We had decided that we would take the train out of Melbourne, both to save some time (thus giving us more time on the beach!) and to avoid what we had heard was a bit of a boring slog across flat, uninteresting terrain. So the next day we took the train to the town of Bairnsdale, to the East of Melbourne. This sleepy town really felt like a remote backwater – just one main street with a bit of a tumbleweedy feel about it (although as we were to find out in coming days, Bairnsdale is a thriving metropolis compared to the rest of East Gippsland, the area it is in). We found the local campsite and set up our tent, before having a pleasant barbecue while chatting to some other people in the campsite. One family from a local town told us that normally they prefer to wild camp as there are lots of nice places around where you can do that without getting into trouble, but that this year they had decided to stay in a campsite as there were a lot more snakes about than usual because of the unusually wet weather they had had. That definitely reinforced our decision to stay in campsites rather than wild camp!
The next morning we set off in the direction of the town of Orbost, around 100km away. We weren’t loving cycling on the Princes’ Highway, so when we saw a turning off to a so-called ‘rail trail’ that also led to Orbost, we decided to take it. These rail-trails exist where old disused railway tracks have been removed, leaving just the path the rail ran along behind. The path is now maintained as a cycling and hiking route, providing a flat and traffic-free path across the countryside. Definitely much nicer than cycling on the road. The only downside is that the surface is unsealed, which slowed our progress a bit, but that was fine as the sealed road was probably no faster as it was quite hilly. The path was very quiet, which enabled us to see quite a bit of wildlife, including several echidnas (like porcupines) and lots of parrots. One aspect of the wildlife that we didn’t enjoy though was the numerous spider webs stretched across the path in the more remote sections that nobody else had been down recently. Getting a facefull of spiderweb when cycling at speed is not enjoyable at all and very nearly resulted in both of us falling off our bikes as we frantically clawed at our faces worried that we might have a big nasty spider on us along with the web. Yuck!
Another issue slowing our progress was that Christine kept getting punctures on her rear wheel. We had recently replaced the tyre on that wheel as the previous one was wearing thin, but the only spare we were carrying at the time was one of the Schwalbe Supremes that I have complained about in previous blogs. It didn’t help that the spare inner tubes we now have have all been patched quite a few times and so are reaching the end of their lifespan – really we should have bought more but we didn’t appreciate how bad the problem would be and so hadn’t bothered when we were in Melbourne. Now that we were in the back end of nowhere with no bike shop for hundreds of kilometres we regretted that oversight, as the combination of the extremely puncture prone Schwalbe Supremes (never ever buy this tyre!!) and the old inner tubes resulted in about 8 punctures over two days – extremely frustrating. Eventually we swapped the tyre and inner tube from Christine’s rear wheel with those from Pete’s front wheel, as the front wheel is much less likely to puncture than the rear. Despite the fact that the tyre now on Christine’s rear wheel (a Schwalbe Marathon Plus) has travelled over 12,000km or so, it has not punctured once since, which shows just how good it is compared to the Supreme tyre.
Anyway we reached the small town of Orbost in the late afternoon and spent a pleasant night in the campsite there. The campsite owner, who was very friendly and chatty, warned us that the next day was due to be extremely hot – 40c – and suggested we do things the ‘Aussie way’, which is to set off really early in the morning (rather than the lazy ‘European’ way which involves getting up late). As we had not found the heat a problem so far – it had got to almost 40c on our way into Orbost, but the fresh breeze and frequent shade made it feel quite bearable – we chuckled to ourselves a bit and thought ‘well, we are European, and we are not going to get out of bed at 5am unless we really feel we have to!’ So the next day we got up at our normal time and set off at around 9am. What a mistake that was – when will we learn not to ignore local advice?! The road was quite unshaded, there was no breeze, it was very very hilly, and overall we got extremely hot – we were certainly soon wishing we had set off at daybreak after all. It didn’t help that there were virtually no facilities between Orbost and our destination, Cann River, only one hotel about halfway where we were able to stop and buy a cold drink. The hotel owners were a tad unfriendly and unhelpful, looking rather askance at us when we only ordered a drink (we had sandwiches in our bag for later on in the afternoon), and not seeming too enthusiastic to let us fill our water bottles up with tap water. A bit rubbish considering how hot it was and the fact that they were the only source of drinking water for us all day (in fact any water – filtering river water isn’t even an option round here as all the rivers dry up in summer) – something they would have been very aware of.
The afternoon was really hard work – we felt like we were in a furnace. To make things worse, this section of the Princes’ Highway is particularly busy with trucks in the afternoon. Considering that the road is a narrow, windy, hilly single-lane carriageway, we just couldn’t believe the speed at which everyone drives on it, particularly the truck drivers – definitely well over 100 km/hour. On several occasions we were literally forced off the road when a truck behind us could not overtake as something was coming the other way, and absolutely could not stop in time because of the speed it was going at. What also surprised us is that there were no speed cameras in evidence – in fact we have not seen one in over 700km of riding on the Prince’s highway, despite the fact that just about every vehicle is breaking the speed limit (85 km/h, less on bends and hills) most of the time. We heard later on that when the police carry out (infrequent) mobile speed checks in the area, it is normal for lorries to be found to be doing 130 km/h. We find it incredibly disappointing that this situation is allowed to continue as it is so dangerous. All it takes is for a fast-moving lorry to round a bend into a slower-moving vehicle (including cyclists!) for carnage to ensue. All in all we consider the narrower sections of the Princes Highway in the afternoons (we think the trucks mostly set off from Melbourne in the mornings) to be one of the most dangerous roads we have cycled on in the world – we don’t recommend it. Unfortunately there is no alternative – there are very few roads in the area, and none others that run along the coast.
All in all we were very happy to reach the campsite at the small settlement of Cann River. After prolonged cold showers and lots of drinking of cold water to rehydrate, we set up camp, had dinner, then investigated the local pub to watch the final of the Australian Open on TV. Andy Murray was in it, so Pete wore his Scotland shirt, much to the amusement of the few other patrons of the bar. Unfortunately being such a quiet place, the bar shut at 8.30pm so we did not get to watch the end of the match! The next morning, having learned our lesson the day before, we set off nice and early, despite the fact that we had only a very short distance to do (50km) to our destination, the small town of Genoa. We would have liked to go further but after Genoa there was almost 70km of hilly road with absolutely no facilities, which would have made the day unbearably long overall. We got into the tiny village of Genoa – population around 100 – by 10.30am and found the campsite, which we were pleased to find was free. What we weren’t pleased to find was that the shop we had expected to be there had closed a while ago, so we had no food for lunch or dinner. We had carried enough food for dinner at Cann River, as we knew the shops would be shut when we got there (as it was a Sunday evening) but had counted on being able to stock up again in Genoa. There was, thankfully a hotel/motel with a bar that said it served meals, and a small cafe. We tried the bar for lunch, but the rather haughty proprietress told us they only served food in the evening. We asked where we could get a meal from and she told us we would have to go to Mallacoota, a town 25km away in the wrong direction. When we pointed out we were on bicycles and so couldn’t do that she just shrugged and went back to chatting to the local customers. Now if we ran a bar in the middle of nowhere and two hungry cyclists came in looking for food, even if we didn’t have the kitchen open or whatever, we would offer to rustle up a sandwich or something. Not hard, is it? But clearly this was a local bar for local people and we just weren’t welcome.
Disaster (or just a long hungry afternoon) was averted when two other customers in the bar, who had stopped for a break on their drive back to Melbourne, took pity on us and gave us some food they had left over – just some fruit but certainly very welcome. We also realised shortly afterwards that the cafe across the way was open and serving sandwiches. Why the owner of the bar hadn’t pointed us there to start with mystified us but the reason became clear when we got chatting to the much friendlier, if slightly scary, owner of the cafe. She is from Germany originally and took over the cafe in Genoa some ten years ago.It seems that she and the woman that runs the pub have never exactly seen eye-to-eye and indeed were at that time involved in a protracted legal wrangle over what seemed to us a rather trivial matter. The cafe owner told us that the owner of the bar was a bit of a redneck harridan who dislikes people who aren’t from the area, and particularly those from other countries or those who look a bit different (dread locks, tattoos etc) – apparently in the past there have been numerous occasions where she has refused to serve or offer accommodation to people she does not like the look of, despite being the only food/accommodation for some distance around. Another tactic is to insist that people she doesn’t approve of have to pay double to sit inside the pub rather than outside. You just can’t make people like that up! Clearly we had passed muster when we went in looking for lunch, but only just – when we went back for dinner we were repeatedly asked if we wouldn’t like to sit outside and when we said no as it was hot (and they had air-con inside), our food was served in a different room away from the other, local patrons (all two of them), who were allowed to eat in the bar. We are amazed that places such as that can survive, when they appear to do their best to put off their customers. All we can say is shame on you, owner of the Genoa pub and hotel/motel – we only hope that one day you find yourself the recipient of such hospitality (unlikely as she was the sort of person never to leave the area).
Back at the campsite things were a little more cheery as we bumped into three other cycle tourists who were travelling in the opposite direction to us. It was good to be able to exchange tips on the road ahead. We got up early the next day, prepared for a bit of a slog to the town of Eden on the coast. We were a little concerned about our lack of supplies – other than the snacks donated to us the day before, we had little in the way of sustenance to keep us going over the 70km ahead. To counter this we had a big breakfast of the food we had on us – baked beans and pasta, which thankfully saw us through to Eden without a problem. The ride was uneventful, but very hilly and quite dull, so we were quite glad when we reached the coast and the town. We found a great campsite right by a fantastic beach, and spent a happy afternoon lazing on the beach and splashing in the crystal clear surf. That evening the wind picked up significantly, so much so that people round about us started frantically tightening the guy lines on their tents etc. Our tent is designed to be very stable in windy conditions, and we had fortuitously pitched it in exactly the right direction relative to the wind, so we had no problems. The temperature of the wind was incredible though, so hot it was like a hairdryer on full power – not very nice at all. The poor couple next to us were clearly not used to camping and had not put up their tent very securely – soon they were panicking and even though Pete offered to help they decided just to collapse the tent in the hope the wind would die down. Unfortunately it didn’t and they spent the night sleeping in a collapsed tent – they didn’t look very impressed and we wonder if they will camp again in the future!
The strong wind was very noisy and as a consequence we slept badly, and were not happy when the alarm went off at 5.30am the next morning. We knew we had a long couple of days ahead of us if we were to get to the town of Bateman’s Bay by Thursday, in time to get the bus for a side-trip to Canberra to see Hazel, an old uni friend of Christine’s, for the weekend. Thankfully the strong wind had brought a change in the weather and it was somewhat cloudy and much cooler, so we made good progress over the many hills as far as the town of Tathra, where we stopped for lunch on the beautiful beach. From there it was only 40km to Bermagui, where we planned to stop for the night, so we set off at a relaxed pace after lunch. This was a bit of a mistake as we had underestimated both the hills, their steepness, and how tired we were after four days of hot, hilly cycling. It seemed to take forever to get to Bermagui, but we were rewarded when we did by beautiful, empty beaches – it amazes us that such nice beaches are so commonplace in Australia, and that most of them seem to be very quiet most of the time. We set up camp just in time for the clouds that had gathered to burst – not good but not the end of the world as there was a nice covered bbq area near our tent where we could sit out the rain. It stopped for a while and we thought that was that, but then a huge thunderstorm started and the rain became torrential. Now our tent is waterproof, but any tent in those conditions is likely to let in at least some water, and we were not looking forward to a potentially soggy night. To mitigate this we moved our tent into the bbq area – there was thankfully plenty of floor space to allow us to do this, to keep out the rain, although this mean sleeping on concrete – not ideal. However, it turned out we didn’t have to sleep there after all – as \we were just getting ready for bed, a very kind old man staying in a permanent cabin opposite offered us his campervan – which he was not using – to sleep in for the night. We very gladly accepted and had an absolutely blissful, dry night’s sleep – wonderful!
The next morning it was still drizzling but we decided to get on with it and set off quite promptly. As it happened the day brightened somewhat and we didn’t get rained on at all, much to our relief. We knew about Cyclone Yasi hitting Queensland the night before, so felt very grateful to have got off lightly with the weather system that had come across eastern Australia. Once again the road was horribly hilly and we felt ourselves really struggling in the afternoon as the sun came out properly and it got really quite hot again. Our progress over the hills – many of which were so steep we had to walk up them – was at times painfully slow and it took us until 5pm to reach Bateman’s Bay. This town is really quite touristy and in our view not that nice, and the campsites more expensive than elsewhere, but as we were getting the bus to Canberra from here the next afternoon it didn’t make sense to move on. The campsite we found was very quiet – we were the only guests – but the owners were friendly and the quietness allowed us to have a really good night’s sleep, which we really needed after six long days on the bikes.
Our bus wasn’t until 3pm the next day so we had a very lazy breakfast of eggs and bacon cooked on the barbecue followed by some time packing up our bikes – we had arranged with the campsite that we would leave them there until our return on Sunday. As we knew we had to buy our bus tickets in advance – you can’t buy them on the bus – we then wandered to the tourist office to get them. There they told us that to book through the tourist office incurs a booking fee of $5, which we could avoid if we called the bus company and paid using our credit card instead. Fine, we said, pulling out the Aussie mobile that Pete’s brother Dave has very kindly lent us for our time down under. The woman then pointed out that it would be very expensive calling from a mobile, but very cheap from a landline. At this point we are sure that if we were in any of the other countries we have visited on our journey, the tourist office would have happily let us use their phone – even if we paid them for it. But that wasn’t happening, instead they they suggested we find a pay phone, but couldn’t tell us where the nearest one was – as the assistant tittered, she couldn’t remember the last time she had had to use a landline. So we spent 20 minutes walking around until we found one. All in all it was a complete waste of time going to Tourist Information, they weren’t exactly helpful! Anyway it was fine once we found a payphone and called, and the bus turned up nice and promptly to take us to Canberra to visit Hazel and her boyfriend Edd who are working out here at the moment.