Thursday, 4 May 2017

The Snowy Mountains Part 3 - The Barry Way

The greatest climbs were behind me, but I knew I had a testing section to come.  Once on the Barry Way, I had about 250Km left to cycle to my finishing point at Bairnsdale and the train back to Melbourne.  There were still some climbs to come, but this time they'd be on unsealed roads, for about half of the distance left to cycle.

This was actually the first time I had gone any significant distance on a cycle tour on an unsealed surface.  My bike is designed to handle it, but it still adds more problems.  The lack of a smooth surface obviously makes it slightly harder to pedal, and the rougher nature of the road increases your risks of punctures and other bike problems. Fortunately, I had no mechanical issues whatsoever and no punctures.

I had about 2 and a half days left until my scheduled train, and my target on day one was to finish the day at a place called Suggan Buggan, one of the few inhabited areas on the road.  This was about 130Km away, again a pretty long day in the saddle.  I guess I could have done this tour at a more leisurely pace, but Australia does produce some unique logistical problems with its lack of towns and villages to stop at and re-supply.  So many wilderness areas have to be done at a reasonable pace.  And besides, I am self-employed, so when I am not working, I am not getting paid, so shorter tours are necessary at the moment.

130Km with some big climbs, mostly on dirt and gravel roads was another big day, but it was actually very easy-paced and pleasant for most of it.  Not long after I reached the start of the unsealed part of the road, I hit a great lookout at about 900 metres.  It surprised me how high I still was.  I had only descended about 400 metres since Thredbo, which was quite encouraging.

I stopped for about half an hour or so and had some lunch, admiring the view of the mountain wilderness laid-out before me and seeing the road I would be travelling on clearly visible, cut-out of the side of the mountains and heading joyously downhill as far as the eye could see.  It was a dismal lunch though, of tuna, cold tinned spaghetti and cheese, down to the fact I forgot my stove and I wanted to save money in Thredbo where everything was very expensive.

Forgetting my stove wasn't nearly as bad as I had imagined it would be.  I was content with cold food until I reached the Hostel in Thredbo and was happy popping into the odd cafe for something warm on the way when I could.  Not having to carry a gas cylinder and the stove would certainly save some valuable space for future trips.

After lunch, I descended down through the mountains, first steeply with sheer drops off one side and the ruts and pot-holes in the road making things slower-going than it might have been, but quite fun at least.  Then, as the gradient became less severe, the Snowy River Valley became visible from the road and was quite beautiful.  Nothing hugely spectacular, like in New Zealand, but the landscape had a unique look - as is often the case in Australia - and felt like a special tucked-away little corner of a mainly unexplored world.  Despite the fact there was the odd person campervaning on the road, often carrying mountain bikes for a bit of cycling, it felt like a place untouched by people.

As I was closing-in on the last 20-30Km of the day to Suggan Buggan, I knew a big climb was imminent and it was confirmed by a few mountain bikers coming from the other direction.  We stopped at a well-positioned look-out over the Snowy River for a chat before I took on the last gut-busting part of the day.

A grueling climb followed, and as I reached the a sign-posted saddle, at what appeared to be the top, I bumped into a couple of motorcyclists, who were doing some of the off-road paths on their special motocross-like bikes.  Just beforehand, I managed to fall off my bike in typical fashion; when tired, I forget sometimes that one cleat often sticks in my pedal, so as I roll to stop, hugely depleted in leg strength, my feet get stuck and slowly over I go.  It does hurt sometimes, but nothing serious, and only something I tend to do once a trip.  Anyway, they told me I was at the top, but I wasn't, after a small bit of down, I was climbing for another 30 minutes, making the total climb about 2 and a half hours long at the end of the day.

I rolled into Suggan Buggan feeling shattered again, but it had been a memorable day of cycling with great scenery and interesting roads the whole day.

Suggan Buggan has a permanent population of 3; a pistachio farmer, and a married couple, now separated, and would you believe, one has a restraining order on the other. I learnt all this from a guy who was staying at his mates' holiday home.  He turned-out to be the same guy I bumped into on his motorbike at the top of the saddle.  He kindly checked the campsite to see if I was alright and if I needed anything.  I badly needed some water, so he gave me a lift in his car to his mates' house off a rough dirt track at the top of a hill.  The house was basically just a large wooden hut, with very basic facilities.

One of the few residents of Suggan Buggan with the old wooden school house on the right.

As I passed the old lady's house, a bit of a slanty shanty with a small wooden school house next to it, he also told me that Leonardo Di Caprio once visited this place and inscribed his name inside the little wooden hut of a school house.  Perhaps it is not so much of a surprise that a movie star, constantly in the spotlight, would be attracted to a such an isolated place.

When I reached the holiday home, I filled-up a couple of bottles of water and was very kindly offered a bit of their food.  I was offered a beer, of course, as well but I reluctantly turned it down, not because I didn't want to drink it, but I knew I'd be up going to pee all night if I did.  Alcohol always goes right through me.  When it is close to zero degrees overnight, frequent trips out of the warm sleeping bag are not that fun.

The chap that kindly picked me up and offered supplies wasn't there alone, but was riding motorbikes with his two sons and his friend's two sons.  They had a four wheel drive and a big trailer with 4 motocross-style bikes in the back.  It looked fun and expensive.

Camp for the night.  Always nice having something to sit on.

After a little while chatting, he gave me a lift back to my bike and the small campsite I parked at so I could pitch my tent before nightfall.  Another couple were also present, a rather unsociable man and his wife and their grumpy dog that kept grumbling at my presence.

The mountain bikers I met earlier had told me that I had two big climbs; one before Suggan Buggan, and one after, so I knew I'd have a fairly immediate challenge in the morning.  It was pretty horrendous, but the morning mist in the mountains was stunning and the road was quite open, so I had glorious views for most of the morning while I puffed away up the hill on the dirt.

The climb felt like it went on forever, and even when I made it to what seemed like the top, the road never really descended that much for a long time after and often had some short but testing stretches of climbing as well.  All this meant that I was feeling the pace again.  I was feeling really quite tired, but was looking forward to a bit of civilisation again at a place called Buchan and a bit of lunch.

Glorious views to reward the morning's ascent.

I normally don't eat much meat, but when I ride, I take what I can get and I often find I really crave it.  I stopped in a cafe for a meat feast foccaccia sandwich, and it was heaven.  I don't think I can really express the feeling of eating warm, delicious, satisfying food when you are truly hungry and worn-out, when your body obviously really needs it.

At that cafe, I bumped into another cycle tourer going in the opposite direction.  He was cycling the Snowy River Valley also, but was spending 6 weeks in the area, no doubt going down all the side tracks and spending days at a time camping, really getting away from it all.  I didn't have such time, but it just showed how versatile cycle touring trips can be, and how different mine was to his.  He was doing nowhere near the daily mileage I was doing, but he still had a couple of big climbs that day as the way into Buchan gave me some respite to me with some long, sweeping descents.  At long last reward for the climbing earlier in the day.

With the best sandwich ever inside of me and a little rest, I intended only cycling another 40 Km and leaving myself 40Km for the last day into Bairnsdale and getting a slightly earlier train.  I still felt tired though, but once I got through a bit of a wall, the road began to go mostly downhill again and all of a sudden the possibility of reaching Bairnsdale that evening was a reality.  I wondered whether there was a train I could hop on and get me home a day early.

Alas, I missed the last train by about an hour, but I could get the early morning train the next day.  The trouble was, where to camp?  The cheapest motel was $90, so that was out of the question.  The other option wasn't good either; a campsite for $30 on the other side of town.  I decided to find a wild camping spot not far from the train station.

I found a grassy area near a few trees around the back of a small housing estate. Probably the dodgiest place I have ever camped, if I am honest.  I was running a high risk of being discovered.  However, it was a quiet town, so I waited about an hour and just ate all my food until it got dark, seeing if anyone was going to wonder down my way.  No one was around and no one looked like they'd be coming down that way. Now quite accustomed to pitching my tent and the routine of arranging things, I managed it all without shining a light - which could have alerted people of my presence - and settled down to a sneaky nights' sleep.

I woke up early and had my breakfast at the train station and my ticket for 4.30pm was exchanged for the 6.30am train.  Result.  This would give me much needed rest for the rest of the day, as I had a pretty busy day of work planned for the following day.

Another successful trip then, completed slightly ahead of schedule, but not without its challenges.  Short but deadly, this cycled really tested me.  Perhaps it seems like it doesn't hold a candle to cycling through Australia in a month or cycling around New Zealand, but in this short time my body was really put through the grinder.  This cycle was as hard as anything I have done to date.  It will not be the last time I venture into the mountains for a cycle tour, however, as the effort does bring rich rewards.  I have two more trips planned for this year, and although both are longer, I doubt whether they'll be as intense.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

The Snowy Mountains Part 2 - The Alpine Way and Mount Kosciuszko

Into the mountains then, and the meat of the tour.  Almost as soon as I hit the sign for the high country, the climbing began, and when I got to the sign for Mount Kosciuszko National Park, the climbing began to get silly.  This wasn't going to be a simple, relaxing jaunt through gently sloping mountain passes.  The gradients were severe, and almost impossible to cycle at times.

Later on in the trip, I passed a fellow cyclist who told me that the climb up to Thredbo (the town at the base of Mount Kosciuszko) was one of the hardest - if not the hardest - in Australia.  I wasn't aware of this before I started, but I did realise the Alpine Way would be challenge.

The challenge of climbing mountains through the winding roads on bike is always somewhat daunting, but when you add a heavy touring bike loaded with gear, it makes the task quite a bit harder.  You're not looking to break any speed records, it is just about getting to your destination somehow, and this is far from easy.  It is even problematic should you choose to give up trying to cycle and just push the bike because pushing nearly 40kg of bike up a steep mountain road isn't a walk in the park either and it is very slow going.

On the second day of the trip, I had set myself a difficult target of making it to Tom Groggin campground, about 25Km shy of Thredbo.  I knew this would be difficult, not only because it was over 150Km from my campsite overnight, but also because I knew the climbing would be tough. Doing 150Km in one day on the flat is hard enough.  I needed to hit this target, however, because I wanted most of the day in Thredbo so I could hike up Mount Kosciuszko, Australia's highest mountain.

There were several climbs during the day, but two big ones in particular.  The first up to Scammel's Lookout at about 1000 metres and then - just when I thought I'd finished my climbing for the day - there was another seemingly unending stretch of about 600 metres, before the final descent into Tom Groggin.

The real problem I had was the severity of the ascents and descents.  So steep on the way up that it was difficult to stay within my lactate threshold, even in my lowest of gears, and so steep on the way down that I felt like I was receiving almost no rest at all before the next climb.

When climbing on a bike, it is so important to choose a gear that won't sap you of strength too quickly.  Once you have hit your lactate threshold and the lactic acid begins burning your legs, it becomes extremely problematic to get your legs functioning again.  When you have hugely steep roads on a heavy bike, though, the lowest of gears can send your heart rate spiraling and make your legs so fatigued, you don't really know what to do with yourself, you just don't know how you can go any further.

Although things were difficult, the roads were going through some spectacular high country and the hardship sort of made the whole experience that much more worthwhile.  It is as if mountains were put on this earth to test us and reward us for the effort taken to climb them, whether on foot or by bike.

Looking back down what I just cycled up.  The picture doesn't really tell the true tale of how steep this really was.

I'd left my overnight camp at 6.30am and I made it to Tom Groggin, after a grueling day, at 6pm with only a small break for lunch.  One of my toughest days in the saddle, for sure. I had a quick bite to eat in the darkness and slept like a baby from about 7pm until 5am the next morning, despite the freezing temperatures outside.

It was only about 25Km to Thredbo, but it ended-up taking me nearly 4 hours to go this paltry distance.  It was  steepest climbing I had ever done going from Tom Groggin campground to Dead Horse Gap at nearly 1600 metres - the mountain pass just before Thredbo.  Note that this road was about 600 metres higher than the highest sealed road in New Zealand and I can assure you that it felt it.

The highest point of the cycle at Dead Horse Gap at 1580 metres.

I think it seems slightly strange that a mountainous country like New Zealand doesn't come close to Australia when it comes to the height of their highest roads.  In New Zealand, however, you have to take the weather into consideration.  What's the point in building a high road if you can't use it for most of the year due to snow, ice, and other adverse weather?  Really, there are so few roads in New Zealand and they twist themselves around and through the lowest passes possible through the mountains, taking many huge detours in the process.  Not so in Australia, where many roads go right up to the top of mountains, and because the weather there is a lot warmer for most of the year, and the weather conditions more stable, they can build them like this.

After Dead Horse Gap, it was a gentle downhill into Thredbo, a ski resort town in the Winter and a centre for hiking and mountain biking for the rest of the year.  It was a huge relief to get there.  One of my inspirations for cycle touring is a chap called Mark Beaumont, and I remember him talking once about the deepest, darkest places of endurance sport.  He really pushes the boundaries of endurance in what he does on a scale I can only dream of, but I can assure you that cycling up to Thredbo on a loaded bike will come close to breaking almost anyone and I started to know what he meant when describing this dark place of despair.  I was exhausted, truly exhausted.  There was almost nothing left in my legs, partly down to the day before also, and I wasn't sure how I was going to climb Mount Kosciuszko, the centre-piece of this particular trip.

The view of Thredbo from the chairlift.

To me, the suffering is partly why I enjoy cycle touring and similar activities in the past like marathon and ultra-marathon running.  You can certainly be much more leisurely cycle touring; choosing your route carefully and doing less mileage in a day and I have done this in New Zealand and will take more leisurely tours again in the future, but the challenge gives an extra sense of achievement and a connection to your wild surroundings.  Travelling under your own steam, you feel everything; the cold wind, the burning sun, the fatigue, the rain, the smells, the sounds, and the exhilaration of your surroundings.  What better way to travel?

I wasn't entirely sure what I was going to do for a place to stay the night, but my condition encouraged me to take a long-shot and see if there was space in the YHA hostel in Thredbo.  It was Good Friday, so I wasn't that hopeful of a bed, but luckily there was one dorm bed left.  This meant I could get a shower, have some good food and have a proper rest.  But first things first, I had a mountain to climb.

Throughout the trip I was blessed by fantastic weather, but on the first couple of days the highest peaks were still shrouded in cloud.  However, I was in luck again.  I arrived on a perfect sunny day, with the clearest views possible.  A week earlier there had been a huge storm in South-East Australia which had caused problems all over the Victoria and some parts of New South Wales and dropped some early snow on the mountains, some of which stayed on the highest peaks.

I had to take a chairlift to the beginning of the hike to the top of Kosciuszko.  Even after the lift, there was still about 13Km of hiking to be done.  Due to the perfect weather and the Easter holidays, there were more people around than I had expected, but it wasn't that busy.  Most people were taking the chair lift to the start of the downhill mountain bike tracks, which looked good fun.

At the top, with a little snow in early April in Australia!

At 2228 metres high, Mount Kosciuszko is a reasonable height and there is quite a fair sized mountain plateau around it.  Most of the peaks in Australia have been weathered and have rounded tops, so there are few, if any jagged peaks like I saw in New Zealand.

I was back down by 3pm, which meant that I could put my feet up for the rest of the day and let my legs recover a bit.  A warm hostel, a sofa, cups of tea and coffee, and a dorm bed feel like absolute luxury when you are tired.  I also knew that the next day wouldn't be easy either.  I'd have about 40 Km and then I was heading down the Barry Way for two days the last leg of my journey, for more climbing on unsealed roads through the Snowy river valley.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The Snowy Mountains Part 1 - The Murray River Road

6 months after returning from New Zealand, I was itching to get back in the saddle and go on another tour.  I ended up picking a tour of about 5 days, but I couldn't have chosen a much harder route.  Huge climbs, few services, dangerous roads, and unforgiving surfaces.  However, it was through some of the most stunning areas of the the most mountainous part of Australia.

Three fantastic roads, starting in Albury on the Murray River Road, then leading up to Australia's highest mountain on the Alpine Way, then crossing the alpine wilderness to Bairnsdale on the Barry Way (sometimes called The Snowy River Road).  To start things off, it was the relatively simple stretch along the Murray river road.

This leg was to take about a day to complete and was a pleasant, gently undulating ride along the Murray River, starting at Lake Hume.

The Dam at Lake Hume must have changed the landscape of the Murray river as the river was vast in some areas and drowned trees dotted the landscape, making for a fairly unique looking backdrop.

I left Melbourne on the train in the early hours of the morning and arrived just before lunchtime in Albury.  I had a target of about 85Km on this first day and would finish at a free camping reserve by the river to camp overnight.  I didn't leave the river the whole day and it was a scenic, easy ride.

I wasn't expecting too much from this first leg and was focusing much more of the mountains on the Alpine Way and Barry Way.  However, the Murray River was wonderfully scenic along the whole length I cycled.  As usual, Australia didn't disappoint with the wildlife as well, parrots, parakeets, cockatoos, eagles, kangaroos, and freshwater turtles on the banks of the river.

Last year, when I cycled the length of Australia from Darwin to Melbourne, I was actually at the other end of the Murray River in South Australia.  The Murray River is the 15th longest in the world at 2373Km long, and the longest in Australia.  I was at the end of it that time, this time I was near its source.

After camping by the river overnight, and sleeping incredibly soundly for about ten hours I awoke feeling very refreshed and followed the river on for another 50Km or so until I reached the high country and the start of the Alpine Way.  Along the way, I made sure to savour the beautiful weather and the peaceful misty morning on the river.

As well as the hills to come, this cycle imposed some logistical challenges as well, one of them being finding food and water.  With so few towns and services on all three of the roads I would be cycling on, I had to make sure I could fill-up the bottle and re-fuel the body wherever I could.  It was with great relief then, that I found a perfect water stop at a small village called Walwa, just before heading to the high-country.  I was pretty keen on not carrying too much weight in water, about 4 litres maximum.  I suppose I could have sourced some of the water from the Murray river with a bit of filtering and treatment, but it is always good that this is a last resort measure.

Fully stocked-up on water, and with plenty of food, I made my way to the high country and the expected hard-yards on the bike.  It certainly wasn't going to disappoint in this regard.

Friday, 7 April 2017

The Snowy Mountains Wilderness Tour Ahead

After the raging success of my first two bike tours, I am not about to stop anytime soon. However, finding a spare few months isn't always easy, so with that in mind, I have a couple of shorter tours planned this year of between 5-10 days each.

The first of these is back in Australia.  I've had a couple of months out of the saddle and now I'm itching for another tour.  I can't go far, money isn't too bad, but I do have to establish some consistent work so I can save for something really epic.  

I decided to not stray too far from my base here and spend 5 or 6 days in the Australian Alps, scaling the highest mountain in Australia in the process, Mount Kosciuszko.

The ride is a picturesque one, along 3 beautiful rural roads first following the Murray River East on the Murray River road and then up to Thredbo, a town at the base of Mount Kosciuszko, via the Alpine Way, and then down to Bairnsdale on the Barry Way, an unsealed narrow mountain road through the mountains.  Despite this ride taking place in the Easter holidays, I am not expecting much in the way of traffic on any of these roads, especially the Barry Way and the Murray River Road.

This is not an easy ride, so I had to squeeze in some training bikes beforehand.  The roads are steep, and large sections unsealed, and as usual in Australia, when you go a little way outside the major cities, very remote, with little in the way of facilities.

Early April tends to be the most settled time of year weather-wise in Victoria, the extreme heat of the summer should be gone, and also there should be some pretty autumn foliage around, so that seems the perfect time to go.

As you can see from the above cycling profile, the route is not an easy one.  It passes right through the great dividing range, taking the highest route through the Australian Alps.  These roads are actually higher than in New Zealand, and the elevation gain over the 5-6 days I will be cycling is probably the hardest I have faced over such a distance.

To make matters worse, between Bairnsdale and Thredbo (Just under 300Km), there really is virtually nothing in the way of services, just a whole lot of high-country wilderness.  Whereas I faced long distances in the Outback without support, the road was flat and fast.  This promises to be pretty slow-going.  The named landmarks spaced-out on the map, like "Suggan Buggan", are not really towns or villages, they are literally just one or two farmhouses with no shops or any other amenities (in fact, only 3 people live there).  I'll have to make sure I am loaded-up with supplies.

Obviously, I don't live in Bairnsdale or Albury, so I plan on getting out to Albury on the train and coming back to Melbourne from Bairnsdale on the train.  Doing a whole loop starting and finishing in Melbourne would take too long.


Obviously, some dangers apply.  This particular journey is not going to be a comfortable one, staying in hostels like I did in New Zealand.  Most nights I will be wild camping in the forest.  This obviously leaves me at a slight risk from the local wildlife, the usual nasties, like snakes and spiders, but also ticks, which apparently kill far more people in Australia by spreading disease.  

I also know from previous experience of running in the forests of the high country last year, that in wet weather, leeches are present in unbelievably large numbers.  They aren't really dangerous, but they are definitely unpleasant.

Safety on the road is always an issue, and I suspect my main danger in this regard will be drivers on narrow roads and blind corners on the switchback roads up and down the mountains.  At least logging trucks shouldn't be a problem, as I will be in a national park for most of the time, with logging activities not allowed.

The weather, however, is my greatest concern.  It shouldn't be snowy yet at this time of year, although it is certainly possible, but rain could really make things difficult and potentially dangerous on the narrow unsealed roads, especially as many of these roads have sheer drops without barriers.

I only have a narrow window for this trip and then it is back to work, so if I need to bail on it, I need a back-up plan of another place to go.  However, with few roads in this area, finding one could be difficult, so fingers crossed!


The wildlife is always a pleasure in Australia.  You almost always see something of interest, whether it be the ample and varied colourful birds, or the many marsupials for which Australia is famous.  Koalas, wombats, kangaroos, wallabies, possums, and maybe even platypus in the streams, inhabit the areas I will be travelling through.

It is quite exciting to hit the road again, and this should be a really great tour.  6 days in the remote mountain wilderness of Victoria and New South Wales, on some of the most picturesque roads in the country, and camping out under the stars in the bush.  There's nothing better.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Weekend Training Bikes Around Melbourne

Before my big bike tours of Australia and New Zealand last year, I needed to do some practice runs.  There was plenty to discover; how far I could ride, camping routines, what I needed or what I didn't need, and generally what to expect.

I find I need a target of a big trip to get me out and about around Melbourne, as the areas around Melbourne aren't as spectacular.  However, there are still some really excellent areas to go and do long one day and two day tours.  Here are some of what I have done, both before and after my two big tours so far.

Lilydale to Moe

This was my first overnight camp with an almost fully-loaded bike.  Including all the bikes to and from train stations, the cycle totaled about 90Km on day one and about 60Km on day two.  

Everything east of Melbourne starts to become quite hilly and even mountainous at times, so there were some very testing sections on this first ride, including a 6Km section of climb after Noojee of about 1000 metres ascent, not easy.

Camping at Noojee Trestle Bridge

I didn't know what to expect on this first outing, but gained a lot of confidence fairly quickly after a (quite literally) shaky start on the loaded bike.

St Kilda to Cape Schanck

My first day of over 100Km on the bike and I was rewarded by a beautiful sunrise after a sneaky wild camp and loads of ring tail possums for company.  Some surprisingly arduous hills after that, but it was all character building stuff.

I'm not a great fan of riding through the city so I got a train back from Frankston and on that train, as fate would have it, I met a quite extraordinary woman.  She was quite a small 77 year-old lady and she started up a conversation with me about cycling.  She told me that she does the same as me and I just assumed that she was one of the many weekend cyclists in the city.  However, she revealed that she had completed a number of cycle tours around Australia herself, some in groups and some solo.  She had done Adelaide to Darwin following the same route as I would be doing (just in the other direction), Darwin to Perth, Melbourne to Sydney, Perth to Melbourne along the Nullarbor Straight, and a whole host of others since she started cycling in this way when she was 62.  She obviously couldn't do the sort of miles daily as I could, but with careful planning she explored some real hardcore routes through Australia, on dirt tracks, camping rough, and going through some of the most remote and dangerous areas of Australia.  Truly inspiring, and if she can do all this in her 60's and 70's, surely I can do it in my thirties.

Wilson's Promontory

I headed out of the city first on the train and then back from a different location.  Over 300 Km total, and 130Km on the first and last days with a big hike in the middle. This trip was incredibly hilly, but it was important to hit my needed average before I went on the big one through the Outback last year.  This trip was long overdue as I was thwarted by extremely wet and wild weather throughout June, which hampered my ability to get out on the bike at the weekends.  Two nights wild camping also, and I still managed to hit my daily goal with plenty of time to spare.

The ups and downs of the Strzelecki Ranges

The cycling was actually pretty difficult as my route crossed the Strzelecki Ranges, a low mountain range that forms part of the Great Dividing Range east of Melbourne.

A good test for the last of my preparation rides before the big ones and a beautiful destination in Wilson's Prom, the most southerly point of mainland Australia.

There was a heck of a lot of wildlife in Wilson's Prom, and a lot on the side of the road while cycling.  So much so that I actually witnessed a kangaroo being hit by a car in front of me, poor thing.  It was still alive, unconscious but clearly breathing, on the side of the road as the driver checked it and called for assistance.  I never saw the kangaroo on the way back and hoped that it survived, which I guess was a possibility, as it was a pretty sturdy animal. It did give me pause for thought about what might happen to me if I hit one at 50Km/h going downhill.  I'm guessing I might have come off second best. I proceeded with due vigilance from then on.

I did get to see plenty of wildlife in good condition, though.  Kangaroos watched on as I biked by and wombats greeted me a Tidal River, as well as some deserted and gorgeous beaches.

The cutest animal in Australia

All the previous routes were completed before my big tours of Australia and New Zealand.  I took a few months to settle back into normal life, but now I am keen on a couple of shorter tours this year.  Both are potentially very tough, though, with lots of ascent, so I needed to do some training runs.

The Lilydale Loop Via Mount Donna Buang

This is a challenging ride.  Only 105Km, but with a huge climb of over 1200m in the middle.  I actually have been up the mountain on this route before; I ran up it last year on the hiking trail, and then ran down the road I will be cycling on.  I did this as training for my ultra-marathon.  That time, I had to contend with hundreds and hundreds of leeches on the trail, this time I'll just have to go up the road I ran down.  I saw many a cyclist struggling up the road that day, on light bikes with no baggage.  I was on a heavy bike with a bit of baggage, so I could simulate a long climb with the weight of my equipment on the bike for my upcoming tour through the mountains.

I was actually quite pleasantly surprised, firstly how comfortably I managed the summit of Mount Donna Buang, and also how beautiful the ride was.  It was a stunning morning on the Lilydale to Warburton rail trail with great valley scenery in the morning light, and then some fantastic views at the top of the mountain.  Another thing, that pictures don't tell, is the amazing smells of Australian forests.  They are so fragrant in the right conditions, smelling of eucalyptus right the way through the forested mountain.

From the bottom.....

To the top.

At the summit I was joined by a number of cyclists, who were riding up from Warburton and back down, some even doing it twice, would you believe.  I was taking a different route down to Healesville via a dirt track through the forest.  Although the other cyclists were quicker than me, none could do this track as it was too rough for their bikes.  My wider tires and robust frame can handle well-maintained non-sealed roads, and that road was a very pleasant and isolated road down the mountain.

Absolutely superb training run, one of my favourites to date; great scenery, challenging climbing and about 50Km or so of unsealed track to boot.  Just what I needed for my trip through the Snowy Mountains.

Hurstbridge Loop Via Kinglake and Healesville

Very little traffic, plenty of testing climbs, nice roads, and lovely scenery.  I chose this for my first training ride back after a few months off after my tour of New Zealand.  I was after hills, and this was a testing, but not overly steep reintroduction to hill climbing.

The first section from Hurstbridge to Kinglake was a steady 600m climb over about 20Km through the Kinglake Ranges.  After that there were a few gentle ups and downs to Toolangi and then a long, steady descent all the way to Healesville, which was really pleasant.

The hills continued through to Yarra Glen and then another stiff climb came shortly after.  By the time I was back to Hurstbridge, I knew I'd had a day on the bike.  The whole ride took just short of 6 hours to complete, with the odd short rest stop on occasion.

Dandenongs (Multiple different rides)

Probably the most accessible training area for hill climbing around Melbourne, and a place where I did most of my ultra-marathon training last year.  The ride I post here is my most recent and longest one through the region.

The Dandenongs is a nice natural area of tall gum forest not too far from Melbourne. Some of the hiking trails get pretty busy at the weekends, but the further you go, the quieter it gets.  In certain areas the wildlife is amazing, with the highlight the famous lyrebird, which can be heard and often seen going through its amazing repertoire of calls, mimicking all the other birds of the forest - and other bizarre sounds, like car alarms, cameras and chainsaws - with seemingly 100% accuracy.

There are some challenging climbs in the area, which is quite popular with cyclists.

So these are a few of the rides around Melbourne I do to get my body and mind prepared for the longer trips to come.  Coming up in a couple of weeks (at the time of writing) will be 6 days in the Snowy Mountain wilderness, with some of the biggest climbs I will have done to date.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

A Fond Farewell After An Unscheduled Ending

After leaving Motueka, I gave myself a couple of days to get back to Picton and the ferry back to the North Island.  It was only about 50Km on the first day, as I wanted to stop in Nelson overnight as there was nowhere to stay after that and the full 160Km or so seemed a bit excessive for one day, especially with plenty of hills in between.

Nelson was quite a big town, and although it seemed a nice place to live, I wasn't sure about the people.  They seemed a little rough around the edges, and I also had a startling experience in the public library as I was uploading some pictures from my camera.

Sitting next to me was an extremely obnoxious teenage boy with a girl who seemed okay, yet was loving every minute of this boys foul-mouthed ranting.  In a library, the boy continually made stupid noises, talked openly about having sex, and taking drugs, and in fact admitted freely to being high at that very moment.  No one appeared willing to talk to him and tell him to quieten-down or get out, so I gave him a bit of a telling-off.  It briefly shut him up, but then he quickly forgot about it.  I did wonder if I had pushed a little harder whether the kid would have confronted me, so off his head he seemed to be, so I just promptly finished what I was doing and walked out.

Now this might sound like I am being a bit of a miserable old curmudgeon here, but I saw quite a lot of poorly mannered youths in New Zealand, even in the small towns. There seemed to bit an annoying habit in the young of walking around like gangsters and playing hip-hop music at full volume on their phones for all to hear.  Headphones didn't seem to be a thing at all.

Anyway, the next day I had a tough 110Km or so to go to Picton, passing Marlborough Sounds along the way for some more scenic beauty.

It was a surprisingly difficult day, and the warmest of the trip.  Bizarrely, the previous warmest day of the trip was more than 2 months beforehand while I was cycling through the Coromandel in the North Island.  I was told New Zealand had an unseasonably warm spell when I first arrived, and then had been unseasonably rainy and cold after that.  So even though the months were leading into summer, it just got colder and colder, aided by the fact I was heading South for most of this time.  In fact, the fjordlands hadn't seen snow for a month before I got there, but just as I arrived it got a fresh covering, which actually gave the mountains a renewed splendor.

The cycling profile on Google looked a little hilly, but the road to Picton proved to be some of the most exhausting ups and downs of the trip, and by the end, the constant intervals were taking a physical and mental toll on me, pushing me very hard in warm temperatures under New Zealand's notoriously strong sunshine.

By the end of the trip, I had actually put on about 3Kg.  Probably a bit down to fat, as I ate lots of chocolate, but also I think my legs were significantly bigger and stronger by the end.

It was a lovely day with views to match, however, and although tiring, the roads were glorious to cycle once again.  I was really spoiled by the roads in New Zealand, they are not only scenic, but a cyclists dream.

Going up the West coast, I had passed a few fellow cycle tourers, but we didn't stop to say hello.  Sometimes opportunities arise to have a chat, but at other times one is whizzing down a big hill while the other is climbing, so it just doesn't work out.  Fortunately, on encountering a Canadian lady cyclist at the top of the hill, we both took the time to pause for breath and have a chat before we descended in opposite directions.

She was on her way to her final destination in Queenstown, having started in Auckland, like me.  I have to admit to being surprised that women made up quite a lot of the truly independent travelers that I saw in New Zealand, not only cyclists, but walkers and hitch-hikers as well.

I arrived at Picton too late for the final ferry of the day, which was disappointing as the weather wasn't set so fair the following day, so I'd have another rainy trip across the Cook Strait like I did in the other direction.

Back in Picton and the last picture of the tour :(

I arrived back in Wellington to the same hostel I stayed in previously and a discount for being locked in my room by a broken lock when I was there over a month previously. The weather forecast for the next few days was shocking; wind and rain, so I resigned myself to staying put for a couple of days.

The plan was to head towards Taranaki for some hiking and then back up towards Auckland, taking in a few more sights along the way, but plans were to change massively.

After leaving New Zealand, it was my intention to return home to England for a few months and then to go back to Australia and apply to join my wife's permanent visa. However, due to a misunderstanding of the terms of our current visa (it is a long, complicated, and boring story), she ran a huge risk of having her visa cancelled if I didn't return, and seeing as I had already been away for over 2 months, this could happen any day.  This was explained to me on the phone in the hostel and I had no choice but to cut my trip short by about two weeks and get the soonest flight I could back to Melbourne.

Luckily, I was able to arrange a flight for the day after the next day.  This gave me time to find a box for the bike, dismantle it and pack, and still get back quite swiftly.  It was a bit stressful and I was a little worried my visa might have been cancelled, not enabling me to enter Australia, but everything worked out.

As things turned-out, the gods appeared to be on my side.  On the day I left, there was an almost biblical amount of rain, and the day after I left there was a major earthquake that struck the South Island and also damaged buildings in Wellington.  In the days after that there was extreme flooding in the part of the North Island I would undoubtedly be cycling through.  Although I was sort of gutted that I hadn't experienced what an earthquake was like, I think really I was very lucky.  If I had been travelling through the South Island at the time of the earthquake, I would have run into significant hazards and obstacles, as the quake caused landslips that ruined many of the roads I had cycled on.

So, my New Zealand adventure had come to an end, sooner than planned, but it was still an epic journey of a country that I can now call my favourite to have ever traveled. If it is not on your bucket list of places to go before you die, I strongly encourage you to add it; a stunningly beautiful, pristine, unspoilt country, that would be a joy to travel any which way, but to cycle it was truly unforgettable.

Here's the map summary of the trip:

My route down the South Island was slightly different to the above because Google is re-routing around the earthquake-damaged Eastern highway I cycled down between Picton and Christchurch.  It was extensively damaged and I assume is still blocked to this day.

As you can see, I covered quite a bit of New Zealand, but there was plenty I didn't see, so I reckon that is a good excuse for a return fairly soon.  I do like to explore new countries and cultures, but New Zealand is one of the few places I'd be happy to get a second helping of.