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.