Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Cycling the Island 2: A Great Eastern Ride

[Great riding along Tasmania's East Coast] 
It’s a shame that the moniker “The Great Ocean Road” was already taken when a Tasmanian committee sat down to choose a name for the route we’ll ride today. The thirty kilometre section of road between Little Swanport and Swansea is literally both great and by the ocean. Arguably it’s one of the most picturesque coastal routes anywhere in the world, and an undoubted highlight of the 176km east coast drive between Orford and St Helens. Sadly our naming committee delivered a camel: the route is now labelled “The Great Eastern Drive”.

[Tim drinks in the views over Great Oyster Bay] 
But that’s the end of today’s sadness, especially when we wake to sunny skies. Most of our gear has dried and we’re refreshed and keen to be riding again. Although we’ll spend most of today’s 55km ride on the busy Tasman Highway, we’ve begun to trust our support vehicle system. Two vehicles, both with bright yellow signs warning “Cyclists Ahead”, are driving behind us. Our other support vehicle, an emission-free Nissan Leaf, is driving ahead of us with a bright yellow sign warning “Cycle Event: Slow Down”.

Today Dion has agreed to drive the campervan so Tim can ride the whole section. It’s a generous gesture, and sets a pattern for later days. We take our time getting ready, as our day is short and the first recharge/lunch stop is only a little over 20km away. Once we’re riding, we spread out along the relatively flat section north of Triabunna, cycling with only mild effort past paddocks filled with spring lambs. Riding single file on the busy road keeps conversation minimal. But I’m feeling very upbeat, and have the perfect head tune in Runrig’s “May Morning”.

“I’m alive again on a May morning” it starts. And though I know it isn’t May, it is the southern hemisphere’s equivalent that we’re riding through.

All the yearning buds are here again
With the the promise of a new life to come
Spring is here again.

Each rider has something different in his or her head. I chuckle as I hear Michael bleating a greeting to the occasional sheep. Others are keeping an eye on the following traffic, or seeing if they can keep the whole group in sight. (They seldom can.)

[Lunchtime at Gumleaves] 
We’re early for lunch at Gumleaves, a nicely old-fashioned accommodation-come-adventure centre a few kilometres off the highway. We’ve booked a kitchen/dining hall, and some of our support team (kudos here to Clive and Sue) have bought food to cook and share. A leisurely lunch suits the recharging of batteries, even if some of us haven’t yet used much. Neville, our oldest rider at 87, has some visitors here. As well as being sprightly in the saddle, he’s an amazingly handy inventor, having made his own e-bike, complete with two bespoke batteries. He takes time over lunch to explain the details, although some eyes glaze over when words like amp hours, watts and watt hours start to be thrown about.

[Neville rides out of Gumleaves] 
By the time we’re riding again the day is sunny and warm, the wide blue sky wisped with high cirrus. Around Lisdillon we start to gain broad views across Great Oyster Bay and out towards the Freycinet Peninsula. It’s hard not to be mesmerised by the scene. 

[Photo stop after Mayfield Beach] 
At one point I call out to the riders nearest me, and arrange to stop for photographs. We end up doing this several times as beach gives way to beach: Lisdillon, Mayfield, Kelvedon, Spiky. All the while the water, the mountains, the sky form a backdrop that’s a rhapsody in blue.

[Dawdling towards Swansea] 
We Tasmanians are blessed with a variable climate. Or to put it another way, this place will not always produce these stunning views. We exult in it while we can, breathing in the blue as we dawdle towards Swansea.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Cycling the Island 1: Hobart to Triabunna

We travel, in essence, to become young fools again - to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more. Pico Iyer
I had wondered: would last year’s long journey on foot, 2 weeks and 250km across Portugal and Spain, sate my love for journeying? The answer came swiftly when I was offered the chance to join a small group riding 380km across my own island state of Tasmania. Of course I would go.

[Riders heading towards Tasmania's East Coast] 
The excuse, if any was needed, was provided by an electric vehicles conference being held in Devonport. The organisers thought an apt prelude to the conference would be an e-bike ride from Hobart to Devonport. Lynne and I had recently purchased e-bikes, and our friend Tim had soon followed suit. And it was Tim who invited us both to come on the ride. That sometimes ugly four-letter word – work – precluded Lynne from coming. But I agreed to join Tim, and we soon commenced rigorous training. Actually we just did a couple of relatively short rides, more to acquaint ourselves with our bikes’ abilities than to tone any cycling muscles.

[Our planned route from Hobart to Devonport] 
For those not familiar with the workings of e-bikes, it’s important to say that they are definitely NOT motor bikes. While they vary one from another, most e-bikes have a small battery-powered motor that is only activated when you pedal (variously called pedelec or pedal-assist). To get anywhere you still have to pedal, and sweat, and occasionally strain. That said, there’s a fair chance that you’ll do so with a smile on your face.

[Riders ready to leave Hobart] 
Our chief organiser, Jack, has arranged a public send-off from Mawson Place in Hobart. On a showery, cool and windy spring day, watched by a small entourage of supporters and media, we are sent on our way by Hobart’s Lord Mayor, Sue Hickey. With a degree of panache, she chooses to snip the ribbon with scissors while riding her own electric tricycle, as though she’s never been cautioned about running with scissors.

[Mayor Sue Hickey on her e-trike about to send us off] 
 Our route will avoid major highways where possible, but the very busy Tasman Bridge is our only viable way across the Derwent. With a police escort, a first for most of us, we quickly ease our way to the eastern shore. While Hobart is a small city, it pretends to greater bulk via its suburban sprawl. Thankfully most of that runs to the north, and our eastern trajectory soon gets us to the urban fringe at Cambridge.

Here the fields may be starting to fill with warehouses – and real houses – but the sky is wide and it feels as though the ride has really begun. Instead of contending with traffic, we take on the weather, which is blustery and showery, especially crossing the causeways to Midway Point and Sorell. At the latter we stop for two of the practicalities that will become our constants: topping up our batteries and having morning coffee. 

["Spaghetti Junction" at the Sorell recharging] 
We then take a winding gravel road between Sorell and Buckland via Nugent. This is often a drier part of Tasmania, but this spring it is green and pleasant, the fields close to lush, the forested hills blushing with fresh growth. It’s not hard to love our island given the chance to see, smell and hear it so intimately. And we’re more relaxed on the quieter route, sometimes travelling two or three abreast, and getting to know each other in the process.

[A rest stop on the Nugent Road] 
But the Nugent Road ride also tests us, as we have to climb to more than 300m before the descent to Buckland. The good news is we have a tail wind to add to our motors, and that makes the hills more manageable. The bad news is that the showers are increasing, and occasionally we’re getting hammered by hail. The convoy spreads out and sociable chatter declines. Now we’re Brown’s cows more than a peloton.

Near the top Tim, in his campervan/support vehicle, decides to pull over and boil up a fortifying brew. Refreshed and regrouped, we set off for the mostly downhill run to our lunch/recharge at the Buckland Roadhouse. Gravity and hunger get us there, and after our hard riding, we have no qualms about devouring plenty of hot, high-fat food.

But I do have conscience on another front, and invite Tim to have a ride after lunch, while I take a turn driving the campervan. It proves an inadvertently shrewd move on my part, as the weather deteriorates further on the afternoon run into Triabunna. Showers turn to rain, and Tim and co. get a good soaking before the convoy turns off into the Triabunna Caravan Park. Still it’s been a good 85km ride, and even if we’re wet, we can be pleased with our day 1 achievements. Once we’re dry and fed, we’ll sleep the sleep of the righteous.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Back to the Arthur Range 3: R is for …

Our weather forecast is dubious. We knew that before we left home; we’ve confirmed it via mobile phone from near Mt Hesperus; we feel it afresh overnight. Strong wind gusts thump against our tents, even here in the sheltered campsite beside Lake Oberon. Mick’s tarp set-up has struggled in the conditions, and even though it hasn’t rained much, some of his gear is wet.

So we make day 4 a rest day. This is partly out of the sheer need for a break, and partly to give us time to decide our next move. There’s a point-of-no-return up ahead at High Moor. If we go that far, we’re committed to the rest of the whole rugged range, and then the long walk back along the plains.

Our guide book says it’s 5-7 hours from here to High Moor, but in this weather, and after yesterday’s snail’s pace, we know we’ll take a lot longer. I’ve been to the moor before, and the main issue is its lack of shelter. I’m dubious about spending a night there in the forecast gale-force wind and heavy rain, let alone tackling the rest of the range in those conditions.

Meanwhile the tents are warm and comfortable, and after a brief conference, we’re soon snoozing again. But when the sky brightens a little, I toss off my sleeping bag, along with my lethargy, and do a circuit of the large basin that holds Lake Oberon. The wind is still strong enough to knock me off my feet, but the clouds have lifted, revealing the enormous crags that surround the site.

[Quartzite crags looming over Lake Oberon] 
Most photographs of Lake Oberon ooze tranquility, but in reality it’s a wild and restless type of tranquility. The small lake sees waves often enough to pound the tough quartzite into sand. And around it the sodden, stunted, contorted vegetation speaks of roaring winds, vicious downdrafts and frequent rain.

In my Parks and Wildlife days I remember speaking with some Japanese tourists who had one day spare in their itinerary. This was in Hobart, and they pointed to Peter Dombrovskis’ poster image of Lake Oberon, and said “so we will walk there”. When I told them it was not possible in one day, their look said that I didn’t know what I was talking about. How could such a beautiful place not be easily reached!?

Now, as a fresh gust hits and I turn back to the relative shelter of my tent, I ponder how that couple would feel if they were here now. The gap between romance and reality is often very stark in Tassie’s south-west wilderness. It’s with that stark reality in mind that I once again raise with Mick and Eden the question of where to next.

[Pencil pine and pandani shelter near Lake Oberon] 
As we struggle to keep our dinner from blowing off our plates, Mick begs a place for the night in Eden’s roomy tent. Quickly, though not without some agony, we realise we’re going to turn around. Tomorrow’s weather will be like today’s: blustery, showery and generally tough. But it’s what’s following these strong nor-westerlies that’s got us more concerned. South-westerly winds of gale force and pelting rain are said to be coming. We can either face that on the highest, roughest, most unprotected section of the range, or have it blow us back the way we came. We choose the latter.

So day 5 sees us packing up and leaving Oberon’s ominous beauty behind us. There’s a mixture of relief and disappointment, but we console ourselves that the Arthurs are not going anywhere in a hurry. Some of us will be back. More immediately our apprehension returns, as we have the steep, slippery climbing gully out of Oberon to negotiate, and then plenty more hard walking before we’re back at Lake Cygnus. The wind continues its brutal barrage, with pellets of rain sometimes added into the mix. But by now we’re walking fit, and we get up the gully without incident. We eventually reach Cygnus by mid-afternoon.

[Mick approaches Lake Cygnus] 
As we’re planning an early escape the next morning, we dry as much gear as we can, and eat an early dinner. Mick puts up his tarp as a shelter for us, but chooses again to bunk in with Eden. He's nestled his tent up against a couple of low-growing myrtles with delightful fresh gold and bronze foliage, which he's decorated with drying clothes. I can't resist dubbing it “The Garden of Eden”.

Mick’s decision will save packing time in the morning, and keep the rest of his gear dry if the heavier rain comes early. It doesn’t, but the wind does. About 3am I’m woken by a loud, persistent flapping. Mick’s tarp has come free. I stumble out into bright moonlight, surprised out of my grumpiness by its beauty. Once I get its guys untangled, I roughly fold the tarp and stuff it in their tent vestibule. I resist adding the loud expletives that are top of mind. I figure the patience they’ve shown the oldest party member deserves at least that much.

[Downtime at Lake Cygnus] 
Before 6am we’re up and about, anxious to get off the range before the deluge hits. The sky is a heavy, dark grey, and the wind is strong, but we stay dry for the pack up and ascent back towards Mt Hesperus. Around then our luck ends, and the wild murk unleashes on us. Rain squalls lash us and the wind causes us to stumble drunkenly.

[Mick and Eden between a rock and a hard place] 
For several more hours we walk on, barely stopping because its so miserable. The rain is now constant and horizontal. I’ve been wearing a new rain-jacket, and for five and half days it has kept me dry. Not any more. Water is now blown down my neck, up my sleeves, under my hood, through any gap it can find. We’re all so thoroughly soaked that even our sandwiches – hurriedly scoffed at Junction Creek – are sodden to the consistency of milky Weetbix.

We barely notice how wet the crossing of that creek is. After it I put my head down, slosh through the freshly-reinforced mud, and will the carpark to come. Of course it doesn’t. Tracks don’t shrink in the rain; if anything they expand. This day is surely one of the most miserable I’ve ever spent bushwalking. It takes us nine hours to get from Lake Cygnus to the Huon Campground, seven of them in solid, horizontal rain and gale force winds.

Only as we get towards the end does the rain let up, as though it’s now done with us. A couple of times my hopes are raised as I think I recognise the end of the track. But I should know that a cardinal law of bushwalking is that false hopes must be dashed. It’s another 40 brutal minutes before we stumble up the final forested bit of track and into the carpark. I hear a loud voice screaming “YEESSSS!” and am slightly surprised to find that it’s my own. Mick staggers up behind me mouthing something about the Arthurs having chewed us up and spat us out. At best it’s been a retreat, more likely a rain-soaked rout. But for now we’re happy to feel that R is for relief!