It was a full afternoon’s ride from Ellendale to Lachlan, so I finally rolled into the village as dusk was beginning to descend. I removed my sunglasses to gain some time — always worth a half hour or so. =)
I couldn’t shake that nervous feeling one gets when you’re about to attempt something difficult, something other people might consider impossible. That swimming-against-the-current uncertainty. A bit scary, but undeniably exhilarating. I wondered if people passing me might think I was lost – or crazy – heading for a tiny village with no real through road at dusk.
A visit to the one and only shop in the village did not dispel this feeling.
The owner, Kevin, was very helpful. He had a detailed map of the area on the wall showing exactly how to reach Jeffrey’s Track, and he filled my jug with five kilos of double filtered rain water. Exactly what I had hoped for. Rainwater, my favorite!
But he was dubious about my chances, I could tell. In a very respectful way he suggested I go out and try it, and if it turns out to be too much for me, to come back and camp in the park next to the shop.
“We close at six and open again at six thirty. We’re here in the house behind the shop, so if you come back and need help, if I can help you, I will.”
I am humbled, sir. “Thank you!”
Another local came in to make a quick purchase.
“Hey Bernie, this guy’s going up Jeffrey’s Track!”
“Jeffrey’s Track, on a push bike? Best of British luck, mate. Best of British luck!”
He said it twice. I took it to mean, “Better you than me.” Or at least, “You’re gonna need it.”
I didn’t have much time to lose, so I rolled out.
The turn-off to Jeffrey’s Track was the end of the asphalt and the start of the climb. I quickly studied the sign – apparently the various turn-offs (hadn’t expected too many of those!) were marked with red or orange triangles for navigation. Looks easy, let’s go!
For the last fifteen minutes of twilight I dug in and climbed. And worked, for it was terrible steep. Thankfully the dirt was hard-packed and smooth, but hope of finding a flat campsite before dark soon faded; the first few kilometers were apparently rural residences.
A car struggled up the hill behind me, a man with two young boys in the back seat. He slowed to match my snail’s pace.
“Don’t give up!” he yelled. “Don’t give up!”
“The next 500 meters are the worst! After that it gets easy!”
I caught my breath enough to challenge: “Oh really?”
“Okay, well, easier than this! Don’t give up!”
“Okay… I… won’t…give…up…!”
As he drove ahead, I could almost hear him saying, “Now y’see boys, never give up!”
So for their sake, and mine, I continued to push down one pedal after another, up the mountain and into the night.
The forest disappeared into the blackness. The hill itself disappeared as well – only the effort of my increasingly tired muscles told me I was still climbing. But thankfully, so did the residential properties: my headlight showed no more address numbers, no more mailboxes, only gated turn-offs leading… somewhere. Somewhere up, everywhere up.
Eventually I tired. Somehow it’s harder climbing hills when you can’t see anything. It’s disorienting. When my foot finally slipped off a pedal though, it happened to be near some sort of drive, shooting straight up the mountainside. A shot of sugar and a quick recon on foot revealed a disused bulldozed track that sort of half leveled off. Not flat by any means, but screw it. Good enough.
Setting up camp by headlamp isn’t too hard, it just takes longer. I got a stack of sticks prepared, put up the tent with the rain tarp over it, locked my bike(always), and switched into my long underwear. I had a bouquet of tiny twigs in one hand, and my lighter in the other, ready to start a cook fire, when I heard a tough diesel truck coming up the hill. I waited, just to stay hidden, but they didn’t pass by. They stopped right where I had left the track, and parked.
I saw the beam of a flashlight, but it didn’t get any closer. I heard voices, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I imagined ne’erdowells and the worst of drunk bogun litterers. I played through several fanciful scenarios in my head which got my heart beating faster. And I waited, frozen.
Did they know I was here? They couldn’t see me, I was sure. There was a pull-off down there just opposite this drive; maybe they just randomly chose here to have a beer before going home to their parents or their wives? No, they can’t know I am here. Can they?!
After a couple of longnecks’ worth of time, the diesel fired back up and kept going. I felt safe enough to light the fire. Would they come back? Maybe, but a guy’s gotta eat!
With the morning I saw everything in a different light. Primarily, well, the rut my bike tire had made leaving the dirt road was obvious if you were looking for tracks, and would’ve been just as obvious in their headlights. Slick, Charlie. Slick. So much for hiding!
Then it’s unlikely, actually, that they were boguns out drinking and driving and looking for trouble. More likely, I came to realize, was that Kevin had driven up from his shop to make sure I was all right. He must’ve seen my track leading off – Australian bushies are always looking at tracks – but decided to respect my privacy. Too bad! I would’ve offered him some of my lentil stew! Ah well, perhaps next time I’ll try to be a bit less paranoid – act from a place of less fear. More love.
It turned out that in the dark I had nearly achieved a summit – not the top exactly, but a flat stretch. So for a couple of turns of the wheels I stopped pedaling… and noticed something not quite right about my drive train.
The wheel was spinning fine, but the gear cluster wasn’t backspinning freely – which had become evident as soon as I finally had a chance to coast for a second. The chain would suck up and gather in a dangerous clump, then break free and catch up, then the same again, every revolution. What the hell!??
I stopped and had a mandarin and took the wheel off. The freehub body was sticking; one pawl must’ve cracked or got jammed sideways or something. Neither lube nor “percussive maintenance” had any effect, and I don’t have the wrench for removing freehub bodies, so I put the wheel back on. I guess I’ll just have to always be pedaling, until I can reach a bike shop in Hobart…. The good thing was, I remembered how great citrus rind is for cleaning bike grease off your fingers.
The day progressed slowly. Jeffrey’s Track, once you get up there, is full of big rocks and unbroken gravel, very uneven but probably good traction for a 4×4. There were some more very steep parts – one in particular that I couldn’t possibly ride up – and some sections were a ruin of huge mud puddles and treacherous tire ruts, which forced me to dismount and plan a way through and around. My bike and I got quite dirty up there. It’s a wonder I didn’t end up waist deep in mud, actually.
And it rained, gently, but the pines protected me, their needles sifting the raindrops to a fine mist before they could reach me.
Some of the turn-offs were quite obviously not the way to Crabtree; cable gates give way to insanely rough and steep “tracks.”
There were more intersections than I expected though, and those little orange and red triangles were not as common as I would’ve liked. Intuition alone guided me through several such, and when the proper descent began, I had to pray I had chosen the correct way….
Down the other side was a longer steepness than coming up had been, and more strewn with huge rocks. It would’ve been perfect for a downhill mountain bike course. Very technical. But for my loaded bike with thin 32mm tires, not to mention having to keep the pedals caught up to the wheel every single second because of the freehub issue (coasting is a big part of descending, especially technical descents), well, it was nothing short of ridiculous. I cleaned the muck off my rims, but the friction of constant braking was still heating up my rims so hot I couldn’t touch them.
So I dismounted. I still had to keep the brakes on all the time to keep the rig from running away down the rock slide, but at least they were free of my substantial weight. And the stuck gear cluster pushed the pedals easily without my feet in the way.
I walked. Or rather say stumbled, trying to carefully pick my way around the biggest bumps. All the way down, all steep.
And the whole time, with each and every step, I prayed that I had taken the right turn, or that this insane descent would at least let out somewhere. If it ended at some garbage dump in the woods, I’d have a whole day of pushing back up the mountain….
And then, I heard the highway.
From up there, I could make out a motorcycle gunning it, and there was the sound of a semi truck using its engine brakes. Soon a farm valley could be seen through the trees. It was still far below me, but I breathed a sigh of relief. I was saved.
When I finally hit bitumin again it was like gliding on a cloud. A farmer delivering hay to his cows told me where I was: five kilometers from Crabtree. Thank you, intuition, I’m sorry I ever doubted you!
I had thought I would camp near the bottom before completing the leg to Matt and Gillian’s place in Franklin, since walking down the mountain had taken just a wee bit longer than my usual descents. But now I suddenly felt glorious, inflated, ready to conquer anything. It was my mom’s birthday, but I had left her a message earlier so I decided to call her tomorrow – right now I’m goin’ to Franklin!
The wheel issue was manageable, and the hills were pretty chill, so I arrived in Franklin just before dusk. What, already? No afternoon surprise?!?
I got Gill on the phone and suddenly realized – they live ten kilometers farther, outside of town. Franklin is just the nearest settlement. Alright, no worries mate, I’ve got bright lights for night riding! I took her directions and set off again.
Riding at night on the highway with traffic is a bad idea. It’s just plain unadvisable. Of course I’m harder to see at night, but the worst of it is actually that car headlights tend to blind me, so I have to remember where I last saw the shoulder of the road; and god forbid there should be a chunk of roadkill in my path….
But I made it to Crowther’s Road, no incidents. I left the main road and followed up the hill to the Y intersection, no problem. Then on up to the left… jeez this is a bit steep….
And up and up and up, what a nice surprise, to the very last house on the road.
And the grand finale? The steepest, most impossible thirty meters of hill I’ve ever encountered. A road like a cliff.
I pushed with baby steps until it flattened out in front of their garage. I sat down in the damp grass. Done. Break.