Timing is everything, right?
Our trip to Australia was only made a reality by me winning airfare to Singlespeed Worlds. This came by way of winning the Whiskey Off-Road, a event in Prescott that I registered for 4 days before the race, on a whim after assessing my legs to have recovered decently from the 48 hour effort I made at tackling the entire Arizona Trail before dropping out from respiratory problems, just two weeks before. The timing was arguably perfect for finding a silver-lining of a goal unreached.
We landed in Melbourne, the closest airport to SSWC, assembled our bikes and rode to Woodend for the event.. Singlespeed worlds was arguably the most well-organized and entertaining circus I've ever attended. The small town venue provided easy access to everything by bike while maintaining the sensation that hundreds of singlespeeders took over an entire town - which they did.. And then an entire park. And then a forest. It was pretty incredible. Our plan once SSWC passed was to ride east into the mountains along the Bicentennial National Trail for as long as we had time.
For bikepackers wishing to ride through the Australian Alps by way of the Bicentennial National Trail in October, it turned out the timing was off. Three kilometers from the start of the route in downtown Healesville, we were standing in front of a closed gate to the Yarra Ranges National Park. A small tornado had torn through the area ten days before and flattened swaths of giant Eucalyptus trees. Dragging our bikes over and under stretches of downed trees sounded horrible, but given that it was 6pm and we had just participated in the antics of single speed worlds that morning, we were in no place to tackle creating an alternative. Plus, to get to the gate we had carried our bikes across a knee-deep creek, thus soaking our socks and shoes AND, if you haven’t heard, Australia is the coldest place in the world. So we camped at the gate and marveled over the jungle we had seemingly chosen to explore. I was convinced I heard monkeys, but it turns out Kookaburras just made an amazing monkey impersonation and their calls have been used as the background noise in movies such as The Jungle Book to give the creepy jungle feeling.
Fast-forward a few days and we were dragging our bikes over and under a seemingly endless stretch of deadfall in ascent of Lake Mountain, on the National Trail. We had wisely detoured around the closed park, rejoined the route, and were now on it, and moving slowly. Slow is fine, and is usually the reality of bikepacking in the mountains. But there were other problems.
We hadn’t put much time into planning our trip in Oz, just got a track that made sense for where we would be and needed to go (east from Melbourne), and called it good. When I saw the elevation profile that suggested a route with more climbing than the Colorado Trail, I just shrugged and decided we’d see how it went. Beyond the route, we had plans to rendezvous with a close family friend, Kevin, who is in Sydney for work, and had offered to pick us up a few days before our flight from Sydney to NZ and go exploring with his van. And that was the extent of our planning. Once we arrived in Woodend for SSWC the few folks who knew the route gave us the impression that the western side of what we would tackle was less interesting, but over to the east past Omeo, the route improves. Oh, and they warned Mt Terrible fulfills its namesake.
So as every bend presented a new stretch of deadfall (now we were in a widespread burn of standing and downed burned gum forest from the devastating bush fires of 2003), I weighed the situation. We were time bound. The going was slow enough that for us to make it to Canberra to meet Kevin we had to start waking up earlier, riding later, and sacrificing the leisurely stopped time we had been enjoying. And even with that, we might not actually have time to cover the 600 miles. The less impressive western side of the route was proving to be true, made frustrating by downed trees, which if the views suggested anything, weren’t going to end anytime soon. My October of super-endurance adventures had caught up with me, and I was more interested in sleeping a lot, stopping to look at the foreign sights, pedaling slowly, and eating a lot.
At the top of Lake Mountain we stopped for a three-hour lunch, midday coffee, and our first opportunity to soak in Australian sun. And we discussed the situation. I think I announced I had earned my tough bikepacker badge and had no desire to use it. Fortunately, Kurt’s curiosity over just how terrible Mt Terribble was seemed to have waned, and we changed plans entirely, opting instead to do something we’ve never done.
The next day we were in the suburbs of the Yarra Valley, racing along railtrail to catch a train. We arrived in time to secure tickets and then went to buy food. In returning, we learned our train was broken. They were transferring all the passengers down the line by bus, but the bus wouldn’t take bikes. We had to wait. The train was fixed in shorter time than expected and we boarded with an anticipated arrival of 1:15, just 5 minutes before the next train to Bairnsdale, the end of the line to the east.
At 1:20 we were holding our bikes on the escalator in descent to our platform, and with just seconds to go to the end of the escalator to our train, I watched the train doors close and the train roll away. Now we were stuck in downtown Melbourne, with loaded mountain bikes, and 6 hours to spare. Oh and it was cold, rainy, and windy. Did I mention that Australia is frigid?
Both Kurt and I suck at urban survival. We get overwhelmed by the people, the noise, the chaos, and generally don’t know what to do with ourselves. Kurt seemed so on edge I was worried he would get on his bike and ride away, back to the mountains without looking back. We eventually ended up in a coffee shop after a lot of tense navigating and decision-making. A few hours into our stint of interneting and coffee drinking, in walked Adrian, one of the SSWC organizers. He sat down, looked at our map with us, showed us pictures of where we thought we were headed, and gave us some good advice. Ultimately his warning of swollen rivers, snow, and slick-as-snot mud in the Snowy Mountains suggested we abandon the National Trail. When he asked how tough we were feeling, I thought of my tough bikepacking badge that was stuffed away in the sock drawer, back in AZ, figuratively speaking… We spent the 5-hour train ride studying our map, and using the smartphone to look up the MTB destinations Adrian had rattled off, and connect with the few Aussies we hardly knew.
Dropped off in Bairnsdale at 11pm, we found a tree in a park to bivy behind, and fell asleep with a new plan that resembled nothing of the plan of that morning. We would ride north along jeep tracks, into the mountains, bound for Bright and Mount Beauty. We took four days to ride to Bright by way of the scenic and dirt way, including riding through the beautiful high plains of Alpine National Park. After climbing for three days we got big views, saw some Aussie alpine country, and spent a sleepless night in a tin A-frame hut at 1,700 meters in a windstorm with gusts strong enough to tear down a few road signs, as evidenced in the morning. Chased down by the wind and approaching snow storm, we arrived in Bright ready for our first shower and laundry, 14 days since leaving the US, warmer temperatures, and some fun trail. Bright provided, and heeding the advice of the Canadian shop owner, we enjoyed ripping trail through pines at the Mystic MTB Park. I think its coincidence, but the trails were very BC-esque.
After a day in Bright we pedaled over the pass to Mt Beauty to meet up with Turi, a gal we met at SSWC and again bumped into in Bright, working at the bike shop. She and her friend, Alice, took us on an amazingly fun ride around the Mt Beauty MTB park, this time through native forest with countless old-school style trails. It was amazing, and with Mt Beauty resembling the heart of the Green Mountains in Vermont but with year-round mountain biking, skiing in the winter, and the small town vibe, I found my place in Oz to potentially hide out the next 4-8 years. It was also really fun to ride with two gals who were fun and strong!
Our plans to meet up with Kevin in Canberra changed to him picking us up early so he could catch a flight to NZ for an unanticipated work trip. We soon found ourselves in Sydney, with me behind the wheel, learning to drive on the wrong side through downtown Sydney in rush-hour traffic to drop Kevin at the airport, all before I even got a cup of coffee in me. An hour later, no one had died, the windshield was really clean, Kevin was on a plane, we had his camping-equipped Delica, and were drinking the best gas station coffee you can imagine, once again looking at a map and making a new plan.
We embraced van life with ease. Driving on the wrong side got way easier once I was awake, out of downtown and past rush-hour. Our 10 days bikepacking set us back in work, so we took the opportunity to carve out some work time. Kevin has a campsite just outside Sydney that we’ve been appreciating for the shower, laundry, wifi, and mellow living. We reconnected with Adrian, who is now our Aussia angel, hooking us up with endless ride recommendations, organizing a fun group ride in the Blue mtns, offering solid camping advice, and lending us maps and his home for bike cleaning and a dog fix. The riding around Sydney and the Blue mtns has been really spectacular, making resting hard, but for better or worse we had our flight to New Zealand off by a day so we got one bonus day in Oz until we go meet Scott and Eszter for some bikepacking and bike riding on the south island.
Back in October, the night before we left for Oz, Eszter and I did Rim2Rim2Rim in Grand Canyon under the full moon. Somewhere in our journey she commented on the elevation profile Kurt had posted of the National Trail, and said something like “you two never learn, do you?” It was a good-natured joke, with some truth in it. At this point Kurt and I have tackled a few long arduous bikepacking routes. We’ve learned a lot along the way, but sure enough had we stuck with the National Trail, given the timing of it all, we probably would have had a miserable time. Instead, we nailed a few decisions and are headed to NZ stoked on our riding in Oz, the people we met, the places we saw by bike and van, and feel ready to jump into a month of riding bikes in New Zealand. Maybe we have learned a few things.