With the tingly fingers and blackened toenails from April’s Cloudride finally subsiding, the itch had returned and I was well overdue for another bikepacking adventure, if only to break the daily monotony of a blustery Sydney existence.
Since moving from New Zealand to Australia two years ago, I’ve been raving to boyhood chum Tristan about the great bikepacking on offer, particularly in New South Wale’s Hunter Valley. When a gap in his hectic native bird-rescuing schedule opened up, some cheap Trans Tasman airfares sealed the deal and he was on a plane bound for Sydney, with adventure bound to ensue.
We’d grown up riding and racing together in Nelson and were pretty good mates, but our bromance was afflicted by the tyranny of distance so more than anything else I was looking forward to spending a good few days catching up with Tristan. In the past our rides together ended inevitably with broken bikes, scraped knees and the dull lactic pain that can only come from repeated full noise sprints.
With the belly of my own life and work swelling with busyness, riding has taken a stoker seat, so I was bracing for some old fashioned punishment at the legs of Tristan. He was coming off a holiday at the Alaskan Singlespeed/debauchery World Championships then a tonne of riding in the Canadian Rockies, so his usual ferocious pace would be even more so.
Tristan arrived on a Friday afternoon to the same weather which had been dampening Sydney for weeks, frequent soggy downpours and a cool blustery breeze that made the prospect of four days in the wilderness less than attractive. Up till this point we’d decided to ride the infamous Big Hurt, a 750km bikepacking loop heavy with bike carry and leeches. The sheer physical and mental misery I’d been through riding the course last year had forced me to revaluate my passion for bikepacking. But as always seems to happen, the memories faded and when we were running through ride ideas the Hurt came out on top. Laden with single track, the course would have taken us through some remote and critter heavy parts of NSW for Tristan’s first Australian wilderness experience.
Fortunately we reconsidered our position. Thoughts of slick leaf litter laden slopes where one step forward would have resulted in two back (not to mention falling on ones face) steered us towards a less extreme option. As luck would have it, the Hunter’s very own GPX Gandalf (Brad Mertens) had wizzarded up a worthy loop called the Dirty 600, six hundred odd kilometres of road and singletrack which avoided the hike-a-bike that had earned the Hurt its fearsome reputation.
Loading the files onto our Garmins the night before, we added some last minute revisions to divert around an irate farmer, and were all set for our adventure.
One of the great things about riding in the Hunter is that so much of it is accessible by train, except when the train breaks down and forces one to stand in the rain waiting for a replacement. About an hour from our destination Morissett, we contemplated the ride but were not keen to say goodbye to the relative warmth and dryness of the train and station too early. Fortunately the wait was short and before we knew it we were rolling out on the course, Gandalf himself coming all the way from Middle-Wangi to show us the way to Coorangbong.
It begins... (Day 1)
Starting with a gentle road climb into the Watagans (which by the third time, some 560 kilometres into the ride, would became the Notagains) the sunshine which had blessed the start of our ride gave way to a misty vapour that forced us to pedal harder and don my anti-Cyclone. This first part of the ride was punctuated by climbs followed by short descents, forming undulating ridge roads which set the rhythm for the rest of the ride. Dropping down into Wyong it was sunny again and joining the trail up to Mangrove Mountain the puddles were ever present. Soon our bikes were slathered in fine particles of clay, a paste which migrated from trail to every part of our body and even via drink bottles into our mouths. Not even the delicious taste of home in the form of an Em’s Power Cookie bar could flush out the gritty sensation.
A welcome stop at the Mangrove Mountain store allowed Tristan to overhear some quintessential Aussie banter, with locals discussing the prospects of weekend festivities, a lingo laiden diatribe that left us in hysterics. Before we could further investigate the culture we were barked out of town by some rowdy blue heelers, a breed Tristan is familiar with as it is the same as his Dusky, the dog made famous in the dusky dog blog.
Buoyed by the pies and chiko rolls of the stop we rolled through strangely boggy Upper Mangrove and onto the Convict trail, determined to make it Wisemans Ferry before sunset. I’d recalled this section from the Hurt and was overjoyed that I could share it with Tristan, the rocky steps and convict hewn trail becoming increasingly gnarly in the failing light. Boarding the Wiseman’s Ferry in the proper dark, we were carried to the warm bistro across the road, and while the generous portions delighted our hearty bikepacker’s appetites, they failed to comprehend our need for takeaway food, proffering a quiche and cookies in a huge polystyrene containers. Fortunately some spare ziplock bags did the trick, although they didn’t prevent Tristan’s quiche from becoming pureed.
Rolling out to the Upper Colo Campground, we were escorted by Rosco and Gandalf who as instigators of the route were keen to see its effects in person. Tristan and I didn’t have to pretend to be stoked with the trail so far, and as we bivied up to the sound of grunting Koalas and the serene backing track of our fellow camper’s offensively loud dubstep we were eager to see what else was in store.
Morissett to Upper Colo, 188km, 11 hours, 1707m climbing. Critters of note: Lyrebird, Kookaburra, Koala.
And continues (Day 2) ...
Some minor bathroom related dalliances aside, the second day started smoothly with an invigorating climb to the ridge then more undulating roads and a descent to the Hawkesbury River.
Probably the dullest part of the route, the proceeding rolling roads swayed back and forwards up the valley past picturesque cows, churches, spitting us out at the historic St. Albans Pub.
A breakfast of epic proportions ensued, with bacon, eggs and man sized toast doused in enough butter to lube our screeching chains. While we’d missed the lamb shanks of the previous night the breakfast was more than fitting of the day ahead. More mellow rolling roads took us up into the hills behind Wollombi, with motivation starting to wane we hit a gnarly descent that got the stoke going.
The Dirty 600 was not without its own Hurt-like idiosyncrasies, with Brad throwing in a ‘for shits and giggles’ loop up the Boree track to get the kilometre’s and vistas up. It ended up being a fantastic section of trail with the hills just short enough for momentum to be carried. However it was at this point when a cruel digestive ailment struck me mid pedal stroke. Dropping my bike and dashing for the bush with toilet paper in hand, I cursed the evil microbes that had rendered my bacon breakfast to liquid. Taking my time to make sure my stomach was settled we set off again feeling decidedly average, not even the high speed 84km/h run to the Wollombi valley could lift my spirits. Stopping at the store then the pub I picked at a hearty evening meal with surprising disinterest. My digestive disconnect provided mixed feedback to my normally over ambitious gullet. Taking my time I managed to get through most of it, and saddling up again we headed for what we hoped would be our final camp.
Shortly after loudly proclaiming the lameness of Australian hills in comparison to the steep cols of Banks Penininsula (especially as arranged in the Petite Brevet), the road pinched upwards into the sky. Only the small illuminated patch of our headlights kept us from seeing the soul destroying climb ahead of us, and so we stayed on our bikes, winching our bikes up the road, knees and crank bolts creaking all the way. Passing a wombat rescue centre we chose a flat spot and bivied for the night.
Upper Colo to Pokolbin State Forest, 215km, 12 hours, 3371m. Critters of note: Wombat, Deer, Owl.
The final Countdown (Day 3)...
After an early and chilly night, we packed up our camp and wolfed down a packet of Oreos each to fuel us for the descent to Cessnock. Starting up high we’d wrapped up warm, but as the inevitable ridge pinches hit we stripped off layers and stuffed them back in our bags. After a short section of rocky singletrack we picked up speed on the descent, only to execute some high speed swerves to dodge some startled Kangaroos who chose a path through our front spokes as the path of least resistance. Hearts racing, they settled as we re-joined tarseal and took in the awesome sunrise which was happening over a mist shrouded Cessnock.
￼Not ones to dwell on such niceties, we dove down the hill and into the mist, heading straight for McDonalds where the greasy McMuffins were just as welcome as the warm seats and bathroom sink shower. Turns out the hyper-processed mush had reawakened my appetite which had thrown a wobbly after the digestive malfunction of the previous day. With sun starting to emerge we headed for Kurri Kurri, a combination of back roads and railway track taking us to a park which made for a perfect chamois cream application opportunity for Tristan, whose tired brain now considered the indecency socially acceptable. He has since apologised to any children or old ladies who may have been offended.
Shredding through more twisty moto trail amongst piles of consumerist detritus was a new experience for Tristan, and one that left him perplexed given the multitude of garbage collection options available.
Before long we were pointed upwards and sweating hard, grinding up into the Notagains for the final time. Crossing the course where we’d headed for Wyong was a great milestone which was capped off with the heavenly Coke, pies and slices of the Cooranbong bakery. This time Ollie offended some older patrons by scraping mud from his bike onto the footpath and letting out a load profanity laden proclamation that his chain was stuffed.
Heading out for the final stretch, we began singing ‘final countdown’, a cola fuelled ding-dong battle ensued as we circled the Eralong power station. neither of us could break the other and the spirit of congeniality returned for the spin around Morisset Peninsula to the finish.
Pokolbin State Forest to Morisset, 189km, 11.5 hours, 2621m. Critters of note: Bison, Goanna, Fox, Snake, Millions of Kangaroos.
Rolling into Morisset after 55 hours of riding, sleeping and eating we were both struck with how pleasant a bikepacking ride could be with fine company and without the red haze that comes part of racing. I’d enjoyed the Dirty 600 more immensely, and while a strong willpower was required to resurrect sleepy limbs form the padded train seat for our short ride home, my body and mind came out the other end refreshed rather than drained. Our relatively fresh state was a sure testament to the fact that we’d matured to the point where we no longer saw the need to crush each other every ride, or maybe we were just getting old!
For those with some time to kill both Tristan and I can wholeheartedly recommend the Dirty 600 loop, or for those just dabbling there are shorter 400 and 200 km routes each taking in many of the Hunter's fine trails. Grand depart is on October 4 so there is still plenty of time to carbo load or at least start your taper!