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.

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Northern England - The Lakes, Dales, and Moors.

After an interesting, but slightly underwhelming and frustrating tour of Spain, Northern England didn't disappoint, despite the bitter cold towards the end of the week.  Whereas plans changed continuously in Spain, this tour went almost exactly by the book.

Aira Force (waterfalls in the North are called 'force').
I started out from Colchester early in the morning on the train to London Liverpool Street.  From there I had about an 8Km cycle to London Euston station where I caught the train towards Carlisle.  I was slightly concerned about this leg of the journey, but I needn't have been as everything went very smoothly.

The only slight change was where I disembarked from on the bike.  I noticed that the train stopped at Penrith before Carlisle, a much smaller town and slightly closer to the Lake District.

Almost immediately, I was quite struck by how beautiful the Lake District was.  The mountains there are not huge, but they are quite craggy and scenic amidst the lakes, with even a little snow left at the tops of the higher peaks.

My first little target was Aira Force waterfall for a bit of a walk and a spot of lunch.  I took the scenic route along the banks of Ullswater lake.

Almost immediately I was quite taken with how many people were in the more popular areas of the Lake District.  Aira Force car park was extremely busy and each time I stopped in a town it was bustling with activity.  As I went down some of the smaller roads, however, I soon lost the crowds.

The 3-wheeler tour through the Lakes.  They were very nice people actually with cool little cars.
After passing through Keswick, I took the road less travelled to Buttermere which was also incredibly steep at times.  I was followed by a team of 3-wheel cars that were obviously on a Top Gear-like tour of the Lake District and they seemed to suit the surroundings quite nicely.

The standard one photo of me on the tour.
After Buttermere, I psyched myself up for the Honnister Pass.  It is one of the most beautiful roads in the whole of Britain, but again, very steep.  Towards the end of the climb the incline hits 25%.  Not a chance of riding up that on a fully-loaded touring bike, so I had to get off and push.  Pushing the bike up that incline is a challenge in itself, but it was worth the effort as the top of the pass was very grand and impressive.

My first camping area of the tour was just down the other side of the pass at a farm located at the beginning of the trail up to Scafell Pike, the highest mountain in England.  Everything was pretty basic, but it left me the option of hiking up to the top of the mountain in the morning.  Unfortunately, the cloud was very low, so I didn't see much up there and I couldn't wait around for very long.

Ridiculous inclines.  I had to push, but not for that long as you get to the top pretty quickly.  This is very common in the UK, short, steep, punchy climbs.
First campsite on the tour, very quiet and comfortable in beautiful surroundings.
The cloud finally cleared in the afternoon and by then I had made my way towards Windemere, possibly the most famous of the Lakes.  Not my favourite, though, as it was quite busy and the highest of the mountains had gone by then.

Black sheep on a cloudy, misty morning.
I was quite amazed by the variety of trails through the Lake District, which really made me want to go back there one day and hike around for a week or so.  With hundreds of miles of trails through stunning countryside and wilderness, it is definitely something I'd come back for.  I think the Lake District is the most beautiful part of the whole of the UK from what I have seen so far, rivaling the Scottish Highlands, which are also wonderful.

I was quite surprised just how stunning the Lake District was; as you can see I took some great photos, some of the best I have ever taken on my travels.  As I headed out of the Lakes, I had no plan of where to camp overnight, but eventually found a public footpath to get me off the road and thought I'd take a chance on where it went.  It led to a locked gate, but with stones placed next to it so walkers could access the path which was ongoing.

Day 2 campsite was a bit exposed, but I had little choice.
It seemed liked a route that was rarely used, and there was some ground to pitch a tent further on, so I unloaded the bike and lifted it over and then camped about 100 metres away on the other side.  A bit exposed to the wind, but I was sure no one would disturb me up there and there really was no other options around.

The wind had picked up overnight and in the morning it was colder also.  The wind was blowing from the North East - basically where I was going - and by mid-morning it was creating quite a problem on the bike, pushing me around everywhere.

The river running through the town of Kendal, home to the famous Kendal mint cake.  Supplying hikers and climbers with energy for almost 150 years.
I passed through a number of small towns and villages on the outskirts of the Yorkshire Dales before stopping at some nice church gardens which also sat at the top of a hill with great views over the river and into the dales.

As I headed into the Dales the wind picked up and the higher I got, the worse it got.  High in the Yorkshire Dales is probably one of the worst places in the UK to be confronted by high winds as there is absolutely no tree cover and no steep mountains to shield you from the wind, just open, high hillsides.  I was buffeted by a full-on headwind as I climbed up to the highest section.  The decent incline and high winds brought me to a standstill.

The Ribblehead viaduct high up in the Yorkshire Dales.
I was again experiencing those moments of despair that only a relentless headwind can give you, but fortunately I had a nice target to push me through the latter part of the day.

I camped every night on the trip, bar one, which was this night.  The YHA at Hawes was in the perfect place and with the cold winds knocking the stuffing out of me, I just had to stop for the night and get some welcome shelter from the elements.

The YHA couldn't come soon enough, despite the pleasant scenery of the Dales.  Shortly after arriving I was joined by fellow cyclist, traveling a little lighter, who had come up from Leeds and was planning a trip into the Lake District for a few days also.  He was a really nice chap, actually, and we had some good chats about our travels, as he was as well-travelled as I am.  He also gave me some useful tips on good routes to take and ones to avoid as he had ridden this way many times.

I was so exhausted that the thought of battling into the cold wind the next day was something I wasn't willing to entertain, so I tricked myself into thinking I'd have an easy day and start late.  Obviously I didn't, just setting-off a little later than normal at 8am.

I had mentally prepared myself for a slow-going day, however, and this helped initially, but then I started to struggle again.  I decided to pick my way through 10-15km at a time and eventually I made it to a reservoir and forested area, which was the only place around I had a chance to pitch a tent.

Campsite 3 in the woods near the Yorkshire Moors.
It was a tricky one, however, because the tiny villages a few miles down the road seemed to empty into this park where everyone was walking their dogs or walking with the family.  I managed to find a quiet spot in the trees and settled down for a cold night.

The temperature was down to -2 degrees when I woke up in the morning.  I didn't feel overly cold in the tent as I think the bed of pine needles underneath the tent insulated me quite well, but getting going in the morning was difficult and once on the bike the cold wind was blowing once more.  I was freezing and utterly exhausted from the previous 2 days of battling the wind.

These pots of tea powered me through fatigue and the cold on this trip.
My legs simply were not working and I was struggling big time.  I managed to make it to the Buck Inn at Chop Gate and despite it not technically being open, the lovely lady who owned it let me in for a pot of tea, which warmed me up and together with the rest gave me a bit of energy again.

I purposely didn't go to my uncle's place via Rosedale because I knew I would be going there anyway, and it was a less direct route.  It was also higher and more open and I was not only struggling a bit physically, but I had become bone-chillingly cold.  I just could not get warm the whole day and this continued into the next day as you can probably see from the picture I had taken with my mum below.

Perhaps you can see in this picture how cold I stayed, even a day after finishing on the bike.
I finally arrived at my uncle's cottage, just south of the Yorkshire Moors, very cold and weather beaten.  The North Easterly winds took chunks out of me in the previous 3 days, so I was glad to finish.  Although these winds were against me and were icy cold, the benefit of the weather coming from the East is that it was at least dry for the whole trip, not a drop of rain.

Despite the physical hardship, I really enjoyed this tour and along the with tour through Wales and Southern England I did almost 2 years ago, I feel like I have explored my own country quite well now.  The UK is actually a really good place to tour on the bike; lots of small roads and pretty landscapes punctuated by, in my opinion, the prettiest towns and villages in the whole world.  What my country lacks in spectacular landscapes it makes up for in culture and architecture.

The top of the Rosedale Chimney, the steepest road in the UK at 33%.
Anyway the last couple of days were spent with my aunt and uncle who were extremely friendly and hospitable, even though I hadn't seen them in years.  I especially loved the homemade rhubarb crumble made with rhubarb straight from the garden.

Their little cottage was lovely and I stayed in the swanky little room above their garage.  On the first day with them they showed us around the Moors and we took all the dogs for a walk.  I was extremely impressed with their collie Tanzie (my aunt is an incredibly good trainer of dogs; agility training, flyball, and sheep herding) who was very obedient and did everything first time on command.  I was freezing for every second when I was outside and I only warmed-up on the second day after sitting in their front room with the fire blaring out.  I must have been seriously cold.

But apart from the cold it was a great tour and then a lovely finish with my relatives; the bike then fit into my mum's car easily for the trip back home.  Basically a perfectly planned and executed week away.