Visiting : Mt St Leonard, BNT, Marysville, Keppels Hut, Mt Bullfight, Eildon, Yea, Kinglake
Distance : 294km
When : Sunday 29th November 2015, 4:00am @ Hurstbridge

(Note: This is another solo ride from my backlog. Bear with me as I’m writing this well after the fact and my memory may be hazy.)

It’d been a while since I’d done a good sized overnight ride. I’d been in an interesting headspace for the last few months and I was ready for a long slow solo mission. Wasn’t interested in going fast or covering the most kilometres, I just wanted a long ride with lots of climbing and minimal gear. Old terrain, new terrain, hills, flats, day, night – I tried to pack it all in. Here’s what I came up with…

I rolled out of Hurstbridge about 4am Sunday morning. Beautiful warm morning, shorts, t-shirt, scaring roos and rabbits off the road, stopped for a big owl on Hildebrand Road until it took off silently into the dark. Wasn’t long before I was hiking up Bald Spur Road. I don’t mind hike-a-bike at all. I’ve ridden up Bald Spur Road before on a geared MTB but I think I enjoyed myself more this time as I pushed my bike up it on foot. Flat pedals, comfy shoes, way to be.

Kinglake hadn’t woken up yet so I rolled on to Toolangi on the main roads. Got some good speed going down some of those rollers. I was on my 26er Inbred which I’ve been running fixed for a while now so a fast descent means feet up on the top tube and just let it roll. It’s pretty hard to hate life when you’re doing this.

(Note: I didn’t have dyno power on this ride so I planned to do it without recharging my phone which means hardly any photos at all. Truth be told I was happy to not have a screen in front of my face obscuring my view. This post will be correspondingly word-heavy and image-light!)

After filling up water at Toolangi tennis courts it was on up Monda Road. I rode a bit of the start but wasn’t interested in burning all my matches. Grinding slowly up the hill, gently, with a light but insistent touch, get off and walk before you hit the redline. That’s what this ride was all about – go slow and keep going.

Cloudy up Mt St Leonard. This was the start of the Bicentennial National Trail section. I’d be sticking on the BNT for about 90km, bar a detour into Marysville for supplies.

I don’t have a lot of memories of this part of the ride. That’s ok. If my mind was empty that’s not such a bad thing. I think I was just absorbed in the task of moving across the land. Climbing, walking, going downhill, faster, concentrate, line choice, climbing, walking, going downhill, faster, concentrate…

It was top riding along the BNT, across the main road at Narbethong and on to Marysville. I hit up the supermarket at Marysville for lunch (and dinner for ‘ron) and rolled over to a park bench nearby to eat and pack away my food. As I was getting outside a meat pie, a bunch of sporty types wandered over and sat on the grass right in front of me. Judging from the t-shirts and clothing and banter they were runners. A couple of them made a half-hearted attempt to setup a slackline between some trees before turning to address the group and start a lecture about ultra trailrunning. Cool beans. Probably could have learned a few things if I’d stuck around but my pie was eaten, my bag was packed and the day wasn’t getting any younger.

I rolled on.

Up Lady Talbot Drive. Such a nice climb. It was Sunday afternoon so, predictably, there was a bit of tourist traffic. All well-behaved, no dramas. A luxury SUV thing crawled past me at one point, slowly creeping over some tiny rocks in the road. Bloody hell, my Camry could handle itself better than that. A few k’s further on up the hill I caught up to the same vehicle (on my one-speed push-bike mind!) and slowed down to a stop behind it as the woman was on the road out front giving exasperated directions to the man inside as he tried to squeeze through the gap of a fallen tree that had been hastily chainsawed earlier in the day. They were motioning and gesticulating to each other as I trackstanded in their exhaust fumes. The motorised wing mirrors folded back smoothly (facepalm) and the man finally inched it past the cut log (with a foot or so to spare on each side!). The lady shot me an annoyed look as she got back in the vehicle. They didn’t look like they were enjoying themselves. I cranked past them up the hill as they sat in the car bickering over god knows what and I never saw them again.

People are funny.

Filled up water at the Beeches and on on up the hill. Third time up to Keppels Hut and this was the best track conditions yet. Instead of being muddy and totally rutted out, Keppels Hut Track was dry and totally rutted out. Another first, the hut was empty. My Sunday/Monday strategy was paying off.

I poked around the hut and checked out all the stuff inside – packets of food, cans of food, dregs of whisky, knifes, forks, pots, pans, matches, lighters, so much stuff in there! I flicked through the visitor book and had a laugh at some entries, saw some familiar names. I started thinking about staying the night. Yeah… I could build a nice fire, combine the bread and cheese I bought in Marysville with some of the stuff in the hut and have a little feast. A nice cosy night’s sleep and get rolling before dawn. Hey, maybe even cut the ride short a bit if time became tight.

I was clearly still under the spell of Audrey Sutherland, having just finished her book Paddling North in which she told of her multi-month solo canoe trips around the coast of Alaska, making a home of every hut she found, fixing stoves, laying up fires ready for the next visitors to light on arrival and generally leaving places in better condition than she found them. An amazing woman.

Anyway, I set about splitting wood and stocking up the hut and organising the little wood shed. I laid up a fire but didn’t light it yet. Figured I’d have a chow on my cheese and bread and maybe cook up something later. I was weary from the day’s riding so I thought I’d have a kip and wake up… I dunno… later? In time for dinner? It was already kinda dinner time. I don’t really know what was going on in my head. For whatever reason, I jumped into my bivvy bag for a snooze in the hut on the hard wooden slats of the bunk bed. Not surprisingly, I didn’t really sleep. I was too hot in my bag and just kinda tossed and turned for an hour or two before calling out “FUCK IT!” and launching out of the bag and onto my bike, stuffing everything back into my backpack as I went trudging up the hill away from the hut.

Audrey Sutherland I am not.

I guess I was just too impatient, too uncomfortable, too disturbed by the lack of movement and action to be a happy camper. Just didn’t feel comfortable sitting there by myself doing nothing. Figured I’d just ride through the night. It was about 7:30pm when I left the hut. I had food in my bag, there was water along the way, so why not?

So, back to the original plan, I guess. Off I went up McFadyen Track.

And I’m glad I did. McFadyen Track is way up there on my list of favourites and this was the perfect time to ride it, just as the sun was setting and all the animals were out. The southern part of McFadyen Track, just after you leave Keppels Hut is pretty rocky, rutted, overgrown. I love the sub-alpine grassiness of it – it starts off about 1300m and gently falls down to about 1000m. Rutted, soft black dirt doubletrack, beautiful sub-alpine trees and lush grass, top views of the surrounding hills, rough track in parts, doesn’t see much wheeled traffic I think. Awesome.

And then BAM! Completely unexpectedly you’re on a perfectly groomed, perfectly flat crushed gravel trail between perfectly uniform-sized trees on either side. Must be logging regrowth – it’s like some sort of high country botanical gardens in the middle of nowhere. And it was still gently downhill so I had my feet up on the top tube just rolling through this manicured green tunnel on top of a mountain range trying not to hit any wildlife – so many wallabies, rabbits, deer and other little mammals that I didn’t recognise darting off the path as I came rolling through.

The highlight was a big Sambar deer with only one antler. Initially I thought the deer was injured or the missing antler was shot off by a hunter (!) but google tells me that the deer had probably shed the antler as they do every year. I had no idea that this was a thing but, apparently, a deer’s antlers grow, harden, die, then fall off every year (or every couple of years for Sambar). People actually go “bone hunting” for the shed antlers and make a sport of trying to find the biggest matching pair.

There you go.

The road kept going down until it hit Quartz Creek Road. This is a pretty major dirt road (thank you logging trucks) and I was loving the extended downhill after the climb up Lady Talbot Drive. Darkness fell. I turned onto Royston River Road and, before long, I was at the western end of Bullfight Road.

Bullfight Road goes more or less directly up and over Mt Bullfight. I’ve never ridden it but I knew that it would be about 4km of hike-a-bike up to the top and then a steep descent down the other side to Snobs Creek Road which is then all downhill to Eildon, and then it’s “flat” from Eildon all the way home. So, Mt Bullfight was the crux of the ride – get over it and I’d be home free. I rolled across the bridge at the start of Bullfight Road, the road shot up into the darkness in front of me, I hopped off my bike and started walking up into the night.

I was exactly where I wanted to be.

This was the centrepiece of the whole ride. I’d planned the route and the timing of it so I’d be hiking up Mt Bullfight about midnight, hence the name. Now that I was actually doing it, more or less on time (it was about 10:30pm when I started), I was feeling very… satisfied. And glad that my Keppel’s Hut debacle hadn’t derailed my original plan.

Man, it was great.

The hiking was steady and steep, sometimes rocky. I was wearing comfy shoes so I wasn’t skittering around like you do when hiking steeps in cleats. There wasn’t much to see because of the darkness of course. My only light was mounted on my handlebars so I got that tunnel vision effect, just following my own light up into the unknown, my world closed in, far from the big views of McFadyens Track a few hours ago.

But the sounds! So much was going on in the bush around me. Up high in the trees, down low on the ground, animals running, crashing through the leaves. Didn’t see a single one. Just hiking up and up. Sweating, stopping for a breather, then hiking again. It was a very small, private, predictable and simple world without questions. There was just hiking up the hill. I called it the crux of the ride but it wasn’t really hard. Just walk, walk, be there. Be. It’s not a particularly big hill, it’s not particularly rough to walk on, it’s no big achievement in the grand scheme of things and it doesn’t really matter to anyone but me.

But, to me, it does matter. It matters a lot.

And I was loving it.

Unfortunately, all hike-a-bikes come to an end and, when the ground levelled off, I started rolling again. Slow and steady on the steep downhill in the dark. Lots of back pedalling to keep speed in check, lots of concentration to find a line in the darkness. Finally, I popped out onto Snobs Creek Road.

Yes.

The hard part was done. Now it was just easy rolling and a commute home. Good times.

Snobs Creek Road is nearly all downhill all the way to Eildon. It’s nice and wide, never too steep and sees a lot of traffic so it’s well maintained. Which is all just as well because I was flying down it in the darkness with my feet up on the toptube, pedals spinning madly beneath me, following the smooth line, occasionally bouncing over potholes and spooking so many deer and roos and hearing the screeches of possums and god knows what else echoing through the trees. So good. What an awesome payoff for all the climbing of the previous day. Just sailing down this wide, dirt superhighway, cruising with my feet up, grinning and whooping and laughing out loud as yet another group of roos shat themselves as I rounded a corner and bounced off down the road in front of me for far too long before finally diving sideways into the bush with a crash, crash, crash. Best descent ever…

I stopped at Snobs Falls for a water refill, kept rolling and pretty soon the road turned to paved and I was bombing the final section down to Goulburn Valley Highway. Civilisation. It was after midnight now, on a Sunday night, so Eildon would be closed. Sleepy civilisation. Nothing to do but keep riding.

Empty highway riding now and I was getting tired. I hit Alexandra about 2 or 3am. I found the start of the Goulburn River High Country Rail Trail and pulled up a piece of dirt under a tree and had a little catnap. Can’t say I slept deeply, just enough to recharge the batteries a little and rest the eyes. Pretty soon I was back to rolling, this time in rail trail style which, if I’m honest, was a welcome change from all the hills of the previous day.

Rail trails are usually pretty mellow – wide slow corners and gentle gradients, pretty easy going – and this one was no different, except for the spiders.

It was a warm night, about three in the morning, there was a nice breeze blowing and the trail was criss-crossed by a seemingly endless number of spider webs. They went from one side of the track to the other from tree to tree but the worst part was the bridges. There were so many identical bridges along this section of trail – each one constructed the same, with high metal rails on either side – perfect distance apart for spiders to sling a web over – and perfect height for me to catch them full in the face.

Bloody hell.

I’m not scared of spiders but this began to wear me down. Every bridge I crossed I’d be guaranteed to get three or four big webs in the face – and you could feel that they were pretty heavy gauge webs – none of this wispy gossamer thread business, these were the big ropey fuckers that stretch tight across your face before finally snapping with an almost audible twang. I’d barrel through them, mouth closed, and as soon as I’d reached the other side of the bridge I’d swipe at my face and pat down my arms, chest, head, neck, everywhere as I kept riding. Fortunately it was dark so I generally couldn’t see what was in the webs, except for that one time that I did see a big orb weaver spider appear right in front of my face, no time to stop, just smash through it and get to the other side of the bridge.

Ok, straight after that one I dropped the bike, threw my helmet off and did a little dance in the darkness, patting myself down all over my body, up, down, left, right, arms, legs, everywhere. There may have been some soft whimpering at this point, possibly a muffled man-squeal.

Eventually I came to my senses and just abandoned the rail trail and got on the road. It was still early so there was no traffic anyway. And no spider webs!

I made good time on the road. A car appeared. Then another. The sky was slowly lightening. I rolled into Yea about 5am. Nothing was open so I sat down for a bit and then decided to roll on. Glenburn – I’d stop at Glenburn for food.

So, more rail trail, then Murrindindi Road. It was morning now, a few cars about. The sun came up and I was feeling tired. So tired. Riding along Murrindindi Road my eyes really wanted to close but I kept plugging away. Glenburn. I began day-dreaming of the bacon and egg toastie I’d get from Glenburn. Oh man, such anticipation. Something greasy and fatty and salty and savoury and, well, not another bloody Clif Bar! This kinda helped keep me awake a little but I got a real boost when I saw something down in the water as I rode across the bridge over Murrindindi River.

I always look down into the water these days. Always. Usually with low expectations but, hey, if you don’t look, you won’t see. And so I looked, and TADA! there was a platypus foraging in the water just near the bridge. NO! WAY! I dropped my bike, got my phone out, took a video and watched as the platypus foraged – paddle, paddle, dive, bloop, bloop, bloop, there it is again! paddle, paddle, dive, bloop, bloop, bloop etc… Couldn’t believe my luck. Oh man. That perked me up big time.

I was grinning from ear to ear all the way out to Melba Highway. Not far to Glenburn now. I was still pretty dozy so I thought it would be a good idea to rest the old eyes before getting onto the shoulder next to 100km/h traffic. Fortunately there was a gravel dump at the corner of Murrindindi Road and Melba Highway so I picked a cosy looking pile of gravel and lay down Wreck-It Ralph style for a few minutes of shut eye.

It felt so nice.

The warm sun on my face. The warm gravel under my body. A nice breeze. The rush of the traffic on the highway. It felt so good to be stationary and with my eyes closed. At rest. Ahhhhhhh. This is a moment that will stay with me for a long time. I’ll probably dodge sleep and lie on the ground on future rides to try and recreate the moment but I doubt I’ll ever recreate it just the same. Or, I dunno, maybe I will. Well I should at least try shouldn’t I?!

My gravel nap only lasted a few minutes but it was enough to refresh my mind and get me ready for the highway and the speeding commuter traffic. I rolled out and covered the last few miles to Glenburn easily.

Glenburn servo. The toastie was good. Hash browns and coffee too. Ready for action now. The last leg home.

I rolled on up the Melba before climbing up Glenburn Road to Kinglake then on up to the top of Bowden Spur Road. I love the view from up there. Not the best descent when you’re riding fixed though – I was dragging the brake all the way down and even stopped a couple times to let it cool down. I’ve never experienced brake fade and I didn’t want to.

The final miles back to Hurstbridge went quickly and were a chance for reflection. So, what did we learn? I’m a terrible camper. Riding fixed/flats in the mountains is doable with the right mindset. You gotta catch a lot of spiders with your face if you wanna see a platypus? Hard to say… I guess I learned not to do it again?

All jokes aside, it was a top ride and has made me even more keen for long single-push solo missions.

The only question is, where to next…?

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