wall-of-tarmac

A wall of tarmac

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There’s a reason why Mount Baw Baw is so feared, Iain Treloar discovers.

Noojee – Mt Baw Baw return 97km

Vertical elevation gain 2,553m

Some climbs are worse than others, and in Australia there are few worse than Mount Baw Baw. This isn’t hyperbole; it’s a statement of cold, hard fact. Baw Baw doesn’t care about easing you into it. Baw Baw is a tarmac wall. It’s a mountain that seems purpose built to take your psyche to very bad places.

Note that I’m leading with this. I’d heard all of it before and arrogantly dismissed it, and I don’t want you to make the same mistake. Go ride Baw Baw, sure—but don’t underestimate it.

This ride was on the cards from October last year. After writing up a ride report on the Acheron Way, just out of Warburton, an email from an acquaintance pinged into my inbox. There was a ride in Gippsland, Neill reckoned, that was “even more remote, even less cars, and very picturesque… plus you get to do Baw Baw which is arguably the hardest hill in Australia”. My fate was decided; there was some suffering to do.

It’s easy to feel complacent at the beginning of the climb

Mount Baw Baw’s too far from Melbourne to be a return ride; Noojee, the starting point of our loop, is about an hour and a half’s drive east down the Monash freeway. There’s a riverside park with a public toilet and carpark that makes for a good starting point for a 100km ride to Baw Baw summit and back; those looking for a briefer ride can start from Icy Creek (70km return).

After stocking our back pockets and assembling bikes we rolled out of Noojee, a small town of about 280 residents, past a couple of small shops and the local pub. It didn’t take long to clear the outskirts, and soon any pleasantries were well and truly over; after passing the old Noojee train station the road pitched up onto Vesper Hill (5km at 7%, with a 3km stretch at 9%). “Don’t go out too hard,” Neill advised. Too late; I was searching the horizon for a reprieve well before the crest.

Luckily, the crest came, and I recovered over a merciful descent of a couple of kilometres. It wasn’t long before the road pitched upwards again, setting up a pattern of rolling hills for the remainder of the road until the climb proper. As it turns out, there’s barely a stretch of straight road the entire way; it squiggles and worms its way through forest and farmland, up and down and side to side, like a liar’s polygraph.

The road gets more scenic and isolated the further you travel from Noojee. Pastures of sleepy-eyed cows at the occasional farm along the way come to a stop just after Icy Creek; pretty quickly, it’s kilometres between signs of human life, and there’s virtually no road traffic to remind you that you’re not the only person left on earth. I think about the hermetic lives that people out here must lead, and reflect on what a big, empty country Australia is.

The road bucks and rolls again and again, ceaseless little climbs of 2–4km that don’t really allow any respite. It’s not terrain you’d reasonably describe as ‘easy-going’, but it feels a bit soft to mention this given the brutality of what lies at the end of the road. The road becomes increasingly narrow, until in places it’s not much more than a lane wide with bark and leaves encroaching on the shoulder. Ferns line the sides of the road and the valleys off to the side; for what feels like hours it’s just red clay and rock and towering gums and damp foliage and nobody, nowhere. At one point we see a lyrebird shyly scratching to the side of the road; a few kilometres later I accidentally run over a very twiggy-looking baby snake and feel awful about it for the rest of the day.

Baw-Baw-hairpins
Photo by Iain Treloar

Tanjil Bren is the last outpost of civilisation before the summit of Baw Baw, and it feels eerily abandoned in summer. There are a number of ski lodges off the side of the Baw Baw road, and apparently there’s a store as well, but we don’t see it. The road pitches downhill for four or so kilometres after leaving the town (and boy, won’t that be a treat coming back the other way), with a couple of hairpins thrown in.

At the base of the descent it’s go time, with the final ascent to Baw Baw beginning at the crossing of the Tanjil River. It’s easy to feel complacent at the beginning of the climb, which maintains a fairly manageable gradient of around 5% for the first 5.7km. But just when you’ve settled into a rhythm, there’s a sign announcing ‘The Gantry’, and the road rears up to a frankly stupid gradient.

Neill’s fresh off a strong-showing at Tour of Bright and reckons he’s got a good Strava-time up his sleeve (he’s right), so we separate. He disappears up the road, climbing away from me, out of the saddle, like I’m standing still. Which I basically am; my speed quickly drops into single digits and doesn’t return.

The brain thinks of some funny things over a climb like this. Several of them are violent acts I’d like to inflict on the road engineer responsible for this stretch of unremitting badness. I also wonder whether the road slides down the hill in a gloopy tarmac slick on hot days. But mostly I just have to think, one pedal in front of the other. It will all be over soon enough.

The nastiest stretch of the climb is Winch Corner, which reaches a gradient of 20.6%. I can’t say I particularly noticed this milestone; it was a really steep bit in amongst a lot of other really steep bits. How steep? The average gradient of the second section of Baw Baw (6.7km) is reported to be 13%; the best way I can describe that gradient in relatable terms is to imagine riding up the steepest driveway you can picture, for an hour.

Neill rides back down the mountain to meet me and check I’m still alive. I’m glad to see him, but I’m also relieved that I’ve been able to plod up the majority of the climb in solitude. There’s something about needing to stop every kilometre to catch your breath, head hanging over your handlebars, that’s a less humiliating solo activity.

Finally, mercifully, the Baw Baw village appears, complete with a café to recover from the efforts of the ride. What with my decidedly non-record breaking ascent, the day’s getting on, so we don’t stick around for long. The descent off the mountain is extremely quick and at times quite scary. I was glad I installed new brake pads the day before, as I had the brakes on and was still over 60km/h most of the way down; by the bottom my shoulders and wrists were on fire. Take it easy down here; this isn’t the right place to try and beat any speed records.

We trace the same route back to Noojee that we came out along, and it’s just as beautiful in reverse, but feels harder this way. The climb up to Tanjil Bren is particularly unforgiving, although nothing compared to Baw Baw.

Somewhere not long after this, I run out of steam in a fairly major way, and Neill coaxes me to the end. Luckily, from the summit of Vesper Hill, there’s a beautiful flowing descent back to Noojee, and we’re home and hosed. It’s been a great ride, but I’ll be happy not to make a return visit to the tough slopes of Baw Baw any time soon.

Feature photos by Neill Stanbury.

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One thought on “5”

  1. what a great write up having done it twice i can totally relate to the struggle of the climb! Thats where i learnt to zig zag! Great climbing though!

    1. We rode the return ride from Yarra Junction – almost Melbourne. It was about 180 kms. We did ride the last hour in the dark, rolling back to the car after 8pm.

  2. Using an old 80s road bike with a 40-26 bottom gear, Baw Baw was a ‘hoof & push’ for me after the first kilometre past The Gantry. Descending this one is lethal – be very sure that you have good brakes!
    I can well relate to the idea of not going back any time too soon.

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