Three perplexed alpacas knee-deep in a flooded paddock watch me free-wheel into Nowa Nowa General Store, which sells T-shirts that deftly summarise Gippsland's prolonged annus horribilis: "Drought, tick. Bushfires, tick. COVID-19, tick. Down but not out!"
On day two (of nine), the pithy garment answers the big question that I was asking myself before embarking on this cycling-quest: "How the hell are you, Gippsland?"
Fed by curiosity and lockdown-delirium, I had decided to explore a big chunk of this state-sized mass of regional Victoria, using its far-reaching rail-trail network. However, faced with a perplexing choice of nine trails – ranging in length from fill-your-water-bottle to pack-two-changes-of-undies – I chose to make no choice at all. I would ride them all (except the one that was closed - see below), back-to-back, using a car to connect yesteryear's repurposed railway corridors.
THE EAST GIPPSLAND
The East Gippsland Rail Trail. Photo: Gavin Hansford
Orbost is the kind of place where Hi-Luxes come factory fitted with mud-splatter and strangers bellow hello to other strangers with no discernible agenda. Looking both ways at the designated goose-crossing, I pedal away from the Snowy Mountains gateway on my pannier-laden mountain-bike, staring 94 kilometres and three days of East Gippsland Rail Trail (to Bairnsdale) straight in its pretty face.
Woodsmoke, farm-fresh cow-pats and cut-grass aromas merge into vague childhood memories at the well-signed, idiot-proof trailhead. The 770-metre-long Snowy Rail Bridge is my first glimpse of Gippsland's rail-trail motif: timber trestle bridges, exoskeletons of ingenious engineering that spawned European settlement here. This (unrideable) one is subject of a rescue-attempt by passionate enthusiasts and, in the coming days, others materialise from the trail-side bush like wounded dinosaurs, gracefully spellbound by their own mortality.
The East Gippslander shadows the Princes Highway before wandering into the bush on a path of least resistance; deduced by long-gone engineers, who sought gentle gradients to stop locomotives from becoming murderous juggernauts. Consequently, rail-trail cycling is as easy as it gets.
Quizzical cows give way to darting rosellas and a prolific tweeter-verse with creaking-door and whistling-kettle calls. Hours later, I roll into Tostaree Cottages, self-contained farm-stays run by friendly Vicky and Greg Geddes, well in time for 5pm sundowners in the shed that Greg built for his daughter's wedding.
Its steep paddocks are Irish-countryside green, but Tostaree routinely faces the triple-threat: flood/fire/drought. In 2020, a last-minute "there-is-a-God" wind-change re-routed a bushfire. Nearby, the once 141-metre-long O'Gradys Bridge (1916) – made from hardwood almost harvested into extinction – had some "fire trouble". Greg bulldozed one third of it (while it was ablaze) to save the rest.
Past Nowa Nowa, Stony Creek Trestle Bridge spans a valley like a railway trapeze act. My tyres crackling on the gravel, turning goannas into bush-sprint champions, becomes my rail-trail soundtrack.
With its village-green-like main drag, 19th-Century post office and general store of seemingly unlimited utility, night-two haven, Bruthen, fades in like an old-time slide night. Nouveau-corrugated Bullant Brewery and buzzy Blue Bee Cafe snap me out of my Penny-Farthing daydreams.
Bairnsdale-bound, I bump into semi-retired farmer Kevin on his morning stroll. Our chat illustrates the precise difference between city and country life. An hour later, bursting with local goss' and new-found animal husbandry knowledge, I stir up frenzies of monarch butterflies cycling past platforms waiting for trains that will never again arrive.
The Gippsland Plains Rail Trail. Photo: Visit Gippsland
From Traralgon, the 63-kilometre, two-day Gippsland Plains Rail Trail conveyer belts me through open fields with the odd creek parting a vastness where only Telstra can hear you scream. I devour a family-sized vanilla slice – aided by a noisy minor bird in full sugar-frenzy – at postage-stamp-petite Platform 3854 Cafe atop old Glengarry Station.
Lycra and (cyclists' secret) chamois-cream keep my toosh surprisingly pristine, but my mind struggles to acclimatise to the pace of places like Toongabbie; once an industrious link in the gold-mining chain, but now the country-town equivalent of a nanna-nap.
I down a frosty pot and banter with bearded sages at Cowwarr Cricket Club Hotel before traversing Dawson Flora Reserve into High-Country portal Heyfield, its hardworking credentials worn proudly on the poignant Victorian Timber Workers Memorial. Heyfield Railway Hotel (the "Top Pub") offers comfy digs, a designated parma menu and slapstick bar-chat.
Multiple Gippsland epiphanies materialise on day two. Veiled by its just-another-pub name, Tinamba Hotel is a regional fine-dining gold nugget, with its equally refined dark-wood ambience and chef's "Feed Me" special. Maffra's broad avenues and chilled cafes suggest a town comfortable in its own well-groomed skin, which I bookmark for later visits.
Ironically, I have to plead with the rail-replacement bus driver at Stratford to get my bike onboard, bound for trail three.
THE GREAT SOUTHERN
The Fish Creek Hotel. Photo: Rob Blackburn
The Great Southern Rail Trail (72 kilometres over two days) flows south-east from Leongatha, through prime dairy country that doppelgängers New Zealand's North Island before narrow-leaf peppermint and swamp gums remind me I still call 'Straya home.
Self-proclaimed slow-food hub Koonwarra serves up a trio of Prahran-esque pitstops: Paddlewheel Farmers' Market Store, Milly and Romeo's Artisan Bakery, and The Ethical Food Store. The latter assures me that my free-range brekky is sourced nearby.
Along the Black Spur, the Strzelecki Ranges peak out from the tea trees, before a gum-booted, hand-standing community garden scarecrow (in Spandex) directs me into enchanting Meeniyan. My relentless local-pastry-and-coffee cycle continues with a sublime raspberry crostata with Jeff-Bezos-rich cream (from Moo's). I browse Meeniyan's galleries, walking my bike to avoid donnybrooks with the swelling numbers of day-trippers.
In a children's-storybook moment outside tiny Buffalo, I simultaneously cross the path of a fox, a hare, and a vexatious swooping magpie. The town's vintage general store might be Gippsland's suavest structure, complete with vintage Michelin Man statue, even if COVID-19 has relieved it of its retail responsibilities.
Fish Creek is a whole other kettle of, umm, fish. Its charismatic shops and curvy Art-Deco Fish Creek Hotel mark this as South Gippsland's Personality Capital. The townsfolk creatively embrace Australia's "big thing" tradition with a pole-mounted mosaic fish sculpture (Commonwealth Games flotsam) and yet another fish perched preciously on the hotel roof.
Next day, I feel the wrath of the "Gippsland Weekend" (Mondays/Tuesdays), missing the head-lightening delights of Gurneys Cidery, after also missing Nicholson River Wines on the East Gippsland. (Tip: always check opening times ahead, and never start cycling too early or late.)
I take a 20-kilometre detour at tranquil Toora to catch elevated perspectives of Wilson's Prom and witness Agnes Falls puking recent rain. The sluggish cycle up a quiet dairy road reminds my chicken legs just how neutral rail-trail riding is. The tear-producing, verdurous-valley free-wheel down to Port Welshpool's 800-metre Long Jetty proves worth the burn.
THE DAY-TRIPPERS AND IN-BETWEENERS
The Bass Coast Rail Trail. Photo: Visit Gippsland
To complete the rail-trail quest, I jigsaw five baby trails in between the multi-day A-listers. Each adds a layer to Gippsland's complex personality. Moe-Yallourn trail (17km-return) plays out like a Stand by Me sequel; starting in edgy regional urbanity, funneling into a trippy tree-tunnel, and finishing in a Pink Floyd album cover; surreal snippets of giant Yallourn Power Station beasting through the foliage.
With Mr-Miyagi-level Google Mapping, I devour a trio of Baw Baw brilliance in one day. To witness the battle between the 15-metre-high Crossover Bridge and advancing undergrowth, I soar down Rokeby to Neerim trail's honour-guard of gargantuan gums and fern gullies (13km one-way). Grand Ridge trail is the Strzelecki Ranges' equivalent of a fresh-morning ocean-swim (through temperate rainforest). I coast 13 kilometres, from Mirboo North to Boolarra, then huff-and-puff back up, pausing briefly to hug the "Big Tree" which is, indeed, pretty darn big.
Noojee Trestle Bridge trail is a 3-kilometre doddle from a sleepy hollow to a 102-metre-long structure that is hard-core pontist porn. Rebuilt after a 1939 bushfire (and refurbed), "Number 7" was not even a stand-out in the former "Valley of the Bridges".
Starting in Anderson, the Bass Coast Rail Trail, my coast-hugging swan-cycle, is pure joyride, despite a farewell downpour. Herculean hill-top wind turbines seem to purse lips and blow me towards, Wonthaggi, chequered flag for three-hundred unsealed kilometres that have relegated the relentless pandemic news-cycle to the white noise that it really should be. Yep, there's nothing like a brisk cycle through the fresh, resilient countryside to remind you of what's really important in life.
Gippsland has nine designated rail trails (Tyres Junction Rail Trail was temporarily closed). Trail heads are from 90 to 280 kilometres drive from Melbourne. Nine days cycle hire from Snowy River Cycling was $300 (snowyrivercycling.com.au). Australian Cycling Holidays, Leongatha, offers itinerary ideas, accommodation and transfers (australiancyclingholidays.com.au).
Steve Madgwick was a guest of Destination Gippsland and Visit Victoria