Just as I start to get strong on the bike, this second cycle tour of my adventure has come to a close. This afternoon I rode into Swan Hill 13 days after I left Adelaide en route to Melbourne. It feels good to have another tour under my belt and to know that I am getting stronger on the bike. I am learning a lot about myself as I ride and camp my way through the countryside. For example, I am not a hardcore tourer because I like a shower at the end of the day, prefer to camp legally in a designated area (whether free or paid), cannot eat on $5 a day because I like my food too much and am willing to cheat by catching trains or other transport if I need to. What I am is a cycle traveler who enjoys the slow pace of cycle touring while relishing in some little luxuries along the way.
Fields of canola greeted me as I rolled out of Manangatang this morning. It has escaped the fields and now grows in gay abandon along the roadside under the mallee. I wonder whether it will ever take over the landscape as a weed or whether it is a crop that can be controlled. I guess time will tell. What I do know is that the bright yellow flowers are pretty.
I reach Bailey Flat. It’s stunning. The small ankle-high shrubs look like they’re about to burst into bloom with red flowers. I stop to take some photos and also to watch the caravans and cars zoom across the flat. What took me about twenty minutes plus photo time takes them less than five. I can’t help but wonder whether they even notice the flats with its beautiful red shrubs.
I am rather surprised when I see the sign notifying me that I am entering another wine region. I didn’t know there was wine out here on the Murray River in Victoria. It seems rather a waste in a way because I don’t drink wine. The vines here grow in red soil, rather than between green ground cover. Stone fruuit orchards sit alongside the vines. It will be beautiful here in a few weeks once the flowers are all in bloom. Some fields are already awash with pink but none close enough to the road for a photo. But in a few weeks, I am sure this will be one of the most beautiful places in Victoria.
The Murray River greets me as I come to the end of the Mallee Highway. She’s lost some of her condition since I last saw her in Berri and her name has changed. In South Australia she was called the River Murray. Back there she was wide and cliff-lined, and her waters were green. Here on the border of Victoria and New South Wales she is called the Murray River. She is narrrower, her banks slope muddily from the surrounding landscape and her waters are brown. She’s not as pretty as she will become but I like this ugly duckling still. I follow her all the way to Swan Hill where I check into the cheapest hotel in town and discover it’s a comfortable gem with a movie channel on the television. This tour is now over and I am going to have a couple of days off to write a university paper and travel by train to Melbourne. And then, on Tuesday, a new adventure will begin – four days trying my hand at cross country skiing at Mount Baw Baw.
I am almost sad as I set off for my final day in the mallee. I have thoroughly enjoyed this part of the world. It has dished up the challenges of distance, fatigue, trucks and headwinds. But by pushing through I have grown stronger on the bike and have gained great respect for the friendly people who live out here. In every town the shop keepers, publicans and locals are ready with a smile and hello. Drivers wave in greeting and say hello when they bump into me in the towns where we are both stopped. I am glad I took this unconventional route from Adelaide towards Melbourne. It’s brought me much joy and the hardships of those first two days riding into headwinds have faded into my memory already.
As I ride further east towards the Murray the golden fields of wheat start to again mix with dark green crops. The gamble of crop prices and rain must be an intense way of life for the men and women who work this red soil land where the summers are harsh and the winter nights cold.
Saltpans become common as I travel east. Water fills these lakes and then dries in the sun, leaving salt crystals in its wake. It makes me think of some of the places we travelled as a family in Outback Queensland when I was growing up. It is a visual reminder of the harsh reality of this wide brown land; a reality that might seem distant if all we see are the crops.
Spring has well and truly sprung here in the mallee. Wattles are in bloom along the roadside and the days are warm. Temperatures hover around 20 degrees Celcius (68’F). The skies start out blue with cartoon-like clouds blowing across the sky in the early afternoon before clearing again in the evening. I am wearing a lot of sunblock because I don’t want to get sunburned again now that the sunburn I got up in the Riverlands has finally settled. A light breeze blows from the side to keep the day perfect for cycling.
The tiny rural towns here have buckets of history. In Ouyen they have painted a mural to show the town’s story while Manangatang hosts the first Manangatang-style railway station building that was ever built here in Victoria.
But always there’s grain. Silos stand in fields and at railway sidings. The concrete silos were all decommissioned in the early 2000s but they appear every 9-10km along the railway line that runs parallel to the Mallee Highway, which I have been following. I like the way their orange-stained concrete contrasts with the blue sky.
And so I make my final camp of this part of my trip. I am in Manangatang where there is a park that you can camp at by making a donation at either the general store or the pub. It’s up to campers to decide how much they want to donate and all donations are gratefully accepted. The money goes to the upkeep of the park, which has toilets, a hot shower, power points, a shady tree, some grass and an undercover picnic area. I am going to enjoy my final night here in the mallee.
A spur of the moment decision to go skiing at the Victorian ski fields before the season closes has caused me to push myself a little bit to ride farther than I was at earlier stages of my trip. It’s a good thing I’m feeling strong again and that I am enjoying the mallee country so much. So instead of breaking up the ride across the mallee into a few shorter days, I decided to cover 80km (50 miles) today in an attempt to be in Swan Hill by Saturday afternoon, allowing me to catch the Sunday morning train to Melbourne.
That doesn’t mean I still don’t have time to enjoy the place where I’m at. So I am still stopping to enjoy the scenery and random things I see: like this old military tank. Or at least, I think it’s a military tank; it doesn’t look like any farm equipment I’ve ever seen before.
Nor did I skip the lovingly restored Kow Plains Homestead, which dates back to 1859. The homestead is well worth a visit if you are in the area. The stories of the early settlers are amazing to read. Successive families lived here in what was then the middle of nowhere. They tried to graze sheep but lost most to wild dogs and drought. A 14 year old boy deivered mail once a week on a journey that took six days return across untracked wilderness. There are some wonderful paintings and photos of people who have lived here on this property over the years, including an amazing shot of the whole yard full of cauliflower plants.
The landscape here is similiar to that which I have been riding through since Loxton except that the further east I travel the drier it becomes. The soil is red. The mallee is plentiful. The crops become less dense. And the colours less radient.
The landscape, historic sites and my feeling of strength on the bike combine to give me a sense of calm and joy as I ride along. Instead of resting every 10km as was my practice, I am now resting every 20km. My average speed has increased from 15kph to 19kph. Or at least it has for a day. Now that I know I will be out of the mallee in a couple of days, I make the most of the rest stops to take in the calm, feel the red dirt beneath me and listen to the wind. Because I know from experience that it is these simple things I will remember long after I forget everything else about my trip.
At day’s end I set up camp in tiny Walpeup. There’s hot showers, picnic tables and grass for $10 a night. Sure, the trucks and trains rumble past all night long but those are just the sounds of the outback. Besides, the sky is clear and filled with stars and I feel the contented fatigue of one who has enjoyed a day exercising in the sun and the transport sounds don’t disturb my slumber.