Over the High Country
Newly self-unemployed, this is what I had been waiting for. The freedom to take time out, to explore new places, to get muddy, dirty, sweaty, tired.
During my last week of night shift (deliciously quiet), I plotted out a potential route, linking dirt roads, firetrails, hiking tracks wand unavoidable bitumen from Wangaratta to Moe, over the Victorian high country. I drew inspiration from the the route of the Hunt 1000 and spent hours poring over paper maps, satellite imagery and blog posts.
My rough plan was to cycle from Wangaratta to Mt Beauty via Yakandadah, to Falls Creek then over the alpine crossing to Mt Hotham, down to Dargo and across to Tali Karng and Licola, eventually emerging from the mountains somewhere near Moe.
Needless to say, not everything went to plan.
It never does.
Things started off smoothly enough. I jumped on the morning train from Southern Cross, gear and food packed like Tetris blocks into and onto my bike.
The ride from Wangaratta via Eldorado to Yakandadah was surprisingly varied and interesting along the Woolshed Rd, interspersed with opportunities to cool off in Reedy Creek.
Refuelling in Yakandandah I continued on, hoping to find somewhere to camp not far out of town. As is usually the case, having passed numerous excellent possible campsites coming in to Yakandandah, there were none to be found on the other side. Eventually, 20km on, I headed down a side road through farmland into a patch of bush, and set up camp.
Incident 1: I was using my homemade beer-can stove for the first time. It worked surprisingly well. I tried to snuff it out by turning my mug upside-down over it, and in the process knocked it over, spilling lit methylated spirits over tinder dry leaves and twigs. Luckily no bushfire ensued....
Day two saw me push on along more bitumen to Mt Beauty.
Incident 2: I left one of my Klean Kanteen bottles, which fit so well into my fork-mounted bottle holders on the side of the road after filling up with water. I noticed this 15km down the road, which to many would mean a 30km detour to pick it up. However, to me, in my current state lacking fitness, that would have tipped me over the edge.
Restocking in Mt Beauty, a local woman struck up conversation with me, asking detailed questions about my bike and set-up. Turns out she was preparing for the Indian Pacific Wheel Race this year. I told her of my plan to head up Fainters Track, and she told me I was dreaming. Apparently whenever her friends take their mountain bikes out on it, someone always comes back with a broken arm or clavicle. Going down is treacherous enough; she warned me that going up would be horrendous - hours of pushing up obscene gradients. She suggested I take the highway up to Falls Creek instead.
I decided on a compromise. Halfway to Falls Creek on the highway, then I would head off along an alternative firetrail up to Spion Kopje. I camped that night beside the beautiful Rocky Valley Creek.
Incident 3: I forgot to look at the contours. Day 3 saw me head up the Spion Kopje firetrail. It started off well, steep, but manageable, switchbacks following the contours. Then all of a sudden the track mounted the spur and decided to go straight up, reaching gradients of 26%. 1000m elevation gain in just 7km. And the firetrail, which until then was well-maintained suddenly turned into an overgrown tunnel of vegetation. Oh, and it turns out the mountain is actually just a big ants' nest. So whenever I stopped to regain my breath, or to swear loudly and contemplate my strange life-decisions I had to do the ants-dance. Swatting swarms of them off my legs, they never quite made it to my pants, but they got close.
Horrible. I hated every moment of that firetrail.
Finally I made it to the top, and was rewarded with some great single track, followed by glorious dirt roads through the high plains. I camped by Roper's hut.
Incident 4: In an effort to slim down my set-up, I had shelled out for a GSI minimalist pot, which comes with a clever insulation sleeve so you can eat your dinner without burning your hands off. The pot is grey, the insulation sleeve is grey. One of the reviews I read criticised this colour choice, suggesting you might get confused and put the pot, while still in its sleeve on the stove. I scoffed at this - never could I be so silly.
I was that silly.
My frustrations at damaging my new gear were long forgotten after some rum beside the campfire.
I met a lovely gentleman who was camping at Ropers Hut. Jacob, his name was. An outdoor education teacher, he was getting paid to go on a three day solo hike to "familiarise himself" with the area prior to taking a school group there. This revelation prompted some serious contemplation regarding my career choice.
Anyway, having hiked a significant portion of the trail I would be following the next day, I asked Jacob what it was like - namely if it was technical hiking trail, or forgiving double track. He reassured me that it was all easy double-track.
Incident 5: Jacob lied. It wasn't easy double track.
Despite the challenging track, it was a brilliant ride through the high plains, complete with a mob of brumbies on the horizon.
I knew day 5 would be a challenge. In fact I was prepared for the possibility of having to back-track to Falls Creek and follow the highway to Mt Hotham. This time I had read the contours, and even the annotation on the paper map which read "steep".
Incident 6: It was steep.
But not impossible. Somehow having a bicycle while descending into the valley actually made the going easier - possibly because it provided extra stability and support. 500m down into the Valley, to Derrick's Hut, then 500m back up the other side.
Incident 7: I saw a baby snake.
Incident 8: I saw a tiger snake.
Incident 9: I saw a black snake.
And they were all too close for comfort.
I wonder how many other snakes I passed close by without even noticing.
Finally, reaching the ski resort of Mt Hotham, I flew down the bitumen and turned off onto the Dargo High Plains Rd.
Incident 10: I couldn't work up the energy to hike 100m down into a valley to fill up my water bottles at a stream, thinking there would be a plentiful water supply along the Dargo High Plains as there had been on the Bogong High Plains. Again, I made the wrong decision.
That night saw me camping in a top notch site. It was great. Throughout the afternoon, the clouds put on quite a show, but the threatened storm never eventuated.
The last two days saw me pass through Dargo, the epitome of an Australian country town, and continue on to Bairnsdale where I jumped on a bus back to Melbourne.