Visiting : Circuit Road, Howitt Spur, Crosscut Saw, Mt Speculation
Distance : 54km
When : Wednesday 5th December, 6:30am @ Speculation Road
For quite a few years now I’ve had the idea of traversing from Mt Howitt to Mt Speculation along the Crosscut Saw in packbike style, with my disassembled bike on my back. I’d never tried it because I didn’t feel ready, not fit enough, didn’t know how to carry my bike, unsure of the terrain etc. etc. etc. Luckily I came to my senses, realised I’d never be “ready” and decided to just go do it. I planned a very conservative loop, gave myself plenty of time to complete it and then set off with every intention of being back home for dinner with the wife and kids.
It won’t surprise you to hear that I did not make it back in time for dinner with the wife and kids.
This was going to be a big day, despite my “conservative” route. I made a short 50km loop with a little bit of riding and a little bit of hiking and about a 4 hour car commute (each way) to get me to my start/finish point. I started driving about 2:30am and ran the gauntlet from Hurstbridge up to Kinglake with my eyes popping out of my head. Countless wombats, roos, foxes and rabbits watched me fly by as I barrelled past. I made it all the way to Mirimbah in good time and without incident until *BANG* one of those roadside roos launched itself straight into my left headlight as I passed.
It was dead.
My left headlight/blinker were smashed; bonnet, front quarter panel and both doors on passenger side were bent; bonnet and front passenger door didn’t open any more. Fortunately there was no discernible mechanical damage and both high beams were still working so the car was still drivable even if it wasn’t technically roadworthy.
Bloody hell, what a way to start the day.
I ran through the list of consequences; gotta get the car home safely, gotta get the car fixed, gotta tell the wife what happened, gotta live with the fact that I’d just murdered one of the animals that I came out here to see – all this due to my own selfishness.
First lesson of the day came quick: There are costs. There are always costs. It’s not always me that pays them but there are always costs.
I ran through the list of consequences and packaged them all up for later. I still had probably an hour more driving to go as I turned onto Stirling Road – first dirt road of the day – and started climbing up into the mountains, swerving around deer and threading a line through shadowy potholes and ruts.
The remainder of the drive was slow and uneventful. I rolled into the little clearing at the corner of Speculation Road and King Basin Road, turned the car off and on again just to make sure it would start, and got my bike out.
Incidentally, the roads I took were all fine for 2WD. Some deep potholes, some ruts, some rocks but nothing that my Falcon station wagon couldn’t handle with a bit of caution and finesse. Stirling Road and Circuit Road are actually advertised as 2WD friendly; Speculation Road is advertised as 4WD only but it’s in pretty much the same condition as Circuit Road all the way down to where it meets King Basin Road. Beyond that, it does get progressively rougher until it turns into a steep rocky mess.
So, I was finally riding my bike. Beautiful roads, beautiful morning. Very nice riding.
Had to get past a bunch of cows.
Ever noticed how cows are fine with cars – you can drive right by them and they barely lift their heads – but they totally freak out about bikes? I just wanted to get around them but they kept running away from me up the road, big tummies swaying from side to side as they lolloped along, too scared to let me get close enough to sidle by.
It was a nice cool morning, blue skies overhead, the morning light was beautiful.
Circuit Road is fast easy rolling.
Bindaree Road was a ripper of a descent. No cars around, stay off the brakes, just snake down the hill as fast as you dare.
Got to the bottom too quickly and rolled past the bridge over to Upper Howqua Campground. Saw a vehicle over at the campground in the distance. I wasn’t completely alone out here at least.
The Upper Howqua Walking Track was up next. Beautiful riverside singletrack.
There was quite a bit of windfall last time I was here so I was anticipating a fair bit of clambering and climbing and lifting over fallen branches and trees. But no!
Seasonal road closures were still in place last time I was here but now they were lifted. Looks like the rangers do a sweep of the track before they open it up – yes!
I’d actually bought a folding saw with me in case the windfall got too much – happy to say I never had to use it. Thanks rangers!
The river fords were still low and not as cold as I expected them to be.
Beautiful morning colours and sounds.
As I approached the little clearing at the end of the track I took the opportunity to fill up water. I knew the next water would be at Camp Creek up on Mt Speculation after the 14km packbike section, so I made sure to start the hike with full bottles. One bidon and a 1 litre nalgene – should be enough. Noakes would sustain me.
The little campground at the top of the Upper Howqua Walking Track was my transition area. I broke down my bike and prepared it for the carry.
I used a BOGear Chunky Toad which is a great messenger-style backpack that I’ve been using for years for commuting and the occasional adventure. My packing arrangement is specific to this bag and this bike but, bearing that in mind, here’s how I packed it all up.
I put brake spacer things in so my hydro pistons didn’t pop out.
I got the cranks lined up just right so I didn’t need to remove any pedals.
Kept the chain secured – I made sure it was very clean before I left the house.
Wheels just kinda stacked on there and tied down tight. I used a toe strap at one end and some bungies at the other just because that’s what I had lying around.
A bit more bungie wrapped all around for paranoia’s sake.
And that’s it. Rock solid.
I didn’t plan on taking the bike off the bag until I got to the other side of the hike at Mt Speculation – that meant I’d have no access to the contents of the bag until then. So I brought a musette and filled it with my water, food, and any other stuff I thought I might need on the hike and just slung it around my neck and let it hang down in front. Low-tech, easy access.
Ready to roll!
I mean, ready to NOT roll.
It was about 9:20am when I started trudging up Howitt Spur.
The track was easy going but steep.
The rangers had brought the big saw in and cleared some large trunks and branches from the track. Awesome.
Steepness was the only obstacle as I minced up the track.
My shoulders were taking a lot of the load. My bag had a hip belt but I couldn’t get it to take most of the load. Combination of my packing method, my strap adjustment and the lack of rigidity in the bag I’m guessing. I was asking a lot from it, that’s for sure – must have been 17kg on the pack and another 4kg in the musette around my neck.
After what felt like hours of marching in place, I finally gained enough elevation to emerge from the scrub and get some glimpses of the surrounding mountains. Mt Magdala, and back down the Howqua Valley.
Then Buller and Stirling in the distance.
The scrub gave way and the trees started feeling more alpine. Mt Howitt tops out at 1740-ish metres so I was getting pretty high by Victorian standards.
First glimpse of the Crosscut Saw.
I love the wide-openness and being able to look out to the horizon and say, “That’s where we’re going.”
The terrain became more rocky and exposed as I gained elevation.
I remember reading about rocky ledges that required hands-and-feet rock scrambling over near Mt Speculation but I didn’t know if there was any of that here on Howitt Spur. There were some parts that certainly looked imposing.
Fortunately there were no dramas. There were some tight switchbacks and some rocky steps to negotiate but no scrambling required.
As the track came round the southern shoulder of Howitt there were glimpses out south towards Gippsland.
And then back north for a glimpse of The Razor and The Viking.
And a nice view straight down the barrell of Howitt Spur with Buller and Stirling standing proud in the distance.
My tractor-like trudging was slow but effective and the steep wall of mountain that I’d been crawling up all morning finally appeared to be reaching a climax. Well, Australian mountains don’t really “climax” so much as “peter out” but, either way, I was approaching the top.
Tada! I’d crested the West Peak of Mt Howitt.
A short stroll along a wonderfully smooth, un-technical and occasionally downhill track took me just over the way to the summit of Mt Howitt proper.
Time was 12:15pm. It had taken me about three hours, all uphill.
I unshouldered my pack and looked all around, naming mountains and features that I knew, trying to work out ones that I didn’t, and taking a lot of photos.
Buller and Stirling on the horizon, Mt Thorn in the middle ground.
The Crosscut Saw (“That’s where we’re going.”), with Mt Buggery, Mt Speculation and Mt Koonika in the distance.
And that must be… Mt Buffalo? Yeah, the shape of it fits, I think.
The Razor and The Vikings.
My reverie was interrupted by a lone hiker approaching from the direction of Howitt Spur. Gah! That feeling when you thought you were all alone and you suddenly realise you’re not.
We exchanged pleasantries and I mentioned my intentions and asked after hers. Seems wise to check in with fellow travellers in remote places just in case things don’t go to plan. Looking out for each other and all that. Anyway, she was headed over to Vallejo Gantner Hut so we were headed in opposite directions. I packed up, bid her farewell and strolled off towards the Crosscut Saw.
The Crosscut Saw is amazing and I’d really scored with the weather, again. Both times I’ve been here it’s been blazing blue skies.
There’s views for days. So much to look at.
The first section is easy going. It was the perfect antidote to the steep, technical uphill trudging of the morning.
Fast, open singletrack with views on all sides. The weight was still heavy on my shoulders but I felt like I was making good time.
Looking back at the summit of Howitt I could just make out a tiny speck against the backdrop of the wispy clouds in the distance. That lone hiker enjoying the serenity. At full camera zoom…
And with no zoom. Howitt in the centre and West Peak on the right.
I was moving well but I made sure to keep moving. No long breaks for me.
I’d hiked out along this track before but only for a quick look-see before turning back the way I came and heading back out to Howitt carpark. This time, I’d be pushing all the way through to the other side – Mt Speculation – and I was getting keen to pass my previous “high point” and see some new terrain.
I love this place.
I remembered a nice little rest spot from last time and I was chuffed to finally see it in the distance. A bit of shade, a nice grassy little knoll and a cliffy view out over blue-hazed ranges. Nice.
I unshouldered my pack – luxury – and sat for a spell. Not so much water left. Sore shoulders. A bunch of unknown track ahead.
I hoisted my pack and edged around the cliffy track.
I passed my previous high-point and started hiking down into the unknown. Mt Buggery in the middle ground, Mt Speculation behind it on the right.
I’d read a lot of online whinging about Mt Buggery. It was hard work apparently. You lose a bunch of elevation getting down to the base of it, climb all the way up and over it and then lose all that elevation again before climbing all the way up Mt Speculation. This is why it’s called the “Crosscut Saw” – the Buggery/Spec section really has a sawtooth elevation profile – up, down, up, down. I had an idea of what lay before me – two significant climbs – but I didn’t realise how hard it would be to move through it with a bicycle on my back.
Descending down to the base of Buggery was slow going. There were a lot more trees and the track was steep and rocky and ledgey. Ducking under branches and overhanging tree trunks is easy with a small pack but I found that my bike was getting very grabby and cumbersome.
Branches high up would hook my wheels and seat. Branches down low would catch my handlebar ends and forks. Sometimes it was hard to squeeze through the gaps without something hooking up. Sometimes it was like, bend right down to get the wheel under, twist around a little to get the seat through, twist the other way to clear the pedal and then crab forward a bit until it’s safe to stand upright without bashing my forks on the rock ledge you’re stepping down. The rocky ledges were slow going on the way down because my bar-end and fork were hanging quite low. Getting down a step meant twisting sideways and sometimes climbing down backwards so the low-hanging handlebar end didn’t poleaxe into the ledge as I stepped down and pitch me forward or sideways down the hill. Without a bike, it would have been some fun rock-hopping. With a bike, it was wholly too much finesse and core exercise for my liking.
I took a bunch less photos on this section and just tried to keep moving. Water was very low. Saw a little snakey.
And then the track started looking like this.
It was easy enough to follow on the ground and if you had a small pack you’d just slip through, push the scrubby branches away with your hands as you pass. But this stuff was a killer with that two-wheeled anchor strapped to my back.
The low-hanging handlebar-end and forks just grabbed fistfuls of that scrub as I tried to walk through it. The bar-end is soft sticky rubber so it would hook up a bunch of little whip-like branches and hold them tight. That was on my left side.
On my right side, the fork would slide past the flexible little branches until one or two would slip right into the fork end and hook me up solid, dead in my tracks. Sometimes I could twist left and right and loosen my bike’s grip on the foliage but sometimes I’d be stuck fast and the only way to free myself was to reach back and down and try to pull the grabby little branches out of the bar-end and out of the fork end.
All this while the track was climbing up Mt Buggery at what must have been twenty percent gradients.
Carrying that weight up that gradient after so many hours on my feet was hard enough. But having to push up that steep hill while the thick scrub held me back and dragged me down and quite regularly stopped me dead in my tracks, completely entangled and unable to move…
It was perfect.
I was over it.
I wanted so much to dump my bike so I could move at a reasonable pace. I was thirsty and had almost no water. I felt stupid and weak. I was beat down and I was only halfway through the route and there was not a single thing I could do except keep going. I was committed.
And so the death march continued all the way up Mt Buggery. Sometimes clear, sometimes choked with scrub, sometimes climbing up rocks and ducking around tree trunks. My body was functioning, I was able to move. My mind was occupied with the technicality of moving myself and the two-wheeled cross on my back up the hill.
I finally reached the top of Mt Buggery, unshouldered my load and lay down on the grassy clearing.
I jumped up two minutes later when I realised ants were starting to crawl all over me. Fucken whatever, I had to keep moving anyway. I drank the last drips of my water, hoisted my stupid load and started down the other side of Buggery, losing all that elevation that I’d worked so hard to gain.
A lot of online whinging about Mt Buggery…
I found myself moving well. I was completely over it but I held it together. I guess that’s what I wanted – a “tough” challenge and a strong effort. My body was moving on autopilot. It had learned the terrain and accepted what it had to do to move through it. My mind wandered. Questions. Why do I do this? What am I doing out here?
Trying to prove I’m a big boy.
Trying to hide in the bush so the elephant in the room can’t see me.
I kept coming back to: If I spent this much mental and physical energy trying to be a better father/husband/friend…
I’d pretty much decided to quit adventuring by this point. Told myself this would be the last stupid adventure I’d ever do and from now on I’d spend more time with the kids, be more present with my wife, keep my head out of the clouds and generally try to be less of an asshole to everyone in my life.
But I was still out there and I still needed to get home so I could commence quitting and the only way to do that was to keep going.
The track went down for a long time. It was still technical and very slow going.
I could see Mt Speculation in the distance. There were four or so rock bands up near the top. The ledges I’d read about.
Trepidation. No choice but to keep going.
The track finally started pointing up. The final climb. Yeah, I was getting there.
Step after step, shouldering through the scrub, resisting the urge to lean forward with all my weight and try to force my way through when my bike was caught. Even when I was doing my best to “be like water” sometimes it felt like the bush was going to tear the bike from my back, drop me flat on my back.
The rock bands loomed closer and soon I was standing at the foot of the first one.
There was a rope tied to a tree.
There was another rock behind and I felt like I wouldn’t fit in the gap so I decided to tie my bike/bag in and haul it up after me.
There were some scraping sounds but I managed to drag it all up without damaging anything too much.
Top views from up there.
My confidence was boosted. First rock band down. I’d used a rope and hauled my bike. Couldn’t get any worse could it?
The top of the hill was getting closer and the remaining rock bands looked challenging but doable. Bring it on, just let me tick them off and top out already.
The next one was easier.
I could see the top of Speculation getting closer. Just working through the terrain.
There were no more ropes but there was one ledge that was a bit more climby than the others.
It was about 15 feet of proper hands and feet climbing. Trivial from a climbing perspective but a little daunting to a tired non-climber with an awkward and heavy load.
But, there was no other option. Don’t think about it too much, just do it. Or rather, don’t think about the big picture, just focus on putting my hands and feet where they need to go, shift my weight, keep moving up.
I’d say that was the crux of the whole day.
And I was quietly proud of myself that I’d handled it so smoothly.
When the tank is completely empty, you’ve still got fifty percent to give.
The top of Speculation was just over the way.
I’d made it across the Crosscut Saw.
The half-threatening cloud that had been sitting over Spec all afternoon leant a bit of drama to the scene. Is that Mt Eadley-Stoney on the left? Buller and Stirling cut a now-familiar silhouette on the right and you can just make out Mt Torbreck standing pale and hazy, dead centre on the far horizon.
I unshouldered my crucifix and indulged in a (water-less) five minute relax. I looked back towards Mt Howitt. (“That’s where we’ve just been.”)
Wonangatta Valley. On the right there’s Zeka Spur, The Pinnacles and Billy Goat Bluff if you really squint.
In my mind it was “all downhill” from here. I’d cleared the crux and now it was just an easy stroll and an easy roll back to the car. The cloud was about to lift.
And, indeed, it was downhill. I could make out tents and people way down there and started following the track down towards them.
Downhill, open terrain, luxury.
Just before I reached the little campground I found the track shooting down to the carpark at Speculation Road. Good. I didn’t fancy stumbling through a group of jovial bushwalkers full of questions and good cheer. Not right now.
The track down to the carpark seemed to go on forever but finally I spied a car roof between the trees and soon after I emerged from the bush onto Speculation Road.
I unshouldered my bike for the last time.
It was 6:30pm. Keep moving.
I kept doing the maths as I robotically unpacked my bike and started to reassemble it.
“I started up Mt Howitt at 9:20am. It’s now 6:30pm. That’s… 9 hours.”
My brain felt slow and I made all my actions slow and deliberate. I didn’t want to drop anything or make any mistakes putting my bike back together.
“Nonono. Hang on. I started up Mt Howitt at 9:20am. And now it’s 6:30pm. That’s…”
I counted on my fingers again.
“123, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8… 9. 9 hours.”
The bike came back together and all seemed to be in working order. I double-checked everything again and again and finally started rolling down Speculation Road.
Oh my god, it felt good to sit down.
The road was downhill but it was not fast. Chunky rocks forced me to brake, pick a line, weave my way down the track – way too much finesse and thinking required at this late stage in the day. This must have been “The Staircase” that’s mentioned on the maps – it’d be slow going in a 4WD too, I imagine.
My mind was already back at the car so this rocky mess came as an unexpected insult. A rigid MTB is “enough bike” for this terrain but I didn’t have “enough patience” to keep my cool. There was swearing and dramatic grunts and groans at every hit. I was over it.
My plummeting stoke may have been exacerbated by the fact that I still hadn’t had a drink of water. There was water to be found now, if I wanted it, just off the side of the road, but I had carpark fever.
“Gotta get to the car, I’m so late, can’t stop now, it’s all downhill from here, I don’t need to drink water to roll down a bloody hill.”
Must have been pushing 10 hours now on 1.7 litres of water.
The road kept going and going and going. And then I finally hit the steep downhill section that would take me back down to the car. More braking, more picking a line through the rocks and ruts, ugh… come on! Gotta be getting close now!
Clearly I was too far gone and focussed on getting home to take any photos.
I figured I’d drink some water in the car so I finally filled up my bottles at one of the river crossings and filled my belly too.
Finally, the car.
I loaded up, checked for anything leaking underneath (nope), turned it over (yes!) and rolled on out to Circuit Road in the setting sun.
Cows didn’t blink an eye as I drove past.
I drove slow and steady as the sun set and the road went dark. Lucky the high beams were both still working.
This driving section seemed to go for far too long. Man, this was the ride that never ends.
Finally, I rolled past Telephone Box Junction and started down Stirling Road in the darkness. Watch out for deer, watch out for roos, watch out for rocks.
It wasn’t this long on the way up was it?
Mirimbah! Finally, I was back on paved road. Another milestone ticked off.
I was bugging as I rolled through Mirimbah, Sawmill, Merrijig. Here I was again, driving through that kangaroo alley in the dark, this time with a full day of riding and hiking under my belt. I took it slow. Gotta get to Mansfield now. Gotta get to Mansfield and go to the servo and get fuel and coke and get home safe. Gotta get coke!
It was after 10pm when I rolled into Mansfield. Everything was shut. Servo shut.
Ugh. Pulled over into a side street. Messaged wife. Took a powernap. Kept on driving.
Petrol and coke in Yea? Closed.
Glenburn? Totally closed.
Could have tried Yarra Glen but by that time I was almost home.
I rolled into home about 11:50pm. Kids were sleeping, wife got up to say hello and went straight back to bed. I heated up my dinner and ate it standing up at the kitchen counter, my mind a numb buzzing soup of recurring loops and memories from a long day on the road.
I’d planned a short and easy loop just to test out my packbike setup. What I actually got was more adventure than I bargained for.
It was all as it should be.
Over the next few days I naturally started reviewing my gear and technique and thought about how to improve my bike carry to get some of the load off my shoulders. But then again, I’d just done a loaded nine hour hike with bushwacking and rock scrambling and all I had to complain about was sore shoulders. Maybe my setup was just fine? My feet were surprisingly great except for some black nail on my big toe. Really don’t know how I dodged blisters.
As for the car, I did a bunch of googling, learnt a bunch of stuff, bought a headlight and put it in myself. I had to hit it with a hammer to get the bonnet closing acceptably but it’s fixed, save for panel damage.
I spoke to my wife about how I quit adventuring and, to my surprise, she seemed to think that was a bad idea and didn’t really take me seriously. I’ve already been planning more adventures so… I guess I didn’t take it very seriously either.
And now, in summary, I’m reminded once again of the final scene of “Burn After Reading”.
GARDNER CHUBB ... What did we learn, Palmer. PALMER I don't know, sir. GARDNER CHUBB I don't fucking know either. I guess we learned not to do it again. PALMER Yes sir. GARDNER CHUBB Although I'm fucked if I know what we did. PALMER Yes sir. Hard to say. We pull back from Gardner Chubb, shaking his head. GARDNER CHUBB Jesus. Jesus fucking Christ.