This was an exciting ride for me for a few reasons. I was heading out riding with John and Liam; a couple of mates who I don’t get to ride with often. These guys are FAST, so I was a little apprehensive going in about the pace.
Usually going in to a big bikepacking mission one of us will draw up a planned route. Its not uncommon for minor details to change on the fly, for example, if we go quicker than planned and have some extra time to kill, if we are behind schedule and have to make up time, we are tired, running low on food and need to get to a town ASAP, want to divert around a hill etc. On this ride however we rolled out with no solid route planned. We knew we wanted to get to Buxton to ride at the mountain bike park there, and try to ride a bunch of single track and mountains on the way. The 3 of us are all strong riders and have a good knowledge of the areas we were heading in to, so with a sense of adventure we rolled out of Melbourne, improvising our way to a couple of good days out on the bike.
John and I met at the Fairfield boathouse at 6.30, rolling out along the singletrack along the Yarra River away from the city. We met up with Liam a few kilometres in and continued to wind our way upstream and out of town. While utilising trains can be helpful to get you further afield for bikepacking trips, there’s something immensely satisfying about leaving your house and completing a mission entirely self propelled.
After 30kms along the river we had a short stint along the road the Warrandyte before picking up the singletrack again briefly through to Pigeonbank Rd and some quiet back roads before jumping into the Smith’s Gully trails and working our way around passed Sugarloaf Reservoir and bombing down the aptly named Breakneck Rd (spoiler alert: its loose and bloody steep) into Yarra Glen for a quick refuel from the service station.
As we time-trialed north to the start of Old Toolangi Rd I fell behind for a bit, beginning to feel the previous week of work heavy in my legs. Turning back onto the gravel John and Liam shot off up the picturesque climb up to the Kinglake plateau. I kept pace for the first half of the climb before the other two pulled away again and we regrouped at the top. We continued on the gravel around the back of Toolangi, passed the Tavern and into the forest along Sylvia Creek Rd and up the back of Mt St Leonard via Tanglefoot singletrack.
Once up on Monda Rd we were undulating along around 1000m and it was quite cool and foggy until we dropped down across Dom Dom Saddle. The thing with crossing a saddle is that by definition it joins two peaks, and so we climbed partway back up to Mt Vinegar before descending down across the oft-ridden Acheron Way, the river of the same name, and onto Feiglins Rd. Feiglins has a reputation, and with good reason. Its a loose gravel surface ascending up Mt Strickland, at a consistently steep grade around 10% for 7km. But the painful thing about the climb is that its not the end. Once it reaches MMBW Boundary Rd you hang a left and continue climbing another brutal 100m of elevation to the Strickland summit. After a moment to regroup and catch our breath at the top we continued on. It was quite cool at the top, not surprising considering we were at over 1000m again. A few rollers and a ripping descent down Paradise Plains Track delivered us into Marysville for an early dinner around 4, before rolling the 12kms across the main road into our destination: Buxton.
By this time the sun was starting to set and the sky was losing light rapidly. We rolled over to the mountain bike park and cut a lap of the trails in the dying sunlight, supplemented with our bar and helmet lights for the second half of the loop. The trails at Buxton are awesome; smooth and flowy, big swoopy berms, a couple of punchy climbs but enjoyable and offering an epic view of The Cathedral peak across the valley at the top, before you begin the final descent back to the trail head.
After our dinner laps we rolled off to find ourselves a quiet spot to roll out the bivies for the night.
The next morning began with an early start. Up with the sun and a second lap of the Buxton trails in the day’s first light before heading into town for a proper breakfast before hitting the road.
Over breakfast we looked over maps and devised a route up into Murrindindi and onto the Black Range. The others had ridden Black Range Rd before, so we were aiming to take that south. I hadn’t ridden in that area at all before and the others hadn’t linked onto it from the east before, so we took a stab and picked a few lines on the map that looked good and would take us in the direction we needed to go.
So it was, we filled our bidons and rolled out westward, back down Dyes Lane past the mountain bike park, up the gentle slopes of Mills Creek Rd before turning on to Ure Rd to climb the 600m up onto the ridge. A fun climb, alternating between false flats and hard pinches and offering great views across to Lake Mountain, Mount Margaret and the Cathedral Ranges to take your mind off the burn of the lactic acid. One of my favourite parts of climbing is watching the environment change around you as you ascend. In this case starting with damp, temperate rainforest in Buxton, giving way briefly to a pine plantation, then hardier mountain ash as the earth grew redder, drier and rockier beneath our tires, and finally as we neared the summit of Mt Mitchell at around 900m; ghostly eucalypts damaged from fire but green with regrowth on their lower branches.
Shortly after beginning the rolling descent down Black Range Rd, we bumped into our good mates Chris, Mike and Gary P climbing up in the opposite direction. We knew they were in the area and were headed to Buxton that day but hadn’t known what route they had chosen to get there. We stopped and chatted, exchanging stories, complaining about the cold of the previous night, discussing their route (as we still hadn’t decided how we would get back to Toolangi exactly) and a couple of mechanical issues Chris had encountered. They had camped off Murrindindi Rd and come across the river and up Spur Rd but didn’t recommend we take that way. We recommended descending Ure Rd into town and they confirmed they’d planned to.
After bidding the other group farewell we continued south, past the Spur Rd turnoff, following Black Range Rd until it petered out into the less-formed Black Range Track, cutting deeper into the forest and instantly becoming wetter, the dirt beneath us more loamy, and the foliage greener. It took a little manoeuvring from Camms Survey Rd, down across the Murrindindi River, climbing back out on Siberia Rd to the familiar Silvia Creek Rd and around the lower slopes of Mt Monda and Mt St Leonard back towards Toolangi. We passed the bottom of Tanglefoot Track which we had climbed the day before, but instead turned further down the hill, detouring around on Cole Creek Rd and then retraced our steps back through town.
We decided to head towards Kinglake and as we proceeded along the main road flip-flopped between options of how to descend off the plateau. Bowden Spur, Bald Spur, some sketchy track Liam vaguely recalled riding once, Everards Track. We settled on Mt Slide Rd which I was excited for. I’d looked at it on maps before but never ridden. Its a smooth gravel road that slowly meanders down into Dixons Creek. It also meant that we were still on the wrong side of a little ridge from home, but that just meant more fun before it was all over. Liam and John, feeling like things had been a little too easy to this point suggested a 3km of hike-a-bike up the steep and rubble-strewn Bundy Track to Mt Everard. I wasn’t going to argue, its been a while since I’ve had a good HAB, its all part of the adventure, even if it was a bit gratuitous!
Once we were up on Everards Track we were on the home stretch. Zig-zagging our way down into Smiths Gully to find the general store was closed. We pushed on to Hurstbridge for lunch before taking the Diamond Creek Trail into Eltham, cut a quick, full-gas lap of the famed Hans’ Loop trails and raced each other back along the Yarra and home.
We parted ways with Liam but not before I could pick his brains a bit about the GDT (Great Dividing Trail) Race. This years edition of the 400km self-supported event is next weekend. Liam set the course record in 2013 at just over 24 hours and came second last year in horrendous conditions in a little more than 26. Thankfully he won’t be racing next weekend and was willing to part a few words of wisdom for me. John and I punched out the last little bit of single track that would deliver me home. John will be on the start line of the GDTR with me next weekend, so I’ll be seeing him soon enough.
All up it was a super fun weekend of riding. The pace driven by John and Liam pushed me, which was challenging yet enjoyable. The amount of singletrack we squeezed into the route kept things really fun, but with over 300km covered and 6000m of climbing over the route we definitely worked hard for it.