Victoria’s country rail trails attract a constant stream of visitors enjoying fresh air, gentle grades and wildlife while supporting local economies.
So it’s a surprise that NSW is only just embarking on a campaign to deliver the funding and legislation needed to develop some of its disused rail corridors in similar fashion. There must be some gems in waiting.
One of the more remote Victorian trails is also our third longest at 94 km – the East Gippsland Rail Trail from Bairnsdale to Orbost. I rode half of it in 2007 with friends, taking the Discovery Trail/Mississippi Creek turnoff to Lakes Entrance overnight. So I’ve always wanted to return and ride the eastern section.
The planets finally aligned last week – gorgeous weather, days off and an unmissable birthday bash near Maffra. Perfect.
You can take the train to Bairnsdale but with a lot to fit in, I drove this time. Of course that means leaving the car for a couple of days but my hosts at the Travellers Rest Motel were happy to babysit it.
This was credit card touring – gear (including two new knicks to test) and on-bike food for three days but no reservations. Tyres on the touring bike were 28 mm/40 mm slicks.
There’s four sectors to the trail: Bairnsdale to Nicholson (9 km), Nicholson to Bruthen (21 km), Bruthen to Nowa Nowa (27 km) and Nowa Nowa to Orbost (38 km).
Starting in Bairnsdale’s Howitt Park, the trail is ‘sealed’ to Nicholson and although it’s broken and rough in parts it’s good riding. It was busier than I expected on a weekday – three locals commuting, two school groups on cycling camp and two women enjoying some fitness riding.
The seal ends at the Nicholson River bridge (right) but it’s good compacted gravel to Bruthen through farmland. A rider warned of trees down ahead but they were no problem. I had a quick lunch at Bruthen Bakery (delicious) and headed for Nowa Nowa.
I haven’t ridden much this winter so I expected lousy fitness and was pleasantly surprised that the legs seem to remember. The climb to Colquhoun was long but gentle (mostly 2 per cent), although the damp sand sucked at the tyres a bit. There’s a few patches of sand as well; surprise!
Along the way one of the (volunteer) management committee was driving the trail so I got to hear about some of the history and management challenges. Later I was overtaken by three trail bikes who slowed to pass and were quickly gone, leaving me to the solitude. I didn’t see another person on the trail for nearly two days. You can hear the highway occasionally but otherwise, apart from the frogs and birds, it was so quiet that I started an emu up ahead as the camera turned on. He wasn’t happy, presumably with young near by, so I left him to it.
About 5 km before Nowa Nowa is the impressive Stony Creek trestle bridge (top and below) – 276 m long and 19 m high. It was too expensive to restore safely so the trail detours low, via toilet and interpretive sign.
I managed to get lost both arriving and leaving Nowa Nowa – possibly a record. It’s a tiny town with two caravan parks, general store, pub and community health centre. Fishing is big and they’d like bikes to be bigger. There’s even a mountain bike park.
The Mingling Waters van park offered a great deal so I scored the bunkhouse for the night and refuelled with an excellent steak sandwich at the pub.
I chatted to Mike of Mingling Waters over breakfast next morning and eventually headed for Orbost. It was a lovely ride starting with a fairly tough 15 km – wild and interesting but slow through three low-level diversions. That sector ends at Partellis Crossing, which has a toilet and is just off the Princes Highway so a useful start/bail-out point.
The next 10 km is easy riding alongside the eastern gas pipeline for the most part, but in the dappled light it’s eyes on: snake or a stick? All sticks today, and spokes miraculously intact.
The final 10 km was rough enough that I felt the biceps next day. I suspect recent rain has washed away some topping, exposing the rock base. I’m told people have ridden the whole trail on roadies, and the trail notes suggest ‘easy riding on hybrids’, but a mtb would be more relaxing here. I’d certainly use 30+ mm tyres with a little texture on the tourer.
The trail ends 2 km short of Orbost but an off-road path shadows the road across the flats and the famous Snowy River, and delivers you to a small BMX track. From there it’s a gentle meander in to town. There’s good facilities at Forest Park on the left before you head up the main drag, and an excellent sandwich at Orbost Bakery.
I’d considered a side visit to Marlo but the slow trip meant I turned around at Orbost, following the trail back to Partellis Crossing and then bailing to the wide clean shoulder of the highway to bypass the three creek descents. I stayed another night in Nowa Nowa (good chicken parma this time) and had an easy ride to Bairnsdale the next day.
I had a ball. Most rail trails traverse farmland but this one offers more bush and I like that. East of Bruthen, I met just two cyclists in around 140 km on the trail so the isolation is perhaps both reason and reward for the slightly tougher riding. The climbs are longer than most trails I’ve ridden but the towering trestles make the diversions worthwhile.
With no services between Nowa Nowa and Orbost, I’d suggest an extra tube and a tyre boot (a $5 note will do), besides food and water. There’s still Nowa Nowa mountain bike park (ask Mike at Mingling Waters) and Marlo/Cape Conran to check out, so this trail could be anything you want – day ride if you’re fit or perhaps a bike overnight, or ride the shoulder back through pretty Lakes Entrance, or add Cape Conran to make a mini tour. It never ends …
For rail trails near you, check out Rail Trails Australia.