How deep into the wilderness can you get and still be back at work on Monday? Very far indeed, finds James Garriock.
Any proper adventure has a low point, and this looked like it. Legs frozen and dripping after my seventh river crossing in less than three kilometres and craning my neck skywards to take in another unrideable excuse for a track, I thought I’d surely reached the nadir. It was a long, hard climb, pushing the bike forwards and holding the brakes in order to scramble up next to it.
Cresting the hill, I prepared to match the yin of tribulation with the yang of triumph, but elation turned to genuine concern as I looked down. Just as it had been too steep and rough to ride up, so it was too steep to descend other than by picking my way down by foot. I felt like Bruce Bogtrotter in Matilda, faced with so much of a good thing that it made me feel sick. My mind slipped back into its habit of absently doing mental arithmetic while the body kept on moving; extrapolating energy, time, vertical meters, hours, heartbeats and distance. I’d been working hard and in the last hour had managed less than four kilometres. There was another 20km to go in the Jagungal Wilderness, and more than fifty to Jindabyne. At this rate I was facing many hours of night riding or the ignominy of sleeping in one of the ski huts I’d been passing, and having to press the button on the satellite tracker which had been programmed to say “I’m late but I’m fine”.
I once met an off-duty German cop in the Sahara. He had two weeks leave from his job in Munich and was doing a 10,000km motorcycle round trip through Mauritania. Why ruin a good three month holiday by doing it in two weeks, I’d thought.
But life gets busier and I’d become that person. “How to wreck a good five day ride by doing it in two and a half”, I scolded myself.
The brackets on the trip were three days off work, no car involvement and a weekend away with my wife somewhere nice at the end. Using trains and planes there are dozens of routes available and so my commutes became filled with dreams of escape, my conference calls became Google satellite view sessions and bullet points on whiteboards in meetings turned into water and food stops on my route. Through months of cold and rain the beacon of a late spring adventure motivated me to get to the right level of fitness – I needed the restoring and exhausting power of getting as high, as remote and as gravelly as possible without using a car and being back in the office on Monday.
But as I trudged down another hill too steep to ride as the afternoon shadows lengthened I wondered whether it could possibly have been only yesterday that I had rolled up to the XPT train for the trip to Culcairn north of Albury.
It’s not just a country train apparently, it’s the X-P-T. Was it an engineer or a marketer who decided that if they make out the XPT is a plane then people will use it instead of choosing to see the Murray from 30,000 feet? The illusion of aeronautics extends to a check in counter and the need to put bicycles in a box rather than just rolling them into the luggage car. It is only dispelled once the train moves sedately away from the station. I was seated next to an older man recovering from a stroke, who explained his travails and encouraged me to use my body while I’m still on speaking terms with it.
At Culcairn I was the only passenger to alight onto a deserted platform. Looking vainly up and down the train, my cardboard box was slow to appear. Soon enough, however, the bike was in one piece and standing outside the gracious pub like the horses did 100 years ago. I have a theory that the more attractive the pub, the worse the food will be, and the Culcairn pub is very beautiful indeed.
Holbrook is an hour east of Culcairn when the tailwind blows hard and the cotton wool clouds feel like racing you across the plains. Be careful of puncture hazards though, like the plucky echidna that ran out in front of me.
Beyond Holbrook, the Murray Valley highway runs on the Victorian side of the border, and NSW’s contribution is the insipidly named River Road, an untrammelled 70km gravel masterpiece just made for cycling. The majestic deep blue swirling river is the centrepiece of every grand vista and in the late afternoon the pinging of business emails coming from my phone was drowned out by a cacophony of birds.
My destination was Tintaldra’s pub; chosen for its history and beautiful setting, but the welcome was personalised. “You’re bloody late”, came a shout from the verandah. “There’s a pool comp at the caravan park I want to go to”. The pair on the porch were in fact the publican and his only patron. “Sorry. Do you have a menu? I’ll order my dinner and that lunch you were going to make me right away”. “Menu?” came the response. “I hope you like hamburgers. Matter of fact, I hope you also like cold hamburgers for lunch.” After a quick 130km gravel ride I was liking the idea of pretty much anything. “I love hamburgers thanks – and how early can I get breakfast?” “Yeah nah you can get breakfast about twenny k down the road that way”. ‘That way’ was the wrong way for me. Banishing the thought of 160km without breakfast, I resigned myself to Carlton United carb loading with Brett, the only patron. Fortunately for me, Brett had an inexhaustible supply of trapp’n, drov’n, hunt’n, camp’n, fish’n, shoot’n and shear’n stories; so even though we were alone in the empty pub, at least I wasn’t lonely.
It turned out that not only was my intended bridge back across the Murray closed for repairs, but that I’d have to add an hour to my journey in order to find breakfast in Khancoban. After sampling its delights I decided that to conform to my country pub rule, the café should have been a lot more attractive. I turned my satellite tracker on just as the local policeman rolled up. He asked where I was going. “Into the Jagungal,” I replied. “Well I’m glad you’ve got one of those with you then,” he said. “And one bit of advice, if you need it, use it. I collect quite a few half-dead fools from up there every year who haven’t used their emergency beacons because they’re not quite dead yet”. Wondering whether I should feel comforted by the constable’s counsel I set off on the bitumen road into the mountains.
The ‘quick’ way from Khancoban to Jindabyne is via Tom Groggin, Dead Horse Gap and Thredbo, but I was taking the scenic route via the Cabramurra Rd. The climb looks pretty serious, but I hadn’t heard much about it so it didn’t loom large in my mind as a challenge. If you’re reading this and know the climb, you’re probably having a laugh at my expense right now. It rises 1,300m and my 34×30 lowest gear wasn’t enough for my 20kg rig. You might have heard that Cabramurra means crooked hand in Wiradjuri, but at that moment I imagined it was derived from the Spanish for goat, cabra, and that murra must surely mean a less polite synonym for “exhausted”.
Finally, the turnoff. To my horror the track was blocked and a sign forbidding cars, motorbikes, horses, and bikes was prominently displayed. Only on further reading did the placard reveal that bikes were permitted on certain trails, which included my intended path. I sat down to eat my cold hamburger and looked out over Jagungal’s lonely sentinel and seriously considered bailing out. There was a bitumen long cut of about 150km, but this was what I’d come for, and it was only about 50km across. Even at the impossibly slow pace of 10kmh it was only five hours of riding, I thought, in what turned out to be a moment of absolute self-delusion.
Jagungal apparently rhymes with Bunjil, the aquiline spirit of the Kulin nation. Here I was in Ngarigo country, a nation I knew little about except that they recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the NSW government to be more involved in the management of the land. Right now though, the silence was making my ears hurt. There were no animals, no birds, no footprints, no tyre tracks, not even animal droppings to assure me that I was anything other than alone in the world. The snow had melted so recently that the animals and birds hadn’t yet arrived.
Nestled at the bottom of a wide, heath-covered valley a crystal stream traversed the track. Excited at the novelty I stopped for a photo and a drink. I shouted for joy at the solitude, but didn’t even receive an echo in reply.
Mt Jagungal, Australia’s seventh highest peak, had been visible in the distance from the very start of my journey into the wilderness. It had crept toward me very slowly though, looking down on my ant-like progress with something approaching disdain. It is an awe inspiring massif which still had snow in its folds. My stubbornly low average speed meant there was no time to climb to the summit. The path was rock strewn, allowing little time to look up and enjoy the view, and the steep pinches meant I had to dismount often to run up. By this time I was making deals with the devil for another gear, and edging my way tentatively down the hills to avoid pinch flats. How easy it would be for one of these half-brick sized stones to send me over the bars and into a broken collarbone and an ambulance. Only the ping of a breaking spoke brought me back to reality, after which the bike had to be nursed even more tenderly.
Perhaps its name was at fault, but back at my desk I’d been romanticising about a squiggly line on the map named Valentine’s Track. Without a deadline it would have been romantic indeed, in a rugged sort of way. In a hurry it was just brutal. My 10kmh aspiration had become a rolling joke. On the Grey Mare trail I had seen a weather-worn footprint in the mud and the odd suggestion of a bike tyre print. On Valentine’s there was nothing at all; sometimes not even a path. Twice my Garmin told me that I’d lost the trail (if not the plot altogether), and the river crossings were getting steadily colder, wider and deeper. Calf height, knee height, thigh height, and pulling at my legs like an angry rip tide as my feet cautiously sought out rocks they could trust.
I stopped briefly at Valentine’s hut, painted cherry red with love hearts above its windows. Beloved by cross country skiers it was another safe place to spend a chilly November night if need be for a bike rider whose Strava account has written cheques that his legs can’t cash.
I was in a pretty dark place, but that’s often the case just before hope dawns. Just as my ETA went beyond a 10pm arrival (after a 6am start) the Valentine’s track abruptly ended, the ground went a bit more quickly beneath my wheels and my hazy calculations were thankfully thrown into chaos like an explosion in a Sudoku workshop. The final kilometres flashed down the Charlotte Pass road into Jindabyne in deep twilight on a wobbly wheel. “What’s a sensible speed on a broken spoke?” I wondered aloud. Just as I decided not to go over 60kmh, all God’s creatures great and small came down to the road for a twilight party. Rosellas, eagles, wallaby, cockatoos, kangaroos beyond counting, wombats, deer and more crowded in around me with suicidal nonchalance. In my dreams I’d carved this descent like a Christmas turkey. Instead, I wobbled down worriedly yelling and belling in a vain attempt to scare off the encamped menagerie.
It had been a very long day.
The next morning came too quickly, but I replaced my spoke with bleary eyes and fumbling fingers using a Kevlar string, then climbed slowly out of Jindabyne and marvelled at the reflection of its snow-capped battlements on the lake. Jindabyne is Australia’s Bariloche and the Monaro its Patagonia, a windswept semi-desert grassland with a low ceiling of scudding clouds. Would the Mapuche of Patagonia feel at home here, or was I about to be overrun by Dothraki tribesmen instead? But the reality was silent save the whistling of the wind, the bleating of grass coloured sheep, the rustling of the sheep coloured grass, and the occasional whomping of wind turbine blades.
Fears about the state of my rear wheel meant I kept to the bitumen for most of the 180km down to the beach. A headwind and dead roads combined to sap the legs and the willpower, but when I turned eastwards for the coast the wind came around behind me and suddenly the speedo showed 45 and all was well with the world. Local legend Justin Ashcroft even rode out to meet me and watched smiling as I sucked in the thick, creamy, salty sea air and waded with my bike into the surf. My suburban life felt weeks in the past. I couldn’t remember what had been worrying me at work, but I did know I wanted a window seat on the return flight so I could get a good look at some back roads through the mountains.
James rode an aluminium framed cyclocross bike with double taped bars and 10speed Shimano 105 gears. 50, 34 chainrings and 12–30 cassette. Tyres were Continental CX speed 35mm at 50psi.
Luggage was a Restrap seat holster with 13litre dry bag. A Topeak tankbag held food and a lithium backup battery for charging the Garmin while riding. A satellite tracker provided peace of mind to family. James carried 30 grams of carbohydrate per hour across all food types. Clothing included a merino base layer, bibknicks, short and long sleeved jerseys, a gilet and a heavyweight warm, waterproof jacket.
What would James have done differently? “I would have swapped my 50, 34 crankset for an White Industries ENO crankset for better range. I’d also extend my rear mech with a Wolf Tooth roadlink to fit a 11–36 on the back. (a nine speed Deore MTB derailleur does the same job as the Roadlink if you’re on 10 speed). Ideally I’d have better quality wheels and a dynamo hub too. Since I haven’t quite changed everything on the bike yet, let’s throw in a frame made of something else, aluminium is very hard on the body. I’d keep the bar tape though, and the bell.”
The XPT leaves Central Station in Sydney to Culcairn at 0732 weekdays or from Southern Cross Station in Melbourne to Culcairn at 0830 weekdays. When booking tickets inform them that you have a bike. Well beforehand grease your pedal spindles and make sure you know how to remove your bars and saddle, you’ll need to do this to box the bike before boarding. Arrive an hour early.
The total distance of this ride is 484km, but the total climbing is 7,369m. A sub-nine-hour Peaks Challenge rider will do this trip in about 25 moving hours. For a sub-eleven-hour Peaks Challenge rider, this ride can be done in five days with minimalistic camping equipment by staying at Jingelic, here https://goo.gl/maps/QDqPVrGRHv22 , Valentine’s hut and Dalgety. The third day of this extended itinerary is a very hard 50km, but there would still be time to visit Grey Mare hut and to climb Mt Jagungal.
If you intend to camp then you’ll need lower gears than usual to allow for the extra weight you’ll be carrying. Fixed racks are strongly discouraged due to the rough roads.
It is possible to fly with your bike from Merimbula back to Melbourne or Sydney. Flights to Melbourne are at 0840 and 1640 each day. Flights to Sydney depart each day at 0630, 1105 and 1550. As with the train there is an extra charge for taking a bike. You’ll need a box, and if you buy some spares from Claude at Cycle ‘n’ Surf Merimbula (02) 6495 2171 you might be given one.
Day 1 strava file https://www.strava.com/activities/787677620
Day 2 strava file https://www.strava.com/activities/787677710
Day 3 strava file https://www.strava.com/activities/787677721
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