Thursday, 4 January 2018

Christmas Victorian High Country Tour Down Under

With the wife away, and my family in England, I wasn't just going to sit around and do nothing this Christmas.  I had never done a bicycle tour in the Summer in Australia before for a variety of reasons; the strong sunshine worries me a little, the bushflies are annoying, and the potential for extreme heat is a real problem on a bike.

Day one:  Father Christmas on a bike, very apt. 
I think I got pretty lucky with the weather on this tour, it was sunny pretty much every day, but never too hot.  The North winds never blew, which was a huge relief, as that is what can bring temperatures over 40 degrees in this part of the world.

So things went well, without a hitch.  I did, however, change plans with the route.  After climbing to Mount Hotham, I spoke to a man in a pub at the top who told me a little about where I was planning to go next.  He basically told me that no one goes down there because there isn't much to see and parts of the road were often blocked.  This information, coupled with the fact that I had already climbed to the two highest peaks in the region, including Australia's highest road, made me think that some variety in the landscape and a break for my legs were in order.

The bushflies were pretty annoying on the first day, but I didn't need the net much after that.
I started by taking the train out to Wodonga.  The first day was a steady climb up the Kiewa valley towards the mountains.  I took the more minor road through the valley, which was a good call as there was no traffic, however, there were a fair few cows on the road and it was also the worst section of the trip for bushflies.

Mount Bogong in full view at the end of day one.
I wild camped off a dirt track and found a reasonable spot in a gap in the trees.  Throughout the whole trip, clear skies meant that the night sky was incredible, with the stars out and the Milky Way visible every night.

On the way up to Falls Creek.
Day 2 and I had a big climb up to Falls Creek, a popular ski resort in the Winter, and then a further climb to the high plains.  The ascent was quite steady, which was a relief, as I was dreading it slightly after my experience up to Thredbo (the town at the base of Kosciuszko) earlier in the year.  That road was super-steep in places, even though it wasn't as high overall.

Falls Creek was a bit of a ghost town, it obviously livens-up in Winter.  I managed to find free shower facilities and a place to sit down and charge my phone, so I had a bit of a break before going on.

Incredibly blue lake on the Bogong High Plains.
There was some nice scenery on the high plains and I was expecting an easy decent to Omeo, but that wasn't what I got.  There was obviously more down than up, but it was way more up and down than I expected, and there were a couple of killer hills on the way into town, just before stopping.  It was shear cruelty.  I stopped in a local coffee shop for an ice cold milkshake and a recharge.

On the way down to Omeo.
It was only 3.30pm, but I had been on the road and doing a lot of climbing since about 5.30am, and coupled with the heat of the day, I was getting pretty tired.  I had a good rest for about an hour or so and then had a target of another 21Km to get me to a recognised camping area.  There was about 500 metres more of climbing to be done, though, and I could hardly bare the thought of it.  Probably another two hours of hard climbing.

The first hour of this last little stint of the day was the worst.  It was without doubt the steepest climb of the entire trip and I was suffering big time.  I stopped at a look-out point for Mount Kosciuszko and when I turned around to get started again I could not believe the angle of the road I had been climbing up on.

Mount Kosciuszko in the distance somewhere.
At least the second half of the final leg of the day was a bit easier and I rolled into a much more comfortable camping area than I had on day one, equipped with a toilet, which is always nice, it beats digging a hole in the ground.

It was quite warm most nights, and it didn't rain once, so on this trip I thought I wouldn't use my fly sheet and just get a breeze going through the tent.  You can also look up at the stars while sleeping, so I rather like having the opportunity to do this.  I did make a bit of an error that night though, as quite a heavy dew came down as the temperature dipped below 10 degrees overnight, so I woke to a very wet tent and my sleeping bag was also a little wet.  Lesson learned for next time.

I had about another 900 metres of climbing to get to Mount Hotham, and to be honest, I was pleasantly surprised how little I suffered to get there.  Just before Mount Hotham was Dinner Plain, where I stopped for a break and to fill up some water bottles, before heading-off for another 14Km to Mount Hotham.

I stopped for a coffee in a pub in Hotham Heights mountain village and used the ski racks outside to dry-out my tent and sleeping bag.  It was so windy that I almost lost my tent, almost blowing off the rack and the mountain itself.  It did dry the tent and sleeping bag pretty fast though.

The highest point on the highest road in Australia.
It was after this break that the fun began.  As I said, it was blowing a gale and after a little more climbing, the road rose and fell spectacularly along the ridge of the mountain, with steep drop-offs on each side and on the highest road in Australia, I felt like I was on top of the world.  The steep drops coupled with the winds blowing me everywhere definitely gave a bit of a fear factor, but the adrenaline rush and amazing views were the highlight of the trip.  This was truly a great ride.

As I descended further, I past the road I had planned to go down, and wondered what it would have been like.  However, the decent on the Great Alpine Road was awesome for quite a lot longer, so I was pretty content with the decision I had made.

I passed several cyclists going up as I came down, all on conventional road bikes for a day trip, but they had the much steeper road.  The way up was much steadier from the direction I took, and a lot safer.

It was so windy, it nearly blew my bike over up here.
I had a very long, twisting, turning descent, with great mountain scenery all on one side.  After getting to Harrietville, I had a pretty flat road all the way to Bright.  I could have followed the same course as the 3 peaks Challenge riders.  This event sees people ride up to Falls Creek, Mount Hotham, and then Mount Buffalo all in one day, on lightweight road bikes of course.  I chose not to, simply because I had already been up Mount Buffalo, but on foot when I ran the Buffalo Stampede Ultra-marathon last year.

I decided to continue about as far as Mrytleford and I felt pretty exhausted at this point, so rode a few Km out of town and found some nice forest to wild camp in.

One of many wild camp spots on this trip.  No campfires though, super dangerous this time of year.
The next day and I had quite a flat 50 Km or so to get to Whitfield, where I stopped for a good long break before tackling another big climb, this time to about 950 metres.  My first target on this climb was to get to Powers Lookout for one of the better views in the King Valley.  It was a little detour off a side road, but it was worth it; a great little spot on the side of the mountain which had great views of the entire King Valley.  I was tempted to just camp under the shelter at the top, but thought I'd just try and make to Mansfield, especially as it seemed mostly downhill.

As always, though, it wasn't quite as easy as I hoped.  There was a big downhill ride, but before it there was some more climbing, and then the last leg into Mansfield saw me hit strong headwinds, a real drag when you are dog-tired and just want to get to your destination.

My mission once in Mansfield was to get a quick bite to eat and then head out on the Great Victorian Rail Trail.  Once on this trail, I thought it might be easy to find a camp spot somewhere a few Km out of town.

I found the start of the rail trail, and in the fading light of the evening I set off to get far enough out of town to camp without being discovered.  I found a picnic table just off the trail and camped next to that, being fairly sure that no one else would be coming down the track late at night.

Powers Lookout over the King Valley
It was a bit of a stoney, hard surface to camp on, but I was so tired I fell asleep with ease.  In 4 days of cycling (3 and a half really), mostly up and down mountains, I had covered about 450Km , and I was feeling it.

I felt like I had taken the easy option a bit by altering my route, but I'm glad I did, for a number of reasons.  Firstly, the rail trail provided a nice bit of variety to the mountains, rolling through golden hills and classic Australian countryside.  I also was wary of the hot weather that was coming for the following days.  To be honest, I am not a fan of cycle touring in hot weather, certainly not beyond 35 degrees Celsius anyway.  Exceptionally hot days were always my greatest fear for this trip and I was lucky I never got any.  And finally, despite my liking for physical challenges, the crazy amount of climbing involved for the rest of the planned route would have been miserable, especially in the hot weather.

Crossing Lake Eildon
The Great Victorian Rail Trail is apparently the longest in Australia at about 134Km, and I did the whole thing from Mansfield to Tallarook to finish off the tour.  Terrific scenery and wildlife all along the way, and I even met some fellow cycle tourers doing big rides over Christmas.

The wildlife was a highlight, as usual on Australia trips.  As well as the regular sightings of kangaroos and wallabies, I also ran into a couple of wombats, and the birds never disappoint.  Over the route, I encountered countless colourful species of parrots, cockatoos and parakeets, and one I had never seen before, one with an all orange head and a grey body in the mountain forests (this was a "Gang Gang Cockatoo" I believe).

I made it to Tallarook train station after 5 days of cycling, a couple of days ahead of schedule.  I decided to finish early rather than suffer through the heat of the coming days.  Another super tour, and I reckon that may have just about been the last of my solo tours in Victoria.  Next up is a solo tour with a bit of a difference down the Pacific coast of the USA in February, and some very different touring challenges generally in the new year.

Tour Summary

Money spent: $40 on train tickets + $50 on food ($0 on accommodation) = $90 total.