The route started in Gloucester, about a 3 hour drive north of Sydney. From there day 1 took us to Walcha, day to from Walcha to Long Flat, and Day 3 to either Comboyne or for two hardy souls all the way back to Gloucester.
What’s over the horizon or, indeed, over the next hill or around that bend? Fundamental questions such as these have driven humans to populate the earth and even make it briefly off the planet from the earliest times when the Olduvi Gorge was just a pothole. Aeons down the track we too succumbed (again) to this less base, marginally more noble, primal urge than the ones we generally fall victim to and set off to discover what lay on the other side of the mountain by way of Thunderbolts way. The following hastily cobbled together pastiche of lies, half truths and gratuitous character assassination is the one true account of that journey.
Hands shot up when Poobah proposed a series of crossings of the Great Divide alluding (yet, skillfully not committing) to the fact that such fact finding missions might be subsidised by the taxpayer. The one decided upon was from Gloucester to Walcha along Thunderbolts Way, a route that had been teasing your humble scribe for years yet one that found its way back into the too hard basket with each review. Too long, no shops, dirt, too steep and too hard to get to. It seemed we’d not follow in the tracks of the famed gentlemen bushranger till Poobah proposed a self supported ramble. Bringing your own well stocked sag wagon solved everything.
Planning went smartly and smoothly under the aegis of Poobah the master mandarin. What has now become a well oiled team swung into action following detailed instructions to the letter meeting within minutes at the Gloucester pub in ample time for dinner. Poobah had a busy day first gleefully off to the big trough in Cantberra then up to Williamtown yet such was the precision of the plan that Pooley and Dan barely had time for a leak before his aircraft touched down and they bundled him into their wagon. All those rants over the years about holding up the whole party have clearly borne fruit with only Elly managing a puncture with his bike still in the trailer. We left him in the motel room to mend it yet he failed to better old Toms Tumut effort (4 punctures in a motel room) and made the back bar in good time. After a fine meal, it was up to the other pub to meet the remainder of the mob over an ale or three with even Dan making the feral witching hour. Is this a sign that our one good apple, Good Holy Dan, may finally be going bad?
The cool light of a brisk autumnal morn revealed a thumping great mountain behind the town very much in the direction we wanted to go but prepared with maps and charts, the fruit of modern techno wizardry, and Nick’s brick, confidence remained unshaken and a dozen or so wheelers rolled off Walcha bound bang on time with Meg and Sue hanging about till the shops opened to get supplies best acquired fresh. Jackal even had a genuine respray with new flyweight climbing wheels to be going on with. These would, as it turned out, prove most useful and soon.
Gloucester nestles in a valley about 100m above sea level. It would take some 700 vertical metres of climbing to reach Barnards River only 40k distant and a mere 124m above sea level…that’s the lions share of a Rooster and before morning tea but what a 40k. I can’t recall a more beautiful leg with a new and breathtaking postcard vista around every bend and atop each rise. The rivers burbled away again with a light mist rising from the hollows just to cap things off. Cresting each rise, the next panorama made each wheeler immediately forget the discomfort of a tough pinch and, believe me, there had been quite a few in that opening leg.
At the river Meg screeched to a halt with yummy buns and scarcely concealed delight in having just punted the twin trubo through 40k of twists and turns. Not for her the ups and downs and now our big ‘up’ was but a few scant kms distant. Kerry was quick to throw her bike on Megs roof and secure a comfy spot from which to watch the suffering on what promised to be a mighty climb. Nicks techno wizardry had revealed a lengthy one averaging around 10% for 6kms yet, labouring away on the lower slopes, I was prepared to call it a fair bit more than that. Indeed, at one point the powerful Poobah was reduced to the 24 inch gear for a time and he’s a veteran of ‘the big dick’ with 2km at 15%. Around 4km into it we passed a road sign indicating the first 3kms had been 12% and I’m sure there were bits in there even steeper. You could tell it was steep by the foul smell of burning brake linings from the timber jinkers wending their slow way down the mountain. Leon only knows what would have transpired had one of these behemoths lost it.
We made the major climb, with a few opting for the trailer for a spell at the top, but now we faced the best part of 30km of rolling country to Nowendoc and lunch punctuated only by a brief stop at a quite spectacular lookout. These weren’t your normal rollers but giant scrunched up things with 10% grades on either side. You could just leave it in the lowest gear as the plummet off one was so sudden there was little point turning a pedal and you’d quickly be slowed to lowest gear speed when you slammed into the next one. Luckily the road was well shaded as the forest had thickened up from the woodland below and the air remained cool. So far everyone seemed to be traveling well especially HPD (AKA Graham). It never ceases to amaze me how well a life of sustained sabbatical junkets prepares a man for stiff climbs and long rides. The bloke never falters, barely breaking into a sweat. We should all take a lesson from this. One problem remains. Just how do we secure the funding? Graham did confide the secret. Apparently the vigorous exercise of the mind (never mind where) also demonstrably improves the body as a matter of course in which case I’ve no option but to keep on with the miles.
Meg supplied the makings for a splendid slap up lunch under the municipal lean to in Nowendoc. Never mind that it had taken all morning to rack up 80km, we were now in sheep country, undulating but open (sheep aren’t real good on the steep) and the day remained cool and fine with the hint of tailwind…just how we like it. The remaining 70km still concealed a climb or two but these would not be anything like the ramps now behind us despite the fact that 400 vertical metres remained till we gained the high ground. It was time for Meg and Susan to stretch the legs as far as they wanted nor was there any shortage of volunteers to take over driving duties. It was on the run home to the pub that road conditions deteriorated a bit but that did not deter Susan from putting in a good 40k with Meg managing to snap a chain just as she was putting a few final powerful finishing strokes to her 40k effort. All in all a grand day with well over 3000 vertical metres in the 150km guaranteed to work up a thirst.
Walcha seems a fine town indeed, nestled in a hollow by the Aspley. Poobah again came up trumps in his selection of pub. The Commercial, having been gentrified, sported a good selection of beers nor did the wine list let it down, the sole grumble coming from tummies made to wait too long for dinner to appear. It was here that the ramblers set the dining bar at a new height topping the $1k mark at dinner and at the bar beforehand a feat helped in no small order by dozens of oysters washed down by lashings of bubbly. There would be cramps on the morrow but never mind, tomorrow can wait and, hey, it’s all downhill anyway.
A heavy frost greeted the next day so it was on with everything we had and down to a local caf for Bacon and egg rolls. The mighty Aspley looked sad as we crossed. The falls at the gorge, our first stop, might prove less than impressive with so meager a flow but never mind. On the road, the inevitable long drag out of town and into the sunshine came as no challenge after yesterday’s climbs. We were now on the Oxley Hwyhaving left Thunderbolt to continue on his way nor’ west. Traffic was light and with height in hand the going proved easy on another grand day in the country. 26k later we gained the falls, the scheduled morning tea spot, where, amongst other things, we were to gather firewood for the inaugural luncheon BBQ scheduled for lunch down by babbling brook a bit later on.
The same question entered every mind at the first sight of the gorge. How the hell did that happen? This is sheep country, flatish and rolling. Where did that unbelievable hole come from? Surely the meek Aspley trickling feebly over the cataract could not account for so massive a gorge. I suppose it bears out the ancient oriental proverb that the soft will always wear away the hard. Keep that in mind when next you’re having a blue with the missus/hubby (whichever the case may be). Take the soft approach. It always prevails.
Enough of the wonder and back onto the road for roughly 50 more finely hand crafted rolling KMs before Luncheon. The stats kept rolling in from Nick’s brick and Pooley’s device. The lesson is clear. There is a truck load of uphill even on a downhill leg. Bear that in mind when buying your next bike. By the turnoff to the lunch spot we’d amassed around another Rooster in ascent in 75km and now it was time to descend even further along a dirt road to the lunch spot. Poobah, having phoned one of his minions, assured us it was well graded, eminently suitable for bikes and only a 150 vertical metre climb out. I’d say this minion doesn’t have much of a future in the department as the track was anything but. 9km of bone and denture jarring flinty logging track later overjoyed we were to spy wisps of smoke, a sign that the advance party had made it and the barbie was on in a most delightful, if a bit leechy, glade down by creek.
Susan had prepared a splendid spread scouring Balmain’s finest providores to find the best snags, breads, condiments and cold meats. With Jackal doing the bloke thing at the barbie we just couldn’t go wrong and before long nobody wanted to go anywhere and squabbles broke out over spots in the trailer but it all had to come to an end and those who had lost the squabbles saddled up for what was promised to be a mere 150vertical metre climb. Poobah’s minion’s fate was sealed as the climb indicator ticked past 280 before we regained the tar but, no matter, a splendid descent beckoned, one that Nick had claimed to be the best in the whole western arm of the spiral galaxy.
In the end, nobody would deny Nicks brave assertion having delighted in 20km or more of sustained speed with delicious corners aplenty on a fine surface with glorious vistas but it took some time, several false starts and the odd stiff climb before we got there but get there we did and after the delight, a relaxing roll along the valley floor to a little place called Ellendale for the second night. The only one a little pissed off was the beautifully marked python Dave mistakenly identified as road kill before Graham steamed right over him. Better a push bike than one of the multitude of motorised ones on this road but serpents probably don’t see it this way. Get over it…just evolve.
The brick does not lie (unlike the scribe). Whilst it came as little surprise that day 1 had close to 3,500 vertical metres in its 150k, the real kicker is that day 2, despite dropping 1,000 metres overall still concealed over 2,000 vertical metres of joyful climbing in its 140kms. So, what sort of bike are you going to buy next? Jackal has that sorted nicely even now.
Anyway, I must leave the story there as with Mothers day imminent, Meg, the Unburstable Poole and I left the company to wend our way back to town. I believe there is yet more to tell so I pass the scribe’s baton to Good Holy Dan (still the one good apple) for an account of the harrowing third day.
While mere mortals slumbered in the warmth of their beds two heroic figures diappeared into the mist....this is their story
Saturday ended with a bang for Dan, who had a flat on the final descent towards Ellenborough. Turns out the rear tyre was shredded to bits by the dirt diversion for lunch. Oh well, Elly is carrying a spare cover (thanks Ted!), so a quick change and no worries. Dan needed new tyres anyway and has brought a brand new ProRace2 set, which are popped on at the cabin before dinner (but after massage). The spare tyre goes back to Ted, hardly even dusty.
On Sunday morning, the rest of the group having opted for a rest day, our intrepid adventurers Dave & Dan are up at 6am and out the door at 6:40 (thanks Susan for the cuppa and breakkie cake!).
The 1st 20 minutes of riding is through pea-soup fog; thank goodness for blinker lights! We ride back through Long Flat (scene of previous night's
dinner) and 6 kms past, made the big right turn at Bagnoo to head due south on the dirt of Bayabarra Bagnoo Road. After 10k on the dirt Dave has a puncture. The dirt roads have just been graded, but with lots of new gravel which is large and sharp. Oh well, the flat is mended quickly, Dan patches the tube with the calm smug knowledge that he is safe (new tyres donchaknow) and anyway we've got plenty of patches and a spare tyre (thanks again Ted).
PSSCHEEW...Dan has a puncture. The rear tyre sidewall is ripped. Damn, brand-new tyre! Well Dave has been carrying Ted's spare tyre (thanks again Ted!), so we're soon off again. But if the roads don't improve, at this rate we could be in trouble. Naaaah....
The boys hit pavement again at Bayabarra and ride about 10km into Comboyne. The town is still asleep but the General Store is open. The grumpy old man in the shop seems unexplicably unimpressed by our lycra outfits and racing machines, but nevertheless makes us a nice coffee. Dan needs cash so takes out $100, but this is only allowed when purchasing $10 or more, so we buy a (HUGE) bag of jelly snakes. We eat 2 and leave the bag behind.
On our way out of Comboyne we get a toot and a smile and a wave from Graham, who is parked outside waiting for Stephanie. Oh well it won't be too hard, we're bound to be caught up by our support vehicles if anything goes wrong. An easy 40k or so to Wingham. The halfway mark! Always a relief. No stop there though, gotta getta move-on! With Dave's puncture, the unplanned coffee at Comboyne and the unexpectedly difficult dirt conditions, we are 1 hour behind schedule. We head west onto Gloucester Road (does that mean we're close to the end?).
After 6km we're back on the dirt, heading west onto Nowendoc Rd for the 15k into Mt George. The group vehicles have not caught up to us and are planning to drive on the main road (Bucketts Way) from here, so now we're on our own. The General Store in Mt. George is open and the lady inside is very helpful and friendly. Her daughter, who rides the bus each day to school in Gloucester, warns that the dirt onward to our destination is in bad shape. We might have to get off and walk! Clearly these people don't appreciate the skill and fortitude of experienced randonneurs.
We push on fueled by Coca Cola and Powerade. The route from here is a quite hilly and circuitous 40kms of dirt. Long jittery rocky descents with teeth going chatter chatter and hands clamping and cramping. Dave discovers the fabulous entertainment of singing out a single note, which the roadway converts to a warbling UH-OOH-AAH-UH-OOH-AAH. Dan of course joins in and their duet soon clears the area of all wildlife.
Oh no, the girl at Mt. George was right! The gradient has got so steep (downhill) and the rocks so big and sharp that we are off the bikes and gently walking. After 100m we are back on, but if the road doesn't improve we could be in trouble.
PSSCHEEW...another puncture for Dan, this time up front, again a pretty good tear in a brand-new tyre. "McGiver" Dave uses the proverbial chip packet in the tyre while Dan patches the tube, and we're ready to pump up and go.
PSSCHEEW...oh no, the new tube has been "pre-patched" but this has not held. So swap in the previously patched tube--the new patch must surely have dried by now. Pump that baby back up to 100 psi.
PSSCHEEW...AAAGGH! This is not working. Dave produces yet another tube, and double smears glue on the previous patches. This time it holds.
We get ready to push off and silently assess our situation. As we mount our bikes again they seem less like trusty steeds and more like silly carbon fibre toys (well I suppose they are!). We're down to the last couple patches. Our 23mm racing tyres look impossibly flimsy, and the road seems to have been surfaced with dirty grey glass shards. We have seen barely any traffic or other humans at all on the dirt roads and there is no mobile phone coverage. We are a tough 40km away from pavement and so far have averaged 18km per hour for the day. The road is mercilessly undulating. We can barely walk in our cycling shoes, could not walk at all barefoot on the rocky road, and there is no shoulder. What else could go wrong? Wait, what is that up ahead? Storm clouds...
We concentrate fiercely on the road ahead, trying to miss every last stone and find the absolute flattest part of the road surface. Often we skid and slide like skiers. Well that's fine for Dave Hislop but Dan still skiis using "pizza / french fries". However, over 2 hours of silent fretting, the tyres hold and our luck turns. No rain and no punctures. And in the distance...ah yes...bitumen! The last sweeping, turning descents into Gloucester are glorious, although we're still not fully trusting of our tyres. Dave powers on the front all the way and we're into Gloucester at 4:15. Total distance 145km, travel time 9.5 hours, total riding time 7.5 hours, average speed 19.3kph.
Our bags are behind the bar at the Commercial Hotel, just where Simon agreed to leave them. The man behind the bar lets us shower in one of the rooms; Dave gives him $10. We're on the road by 5. There's the sign for Bucketts Way; we're off for home. We turn on Dan's new "TomTom" sat nav system but can't be bothered to figure out how to program in the route home. That's OK, at least it will alert us to speed cameras. We each call home and inform the loved ones that we have indeed survived and made it ("so what?" they think, it was only another bike ride..) and will be home by 7:30. 20 minutes later and we reach Gangat and a sign that says 60km to Taree. Wait a minute, we're not supposed to go to Taree! David consults a map and confirms that we've headed the wrong direction. Turn around and head back to Gloucester. "Sorry honey, better make that 8pm..."
Day 3 - Tourist Option
Meanwhile the remnants of the bold team that had set out two days earlier dragged themselves back into the saddle for a last morning of riding, before piling into the car for the return journey to Sydney. Their day also started in the mist, but very quickly (5Kms to be exact) found them in Long Flat under bright morning sunshine, at which point all the accoutrements of frosty riding came off; on then to the dirt-road short-cut, and a fine dirt road it proved to be, recently graded and wending its way through a scenic valley. After some 10Kms on it joined the bitumen road to Comboyne. A brief stop for a final refuel and then on towards the ascent up to 600+m. Whilst we drank our drinks and ate our eats a well clad cyclist passed us purposefully heading towards the hill -mmm, thinks me he looks like a man on a mission. It was a couple of kilometres to the foot of the climb and as I approached there, coming towards me, was the purposeful cyclist. I gathered later, from Simon who had engaged him in chat, that whilst he lived at the bottom of the hill he had only once actually ridden up it. Perhaps if I had known this before I started I may have got off, but I didn't (know it nor got off). It was, as it turned out, a fine hill with a fairly even 8% gradient up most of its height and eventually, like all hills, it came to an end and we had but a few Kms to get to Comboyne where we boarded our fine MPV. All in all a satisfying conclusion to a memorable few days.