The rabbit proof fence has been up for eighteen months. Stopping anyone with wanderlust from leaving their homes. I scoffed when told I’d be at home for so long due to some form of flu. Accused them of being negative, wowsers and worse but history now tells us that the island of Australia closed its border and then the State Premiers turned on each other in a bid to show who was the toughest. All I know is my world shrank dramatically. As this Summer has approached and double vaxxed numbers grew I could see opportunity to escape. Last week I escaped.
The furthest working train line from my house is Swan Hill on the border to N.S.W. I get a ticket, oil the chain on my ‘donkey’ and check I’ve got a mask in my pocket. Under the cover of darkness I slink out, pulling the door closed behind me and head to Southern Cross station and the early train to freedom. The trains are the only way to get my bike out into the country as our regional buses won’t take them.
Anyway it’s all fine, with my sturdy Lynesky bicycle secured in the guards van alongside some fella’s commuter bike. I try to get a conversation going with the other bike owner. He is vague and skittish, his eyes dart here and there. Even if I press him he’ll never tell me where he buried the body. I settle into my seat, forget about the murderer in our midst. I’m just happy to watch the city disappear and the sun slowly rise, I’ve escaped.
The Great Dividing Range is a real line in the sand as far as the weather in Victoria goes. As the train climbs the small flinty hills around Castlemaine the forest closes in and becomes colder. Within minutes of cresting the top the fields open up the grasses turn straw colour and the sun has an immediate bite to it. I know I’ve arrived in the country when a plume of dust arcs across a dusty paddock. A Ute bounces across rough ground with the silhouette of his cattle dog leaning into the wind and barking at anything and everything.
Suddenly their is a crackle on the trains speaker. “The buffet car is closing and we will soon arrive at Swan Hill” I turn to see the Murray river come alongside the track and a tired looking paddle steamer, “Gem” moored against the bank. I gather my bag and wheel my bike out of the station. The glare catches my city eyes by surprise and my eyes squint to adjust. I wave away my first fly.
“Gday” says someone I’ve never seen in my life. It catches me by surprise. “Gday” I reply a little late. You forget the country hospitality, the camaraderie of being trapped out here far from anywhere. Unlike the city where everyone is looking some place else rather than making eye contact. I like it but I don’t live with it. I weave my way around town till I’m familiar with the towns layout and have found my hotel. I get a warm welcome they’ve had no customers for 18 months.
The best pub in town is right next door. Done up whilst no one was here for those eighteen months it is slick by country standards. I’ve picked well because the place is bustling with locals and it’s a Monday night. There must be 60-70 punters seated in this big room and they are all leaning over chicken parmigiana. I can imagine their eyes glancing the menu, generous serve, good value and goes well with a cold beer. I joined them. Actually I don’t know if that was what I ordered, I think they were just handing them to everyone. And there were no complaints. Two icy pots of beer and I swayed back to my room determined to ride it all off in the morning.
I hugged the Murray river the next morning after crossing into NSW. Straight narrow bitumen turned to windy soft sand just far enough from the river to tease. Everywhere farmers had pipes sucking water from the river. Irrigation is king around these parts. I turned a corner to find paddy fields as far as my eyes could see. Iridescent shoots of rice peeking above the water.
Is this really viable and the best use of our waterways in such a dry climate ? I stopped to take it all in. Immediately I was set upon by a million blood starved mosquitoes. I scratched with one hand whilst steering with the other all the way to Barham.
My thoughts on small towns is confirmed the next morning at the local cafe. Everyone sitting there was at the nearby pub last night just not singing so loud this morning and looking rather sheepish. I am about to leave my motel when the owner asks which way I’m going. “Hard along the river” I reply. “Not sure you’ll get through due to recent rains.” I don’t want to double back when I have 100 kms to cover. “I was the local postman for 11 years.” He boasts. “Head towards Denny” he thinks aloud as he closes his eyes. “Just before you cross any bridges turn right. It’s dirt… is that ok ? Goes for 22 kms but lovely country. Turn right again when you come to Jungle lane. After that just follow your nose into Echuca” he gasps as his eyes reopened. He had revisited his postal route in his head. As I rode following his directions. A smile washed over me as I found each of his landmarks. Remember my directional sense is rubbish so all the better.
The other highlight of my day came half way along that same dirt. A Ute was suddenly beside me. I was far off in my head just me and the quiet morning. The driver leans over “Are you lost ?” “No” I reply to his amazement. He turns off the ute’s engine. “The old postie told me about this road.” A puzzled shake of his head, “my place is the rice you’ve just passed.” He then tells me he came to Melbourne to ride the Around the Bay in a Day two years ago. “Tried a triathlon as well” he blurts. “Put myself in the intermediate level.” “They left me for dead in the swim and I never recovered.” “More training needed” he seemed to say to himself as he restarted the ute. Just as he took off he turned again with one last question “ever ridden in Europe ?” “Yep” I replied. The engine was turned off again. I was starting to shake with silent laughter. So confident was he that no one would come long and he up for a chat. This is why I travel I thought as I pushed on. Around the next bend a bloody great goanna shot up a tree, both of us equally scared by the encounter.
I’m almost into Echuca when I spot a historical board celebrating the last bare knuckle championship fight held in Australia in 1879. Victoria had outlawed the sport but it was still active in NSW. A special train brought 700 spectators from Melbourne. The local police were sent upstream whilst the fight happened further downstream. The one sided fight went for 16 rounds with the NSW winner, Larry Foley taking the £200 purse. I try to visualise 700 fans trudging through the bush swatting flies, baying for blood and avoiding the local police. 142 years on, the local empty bush is giving me nothing.
Big day today so when I find myself bouncing about on a few hours of rough gravel I fear my day will finish late. This section of river has large billabongs full of water and wildlife. A kangaroo bursts out of the bush and my steering takes a quick wobble. Clouds of colourful parrots, budgerigars and rosellas swoop. A welcome change from the noisy corellas, galahs and cockatoos.
I’m finally spat out into the bitumen and with it exposure to a persistent side-wind building up as the country turns to stone fruit, citrus and almonds. The farms are monstrous, a new almond farm has a dam the size of a small country. As far as the eye can see in each direction, one year old trees individually staked and irrigated, the financial outlay must be huge.
When I need a break and to understand this area I find 75 year old Rob Brown digging a post hole to put in a small gate. Rob’s glad for the chat and a chance to catch his raspy breathe. A Vietnam veteran he is well aware of the chemical, agent orange used by the Americans to root out the Vietcong during the war. Sadly he faces his own chemical issues with nearby stone fruit farmers spraying their trees without warning. He has a flag system in place to give him so notice to stay inside. He’s watched other local farmers die from the carcinogenic effects.
Meanwhile his wife, Jan is throwing up a cloud of dust on her ride on mower. Ever since I bought it she’s been doing the lawns twice a week, costing me 11 litres / week. $20 to keep her happy, small change. When I ask if it’s been a good life out here he takes a minute to answer. “Tough but good life, we started in dairy which is plenty of work and little return back then but it’s been ok.” I leave him thinking about his answer with his gnarly hands wrapped around the shovel.
I too have plenty of time to think after I leave Rob. My earlier calculation was I would ride 120 kms but a quick check tells me it’s closer to 153 kms. I’m sore, stiff and tired when I finally ease myself off the bike seat for a long hot shower in Yarrawonga.
Somehow I’m back in the Main Street of Yarrawonga early the next morning chasing a coffee before heading to Chiltern. There are the normal early crowd. Dog walkers, insomniacs, a handful of local cyclists and the town nutcase. Every town has had a similar mix. Every business has also told me they can t get staff. I think most have become dependent on the backpacker students. Most paying cash money and they aren’t here. So the food offerings are often toasted items needing little preparation for maximum return. Not great fuel for me burning up the calories.
I’m struggling to get into the groove this morning but I sense Rutherglen is not far away. I begin to recognise familiar riding country and get enthusiastic, energised. Im rewarded with a big bowl of granola with tropical fruit and some care in presenting. It has me swooning. I fly down the road towards Chiltern. These backroad are lovely soft hills and sweeping bends. Chiltern’s Main Street hasn’t changed since the nineteenth century. The streetscape has been used in many early Australian movies. It’s Ned Kelly country too. I’d forgotten that till I ordered lunch at the bakery. Highway robbery…
I sit slurping on a celebratory chocolate milkshake instead of a magnum of fizz contemplating the last 450 kms and my weary legs. It’s been a terrific five day adventure embracing all the things I love about getting out of your comfort zone and seeing this amazing world.