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Climbs, cars and a rail trail: South Gippsland on a Mercury

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Early in December I set out with a companion on a tour of South Gippsland - well, a narrow slice of that region in southern Victoria, Australia, that we traversed over six days. This was my first tour on the Thorn Mercury 650b that I bought in July, my first tour in about 15 years, and my second tour with Pete, who had accompanied me on that previous tour, a nine-day trip through the south-west of Western Australia. Pete took the same bike he used then: a Norco mountain bike with a suspension front fork and an aluminium frame that looked all but bombproof. Like me, Pete had done no touring since. However unlike me he had done lots of riding, in regular weekend outings on road bikes with others.

Here is Pete's bike as loaded on Day 3 of the trip:

And here is mine at the same point. If you're wondering how I got away with taking so little luggage, that is partly because I brought compact gear that would barely squeeze into the bags, and partly because Pete carried my mattress and enclosing blue tarp:

This would be, as Pete put it, a calibration ride. We wanted to find out what we could do and how best to do it. My choice of two small front bags and one small rear bag is one I will revise for future trips of this kind, on which we carried tents and a camp stove. My thought was to put the light stuff in the front and the heavy stuff in the rear. As it turned out I didn't have enough rear volume to make that work, and ended up with about 4kg in each bag for a total of 12kg, eight of them at the front. The Mercury ST fork was easily up to handling that, but it made the low-speed steering needlessly heavy. Pete ended up with 16kg distributed across his four bags.

We trained from central Melbourne out to Yarragon, a small town about 150km south-east of Melbourne on the Princes Highway, which runs through Gippsland and then along Australia's east coast. Within a few kilometers of our Day 1 route south to Leongatha, we were heavily into a 10km climb averaging about 5 per cent. Which required consistently low gears but rewarded us with extensive views.

At an early rest stop looking back at the lowlands where we had come from:

The road ahead kept going up:

And Pete, who was climbing much more speedily than I, got a glare or two from the locals:

Next: more from Day 1, and the Great Southen Rail Trail (Day 2).

John Saxby:
Great stuff!  Love those narrow hillside roads.  I've not done any touring in 'Straya, but on visits to our son and his family in the Gold Coast, I've managed quite a few day rides in the QLD/NSW border ranges.

A suggestion on lightweight rear panniers for your future touring:  I've had a pair of Arkel Dry-lites for several years now.  They weight about 540 gms, give you 28 ltrs total, and are waterproof, durable and easy to use. Here's the link:

Can't see the lower hookup point on your rack, but the photo in the link shows the elasticated hook that the Dry-lites use. The upper fastenings across the rack are wide velcro straps,easily adjustable, and very secure once set.  The plot is held in place by tension created by the elasticated hooks.

I put my denser items in the Dry-lites (food, cookware, etc.) and the bulkier, less-dense items (clothes and sleeping stuff) in my larger panniers on the front rack.

Look forward to the next instalment/s! (Serious envy here: ice, freezing rain, and godknowswhat, to be followed by rain & 13 degrees tomorrow. Only stationary-trainer riding for me.)

Cheers,  John

And a PS, nudged by Andre's comment:  great action shot of the koala!

Andre Jute:
Super report, Moronic, and meaningful photos showing the hills and the valleys they rise from. Not to mention the little koala which, from the scars on its face, must be a dominant male.

Thanks for the encouragement, gents.  :)

We had looked pretty carefully at this Day 1 route, concerned that the climbs might require more than we had and therefore scrutinising grade profiles with Google Maps. There were longer and shorter alternatives, and some that seemed to run mainly flat across the top of the range while others rolled up and down. Nevertheless you could only get a sense of the topography. We reached the top of the climb and gratefully settled in to what we believed would be a gently undulating plateau and then a long descent to a major country road that we would spend about 5km on before we reached Leongatha.

However, the most direct route across the range looked more undulating than a longer alternative, which would transfer us via a gravel link to the appealingly if ominously titled Grand Ridge Road. We believed the gravel link would run for 2km and would be flat. Almost immediately however we headed down through a series of S turns until we reached another climb. This climb felt very unwelcome. Surely, however, it would be brief. I recall deciding that the corner I could see in the near distance would reveal the summit. What it revealed instead was a steepening grade and then, attached to a tree near a farmgate, a large privately produced sign that read (as I recall it now) Wurth's Hill. The sign did not, unfortunately, mark the top of the hill; rather it marked perhaps the foot of the brow. On the plus side there was very little motor traffic. I was convinced by now that I had done very well to specify my Mercury with 37/19 sprockets and a bottom gear in the high 14 inches.

The Grand Ridge Road was just about worth the effort. Some of it was like this, and while a lot of it had fabulous views either side the experience of riding our section of it is captured pretty well in this shot:

Except that a fair bit of it was downhill. There was a superb descent through a series of bends that could be taken wihout slowing on the Mercury but only if you judged them well and entered with courage. Even front loaded the bike steered beautifully through here, the big tyres offering reserves of grip approaching that available from a motorcycle. More, the elevation was exposed to the left, so that you could enjoy the curves with half an eye on magnificent greenery stretching to the horizon. Naturally, I was having way too much fun to stop for a photo.

All good things must come to an end, and so eventually we found ourselves attacking major rollers and approaching the highway. Time for a rest before the final push. We were pretty bushed by now.

The highway - not even a very big highway - was a rude reacquainting with the world of others after 55km in what had been largely a traffic-free bubble. Climbs often had me down near walking pace, where I was unstable enough that I worried I would steer for balance into the side of an overtaking car or truck that had cut things fine. At points there was no shoulder and a succession of oncoming vehicles, so that motor traffic arriving at my rear mudguard had no choice but to run me down or wait. There was even a case of horn honking and verbal abuse - not every motorist in Australia believes that cyclists have a place on proper roads.

We were relieved to reach our hotel, booked only that afternoon, to carry the bikes and luggage up to our rooms, to shower, to descend for a schooner or two of beer and an acceptable pub casserole, and then to retire. I was between sheets at 8:15pm, and must have been asleep by 8:16. We were weary but far from exhausted - we hadn't begun to ride until 11am and we were at the pub by 5. Drifting off over that minute or so felt fantastic.

I've taken some pains to describe the first day because it was arguably the most varied and also the toughest of the trip. I am also aware that 60km is less than 40 miles, and I imagine that for some of you a succesion of 35 mile days barely deserves to be described as a tour. I like this sort of tour, though. It's not about setting records and it's not all about time in the saddle. It's about seeing places from a different perspective, and about having time at either end of the day - and indeed on breaks along the way - to take things restfully. Besides, I am still not very strong and so these distances were about as much as I needed.

Leongatha is a dairy town at the foot of the Strzelecki Range that we had crossed from Yarragon, and the biggest in the district. Although it is no longer reachable by rail, it marks the start of a 75km route south known as the Great Southern Rail Trail. We had elected to ride just the 60km to Toora, in part because we would be retracing some of it the following day, and in part because we'd been told that the coastal town at the end of the trail, Port Welshpool, had been hosting a plague of sandflies. I'm not sure how much these insects prevail in the northern hemisphere. They are the size of a pinhead and you can't feel them bite. They are very keen on sampling exposed ankles. You find yourself motivated to scratch at an ankle, and you discover soon afterwards that your ankle has been tattooed with a sleeve of bites. Untreated, the bites itch for a fortnight. So we were cautious and thought tiny Toora would be close enough to the coast.

After the motor traffic heading into town we were looking forward to the rail trail. Nevertheless we underestimated just how good it would be.

The surface was uniformly hard and smooth, topped with only a sprinkling of fine gravel. Much of it was protected by vegetation from winds, but there were plenty of scenic sections nonetheless.

Trains evidently can climb quite steep grades, but it made an enormous difference that no matter how slowly I might tackle an extended climb, there were no articulated lorries that I might veer unsteadily into. The roadside vegetation also provided shade. And from Leongatha towns spaced 10km apart gave us opportunities for sightseeing and fuel top-ups.

There was an excellent cafe at Koonwarra that served lemon tart made on the premises:

And several at Meeniyan:

There were handy rest stops here and there, some including picnic tables:

And then near the summit of a climb that must have made small steam locomotives puff more than we did, this:

And even here I've captured only a segment of the panorama:

Toora arrived almost too soon, and there we set up tents in a tourist park:

Walked in to town for a beer and some shopping:

And returned with a fine bottle of white to cook on our camping stove a chilli dahl, served with middle eastern bread, yoghurt and mango chutney, at a barbecue nook that we had to ourselves. Many fine tales were told, a nip or two of very fine rum followed the wine, and we retired late feeling extremely pleased with ourselves.

Next: Day 3. Sometimes it's all about the destination.  ;D


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