Friday 12 November 2021

The Misty Mountains and Windin Falls

I'm still around, doing much shorter bicycle tours these days. This was a roughly 100Km (in the end) overnight bike and then then hike in the Misty mountains and Atherton Tablelands with Windin Falls as my final destination.

To be honest, it is hard to tear myself away from my daughter for more than a couple of days, but I am dying for a bit more adventure. That part of me is living vicariously through YouTube videos of bicycle touring. My favourite just recently being Ed Pratt's videos. I'm sure the opportunity for a longer tour will arise at some point.

Anyway, my proposed route on this one was to go on the dirt and 4WD tracks in the Misty Mountains, however things didn't quite go to plan, route-wise, and I ended-up going 20-30Km further than planned and taking a long-cut through the lush farmland of the Atherton Tablelands.

To be honest, this was a nice little error, even though it did take it out of me by the end of the day, especially as I don't do too much cycling anymore. The first half of the day was deep in the forest and I would have stayed in the forest for the whole day if I hadn't messed-up my route slightly.

I didn't realise when I had initially planned the route on Komoot that one of the roads had restricted access. It was likely I may have just been able to cycle it anyway, but then after worrying about it for an hour or so, I just rode right past it anyway. Lucky though, as I got in some road riding and some views over the lush farmland and hills.

As you can see from the map and profile below, this wasn't an especially easy route. I really don't know how I manage to do this to myself. I just seem to have an inability to plan a route that isn't an absolute gut-buster. Still, this was nowhere near as tough as the CREB track last year. Having hardly done any cycling whatsoever on the other hand, nearly 100Km with over 1700m of vertical ascent largely on rough roads wasn't exactly what I had in mind. Good to know at 41 that I can do these kinds of days without any training on the bike at all.

What was a pleasant surprise throughout the day was that it wasn't hot at all. In this part of the world it does tend to be hot rather than cold, but with a bit of a breeze around all day it actually was cool, and even in the sun I never felt hot. This was probably just as well as the day would have taken even more out of me.

Slightly ashamed to say that the last few hills back to Henrietta creek campsite - where I had parked my car at the start of the day - broke me and I had to get off and push. I had done plenty of that throughout the day on the 4WD and dirt tracks, but on the tarmac it always feels a bit lame. I do try not to think like that these days however.

I had decided to see what it was like to camp in the car, instead of the tent, as my car is a Kia Grand Carnival so it is plenty big enough. I have even been tempted to kit it out like a campervan. It was a comfortable enough night in a $6 campsite.

The next day I was planning a couple of hikes, but did just one in the end after the crazy day before (and I wanted to get back to see my daughter). Quite a famous place in these parts is Windin Falls. You don't go to the bottom but hike to the top, where there is an infinity pool, which often features on Instagram posts. 

It is quite a view up there and luckily for me not an especially difficult hike. The trailhead was a bit of a drive to get to, but the hike itself undulated gently most of the way through forest, gradually ascending into the mountains before the falls then laid-out a spectacular view of the valley and Mount Bartle Frere in the background, the highest mountain in Queensland.

Again, these trips pale in comparison with my longer epic rides in Australia and New Zealand, but with the slight change to bikepacking instead of road touring, I'm at least keeping things fresh and have the knowledge that I can still do long days in the saddle and travel to interesting places. This means that when the opportunity arises to go further afield, I'll have some idea about what I can do and keep the skills and equipment up to date. 

Since being in Cairns, I have also focused on repairing some of the damage to my body from playing high level squash for many years, then following it with marathons, ultrmarathons, and ultra long distance bicycle tours. I'll be ready when the opportunity comes along again, as my body has improved a lot. 

If you are interested in what I do in this regard, you can check out my website (link at the top right of this blog) and my Facebook page and YouTube channel "Cairns Gait and Posture Training". My main aim in my training is to keep going well into old age, both for myself and for my clients.

Anyway, enough of the self-promotion. Hope you enjoyed the blog.


Wednesday 21 April 2021

Around Lake Tinaroo

Far North Queensland in the wet season isn't the best place for bicycle touring/bikepacking. It's hot, humid, and wet, and this in turn brings out the bugs also. Torrential rain showers can also wash-away roads and make creek crossings impassable. With this in mind then, I didn't do much over the past 3 or 4 months since my adventures on the CREB track.

At the end of the wet season in mid-March, I decided for a relatively simple trip around Lake Tinaroo in the Atherton Tablelands. At about 75Km and not too many stiff climbs, I thought it would be a pleasant enough re-introduction to the saddle.

If it wasn't for the fact that I still had a bit of a rotten cold - which had already postponed the trip by one week - it would've been a nice easy ride. However, it was a bit exhausting, and then an unexpected rain shower cut things short and forced me out of an overnight camp, as I and my gear were soaking wet. Along with not feeling particularly well, I thought it prudent just to make it a day trip.

The highlights of the trip were the flora and fauna rather than the scenery, although the fig trees were a kind of scenery in and of themselves. My first stop was to see if I could spot and platypuses in Yungaburra. I had driven through Yungaburra and visited this spot once before, but I didn't manage to find any. I got lucky this time and saw two, and managed to get a nice video of one of them, included in my vlog below.

It is one of the great pleasures about living in Australia to see incredibly unique wildlife, and it doesn't get too much more special than a platypus. Another Australian animal ticked-off the list. Next on my radar is a tree kangaroo, which were supposed to be around in this region, especially near the Curtain Fig Tree - my next stop - but as with most animals that spend most of their time in trees, they are difficult to find.

Kairi was one of only two towns along the way on this trip, and it was pretty tiny. I stopped for a quick snack and headed to Lake Tinaroo, which is on the edge of the rainforest to the north and the farmlands to the south. 

From Lake Barrine the route had been on sealed road, but just past Tinaroo Dam the road turned unsealed, but in very good condition and mostly quite gently undulating all the way around the lake, with regular places to stop. The route is actually a very good beginner ride as an introduction to bikepacking, so perhaps I did the CREB track and this ride the wrong way around.

Wildlife was still plentiful along the way around the lake; butterflies and birds were colourful and numerous, and I was lucky enough to catch site of a large monitor lizard climbing a tree just off the track.

One of the great things about Far North Queensland is that there is always a creek in the mountains to cool-off in, however at this time of year there is always the chance of getting munched by mosquitoes and march flies. A dip or two is needed though in the heat at this time of year, and a little more than halfway through the day with the sun shining, even a soak in the creek didn't keep the heat away for long. That was until an unexpected torrential rain shower came out of nowhere to cut the trip short. All of a sudden I experienced feeling cold for the first time in about 6 months.

This shower really kicked in just as I set-off for a walk, and by the time I got back much of my gear got a soaking. The rain came so unexpectedly that I hadn't even sealed my bags properly. I was only walking for ten minutes, but it was enough for me to reconsider camping overnight. I suppose in the tropics at the back of the wet season I should have known better.

Instead of taking the detour to my planned camping area, I used the fact I was getting cold to get the muscles firing to warm me up and sprint back to the car so I could get home in time for dinner. An interesting day out and a good learning experience about cycling in the tropics.

Tuesday 1 December 2020

The CREB Track - Remote Bikepacking in Far North Queensland

I think I have done some fairly adventurous stuff, but in general it has been on roads regularly frequented by cars, or on asphalt. Even though this trip was only about 75Km and a day and a half long, this was no ordinary road and there wasn't much around to help me if I got in trouble. Although short, this was as adventurous a trip as I have done yet.

The CREB stands for the Cairns Regional Electricity Board, and is basically a very rough 4WD track originally carved through the wilderness to connect rural communities north of Cairns with electricity.

 The track is closed for much of the year as it is impassable in the wet, even in the best of 4WD vehicles. It becomes impassable for a few reasons; firstly, it gets too muddy on the Daintree side, causing vehicles to get stuck, and also on the Daintree side the river swells and gets too deep, especially through the wet season. With no bridge, you have to wade through the river at the start of the track, which is also inhabited by crocodiles - one in that particular part of the river is apparently over 5 metres long! The rain also makes the clay dirt on the track impossibly slippery, making it hard to get the traction to get up the steep inclines, and then dangerously difficult to use the brakes to control the descent. Alongside the track there is plenty of evidence of cars that didn't make it.

I had originally planned to cycle the CREB track and then the Bloomfield track the next day. The Bloomfield track is a 4WD track that runs from Cape Tribulation (the end of the sealed road) to Cooktown. I had planned to come off the CREB and do part of it back to my car, which was parked at the Daintree River Ferry car park. In retrospect, this was a pretty stupidly ambitious plan. 

I am still quite new to bikepacking and it can be very difficult to know exactly what distances I am able to cover in a day. When I bicycle tour on sealed roads, I know that 100Km is a comfortable day on an average road. If it is very mountainous or windy, maybe 80Km. However, I can do 140Km+ on almost any day if I push myself. Bikepacking is much harder to judge.

There are many more variables at play on a bikepacking trip. The first being the severity of the climbs and descents; they are usually much less forgiving meaning you may have to push the bike on the way up and go very slowly even on the way down. The road surface can also vary quite a bit and this determines how fast you can go, and you never really know until you are on the track itself. The weather also can change the road conditions rapidly, making some sections almost undoable, or at least incredibly slow going.

Bikepacking usually also involves being far away from any resources; you may have to source your water from the surroundings, carry more water, and carry more food. You may also need to bring some specialist equipment, and finding comfortable places to rest and recuperate is often much harder - you won't find a nice energy boosting coffee around the corner unless you make it yourself.

I had intended then to do about 140Km over two days, and I thought I'd have plenty of time. How wrong I was. I did about 60Km on the first day on the CREB, with about 16 of those on the sealed roads going from my car to the start of the track. The 45 or so Km on the CREB track took me the whole day, with lots of hiking the bike and heavy braking down the hills. There was hardly a flat section.

The day also included plenty of river and creek crossings; the first was across the crocodile-infested Daintree river, which I did worry a bit about. Most people cross this river in their 4WD, I would be walking it across on a bicycle. I was told by a local that I had no worries though as the river level was very low, and as long as I didn't cross at dusk, dawn or at night I'd be absolutely fine. Multiple river crossings did slow me down though.

The biggest reason for the slow day, however, was simply the arduous nature of the track. Incredibly steep inclines, so steep to the point I was struggling at a few points to push the bike up them, made worse by some slightly wet areas making it difficult to get a grip with my shoes. After finishing the biggest climb of the day up "Big Red", I was so spent in the 35 C heat that I starting cramping in multiple areas, first getting on and off the bike, and then just walking. This had me a little concerned for a while about how I'd make enough progress to even get off the track by the end of the next day, let alone do another 70Km on another track.

I rested and recovered, but even after the big climbs were done, there were multiple steep, smaller climbs, which took a lot out of me and I was soaked with sweat all day. This was hard yakka, as they say in this part of the world.

Still, the track was remote and beautiful and it felt like a real adventure. The only other person doing the track on both days was a motorcyclist I saw a few kilometres in from the start in the morning on the first day. He was going to visit a friend in Cooktown and thought he'd give the track a go (that's him in the picture below).

I was quite happy with not seeing too much dangerous wildlife, particularly the crocodiles at the Daintree river crossing (the other creeks were in the mountains, and crocs don't enjoy climbing), with the only creepy crawly being a red-bellied black snake that slithered away from me on the track. A Ulysses butterfly also followed me for while, a strikingly beautiful, large turquoise and black butterfly found here in Far North Queensland.

By about 2pm I was utterly spent, and I know I have said this a few times on this blog, but on this occasion, I really mean it. Cramping in multiple areas, I was truly struggling to put one foot in front of the other and even to get on the bike to ride it. With that in mind then, I was glad to find a campground about 30Km into the track. I knew that there was a place called, "Yundilli Camp", but I had assumed it was just an unmanned and basic campground with a bench and some flat areas for pitching a tent. I was surprised to find a Garden of Eden-like place in the middle of the harshness of the forest.

So knackered at this point, I failed to take any pictures, but I wish I had. There was a nice little house within a large plot of land with an almost perfectly manicured lawn and garden. I had assumed it must be aboriginals living all the way out here (with a perfectly manicured garden, I should have known better), but it was just an older white couple who decided to live away from it all in the forest. I was amazed at how well their home was kitted-out. The husband was sitting down in front of a huge widescreen TV and their kitchen had all the appliances you might expect (the house was on the track for the electricity board after all, I guess).

The lady gave me some water and said I could camp for free if I wanted seeing as I was just on a bicycle, but that they had moved the camping area to just down the road because their outside toilet was not useable. I thanked the lady and commented how I was envious of their wonderful property and little piece of heaven in the rainforest.

The camping area just down the road had a permanent resident whose car and bed sat under a shelter with no walls. He had a few chairs, a couple of wash basins, and a clothes line, and just a rainwater tank for drinking and washing dishes and clothes. He was doing some work for the couple doing odd jobs and some backburning of the forest to make sure they didn't get any serious forest fires engulfing the property. For most of the year this area of Australia is very green and moist, so there is a fairly low chance of forest fires, but just before the rains come in December, it can be very hot and dry so you do see the odd forest fire every now and then, although usually not serious.

The chap living at the campsite had hardly moved from the area in decades, and rarely even visited any of the small towns in the region. He seemed quite happy with a largely solitary existence in the forest, although he did talk my head off for about half an hour which suggested to me that he missed having a good conversation.

It was a perfect area to camp, better than I ever could have expected on this track, but I had arrived at about 2pm, so it felt a bit early to stop. With what I thought was the whole Bloomfield track to do the following day, I asked the man whether there were any other camping areas further up the track. He replied no, but said that I could just camp in the bush and that there was nothing really dangerous in the forest except for Yowies and Hairy Men. I had no idea what they were so I asked him. He said that Yowies were giant hairy men that roamed the forest and only came into contact with those who were truly connected to nature (basically the Australian version on Bigfoot). The Hairy Men were as described, hairy men, but were pygmy-like and more numerous. He was being dead serious, so I was trying not to laugh.

Anyway, I decided to move on but not before taking a good rest and having an early supper. It really pained me to go on as it would have been a great place to camp the night. I ended up camping under one of the electricity pylons as it was on a flat piece of grassy ground (sort of). There were plenty of mosquitoes and it took me quite a while to cool down in the tent. A sweaty and uncomfortable night, but I did manage some sleep, although I had some concerns for the next day.

My chief concern was how I was going to get back to my car the next day. It seemed a mammoth task after the day I had. I knew the Bloomfield track would be a lot easier than the CREB but I still knew that the Bloomfield track was not for the faint-hearted either, with steep climbs and no services. I knew that the CREB had taken a lot out of me too. The other issue I had was that for most of the first half of the night it was raining. I was worried about the track condition the next day and whether I could get across the Bloomfield river, and whether it had any crocs! A quick, panicked glance at the map revealed that I at least didn't have to worry about crocodiles as the river crossing was at an elevation of about 200m. No crocs up there.

I was still concerned about the water level though, especially after waking up in the morning to lightning in the sky. Bizarrely, however, there were no clouds that I could see. Looking up, all I could see were a thousand stars and the MilkyWay, then suddenly a flash of light.

The storms were on the coast and I was still somewhat inland, so the first mission of the day was to get to the river and cross it nice and early before any heavy downpours arrived and swelled the river, so I set-off before 5.30am.

On the way I had a bit of a scare. There was pink tape blocking-off the track. I was now way too far in to turn back so I just ducked underneath it and hoped for the best. I had visions of a landslide devouring the route or something, but soon discovered that it must have been because of some backburning of the forest as most of the way after it was showing evidence of recent burns. It was beautiful though as the fire made tree leaves turn red and the earth black. Recent rains meant that bright green shoots and leaves on trees could be seen within the charred colours. It was like Autumn and Spring combined and made for a unique and pretty landscape.

I made it to the river in good time and crossed it with no problems at all. The only thing in my way after that was a steep descent onto the Bloomfield track. You'd think that would be fun, but actually I had to walk my bike down, so steep as it was. There were some really nice views to finish the track and it was much better than pushing the bike up the insane climbs on the previous day.

It was about 9am at this time and by then I had figured-out that I was never going to make it to my car by the end of the day, particularly as the Bloomfield track's surface was quite rough and corrugated in most places. I thought about flagging-down a vehicle that past me and seeing if I could hitch a lift. I knew that every vehicle going past would be a 4WD, and likely with space in the back for a bike. It did take 2 hours for me to see a car though and the first one overtook me on a steep descent in which I was doing my best to concentrate on not falling off the bike, so I missed my chance to hail him. The ascents were up to 30% incline, so I got a fair taster of my day to come. To be honest, they felt a good deal easier than the ascents on the CREB, so I dread to think what the incline was on there in some places.

Luckily, about 30 minutes later a car passed me going up a hill. Stupidly, I didn't flag him down and I thought I had missed my chance. However, so forlorn I must have looked, the driver stopped a little further up and offered me a lift up the hill. I simply asked him if I could go a little further. He happily accepted and we had a good chat on the way back to the river crossing where my car was parked. He was a great guy actually and I think we had a fair amount in common, so it was an enjoyable conversation. He was driving to Cairns to pick his mother up from the airport. He did drive incredibly fast down that track, but I was very glad I wasn't riding it. This kind chap truly saved my bacon.

Safely back to the car then and very relieved to be. As if by magic, the heavens started to open about 2 minutes down the road and didn't really stop for the rest of the day, sometimes being extremely heavy. Basically, I had avoided the day from hell by pulling up stumps and calling it a day a little early. Great decision, and the Bloomfield track will have to wait for another day. A real adventure squeezed into a day and a half, an eventful first major trip on the new bike.

You can also check-out this vlog I did on this trip below:

Saturday 14 November 2020

New Life, New Bike and a Kuranda Backroads Trial Run

It's been a year since my last trip out on the bike. The last time was near Melbourne with my buddy Pete, but I have since made my way up to Far North Queensland to the stunning Northern Beaches area of Cairns (just in time to avoid the lockdowns in Melbourne, I might add).

Last November we decided Melbourne was no place to settle-down and raise a child, and I had wanted to get out of the big city for a while, so we decided on my favourite place on my travels around Australia. If you had followed my blog before, maybe you'll remember that I had nothing but praise for Cairns. I really loved New Zealand also, but Cairns was definitely my highlight of Australia. If you are a nature-loving person, there aren't many better places than this area of the world; mountains, rainforest, The Great Barrier Reef, waterfalls, and weird and wonderful wildlife. Indeed David Attenborough himself described Far North Queensland as his favourite place on the planet.

It has taken me a while to get back on the bike, however. Having a baby and settling-in to a totally different life will do that. When you add all the troubles of 2020 on top of that, and the fact that these troubles have made it impossible for any family to come and visit us, then maybe you can understand that I had precious little free time when it is only the two of us looking after a baby. Things have settled-down though and with some routine, I have been able to find time for some more adventures.

Things do have to change though. It would be a bit difficult - not to mention irresponsible - for me to go on tours for weeks and months like I had previously, so a different strategy is required. 

Forgetting the bike for a moment, I have been able to do some adventuring on a limited basis because this part of the world is an adventure sportsman's paradise. Hiking, trail running, scuba diving, snorkeling, kayaking, and camping are just a few of the fantastic activities on my doorstep at the moment and I have taken advantage of this as best I can.

Although I have occasionally drifted onto other areas of adventure on this blog, the main focus is on the bike, so it is good to get things going again in that regard. 

With the trusty Soma back in the UK and probably not best suited to the roads or the way I intend to tour for the foreseeable future, a new bike was required. I intend only to do overnight trips or perhaps 3 days maximum (if I am lucky) until my wife and I can get some family over here for support. Even then, I can't see myself doing anything longer than a week for quite a while. The back roads in this area of the world are often not sealed and there are plenty of rough tracks also, so it seemed a perfect opportunity to get properly into bikepacking using a gravel bike.

Gravel bikes are designed to tackle the rough roads, but still have many of the advantages of a road bike, i.e. that you can still cover good distance at reasonable speed on sealed roads. It seemed a perfect option for bicycle touring in this part of the world.

Seeing as I wasn't going to be doing any particularly long trips far away from home, I settled on a budget gravel bike after a bit of research. I found the Marin Nicasio + to fit the bill nicely, which I bought from Bicycles Online. Not too expensive at about $1100 (AUD), but a solid steel frame with plenty of places to mount gear. It is also quite a pretty bike, I think. I am very happy with it so far after a bit of riding around the area where I live, and it is much quicker on the tarmac than I would have thought with the wider tyres. The one drawback could be the limited gearing to help me get up the big climbs, but I can always walk it up the steep sections if need be.

After some acclimatising to the saddle (I hadn't cycled in quite some time), the first thing to do was a little trial run, so I headed up the Kuranda range in the car with the bicycle and sought-out a dirt road circuit I could do in a morning.

I am now using the app Komoot to help with route planning as some more detailed and downloadable maps are required when you head further off the beaten track and away from people and traffic.

At about 45Km it seemed a good little workout for me and the bike. I also used the opportunity to try some different bag set ups and do some video while touring for the first time (on my own, I did a little with my friend in the Grampians in Victoria last year). I am a fan of a few bicycle touring vloggers on YouTube, although I am pretty fussy. There only seem to be a few that are worth watching to me. Here is a list below of some of my favourites:

CyclingAbout -

Wheels to Wander -

Bicycle Touring Pro -

Iohan Gueorguiev (See the World) -

They are all quite different in their style; Cyclingabout's creator Alee Denham is extremely knowledgeable about bikes and very extreme in his route planning. He takes very technical routes and does the seemingly impossible on a touring bike. What also encourages me about him is that his early videos were terrible, yet now they are absolutely magnificent.

Wheels to Wander are a Dutch couple who at the time of writing have been on a world tour for about a year and a half. While also very adventurous in their route planning too, they capture the everyday life of bicycle touring very authentically. From simple things like making coffee and breakfast to documenting frustrations and joys with locals, it is quite low-key but very genuine and brings back fond memories of my longer bicycle tours.

Bicycle Touring Pro is very practical, with lots of tips with his vast experience of bicycle touring. He also engages in a wide variety of bicycle tours and caters to almost everyone.

Iohan Guerguiev is the quintessential romantic adventurer. He makes long, beautiful videos and has a quite charming personality. He is clearly a great lover of adventure, nature, and animals, and it shines through in his videos. His journeys through the Americas have been nothing short of epic, and man does he make me want to cycle in the Andes one day.

I don't aspire to be YouTube stars like these guys, but it did occur to me how nice it would be to be able to look back on some of my adventures. I often return to this blog as a reminder of what I have done. Pictures and words are great, but obviously video would add an extra dimension and there is a joy in creating something in an age of mostly consumption.

Videoing a tour does take quite a bit of time and effort, so with shorter tours on quieter routes, it seemed like I could manage this with little stress. On this first venture out on the new bike, I gave it a go and I was quite pleased with the result. Doing some video also had the positive effect of slowing me down a little and giving my butt a rest from the saddle. I really felt no discomfort the whole day, so I think I'll do a few more videos in the future.

It is really nice to look at a map sometimes and plan a route with no expectations of particular places of interest and no idea of what to expect, then going out and enjoying a really beautiful ride. Surprises also regularly come along. The first was seeing a cassowary about 5 minutes in, and shortly after seeing a naked forest man on the side of the road admiring it. He must of owned the house he was standing in front of, which was the last one before the road wound deeply into the forest.

The route was an amazingly good one considering I had never heard or seen anything of interest in the area, and a perfect test for me and the bike. Mostly unsealed with only a couple of stiff climbs, it was an excellent reintroduction to a bit of touring and some bikepacking.

Not bad for adventure on my doorstep.

All I have to do now is load-up the bike with a bit more gear and do an overnighter. However, the wet season is coming up, so I'll have to be quick. I'll probably try to do one before the end of the year as long as the weather holds up. It will be a hot one though, and although it is still dry at the moment, the temperatures are in the mid-thirties. This is just one of many challenges in this part of the world, but my kind of paradise isn't just about kicking back and enjoying the beach life, it entails a bit of suffering as well. More to come in that regard.

Friday 15 November 2019

Lerderderg State Park Bikepacking Overnighter

Continuing the bikepacking experiment, we decided to learn our lesson from the Grampians and take things a bit easier on the next trip through Lerderderg State Park, just north of Melbourne.

My mate Peter was staying and working on a stud farm/camping facility a little north of Melton, so I decided to meet him there. I took the Metro train out to Diggers Rest and then cycled about 17km in windy conditions early in the morning on a public holiday here in Melbourne because of the AFL (Aussie Rules Football) grand final weekend. Yes, they really do have a day-off here in Victoria for a footy match, even though the public holiday, which is on a Friday, is not even on the day of the match.

After having a short coffee break at Pete's we had about 15km to get off the main roads and into the park itself, then t was all dirt tracks through the park, exactly what we were looking for.

I only had to do about 60Km in total for that first day, giving us just a short trip to Ballan station and the train home in the morning. 60Km is absolutely nothing on sealed roads with a good touring bike, but as we discovered from the Grampians trip, we don't have good bikes and traveling off the tarmac is definitely more challenging and you really have to scale-down what you previously thought possible in a day. I was exhausted from the week previous also having done a lot of physical exercise, so that 60Km on the first day was enough for me.

Despite it being a public holiday, there wasn't very many people around and the park itself was much more vast than I had imagined. The tracks followed the ridgeline most of the way, giving splendid views of the surrounding ranges. It was just what I was looking for in a two day bikepacking trip.

Pete's wacky-looking helmet is designed to ward-off the swooping magpies at this time of year.
As always in Australia, the area doesn't look particularly big on the map but seems extremely vast in reality and I was extremely surprised by the scale of the place, which was exactly what I was after, the sense of wilderness so close to home.

After following the ridgeline for most of the day, we finally dipped down to the river into a very nice picnic area, which would have been perfect for an overnight camp, and clearly used to be a camping area. However, as is common in Australia, this area was filled with no camping signs so we decided to move on. It took a bit of searching, but we found an excellent camping spot down one of the smaller trails, well away from the roadside.

So far I have found the ease and quality of free camping areas one of the best things about bikepacking. There is absolutely no worries about being discovered and you can pick and choose some really nice spots. Incredibly also, due to the wonders of modern technology, I have typically had a 4G signal everywhere so far. Not that it really has ever mattered as the second I have settled into my sleeping bag, I tend to fall asleep. I was already super-tired before the 60Km, so I slept like a baby, getting in over ten hours without any trouble at all.

The weather had been a bit strange on that first day, pleasantly warm up until about 1pm and then bitterly cold as a front moved in, but we were lucky there was not much rain. The next morning was pretty cold, but the sun was out and we only had 5Km to get out of the park and onto sealed roads to make our way to Ballan train station. This was a surprisingly attractive cycle as we went through the rolling hills of the surrounding countryside.

I had forgotten about the AFL Grand Final, and noticed a few supporters waiting to get on the train and worried we might not be able to get on with our bikes, but everything turned-out well. Again, the bikes got through another test - although Pete's rack snapped after getting some shopping on the way home.

A few more trips planned, but now it will likely be on my own as Pete will be going back home to the UK very soon. I've enjoyed the company and the new way of doing things and the first couple of trips will certainly have prepared me well for future solo adventures.

Wednesday 11 September 2019

The Grampians 3-Day Bikepacking Trip

I did feel for Pete lugging that big ol' girls bike up those hills with all the weight on the back, I think my set-up was a bit kinder to me.
I'm back in Australia now and without my trusty Soma touring bike, however, I was looking for a slight change in direction anyway with regards to adventuring.

While I was in England, I really got into watching Iohan Gueorguiev's "See the World" series of documentaries. If you haven't checked him out on YouTube already, you should definitely watch some of his inspiring videos. Iohan goes not just off-road, but regularly off the map and documents it all very well. I don't have the time for such ambitious riding, but he certainly made me interested in doing some bikepacking trips.

Bikepacking differs slightly from bicycle touring in that it is mainly on isolated dirt roads and trails. You generally see less people, but you get really up close and personal with nature and it does feel like even more of an adventure. With it comes some more problems, like sourcing water and food, and you obviously are further away from any support if you run into trouble, so you need to be a little more prepared.

For my first venture out then, I chose the Grampians in Victoria, here in Australia. This is a pretty little mountainous area North-West of Melbourne. I was riding my housemate's abandoned bike that he left to rust in the back garden; after a little bit of attention, it seemed as if it could stand up to a few short tours, so I thought I'd give it a go.

New bike, new kind of touring, and instead of doing it all on my own, this time I was joined by my friend Peter from England, who is in Melbourne for a few months. This was the chap that was partly responsible for inspiring me to give bicycle touring a go in the first place after his trip from South Korea to England a few years ago.

She kind of looks the part, especially for a free bike.
Between us we were riding bikes that had cost us a total of $10. I got mine for free, and he paid $10 for his girls bike - but who cares right, it did the job after all. I did buy some panniers and a handlebar bag online, which totalled to a little over $100, but even so, this was travelling on a budget, especially as we wild camped every night.

From Melbourne, we took a train for about 2 and a half hours to the small town of Ararat. From there it was an easy 40Km or so to our first wild camp spot about 5Km outside of Halls Gap. I had an idea where this would be before hand but was happy to find a reasonable area in the trees.

Day 1 campsite in the trees with Pete and his family-sized tent.
The first night was extremely cold, which tested my new sleeping bag. By the time I had switched my phone on in the morning, the mercury had dropped to about -2 degrees Celsius. We were in the last throws of Winter, so this wasn't too surprising, but it did make for a slightly uncomfortable morning until the sun started shining and then the cold dissipated pretty quickly.

The cold didn't stop the kangaroos coming out to feast on the frosty grass and they were present in the hundreds in the fields beside the road around Halls Gap. We decided to stop and have a coffee and a sit down for 45 minutes to warm up. Just holding the coffee cup brought feeling back into my fingers.

Our plan was to head South and cut into the main part of the Grampians and from there take dirt roads and 4-wheel drive tracks and loop back to Halls Gap and then back to Ararat. This being my first bikepacking trip - although I have done some off-road sections before on my touring bike - I didn't really know what to expect, but I figured about 70Km a day wouldn't be too arduous.

As soon as we turned off the tarmac, we were confronted with a climb, but nothing too major and the road then flattened-out nicely. There were campsites aplenty just off the side of the track all day, but we planned to finish at about 5pm and typically at this time there was nothing and we were climbing again, on often very sandy 4-wheel drive tracks, which started to take its toll on us.

Sandy tracks made for difficult riding and there were few camping opportunities as the sun was going down on day 2.
Fortunately, as we were getting desperate to set-up camp we found an excellent spot which already had an area for a fire and some nice flat ground between the trees. We got a fire going and cooked-up some dinner. I don't normally bring a camping stove with me, so a hot dinner was definitely welcome, as well as some warmth in the morning and a hot porridge breakfast. I think in future I might start bringing a stove with me on trips again. I need a bit more luxury as I get older.

It had been a hard day, but a cracking camp to finish, and although we had been in the trees most of the day we did manage to find the odd lookout point to get an idea of the lay of the land.

The perfect campsite to end day 2.
On the morning of day 3 we knew we had a bit of a climb after an exhilarating downhill section on the 4-wheel drive tracks. The ascent was back on the asphalt, however, so it wasn't too difficult. We were heading to Mackenzie Falls, one of the popular attractions of the area. I had been there a few years previously with my mum when she visited us in Melbourne in the summer, but this time we were the only one's there and the walk seemed shorter and easier than before.

Victoria is not an especially famous part of Australia for waterfalls, but this is quite a nice one and a bit of time walking without the bikes was much needed.

Our next target was to get to Boroka lookout via the long road around the reservoir, which was quite aptly named, "Mount Difficult Road". It started innocuously enough, fairly flat around the reservoir, but then began rising steeply for what seemed like forever up to the lookout. Pete was suffering, which I think was chiefly down to his set-up and the extra weight he was carrying, I was tired but wasn't feeling completely spent.

Taking a break halfway up Mt Difficult Road
After reaching Boroka Lookout, we decided to have a bit of a powernap and chill out with the beautiful view of the Grampians as a background. Hard work done we had an easy roll downhill into Halls Gap. It is at such times when you tend to gorge yourself on food, and we sat down for a good couple of hours until I realised the weather forecast was predicting rain in the morning and with this in mind it might be a good idea to get as early a train possible back to Melbourne.

Despite the cold mornings, we had unbelievable weather over the trip; for two whole days we didn't even see a cloud and the daytime temperatures were very pleasant. In hindsight this was lucky as those sandy 4-wheel drive tracks would have been even worse had they been wet. From my other tours in Australia, I have learned that unsealed roads here can be a bit of a lottery, sometimes sandy, sometimes rutted, bumpy, and potholed. At least now - as strange as it sounds with a free bike - I have the kind of bike that can take it with a bit of a suspension and wider tyres.

Looking at the forecast, and with a couple of hours still left in the day, I persuaded Pete to push on and try to get within striking distance of Ararat for the early 8.15am train back to Melbourne. We also had a slight tailwind in the afternoon.

All 3 nights we free camped. This can be uncomfortable sometimes, but every campsite was excellent.
As luck would have it, it turned-out to be a great decision. We had some energy back from the rest and some hot food and as the light was fading we found a free camping area about 17Km from Ararat, with perfect soft grass and even a toilet and a place to sit down. Luxury indeed.

Anyway, we made it before the rain and got back to Melbourne in good time. Excellent little trip that was tougher than I had imagined it would be, although I was very happy with my bike set-up and I will be doing a few more short tours with it by the end of the year.