Right, America has Moab, Canada has the North Shore, Europe has the Alps. What then does Australia offer the trail rider?
The only place that immediately springs to mind is The Blue Mountains, a large national park of flat-topped mountains, waterfall and temperate rainforest. Australia is a big country though, really big, and with a population of only 19 million spread out across over 7.6 million sq. kms of highly varied terrain there must be thousands of places to ride. But why then has there not emerged a Mountain Bike Mecca in the land down under to rival the likes of Utah and Vancouver?
One reason is that Australia has a relatively small population most densely distributed around the coast and the mix of hot weather, long sandy beaches and huge waves means the most popular past time among aussie kids is riding waves, not bikes. This doesn’t leave a great deal of bike riders per head of population, particularly since the introduction of compulsory helmet wearing which has reduced the number of cyclists in general. So does this mean there are no good places to ride? Well not really, OK truly rideable trails rarely occur naturally, someone has to ride there to leave a trail, but there are still plenty of established trails to ride as well as huge areas as yet untouched by tyre treads.
While travelling around Australia, I came across a small town in Snowy River Country, Northeast Victoria where I heard there was some sweet singletrack to be ridden. Bright lies on Victoria’s Great Alpine road about 75kms from rural city Wangeratta and is within 25kms of both the Mount Buffalo and Alpine National parks. Formerly a gold mining town in the 1850s it now serves as a ski base in the winter to the ski fields of surrounding Mount Buffalo and Mount Hotham. In the summer the action doesn’t stop either with mountain biking being joined by hang-gliding, paragliding, bush walking and horse riding as the activities of choice.
After getting of the V-line bus from Wangeratta first stop was to see Geoff at Bright Hikers Backpackers Hostel where I found accommodation for my stay at around $16 a night. Geoff runs a very clean and spacious hostel with a big kitchen and balcony complete with the traditional Aussie barbie and a hammock, perfect for relaxing in after a days riding.
|That John Tomac, i had ‘im yer know….|
There were bikes for hire at the hostel, hardtail Giant Boulders, and route guides for sale but they were mainly easy grade fireroad treks for the more leisurely cyclists so I headed down to Cyclepath, the local bike shop to find out where the best trails were. Canadian Jon Vandervliet runs the shop with South african Brain Halloway and they stock a good range of bits along with GT, Trek, Giant and Norco bikes. Jon has a career in road racing behind him, having raced with the Canadian national team, racing against and beat on occasion the great all-rounder John Tomac. More recently he has coached junior talent from around the world including the Australian junior Julie Borschman. Jon sorted me out with bike hire – a Norco Bush Pilot – and we went riding.
We cut right across the local school field complete with kids playing cricket and up the hill into the trees, after brief fire road detail including a waterbar filled descent we hit the singletrack climb. This was part of the racecourse that had been host to the likes of Cadel Evans the week before. It started with a large number of tight switchbacks very similar to the ones I encountered on the Olympic course in Sydney and continued along off camber singletrack with log hops. Short tough climbs and windy technical descents completed a lap of the course and it was back across the school field to Canyon Walk, a short trail, easy to ride slow but super technical and exhilarating at speed. The trail, of vastly different terrain to the racecourse, ran along the side of a creek some 30ft below it and wandered right to the edge at times before cutting sharply away and back undercover. A banked right-hander fired me out towards the drop a little too close for comfort before the Kenda tyres of the Norco hooked up well and stopped the heart-in-mouth moment before it became a watery end.
Next up – after Jon returned to his shop and I’d stocked up on Clif bars – was Wandi-walk, described as some of the sweetest singletrack in the area by Brits P J Wheldon and J D O’connor who drew up the official unofficial Bright singletrack guide. This is a schematic map, posted up in the bike shop, of nine trails along with notes on fitness and skill grades as well as advice like “watch out for brown snakes and wallabies”. At first I wondered what the fuss was about, the first kilometre or two was piece of track about a footpath width and I wasn’t sure, swoopy and fast, yes, but a bit straight and too wide by half. After crossing the road at the bridge and entering the bush on the other side, it all became apparent; Heavily undulating, tightly twisting sections with technical in and outs, some speed and guts, others taken with delicate precision. The trail ducked in and out of the trees spitting you out towards Morses creek before catching you and pulling you back in amongst the trees. After what seems like no time at all I hit the short field break (still singletrack) complete with a short essay on why I should shut the gate. Breath caught it was back into more tree dodging antics before the trail terminated at Alpine Park in Wandiligong, the home of Australia’s largest living hedge maze. Which was nice. After feeling a little sun-stroked I decided straight back to Bright along the way I came was the order of the day, I could nail the sweet sections in reverse before calling it a day and relaxing in the hammock back at the hostel.
|Watch out for the brown snakes and the wallabies….|
Last full day of my brief visit to snowy river country and I went riding with a guy from the hostel who was up for a weeks paragliding course. Dodgy winds had grounded Dave today so after another brief visit to Cyclepath to get more local trail tips we headed up the valley to Bakers Gully. After a fire-road climb the singletrack started from a little drop-in tucked away at the corner of a track junction, if you didn’t know where to look you could quite easily miss it. The drop-in turned almost immediately into a tight right hander which had me with a foot down first go and had Dave over the bars straight away. Dave took this opportunity to tell me that when he said he’d done a bit of riding, he neglected to mention it was only on the paved roads around his home in Adelaide. Luckily the trees had been forgiving that morning but Dave’s first impressions of more technical singletrack were not good. Well into the pine plantations though and we were both enjoying the pine needle carpeted rolling singletrack that snaked its way through the trees doubling back on itself here and there to make the most of the space in that small part of the forest.
Eventually the trail emerged from the trees before making a tight right for a short flat blast down the perimeter before swinging you back up the hill into the trees and spiders webs which cling to your face in true Scooby Doo style. The trail continued to climb, then descended a bit and steadily climbed again with undulating and off camber sections, a couple of little steep drops at the end before it skirted back up and around to emerge where it had started. At this point Dave was struggling to keep up a little and opted to drop back into Bright along the fire-road while I let fly on the first section again. With a clear run at speed the trail flowed really smoothly and I floated some sections really nicely to say it I hadn’t ridden it in anger before, while I got other bits totally wrong with feet down all over the place. I caught Dave on the fire-road descent and persuaded him to do a quick blast of Canyon Walk before returning on the old railroad cycle track to get lunch.
|Singletracking on the far side of the world|
While I was there, the cycle path stretched to Porepunkah, back up the great alpine road, and beyond. After that there was a track for some considerable distance but it hadn’t been surfaced properly and got a bit vague. There was work in progress however to link it all the way up to Wangeratta 75kms away.
After Lunch Wandi Walk was calling again, as was the cafe at the maze and blasting along an almost familiar trail was very appealing. On the way back we crossed the creek via wobbly suspension bridge to explore the opposite bank and look for the BMX track marked on the map. We followed a few trails that criss-crosses about and found the track but it was still being built and fairly unridable though promising. Also marked on the map is a motocross track, a small half pipe and some jumps in the park near Cyclepath, plus a purpose built downhill on Mystic Hill.
Having skimmed the surface of the riding around only Bright, let alone further out places such as Mount Buffalo and Mount Hotham, I was sad to leave such a quiet and beautiful place with great trails and friendly atmosphere. But the next morning I had to get on, I still had thousands of kilometres yet to travel around such a big country and there would no doubt me more opportunity to ride.
|Full suspension – that’s the bridge not the hire bikes.|
Bright is around half a days travel from Sydney or Canberra (NE) and Melbourne (SE). From Melbourne, which is easier and cheaper, V-line run a train to Wangeratta which then connects with their bus to Bright, for less than $40 (around £25) – a good deal considering the distance travelled. From Canberra and, further out, Sydney Greyhound and McCafferty’s run buses to Wangeratta but tend not to meet the Bright buses at the right time and could, in my case, require a stop over in Wangeratta, a rural city which is a little dull to say the least. Expect to pay $40-50 or more. Check out “Australia – The rough guide” and “The Lonely Planet Guide to Australia” both are stuffed full of useful information and are almost essential if travelling around Oz.
Bikes are available for hire from:
Bright Hikers Backpackers, 4 Ireland St. (Tel: (03) 5750 1244), Giant Boulder hardtails for £28 per day.
The Sports Centre, 47 Gavan St. (Tel: (03) 5755 1339).
Cyclepath, 9 Camp St. (Tel: (03) 5750 1442), Rigid $20, Norco hardtails $30, Norco Full-bounce $39, all by the day.
Local rides go out weekly on road and off from Cyclepath. Visit the shop to check the singletrack map and for tips on finding even more which is not shown. Also Jon told us he can organise trips from guided tours around the area to weeklong tours and package deals including transfers and accommodation if need be.
When to Go
Avoiding midwinter and midsummer is the way to go. Remember that Bright is a Ski base in the winter so it is best avoided during the Ski season. The official Ski season in the area starts on the Queens birthday in June but often there is little snow until July/August time and the season ends around October. My visit was in March and the timing fortunately was ideal. The weather was hot but not too hot to ride, and the trails were relatively empty during the day as the kids were back at school after their summer break.