Wednesday, 4 December 2013

High Country Cycling - the Australian Alps

Our first rule of cycling is "find a cycle path separate from the road". Our second rule is "make it a flat one". You might think that Alps and 'flat' are mutually inconsistent but, strangely, in Victoria they are not. It is possible to do all the hard work in the car, then unload the bikes and cycle along the tops of the ridges through magnificent scenery and spectacular views.


We are staying at Smoko, a small, almost non-existent, village near Bright. It is a couple of kilometres from the Murray to the Mountains rail trail, without question the best cycle path in Australia. However with temperatures in the mid-30s Celsius we decided to head to the High Country and escape the heat. The highest road in Australia, The Great Alpine Road, runs from just south of Smoko up into the heart of the Australian Alps.

Hotham - our objective.

The temperature had dropped to a cool 21 degrees C by the time we unloaded the bikes 17 kms past the ski resort of Mt Hotham at the picturesque little alpine village of Dinner Plain. A brochure we had described the Dinner Plain/Hotham Trail as an 'easy to difficult  - 24 kilometre-return trip'. Somehow we focused on the 'easy' part and missed the word 'difficult' entirely.

The Great Alpine Road had been closed all morning for tree clearing, a legacy of recent bushfires, and as a result we didn't start the ride until almost 3 pm. With sunset five hours away there was still plenty of time for an easy 24 kms. For the first hour or so the track was simple with a moderate uphill gradient. It wound through the bush far from the road giving us the familiar high mountain feeling of being alone in the world.

Alone in the world!

After a couple of kilometres we came across JB Hut, an old cattleman's shelter. There were once hundreds of these huts dotted throughout the Snowy Mountains. They have saved countless lives serving as emergency shelters for skiers and hikers when the notoriously changeable mountain weather turns treacherous. Sadly, more than a few were built as memorials to people who have perished in the harsh conditions. Perhaps the most famous, 'Seaman's Hut', near Charlotte's Pass in NSW was built by Seaman's parents as a memorial to their son. Laurie Seaman and his companion Evan Hayes were the first skiing deaths to occur in Australia. They perished in 1928 on the way down after skiing to the summit of Mt Kosciusko.


JB Hut

A few kilometres beyond JB Hut the track began to traverse a series of steep gullies. It was hard riding down into them keeping the bikes from slipping on the gravel and swerving to avoid the frequent sharp rocks. It was even harder climbing back out. Our moderate fitness just wasn't coping well with the thin mountain air. After two hours of slogging we had only managed to travel about 8 kms and after one particularly treacherous gully we conceded defeat and turned for home. As always, the ride home was a lot easier than the ride out and we arrived back in Dinner Plain with enough daylight to recover our strength with an early evening drink at the Dinner Plain Pub.





















These signs weren't for us but they were very welcome!

Day 2

Hot again! Back to the High Country. This time we made it to Hotham. We parked the car at Whiskey Flat - what a great name! - and continued on from where we turned around on Day 1. The trail became a lot easier but we realised we were never going to be able to do it in one go starting as late in the afternoon as we had.

Once we got to Hotham  it was worth all the effort. It must be one of the few ski-resorts in the world where the resort is at the top of the mountain - just point your skis downhill and hope. The views are stunning. - I can't help wondering though what happens if the lifts go on wind-hold - stuck at the bottom in a blizzard doesn't sound like fun.