“There’s a heatwave in Australia!” People in Canada kept posting heat warnings for me on facebook, in between all of their posts about cross-country skiing and snow tubing. As I rode into Port Albert today, my final stop, it was 42 C — 107F. Most of my ride this morning, I was also fighting a powerful wind on a fairly busy highway, with no verge.
It was my 6th day of cycling from Melbourne east, more or less along the coast. I posted a little bit earlier about the first day or so, and about my 108 sun salutations on Christmas morning overlooking the sea. I don’t know why I decided I wanted to do this, exactly, or how I landed on Victoria. I just got it in my head that I wanted to do this, and cycling a notable distance like Sydney to Melbourne was too long for the time I had, and some people I knew like Melbourne, and a bike hire company for this region was the first one that came up in the google when I was searching. (Yes, this truly is how measured and well-researched a lot of my traveling is).
The bike hire company does tours, and they also have an app that lets you plan your own trip, and they will help with advice about where to stay. There’s also a series of old rail trails that have been turned into bike trails, which seemed sort of fun. So I put some time in Melbourne up front, and a road trip to the coast west of Melbourne for the last part of my trip, and stuck about a week of self-supported cycling into the middle. And rode from the centre of Melbourne to a tiny coastal village called Port Albert, with a pause to stay in a nice place for two nights for Christmas. (Which I spent riding to and then lounging on a glorious surf beach).
Here’s the thing: I was absolutely happy. But only about 25 km of the 287 or so km I rode were actually *enjoyable*. Getting out of Melbourne was beautiful along the waterfront but crowded with Sunday morning runners, and then the trails to the ferry dock to Phillip Island were hard to follow, beset with fences at every road, and very uneven. They would just … .disappear, and there was a lot of stopping and peering at my app. When I finally took to the road, there was no verge and a lot of fast-moving traffic.
My second day was short and again divided between a disappearing, soft trail and a slightly scary road. I stopped to enjoy the koala sanctuary, which was delightful — but the road was waiting for me again. And I missed the trail re-entrance at the big bridge and was genuinely anxious crossing with a big crosswind. Then just crossing the highway to get to the trail — really, a sidewalk shared with pedestrians — was scary.
My day “off” — riding to and from a nice beach — was again mostly trail, but with some ridiculously steep hills, with fences at the tops and bottoms. Unridable, and okay for pushing the bike without panniers, but impossible with it, digging my heels in while holding the heavy, awkward bike to keep it from crashing down. The fourth day retraced that route, then took me along a beautiful coast — first on a rail trail sifted over with deep soft sand, then on a slippery, hilly gravel road, then on a highway with no shoulder and speeding cars. Also, all the wind. And flies. I cut that day short at 50km — it was *plenty* considering how slowly I was going a lot of the time. My bike hire lady came and got me and drove me inland to a sleepy town for the night.
The next day was 98% rail trail — what I came for! — and not one moment of it was actually enjoyable riding for me. Hot, windy, soft and slippery pine needles under my wheels, finding myself going as slowly as 9km/hr with huge effort and then realize I’d had a long, indiscernible uphill. There was a delightful bakery at 10km where I got a scone and jam, and a sweet town at 35 km where I had banana bread and a conversation with a former park ranger who wanted to go to Canada to scout bears. “I love bears! See?” He showed me a necklace with a little cut out silver bear on it. He seemed lonely when I got on my bike and left.
Every time the rail trail crosses a road or a driveway, there is a gate to navigate, some to weave slowly around and some to open and close. There are signs to wait for stock to cross — cows are everywhere — and that means walking your bike through a fly-ridden patch of cow poo. Also, flies. Did I mention the flies? At one of these fences, I came across a couple out riding with a small terrier in a bike basket. “There’s a cow on the trail!” The man said. The cow and I ended up in a standoff for several minutes, until she decided I was acceptable to pass.
That day, I had pegged my lunch for at town at about 58 km, which had one small cafe. I got off the trail and rode up a baking hill to find it well and truly closed. I took myself back down to the general store and bought a banana, bottle of water, orange popsicle and a bag of potato chips. I ate my “lunch” standing beside my bike as two or three people came to the store, all of them getting out of cars and entering the store barefoot.
The final 12 km for the day were windy and hot and I kept hallucinating more cows or dogs on the trail that turned out to be tufts of grass. My destination that night was a “hotel motel” in a cross-roads village that had been very difficult to book, and which looked like it hadn’t actually been open since 1969. “Inquire at bottle shop,” the door said. “When bottle shop locked, come to pub,” the bottle shop said. In the pub, there were two guys who looked like they’d been there since 1979, arguing about how many people live in melbourne and watching horse racing on tv. Finally a young bartender came out, assured me there was indeed a room and gave me a key. I had a tiny “pot” of beer before taking myself to my cinderblock but clean room. The fish and chips in pub later were just fine, and the nice lady Tracy in the shop across the street gave me a good coffee and a cheese and tomato sandwich for breakfast.
My final day was short — around 30 km — and was mostly on a somewhat busy highway, again with no shoulder. Despite what Angela the bike hire lady had told me, it was pretty flat. But — windy. Oh. So. Windy, again with the gusty cross winds. It was also so hot that I stopped every 3 or so km to have a good drink. Finally, I turned off the highway — for 8 km of delightful riding. Flattish, not busy, good road, trees and shade. No cows, no fences.
My 287 km from Melbourne to Port Albert made a shorter trip than many that Ive done, but the riding was *hard*. And with cycling, knowing what it’s actually going to feel like under your feet, what the bike will feel like, what the wind and air will do – it’s hard to imagine. My original plan had me doing 100 on the last day and that would never have done. I think I would have actually died.
I was a little disappointed to find that there was no real swimable beach here, but at 42+ degrees, I’m not going to be sitting on a beach anyway. I have a very nice harbour view room in a little inn, and there is a restaurant at the end of the pier for dinner.
I don’t know how it’s possible that riding that is never actually pleasant is so enjoyable — it was slow, and the bike was ponderous, and while some of the terrain was the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, a lot of it was farmland with cows and little hills and bales of hay that could have been England or France or Estonia or Ontario. Turns out I really hate riding on trails — I don’t like gravel and I don’t like soft dirt. They are slow and they unnerve me. I was hot, and my knee hurt, and while I tried to be super careful with the sunblock, I got a bit of a burn on the edge of my bikeshorts the first day that ended up doing that gross sweat blister thing. I banged my shin on the right pedal every time I stopped and put my foot down to navigate one of the fences. I got a cold sore from the sun.
But I was 100% happy — making my way across an unexpected landscape on my own steam, carrying what I need with me, knowing that I can do what I set out to do, weaving my way through a world of kind and helpful people — there’s serenity and power and quiet joy in that, along with the absolute decadence of having a small beer in the middle of the afternoon and a well-deserved nap, overlooking a jolly little harbour.
Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives in Toronto when she’s not wandering the globe.