gotten rid of the blackberries, so you can finally see the other side of the river and how the river flat rises into a near-vertical slope. They’ve also totally opened up this side of the river, and you can access it from the grassy area now. It looks so sunny and bare!
The part of the creek that flows more slowly past the grassy area finally has waist-deep holes being carved out behind the big submerged boulders that are finally starting to resurface. Before the 2003 fires, some of these holes were over my head. Then, rain after the 2003 fires dumped heaps and heaps of granite sand into the river, and this section became a uniform sandy bottom that was calf-deep. It completely changed the character of the river, but it’s good to see the boulders reappearing. It’s only taken 20 years!
I feel my mind being overstimulated taking in all the changes and matching those with my memories, as well as wondering what Nigel would think of the changes. So I sit on the picnic table and just do some breathing exercises to calm my brain. I just stop to enjoy the peace and quiet and solitude. I really got my fill of people and caravan parks the past few days!
I sit there and just be. And all of a sudden it’s 3.30pm and the day has largely gone. Somewhere in there I did talk to a NPWS guy for a bit who’d stopped to say hello. He was out taking coordinates and driving all the 4WD tracks for a mapping project. It makes me wonder what happened to Janice – the ranger here for many years that always stopped to chat. She retired maybe 13-15 years ago now.
For awhile I think about the many years of coming down here and camping with Nigel. I think of him cooking over the fire – he absolutely does the BEST roast chicken and jacket potatoes you’ll ever find. And then there was that time he got some really cheap fillet mignon and cooked it just perfectly over the fire so that it melted in our mouths.
I think about the lilo runs, going down to the confluence with the Snowy and just being appalled at the river health, the time Verne and Kermit went overboard on the big floatie and started down the river at pace. Nigel managed to run down after them and save them, and we squeezed the water out of them afterward. I think of reading books in the hammock and swatting flies, of crossing over the river and following old jeep tracks that led me to the base of another ridge that I climbed and then sat on a rock exposure watching birds of prey soar thermals below me over the Snowy valley.
And I think about how the last time we were here and how much Nigel’s health had deteriorated. He was a grumpy, nasty arse the whole time we were here. My memories from that time are so sad and angry that I wasn’t sure I wanted to come back here today. I tossed up between ‘leave it all behind and don’t dredge up bad memories’ to ‘make a new good memory to top off all the others’.
I’m glad I came. 25 years is a special anniversary. It’s more than half of my life. The good memories outweigh the bad. And it’s good to reflect on all the tragedies and triumphs.
Just like the river sliding by nearly silently, I can see the course of our lives and its flow through disasters and periods of serene and calm. I see the ugly bits of my time with Nigel and Oz but all the gorgeous bits, too. It has shaped me, carved me and made me who I am. It’s made me much more compassionate for people who struggle with their head and the people that look after them. And I’ve felt so grateful that through some really, really awful stuff I’ve always been resilient and my mental health strong – even when my body was not.
My time in Oz means I don’t really feel American anymore, well, unless an Aussie says that peanut butter does not pair with chocolate. Oz has felt like home for much longer than it has not. I get culture shock when I go to America now and feel like I’m coming home on the return trip.
I’ve truly built a life here – my professional networks and day-to-day friendships are here. I’ve done a PhD and am proud of the work relationships I’ve built and the successful projects I’ve delivered. I really cannot imagine what my life would have been like had I not met that skinny little bus driver with the rafting sweatshirt and bright blue eyes on the night that was my birthday, a Friday the 13th and a full moon.
10 March 2023 – Jacobs River to Suggan Buggan – Ngarigo Country – 40 kms
It’s cool outside when I pack to go. I’ll end up wearing my thermal top all the way to the NSW border. We’re definitely shifting away from summer.
The motorbike guys, two from Queensland and two from Newcastle, that came in last evening to camp, are up and about but in no hurry to leave today. They are out for about a week and have the done road before (turns out they are heading to a motorbike rendezvous with more than 200 riders at Native Dog Flat – this becomes apparent later). They came over and said Hello last night and say goodbye this morning. They think I’m just a bit crazy riding all over the mountains on a pushbike.
I’m glad I came down. Jacobs really is a special place. The road is not special though – it’s downright shit the rest of the way to the Border. There are huge potholes, corrugations and loose stuff. If you can think of a crappy road condition, it’s got it.
But, this really is a special ride. You ride right down along the river in that deep and broad valley as the scent of white pine cuts through the crisp morning air. There’s more water in the river than there used to be – 13-21 percent of original flow instead of one percent (it all gets shunted over to the Murray River on the other side of the Great Dividing Range through the big Snowy Hydro Scheme), but the river course is still clogged with sand and bushes. I wonder how long it would take to recover even if it had all of its flow back?
However, the views and remoteness of the landscape are still awe-inspiring – large areas of wilderness on either side and the nearest towns many, many kilometres away. This really is a must-do ride if you want to claim that you’ve ridden Victoria. I feel so lucky to be here, and to be able to ride this in really nice weather.
The road climbs to the tops of the spur ends and then dives down right next to the river flats. All of the grass everywhere is such a pleasing sight.
We eventually make it to Willis and the VIC border. There’s no Welcome sign to NSW. I find it hilarious, after all of my riding through logged, flogged and burnt forest in VIC that the Welcome to VIC sign is right beneath a large, dead, burnt tree.
The road is like velvet on the VIC side compared to what we’ve just thumped, bumped and vibrated over. Progress is a lot quicker! It’s funny how NSW NPs have shit roads but good signage. And NSW NPs generally always have TP in the dunnies. VIC, on the other hand, has NPs with good roads but terrible signage. And it is rare to find any TP in a loo. You wouldn’t really even know the Willis campground was there if you didn’t have prior knowledge. The signage is tiny and very, very decayed.
There is a long climb out of the Snowy River valley and over into a tributary. Up and up we go, with Mt Hut taunting us as it slowly grows bigger. We finally cross a saddle below it.
It’s 10.30 now, and it is getting warm and sticky with flies, so the climb seems to take forever. Plus, you dive down to creeks a couple times and climb back out of those, so I’m happy when I finally sight the final saddle. It is supposed to be a half-rest day!
I can hear a car coming from behind, and the growl of the motorcycle guys’ engines behind that. So I just stop, pull off the road and sit there at the top of the saddle waiting for them to pass. The motorbike guys wave, and one slows a bit, but I give him a smile and big thumbs up so he knows I’m fine. He waves, speeds back up and is gone.
Once they are all past, I then take off down the final 3.5 kms. It’s sealed but very narrow. This way I can have fun on the descent and not hold up anyone else.
The road drops steeply down the edge of a ridge, weaving in and out of the drainages. There are great views over to large, rocky cliff faces on the opposite side of the valley where the Wombargo Plateau drops off with a steep escarpment. I keep trying to get a pic of it, but each time there is a good spot, I’ve already sailed past it before I can stop. And I’m not going back uphill!
The road is only 1.25 cars wide. I meet two utes coming up, and I’m less than a metre from the driver side mirrors. What would you do if you were in a car and met a caravan along here (even though they are not supposed to be on this road)?
I zoom down past the turn-off to the 1860s schoolhouse, over the wooden one-lane bridge and into the camping area. There are no areas blocked off with bollards, so the vehicles have been everywhere and there is very little grass or shade. It just feels like you are camping in a big parking area. It’s not a destination camp, but its position is good for passing through and positioning yourself for the climb out either side the next day (which is why we are here).
I can’t believe the amount of traffic – I’m glad I got an early start and got here before most of the long weekend traffic. It’s a far cry from the good old days when we would sometimes not hear a single car on the road the entire day when we were camped at Jacobs. The internet completely ruined secret spots. There are none anymore.
A motorbike guy stops for a break and has a chat with me. He’s ridden this road before and says the NSW side is always shit and VIC side good. He’s from Sydney and has done some cycle touring (but never this road). He’s another Boomer (that population cohort is soooo HUGE) – so he owns an e-bike, a touring bike, a road bike, a canoe, a kayak, this motorbike and a caravan. Sheesh!
He tells me all about these adventures he’s done, like he’s trying to prove how accomplished he is, but when I ask when he did all these things, it’s the same as all the other braggy old guys I’ve met on this tour – none of it has taken place this century!! Come on, tell me what fun stuff you’ve done in the past few years. Stuff you did when you were younger than me is getting a little long in the tooth. Conditions are so different now. But at least all the gear is better and lighter. I wouldn’t trade my titanium pot and firebox stove thing-o for anything!
Later on, a 4WD ute stops, the guy goes to the toilet and then comes over. It’s the young sparkie I saw back on Monday at Scammels Spur lookout. It’s a small world out here in the bush. I tell him I didn’t go up to Charlottes Pass because there were just so many thousands of people about. He says it’s a good thing because they were holding some sort of ultra running event and the place was booked out anyway. He’s on his way to Bairnsdale for the night, then home to Ferntree Gully tomorrow. It’s an 8 hour drive to Charlottes Pass to where they live, and this tiny back road is the quickest route (google and garmin have ruined all those secret, back roads too!). He and his wife bought a house in October and his wife is not too happy that he is gone for two weeks at a time. I laugh inside – just wait 20 years, and she’ll be glad to have the place to herself for a week or so at a time! I wish him well and a safe drive home.
There is traffic heading up the road and toward the Snowy until at least 9pm. I’m mostly sleeping from 8.30pm, but surprisingly, I have the camping area all to myself. No one comes in late and loud as I expected – getting most of the way in and camping here and then heading for their weekend spot tomorrow. No complaints from Hermit Em!