Its 3:30am. I’m wide awake despite the fact my alarm isn’t due to go off for another half hour.
I could use the extra sleep, so I pull the sheets up over my head, but the mix of apprehension and excitement that I’m feeling are sure signs I won’t be able to drift back off. I stare at the roof for another 15 minutes before getting up.
I need to fill my my stomach for the day ahead but can’t stomach more than a few bites of my breakfast. I down a coffee. I stare blankly at a few items of food, clothing and gear. A few pieces that I still haven’t decided if they’re worth carrying for close to a thousand kilometres. Will I use them? Is it worth it? None of them make the cut, they’re only extra weight and I’m confident in my original assessment of what I’m going to really need.
5:45. A seemingly arbitrary street corner. Another cyclist appears down the road. Bags strapped to his frame, bars, and seatpost. I now know I’m in the right place. More and more riders materialise over the coming minutes until there is, eventually, around 30 cyclists milling around. A few photos are snapped and names exchanged. My watch shows 6:00, we should be rolling, yet no one makes a move.
Over the coming days of riding, I know I won’t see many towns. Which means, it is paramount to hit the few that I will pass through while their services are open. I have a couple of goals for the next few days to help set me up to make that happen. Cover the 167km to Cabramurra before 8pm tonight to make dinner at the pub, and knock off the proceeding 226km into Omeo by the end of the following day’s riding. I don’t know much about the riding I’ll be doing over the next two days except that they will undoubtedly be slow, hard kilometres. I’m even more unsure if either of my goals are achievable. What I do know is that its now 6:07 and I’m really hoping that lost time doesn’t cost me dinner.
Finally someone decides its time to go and the riders swarm onto Canberra’s quiet streets. Looking down at the small screen on my handlebars I can see the purple line that represents the route I will be following for the coming thousand kilometres, but rather than guessing how that line corresponds to the real world of streets and bike paths in front of me, I settle into the back of the group and let the riders ahead worry about that for now.
I find some familiar faces in the bunch and sidle up next to them for a chat. Cruising along, the pace is easy, there’s surely some long days in front of us, and seemingly no one is willing to exert more energy than they have to this early on. I look up the ranks and most other riders are engaged in conversation too.
Turning off a bike path onto Cotter Rd, suddenly the mountains are looming over us. Mt Stromlo is on our right, but we needn’t worry ourselves with that beast today. Across the dam wall the road gradually starts pointing upwards, into the hills and the riders start stringing out as we all settle into our own pace to climb.
We turn onto Brindabella Rd, the name-sake of the mountain range we are ascending. We’ll be pointing upward for a while now. A little way along the road turns from sealed tarmac to dirt, signalling that we are leaving civilisation behind and the ride is now well and truly underway.
Turning off Brindabella Rd, road condition deteriorated to 4wd track level. Double-track winding its way off in front of us. We’d made good time over the 70 odd kilometres to here, but I knew this would slow our progress. Following the track along we ploughed through a couple of shallow creek crossings, stopping at the second to fill our water bottles. I dropped a purification tab in each bottle and was ready to roll again, when Mike announced he’d “burped” his tyre on a submerged rock. An easy fix, and a good opportunity for a break. Enjoying the company and not wanting to take off on my own so early in, I waited with everyone else. 7 riders in total regrouped while Mike stuffed a new tube into the tire. As far as we knew there were no riders in front of us and we must have been setting a solid pace because no other riders caught us while the mechanical was repaired. A few more pinchy climbs and we crest the top of Broken Cart Track and enjoy a brief descent into the high Alpine meadows of Long Plain. Long Plain Rd treats us to some fast and flat riding. The smooth gravel crunches beneath our tires but its easy going compared to the last few hours of climbing.
Transmission lines stretch across the plains, carrying power from the Snowy Hydro back to civilisation. Its a bit of a shame really, a sign of modern technology standing high over an otherwise almost untouched environment.
Its over 30km to traverse the plain and we jest among ourselves that the area lives up to its name. Not long after 1pm we pass Cooinbill Hut, where we know a lot of riders are planning to spend the night. Its close to 120km of hard riding and steady climbing to get here, but with plenty of sunlight left in the day, only one of our group, Ollie, decides to pull up and wait for some friends who are riding behind. The other 6 (Ty, John, Dave, Mike, Gareth and myself) of us press on. Just before we hit the Snowy Mountains Highway we cross a small creek that feeds into the Murrumbidgee River. We stop to fill our bottles again and wash the dirt off our faces and legs.
Refreshed from the water, we hit the Snowy Mountains Highway flying, Ty and I chatting as we rode, not realising that the other 4 riders with us quickly slipped out of view behind us. We shortly arrived at the ghost-town of Kiandra. Once home to over 15,000 people during a gold rush after the precious metal was discovered in the area in 1859, today only 4 buildings remain standing along with several ruins, a slew of mining equipment and abandoned diggings.
From here we turned off the highway, starting a short, sealed climb up past the Mt Selwyn ski fields, before turning off onto a gravel road to finish the ascent to Cabramurra, the highest permanently-inhabited town in Australia at 1488m above sea level. John catches up to Ty and I just before we hit town. Its 5:45, still 15 minutes before dinner at the bistro even opens, I needn’t have worried this morning afterall. I purchase 2 cokes and 2 bags of chips from the bar, quickly polishing off one of each, the second can is dumped into one of my water bottles and the second bag of chips is ceremoniously opened, crushed and then jammed into whatever vacant space I can find in my frame bag.
The other riders show up one by one. Gareth reporting to have taken sick and surrendering most of his lunch on the final climb into town. We all order dinner and make quick work of it, except for Gareth who can’t get anything down. He’s usually an extremely strong rider, doing well for himself in this years Tour Divide. But being unable to to get in fuel will spell trouble for even the strongest of riders.
I’m ready to roll and everyone else is still finishing off their dinner or making final preparations to leave. I’m acutely aware that we are running out of sunlight and want to make it as far as possible tonight to make the push into Omeo possible tomorrow. Ty announces he too is ready and we decide to push on together without the others, in order to cover as much ground as possible.
A short roll along the sealed Tooma Rd, before the turn off onto Round Mountain Firetrail. Welcome to the Jagungal. Another high alpine plain, named after Mt Jagungal to which it is home, this wilderness area sits at around 1700m and stretches across to Mount Kosciusko, Australia’s highest peak, looming in the distance. It is utterly pristine except for the couple of double-track firetrails that cut through it, and the several alpine huts dotting the landscape for adventurers to seek refuge in. Spaced around 10-15km apart, Ty and I are aiming to make one of these huts home for the night.
The turn off to the first of these huts – Round Mountain Hut – is only 2 km down the trail. As we proceed Ty recalls staying at Round Mountain on a previous trip and a steep descent down to the hut which will require us to push our bikes back up in the morning. The sun is setting but the prospect of the climb out tomorrow is enough motivation to push on to Derschko’s Hut, 13km away.
Its slow going along Round Mountain Fire Trail. The trail is overgrown with short, lumpy, native grass which jolts you around and inhibits even pedalling. The sky turns all shades of pink and purple over the plain that stretches away in front of us before rising up at the foot of Mt Jagungal. We stop to snap a few photos and turn our lights on. Our last hour and half of riding is lit artificially and by the time we reach Dershko’s Hut the last of the sun’s light has left the sky and been replaced with an inky blackness.
Its cold by now, can’t be warmer than about 5 degrees. We’ve been talking for the last hour about getting a fire going as soon was we arrive, but stepping inside the hut we realise there is no need. A modern hut, it is extremely well insulated and must be at least 10 degrees warmer inside. We both make short work of setting up our sleeping bags and inflating our pads while I boil some water to make second dinner. A small serving of couscous, but well deserved I think, after a 17 hour, 200km day in the saddle. Sleep comes quickly.