Toolangi in the Bush – An overnighter among giants

This story was written by Leon (IG: @holdensdayoff)

Photos by Chris at Pedal Cyclery Preston, model is Murray.

Melbourne is flat and therefore deemed great for cycling. But I propose two problems with Melbourne-flat-Earth-cycle-friendliness theory:

  1. Lack of horizon
  2. General hill climb un-conditioning

Some days you just want to ride up some long hills, so you can ride down the back, and also for the views! A quick overnight jaunt to the Toolangi shared area of the Tungerong and Wurundjeri Nations had our eyes popping, legs appropriately tired and some silly downhill grins that wouldn’t wipe off for days.

How does an overnighter begin? Well, usually it starts around Tuesday, when the previous weekend riding is fresh in the mind and the memories are lingering like the smell of old riding socks as you despondently contemplate the remainder of the non-camping, working week. There’s likely a group forum or a message thread, or if you’re very lucky a few cold ones gathered around a map; a place to cast out the idea of a night in the hills. Then the usual discussion must ensue, a formality of sorts. Who’s in? Who’s out? Who’s got gas (for a stove)? Who’s got a stove? Who wants to carry it? What is for dinner? And, what snacks are on offer?

Overnighters hinge around meals. Don’t be fooled into thinking you’ll impress anyone with lightweight food. Leave those re-hydrated army ration powder things at home, where they belong. This is no place for the faint appetite. It’s just two days of riding, likely half days, and a night. So bring it all. Max load that hamper with utensils and ingredients and soft perishable foods; forego all non-essentials such as spares, tools, warm clothes, sleeping gear and bring all the cast iron cook ware you can get your grubby cycle mitts on.

Next up you’ll want to reduce your actual saddle time considerably by catching a train as far as possible. Hurstbridge is the end of the line for a Toolangi mission. But first you’ll want to check with Metro if they even operate on any given weekend. They were doing track work or having a picnic or something on this chosen Sunday so plan B was deployed.

The trusty Pedal Cyclery van piloted by Chris was able to comfortably slot in four semi loaded bikes and accommodate four people. Hurrah, the car! Hmmm… After the obligatory coffee injection and bike tinker… who does have a multi-tool handy? The most FAQ of any ride, ever. The answer is always: No one, or on some strange astral alignments, everyone. I digress. But the point is, you have to faff about a bit before you leave or you always will forget the most important thing. i.e. coffee, whisky, the pipe, tyre levers. But this is the great thing about overnighters, you can try and fashion these things you forgot, around the fire, or you can wait all of 12 hours and you’ll be home again. So anyway, we were off.

At Hurstbridge it dawned on the four of us, simultaneously (perhaps), that we were in a Van and not the Train – amazing. So we drove on to St. Andrews pub (at the market entrance) to park up and unload. A quick downhill to flat roll through the town and a right onto Buttermans Track and you’re straight into the climbing. Bonza! It’s not at all bad; nice road surface and quiet for traffic, we chit chat away and try to guess the grade of the hill as we head on up to the junction of the Skyline Road and the unsealed stuff. You can download a cue sheet for the entire ride but it is also good, and fun, to have a paper map. There is reception aplenty along the way but Google maps will drive you a bit mad and it is hard, and uncool to read from a phone screen when you are out in the sun.

Chris has been here before so we defer to him. We jink around a gate and behind a property and continue along the deliciously grass paved ridge double track, before bombing out to the north under spectacular views on the Bundy Track for Old King Lake Road and eventually a steady wind up Mount Slide Road. This section will include the Best Gravel Downhill of your Life and perhaps the second Best Downhill of the weekend. The Best is to come tomorrow!

Now you’re into it. Too many downs to even think of going back. Push on. Toolangi is just around the bend. It’s a cute hamlet with magical gardens and a Kiwifruit Winery. What even is that? We can’t tell you because we rode right past it. There is also a primo Discovery Centre in Toolangi and you can go in and catch up with our old mate the Leadbeater’s Possum and co. It is a very interesting building and worth a look. But, if like us, you are well hot and bothered by now, perhaps you have heard the call of the wild… err… the Tavern. We left around 10am and now it was lunch-ish. The Toolangi Tavern has a beautiful sprawling, shady beer garden and good burgers, according to Chris. For the beer snobs they had two local taps; Napoleon Pale Ale and Hargreaves Hills ESB – both fine drops I tells ya.

After Toolangi town we threw the dice on a short cut to link up with the forest and came up with snake eyes. A dead end. What now? With lunchtime sleepiness bearing down on us and wrong-way blues the gang did well to keep up appearances of high spirits before embarking on the actual way, a long pull up into the Mountain Ash en route to the designated Point of Extreme Natural Beauty, the Wirrawilla Rainforest Walk via Sylvia Creek Road.

Here, in the cool cover of the Myrtle, we investigated closely two more ‘short cuts’, did a bit of board walking between ferns, forded the Sylvia Creek, twice, weighed our options and debated what exactly short, steep climbs over 8km meant. How short? How steep? Is 8km short? How far is 8km if you go the 12km way?

Decisions made, we plugged on via Sylvia Creek Road proper in the direction of Murrindindi Road/River/Reserve past Tanglefoot and the turn out for Kalatha Giants. We did not deviate but suggest if your energy levels are up, you should.

The beauty of the out and back overnighter, as opposed to the loop is that any long uphill sections on day one are simply banked as Tomorrow’s Joy. And any long downhills are enjoyed immediately and instantly forgotten about.

Around 5 or 6 pm we crossed the Murrindindi River and then rose up to the Murrindindi Cascades through the Siberia Junction. The Cascades is the point where the Murrindindi Reserve begins and the Murrindindi River Walking track branches off to the East and follows the winding river bank. We stuck on the high road and pinned it down to Bull Creek camping spot, saving the Cascades for tomorrow, our minds were fully occupied with three tasks; find camp, cook burritos and wash in the cool river while the last of the sun was shining.

As Murray will attest one should never settle on the first campsite, so true to form we went on one more, and set up in Fern Camp. This spot on the banks of the river was embarrassingly luxurious, allowing contained fires, a tap of water (source undetermined) and amenities beyond expectations. No dogs allowed, in case you have a basket touring hound. The permits kick off at $3 a night for motorbikes, but no mention for pushbikes. Have a chat to the ranger if you see him or her. We did not. E-bikers, you should pay. But just in general, because you’re not doing it right.

We gathered up wood for a cooking fire – it is permitted here, just read the rules and make sure it is not a day of total fire ban – washed ourselves in the river and made camp. Between the four of us we had a good coverage of light weight camping kits: Lach in a light swag, Chris in his bivvy and Murray and I in small tents. Freshened up, burritos on the go and with not even a sorry drop of tawny or whisky in anyone’s tucker bag, we abandoned the plan to whittle wizard pipes and soon folded up into our respective pads, under a clear sky and emerging star splattered blanket, for one of those rests that only come with tired legs.

Monday began with, of course, coffee and a fry, stirring up the breakfast fire for beans and toast provided by Lach. After we were full and lethargic and a bit of heat had entered the day, we began our haul up and out of yesterday’s sweet roll in. Calling in to the Cascades to dunk our heads and jerseys in the cool stream, freshly conditioned and alert, it dawned how nice it is to double back and take in all those great giant trees that we blasted through late yesterday, too tired to properly appreciate and concentrating too much on potholes and ruts.

From Siberia Junction back to Toolangi Tavern is approximately 15km. A quick lunch and a cold drink in their lush garden and then it is just another 15km climb up the C road to King Lake. There was a bit of traffic on this road but not excessive. Chris suggested we bunch up in a four to make it easier for cars to pass, but as climbing is invariably at your own pace and rhythm this was to remain only a good theory. We settled on two sets of two and giving each other a wheel to follow we were in King Lake in no time. It takes about two hours from Toolangi back to St Andrews with the average significantly bumped up by the final 13km descent. An incredibly scenic snake road winds down to St Andrews and before you know it you are passing Buttermans Track again and you’ll feel slightly sad that it is all but over. But, this here was undoubtedly The Best Downhill of your Life. Until next time.

All in all any difficult riding on this trip is far outweighed by the scenery and the coasting. It is a very accessible ride from Melbourne. Whether you want to train it to Hurstbridge, Greensborough or even ride from Warrandyte or if you have the wheels, car pool to St Andrews, this is a great way to get into the bush, straight out of the city.

On this weekend three of the four bikes were 700c randonneur style tourers and although there was occasional chat about wanting wider rubber in the gravel, there were no spills and no one was, by any stretch, under-gunned. What the big wheel, road oriented bikes lack in the dirt they more than make up for on sealed sections. And the mix of panniers and frame bags had us sporting all the accoutrements required, and some.

This would be the perfect ride to introduce a regular commuter to the wonders of the overnighter, or show your ultra-light bikepacker mate how to max load and bring the kitchen sink. This is definitely achievable on any geared bike. A lovely compromise of accessibility and challenge; water is available along the way and in camp and you’re never too far off the beaten path to be in dire trouble, or even close. There are no excuses. None!

The Earth is not flat Melbourne Randos, it has hills. Go ride ‘em.

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