Bikepacking the Otways: part two
We pick up the story on day 3 of the trip, after a day spent riding from Geelong to Forrest, and a day of mountain biking at Forrest.
Day 3: Forrest to Anglesea
On Thursday night it drizzled on and off and when we woke on Friday morning it was to the realisation that we’d be packing up went tents. Folding up went canvas isn’t great at the best of times, but when every bit of water you roll into the tent is getting attached to your bike, it’s particularly frustrating. But we had little choice; we needed to get on the road.
After a great breakfast of bacon and egg sandwiches courtesy of Nick’s work colleagues that we’d spent time with the night before (cheers guys!) we headed to the Corner Store for a coffee. The Corner Store is owned by Norm and Jess Douglas — the latter being a 3 x World 24-hour solo MTB champion — and the two of them also being the owners of the Corner Store at Mt. Buller.
We told Norm of our plan for the day — to take the forest road out of town then cut down to the Great Ocean Road via Erskine Falls Road — and he suggested a better alternative. “Head to the tower at the highest point in the Otways, Mt. Cowley, then descend Sharps Track into Lorne. Don’t descend Garveys Track, it’s too steep.”
Taking note of Norm’s suggestion we followed Kaanglang Road out of town and started climbing into the Otways. We were climbing for most of the first 15km of the ride as we headed south east towards the coast, and despite it being challenging at times, it was great to be back on the road.
The overnight rain had stopped and despite the temperature dropping as we climbed higher, it was hard not to enjoy those early kilometres. The legs were feeling strong after a good night’s sleep and with virtually no traffic on the road, it was just the two of us, riding our bikes. Bliss.
About 14km out of Forrest we took a left on to the Benwerrin-Mt. Sabine Road and continued climbing towards Mt. Cowley. By this stage we were starting to get pretty hungry and the lemon slice we’d picked up as we left the Corner Store was starting to get pretty enticing. By the time we pulled over to the side of the road, after 90 minutes of riding, we were both just about ready to eat anything that even vaguely resembled food. Needless to say the lemon slice went down a treat.
Not too far up the road we came across a sign pointing towards Garveys Track and the Mt. Cowley fire tower. We remembered Norm saying not to descent Garveys Track … but we also remembered that he said to go up to Mt. Cowley. We pondered our options for a brief moment — was it worth just continuing on to Erskine Falls Road as we’d initially planned? — but instead decided to take our chances.
We climbed the kilometre and a bit to the tower at the top of Mt. Cowley before following the track down the other side. There was no sign of the road we were after, Sharps Track, but there was a sign warning us of the condition of the road ahead.
After another brief discussion we continued on. We figured the road would take us out to the sea somehow and besides, how hard could a 4WD-only track be? We were riding MTBs after all.
The track started off alright — a hard-packed surface with few potholes or other causes for concern — and then we came to a junction and a sign saying “Sharps Track”. We were on the right track after all. But the road was also about to get a whole lot trickier than we had expected.
According to Strava the descent from Mt. Cowley is 10.5km long with an average grade of -6%. But rather than being a consistent grade down the mountain, the track descends in a series of ramps. False-flat, -15%, false-flat, -20%.
The steep stuff was manageable, even when the surface started to deteriorate. But when we started hitting rutted-out mud slicks on the steep stuff, well, that was another thing entirely.
On a couple of occasions I felt the back wheel slip out from under me — not normally a huge issue, but when you’re hauling close to 25kg of bike and gear, plus your own body weight, the rig becomes a little harder to control. I was sure I was going to hit the deck at least once but thankfully I managed, somehow, to keep the bike upright.
When I caught up to Nick we both laughed. He’d had a similar experience on the way down and we were both lucky to have stayed on our bikes.
With the worst of the descent over we turned left on to a more major road and I yelled out “yay, a sealed road!”. Except that it wasn’t. It was just a hard-parked gravel road which, in comparison to the rutted out track we’d been descending, looked sealed. Still, it was good to be on something a little more solid and we enjoyed the last bit of descending (and climbing) into Lorne.
In the back of my head I knew it was Good Friday but I was still shocked to see so many people as we rolled into Lorne. I think it might just have been the fact we’d come from the tiny town of Forrest and ridden through the wilderness for most of three hours without seeing more than a dozen people.
The popular coastal town was swarming with holiday-makers as we grabbed some lunch at the bakery. When we mounted up and started heading east along the Great Ocean Road towards our final destination for the day, Aireys Inlet, the sun poked its head out of the clouds for the first time that day. The cycling gods were smiling upon us.
Leaving Lorne behind it took several kilometres for us to pass the traffic jam on the other side of the road. Thankfully there was far less traffic on our side of the road and better still, every driver that passed was patient and gave us enough room. It was particularly great to see Geelong resident and Domestique rider Simon Burge who drove past us, stopped, gave us a wave then passed us again. Thanks Simon!
After the the tough, gravelly, largely-uphill slog through the Otways, riding along the Great Ocean Road felt like a breeze. And there was a breeze too, right at our backs, which made it easy to power along, even up the 2.6km climb not far out of Lorne.
When the road flattened out Nick came to the front and started driving the pace. The kilometres ticked away as we sat at 35-40km/h, Aireys Inley coming up quicker than expected. We were both feeling strong and after a quick chat we decided to push on to Anglesea. It was only a further 12km up the road and it would mean a shorter ride on the final day — a good idea given Nick needed to be home by a certain time.
Nick spent most of those last 12km on the front, pushing hard, and after the efforts of the previous section I wasn’t able to hold his wheel. Despite the fact he rides far less than he used to (he used to race B grade), Nick is still undeniably strong. The fact he ran a marathon in 3:20 late last year gives you some indication of his fitness.
We’d booked our campsite at Forrest in advance but with Aireys Inley/Anglesea we were just winging it. We went straight to the Anglesea Caravan Park and despite being chock-full of families with kids — good lord, so many kids! — they had a spot for us.
Our first task was to dry off the went tents that we’d packed away that morning — an easy task given the coastal breeze that was ripping through the caravan park. With the dry tents set up it was time for dinner, a cruisey ride on the beach and an early night before the final day of our adventure.
Click here to see my ride from day 3 on Strava.
Day 4: Anglesea to Geelong
It was with great relief that we woke on Saturday morning and found that the tents were dry. On Thursday they’d been dewy, on Friday they’d been soaked by overnight rain, but on Saturday they were bone dry. Perfect!
Nick went down to the beach for a quick swim and after a final camp breakfast we packed up all our gear, attached it to our bikes and set off one final time. It’s amazing how quickly you get into a rhythm with these things. Packing the bikes became more efficient every day and the riding too just became the norm.
That said, the 3km climb straight out of Anglesea on our fourth and final day was a rude shock to the legs. It was a relief when the road flattened out, not just because the climb was finished but because we were turning left off the busy Great Ocean Road, on to the first of the day’s back roads.
The ride back to Marshall station might only have been around 40km but it still felt like a decent little hitout to finish the trip. The route we took ensured that we hit a bunch of unsealed roads in the first half of the ride, and quieter sealed roads as we got closer to the outskirts of Geelong.
As we rolled towards our final destination Nick and I chatted about how we thought the trip had gone. We both agreed that a longer trip was both appealing and doable, given how easily we’d fallen into a rhythm in our four-day trip.
It was satisfying to cut out way east then north towards Geelong, crossing the main roads but never having to ride on them. There are just so many little roads in the Surf Coast area that you’d never know about if you didn’t go looking for them.
We’d set a decent pace on the final stretch into town and we arrived with plenty of time to spare before the train departed for Melbourne. We headed back to the shops we’d visited just a few days earlier, both of us getting the feeling that it was much more than four days since we’d been there.
Back at Marshall station we loaded our bikes on to the train and enjoyed the hour-long journey back to Melbourne. I’m not sure about Nick but I was having trouble keeping my eyes open on the two train trips it took me to get home to Melbourne’s northern suburbs. We weren’t riding huge distances every day, but we were doing enough to ensure that a good rest was in order by the time we got home.
Click here to see my Strava file from the final day of the trip.
I have no hesitations in saying that this trip was one of the most memorable cycling experiences I’ve ever had. The surrounds, the terrain, the company … it was all amazing.
I think what I found most satisfying was the pure simplicity of it all. Everything we needed we had with us, and everything we didn’t (mainly food) we just bought along the way.
I enjoyed the discipline of getting packed for the trip knowing that everything I bought would just be something else I had to carry. And I enjoyed packing everything up in the mornings, strapping it all to the bike and carrying the whole lot with me.
It sounds horribly cliched but bikepacking really brought cycling back to the basics for me. It wasn’t about egos or smashing Strava segments or proper sock height or tsk-ing at riders with unshaved legs; it was about riding bikes, eating food, camping out and spending time with a great mate.
I also found that the trip gave me a real appreciation for things I normally take for granted. Like the fact food tastes so damn good when you’ve been riding all day. Or the fact that daylight can be a big factor when you’re riding your bike and camping. And even things like distance — riding a heavy bike really gives you a sense of how damn big this country of ours is.
I’m definitely inspired to do a similar, longer trip in the near future, but I’d probably make a few little changes. First, I’d invest in a bike that’s the right size for me. Brendan’s bike was great, but probably a touch too small. I’d also spend some more time finding a great saddle. You really can’t afford saddle sores or even just being uncomfortable in the saddle on multi-day rides.
I’d also invest in a warmer sleeping bag — I froze on the first night, even though I was fully dressed inside my sleeping bag. And I’d probably get MTB-specific pedals and shoes, to make it a little easier to unclip and clip back in while on the trails.
I think the time we spent on the bike each day was just about perfect. Somewhere around four hours of riding — with several breaks throughout — felt right, and any more than about six hours would probably be unsustainable, for me anyway.
In closing I’d like to say a big thank you to my brother Brendan for lending me his bike and other gear, to everyone that followed and commented on the trip via Instagram, and finally to Nick. It was Nick that came up with the idea for the ride and he was the one that made it all come together so smoothly. Thanks again for everything!
And finally, to you, thanks for reading!