Doing Donna in the Dark

With the 3 Peaks Challenge behind me for another year, and with winter fast approaching, it’s time to refocus, to find a new cycling goal. For a start, I want to make sure that my fitness doesn’t drop off and that I’m still doing a decent amount of riding through the cooler months. I’m also keen to get into a bit of road racing through the Northern Combine.

But most of all, I want this winter to be one of adventure and exploration. Last year I did a handful of such rides with the Hells 500 gang, including Donna Done Dirty and Around the Lake. This year, I’d like to do even more rides like that, to explore and experience this great state of ours. And what better way to kick off a season of adventure riding than a climb of Mt. Donna Buang on a Friday night, after work, in the pitch-dark, and the rain?

Nigel (left), Joel (center) and Brian (right) psych themselves up pre-ride.
Nigel (left), Joel (center) and Brian (right) psych themselves up pre-ride.

A dozen of us met at Warburton at about 9pm and set off towards the start of the climb, a sea of white and red lights flickering in the darkness. The plan had been to stay as one big group up the climb but it didn’t quite work that way. Within the first kilometre the group was spread up and down the road but we made sure no-one was left to ride on their own.

We rode considerably slower than we normally would up Donna, but PBs were never the point of the exercise.

Lights in the night.
Lights in the night.

I must have climbed Mt. Donna Buang 20 or more times and it’s fair to say that I’m reasonably familiar with the climb’s various twists and turns. But in the dark, everything changes. Your vision is limited to the 50m or so in front of you, and it’s not until you hit a steeper ramp that you realise it’s there. Being able to transform a familiar ride into something completely different is a lot of fun.

The sound of birds and other wildlife was nearly constant and while there was heavy cloud cover for a lot of the ride, at times the moon peeked its head out, giving us a bit of extra light to play with.

Approaching the Cement Creek turn-off.
Approaching the Cement Creek turn-off.

We all regrouped at Cement Creek — roughly halfway up the climb — before setting off and splitting up again. By this point there was a bit of drizzle around but it wasn’t heavy enough to be too inconvenient. Far from it.

Climbing Donna Buang is already a pretty peaceful experience during the day (unless you’re pushing hard) but last night, with almost no cars around and with very few sounds apart from the wildlife around us, it was even more tranquil than usual. The addition of a light drizzle merely added to the natural beauty of the ride. But, I must admit, the rain did make me a little concerned about the descent. More so than I already was.

Doing Donna in the Dark (22.03.13) 077
The sign reads “View of Yarra Valley and Dandenongs”

The only other time I’ve climbed a mountain at night was during our last trip to Mt. Buller when my brother Brendan and I descended from the village and started climbing at about midnight. It was a gloriously warm and clear night and we were screaming down the hill a little faster than we probably should have been. As we rounded a bend in the final kilometre of the descent, we came across a wallaby or small kangaroo that was sitting in the middle of our lane.

If it hadn’t have hopped out of the way at the last minute one or both of us would almost certainly have hit it. As it was I’d been skidding for a few metres and I almost collected Brendan in my attempt to miss the wallaby/kangaroo. And while all three of us managed to get away unharmed, it did make me a little more cautious when it came time to descend Donna last night.

Doing Donna in the Dark (22.03.13) 085

After meeting everyone at the carpark at the top and enjoying some doughnuts and hot chocolate courtesy of 7 Peaks support crew member Maria, we rolled back down with a light rain still falling. The combination of rain, wet roads, fog, darkness and my Buller experience were enough to make me take it very easy on the way down.

I rolled most of the way down to Warburton with Andrew Moodie, chatting about this and that, and while we were both quite cold, the time passed a lot quicker than it would have otherwise.

In a way it’s strange that climbing a mountain could be more enjoyable that descending it but on Mt. Donna Buang — and on most climbs — heading down can be a bit of drag when it’s cold and wet. But, we all got back to Warburton safe and sound a little after midnight and after a quick chat it was time to head home.

Regrouping at the top of the mountain.
Regrouping at the top of the mountain.

Thanks to the crew that came out and joined me on the ride and kudos to Andy who rode to Warburton from Port Melbourne after work (and looked a little worse for wear when we got there!) and to Joel who smashed out a PB on Donna before meeting the rest of us for a more leisurely climb. And finally, thanks again to Maria for providing the food and drink, and a lift down the mountain for a couple of cold riders!

Click here to see my Strava file from the ride.

Have you ever climbed a mountain in the dark? How did it go? Would you do it again?

25 Replies to “Doing Donna in the Dark”

  1. I rode it Sunday morning in the dark and the rain. Headed off from Warburton at 4-30 am in the light rain. From Cement Creek onwards the hill was covered in mist such that vis was down to a few metres at best. Got to the top in about 1-30.

    I was on the brakes the whole way down and it took me about 26 minutes to descend – quite nerve wracking!

  2. We rode Donna in the dark last Wed also. First time i’ve ever done a full night ride.

    (We were supposed to leave in the light however traffic delays meant it was pretty much dark before we even left.)

    You really need to make sure the person in from doesn’t have their light on psycho mode or whatever it’s called… it gave me a headache after a while. Alternatively you can just smash past them and dish out some bright light payback….

    I’d be very interested to do this again under a full moon. (It wasn’t even close last week)

  3. Well done fellas – agree the climb is more satisfying than the descent. Fantastic music, song & artist? Cheers

  4. Light was a 3 X CREE XML XM-L T 6a LED 4000Lm Headlamp/Bicycle Light 2 in 1 Only used it once so not sure how durable it is but all good so far.

  5. I like your sentiments about exploring Victoria. It’s one of the main reasons why I rode from Meeniyan to Tidal River and back last Saturday. It’s not challenging as far as climbing is concerned but it’s an area I haven’t been to for many years and I wanted to ride somewhere completely different to where I’ve been over the last few months. I can’t say I’d do the whole ride again but it was good to have done it just the same. Wilsons Prom park entrance to Tidal River I’d do again but next time I wouldn’t do it alone.

    Well done for riding Donna Buang at night (especially in wet conditions).

  6. Any recommendations on lights that were used? Somehow I don’t think my usual USB rechargeable strobe light would do the trick.

  7. i really enjoy riding in the dark, so this was a great read. in the photos it looks like your lights are on when climbing. i find immersing myself into the darkness completely heightens the enjoyment and focuses the mind, so i turn my lights off when climbing. did you try that?

  8. Protip: time the start of your night climb so that the expected finish coincides with dawn. Not only will you have the quite lovely experience of cresting a mountain being saluted by the first rays of sunshine, but the descent will also have the definite advantage of being lit.

    That’s pretty much how the ACE250 0400 goes. Was a pleasure on Buffalo this year.

    1. That’s just what I did late last year. Started climbing DB at 5am through fog, and broke through to starry skies well before Cement Creek. Sunrise was about two thirds of the way up and with the fog in the valleys below the sight was just glorious. Lots of wildlife about too. Descent was absolutely freezing. Definitely will do this again, but maybe on a more balmy night.

  9. Sounds awsome. How long did Port Melbourne to Warburton take? Been caught out with crappy lights coming down from dandenongs in last few weeks so invested in some new lights on ebay. $50 from hong kong but came fully charged and at 4000 lumens (so it claimed) lit up whole road so could go full pace down mountain. Cars could see me coming around the corner and were dipping their lights. Have to do night rides to get a decent amount of kays up.

    1. The ride from Port Melbourne in my mind was circa 70 clicks – and I didn’t bother too much about mapping out a route having ridden out that way a few times. As it turns out it was a full 100km, and a good 3 hours of that was TT-ing to not miss the start. Of course the extra kms could have had something to do with the fact that I somehow went that far south I hit North road..

      A bonus was climbing the Devil’s Elbow just as the sun was setting over the city..

  10. Looks like lots of fun, great video too.
    Cool to see the braking and gear changes in the corner of the screen as you ride

  11. That is something I would never have thought of, sounds like great fun, might have to slip up there soon before the big chill really kicks in. Well done to you all

  12. Very lucky bunch! Being in downtown Mumbai, I am forced to ride in the dark. The climbs are much more enjoyable without a truck spewing smoke in your face

  13. Nuts. But awesome!

    Used to do reps of Black Mtn in Canberra at night when I lived there. Great on a full moon, but that’s only a bump next to Donna.

  14. I climbed Buller in near dark on a glorious blamy and still night late Feb and it was magical –

    I then went up Buffalo as part of an epic a few weeks ago. That didn’t go so well. I got broadsided by a wombat before I even got onto the climb and was nervous as all hell on the descent. Read all about it here – – along with a rambling musing on the Queen Vic loop.

    The most awesome time was the Back of Falls and High Plains on a cold and perfect night in late April with Josh Goodall. An unbelievably special experience and the best 2 hours on the bike ever –

    1. Confirming what Lard says. That was a really perfect night climb. Just the crunch of tyres on quartz, the velvet blackness of the countryside, crisp cold air and a crown of stars. By the time I reached Falls it was -1 degrees. But I was so, so happy.

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