Three Years on the Road
Brett Davis

35. Highs and Lows

Shortly after arriving at Ted and Val's property I was cleaning and maintaining both bikes when I noticed that a link in my chain was coming apart. My tool kit at the time did not contain a chain breaker and efforts to find one in Cooma proved fruitless. I phoned Kevin in Sydney and asked him to buy a chain breaker from the local bike shop and post it to me as soon as possible. Upon its arrival I removed the broken link from my chain. Karen and I were ready to hit the road again.

After thanking Ted for his hospitality, we hitched a lift with Val into Numeralla on the back of one of the farm trucks and started cycling again from there. The day would be a short one - just a small thirty two kilometre hop to the other side of Cooma where some more of Karen's relatives had a property. Laurie is Karen's second cousin on her father's side of the family. He and his wife Peggy put us up for the night, after a barbecue dinner in the garden with other members of the family. Karen and I sampled some of Peggy's home made wine, and found it quite agreeable. We put wine making down on our list of things to do once we settle down.

We were treated to a good, country breakfast the following morning and after a short walk around the property we remounted Elle and Mel and headed for Jindabyne. A solid headwind made the day seem longer than its fifty eight kilometres, with our average speed a paltry sixteen kilometres per hour. We lunched on cut sandwiches courtesy of Peggy at a table near an information centre, out of the wind. The day had turned really cold. With no shelter available at the caravan park, we spent the afternoon and evening at the local bowling club before dining on fish and chips by Lake Jindabyne.

An overcast, misty morning greeted us when we awoke next day. With our tail-lights on for added security in the gloom, we rode out of Jindabyne and headed up the Alpine Way towards Thredbo. Karen and I had not been looking forward to this day. We would be climbing through the highest mountains on the continent, but a close look at the figures reveals that our fears were not well founded. Jindabyne stands at an elevation above sea level of nine hundred and thirty metres. Thredbo, four hundred and forty metres higher, was reached after thirty six kilometres, a gradient of only twelve metres per kilometre. This looks pretty tame when compared to the final fifteen kilometres we rode up the Palmerston Highway to Millaa Millaa when our gain in elevation had been eight or nine hundred metres in fifteen kilometres, an average rise of over fifty metres per kilometre! Even the final six kilometre slog from Thredbo up to Dead Horse Gap only involved a gradient of thirty three metres per kilometre. At fifteen hundred and eighty two metres, Dead Horse Gap would be the highest point we ever reached on our bikes.

Me at Dead Horse Gap

Having climbed over six hundred metres from Jindabyne, Karen and I were looking forward to the one thousand metre descent down the other side of the Great Dividing Range to the Murray River at Tom Groggin, especially as the cloud and mist had now cleared to a beautifully sunny day. Unfortunately, the descent was tougher than the climb. Shortly after Dead Horse Gap, the Alpine Way became a dirt road, descending into the valley via an endless series of gravel-covered curves. With brakes locked on we crawled down the road, avoiding any increase in speed for fear of losing traction in a corner and coming down - which would be painful and embarrassing - or running off the road and down the mountainside - which would be potentially fatal.

By the time we reached the bottom of the eighteen kilometre descent, our hands, wrists and forearms were screaming at us to stop. We lunched at a picnic area by the rippling waters of the Murray, at this point in its course only a creek compared to the mighty river it would become further downstream. Just for fun, I threw a rock across the Murray into the state of Victoria.

From our lunch spot at Tom Groggin we climbed up and over a ridge and down into the Swampy Plains River valley. This section of the Alpine Way involved some very tough climbs and gave us an elevation gain of three or four hundred metres. We had some great downhills - one of five kilometres - from the top of the ridge. The big camping area at Geehi was reached late in the afternoon after almost six hours of riding, the eighty kilometres covered at less than fourteen kilometres per hour. We set up the tent beside the river and watched the setting sun transform the western side of Australia's highest mountains into a fairy-tale picture postcard of orange and crimson.

In the morning we walked around the flats at Geehi, checking out the birdlife, kangaroos and an historic hut. The day was warm and sunny - too warm for the seven kilometres of uphill riding that greeted us shortly after we began to ride. In the diary I described the slog up to the top of Scammell's Ridge as "a bloody tough climb", but I could have used much stronger adjectives. From the one thousand and twenty metre elevation of the ridge we breezed down to the Murray One power station before another climb and descent took us to Khancoban for lunch at thirty three kilometres.

An hour after lunch we crossed our second state border, riding into Victoria just east of Corryong then following the Murray Valley Highway through Towong and Tintaldra to finish the day at Walwa. It had been a spectacular day, through rustic farmland scenes after the initial mountain section, with great views over the Murray and back to the Alps. Even a flat tyre could not spoil our appreciation of the day, especially as it occurred only ten metres from the entrance to the riverside caravan park. A sign indicated that payment for the site could be made a kilometre back up the road in town, and keys to the amenities block could be picked up with payment, but we were pretty knackered after a day of ninety two kilometres, so we had a swim in the Murray to wash off the sweat and grime, and used a nearby public toilet instead.

Crossing into Victoria

This had been our fourth consecutive day of riding, with gradually increasing distances of thirty two, fifty eight, eighty and ninety two kilometres. The next day would continue this trend, one hundred and twenty kilometres along the Murray and the waters of the Hume Reservoir to Wodonga. We had the Wodonga home address and phone number of Kevin and Lorna, whom we had met at the Cool Waters Caravan Park in Cairns, so Karen gave them a call and arranged accommodation for the night.

Many travellers exchange addresses and utter the classic line - "If you're ever down our way, drop in and stay a while." I am not sure how many of these caravan park acquaintances actually blossom into ongoing friendships for other people, but for Karen and me the percentage is high. Most of the people we met on the Sydney to Cairns leg of our cycling trip live in the south-east of Australia and migrate north for the winter. As a result, we had a string of addresses of people in Victoria and South Australia. We had decided that if we were passing through the town of someone with whom we had exchanged addresses, we would always drop in if for a coffee and a chat. If more comes of it, like an offer of a meal or a room for the night, so much the better. We would feel bad if we did not visit, and worse if the people we did not visit learned later that we had been in their vicinity and chosen not to make contact with them.

Kevin was happy to have us drop in, as Lorna was away at the time. We followed the directions he had given us, discovering that Wodonga is a lot bigger than we had imagined. After picking up some wine on the way - my mother had said that good etiquette when visiting was to knock with your elbows (as your hands should be full of gifts) - we soon arrived on Kevin's doorstep. Karen and I must have been suffering from Civilisation Deficit Disorder, because we attempted to cram in as much as possible that night. After showers we tried some of Kevin's home brew - excellent - and were treated to a barbecue steak and salad with our wine while watching Crocodile Dundee on television. Not satisfied with that, when everyone had gone to bed, I stayed up to watch North Melbourne play Brisbane in a game of AFL.

After three hundred and eighty two kilometres in five days, Karen and I deserved a rest day and Kevin obliged with a driving tour of the Victorian high country. We had originally planned to cycle through Bright and Mount Beauty, but when the offer of a day tour came we grabbed it with both hands. Our five days through the Snowy Mountains had made another week of climbs and descents in the Victorian Alps look more like a chore than an adventure. By the time we would have arrived at the base of Mount Buffalo, there is no way that Karen and I would have attempted the ride up to the top - it was tiring enough in the car - and we would have missed some truly spectacular scenery. Mount Buffalo is an amazing place. The day was topped off nicely after Karen and I bought a barbecued chicken as our contribution to dinner, and Australia beat New Zealand in a televised world cup cricket match.

We said goodbye to Kevin the next morning and headed down the Hume Freeway on good shoulder over slightly undulating country. Ever since leaving Sydney almost four weeks before, I had carried two spare tyres, folded into figures-of-eight and strapped to my rear rack. The lesson I had learned while riding up the Palmerston Highway to the Atherton Tableland, when I had carried no spare tyre, had been too painful to ignore. One of those spare tyres would soon be needed.

In all my previous cycling experience - rapidly approaching forty years - I had had a blow-out. Tyres had worn out and had to be replaced, or they had perished from lack of use and had to be replaced, or they had been damaged and had to be replaced, but I had always been able to carry on. It was not until I was coming down a Hume Freeway off-ramp leading into Chiltern, that I learned first-hand that a tyre could be fine one moment, and totally ruined the next. My first blow-out was caused by a small staple - just like those used in an office to staple two pieces of paper together - which pierced my back tyre, avoided the Mister Tuffy tyre liner, and penetrated the tube. The blow-out sounded like the crack of a rifle. I was riding on the rim in an instant. When I examined the damage, I could see two holes large enough to put a finger through in the tread and sidewall of the tyre. The tube was shredded, unrecognisable. I found the staple inside the tyre, firmly embedded in the tread.

Karen headed into Chiltern, less than a kilometre away, to fix lunch while I changed the tyre. While riding into town a short while later, I felt strangely vulnerable. We only had one spare tyre now. If we lost another one, we would then be at the mercy of any stray nail, piece of glass or sharp stone. I had to laugh at myself. I had ridden with no spares for nearly four thousand kilometres, and now I felt insecure because I only had one!

When Karen and I had left our jobs, our fellow workers at our respective offices kicked the tin for going away presents and collected some fairly substantial amounts of money. They were then faced with the decision of what to buy. We already owned everything we would need for cycle touring, and anything additional would either be extra useless weight on the bike, or left behind and unused for an indeterminate length of time. But they were very clever people, and found not one, but two solutions to the problem. They gave us gifts of phone-cards and motel vouchers, both lightweight, useful and very much appreciated.

The motel vouchers had remained unused for almost a year. We had planned to stay in a motel only if we had no alternative, or if a cyclone had been predicted, or if we had a day so hard that we desperately needed some luxury afterwards. From Sydney to Cairns we met no cyclones, and although some days were pretty tough, only two had been bad enough to contemplate a motel. On those days we had settled for a cabin and an on-site caravan. The vouchers I had been given were valid for only one year, and by the time we began cycling south from Sydney they had almost expired. One set of vouchers had paid for our night in the motel at Figtree in Wollongong when Karen and I had been travelling without panniers for the first two days of our southbound leg, and that had been after a day spent battling a howling southerly gale for over a hundred kilometres. When we rolled into Wangaratta after a day of only sixty eight kilometres, the vouchers had to be used that night - they would expire the next day.

The vouchers included bed and breakfast, so next morning Karen and I enjoyed eggs, bacon, toast, orange juice and coffee prior to starting the day's riding to Benalla. For some unknown reason, Karen believed that Benalla was a very small country town without any modern facilities, so she insisted that we shop at a supermarket in Wangaratta as we might not find one later on. When we rolled into Benalla sixty six kilometres later, Karen was retroactively embarrassed. Our apologies go to the thriving rural metropolis of Benalla.

The day had included a visit to Glenrowan - the heart of Ned Kelly country - less than an hour's ride from Wangaratta. I took a photo of Karen standing in front of an oversized statue of the famous bushranger, complete with oversized rifle. When I looked through the viewfinder of the camera and saw the gun pointed at Karen, I asked her to put her hands up - as if Ned Kelly was holding her up. Karen complied with my request, much to the amusement of a bus-load of Japanese tourists just across the road.

Ned Kelly holding up Karen

Rather than continue down the freeway, we detoured around Lake Macoan, apparently an ecological disaster. It was rather attractive in a macabre sort of way, with hundreds of dead trees standing bare in a large, muddy sea. We did see a new bird near the lake - a diamond firetail, one of the most attractive of the finches.

After arriving in Benalla, Karen called another of the couples with whom we had exchanged addresses on the cycling leg to Cairns. We had only met Brian and Dulcie briefly, when Karen had bludged a lift to the start of a walk in Mission Beach. Brian had given us his card - a bad mistake he probably realised when we lobbed on his doorstep. We were warmly welcomed into his lovely Benalla home and were soon enjoying a swim in his pool. Over dinner Brian and Dulcie talked us into a rest day, which would include a birdwatching visit to a property they owned about ten kilometres west of the town.

We all drove out to the property after breakfast. Set amid rolling hills of grazing land, Brian and Dulcie's property consisted of an open forest on a central dome surrounded by cleared land which included a dam. It did not seem like a birdwatcher's paradise, but we had been assured that many different species had been sighted within its boundaries, and we saw such disparate birds as the crested shrike-tit, the southern boobook owl, and heaps of diamond firetails. We returned to the town for lunch, and afterwards Karen and I visited a large park on the banks of the Broken River. Another new bird - the clamorous reed warbler - presented itself, as did a four foot brown snake, which Karen almost trod on as it slithered across the path in front of us. Brian and Dulcie were absent for the evening at a prior engagement, leaving Karen and I free to watch cricket and drink wine.

The Benalla brown snake

The next morning, just before we left, Brian and Dulcie told us they would be travelling up the Stuart Highway sometime in May - just like us - and that they would look out for us. After breakfast, photos and goodbyes with our wonderful hosts, Karen and I also waved goodbye to the Hume Freeway which would have to make its way to Melbourne alone. We diverted south towards Lake Eildon. An Elle flat tyre was repaired during lunch at Lake Nillacootie, and we passed a thousand kilometres on this leg of the trip shortly before arriving at the lakeside town of Bonnie Doon - a town we shall never forget.

As dawn broke the next morning, Karen and I thought we could hear the sound of distant thunder, but soon realised it was gunfire. Probably a farmer doing a bit of shooting, we thought, but then the number of reports increased, and from different directions. It sounded like a war! Gunshots and echoes from the north were answered by similar fire from the east. We found out later in the morning that the duck hunting season had started at sunrise!

Getting shot by an errant duck hunter, however, was only a secondary worry to us. Our primary worry was drowning. Heavy rain had started at 4am and five hours later showed no signs of letting up, too heavy to even contemplate riding today. I took a peek outside the tent to find our site awash with a river running under our inbuilt groundsheet. During a lull in the rain, Karen and I pulled up stakes and lifted the tent to a drier site. We grabbed a bench from inside the pool enclosure, relocated it to the caravan park laundry, and spent most of the day sitting on the bench in the laundry, reading. It was quite a cool day, and we really appreciated the extra warmth when people came in to use the clothes drier.

The rain had eased to occasional showers by the next morning, with a cold wind still blowing from the south. With another day in the laundry as our only other option, Karen and I chose to ride. We headed east to Mansfield, south to Jamieson, then south and west to Alexandra, almost circumnavigating Lake Eildon. The sun came out briefly during our lunch stop, but apparently thought better of staying around because we did not see it for the rest of the day. We carried on southwards to Taggerty, when the headwinds - they had seemed to be in our face no matter which direction we were going - finally forced us to call it a day. Because the tent had been packed away wet in the morning and we had not been able to dry it, I talked Karen into hiring a caravan for the night - as long as it had a television. By an amazing coincidence it was discovered that Australia and Sri Lanka were playing the World Cup cricket final overnight - and it would be televised! I watched it until 4am.

Taggerty looked really nice, with the impressive Cathedral Range acting as a backdrop to the Acheron River. Rabbits played along the bank and a platypus frolicked in the water. It would have been nice to stay for a bit of walking, but Melbourne was calling.

A cold, showery and breezy day presented itself for our ride south over the Black Spur and on towards Melbourne. Karen and I were not looking forward to another slog over the Great Dividing Range, but with the thought that this could be the last time we crossed the Range on the entire trip, we pushed on with determination. Thirty kilometres of flat riding brought us to the start of a climb. We put our heads down, our bums up, and slowly ground our way upwards. A short time later we crested a hill and started to descend. After a while, still sailing downhill, we both realised almost simultaneously that we had crossed the Divide and were now riding down the Black Spur. It is certainly easier crossing the mountains when riding from inland towards the coast!

Me riding down the Black Spur

The ride down the Spur was fantastic, like a tunnel through the massive forests of huge, straight eucalypts. Ferns carpeted the understorey, softly catching the water that dripped from the canopy above. The misty rain lent a surreal feel to the ride as we continued on our downward path. We were soon praying for an uphill, the cold and lack of activity taking its toll as the descent lengthened. Someone must have been listening, for our prayers were soon rewarded, but further downhill riding to Healesville had us feeling the cold once again. We added a couple of bags of hot chips to our usual salad lunch, warming up from the inside out. Cups of hot coffee helped the thaw. We rode on and on and on through the sprawling outskirts of eastern Melbourne, finally hitting a seemingly endless succession of hills, each a suburb, and each identical, with identical supermarkets, identical parks and identical McDonalds.

After a day of one hundred and six kilometres, and finally warm, Karen and I arrived at the home of a friend in Mount Waverley. Another milestone reached. How many to go ?

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