My work suddenly told me to take a week off before Christmas. That’s why Tom and I cycle toured from Junee, in the sun-roasted hills of southern NSW, across the Snowy Mountains, through the Jagungal Wilderness, then through the Victorian Alps to Bairnsdale. In a week. Six days was the ambitious plan, so Tom could get to an extended family Christmas. A week of constant high-30s weather had other ideas.
Things started well. We packed our bikes into boxes at Southern Cross Station, took the snail’s pace XPT, set off from Junee, and rode until I got heatstroke. About 40km. With no shade from the sweltering dry heat, my poor head slowly melted, fantasising unsuccessfully about a lake or creek to dive into.
Instead, poor respite came in the form of Nangus, tiny hamlet with a general store slash pub. I passed a miserable hour spent trying to cool down with a trickle of tank water while Tom tried to understand the locals’ strong accent. We needed another 100km for the day (Talbingo) to remain on target. It didn’t look good.
Instead, I bravely (or pathetically) plugged on, at times pushed heroically (or humiliatingly) by Tom along the flat asphalt, at times pausing for headspins, arriving wretchedly in Gundagai at dinner time. To keep our spirits high, we tried to think of ways to avoid singing the famous tune. Carb loading was the goal, but with no appetite, the spectacularly poor imitation of Chinese food (at the jarringly named Parkview on Sheridan) failed to inspire. We crawled into our tent in a nearby caravan park, a mere 80km behind schedule.
Tumut, Talbingo, Yarangobilly
Day 2 began with a bang. I exploded out of the tent, a maelstrom of guilt and frustration, dragging Tom in my wake. We zoomed out of Gundagai, barely pausing to admire an old railway bridge and perhaps future rail trail. The Brungle Road was peaceful and dead quiet. Not a single vehicle until I opened my mouth to remark upon the fact. Tumut (CHOO-mut – there, now you can stop wondering) had bakeries, supermarket and bike shop for some last minute spares. Well, bike shop – actually ToyWorld.
Onwards to Talbingo. We’d skirt the Blowering Reservoir, a section I assumed would be dead flat. Hardly. It was at times very pretty, but the scorching sun was even worse than the day before. Fortunately, Towel of Life was born – a travel towel drenched in water on your head, held in place by helmet or hat, covers your neck and ears. Preferably soak the rest of you at the same time. Guaranteed 30 minutes of pleasant riding, possibly more if lucky.
At the first picnic spot along the lake, we stormed down into the lake, got wet, and stormed out. Determined to cover some decent kilometres, we pushed on. The hot, crappy town of Talbingo was especially hot and crappy on that day. Pretty much everything was shut for the holidays, except the mini supermarket and hydro scheme info centre. Unable to face the 1000m climb to Cabramurra in the heat of the day, we spent a few hours eating ice cream, being annoyed by flies, and educating ourselves on hydro. A final unsatisfying and disgustingly muddy swim and we pushed on.
The hill out of Talbingo is quite…strenuous.
We weaved, we zigzagged, we delivered the mail, we climbed. A quick stop at a racist lookout, then roadside Dinner #1. Pasta, tomato sauce, salami.
Around 9:30pm we popped into a pretty campsite next to Cottrell’s Cottages. A family returning from a roadtrip from Rockhampton to Melbourne were pleasantly surprised by our adult company and a bit miffed that we wouldn’t be joining them for breakfast. No, we had yet more k’s to cover tonight (remember, we started around 6am!) We pushed on for another hour or so, before calling it quits at the unlovely turn-off to the Yarangobilly caves. Dinner #2 then bed.
Cabramurra, Jagungal Wilderness, Dershko’s Hut
Sweeping vistas spoilt by transmission lines were the order of the morning as we
finally made it to Gooandra Hill and to the alpine plateau. It compared very favourably with the Dargo High Plains, we decided. We stopped to check out a bit of mining history, but for some reason (time? heat?), gave the super historic Kiandra a miss. The climb to Selwyn Snowfields was a bit blah in the heat, but the climb out – even worse. The gravel road that undulated irritatingly when all we wanted was to get out of the sun.
Cabramurra finally welcomed us. A freshly built general store/cafe, and also pub were astonishingly cheap. Gatorade: $1.50 per bottle (normally over $4). Burger and chips: $8. Apparently they subsidise the Snowy Hydro workers – but cycle tourists are allowed, too. We loitered as long as Tom would let us. The next phase was a huge descent to Tumut Pond Reservoir, then an equal climb out.
On the descent, a puncture brought some coincidental, but alarming news: my rear tyre was badly worn. The red coloured inner layer was showing through, and had already been pierced. We made half-arsed attempts to repair it, but mostly tried not to think about it – a task made easier by a spectacular dam, and a freezing cold dip. The climb was every bit as bad as feared (300m or so in the blazing sun), and soon our wet garments were bone dry. We were both looking forward to getting off the asphalt, and finally entering the Jagungal Wilderness.
At last the moment came. Most of my pre-trip anxiety depended on this moment. What would the Round Mountain Track be like? Too rough and we’d be pushing our touring bikes the 60-odd km through the Jagungals to Guthega. But no! The first section of track was a beauty – hard packed earth that rolled well, on reasonable inclines. Barely any river crossings – along here there are reinforced concrete bridges, presumably for fire trucks.
In the soft late afternoon sun, the view of Mt Jagungal was magnificent. We rolled happily on, arriving at Dershko’s Hut well before dark – but now exactly one day behind schedule. Optimum strategy probably would have had us push on, but it was such a nice spot we decided to camp. While Tom cooked, I spent 30 minutes agonising over the flattest tent spot and got it horribly wrong.
Guthega, Perisher, Kosciuzsko
We would soon join the Greymare trail, which had literally been giving me nightmares. The miserable experience of two other chair-toting cycle tourists had convinced me that this would be a day of misery. In preparation, I spent many hours staring at contour lines, finally convincing myself that there really were only two nasty bits. In this section, the trail sidles scenically around the side of Mt Jagungal, gallivants contrarily through a river causing many crossings, then gets serious and goes straight up and over two ridges. The first is something like 250m vertical, the second a bit less.
With so much forewarning, the reality was surprisingly bearable for me – while Tom suffered. The poor chap has never done hike-a-bike before, and had been naively boasting about “not knowing the meaning of the word ‘push'”. He pushed. But the scenery around was so great that I really didn’t mind. This is the stuff I love – trails winding through an open landscape that’s completely inaccessible to cars.
It’s almost embarrassing to think that the two guys in the blog post only made it to Valentine’s Hut in a full day of riding. We arrived before lunch, checking out its cute red walls and scenic toilet, before being set upon by a rambunctiously chatty solo hiker. The trail is pretty bad around this area. It’s rideable, but it’s a constant grind with no momentum. Our moving average speed for the day hovered below 7km/hour.
All too soon, however, we emerged from the Jagungal Wilderness tracks onto a made road, leading us to lunch was in the aptly named Schlink Hilton which even has beds. Poor planning meant that we were for the first time getting into lunch supplies brought from Melbourne. My sliced cheese was a soup (with none of soup’s best qualities), and my eggplant dip was well past edible.
Next, a fearsome descent down to Guthega Power Station, on slippery gravel. Dopey me forgot to increase tyre pressure, and was soon fixing a pinch flat. Dopey me also took a wrong turn on the climb to Perisher, so we got to add Guthega to our growing list of NSW ski resorts that look ugly in summer. By the end of the trip, we’d have visited every single NSW ski resort except Blue Cow. (Thredbo is the least ugly, but Charlotte’s Pass is close. Smiggin Holes is the standout ugly champion.)
The undulating climb up to Perisher, then along the valley to Thredbo and Charlotte’s Pass was really quite lovely – almost disappointingly so. Why should cars get such nice scenery when they don’t have to work for it? And the lookout over Kosciuzsko at sunset blew me away. I don’t think I’ve been there since I was a kid.
The final few kilometres grinding along a gravel trail, past the Snowy River’s source, to Seaman’s Hut were probably my toughest of the trip, coming at the end of such a long day with so much climbing. We met a couple of photographers in the hut, and settled in for the night, foregoing the pleasures of camping in howling wind.
Kosciuzsko, Thredbo, Cowombat Flats
We pedalled up Kosciuzsko, ignoring guilty consciences, NO BIKES signs and the convenience of 8 bike parking hoops. But it was barely 7:30am, we were alone and it seemed the right thing to do. The views in every direction are stupendous – I’d love to come back for a hike or two.
A metal walkway connects Rawson Pass with the top Thredbo chairlift. Another moral dilemma: the nearest legal detour is a mind-boggling 70 kilometres, all the way back via Jindabyne. Instead, zooming down the metal lattices was one of the most fun, unique descents ever. Although proceeding down the full length of the Flow Trail, a downhill run at Thredbo, fully loaded, would come close.
Our first town in a couple of days meant serious restocking. A new tyre for me (a monstrous 2.1 inch downhill 29er was their narrowest!), a big lunch, lots of food and we were on our unhurried way by the early afternoon.
The Cascades Trail is a recommended mountain bike route heading south through the Pilot Wilderness. I couldn’t find much information on it, so just hoped for the best. It turned out to be a great ride in our direction, but it’d be a tough slog coming back – we sailed down a very long exciting descent.
We saw many brumbies and two pretty, historic (and unburnt) huts: Cascades Hut (every bit as well situated as the books say) and Tin Mine Hut (underrated). We also met Rob and Jane, hiking buddies doing 4 weeks up the AAWT. The slackers had already set up camp in the early arvo! We breezed on, taking advantage of every creek for a dip.
The scenery along here is not quite as spectacular as the Jagungals, but has a great, ever-changing “high country” quality, turning drier and more rugged as you continue southwards. A sudden drop in altitude and the last rays of daylight brought us with a mild splash to the Murray River – a demure trickle at these heights – and our sprawling campsite.
Benambra, Omeo, Swifts Creek
Our second last day began with another minor bout of rule breaking. You’re not supposed to ride down the Cowombat Track (mostly due to Parks Victoria not having much of a bike strategy – the sign is “walkers only”, not “no bikes”), but the alternatives were equally infeasible. The track gets much rougher here, and to be honest, wasn’t all that much fun. It’s dry, rocky, and very steep in most places. Lots of pushing for me, the less stubborn one.
Suddenly, disaster! My front wheel clipped a stick which sprang up and thwacked me in the leg. Agony! I hurriedly parked the bike and discovered a chunk of twig several centimetres long still buried in my shin. Acting quickly to prevent common sense catching up with me, I … well, I’ll skip the details, but eventually no more stick. Lacking first aid (oops), we had no choice but to give it a quick wipe and carry on.
Eventually we emerge onto the Limestone Black Mountain Rd, discovering that I’d lost my lights – probably only 3km back up the track. I forsook them. And with yet another dose of blasting sunshine, it was a heads down suffer-fest all the way to Benambra. Benambra’s meagre facilities weren’t enough to tempt us to linger too long, so we pushed off into a hot headwind – urgh. The rolling hills actually had some nice views behind us, but they were tough to appreciate.
At Omeo’s Hilltop Hotel, Tom’s half-arsed hitch-hike-to-Melbourne plan fizzled out, while I set off alone to Swift’s Creek – a very easy and pleasant downhill 25km, with little traffic. Our early dinner meant I actually arrived in daylight, and found a good stealth site on a secluded walking trail, from which I was just able to spot Tom when he arrived in town.
Our final day was by far the easiest, despite missing out on bakeries due to yet another early start. The Alpine Rd is an absolute must-ride for any cycle tourist and is impressively scenic for most of its length. We arrived uneventfully in Bruthen, enjoyed a truly terrible chicken parmagiana (pro tip: don’t trust parmas not made by pubs), a quick brewery, and slogged the last 20km of fairly dull rail trail into Bairnsdale. A fairly colossal error (I had misremembered the train time by more than an hour) proved undisastrous. After 7 days, 590km, many hours of stunning scenery, a dozen or more swims, lots of pasta – we’d made it.