Converting old railway tracks into cycleways has long been a trend in Europe – now Australia is answering the call. AT saddles up for a taster (and a few speed bumps). Words by Alissa Jenkins and photography by Rebecca Taylor.
Five minutes in and it’s raining. Excellent. The downpour is pelting our plastic ponchos, seeping into helmets, turning muddied sneakers to mush. The passing paddocks showcase rain-soaked cows, who wear the same expression as my riding partner.
Despite the wind and the goosebumps, we continue pedalling from the sleepy, one-pub town of Bruthen through grassy East Gippsland; a little rural wedge in Victoria’s far south-east corner. It’s here that the Snowy River cuts through mountain ranges to end at the sea; a spot full of spectacular scenery and, as I’d assured my friend earlier, the perfect place for a leisurely cycling vacation.
Admittedly, I hadn’t been lying. “Cycling has really taken off here over the past four years,” Destination Gippsland CEO Terry Robinson had told me. “East Gippsland alone attracts 1.1 million visitors each year, and a healthy percentage of them come to enjoy the local cycle paths and trails.”
Not that we were seeing any cyclists, anywhere.
The main vein of these cycle paths is the East Gippsland Rail Trail, which stretches almost 100 kilometres along the former Orbost railway line. Today we’re covering a 30-kilometre section of it to Bairnsdale – a mere smidge in the grand scheme of things, really, but my pedal pal’s silence suggests she’s not sold on its alleged charms… or why I convinced her to spend a weekend exploring it.
Waiting at Bairnsdale is our knight-in-shining-fluoro, Liz Mitchell, founder of Snowy River Cycling. Having tapped into the region’s growing bike-riding pull, Mitchell’s cycling business offers guests (whether they’ve opted for a DIY ride as we have, or a fully-supported guided tour) all the essentials: bikes, bags, spare tubes and maps, as well as transfers back to your accommodation.
“It’s an extra layer of comfort and convenience – all the organising is done, there is a bit of back up if needed as guests ride all throughout the region, and it allows a really wide range of people to enjoy this ‘soft adventure’ at their own pace,” she says.
A long-time cycling enthusiast and former veterinarian, Mitchell moved to the area 13 years ago to buy into a vet practice, but was so taken by the local landscape that she hung up her white coat to launch the region’s first cycle tour business in 2009.
“When I moved here, I was struck by how there were coastal, rainforest and alpine regions all in one small area, and literally thousands of kilometres of tracks that cross it. And yet, so few people seemed to have discovered this part of the world,” Mitchell says of little-known East Gippsland, which has long been a secret destination for Victorian holidaymakers.
“Starting a cycle tour business was the logical next step, with a beautiful place to cycle that no one seemed to have discovered.”
Interstate travellers may not have heard about the area, but the flies certainly have. As the rain eases, colonies of them start hitching a ride on my back and helmet, which draws a reluctant smile out of my unenthused friend. Thankfully it’s nothing a spray of Aeroguard can’t handle.
Unfortunately there’s no such quick fix for our burgeoning saddle soreness. With hindsight (ha), I am qualified to confirm that it’s unavoidable, particularly for two occasional riders. Another detail I managed to leave out when I invited my friend, who hadn’t picked up a bike in five years…
But things soon improve. While our legs continue their rhythmic spinning, the drizzle finally stops and we warm up.
Patches of sunlight peek through the clouds, birds begin to twitter and both my partner and passing bovines now look much happier.
In fact, this is really quite beautiful.
Vistas of green rolling hills appear, dotted with sheep and cattle, and it’s silent – all but a distant tractor, a singing kookaburra and the flapping wings of low-flying cockatoos.
So this is why cyclists have been quietly swarming here.
Widespread interest in biking might seem relatively new in Australia (aside from the hordes of MAMILs – Middle Aged Men In Lycra – who crowd road shoulders on Saturday mornings), but the concept of cycle tours is not. “Cycle tourism has been huge overseas, especially in Europe, for years,” agrees Mitchell. “There are tours along the Rhine and Danube river trails, which go through several continents… I predict a similar trend will happen in Australia with the increasing interest in cycling.”
Also on the rise, both in Australia and abroad, is biking, hiking and horse-riding along defunct rail corridors, particularly in the States and New Zealand. Its impact has helped revive many of the dwindling rural communities that suffered after train line closures.
“The best example I know of is the Central Otago Rail Trail in New Zealand, which is providing something of a model for us to follow here,” says Mitchell.
“It passes through a rarely visited backwater in the South Island, and the little railway towns along its route are now jammed full of thriving B&Bs, pubs, eateries and at least 20 operators offering cycle tours.”
Locally, three of Australia’s major rail trail routes are clustered in Victoria, including the Goulburn River High Country Trail (134 kilometres), the Murray to Mountains Rail Trail (116 kilometres), and of course, the East Gippsland Rail Trail. Although the latter is still relatively undiscovered, Mitchell confirms it’s already impacting on the small towns it goes through.
“Nowa Nowa and Bruthen [for example] are both seeing an increase in accommodation and ‘cycle friendly’ facilities, but it’s their small size and charm that makes them attractive to cyclists, who prefer them as an overnight stop to a large bustling town.”
The appeal of rail trails to cyclists can be summarised in three simple reasons, according to Mitchell.
“No cars, beautiful scenery and gentle hills” she says, adding that trains were limited in how steep they could climb, so trails take the easy way around hills.
The stretch we’re covering today is a testament to her theory. We pedal past open farmland and dense scrub and along sealed, sandy and gravelled stretches lined by native flowers, while lemon myrtle perfumes the air. Up and down a few gradual peaks, the brief sprinkles of rain are now a welcomed cool-down.
The friendship now reinstated, my mate happily points out the rabbits that dart out from undergrowth, and insists on stopping to rescue a turtle, who has stranded himself in the middle of the road, before we continue along sweeping curves and through former railway tunnels.
The many pit-stops are good for the spirit as well. Among them are fruit farms like Bumberrah Blueberries; a quaint berry farm with the kind of sweet, plump berries (and berry-related assortments) perfect for a quick sugar hit. Or Nicholson River Winery, where visitors can pop in for a wine tasting (try their big, hearty reds), and nibble on a cheese platter while overlooking the river.
Eventually, we reach Bairnsdale where, as planned, Liz collects our gear and chauffeurs us back to our Bruthen accommodation. The day ends with a hot shower, craft beer and gourmet pizza at the Bullant Brewery, and a deep, deep sleep.
The next day we take the Bruthen to Tostaree route via Nowa Nowa; it’s a 40-kilometre stretch of the East Gippsland Rail Trail, through more hilly and densely forested terrain.
The sun is beaming today and, much to our relief, the terrain is still relatively easy. Our distance from major roads and solitude from everyday stresses is a breath of fresh air, literally (although the peace is occasionally interrupted by the rustling of a passing wallaby, or sunbathing goanna).
We soon come to the grand Stony Creek Trestle Bridge – an old timber rail bridge that spans over 250 metres across the valley – and jump on the tail end of a guided tour by Snowy River Cycling.
There’s a spectrum of ages and skill levels within this small group. Seventy-something Clive is decked out in more lycra than an ’80s aerobics class on his $5000 bike and sets the pace for the group; almost 50 years his junior is my cycling buddy and I, pushing to keep up on our hired wheels.
“But it’s not about the gear,” says Mitchell, now gliding alongside us on a bike she bought for her son 10 years ago.
“The focus is on the area and getting immersed in it,” she says, something people of almost every age are attracted to.
“We get many travelling groups of friends or cycling clubs, through to couples and families – especially families with young boys and plenty of energy to burn.”
Making the sub-region even better for cyclists is its mild and ever-changing weather climate, which allows for bike riding, year round.
“As you know,” she adds grinning, “we run tours rain, hail or shine”.
Although we’ve just about had it all, rolling with the punches (or rather, straight over them), I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Most rides start and/or finish in Orbost, at the Snowy River Cycling office. By car, it’s a four-hour drive from Melbourne or Canberra. V-Line trains run daily between Melbourne, Bairnsdale and Orbost.
Accommodation varies from B&Bs and self-contained cottages to basic backpacker-style stays. We stayed at Stringybark Cottages on the outskirts of Bruthen, a modest but comfortable eco-friendly retreat, surrounded by bushland. From $190 per night
Alternatively, Liz Mitchell from Snowy River Cycling has recently opened Bruthen Cottage near the town’s centre – a renovated 1930s timber home sleeping up to eight. From $175 per night; contact Liz on
0428 556 088.
Need to know
All guests with Snowy River Cycling are provided with transfers, maps, good quality mountain bikes with rack and bag, helmet, basic tools and spare tube. If you have extra requirements, itineraries can be adapted accordingly.
Come prepared with food and water if you decide to take the DIY cycle option (rather than a guided tour), as there’s limited places along the East Gippsland Rail Trail to grab a bite.
Prices vary based on dates, length of stay and accommodation, but a pick-up service from your day’s cycle back to your accommodation is $35 per person. Luggage transfers costs $15 per person.
For more information visit Destination Gippsland.
While you’re there…
• East-Gippsland is a great little secret. Along the route between Bruthen and Bairnsdale, take a detour to the Nicholson General Store. It mightn’t look like much from the outside but they sell some seriously tasty homemade pies, said to be the best in the region.
• Just off the Rail Trail in Nowa Nowa is Mingling Waters Waterfront Wilderness Retreat, where Lake Boggy meets Lake Tyres. Here you can stop for a day of kayaking, canoeing, fishing or guided tours through the nearby sculpture park. Guests can also camp or stay in one of the park’s basic cottages.
• Remember those classic summer holidays you took as a kid? No crowds, no theme parks… just sand between your toes? Nearby seaside village, Metung, is just that. With simple beachside pleasures.
• Each November, the Great Victorian Bike Ride attracts over 5000 cyclists for a nine-day ride through Gippsland, starting in Lakes Entrance and ending in Phillip Island.