Bikepacking the Strzelecki Ranges
From the moment my mate Nick and I returned from our first bikepacking trip in April last year, we started looking for the opportunity to have another, similar adventure. It took 18 months but over the Melbourne Cup long weekend, Nick and I found some time to escape for a few days.
I’d first heard about this road a few years ago when the Great Victorian Bike Ride visited this part of the world. A bit of investigation revealed Grand Ridge Road was some 130km long and made its way through some truly breathtaking landscapes. Riding the length of Grand Ridge Road would form the backbone of our trip, with the odd diversion thrown in along the way.
Last time around we’d opted for mountain bikes so we could hit some trails in Forrest. This time we decided to take road bikes, hopefully allowing us to cover ground a little faster. The only unknown was what the surface of Grand Ridge Road was going to be like.
We’d heard it was unsealed in parts, but we didn’t know what percentage of the 130km was unsealed and how rough those unsealed sections were. But finding out is part of the adventure, right?
Day 1: Traralgon to Tarra Valley
Moving time: 3 hours 10 minutes (19.4km/h average)
The rain was lashing down outside as Nick and I sat on the train from Melbourne down to Traralgon. We’d both been looking forward to the trip in the lead-up but the prospect of rain throughout the weekend had our morale a little low.
Thankfully the rain had more or less cleared by the time we disembarked and after a quick coffee with Nick’s sister and her husband, we hit the road in almost dry conditions.
Our route took us south out of Traralgon towards the Loy Yang power station, an imposing structure that grew ever larger as we pedalled slowly towards it. Before too long we were dwarfed by the giant towers as we stopped to marvel at how big the nearby mine and the related infrastructure was.
From Loy Yang we swung east, heading for the start of Grand Ridge Road in Carrajung. A flat tyre for Nick in the tiny town of Gormandale gave us a good excuse to duck over to the nearby general store for some mixed lollies. These little parcels of sugar would prove to be a life-saver and morale booster on more than one occasion across the weekend.
While the weight of a fully-loaded bike is obvious as soon as you start riding, it’s not until you start doing some proper climbing that you really notice the weight. The ascent of Powers Hill just after Gormandale would normally have been a reasonably easy climb, but with bikes and bags loaded to the max, it proved slow going.
The road flattened out briefly as we reached the start of Grand Ridge Road.
It didn’t stay flat for long. The road soon ramped up and we were climbing at around 10% for most of a kilometre — a rude welcome to Grand Ridge Road, particularly with heavy bikes. A short descent and some more climbing later and we reached the first sustained unsealed section just outside Carrajung.
Over the next 10km we averaged no more than 15km/h, the loose sandy surface slowing us down. But as we got further into the Strzelecki Ranges there was more and more for us to look at and distract us from the slow progress we were making.
As the name suggests, Grand Ridge Road follows the ridgeline through the Strzelecki Ranges, ensuring some sort of view over the surrounding landscape for much of its length. In those opening kilometres, the views weren’t particularly spectacular — much of the surrounding area was covered in plantation forest, a significant amount of which had been freshly logged.
But after 10km on the sandy, unsealed surface, Grand Ridge Road became sealed again and the scenery began to change. Gone were the logged plantation forests and in their place were ferns, mountain ash gums and a range of other native flora.
From the top of the range we relished the fast, flowing descent through Balook and then, at Moorfields Saddle, turned left off Grand Ridge Road and headed towards our destination for the evening: Tarra Valley.
Photos and words hardly do justice to the natural beauty of Tarra Valley Road and the surrounding area. The narrow, serpentine road; the quintessential Australian temperate rainforest, the almost total absence of motorised traffic; a thoroughly enjoyable descent — it’s up there with the most amazing stretches of road I’ve ever ridden.
With the sun setting we descended into Tarra Valley, avoiding a couple of bike-eating bridges along the way, then pulled into the caravan park. Day one was done, and it had been a wonderful taste of what was to come.
Day 2: Tarra Valley to Mirboo North
Moving time: 4 hours 10 minutes (17.4km/h average)
After packing up camp we set off from Tarra Valley at around 10am. We stopped in at the caravan park reception to buy some snacks for the road, asking the owner whether there were any towns between Tarra Valley and our destination for the day, Mirboo North.
The owner shook his head and chuckled, explaining that even driving that distance takes a local at least an hour and a half. The subtext was clear: you guys are in for a hard ride. In hindsight, we should have bought more food and drink then than we did.
The amazing descent the day before meant that, to get back to Grand Ridge Road, we’d have a solid climb to start the day. But it was hard to complain — the weather was perfect, Nick and I were in good spirits, and we were riding through a truly magical landscape.
The 7km back up to Moorfields Saddle and Grand Ridge Road took us more than 40 minutes. Averaging more than 10km/h proved extremely difficult with heavy legs and heavy bikes. From the Saddle we turned left, rejoining Grand Ridge Road after leaving it behind the day before.
No sooner had we turned left than the road turned to gravel. With the climbing continuing for another 2km, it was a slow start to the day. We wouldn’t see a sealed road again for the next two hours.
That middle section of Grand Ridge Road is by far the most challenging to ride, particularly if you’re on a road bike as Nick and I both were. Where the previous day’s unsealed section had been soft and sandy, this section was covered in large rocks.
For several hours the ride was as mentally taxing as it was physically. Our gaze locked on the road about five metres in front, we focused simply on picking a line that would see us avoid the biggest and most dangerous-looking of the stones in our path.
Sometimes it simply wasn’t possible and we’d hit a large stone in our path, the force jolting through the rim and up through the bike. On those occasions I’d instinctively clench every muscle, simply hoping the impact wouldn’t result in a pinch flat.
Remarkably, we both got through the worst of it without any punctures.
At one of several junctions throughout the day the rocky surface came to an end and a more friendly unsealed surface took its place. But on road bikes with 25mm tyres, even this comparatively easy surface demanded constant vigilance.
From hard-packed clay to light gravel to a more sandy covering, the road surfaces changed frequently as we continued on our way towards Mirboo North. The surrounding landscape changed too, from the lush rainforests we’d seen a day earlier, to pine plantations in various states of growth and destruction, to more open landscapes where the views stretched for kilometres on end.
Our heavy loads and the rough roads made for hard riding and with nowhere to stop and fill up with food and water, we had soon gone through the vast majority of what we had with us. I wouldn’t say we were in any danger but it certainly got to a point where we were both hungry and thirsty and still unsure how far we had left to ride. We even talked about stopping at the next stream we found, boiling some water with the Trangia stove Nick had, and getting a drink that way.
The feeling of rolling on to sealed roads after hours on the gravel is one of the things I’ll remember most about this trip. It came as a great relief on this second day in particular, as we ticked over the 50km mark of the ride.
This change of road surface also corresponded with a dramatic change of scenery. Leaving the state forest behind we were suddenly surrounded by the rolling green hills of West Gippsland’s dairy country. We got to enjoy this in all its glory on a delightfully windy descent towards Boolarra South.
We’d been blessed with dry weather for the entire day until this point, despite a rather bleak forecast. The bit of drizzle that we did get in those closing kilometres seemed like a fair result given the thunderstorms we’d been supposed to encounter.
At some point a street sign declared it was just 14km to Mirboo North. Hunger and thirst were quickly forgotten as Nick and I ramped up the pace in a bid to get to our destination as soon as possible.
Those plans came undone about 6km later when a short climb proved draining to energy and morale and the pair of us sat up. We would adopt a more conservative approach for the final few kilometres of the day’s ride.
Few meals are as satisfying as those that come when you’re famished after a hard ride. Both sporting thousand-yard-stares from the day’s exertions, Nick and I gorged ourselves at the local fish and chip shop in Mirboo North as the forecast storm rolled through. It felt great to have bellies full and to have the day’s ride behind us.
The challenge wasn’t over, though. With no accommodation booked we’d spend the next little while searching for somewhere to stay. In the absence of a nearby camp ground, we set up camp in some bushland just outside town, before heading to the local brewery for dinner and a well-earned beer.
Day 3: Mirboo North to Warragul
Moving time: 2 hours 40 minutes (20.4km/h average)
I was beyond glad that the bivy I’d borrowed for the trip came equipped with a zippable flyscreen. What seemed to be an entire armada of mosquitos swarmed around my makeshift camp throughout the night but, thankfully, they couldn’t get in to eat me (for the most part). Unfortunately, the sound of mosquitos circling centimetres from my face kept me awake long in to the night.
Nick, too, had had a poor night’s sleep which made for a sluggish start to the day. It had been dry as we packed up our makeshift camp, but by the time it was time to hit the road, the rain had set in.
This wasn’t the sort of drizzle that passes through before moving swiftly on — it was genuine rain which, judging by the soupy sky around us, was settling in for the day.
We rolled out of Mirboo North somewhat reluctantly, morale low as we tried to steel ourselves for a day of constant rain.
Far from easing off, the downpour only intensified as we started to tick off the kilometres, quickly soaking us through. The heavy rain made for poor visibility and proved painful on the eyes, but sunglasses quickly fogged up when put on and were just as quickly removed.
This western end of Grand Ridge Road felt vastly different to the remainder of the road. The fact the road was mostly sealed was one difference, but so too was the surrounding landscape. Where plantation forests and temperate rainforest had characterised the first two days of the ride, the western end provided endless views of rolling greens hills and no shortage of dairy cows to moo at as we rode past.
Sadly, the inclement weather made it challenging to enjoy our impressive surrounds and both Nick and I found ourselves grinding away, simply wishing the rainclouds would blow away and allow us to get warm and dry.
Through the lush rainforest of Mt. Worth State Park the rain continued to fall and before too long we’d reached Seaview, a tiny township just 5km from the end of Grand Ridge Road.
At this point we had a decision to make. Continuing on to the end of the road would put us further away from the train line we’d been aiming for. Turning right would take us to Warragul quite quickly where we could jump on a train and head home. A quick look at the train timetable revealed there was a train we could make if we headed straight for Warragul.
With clothes and gear soaked and morale still quite low, we opted for the latter. It was disappointing to have ridden from the start of Grand Ridge Road only to call it quits with just 5km to go. But we both agreed it was probably the right call.
As luck would have it, the weather improved as soon as we started heading for Warragul. A fast descent off the range brought us to dry roads and almost-clear skies — a far cry from the thick fog and rain we’d ridden through for much of the day.
But we were committed by that point. We raced into Warragul with plenty of time to spare before the train, gorged ourselves on too much food from the local bakery, then boarded the V/Line service for Melbourne.
In three days of riding Nick and I covered a little less than 200km of riding, which mightn’t sound like much, but with fully loaded bikes on rough gravel roads it was far from easy.
If you are considering riding the length of Grand Ridge Road I’d say that while it’s certainly possible on road bikes, I’d probably recommend a cyclocross bike or gravel grinder. A mountain bike would be fine as well.
That said, I don’t regret deciding to take my road bike, even though that second day in particular was a real challenge. Opting for the road bike with 25mm tyres instead of the MTB I took last time saved me about 6kg and made for faster riding when the road was flat and sealed (which, admittedly, wasn’t too often).
This trip gave me the much-needed break I was after but also left me feeling like I now have unfinished business with Grand Ridge Road. At the very least I’d like to come back down and revisit the western end — hopefully in drier weather! — to check out those final 5km and to properly appreciate the stunning beauty of the roads we rode in the rain.
It’s the sort of thing that’s doable as a day-trip from Melbourne. V/Line train down to Warragul or Drouin, a nice long ride, and then back up on the train the same day. Nick and I are already talking about heading back down there sometime this summer …
Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoy the photo gallery below.