It’s been a while …

Denali National Park

It’s been a while between posts. Instagram followers might have seen a few posts from  Alaska in July/August 2016 as I moseyed around solo. I had plans to write about that trip on return.

Unfortunately the trip home from Fairbanks was more meandering than planned, via an accident at LAX and a broken patella. I’d been keen to observe America up close ahead of their election but that was left field. Even with insurance and exposure to the US health care debate, it’s confronting to have a bean counter in Florida make health decisions.

So the anticipated flight home as a fit tourer became an ambulance trip and nearly four weeks in hospitals, followed by lengthy knee rehab, surgery and more rehab.

That whole story is yet to be written – I still don’t know how it ends – but I’m finally back at the blog keyboard. That’s been spurred by a comment from Patricia Hall (the mum of late bikepacker Mike Hall) on the anniversary of his 2017 death near Canberra, saying she found support in the cycling community’s love for Mike. I filmed part of Melbourne’s tribute ride for Mike last year; the video will be up soon.

Thanks for your patience.

Spring on the East Gippsland Rail Trail

Stony Creek trestle bridge, East Gippsland Rail Rail

Stony Creek trestle bridge on East Gippsland Rail Trail

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.

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A few of my favourite things …

Light bike touring

Fully loaded above Madura, overlooking Roe Plains

Online reviews helped enormously when buying gear for the Nullarbor ride. If Cuben fibre is new for ‘brown paper packages’, here’s a few of my favourite things …

The green cocoon

Top of the list would have to be ZPacks’ 20F sleeping bag. The long term average minimum temperature for our route was 6C but the nights could get very cold, so I wanted a bag that was light and warm.

At 5’1″ and a bit I’m compact so most production bags were too long, too heavy or too cold. I went looking for one that was juuuuuust right.

Zpacks sleeping bagThe ZPacks bags seemed to fit the bill – over-stuffed 900 fill power goose down with Cuben fibre baffles, very light, compressible and tailor made for length, width and temperature – bliss. They’re a bit more expensive than some production bags but way in front on warmth for weight. I considered the 30F bag but eventually opted for comfort with a short 20F (-7C) bag and pillow/stuff sack.

At the time, ZPacks had a long wait list so I was a little concerned about timing but Matt and Joe slotted it in to production to allow for international posting. Communication was excellent. The bag arrived in good time and the weight was accurate at 489 g for bag and pillow/sack.

It passed the couch test and the overnighter test. It’s so light that if you lift it up, it descends softly like a parachute. Initially I wasn’t too keen on the black lining – I’d prefer to see any crawlies – but it proved useful under caravan park lights and at dawn.

The light elastic drawcord at the top was easy to use half asleep and I barely noticed the flat zip. I threw a warm jacket over my hips a couple of nights and wore a beanie quite often but I was generally warm and comfortable (but often wearing light wool).

Zpacks pillow stuff sackThe pillow stuff sack was good too. The roll top allows some compression of the sleeping bag, and when reversed and filled with clothes the fleece lining made a comfortable pillow I didn’t have to chase all night.

I also bought a Cuben fibre ZPacks Multi-Pack (below, 86 g with all straps) for use as a handlebar/handbag. I think the ZPacks description of it as water resistant (rather than waterproof) is accurate. With sustained rain it got damp inside but I just moved the phone to a pannier.

Zpacks Multi-Pack as handlebar bagDIY handlebar harness

I wanted some capacity to carry luggage up front but width is limited with 38 cm drop bars. So I made a simple harness of webbing and buckles and wrapped any load in the cut-down emergency blanket that serves as a tent footprint.

The sling and footprint cost around $15 and weighed under 300g. One buckle (from an old backpack) broke when cinching the straps one morning but I had an emergency buckle so it was easily replaced.

I generally carried my sleeping mat (Exped Synmat UL7 S) up front together with extra water if needed, with the Multi-Pack on top (as above). With such a small bike and cantis I need to keep the load either high or light so it doesn’t pressure the front brake main cable.

Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1 tent

Hyden-Norseman Road WALike the ZPacks bag, the freestanding Fly Creek UL1 tent just worked. Fast up, easy down, in rain and gales I stayed dry. The whole kit – extra pegs, sand stake, stake/tent bags and repair kit – totalled 1118 g.

There’s some easy weight savings even among these few things if need be – spare stakes and bag, extra straps for the Multi-Pack and so on, so it becomes a matter of convenience and redundancy.

Four ways to lighten your bike touring load

Bike touring NullarborBike touring gear lists vary with tour type, duration, climate, location and personal risk profile and preferences. Some people are happy to sleep on bubble wrap while others pack a coffee machine. And you’ll likely pack differently for a credit card tour of French patisseries versus the Tour Divide.

Our trip across Australia meant five weeks on the road with up to 300 km between water points (let alone bike shops) so we had to be self sufficient. But I wanted to travel light – certainly much lighter than the (heavier, stronger) men whose gear lists dominate mainstream bike touring. And don’t forget that sometimes you’ll be pushing that weight into a roaring headwind, after a couple of weeks without a rest day.

As a result, the gear list (download below) became a fluid balancing act of safety, durability, weight, comfort and cost – more comfort and safety margin than the ultralight crowd and overnight bikepackers but lighter than traditional four-pannier touring.

1. Use a spreadsheet packing list

Possibly the most useful thing I did for this trip was turning the packing wishlist into a spreadsheet. It has a few categories – clothing, spares, food/water, camping gear – with weights from the kitchen scales and a running total. Changes were easy to make, the weight savings from changes gratifying and it provided the discipline to cull luxuries and guide choices. I would have ended up heavier without it.

A couple of things that seemed reasonable initially were dumped immediately I saw a total weight, while little things like which multi-tool to take were also influenced by weight. Category totals also flagged the weight of storage/luggage like panniers and handlebar bags. You can’t sleep on it, wear it, ride it, eat it or drink it but there’s kilos of it! If you’re conscious of weight, I’d highly recommend a spreadsheet with weights to hit you in the nose.

Beyond that, I found three approaches worked for lightening the load: choose a lighter alternative, make things dual purpose, or just leave it behind. Trial size ProLink

2. Choose lighter

I found a tiny 15 mL (trial size) bottle of ProLink chain lube at the wonderful Abbotsford Cycles; much smaller and lighter than regular bottles. I shipped a second bottle in one of our food parcels, and used both.

A contact lens case was handy for a smudge of grease, croc-style camp shoes were lighter than thongs and kitchen towels replaced a Bike touring toweltravel towel.That’s a towel and bath sheet below (and rags if need be). I could have left out the camp shoes but they became one of life’s luxuries, and useful in the middle of the night for short walks.

3. Go dual purpose

I initially thought I’d be taking a trowel for camp use. But decided while musing in an outdoors shop that a sand stake could work just as well. Plus I’d have a sand stake, and a spare stake. So I got a light alloy sand stake, smoothed the sides with an emery board for comfortable digging, and deleted the 165 g trowel from the list. That’s dual purpose.

Wool tights and thermal did double duty as PJs and daywear for days on end. Bags for organisation started to add up too. So I ditched a pillowcase in favour of the Zpacks sleeping bag stuff sack that turns inside out to become a pillowcase. (More about my beautiful Zpacks sleeping bag later.)

I also cut down a laminated emergency blanket to do double duty as tent footprint and waterproof wrap that contained and stabilised any load in my handlebar sling. (And maybe catch water if need be, and signal with the shiny side.) The sling often just carried my sleeping mat, but sometimes also the sleeping bag or extra water, so the footprint served as a stiff wrapper that didn’t increase overall weight. I still have a reflective windscreen panel that would do much the same job, but it would be flashier on the bike. Tyvek and Cuben Fibre are worthy footprints too – if you need a footprint at all – but they don’t offer the extra warmth of the reflective emergency blanket and stiffness of this one. 

4. Delete, delete, delete

Just leave it at home. Many items on my initial wishlist met this fate and I didn’t miss a thing.

A front rack, front panniers and regular handlebar bag could cost me around 2.7 kg – huge compared with my goal weight. So I made my own handlebar sling (my little bike is too small for Alaskan bikepacking goodness like Revelate Designs) and coupled it with a Zpacks Multi-pack as a quick-release handlebar bag/handbag. A total 159 g versus 2.7 kg. Win!

I went heavy on a couple of things though. For five weeks, I figured I would value real utensils rather than a spork, as well as a mess bag. I’m glad I did. It just saves looking for stuff when all you want to do is eat and relax.

Nullarbor cycling gear list – download

You can download and edit my gear list to your own needs here: Nullarbor cycling gear list [Excel 33 KB].

My ride buddy Jan carried the stove and pot, while I had our bike spares and tools – the benefits of sharing weight. Food weights are approximate but a fairly accurate maximum at each of our re-supply points – roughly weekly from Perth to Adelaide and a little lighter thereafter as you roll through a town at least daily.

Because of the distances involved, we mostly carried dehydrated food for breakfast and dinner, and had rolls or wraps for lunch, or bought lunch along the way. My maximum water load was 10 L but we often carried 4-5 L.

What didn’t work

Most things worked great, but I didn’t like the taste of water from the Ortlieb bag, and after a day of the worst flies I have ever experienced, I would recommend a fly net for this trip.

Sadly, the wires on my Power Monkey solar panel broke before Norseman so I didn’t have solar power. It’s slow anyway but it made me more diligent about recharging whenever we stayed indoors. No dramas with the Garmin or phone (which is pretty useless anyway on the Nullarbor, even with Telstra).

A buckle on the handlebar sling (made from an old backpack) broke but the emergency buckle had it fixed quickly. I used the Italian road mirror that I had on hand, but it was pretty close to useless this trip; I wouldn’t recommend it. If some of the gear items look like strange choices, feel free to ask. But it’s your trip, your legs, your informed decision on spares. Enjoy. 🙂

VeloViewer wheel for the Nullarbor

A mate suggested a VeloViewer wheel for the Nullarbor crossing might be interesting. So here you are:

VeloViewer activity wheel

I could pick the Roe Plains before reading the activity heading. It’s that pancake-flat section below Tasmania on the wheel.

And it’s no wonder ‘undulating’ became our word of the day through to Fraser Range Station.

Have a look at VeloViewer to create your own wheel. It’s quick and easy.

Your own wheel (or one shared and the data made public by the Strava athlete in VeloViewer) is dynamic, so you can click on each wedge to zoom to that activity. Brilliant!

I like it so much I might do one for my Canada trip as well.

Part 5 – The home straight

We planned to take the scenic route from Adelaide to Melbourne rather than the busy interstate highway with its truck traffic. The coastal road is longer but much prettier, with the bonus attractions of the Coorong wetlands and Victoria’s Twelve Apostles.

It had rained in Belair and we had a cool climb to Stirling in the Adelaide hills, thawing out over lunch and catching up with communications at Stirling library. The afternoon run to Strathalbyn was pretty but cold; I think we had four waves of showers so we stayed in a pub that night just to dry out.

The weather cleared next morning though and we meandered through the vineyards to Wellington, crossing the Murray on the 24 hour ferry and continuing to Meningie. It was easy riding.

The Coorong

The Coorong, SA

The Coorong, SA – a wet and windy one

About 20 km out of Meningie the wind picked up and light rain settled in so we camped at Parnka Point in Coorong National Park – one of the quicker set-ups in an attempt to beat the wind, cold and mozzies.

There was no chance of cooking so we ate bread rolls, cheese, jam and chocolate passed between the tents. The rain passed but the wind howled all night and I marvelled again that the tent survived.

We spotted some emus, roos and a couple of the Coorong’s famous pelicans next morning but most of the birdlife was sheltering. The Coorong’s saltwater lagoons are beautiful but the dunes do little to interrupt wind across the open water.

I hadn’t eaten much breakfast and bonked pretty badly that morning. While struggling up a gentle rise I reminded myself that I knew there’d be suffering and this was it. I recovered with half a block of chocolate followed by eggs, bacon, toast and a couple of coffees for morning tea at the Coorong Hotel Motel at Policeman Point (excellent), and we finished the day with 126 km.

Day 33 was a flattish but pleasant 160 km from Kingston SE to Mt Gambier past waterlogged flatlands (poor sheep!) which gave way to undulating farmland and pine plantations. We crossed back into Victoria on day 34 next day, with a minor Garmin issue.

Garmin time

IMAG1488We had crossed a confusion of time zones in eastern Western Australia and western South Australia; the roadhouses seemed to use whatever local time worked and the Garmin didn’t care. Nor did we, so long as we were off the road before dark.

When we crossed the SA border at Border Village I saved ride data before turning off the Garmin (Edge 500), so it updated to SA time the next morning automatically. No problem.

But when we reached Victoria we detoured off the highway to Dartmoor for coffee so I turned off the Garmin to save the battery. Unfortunately it lost the morning’s data as it updated to Victorian time when restarting.

Without much phone reception across the middle, you’re also limited in uploading to Instagram within the Strava ride time sync window too. Plan to upload at the roadhouses, if their wifi is working.

We had expected to bush camp on the way to Port Fairy but the only rest area late afternoon was a bleak little parking bay so we eventually asked some farmers loading a truck if they knew anything about the next one (they’re not sign-posted). They didn’t know but they invited us to camp in the shed and use their lunch room. Like the family east of Hyden, it was a kindness much appreciated late in the day.

Shut up legs

We topped up food supplies at Warrnambool next day and reached Port Campbell for the night, despite wind that had us down to 9 km/h at times. There’s a reason they have wind farms down here.

Wind generators reported a record during our ride; no surprise

Wind generators reported a record during our ride; no surprise

The coastal views were spectacular though and sights like the Bay of Martyrs built expectations about the Twelve Apostles next day.

Bay of Martyrs

Bay of Martyrs, Great Ocean Road

It felt like hard work into a headwind again the next morning on cold legs. My legs were tired after 16 days and nearly 1800 km without a break. They wouldn’t have listened if Jens Voight himself had spoken. Remarkably though, they only screamed briefly after stopping and once that pain subsided they kept on going; not fast but still going.

We arrived at the limestone stacks of the Twelve Apostles early and enjoyed looking around. It’s a beautiful coastline.

12 Apostles

IMG_5789

And then headed off to Lavers Hill, refuelling at both cafes in the same town. Did I mention we ate a lot?

It’s 99 km to Apollo Bay with 1611 m climbing and a beautiful ride through the Australian bush. We made it in good time and marvelled at the luxury of pitching tents on grass in a caravan park rather than sand and gravel.

Unfortunately we were nearly out of time and the weather forecast was grim. We’d planned two more days – one to Queenscliff and a final short flat 100 km to Melbourne – but the forecast for that last day was a 70 km/h headwind with hail which would mean a late finish. And Jan was flying to Sydney the next day. We had lost time to the weather in SA (no surprise that the power generators had record wind).

However we’d covered the distance anyway by taking the Great Ocean Road, so we opted for a day’s sightseeing in Melbourne instead. We even caught a little of the AFL grand final parade, despite the wind.

Overall we were lucky with the weather though, despite the wind and rain near the end. Based on the long term averages, we should have enjoyed far more tailwind, but you take your chances out there. It could have been worse.

It was a great ride. We covered nearly 3400 km in 36 days from Perth (32 riding days), averaging 104 km per riding day. We’d camped 21 nights and spent 15 in a colourful variety of pubs, caravan park cabins and roadhouse rooms.

Our bikes and gear were reliable. Jan had two punctures; I had none. I’ll post a gear list soon for the gear junkies.

Similarly, we had a first aid kit but only used some bite cream and Band-Aids.

Cow envy

Traffic was a big part of life on this trip but our route saved us days on the busiest highways.

Most drivers were great but there’s no question that drivers were less careful around us further east, explained perhaps by traffic density, people on holidays versus work, and maybe the type of people who tackle the Nullarbor. Do we look out for each other more carefully when help is far away?

On the western end of the Great Ocean Road one day I envied the cattle their signs -‘Give way to stock/penalties apply’. Makes you wish you were a cow.

The truckies were generally very good but Bunker, Toll and a couple of Yellow Pages operators on the Eyre Highway deserve special mention; they were excellent.

Food

We carried most of our food, supplemented by bread and wraps for lunches and snacks and fresh fruit as available. Breakfast was usually oats (pre-weighed, with powdered milk in each satchel), with rehydrated carbs for dinner, plus some freeze-dried meals. The carbs included noodles and cous cous, with dried soups as extras and flavouring. Treats included Coles dark fruit cake and chocolate. And I made our own gorp/trailmix.

Food for the Nullarbor by bike

Our food parcel at Eucla

I’d phoned ahead and posted food parcels to Norseman, Eucla and Ceduna so we re-provisioned roughly weekly. And then topped up with fresh food as available, including bread at the roadhouses across the middle. They were all obliging.

Food became a preoccupation at times – partly due to hunger but partly the opportunity to hop off the bike and rest for a few minutes. It breaks up the day.

I’d read that food supplies at the remote roadhouses were scarce, expensive and unsuitable for cyclists but it wasn’t that bad. Lots of things were more expensive than your local supermarket but it didn’t look like extortion to me. And there’s plenty of stubby holders to go round.

The roadhouses cater to drivers and truckies so the menus are predictable fare of sugar, fat and salt but there’s also good eggs and bacon and steak sandwiches – easy and tasty protein to balance our carbs. At Mundrabilla, eggs and bacon on toast plus coffee for two was $29.

IMAG1482IMAG1489 IMAG1511

The packaged food supplies were minimal in places but most had something. For instance Cocklebiddy had tinned corn, sardines and beans which are heavy but at least you wouldn’t starve. At the other end of the scale, Nundroo roadhouse looked like it had been hit by locusts after hundreds of Rebels had motored through, so you can’t depend on the roadhouses.

We did notice the expense of water of course; at Nullarbor roadhouse (the least friendly), we spent $33 on five 1.5L bottles of water. But we filled up for free from the bathrooms at the roadhouses when we stayed overnight, which makes the occasional bed pretty good value.

Any questions, let me know.

Nullarbor ahead

Perth PSPI’m not sure when the idea of riding the Nullarbor germinated but it’s been floating around for a few years. It wasn’t a goal in itself; just curiosity about what’s there.

I decided in Canada in 2010 that bike touring is a perfect way to travel – fast enough to cover useful distance but slow enough to see the critters, ponder the late afternoon shadows and understand the terrain. You can’t miss hills if you ride them.

It’s a human scale; you’re part of the landscape rather than observing it like a specimen behind glass.

On a bike you’re open to the elements, but also open to approach. After riding home from Perth in August/September with Canadian friend Jan, I’m coming to suspect it’s an effect amplified for women. Perhaps we’re not very scary or people are politely checking we’re OK.

The kids who approach aren’t keeping an eye out for us, of course. They just want to talk about their bike, what you’re doing, where you’ve come from and where you’re going. Bikes connect – surely a powerful thing.

In any event, I apparently did mention the idea of riding the Nullarbor to Jan on that trip to the Canadian Arctic in 2010. I hadn’t got much further.

Hyden-Norseman Rd pandaI didn’t expect to find a ride buddy of similar speed and interests and I’d hesitated about a solo crossing. Eventually resigned to the idea however, I figured … let’s make it 2013.

Amongst the New Year email catch-ups I ran it past Jan in a throwaway line asking if she’d like to come. I didn’t expect for a moment she would, so I was amazed and delighted that she said yes.

It was the impetus I needed to start planning in detail – itinerary, timing, daily distances, food and water.

We quietly decided the goal would be Melbourne but we could bail at Adelaide if wind, rain, health or mechanicals intervened. We knew we could cover 100 km a day on dirt but the wind would be a bigger factor fully loaded on this route than in Canada.

We could spare five weeks plus some travelling time. The plan was Perth to Wave Rock through the Western Australian wheat belt and on to Norseman via 260 km of dirt. Then a couple of rest days visiting Kalgoorlie and Lake Ballard, before the trip east to Ceduna. There, we’d leave the Eyre Highway for the quieter Eyre Peninsula and a ferry across Spencer Gulf before turning south to Adelaide. And from Adelaide we’d head home via the Coorong and Great Ocean Road.

And that’s how it turned out.

The ride report is split into roughly weekly chunks …

Part 1, Perth to Norseman: 680km, 4080 m vertical gain, 8 riding days, 3 rest days

Part 2, Norseman to Border Village: 728 km, 1961 m, 7 riding days, 1 rest day

Part 3, Border Village to Ceduna: 484 km, 1187 m, 4 riding days

Part 4, Ceduna to Adelaide: 628 km, 1774 m, 6 riding days

Part 5, Adelaide-Apollo Bay:  804 km, 3431 m, 7 riding days

In total we covered nearly 3400 km over 32 riding days (36 total), averaging a bit over 100 km a day.

I’m forever grateful to have shared it with Jan. Her acute observations meant I saw the country through Canadian eyes as well as Australian, which was all the more interesting. Her sense of humour never faltered so it was great fun as well.

A trip within reach of anyone with reasonable fitness, some preparation, and a bike …