Aiden Kempster has been exploring the proposed Great Forest National Park in Victoria by bike since March. The vagabond’s adventures are as wild as his beard and whilst raising considerable exposure for this much needed National Park, he’s also having the time of his life…
It’s wonderful; I have seen magnificent forests, been enthralled by the creatures that live there, drank from tiny unnamed streams and pushed my limits. I am raising awareness about the plight of the central highlands and the critically endangered Mountain Ash ecosystem. I’m also rising to the challenges I set myself with ever increasing aptitude. I am fitter, stronger and more adventurous than when I started and I need to constantly re-evaluate my limits.
Sometimes everyone bails on you and you’re left scratching your bum wondering what to do. I’d made plans sequentially with three separate parties to go for a ride in the bush. For totally understandable reasons all of these fell through. It was about sunset on Friday when I realised I was still in the city with a totally blank weekend ahead of me. I was supposed to be in the forest, but I’d been counting on someone to drive me. It was about this time that I remembered Melbourne trains run all night on the weekends.
Cut to just after midnight, and I’m leaving Pakenham station. The Bigfoot is loaded for touring without panniers for the first time. I found a carry-on sized overnight bag in hard rubbish a week ago, and I’ve dubbed it the kitchen. Underneath I’ve stuffed a small bag with my waterproofs. A seat-post bag completes the back, carrying some clothes and a towel and provides a bit of a cushion. I’ve got tools and a spare tube between my legs, snacks and electricals in the cockpit and my sleeping system strapped onto the front rack. It was a breeze to pack, I know where everything is and it rolls like a dream. Lots of stares on the train. Even the PSOs had to remind me, “That’s a big bike!”
I knew the way to Bunyip, I’ve ridden it before. The first time I did it was also at night, but on a Felt road bike, running road tyres. I even did 5ks through the forest on it, and later lots more. I knew that’d be an easy route to do now with the fat bike. A few clicks of main road before a bit of gravel, another bit of tarmac and then a few more clicks of gravel. Then you’re into mud country. I think this was my fastest trip yet. Riding at night I try to use only as much light as I require, which means there isn’t much else to focus on except your rhythm. It is humbling and calming, just stay on the road and keep going. I was having a ball. Once I hit the forest I knew the first few turns, I didn’t need a map. I wasn’t going particularly quickly, I didn’t need to, I was doing what I had wanted to do. I joined the chorus of nocturnal garbles with a series of wild laughs as the downhill began.
Then it was half past 3 in the morning and I had to figure out a plan. When exactly was I going to sleep? Where? I was getting a bit hungry, but was it time for me to eat breakfast or dinner? Where exactly was I going? I was on a trail that was only open to bikes, horses and walkers, I decided to make a hot snack, take a power nap roadside and figure those things out in the morning. The gliders, owls, possums and foxes couldn’t help but tell me how pleased they were I was back. Then the kookaburras took over and it was time to make breakfast or sacrifice a whole day sleeping. I had a vague notion of riding up Mt Baw Baw, but I also wanted to be back in town tomorrow and that seemed a bit too serious. I would be better off trying to do that via the mains roads, and the fat bike had better things to do. Nonetheless I could head in that general direction, take the scenic route, and figure the rest out later.
It wasn’t long into the morning before I noticed something special. I knew instantly that there were many stories and paths that had crossed this point. I didn’t want to take pictures, and I felt that same compulsion later when I reached the site called ‘The Four Brothers Rocks’. A big part of me didn’t even want to get close without knowing the story to go with it. But generations past saw fit to do a heap of logging in front of the outlook and a quick google search will come up with plenty of images, so maybe I am crazy to have respect for something I do not understand.
Nonetheless my vibe persisted, the same kind of feeling I used to have as a child walking into a church. The more time I spend in the forest the more I yearn to see it age in peace. Indigenous sovereignty was never ceded, and I know only that there is so much I don’t know. My map notes further along the journey that there are many large rocks revealed by logging. While I would like to learn the ways of the land, or at least be comforted knowing they are still known, I know it’s vital the land survives first. I have seen the same sorts of rocks in Tasmania and Wilson’s Prom, with the same kind of staining, are they are all connected?
The weather was getting spuriously ominous. It was perfect for grinding, with little squalls of rain and the hint of a thunderstorm that was never going to arrive. I was starting to struggle though. I felt like I hadn’t really slept and as luck would have it found myself riding past a campsite. I pulled in and collapsed in a heap. I really needed the rest. Dirt bikes kept waking me up, but a few hours of being horizontal did wonders. I let the hottest part of the day play itself out while I napped then ate a mountain of trail mix and smashed a giant cup of rocket fuel. I spent a while studying the map, and decided I would make the climb up to Gentle Annie’s Gap for the night.
On my last trip I had become accustomed to rolling hills too steep to ride up and crazy dangerous to come down. I took the western approach to Gentle Annie and found it significantly easier than the tracks around Jamieson. Muddier, and steep in parts, but once you’ve done Mt Terrible the bar has been set pretty high for bad climbs. I went over the backside of the peak rather than summiting Gentle Annie, enjoying a ripper of a downhill that was way too short. I skirted around on the main road to the back of Gentle Annie’s gap then flogged it down the hill to the Torongo River, where I made this awesome bike shelter by the side of the road. It rained, and I was dry, winning at life.
I actually slept! Sweetly, soundly, perfectly. Not quite. I was woken up on three occasions by 4WDs roaring past me. Should have picked a better track to camp beside, but I wasn’t complaining. It was the best rest I’d had so far. And by seven I was rolling again. I think my rocket fuel is the secret. The purists will hate it, but mix a strong instant coffee with sugar, heaps of milo and milk powder. Stir till uniform and top up with cold water so it’s at your desired drinking temperature. Then fuel up, and go. Timeless advice, if you’re going to have a big day, start early! I decided it would be a good day to see the Ada tree. If I’d been there before it wasn’t since I was much smaller and didn’t have a beard. If you haven’t heard about it before, it’s basically this big old tree that is kind of unique purely because it hasn’t been chopped down. From there I could haul ass down the hill to Warburton, then ride the rail trail back to Lilydale, hop a train, happy days. Mission acquired.
The morning started fast. I rode about 10ks of gradual descent before turning up a quiet track and grinding away uphill. After a while I ‘lost’ the road, by which I mean to say, I couldn’t believe it went right through the guts of this epic wasteland. Uphill too, which gave me plenty of time to look around and feel shit while I pushed the bike. Escaping that hell hole I was once again swallowed by the forest, where cool air filters through the trees and there’s a sponginess to the ground which is deeply comforting. It was still early in the morning, often I’ve not gone anywhere by this time. Usually I’m still asleep! I gave myself a mental high five and downed a few muesli bars. Apart from the terrifying scene I’d just meandered through I was doing well. I felt like the bike, more at home moving than standing still. Just thinking about that mood makes me want to ditch the laptop and ride off into the sunset.
The problem with state forests is logging. Everything else, from the guns to the dirt bikes and the lack of facilities is totally cool compared to clearfell logging. I bring this up so adamantly, because on the way to the Ada tree, in spite of my terrific mood and brilliant fitness (rocket fuel) I had to pass by or through at least another half a dozen large, recent coupes. This is made all the more glowingly terrible by the walk when you actually arrive. It is brilliant. There is a lush rainforest with dozens of trees that are easily hundreds of year’s old, ferns that could be thousands and mud everywhere. On the way out there’s more carnage. There’s also a whole lot of brilliant forest, but it feels like whoever designs the logging plans was so annoyed that they couldn’t cut down the Ada tree they had to smash everything around it. The irony is cemented with one of the informative placards on the Ada walk, which describes how the rainforest, given time, will actually expand and move outwards! Get that around your brain.
On my way out I found a chair carved out of a tree stump. It was a nice place to sit and have a snack. The day was kicking on, I’d best be rolling too. I followed the signs to Warburton and ate up the 2wd track with so much shredding all I could hear was the tyres and my own laughter. I know there were some gnarly downhill mountain bike trails around, but I was still 40ks of rail trail and then some away from where I wanted to be when it got dark. I didn’t pay any attention to the tracks I passed on the way down, I just let the momentum carry me onto the tarmac and then there was only one way to go. I made it to Warburton by 6 and then ate a whole pizza. It always feels weird to come out of the forest and have to use money again, even after just one and a half days of being alone. My form continued all the way back to Lilydale, I was impressed with myself. I made it without needing to turn on my lights. The rail trail is easy to grind away at, and always a treat to ride for sunset, and the fat bike just ate it up like a tank. The wheels probably weigh a couple of kilos each, and once they’re spinning, it can feel like there’s no stopping them. It’s a fantastic feeling of comfort and momentum.
On the train home I took a call from an old mate wanting me to take him to the forest the next day. I thought about how much ground I’d covered in the last 48 hours, something close to 150km. A pretty reasonable achievement for a loaded fat bike on mixed terrain. I wanted to do more, and the next day we hit Toolangi. But that’s another story.