It had been over seven years since I had last seen my friend Ollie. We actually only ever met once – for 36 hours, but it was on a 600km (400mi) ride where you get to know somebody inside-out by the end.
Over the years Ollie and I have both fallen down the rabbit-warren that is bike travel. Ollie spent 18 months cycling the Americas with his partner in crime, Victoria. He also opened a bike shop called Omafiets that specialises in touring and commuting in Sydney. Meanwhile, I had spent years travelling by bike and started a website you may have heard of called CyclingAbout.
With bikes between our legs and tailwinds at our backs, it was inevitable we would meet again.
Exploring The Jagungal Wilderness Area
Ollie invited me to ride with him and a bunch of his friends in the Australian Alps. I jumped on a train to escape the 4-million people strong city of Melbourne, bringing with me my friend Flynn who was able to cycle some of the ‘commute’ stage up towards Kosciuszko National Park (he had to turn around 24 hours later for Easter).
I was carrying a monstrous amount of food up into the mountains because I wouldn’t see any services for five days and five nights. I had: 1500g muesli, 16 wraps, 800g peanut butter, 1200g peanuts, 14 muesli bars, 5 carrots, 5 potatoes, 4 noodle packets, 1000g couscous, curry paste, 100g dried mushrooms, 5 cans of beans, 400g chocolate and 200g ground coffee. It all fitted in one 20 litre pannier… somehow. (In the end, I ate all but 500g of couscous!)
It took me a full afternoon to ascend to 1600m (5200ft) elevation with my days and days worth of food. I stayed at the Round Mountain Hut overnight before Ollie and more than a dozen other adventurers rocked up for three nights of alpine bliss.
I’m sure that it was colder inside the Round Mountain Hut than it would have been in my tent. Luckily the sun was in full force when I woke up. I took advantage of my coffee situation by stealing some stove heat for my icy-cold hands.
Jorja was one of the Crust bikes crew who was chaperoning two Americans – Kurt and Ray – around the country. Jorja recently got back from her own 18-month bike tour from Japan to India, so she had a story to tell, and knew her way around a campsite better than most.
The Jagungal Wilderness Area is 70% grassland. That allows hikers to basically walk anywhere without sticking to a trail. On the bikes we stuck to the double track which weaved its way along the valleys and ridges. Evidence of the 2003 bushfires still dominates most of Mt Kosciuszko National Park with virtually all the snow gums completely destroyed, leaving large swathes of dead trunks as far as the eyes can see.
With clear skies, we were treated to some absolutely fabulous sunrises and sunsets.
The temperature almost immediately dropped to freezing without the radiant heat of the sun. We had many expert fire makers amongst our troop so keeping warm was never an issue. The night was a great time to get to know many of the other folk on this trip, as we all travelled at different speeds during the day.
Day two had us going deeper into the Jagungal Wilderness Area. About half of the crew opted for a hike up Mount Jagungal (2061m/6762ft) while the other half had a lazy morning around the campfire.
I rode with Kurt, Jorja, Ray and Marcel because their packing-up speed seemed to match my slow start (I took the opportunity to have a bit of read in the sun too). Their bikes were clearly superior to mine, which was most evident when the trail got rough and rowdy. I had to take it pretty easily with my panniers and narrow slicks.
The Crust crew were riding some beasty-looking bikes. Jorja and Kurt both used ‘plus’ tyres (27 x 3.0″) which seemed to be perfectly matched to the terrain. They could carelessly bomb the downhill sections and have bucket loads of grip through all the corners. I was kinda jealous, but these bikes would’ve sucked for the hundreds of kilometres of tarmac I’d completed on my ‘commute’ up to the mountains.
In general, the landscape at 1700m is rather desolate. Sometimes I felt like I was actually in the Flinders Ranges on the Mawson Trail.
We did our fair share of hike-a-bike (ie. pushing) this day. I had some of the lowest gears out of the crew, so I was able to ride most of it – but my riding speed was essentially the same speed as walking!
Ray, the other ring-in from across the pond, was great to be around. The guy smiles no matter whether we were pinning it downhill, or pushing our bikes up steep grades for hours on end.
It was tough knowing we were within kilometres of the hut, but still with lots of steep pinches to go. We were distracted with beautiful vistas which made the going much easier.
On night two, we stayed at (and camped around) Valentine’s Hut. This is the cutest hut you will ever see, with six beds, a long table and a small fireplace. Victoria had brought some tea candles along which made the hut feel pretty special over a few games of cards. Did I mention the hut was red and had love hearts painted on it?
While Jorja used a Surly Long Haul Trucker on her big bike adventure from Japan to India, she brought along a Crust Romanceur for the Jagungal. A suite of strap-on bags allowed her to carry enough for the three nights we were in the wilderness.
Ray used a custom-made 29-plus (29 x 3.0″) mountain bike. Ray informed me that his bike was built before the Surly ECR came out in 2012, so Surly must have copied him! Ray packed pretty light with the majority of his gear in the framebag and front rack.
Marcel joined the plus-sized tyre crew with a more conventional mountain bike (although he will have his own Crust in the next few months).
There are lots of river crossings to contend with in the Jagungal Wilderness Area. For some, that meant taking their shoes off and tip-toeing across the creeks, but as I wear my beloved SPD sandals I could swing off my bike and stroll straight through.
Valentines Hut was the furthest location from the start, so we were now backtracking down the steep hills that we had previously walked up. It was certainly more fun flying down!
Marcel and Kurt were constantly bouncing jokes and ideas off each other, which provided the majority of the entertainment for the day.
Without the sun’s warm rays, we had to use clothing to keep ourselves warm… that is, until we stopped at a hut along the way. The crew got started pretty quickly on the fire while I made everyone a coffee. A lady camping at the site told us off for starting a fire during the day, claiming that there was a wood shortage in the national park. We almost literally had to stuff our fists in our mouths in order to keep the peace. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere with so much firewood about. Seriously. Needless to say, she was the butt of all of our jokes for the next few days!
While warming my hands in front of the fire, I turned around and it was Will and Sophie, also from Melbourne, who were spending a few days exploring similar tracks to us. They’d also brought along more appropriate bikes for the terrain (3.0″ wide tyres and bikepacking bags).
After drinking too much tea and coffee and sharing too many laughs, the SlowSquad and I were running late for the next hut. Instead of picking up the pace, we camped at a location all too familiar at the base of Mount Jagungal.
Dubbed the “best campsite ever”, we collected enough wood for the night and began setting up. Kurt was making mini pizzas on heated stones around the fire. Jorja was making ‘feetseats’ – foam slip-on shoes cut to size and bound with gorilla tape (watch out for the 2017/18 collection due soon).
It was hard to get out of my sleeping bag the next morning, but it was totally worth it. The fog, frost and lightly clouded sky put on a spectacle of a sunrise for us.
It wasn’t long until the down jacket could be peeled off, as we had another cracking day. We took our time to depart so that our flys and inners could defrost after the cold night.
We also said our goodbyes to Mount Jagungal, which could be seen from almost everywhere we had cycled the last few days. She’s pretty darn special!
The last few sections of trail were through wide, grassland valleys. This allowed for some rather stunning imagery that is now well and truly burned into my memory for whenever I recall this beautiful part of Australia.
With everybody heading off back to Canberra or Sydney, it was time for me to go home too. While most people jumped into cars, I descended off the mountain on two wheels with a whole lot less food, many new memories and a handful of good friends – cycling my way back towards Melbourne.