Over the years, as I’ve driven along the Great Alpine Road of eastern Victoria, I’ve always thought of how great it would be to cycle along the rail trail, an old abandoned rail road, that roughly snakes along in parallel to the Great Alpine Road from Bright to Wangaratta. “One day” I thought. It seemed that I never had the time to do some moderate training to make it a reality.
This year, I was determined to not let this small adventure slip by another year. Most importantly, I had to set the date to make it happen. After coordinating with Linda’s schedule, the date was set – 19th September!
The distance from Bright to Wangaratta is 85km, which I split into three days. This meant that I had to cycle at least 30km each day. It doesn’t sound like much but with my disability and my chicken arms, its equivalent to 120km for an able-bodied person. I had only ever managed to hand cycle 14km in three hours before – which had left me feeling shattered! This wasn’t going to be easy.
For three months – and after Linda gave me waterproof clothes for my birthday which changed my life as I could now cycle in rain, hail or shine – I got into training, hand cycling up and down the concrete landscape of inner Melbourne, slowly building my distances up to a marathonic 26km in four and a half hours. I was just hoping my training would be enough!
Remie, my carer and road support, would drive my car and meet Linda and myself for lunch, and at the end of the day, would take us back to our accommodation, Aspens Springs Farmstay in Porepunkah. The farm stay was more like a zoo, with pigs, goats, ducks, peacocks and dogs running free everywhere. Duck poo was plastered to my tyres daily; Remie had fun cleaning it off – thanks Remie!
Following the disappointment of cancelling the 4 Deserts Run Flight to the Kimberley in June, whether it was raining, snowing or cyclonic conditions, I was going to do this cycling trip, no matter what. The morning was perfect. With blue skies, no wind and a cool 19 degrees for the day, it couldn’t get much better.
After half an hour of strapping me into my three-wheeled, arm-busting chariot, Linda and I were finally off, zipping down the sealed rail trail from Bright to Myrtleford. We had planned for Remie to meet us at the Bright Berry Farm for morning tea.
The trail weaved through the back of the houses in Bright; spring was endeavouring to drag itself from the cold with trees and colourful flowers starting to bloom in the gardens. Leaving the houses traveling along the back Porepunkah Road, the sun was warm with a cool soft breeze, the mountains towered up on each side as if they were coaxing me down the valley into Porepunkah. Families were out riding the trails with their dogs on leads. We headed out of town, following the Great Alpine Road, towards our first stop the Berry Farm.
The big secret of the Berry Farm is the berry cup. Fresh berries, dripping in sweet berry syrup, layered with vanilla ice-cream and finished with a dollop of cream on top, is no less than an orgasm for your tastebuds. Linda and I get one every time we go to Bright.
Mt Buffalo’s spectacular mass of grey granite peers over my left shoulder as I head west down the valley, the early heat shimmering off the rock. I look up spying any over-exuberant hang glider pilots launching themselves off the edge, but the skies are quiet apart from a few darting birds.
I learnt to fly microlites at Porepunkah. During my training, my instructor Steve, made me follow the same road I’m now hand cycling. I flew along this road so many times to practice flying straight, which is harder than learning to turn. It is so different to experience this landscape from the air, high above the hills, with just the sound of the wind and the drone of the engine.
At ground level, cycling 8 km an hour, the world moves by slowly. The lush green valley opens up in the distance, with vineyards and their perfectly lined rows of vines. Its surprisingly noisy with the different sounds of insects, animals, and the tick, tick, tick sound of my hand cycle gears provide the constant rhythm to natures orchestra.
I’m feeling fantastic out in the fresh air and sunshine, my muscles now accustomed to the rhythmic grind of the hand cranks and Linda has managed to stay on her bike even while being attacked by magpies and managing to keep filming at the same time. It was really impressive to watch her squeal with each dive bomb!
This section from Bright to Myrtleford is fairly easy as the elevation drops 100m over 30km. I was even managing 10 km/hr, which is fantastic for me!
The paddocks are fenced off from the trail. The curious dark brown cows with snot dripping from their noses watch us with curiosity as we ride by. Spring is definitely upon the lands with calves and lambs bounding around the paddocks after their mums’ teats.
Reaching Ovens, we stopped at the Happy Valley Pub and met Remie (who had been there for a couple of hours) and we devoured our chicken and salad rolls Linda made up in the morning along with a cool drink to wash down the dust and bugs from our teeth (ok, a bit of an exaggeration!).
This was the 25km mark, and I felt as though I could do another 20. The ride was easier than I had expected. I wanted to do over 30km on this first day to minimise what we had to do tomorrow which was to include the hills and I expected it to be a very tough day.
Edging our way closer to Myrtleford, the houses become more frequent until we were riding through the backstreets looking for the signs to keep us on the rail trail. As the sun got lower in the sky, a chill in the air hit us. We pushed a little further past Myrtleford and found a nice spot to be picked up by Remie that was big enough for her to park the car with trailer.
35km on Day 1. Awesome! It was my personal best on the hand cycle. I was psychologically pumped, but physically drained. I was confident that although Day 2 had a lot of uphill, we should be able to get a long way past Everton, making Day 3 fairly short with less than 20km left to complete the trip. This euphoric boost of confidence was a mistake.
As I set off on Day 2, the long hill started ever so slightly and gradually increased to a moderate incline. My 8km/hour speed dropped to 3 as I had to gear right down before my arms stalled. My hand cranks were rotating three times to one revolution of the wheel. It was now a long and very slow endless climb.
Passing Gapsted Winery with the neatly cut grass, perfectly aligned vines and fluttering flags waving us in, Linda looked up the drive, her mouth salivating, and I’m sure she was thinking how nice it would be tasting wine with a cheese platter in the shade instead of following her husband on this cycling trip in the hot sun going up the hill at barely a crawl. Ants were moving faster than me!
Crank for 20m and then rest, crank for another 20 then rest. That was my routine. My arms burned and I could feel the strength was slowly fading. I was going so slow that Linda walked on ahead with plenty of time to take some photos of this three-wheeled turtle.
Rounding each bend, as I hoped we were at the top, the trail continually exposed another series of hills. “When will this end?”. The last 2km felt steeper, although it was probably due to my arms slowly giving out. Linda shouted from ahead “You’ve made it!” as I saw the sign “Taylors Pass” come into view. “3 hours of uphill, thank God it’s over”, I thought, “Its now downhill!”.
I hit 28 km/h on my odometer. I was flying! Trees flashing past, eyes watering a little, I can tell Linda is behind me by the unique rattle of her bike and her squeal as she almost drops her camera as she films and cycles at the same time. The contrast of the slow uphill battle, to the downhill speedway made it all the more exhilarating!
The landscape quickly changed from bush to open green pastures and rolling hills. I had hoped the downhill run would last longer but it finished so quickly. The reward didn’t seem to justify the effort.
The hours of the day passed too quickly, my plan of getting beyond Everton was slowly diminishing. We met Remie at a picnic spot near the trail, but only stopped for 20 min, as with my current speed, I wasn’t confident we would make Everton by 5pm. The trail weaved through pastures and sporadic clumps of bush, and it seemed to be going slightly uphill. I could only average 6 km/hr no matter how hard I pushed myself.
Two kilometres from Everton, we saw a lone figure in the distance and wondered who would be walking out here? As we got closer, we saw it was Remie. She had gotten bored and decided to see where we were. “How much further” I asked her with the hope that our destination was just around the corner. “Not far, about 20 min” she said. I did a quick calculation in my head, working out that at my current speed of 3km/h, that was at least another hour! “Damn it!”
We finally reached Everton Station by 5.15pm. I was shattered, but felt very satisfied that I had met the challenge. It was the hardest 25km I have ever cycled. We drove back to Porepunkah and grabbed a bottle of wine to console ourselves.
Day 3, our final day, it was going to be warm as we headed to our final destination of Wangaratta. Fortunately, we had perfect blue skies again for our final day.
My arms and neck was a little sore when I started. It was a relief when we headed off and coasted downhill for 10 min making it to Londrigan in record time. In 1.5 hours I’d covered 14km. Remie was surprised to see us turning up so soon. We had an early lunch of more chicken and salad rolls (hoping they didn’t have a dose of salmonella as they were from the day before) and cuppa soups to wash it down. This is a staple lunch for us on any trip as its easy to prepare in the morning whether hand cycling or flying.
The landscape morphed into flat open pastures, farmers grazing their cattle on the sides of the rail trail. Dodging the cow shit tested my steering skills hoping to avoid a mouthful from being flicked up by the front wheels.
Reaching Bower Station, the sign said 7kms. Woohoo! We were so close. I was feeling more tired than usual with the sun beating down on us for the final leg.
The last few kilometres were a letdown. The scenery changed from the amazing natural bush and pastures to the industrial area of Wangaratta. It eventually changed again passing through the wetlands with river gums – another surprise of the diverse Victorian landscape.
Following the signs into town, we came to the centre, but lost the trail. The signs seemed to stop and we didn’t know which way to go. Without signs, feeling fatigued and being very hot led to some frustration. Even layered with 50+ sunscreen, I could feel the sun sizzling the skin on my ears.
Thank God for smart phones, Linda soon sorted out where we had to go, along with directions from a kind American woman.
After 3 days, and 85 kilometres, we made it to our final destination of Wangaratta station, and there was Remie again waiting for us. It was a great achievement for us all. Linda hadn’t ridden a bike for years – taking photos and getting attacked by magpies without falling off was a fantastic effort. This trip pushed Remie outside of her comfort zone a little, by having to hook up trailers, driving with a trailer and not getting lost – even with my vague directions (thank God again for smart phones), she did really well.
For myself, it was a fun challenge both physically and mentally. I wasn’t sure if I could do it or how my body would hold up; thankfully better than expected. I enjoyed the mental challenge to keep trudging along 6 hours a day, especially the slow struggle up the long, long hills.
The hardest part of doing anything is making the decision to do it and setting the date. I was glad that I made the decision, set the date and followed through with it. I feel that life is about the experiences we have, to be able to separate ourselves from the everyday and do things that are a little different, that push ourselves a little to expand our limits, so we can grow and be a little happier.