(November 11 – written by Dave)
We have made it back safely to Australia and are slowly getting our apartment back in liveable condition. It was essentially a nice campsite for a week or so but we now have a proper table, chairs, bed and even a couch so it feels quite luxurious. We have spent a week or so trying to get things organised – unpacking boxes from storage, changing addresses, getting internet set up, with all the usual hassles that brings.
While it is nice to have a spot to come ‘home’ to, dealing with all the admin that comes with it does sometimes make one wish for the simpler life on a bike. We are trying to stem the withdrawal symptoms by following several cyclists currently out on the road. For others wishing to follow some adventurers from the couch, we get our fix by reading the following:
Our Aconcagua – Rio to Cartagena by the far south – Elspeth and Martin Jarman. We hosted Elsp and Mart Jarman when they came through Sydney on their last big ride. They set off from Rio de Janeiro in August to ride south to Ushuaia and then north from there to the top of Columbia. They are currently in Argentina, having made their way across Brazil and Paraguay as they make their way south. They are great fun to follow and we look forward to reading as they head into territory familiar to us.
Ride to Fight Cancer – Leonie Katekar. Leonie is from Melbourne and is having a mid-life adventure riding from Guatemala south to Ushuaia, using the opportunity to raise money for a good cause. We have not met Leonie in real life (or IRL, as the cool social media guys say…) but she somehow found our blog and we now feel like old friends. We regularly correspond about routes, accommodation options, etc. as she is using our blog to help her plan her route south. She is a trooper, doing her ride on her own and experiencing all the fun that bike touring can be. She is currently crossing back and forth between Argentina and Chile in Patagonia.
Highlux Photo – Mark Watson and Hana Black. Long time blog readers may remember that we met Mark and Hana way back in Otovalo, Ecuador and then a couple of other times along our route south. They are extreme backpackers with many amazing adventures during 3+years on the road making their way from Deadhorse Alaska to Ushuaia. They are somewhere in the wilds of Chile now. Whenever someone comments about how adventurous we were to ride from Alaska to Argentina we tell them they if they really want to see adventurous people they should go read about Mark and Hana!
Trying a new setup
So, after wallowing in renovation/admin work in the apartment for too many days and reading about these people on grand adventures it felt like it was time to get out on a little adventure ourselves to see some nature and absorb some of those beneficial microbes that float around in the forests. We decided to do ride over some familiar territory but break it up into two days by throwing an overnight camp in at a state campground along the way.
While short, we used the trip as a bit of an experiment to try out a different approach for our gear. For years, we’ve been “traditional” touring cyclists. That is, 4 panniers, handlebar bags, rack bags and generally very heavy bikes. We like this style of touring because you can take things with you like your Aeropress and electric kettle (okay, not really, that last bit in South America was an exception). A nice cup of coffee is almost always possible. More generally, while space is still limited you never feel like you are truly going without, or sacrificing too many comforts for the sake of luggage space.
Over the past few years a new style of bike touring has emerged call “bikepacking”. Bikepacking is more akin to backpacking with respect to gear and gear weight. With backpacking, you carry everything on your back so the kettle is a definite no-go (maybe the Aeropress, but more likely instant coffee). But it doesn’t stop there. Backpackers are generally weight weenies – think cutting off the ends of toothbrushes, sharing one cup between two people, ultra-light tents and one pair of undies for a weeklong trip. When the backpacking style came to bike touring, people still used bags on the bikes but they all got a lot smaller. Out with the panniers and full-sized racks, in with the ultra large seat wedge, handlebar roll bag, frame triangle bag and possibly small front fork bags.
We don’t have frame triangle bags but we did pick up some large seat bags, handlebar rolls and small front fork bags that we wanted to try out. So what better way to sweep away the frustrations of unpacking and resettling than to head out on the road to try out some new gear?
Wisemans Ferry Loop
We decided to go with a favourite 100 mile loop that we traditionally ride on New Year’s Day (remember, it’s summer in Oz at this time of year). We call the ride the Wisemans Ferry Loop because after starting at Hornsby (a suburb north of Sydney) we make a giant loop northwest up through Peats Ridge and Wisemans Ferry and then make our way back to Hornsby. There are a couple campground options near the half way mark so we thought it would be ideal to break the trip into two days and give the new touring set-up a proper overnight test.
We chose to ride the loop clockwise so that we could stop in the small village of Wisemans Ferry for lunch and dinner supplies before heading onto our camp site at Mill Creek. As for Mill Creek, we picked it because they supposedly have wombats around the campground. If you’ve never heard of a wombat you’ve been missing out on one of Australia’s most adorable marsupials. Don’t just take my word for it, check out the baby wombat in this video:
WARNING WARNING WARNING: Don’t blame me if you click on the video link below and end up spending the next 30 minutes watching YouTube wombat videos – you have been warned.
If you camp in wombat territory, and don’t get lucky enough to see a wombat, at least maybe you’ll still get to see wombat tracks and/or wombat poo (yes poo). Their feet, and subsequently foot prints, are remarkably similar to a small human child. And their poo is most often shaped in perfect little cubes that could easily be mistaken for ice cubes (had they not been made of wombat poo).
So onto the ride…
We didn’t get on the road early as we knew we could cover the k’s pretty easy in half a day. We wanted to avoid city riding so caught the train out to the start of the loop in Hornsby. We hit the local hardware store on the way to the train station for more straps as I only had the tent poles hooked on by zip-ties. Luckily I got the last package of straps in the store. It was 10:40 by the time we reached Hornsby and finally got going on our little mini adventure.
The first real test of the new bike set-ups came nearly straight away as we blasted down the twisty cliff-side road that is Galston Gorge. Good news, the bikes handled pretty much like they do empty on the descent. And even better, on the climb back up the other side to Galston, the bikes didn’t feel overly heavy. We were both still fresh but really, the bikes never felt like heavy touring bikes for the entire two days. There must be something to this bikepacking thing.
We made good time to Glenorie where a big sign for pies caught our eye. It was too early for lunch but it’s never too early, or late, for a pie, or a muffin, or a croissant. Regardless of which style touring, all touring bikes are required to stop at bakeries. Required.
We followed the Great North Road from Glenorie all the way to Wisemans Ferry. The road was built by convicts back in the early 1800s. Back in its day, the Great North Road was considered vital to the survival of the Australian colony. Until built, the only way to reach the fertile farms in the Hawkesbury and Hunter Valleys was by sailing ships from Sydney out into the open ocean and then upriver. Nowadays, the road has been replaced by trains and a freeway, leaving us to enjoy the work of the early convicts with little traffic.
We had a proper lunch at the Wisemans Ferry Hotel – a funny old rabbit warren of a bar/bistro/hotel. The food was good but we passed on beers as we had a bit further to ride in the afternoon. We stayed at the hotel maybe 20 years ago, on a weekend night. Nancy made me promise to not make her do that again as the locals carried on a good deal and sleep was hard to come by.
From lunch we headed off to the ferry to cross over the Hawksbury River. We queued up with all the afternoon commuters waiting for the ferry, having a nice chat with one of the locals who was curious about our bikes. It seems, regardless of style, touring bikes always attract conversation.
After the ferry we left the Great North Road and headed off downstream along the Hawkesbury River towards Spencer on Wisemans Ferry Road. About 8k down river we turned off for the campground at Mill Creek. As soon as we reached the turn-off, we were warned of wildlife by a road sign – and not just any wildlife, but the silhouette of wombat. Hopes were high.
We booked into Mill Creek Campground through the park service call centre the afternoon before and randomly picked site number 10. As we were the only campers booked, they told us that we could pick a different spot on arrival – we just had to call them to tell them where we eventually set-up. We ended up choosing a different site but calling from the bush where there is no mobile signal was not possible. Only one other camper showed up overnight so we didn’t have to move the tent.
The fact that this microadventure was somewhat spontaneous was highlighted when we went to unpack the tent and discovered that we had no rainfly – only the inner tent, the footprint and some (now useless) stakes. It seems that we picked an old tent to bring back with us from Oregon, one that no longer had the fly. Oops. Oh well, thank goodness it was going to be a clear dry night.
What the camp lacked in fellow campers, it made up for in bird life. Between arrival and departure the next morning, we saw or heard lyre birds, western whip birds, cockatoos, black cockatoos, kookaburras, fruit doves and some overly friendly bush turkeys. The bush turkeys are clearly used to raiding campsites for food supplements – we had to be on guard for them, they are like the raccoons of North America.
After dinner we went for a walk in search of wombats. It was still pre-dusk and all of the mammals seemed to be still napping but we did see a snake. Many of you will have heard how dangerous the snakes of Australia are. Well, to be honest, we never see snakes when we are out in the bush. I mean never. I’ll need help with snake identification (see below) but I didn’t need help being reminded about keeping the tent well and truly zipped up the rest of the night. I think the snake may have been a Adder – one of the most deadly in Oz – oh well…
As for wombats, during our walk we hung out near the opening of what appeared to be an active wombat den. We sat quietly for a good 45 minutes as dusk arrived but the wombats weren’t interested in getting up yet (or they had gotten up early to get first dibs on food) so we gave up. We wandered a bit more and eventually headed back to the tent – still no wombats were sighted. As it started to get dark, the mozzies came out so we were in the tent early. They could change the name of Mill Creek to Mill Bog– all the standing water in the creek created mozzie central.
Our last shot a seeing a wombat was having one stroll by the tent in the middle of the night – animals munching on the grass nearly always wakes one of us. Well, it was my turn and luckily the clear sky and bright moon light gave me a good view of a fast moving wombat. I woke Nancy but by the time she got her headlight pointed where the wombat was, all that was left was a camp fire pit. She swears that I only saw the fire pit all along but I’m sticking with my claimed sighting.
Neither of us slept great the rest of the night – keen to hear more munching and be first on the head torch. Sadly, no more wombats appeared…
The second day of riding was nearly twice as long as the first one but we were off early with a ride down to Spencer, up away from the river to Mangrove Mountain and finally onto lunch at Peats Ridge. Until Peats, we’d been skirting in and out of smoke bands from the NSW fires that have been all over the news. It was kind of odd to be out on what is a joy ride with fire trucks and devastation going on just north of where we were. We didn’t complain much about having side/headwinds – tailwinds would have blown all the smoke our way and made for a smoky ride.
After lunch the temperature started getting up there with bike computers reading over 40C at one point. We reached plodding speed on the Brooklyn climb and just had to stop at Pie in the Sky – a famous road house – for cooling drinks. The last 20k ride to Hornsby station was a bit of a slog but we made it.
Overall, it was a good break from the city. It’s amazing how fast it gets remote as you travel back roads north of Sydney. It was great having no mobile signal and getting off the news cycle for a few days. It was also fun trying out the bikepacking style. It was great riding with less weight but packing was a challenge and we did not have enough space to pack for an extended tour. Lots of small spaces made it more difficult to fit things like cooking pots and meant that things had to be spread out to fill gaps in the small spaces rather than grouped together in stuff sacks. Our senior editor thought that the risk of things getting lost was much higher as almost everything had to be removed from the bags to get to anything. Frustrating for those of us who are bothered by disorganisation – not saying who that is, just that it is not me…
Overall, there is something to be learned from the bikepacking setup but we would likely blend this with a more traditional setup to get something a bit more to our liking. More testing is clearly needed, and perhaps a new tent (with rainfly) is necessary.
As for wombats, well, I’m sticking to my story – I saw something and I know it wasn’t a moving fire pit.
Our next bike adventure is the Great Victoria Bike Ride in late November. We are volunteering as rolling ride guides/marshals. We’ll update more on that in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, I’ll be fiddling with the light bike set-ups and dreaming of wombat sightings…