Rail trails have been the cycling rage in Australia for about the last two decades. Victoria has more than 40 scratched across the state, Queensland has the longest rail trail in the country, and the concept has grown wheels in South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia.
And yet it was only last year that Australia's most populous state opened its first rail trail along a state-owned rail corridor, with the launch of the Tumbarumba to Rosewood Rail Trail.
Stretching 21 kilometres through the valleys at the western foot of the Snowy Mountains, New South Wales' first rail trail provides glimpses of Australia's highest mountains, but is itself a ride of gentle inclines and declines – the tame gradients that are one of the universal pleasures of rail trails.
At its trailhead at the edge of Tumbarumba, there's no mistaking the railway connection. The town's original train-station sign has been reinstalled, along with old railway gates and a small barracks that once housed train crews. But sprinkled among them now are bike racks and a bike workstation as indicators that one form of transport has yielded to another.
As the name suggests, the rail trail follows the course of a former railway – a branch line that extended east from Wagga Wagga in 1921 and ceased service in 1974.
The railway gates suitably form a starting line of sorts, as I duck through a cutting and out to a view of the Snowy Mountains forming a blue wall away to the east.
For the first four kilometres, I barely turn the pedals, as the sealed trail heads downhill, curling effortlessly through a rural landscape. It feels like such a simple design – adhere to the old railway – but the riding is the only thing about this rail trail that's been simple.
The idea for the trail was conceived in 2004 after a local resident heard about New Zealand's Otago Central Rail Trail. It was hoped the trail would extend 135 kilometres to Wagga Wagga, running the length of the former railway line, but it was another 16 years before even this smaller section came to fruition.
"There were a number of years of getting support and jockeying with politicians," says Tumbarumba to Rosewood Rail Trail Committee chair Grant Harris. "To change a railway line into a multipurpose walking and cycling track in New South Wales, you actually have to have an act of parliament to close the line. And that's not an easy thing to happen."
It was more than a decade before legislation was enacted to close the railway. A second NSW rail line – the Northern Rivers railway – was officially closed by parliament last October, heralding the start of work on the state's second such rail trail, which will eventually run 130 kilometres from Murwillumbah to Casino.
On the Tumbarumba to Rosewood Rail Trail, there's an almost perfect symmetry to the ride's gradient, with the meandering downhill run ending near the halfway point, before an equally gentle 50-metre climb to the finish in Rosewood. Cockatoos lift from the trees like mist, and the Southern Hemisphere's largest softwood mill is soon passed and replaced by a vineyard that caps the ride's midpoint.
Across its first half, the trail also crosses a series of wooden bridges over trickling waterways, the longest of which spans Mannus Creek at the point where the trail bottoms out.
Past the creek, the rural landscape continues almost all the way to Rosewood, with the original railway specifically designed to run through farms to give them easy access to markets.
Today, some of the neatest fencing in the country and a series of track overpasses keep farms and riders apart, circumventing any biosecurity issues, while raised cattle-grid arches take away the need for farm gates along the trail, making for a seamless cycling journey.
Across its final kilometres, the trail rises into hills, but has the good sense to funnel through their gaps rather than climb over them.
As the open farmland yields to bush and then the edges of Rosewood, I turn away the few metres into Gone Barny, a nursery-cum-cafe that's emblematic of the changes the rail trail has already brought to the region. The cafe's trade has, according to Harris, "gone ballistic" since the trail opened in April 2020, while a bike store has also subsequently opened in Tumbarumba. A Tumbarumba nursery now also hires out e-bikes, and a gin distillery has opened in town.
"The two motels (in Tumbarumba) have been booked out at times, so there's starting to develop a lot more B&B-type accommodation," Harris says. "There's at least half-a-dozen new accommodations like that around the place."
Tumbarumba nursery tumbabikesandblooms.com
Tumbarumba gin distillery ladbroken.com.au