Maybe it was the lack of deep sleep or maybe it was just general laziness but I didn’t get up at 4am like I’d planned.
It was after 6am when I finally dragged myself out of the sack and started faffing around trying to get ready to ride. It was still windy. Dark. Cloudy. I could see silhouettes of gnarled trees, rocky outcrops, vague shapes down in the valley below. The sky was just starting to turn pink on the horizon. The first signs of dawn.
I did the reverse of my clumsy snake dance from last night and finally managed to get everything packed up and back on the bike in more or less the same state it was the day before. I ate more muesli bars, lollies, whatever ride food was in my bags, snapped some photos and started hiking down Billy Goat Bluff Track.
I didn’t find it easy.
In the faint morning light it was still too steep and gnarly for me to ride down. Loaded bike, 35mm knobbies, rim brakes etc. Steep, chunky, loose, rutted to hell. I probably would have hiked down it even if I was on a MTB – I’m a hesitant descender (read: wuss) when it gets too techy and I didn’t want to risk dropping the bike and breaking either it or me. As a solo rider I’m happy to err on the side of caution. Also, solo riders don’t have anyone to laugh at them when they try to tiptoe down a rocky track without sliding on their arse, while trying to hold back their bike from rolling and bouncing down the track, feathering the brakes and skidding, skipping, jumping, sliding, rolling ankles, working up a sweat trying to resist gravity when all you want to do is get on and roll with it.
Hiking nearly the whole 7km gave me an interesting perspective on Billy Goat Bluff Track. I was going slow enough and was focussed on the ground enough that I could see that, top to bottom, it was littered with the artifacts and busted remains of a thousand previous passings. Cans were most numerous. Jim Beam, VB. There were busted U bolts. Frayed bits of strap. Fragments of moulded plastic, some as big as your hand, some as big as your finger, most black in colour. Fat motorbike inner tubes. A brake lever. A number plate. Top to bottom, the stories of a thousand successful and unsuccessful 4wd and moto trips were strewn across the rock and half-buried in the dirt. How far down could you dig and still find bits of busted plastic, smashed glass, old bolts? Each piece a link to someone’s story, told to their mates at work, to their kids, to themselves. What memories? What heartbreaks? What victories?
So many people out on that spur, looking for something wild, something challenging, all coming to that same steep ribbon of rock and dirt to drive their vehicles on it and get stuck and then get unstuck and then drink beer and relive the experience and tell it to their mates back home in great detail, reliving each rocky ledge, each precarious rescue, each loose scramble up that steep spur, taking with them so much story, so much drama, so much place, taking a part of the track with them forever, and, in turn, leaving a part of themselves on it – those cryptic little offerings; bits of broken plastic; frayed strap; faded old cans.
Of course, there was no-one else on the track on this morning, just me, writing my own dumb story into the dirt with skinny tire tracks next to sketchy footprints.
It had started raining on and off by the time I finally reached the bottom and started rolling along the valley floor on Wonnangatta Road. It felt good to ride again. Nice wide smooth dirt road in a beautiful green river valley, big mountains on all sides. Great way to start the morning. I filled up water from the river just near Kingwill Bridge. Herded some cows off the road so I could get past. Unfortunately this cruisy valley section was only a 5km intermission before the next challenge – I had to get up the other side of the valley.
As I was descending Billy Goats, I’d noticed a similar track on the mountain range far away on the other side of the valley. It looked like it shot vertically straight up the side of the range, like an exclamation mark, like a middle finger. From looking at my GPS and remembering my route planning, I knew that this must be the track I was going to take. Yeah, that’s gotta be it. Conway Track. It covers nearly the same elevation as Billy Goat Bluff Track but in about half the distance. Which means it‘s almost twice as steep. And I’d be going up it. Yeah, this one was always going to be a hike-a-bike, there was never any question about that.
And so I left the cows and the river behind and started pushing the bike up ahead of me, straight up out of the valley on Conway Track. The next 3.5km took about 2 hours, all of it on foot.
On the good sections I pushed the bike far out ahead of me up the hill and took tiny little steps, head down, scanning the ground for a good line, occasionally looking up at my GPS and seeing how little I’d moved, the topo lines all pinched up together. The bad sections were even slower. Quite often it was too steep and loose to be able to push the bike and take a step at the same time – my feet would slip and I’d go nowhere. On these sections, I’d have to push the bike up ahead of me, squeeze both brakes, then take a few small steps until I was level with the bike again, then push the bike up ahead of me, squeeze both brakes, etc. etc. etc. It felt like I was ratcheting my way up the mountain. So slow, but my SPDs just didn’t have enough grip – and, if I’m honest, my legs didn’t have the strength – to keep pushing both body and bike at the same time for what seemed like such a long distance. And so I hoisted myself up, ever so slowly, but always moving forward, stopping for breaks every 30 metres or less on some sections.
“Ok, keep going just until that tree.”
“Just until the top of this pitch, then stop.”
“Just until the next water bar.”
I was sweating from the exertion, just trying to keep the legs moving, knowing that it was only 3.5 kilometres. But it felt more like climbing than walking.
The track was actually in much better shape than Billy Goats Bluff, a lot less rocky. Maybe 4WDs only go down it or something? Or maybe it’s just that it’s a lot less trafficked than the more popular Billy Goats on the other side of the valley? Or so steep that people only attempt it when it’s nice and dry? Whatever the case, there was less junk strewn around on the ground, less signs of passing to distract me from my death march.
At one point I turned around and had a great view of where I’d just travelled. I was at the top of a long straight steep section of track. I could see all the way down to the valley floor and could just make out the hay shed that I’d taken a photo from an hour or two ago. In that photo you can clearly see the long straight section of track I’d just climbed and was now standing at the top of. Can’t go past a nice symmetrical shot like that so I took another photo back down to the hay shed. On later inspection, the second photo also has Billy Goat Bluff Track visible to the left of the shot, snaking down the spur.
Pretty photos but when I look at them now I remember the three and a half hours I spent hiking on the those tracks, the sweat, the scrambling feet, the feeling of painfully slow progress, exerting so much effort to go seemingly nowhere, every metre gained so hard. Special memories, and somehow not unpleasant.
I was very glad to finally top out and reach Hibernia Road. Mentally, I thought I was doing ok, albeit a bit beaten up. Physically, I was pretty knackered. From Hibernia Road onwards it was all rideable terrain – no more stupid hike-a-bike. It was mostly uphill, to be sure, but it was all rideable. Well, it would have been if I wasn’t so trashed. I started up Hibernia Road, riding the easy bits, walking the steeper bits, ate food, drank water and finally, finally popped out onto Dargo High Plains Road.
I was pretty happy to see paved road, I must admit. There was no jubilant yelling though, no fists in the air, maybe just a beaten down “Thank Christ…” I stopped for a rest, ate, drank, started riding and finally looked at the time and started doing maths to see where I was at. I purposely didn’t look at the time on the hike-a-bike sections – I figured they’d take as long as they needed to – and worrying about the time when I couldn’t go any faster seemed like a good way of torturing myself. Now, on the other hand, I was at the start of a 50km section of rideable road – just stay on the same road for 50km until it pops out onto the Great Alpine Road. And from there it’s a 20km descent down to Harrietville.
If I could just get past this 50km section of Dargo High Plains Road, it’d be all downhill from there. The ride would be all but done. I tried to get excited about it but, truth be told, each kilometre along that Dargo High Plains Road put me further and further into the hurt box.
This was not the hurt box of racing, chewing bar tape, redlining it up a climb, going cross-eyed with your tongue hanging out, gasping for breath. This was hurt box in slow motion. Food was running low so I wasn’t eating as much as I should have, especially after such a hard three and a half hour hiking effort. In hindsight, I was well on my way to bonking at the start of that 50km section. I just felt weak – small gradients became unrideable, I walked a lot of hills. I slowly started ticking off landmarks that I’d waypointed on my GPS. It felt like such slow progress. Each time I passed another waypoint, I’d recalculate my ETA in Bright, and it didn’t look good.
Originally I was planning to be there well before lunch. Now it was looking like I’d be there for dinner, maybe. And I didn’t have phone reception. And my wife didn’t have a phone so maybe she was trying to call me on a landline somewhere. She’d probably be worried, needing an update, with no way of getting one, no way of knowing that yes, I was still out there, running way behind schedule as usual but I was ok. Every time my mind wandered down that path I’d hit the “OK” button on my SPOT tracker – I’d set it up to send her a text message and an email – I knew she probably couldn’t receive either without a phone or computer but I hit the button anyway.
What else could I do?
I rode on. Did more maths. Started obsessing about the maths. No matter how I calculated it I always ended up late in Bright. It was killing me. My wife, my kids, sitting around in Bright waiting for me, not able to contact me, not knowing where I was, if I was ok or not, missing out on the first day of their holiday, wife having to deal with two kids by herself, one of them probably crying for her bottle, the other probably asking “Where’s Dad-dad?” Do the maths again, how far ‘til the next waypoint? “Christ, I’ve only gone 5km!”
I was starting to crack wide open.
“If a car comes behind me I’ll hitch a ride. I fucking will.”
The road was amazing. I wish I was in a better state to enjoy it. I was climbing steadily up through 1400, 1500 metres. The trees were getting more gnarly, the views more spectacular. Dargo High Plains Road was living up to my expectations but I was too caught up in the dark places of my own mind to really appreciate it.
Then it started raining. A lot.
I changed into full waterproof gear, top and bottom. My Sealskinz gloves were soaked through. My Sealskinz socks were soaked through. Waterproof? Breathable? Not any more. My core was warm and dry at least. The rain came down hard and the road, which was now dirt – the paved section didn’t last very long – became very waterlogged and sucky, my tires sinking into the mud and sucking me down.
And then there was the wind.
There were regular sections of wide open plains that, while they were mostly pretty flat, were just killer due to the wind – there was no protection from the wind, which was coming head-on, so I’d be mashing the pedals hard on flat ground, the wind pushing me back, the sucky road dragging me down, the rain soaking everything, pouring down my face. I cracked open even more and let out a couple of involuntary shouts.
Those involuntary cries didn’t even do me the dignity of echoing around the hills – they just fell out of my mouth and dropped straight down into the mud before disappearing under my wheels, squashed into the dirty wet ground.
I felt weak. Broken. No cars coming from behind. No-one to bail me out. No help on the way. Just me. I felt weak and alone and stupid.
And I kept riding up, up into the rain.
Despite the very large cracks that I’d opened up, I managed to hold it together. It wasn’t the end of the world after all – I was just some idiot going for a pretty straightforward bike ride for god’s sake. I found a little nubbin of stoicism to keep me going, something to hang onto that didn’t get lost amidst the rain and wind and hunger-flat negativity and self-doubt. Every metre of forward motion was a metre closer to the goal. If the road goes down, enjoy the rest. If the road goes up, pedal harder; stand up on the pedals; get off and walk. The road is the road. Every flat or downhill section I’d grin and say it out loud.
“The road is the road.”
And that little mantra kept me going when I wanted to stop.
A hungry little wombat shuffling back to his burrow. Nothing more. Nothing less. This was the story I’d gone out there to tell myself.
I was checking my phone periodically to make sure I hadn’t missed a call from my wife. The reception was still very patchy and I almost fell off my bike when I heard it spring into life, signalling a received message. I stopped in the middle of the road, gloves off, fumbled the phone out of my pocket – a voicemail message! I called messagebank, ringing, ringing, trying to keep the phone dry. My wife’s mum! She said my wife was wondering where I was and to call her back. I called my mother-in-law back – ringing, ringing, yes!
“Tell her I’m ok, I’m way behind schedule but tell her I’m ok and I’ll see her at Bright at the brewery for dinner.”
She said she’d pass on the message. Whew. What a relief – it felt good to know that my wife would know that I was ok and everything was under control. Well, more or less.
Lucky I managed to make those calls when I did. My phone died shortly after – dunno if it was the water all over it or the cold sucking the life out of the near-empty battery but it was very dead. Bummer.
I relaxed a little and just focussed on the riding. Less worrying, less maths, just riding.
“The road is the road.”
It was still bucketing down rain and the thick cloud obscured any nice views there might have been. There were steep drop-offs on the side of the road and I’d catch glimpses of steep spurs and gullies but mostly it was just cloud. No wildlife to speak of. Too wet? Everything was hunkered down maybe. Not such a bad idea.
Side note : Everything in my bags got wet. I used Revelate bikepacking bags and an Aarn backpack and they were all soaked inside and out. Anything not in a dry bag or ziploc got wet. I’ll double bag everything next time.
I climbed up past 1600 metres and saw the waypoint for Mt Freezeout on my GPS. This was one of the potential bivy spots I’d hoped to reach the night before. Well, it looked doable on paper. In reality, there’s no way I could have reached that point in one push. Live and learn.
Despite the inhospitable name, Mt Freezeout proved to be a welcome respite – not for the climb up it, but for the fact that the road went down the other side of it. Downhill!
Slippery, slick, water washing across the muddy road, lots of jutting rocks to avoid, precipitous drop-off on one side or the other, brakes not working so good in the gritty wet, muddy spray getting in my eyes and mouth, but the road was going down and I was loving it. Cautious, to be sure – I didn’t want to drop it at this point – but I was grinning wide and enjoying the speed.
The downhill went all the way down to within about a kilometre of the Great Alpine Road where it suddenly turned to paved road and shot straight up in a steep ramp to the T intersection at the top. I had to walk it, of course, but I was so glad to have finally made it back to civilisation. Paved road. I could hear cars up ahead, I could see road signs. Woooo.
I topped out at the intersection of Dargo High Plains Road and Great Alpine Road and prepared for the descent. No point waiting around getting cold. I dug out my puffy jacket and quickly got it on under my shell. Both pairs of gloves I had were soaked through so I left my Sealskinz ones on – completely waterlogged but at least they’d still be somewhat windproof. Socks? Soaked through – had waterproof booties in my bag but couldn’t be bothered getting them on – my feet could freeze, I’d be in Bright soon.
So, I got all rugged up for the descent, switched on lights, front and rear – they both worked fortunately. I’d heard some reports of Fibre Flare lights failing in the wet but mine turned on bright as ever, and I’d just ridden them through as wettest conditions as I’ve ever ridden in. It was dusk, quickly becoming dark, the cloud cover was thick and the rain was heavy. Visibility was poor and there appeared to be a fair number of vehicles coming down the road from the resort at Mt Hotham. Fortunately, roads that lead to ski resorts are always wide and in good condition.
I let it roll. 20 kilometres of downhill. Booyah!
Fingers and toes went numb but my core was toasty so I was quite comfortable. I took it easy on the corners – water was washing across the road in sheets – and made sure to get way over to the left when groups of cars came down behind me. Despite the rain and wind in my ears I could hear vehicles coming from behind a fair way off – the whoosh of the water was quite audible. Got a few wide-eyed looks from passengers and drivers but no encouraging beeps unfortunately. Come on!
I kept expecting to pop out below the clouds at any minute but the cloud just kept going down and down and down – how low could it go!? It felt like I did nearly all of the descent in cloud and it was nearly full dark by the time I finally rolled down the last ramp into Harrietville.
I propped my bike up at the shop and starting clumsily getting gloves off etc. trying to find some coins so I could use the public phone and try to contact my wife. My phone was dead, her phone was lost and dead and I didn’t actually know where we were staying in Bright and I didn’t have the number for the Bright Brewery either. Yep. I was just about to go talk to the guy in the shop when a young tradie came out and headed for his ute. No passengers, no load in the back. The temptation proved too much.
“Scuse me mate, you wouldn’t be going past Bright would ya?”
He was. I chucked my bike in the back, climbed in the passenger seat and he cranked the heater and floored it on the fast, flat, relatively boring 30km road, all the way to Bright. Thanks Jason! I appreciated the speed with which we got to Bright and, honestly, I was glad I wasn’t riding on that road in the dark and rain with utes flying past as fast as we were going. Clearly, I’d made the right choice.
I squelched into the Bright Brewery, dripping water everywhere, no wife to be seen. The bar staff were expecting me though and had the details of where we were staying written down somewhere. The guy poured me a beer while he rummaged around trying to find the missing piece of paper with the details on it. I fumbled around trying to get some money to pay him.
“Nah, on the house mate, you look like you need it.”
The day was improving fast.
The beer didn’t touch the sides. I dug my phone out – surprise, it was working again! I quickly called my mother-in-law.
“Tell her I’m at the brewery! Yeah, yeah, I’m there right now!”
Five minutes later my wife turned up.
“Quick, let’s go, I’ve left the kids back at the place!”
Squelch back out of the brewery, throw wet bags in the boot of the car, hoist gritty wet bike up onto roof, wife floored it down the main street, a left, a right and we were there, at our accommodation. Rush inside to see the kids… WTF!? Chris and DC are here too!? But Chris lives in Sydney and DC lives in Perth! What the hell are they doing here!?
It took a while for the penny to drop but slowly I began to piece it all together.
I’d been pranked.
Two of my oldest friends had travelled from interstate to join us for the weekend to celebrate my 40th birthday. All organised behind my back – I was completely unsuspecting. Well played, wife and friends, well played indeed.
There I was up in the mountains by myself thinking my wife was worrying herself sick, not able to contact me and yet, she’d been checking her emails on DC’s phone and they’d been following my regular SPOT check-ins and knew exactly where I was. That whole communicating via the mother-in-law thing? Punk’d. She could have called me on DC’s phone at any time. Left the kids back at the place by themselves? As if! Chris and DC were minding them. Chris even hid his car down the street from our accommodation so I wouldn’t twig until I actually walked in and saw them. Gaaaaah!!!
Unfortunately, wifey’s phone getting lost was not part of the joke but, such was their dedication to the ruse, they maintained it anyway, working in the whole mother-in-law angle to cover their tracks.
Bloody scammers! But I didn’t care. Best surprise ever. Everyone was happy, I’d made it to Bright in one piece, the kids were both happy, the shower was warm, the beer was cold, the dinner was hearty, it was all good.
And so that’s how we started my long-weekend 40th birthday holiday in (not very) sunny Bright.
So, what did we learn from all this? Well, as far as the ride goes, I should have eaten a big breakfast on the second day and carried more better food to see me through to Bright. I think that would have changed the complexion of the second day dramatically. Bonking can make even simple rides seem epic and take you to deep dark places but, honestly, there’s nothing heroic in fucking up your nutrition. Why didn’t I have a big breakfast and more better food? Well, I’d originally planned to reach Mt Freezeout on the first day, bivy up, then roll down to Bright for breakfast so why take two days of food? I guess it was all down to biting off more than I could chew yet again. Underestimating. Overreaching.
It’s a mistake I make over and over again.
And, y’know… the more I think about it, the more I realise that’s probably not going to change any time soon.
As I write this overly dramatic account of what was really just a simple 300km ride, I find it hard to take it all too seriously. There’s nothing like a bit of perspective to bring you back down to earth and, right now, that perspective comes to me in the form of a couple of riding buddies who are currently racing the Tour Divide over in America. They’re punching out 300km days back to back for over two weeks, over much bigger mountains, in much (much!) more severe weather and with grizzly bears instead of wombats. Thanks Jesse and Liam for inspiring me to keep underestimating, overreaching and always biting off more than I can chew.