Two weeks in the sunny, warm Australian spring? Five days cycling through Gippsland bush and farmland? Camping with friends and picnicking with family? Yes please!
We spent a lovely half term holiday in Australia and the main event was a five day cycle tour from Orbost to Stratford. It was the first time we’d been cycle touring, and I loved (almost) every minute of it. Here’s the first part - Part 2 coming soon!
I am not a frequent cyclist, and while Dan used to cycle all over the place when we lived in Melbourne, that was several years ago. But after hiring bikes for a day on our Snowy River adventure last year, the seed was sown. We got in touch with Snowy River Cycling to arrange bike hire, invited a couple of friends along for the ride, and booked some campsites along the way (with Australia-side help from my mum!). And then we started training.
First, we went on a tandem bike ride from Hastings to Bexhill to get some ice creams. Fifty minutes each way and 20 minutes for ice cream. Well, you have to start somewhere, right?
Next, we went for a ride around Bewl Water, a reservoir not too far from us. The circuit is about 12mi/20km, and we completed it in just under three hours with some snack, photo and rest stops. This confirmed the need for padded shorts and gloves, so we went shopping. While we were at it, I thought I should get a pair of shoes (I don’t really have anything other than work shoes, walking boots and thongs/flip-flops, none of which are good for cycling), and when I found a bright pink pair, I knew they were the ones!
Bewl is on our way to That London, so a couple of weekends later on our way to the city we went for a morning cycle - just for two hours, toting thermos and bickies for morning tea - to try out all our new gear. It felt much better, and I wasn’t walking like a cowboy the next day.
With time running out, it was easiest to stick to what we knew, so the weekend before we left we went all the way around Bewl Water once again. We went the other way this time and I was able to cycle all the hills bar one. My crotch was prepared for what was to come. All that stood between us and East Gippsland was 3 hours to London in the car, an hour in a taxi to Heathrow, 24+ hours in two planes, a lift from Tullamarine with a friend, some Melbourne public transport, the VLine train to Stratford and a 3 hour drive with mum and dad to Orbost. Easy peasy.
East Gippsland Rail Trail
The first three days of our tour were along the East Gippsland Rail Trail, which stretches approximately 100km from Orbost to Bairnsdale, through GunaiKurnai (Krowathunkooloong and Brabawooloong) country. Our friends Danni and Stephanie joined us for this section.
My parents helped get us and our gear to Orbost, where Dan and I picked up our hire bikes the night before we set off. After my folks left, we did a tiny tour of the main street, had a look at the new mural depicting local Indigenous foods and totems under the bridge, ate chips for dinner in Forest Park and shopped for some food supplies. A big moon bobbed in the dusky pastel sky as we ate tinned fruit, then bedded down for a cold (~5 degrees) night at Orbost Caravan Park.
DAY 1: ORBOST TO NOWA NOWA, ~40KM
I woke with the birds at 5am. This set the tone for every morning: waking up around 5am, snoozing until about 5:30, showering and packing after 6, having a leisurely breakfast with the crew around 7, taking the tent down, sorting out the day’s food and heading off around 8-8:30.
The trail started off nice and easy, heading over the Snowy and across the flats past cows and beside the old timber viaduct, which is in much need of conservation. The hired bikes were fantastic to ride. We skipped the cycle up to Grandview Lookout, preferring instead to save our lungs and legs for the day ahead. Still, we got some views through the trees over Bete Bolong and Jarrahmond farmland to distant hills as we slowly climbed the escarpment, then cycled around the back of the timber mill at Newmerella.
Dan and I had cycled parts of this section last time, but it was different in the spring. In fact, we haven’t been in Australia in the spring since we left seven years ago, and I was surprised by just how many bush flowers are out at this time of year - callistemon, melaleuca, orchids, flowering gums. We stopped to make a cup of tea at a handily placed picnic bench. Shrike thrushes, wattle birds, whip birds, currawongs and kookaburras called from the depths of the dry, grey bush around us.
The late morning heated up and the clouds burnt away, leaving bright blue skies. Wallabies scattered in front of our bikes as we crunched along, keeping a lookout for a water tank kept full for cyclists, walkers and horse riders by the lovely people at Snowy River Cycling.
Shortly after that we stopped under a picnic shelter at Partellis Crossing for what became our usual lunch - avocado on some sort of carb (Vita-Weats today - one of the Australian foods I miss). We chatted and soaked in the scenery for almost an hour - tall trees, deep blue sky, a few little birds flitting around. Relaxing.
On our hired mountain bikes (Giant Talon), Dan and I didn’t have any complaints about the trail, but Danni and Stephanie felt the loose gravel and bumpy surface more than we did. The first day was definitely the worst in this regard. On the up side, being a rail trail, the gradients were pretty mild. The main exceptions were when we reached the old wooden trestle bridges that span steep valleys. These bridges are blocked off and unsafe to cross, so the path sometimes heads straight down to cross a small creek, then straight back up the other side. We stopped at most of these to see the bridges or remnants of bridges - though at one point we could hardly hear each other over the wall of cicada noise!
Approaching one of these bridges towards the end of the day, the beautiful, secluded Waiwera valley opened up on the right. On the left, in an unshaded hillside paddock, a sheep was stuck on its back. Forgoing the scenery, I hopped through the fence, got the sheep sitting upright (I couldn’t get it to stand), and poured some water into its mouth. I hope it sorted itself out.
The final stretch took us up a long, gentle hill, then down a much steeper hill and over the bridge into Nowa Nowa. We stayed at Mingling Waters - under new management as of four days earlier! Unfortunately, we missed the famous vegan burgers, but I filled up on potato cakes.
We visited the Big Root (which I have memories of from when I was very young - maybe a toddler - when it was up on the hill at the timber mill), then lounged around and read in the lovely old mess hall (which I have memories of from when I was a teenager, when we’d come here for music nights) before Danni cooked us up some dhal and rice for tea.
DAY 2: NOWA NOWA TO BRUTHEN, ~30KM
After another cold night, I was the first up. I wandered down to the jetty, spotting an eastern whipbird on the way (I used to hear them daily, but I’m not sure I’d ever seen one before) and watched mist rising off the peaceful water. A small bird friend joined me for a while, and silvery fish made ripples as they surfaced and jumped.
Back up at camp, I headed back to the others for breakfast and, when Dan and I were ready to go, we went to the general store for some lunch supplies. There wasn’t much on offer, but we scrounged together enough for a decent lunch (avocado, tomato, tortillas and - much to everyone’s amusement - chicken salt as there was no plain salt to be found). We were leaving Nowa Nowa when Danni noticed a tear in the wall of her rear tyre. We decided to press on, knowing that if it came to the worst, we would be able to walk back to Nowa Nowa or on to Bruthen, no more than 15 or so kilometres from the very middle of the day.
There seemed to be a lot of uphill (albeit very gentle uphill) in the morning, punctuated mainly by the stunning span of the old trestle bridge at Stony Creek (sometimes written Stoney Creek). I visited the bridge a few times when I lived in the area, and it was just as impressive as I remembered. It’s amazing to see the evidence of such tall trees and to think of the engineering involved in construction. The facilities have improved since I was there last - a sealed path does a switchback up the side of the valley, with toilets (feat. nesting swallows!) and picnic benches on offer. We passed a group of cyclists as we left the bridge, and I wondered if this was the tour that Liz from Snowy River Cycling was guiding . . .
A few kilometres later, we heard, “I recognise those panniers!” . . . yep, it was Liz. We had a good chat and thanked her for maintaining the water tanks. When Dan and I said we would be going through Lindenow in a few days, Liz told us we had to go to The Long Paddock. In fact, “If you go to Lindenow and don’t visit Long Paddock, you might as well not have come to Australia!” Noted. Danni mentioned the issue with her tyre and Liz offered to bring a replacement to Bruthen that evening - so helpful. Then she mentioned that she had a second hand one in the support van that would be back at the bridge with the rest of the touring group. Danni decided to ride back and change the tyre. Dan, Stephanie and I pulled off to the side of the trail and made tea, ate biscuits and made stick art.
After Danni returned and had her own cup of tea, we continued on through the bushland of Colquhoun (pronounced ka-hoon. This seems to be dedicated a ‘regional park’ these days, rather than a State Forest, my cynicism says that’s probably so it’s easier to destroy through logging) [Edit: maybe not?!]. I’d always wanted to have a poke around this area and it was special to finally be there, noticing the change in vegetation and soil and the evidence of previous bushfires.
We leapfrogged with a Belgian man and his son, who had cycled Bairnsdale to Nowa Nowa a couple of days prior and were now heading to Lakes Entrance via the Discovery Trail - an old tramway built for transporting rocks to the lakes’ entrance. We waved them off at the turnoff, where we stopped for lunch.
As the afternoon rolled on, so did we: on some long, gentle descents, up some gradual ascents on gritty surfaces, out of the bush into steep paddocks, scrappy ridgelines, then down the hill into the Tambo valley and Bruthen (if you need a mnemonic it's "cruithin' for a Bruthen"). This fantastic entry into Bruthen highlights the stark difference between the forest we'd been cycling through (this is the least 'developed' day on the trail) and the farmland surrounding the Tambo. I was really enjoying myself - and I even appreciated the half-arsed swooping of the sentinel magpie at the highway crossing!
We peeled off the road into the campsite beside the oval just before the river and set our tents up in front of the bird feeder to be entertained by red browed finches (my family's always called them firetail finches), galahs and king parrots. After a short rest, we popped into town to check out Amegilla Gallery (some great art there!) and, forgoing a meal at the brewery (it didn’t look that great for vegans), we went shopping for dinner.
Back at the campsite, I had a shower, then lounged in the sun - Dan found a copy of Uncle Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu on the bookshelf, which I read over the next few days. We chatted to a couple who had been travelling in their motorhome from a wedding in Queensland all the way down the east coast. Stephanie made a delicious pasta meal out of minimal ingredients and a large dash of inventiveness. We had a nice fire (gold coin donation for the wood) and sat around for a while.
DAY 3: BRUTHEN TO BAIRNSDALE, ~30KM
Our final day on the rail trail dawned slightly muted and overcast, but was brightened by a visit from a friendly male king parrot. He landed in a tree near our tent and, when we said hello, he jumped onto the ridgeline of our tent and started sidling towards us. On a hunch, I grabbed a handful of seed from the bird feeder and held out my arm - and yes! He hopped onto my wrist and nibbled away until all the seed was gone, then jumped on S&D's tent to say good morning to them. A highlight of the trip!
I made the quick cycle into town over the still, quiet Tambo River. I felt that same kind of peaceful excitement being outside by myself so early. I headed to the bakery and the general store. Pasty and vanilla slice - breakfast of champions! - sticky scrolls for morning tea and avocado and tomato and chips for lunch. We ate, packed up, and pedalled off.
The trail surface improved again in this section, possibly because it’s closer to Bairnsdale and gets more traffic and maintenance. We followed the road through farms, skirting the side of the river flats and stopping to check out all the old constructions - the bridges, but also maize cribs and hops kilns (reminding Dan and me of the oast houses in Sussex and Kent). We stopped in some liminal bushland between a quiet road and rolling paddocks and sat on the side of the track for an extended morning tea, smelling the scent of hot eucaluptus and dogwood, serenaded by bell birds and the sound of wind in the treetops.
A few things stick in my mind about the trail from here to Nicholson: making train hoot harmonies as we passed through the short tunnels, the nature reserve by an old station (where we saw a hare munching on the protected grasses), the change in track surface and vegetation to a more coastal feel, the falcon Dan spotted flying off, the hereford cows and calves in the paddocks beside the trail, the benches with beautiful views over said paddocks and down towards the lakes, the very strong wind that kept us from stopping at said benches, the wedgetail eagle soaring higher and higher on said wind, the magpie divebombing said eagle, an echidna shuffling in its slow-speedy way over a paddock and out of sight behind a dam wall . . .
Before we knew it, we were cycling across what Danni described as a “vertigo-inducing” former rail bridge over the wide Tambo and speeding down the steep side path into Nicholson. We stopped beside the river for lunch (avocado rolls this time) at a picnic bench below the caravan park, pleased to find water, some rather charming caravan-style toilets and - at the jumble sale outside the pub - coffee for Danni and Stephanie.
After a good break, it was back up the steep path to the trail. We needed another breather at the top, and were entertained by another echidna, waddling around a small paddock, poking its snout into piles of sticks looking for ants. So cute!
The trail from Nicholson to Bairnsdale is sealed and flat. Stephanie and Danni were in their element, and Dan was also able to speed off ahead. I struggled, though, especially with the very strong winds that alternated between pushing me sideways and making me pedal twice as hard to move forwards. I tried to enjoy the windbreaks provided by stands of blooming wattle, but I was not in the best mood when we made it to the signposted end of the trail in Bairnsdale. I was particularly sad that nobody wanted to go on the flying fox or the long slide at Howitt Park with me!
We made our way around the back streets of Bairnsdale to the train station, which we considered to be the true conclusion of the trail. Stephanie and Danni sorted out their tickets home - VLine is kind of notorious for being unfriendly and unhelpful towards cyclists, but everything worked out for this trip. With a bit of time to spare, we pedalled into town, ate chips and drank coffee from an actual cafe and, with no general store in sight, picked up a few things from the supermarket (including a gift of chicken salt Pringles for us from Danni and Stephanie!) before saying goodbye.
Dan and I coasted down to our campsite beside the Mitchell River and set ourselves up (me sneezing all over the place due to the high winds and plane trees) before heading out for a tasty Thai dinner. Now that's civilised!
A big thank you to the people who made this first leg of our cycle so fun: to Stephanie and Danni for providing great chats, helping out when our UK provider screwed us over with phone/data, cooking dinners for us, sharing snacks, being patient with two newbie cycle tourists and generally being fab companions; to my parents for helping book accommodation, putting the four of us up overnight, driving us and S&D’s bikes to Orbost, taking Dan and me for a drive around Jarrahmond and generally being very helpful; to Liz and Dave at Snowy River Cycling for hiring us excellent bikes, providing maps and info, maintaining the water caches and helping out with Danni’s tyre; to the friendly people at our campsites - especially at Bruthen - for the chats and for keeping us comfortable; and a special shoutout to the folks at the bakery in Bruthen who were well on the ball about what was and wasn’t vegan!
Let me know if you have any questions about this part the trail, the photos, the logistics, etc. And look out for Part 2, coming soon . . .
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