This adventure took place on the lands of the Taungurong and Wurundjeri peoples. I would like to acknowledge that their sovereignty was never ceded, and pay my respects to elders past and present.
Story by Aidan Kempster, all images in this story were taken by Finn Ryan.
It’s pretty safe to say that Finn and I are pretty good friends. I met him a few years ago, on my first cycling trip on the mainland after riding Tasmania. He’s cycled all over the USA and Canada, and like me, uses bikes to get around pretty much all the time. Until now he had never really been off-road touring, I was extremely happy to loan him a bike and embark on an adventure together.
The first stop was my mechanic. I’ve met a lot of bike mechanics this year. Most of them are great people, but Colin is my favourite. He sorted me out with a new chain, a little bit of tuning and a hug. From there we rode into Southern Cross Station and caught the train all the way to the end. We arrived in Hurstbridge just before 4pm. We met another bikepacker heading back into the city after an epic mission. She had ridden into the high alpine country beyond Woods Point. I still haven’t made it that far on the bike and I had the impression she’d got there on her first day! She’d just ridden in from around Mansfield that morning, before we even really started! Absolute champion.
Now it was our turn. We took inspiration from Erkki Punttila and picked up some afternoon tea at the bakery to carry down the road. We stopped to eat our snacks in St Andrews, making use of a commemorative mosaic chair. We enjoyed the break from the sun and it was a good opportunity to discuss our aims for the trip. Back on the bike there was nothing for it but to grind up the range. I have ridden the Everard Track before and I wasn’t keen on the slug this time. The main road is trouble enough. We picked up a few beers when we got to Kinglake, and enjoyed one at the lookout a little further up the road. The outline of the CBD was faintly visible, and it was amusing to think we had only left it this afternoon.
Snacks consumed we hit the road, enjoying a rolling downhill all the way to Candlebark Track. We reminded ourselves this was the reward for cycling up the range, payback all the sweeter with a beer in our bellies. Now for the fun stuff! Above I mentioned Finn didn’t have much experience with off-road touring? Well, it did take him a little while to get used to the uneven surface but I daresay he was loving it within ten minutes. We were rolling through dry Ironbark forest and during a moment’s pause in the middle of the track we both looked at each other and nodded, it was time to set up camp. By my map, one side of the road was Kinglake National Park, and the other was Mt Robertson State Forest. We dragged the necessary camping supplies fifty meters off the road on the Mt Robertson side and found ourselves a quiet nook for the night. After a quick feed and another beer, we both slid off to sleep without a care in the world.
The next day proved intense. We were up with the sun and rolling towards it in no time. We continued along Candlebark, and in a short while we crossed Boggy Creek and carried the bikes over a horse trap into carless country. I knew nothing of this stretch of the track, except for where it ended. Turns out it is scenic, steep in short bursts and lots of fun. None of the photos will do justice to the feeling of approaching a precipice and waiting to see when the track will appear beneath you. The apprehension of the unknown is squashed in the firm and sometimes troubling realisation that yes, I will be going down that. The trick is to go with it, commit when you have to, get your bum back, let gravity do its thing and ride it out… Before I knew it we were hurtling through the bush and leapfrogging each other all the way to the Melba Highway. I planned this perfectly, I thought to myself, as a few hundred meters after hitting the highway we were heading up Marginal Road into the north-west section of Toolangi.
The couple of minutes we were on the highway we saw half a dozen cars, more people than we would see for the rest of the day. It is actually crazy how close these beautiful forests are to Melbourne and how few people seem to be enjoying them. That will all change when they are declared part of the Great Forest National Park. The largest hurdle to overcome on that path is the reveal. What will happen when all of those people come out to see the national park and see all of the horrendous land management practices VicForests perpetuates? When they see the scale of environmental destruction endorsed by our state government and subsidized by their tax-payer dollars? I am already enraged by the present state of affairs. If I was in the state government I would get them to start repairing the forest now, rather than ramp up the speed, scale and severity of land clearing in a last ditch attempt to keep up with Queensland’s ecocidal agenda. Victoria and the Port of Melbourne may have flourished economically a hundred years ago due to forestry, but that is not the way in the 21st century. We know better.
We made good time grinding uphill. I was really impressed with Finn’s speed, there was none of the usual waiting around for people to catch up I had experienced riding with other friends. I am not sorry to wait, everywhere there is something new to see and I have a great love for these spaces in between places. There’s always something special about time without obligations. I have received feedback that it is rude to leave people struggling on their own, but when climbing I just want to get to the top. On this trip however, I would get to a hill top or a scenic place to stop and Finn would either already be there or pull up within a minute. We were exceptionally well matched for pace and endurance capacity. It meant we got to have our discussions about where to go while we were rolling, which was a great way to eat up distance. We stopped to apply some sunscreen and have a snack at a campsite on the edge of the forest. In the time I’d known him, Finn had not done an adequate job of explaining to me how good he is at photography. He is an apprentice, sure, but his handiwork trumps mine every day of the week. The images accompanying this article were taken by him, except for the one of him anyway. Bright future ahead.
We kept grooving along. It was still only mid-morning and we were approaching the 20-30k mark. Great work for loaded mountain bikes off-road. Spirits were high. I love a good pre-lunch ride. Way back in March or April I spent the better part of a week exploring and enjoying Toolangi by bike and I have been back half a dozen times since, but I have never seen as much in one day as this day. We connected with the top of Spraggs Road, and moved deeper into the forest. These were new tracks to me, but by paying careful attention to the contours we were able to pick the most level connection through towards the Kalatha Giant; an epic tree in the Kalatha valley. We had lunch about halfway, drinking our last Guinness and talking about how far we might make it that day. Finn was happy to push it until a couple of hours before dark, with the vision that we would have some time to relax in the forest before it got dark. Sounded like a good idea to me. Then he said he’d like to be back in Melbourne the next night, that was going to make things a little bit more interesting. I had a route in mind, and much like a GPS when you go past the right freeway exit, my mind was recalculating.
Not too long after lunch we hit KK Link. This track connects the Kalatha and Klondyke valleys, and was spectacular to ride. I was struck by a pang of anger at the end however, as fresh caterpillar tracks revealed the not too distant future of this patch – heavy forest pillaging by iron dinosaur machinery. I enjoyed the first time I made this connection, I felt like a tracker or a secret agent using some investigative intuition. Now it just sinks straight into my core like I’ve swallowed a bowling ball made of lead. Varying reports hit the public media about how many years of timber supply are left for VicForests to extract from the Central Highlands. My understanding is that there’s no more than five years supply, yet still they claim their harvesting is sustainable – but unable to be sustained??? It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so serious. Fundamentally there is a choice, to either let them trash that last piece of pie and turn it into paper or make them leave it there so we can enjoy it forever. Is that even a choice? Daniel Andrews?
We stopped briefly at the Kalatha Giant. I took a roadside map break while Finn investigated the giant old tree. After a thorough review of our options I reasoned if we could get into the Acheron Valley that night we’d have no trouble the next day. That was another 40-50km across mixed terrain. We were flying, but not that high. The afternoon was coming on, Finn wanted time to enjoy camp, my GPS mind was loudly but silently screaming that there was still a lot of ground to cover. Finn repeated one of my adages and we both laughed. You don’t get anywhere standing still. We continued along the easiest contour, taking Hardy Creek up to Track Six. We kept climbing onto the Black Range Link Track, and around this point I began to notice Finn becoming frustrated. The evening had taken over from the afternoon, there was a little bit of icy cold precipitation finding its way through the canopy but I had set my mind. We were getting over the range before we camped.
We rode Link Track, just before reaching the open and previously logged flat ground at the top of the ridge. Link Track was epic. The kind of track an inexperienced 4wd adventurer may have trouble with. Steep and muddy with plenty of ruts and big trees on either side that would have made trying to turn around or overtake impossible. Lots of fun on a bike. Then we hit the Monda section of Toolangi. This is ugly. On one side of the range is the Maroondah Catchment, protected as part of the Yarra Ranges National Park. The glorious section of huge trees and tree ferns you’ve probably driven through, on the Black Spur. Logging does not occur here, at least not as a general rule. You need to get special permission to even walk through most of it, let alone ride, it is protected for the sake of our water supply. But from the top of the ridge heading North the land is called the Toolangi State Forest, and right up to the road that forms the fire break along the top of the ridge Toolangi has been logged. It might surprise some to know that water runs not only along the top of the soil but through it, and through stones and mountains too. Young monoculture ‘forests’ increase the severity of bushfires too, as Lindenmayer and his team demonstrated in a paper they produced after studying the severity of the Black Saturday fires. The point I am trying to raise here is that logging along the Toolangi side of this ridge creates edge effects for the catchment, and raises the risk of it being exposed to hot bushfires. It is 2017, the knowledge is global and undeniable, water is life.
Dear readers, please exhale deeply, inhale, then let out your best victory laugh. Making it to Rouch was all we needed to do that day. It follows a similar kind of line to the old Narbethong Downhill Mountain Bike route, which I have not ridden. Suffice to say Rouch is a pretty steep ride. I would not even bother trying to push my bike up unless I absolutely had to, and even then I’d do my best to invent some other option. Rouch plunges through some of the oldest growth forest I have seen in Toolangi too, it might just be the nicest forest track in Toolangi, and that’s a big call. One thing is definitely true of Rouch, once you are down that way you can rest easy knowing nobody else is going to be coming that way. You could pretty much camp in the middle of the track with no worries, but don’t do that. Huge trees line the track, Mountain Ash, Myrtle Beech, Blackwood and Sassafras, ferns fill the spaces in between and it felt to me like we’d just wandered into Gondwanaland. In a relatively level section of track I stopped and waited for Finn. He took a little longer than usual to catch me this time. I was about to remark on the beauty around me when I saw the look of pure joy in his eyes, instead I offered a high-five and dropped my bike. We were going to camp here. Happy days.
We celebrated in fine form. Hammocks in the rainforest gully. Outside is free. What else do you want? We didn’t talk for a long while, appreciating our surroundings in calm silence while we assembled a fine feast of rice and chilli sin carne. When we did finally get around to words we were both amazed to look at the map of Toolangi and trace our progress. We had been off the map to the north-west this morning, now we were at the south-east corner of the map. Good day, good hustle, good forest, good food, good friends, good camp, great day. We had covered some serious distance, when darkness hit we slept like babies.
I had not spent a night in a hammock for many months, and woke around sunrise curled up in a ball in the middle. It wasn’t uncomfortable, but the comfort I reached stretching out into the hammock that morning sent me back to sleep for another few hours. I was not ungrateful. I woke again close to 11. I apologised profusely to Finn but he only smiled. He had been wandering around taking photos for a couple of hours in this pristine patch of forest, he was not disappointed. We exchanged our mantra for the trip, that you don’t get anywhere by standing still, and the morning ritual began. Bedding was packed while rocket fuel was prepared, breakfast was eaten in silent appreciation of the trees. With hearts full of gratitude for the magnificent forest we began rolling once more.
We rode maybe 500 meters before we had to stop. The view was incredible. We rode another ten and stopped again. The view was better. Giant trees were everywhere. We slid slowly down the valley, taking plenty of photos and pointing at one tree after another. Unfortunately there are planned coupes in this section of forest, although there is no notice as to when their devastation will commence. The rear-wheel of the Polygon Premier Finn was riding had decided being true was optional and it needed a reminder that was not the case. The extreme downhill of Rouch coupled with the rear-heavy panniers had likely exposed the wheel to forces it wasn’t supposed to endure. That’s why I carry a spoke wrench. We fixed the general wheel alignment quickly, and though it wasn’t perfect it was no longer in any danger of jamming on the stays and sending my friend catapulting into the trees.
We rolled across the Maroondah Highway for the briefest moment on our way through to The Acheron. This crossing, which I’ve ridden before, is always a good spot for a chuckle. So many loaded cars passing this point on their way to holidays, do they realise how much fun there is to be had right here? We bomb right off the side of the highway into singletrack, Finn is just as surprised at my direction as the passing cars must be. You can barely see the track until you are on it. The track is fairly straight, slopes slightly downwards and spreads quickly into double track. Without a gradient so steep that you lose control it is easy to go quickly and confidently, so we did.
We smashed it across to the Acheron Valley by early afternoon. In a first for both of us, it was time to ride The Acheron Way. What a pleasurable road. Between the time of riding and writing I have ridden it again, in the opposite direction. Totally amenable to road bikes in spite of being mostly gravel. Finn and I smashed it. The gradient was so gentle, at least compared to some of the forest tracks we had been riding for two days, that we were barely able to tell we were climbing. Maybe the two days of strenuous activity leading up to this activated our push-it modes, maybe we are just that fit. I think we earned it. It was fun. We reached the Acheron Gap and paused to congratulate ourselves. It was all downhill from here. Or so we thought. There was another almost imperceptible climb on the way to Cement Creek, but when the gradient actually flipped there was a perceivable momentum shift and we proceeded to fly down the hill. We played another game of leapfrog, trying to take photos of each other as the bikes ate up the tarmac, but due to their phenomenal speed all we got was blur. I think it sums up the spirit of the day nicely.
Just above Warburton I spotted the O’Shannasey Aqueduct. I signalled to Finn and we started smashing that track in turn. This was fast too. It is basically flat, with a very slight gravity advantage in our favour. It is also exceptionally picturesque and fun to ride, with plenty of replay value. We each took one line of the double track and rode abreast, at pace, all the way to Dee road. No pedals required to get back to the Warburton Highway from there. All we needed to do was spot where the rail trail was. I spotted it through the trees, time for some fungineering. With a break in traffic and no prior warning to Finn I rode at pace at the 30 degree incline on the side of the highway, I dug deep and threw the bike up and onto the appropriate angle, laughing with a hint of insanity as I heard Finn yell out ‘F… That!’ behind me. I had committed and it had paid off, and I pedalled hard to get the bike the rest of the way over the grass onto the trail. I chuckled a little bit as I waited for Finn to catch up. He didn’t have anything further to add but he spent a little while shaking his head at me, I guess he wants a fat bike too.
We rode a short distance of the Warby trail before stopping for food. The Home Hotel was particularly welcoming, cold beers after a long day anyone? We had entered the ravenous stage of cycle touring, the point where you basically cannot eat enough because your body is continually using so much energy. It is an exceptionally great feeling to be operating at this high intensity. It was great to sit and pant and think to ourselves, were we really in Toolangi this morning? That seemed like forever ago. How far had we come? It was another 30 odd kilometres back to Lilydale, would that put us on track for a 100k day? Not quite, but it was pretty considerable nonetheless. After our meals our bellies sagged, and we weren’t quite up to the same pace we’d ended on.
It was getting dark, but that wasn’t a problem, it was expected after the number of hours of daylight that had passed. It wasn’t as if the laws of the universe were going to change for the tiny pair of us. Besides, a month or two prior I had purchased some seriously powerful lights. So powerful, if you held one up on full power next to the sun, you’d rather stare into the sun. Why do I need lights that powerful? Namely so I don’t crash into any wombats. Anyway, super powerful lights meant that darkness was not a problem. What was the problem then? I didn’t want to use my lights, instead opting to train my night eyes. But Finn did want to use my lights, so I let him, and then all I could see was what he could see. This was great when we were riding abreast. When I fell behind however, this became an intense game. The less I could tell what I was riding on the more inclined I was to slow down, and the light got further away. As the light got further away it became more difficult to remember exactly where the corners had started and finished. I dismissed that voice telling me to put my other light on, and instead simply played the game. Before I knew it we were on a train out of Lilydale and it was game over. We were wrecked, but the hustle was complete. Good game. Only it wasn’t quite over. The train only went as far as Camberwell, and they weren’t going to let us on the replacement buses with our bikes. We rode another twenty clicks through the suburbs, arriving at my house somewhere between 1 and 2am on a Sunday morning. By this stage we were sure we had knocked up at least a hundred ks that day. Who knows what the spectre of two hairy men riding loaded mountain bikes across the city at that hour imparted on the revellers in their taxies? We celebrated in appropriate form, with another hearty meal, another beer and a very heavy night’s sleep.
The next morning Finn called our adventure his training ride for New Zealand. That’s where he went the following week. I can’t wait till he’s back so we can do this again, and again, and again…