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A cycling trip on the Great Victorian Rail Trail

Alia Parker's picture
Cycling across the rail trail bridge at Lake Eildon, Bonnie Doon, Victoria. Cycle Traveller

We're gravel grinding along the start of the rail trail in Mansfield, making our way along a narrow corridor lined by spindly eucalypts that shoot up from the sidelines like a barrier between us and the rolling farmland beyond. It's early morning and all is quiet and peaceful as Simon and I cycle along greeting other contented folk who have entered this enchanted little rail-trail world.

At 134km, the Great Victorian Rail Trail (previously known as the Goulburn River High Country Rail Trail) is the longest rail trail in Australia. It stretches 121km from Mansfield, Victoria, westward along the Great Dividing Range past Yea to Tallarook, with a 13km side trip section into Alexandra. The trail can be ridden in either direction, but there is considerably less climbing if you start at the Mansfield end.

Great Victorian Rail Trail map. Cycle Traveller

Overview

Route: Mansfield to Tallarook, Victoria
Distance: 121km (+ 13km side trip)
Surface: chert/granitic sand
Difficulty: easy
Suitable for: Hybrids, touring bikes and mountain bikes
Days: Can be ridden over 2-4 days as a trip in itself, or incorporated into a larger journey across Victoria.
Accommodation: Variety of motels, caravan parks, cottages and B&Bs.
 

Day one – Mansfield to Yea: 83km

This part of Australia is hilly – very hilly – so the rail trail provides a welcome gentle grade by which to travel the range. But don't make the mistake of thinking the ride will be a walk (or ride!) in the park; it's rolling, predominantly chert (crushed rock) or granitic sand, and littered with sticks and leaves. Still, it's a delight to ride and simply being away from the road and the traffic for much of the trail makes it rather special.

We're riding the trail in two days, stopping overnight about two-thirds of the way at Yea. Many riders prefer to take a more relaxed ride over three or four days, and there are a number of towns along the way at which to stop.

The serenity

At about 22km into the ride we reach Bonnie Doon – aahh, the serenity. For me, seeing the power lines and listening to jet skis roar on the reservoir is pure joy, which is laughable for those who know I love nothing more than to be out in the remotest of remote places nature has to offer with not even the sound of a plane to interrupt my peace. But this is Bonnie Doon, made famous Australia wide for being the favoured holiday destination in the film The Castle, and as I cross the old rail bridge that spans the man-made lake, the noise conjured up by the Christmas holiday crowd makes me smile. And the bridge is rather impressive too.

Cycling through a cutting on the Great Victorian Rail Trail. Cycle Traveller

We continue along the trail, keeping a close eye on the ground to dodge sticks, which not only pose a risk to flicking up and jamming between the spokes, but also look like snakes. There are so many sticks in sections that it is impossible to avoid them, so riding over and snapping them becomes a bit of a game – a good game until one of the sticks Simon rides over turns out to be a rather large tiger snake (it's a hot summer's day and prime snake weather). Ooops. Thankfully, he escapes that encounter without a bite.

Rest stops

Just past Merton we reach the highest point of the Great Vic – Merton Gap at 397 metres. From here there's a rather nice view out over the grassy hills and valleys and we pause at a picnic table to soak it all in.

A little further up at the 55km mark is the small roadside stop of Yarck where we pull off the trail to top up our water. There is no 'drinking water' along the trail, although there are some small rainwater tanks attached to the 12 pit toilets along the trail. The signs say not to drink the water, and while the tanks look to be in good condition, it's probably best to treat that water first if you plan to rely on it.

We find a rather lovely cafe called The Giddy Goat at Yarck with some tasty treats and coffee.

Back on the trail we pass the turnoff for Alexandra and continue on toward Molesworth, where we plan to stop for a break. However, we miss the exit and end up riding straight through.

Unfortunately, there is very little signposting along the Great Victorian Rail Trail, and while you can't get lost on the trail itself, knowing where to get on and off the trail to get into the towns can be quite confusing. Often, as was the case in Molesworth, you need to exit where the trail crosses the main busy road and follow that into the town. A sign pointing cyclists in the direction of the town's businesses and services would likely benefit people at both ends. So, by the time we realised we'd missed Molesworth, we couldn't be bothered riding back.

This section of the trail is very pleasant to ride as we're now down near the Goulburn River and crossing leafy gullies.

The tunnel

We're soon at the Cheviot Tunnel, a 201m tunnel built in 1889 to open a way through the Black Range. Riding through tunnels is always fun and this tunnel, which is the longest rail tunnel in Victoria, is the highlight of our afternoon. It was built from hand-made bricks using clay from a nearby pit and from the outside you can clearly see the rocky mountain that it has been cut through.

Cheviot Tunnel on the Great Victorian Rail Trail. Cycle Traveller

At about 83km we ride into Yea. Fortunately, the trail runs through the local town park so we don't miss our exit point. In the park stands the old Yea railway station, built in 1889, and a rather amusing mural that you insert your face into to depict yourself as wearing a yellow jersey and riding a cow – we couldn't resist. We ride to the caravan park and then head out for pizza. Yea is quite a nice town with a number of places to grab a bite or stock up on groceries.

Day two – Yea to Tallarook: 38.5km

We're off again and enjoying the fresh morning air when we have a rather unusual encounter near Kerrisdale. There on the trail in front of us are a couple out for a ride in their wagon. The old wooden wagon with its covered arched top is being pulled by two lovely Clydesdale horses and as we ride carefully by, two chihuahuas yap at us from the back. Now, I'm no wagon expert, but this particular specimen is reminiscent of the style seen in the old American cowboy films depicting settlers crossing to the new frontiers rather than the coaches of Australia's Cobb & Co days. Very unusual.

As we pass The Shed at Trawool, about 12km from Tallarook, we bump into two other bike travellers who only have lovely things to say about the couple that run the cafe and cottages. It is one of the few businesses that has actually made a point of catering to cyclists and horse riders using the rail trail, with signs for tea and scones tempting riders inside. They also have a large grassed area to rest or agist your horses (or bicycle!).

With good company and conversation, the remaining few kilometres through the bush fly by and we're in Tallarook before we know it. Tallarook is a tiny town with a general store/take away shop, a swimming pool and a train station with a direct line to Melbourne.

Opinion

We enjoyed our time on the Great Victorian Rail Trail and think it's a great way to travel westward along the range without being bothered by the traffic. We do, however, hope it improves over time. The trail in its current incarnation officially opened in June 2012, and good developments have been made to include 12 toilet stops (aside from the public toilets in main towns) with a number of picnic tables spaced out along the route too. Strangely, the tables and toilets are never located near each other, although it appears they have placed the tables to take advantage of the views while toilets on the other hand have been hidden from view.

Cycling on the Great Victorian Rail Trail at Yea. Cycle Traveller

In our conversations with a number of other cyclists on the route, all agreed that they would prefer the surface to be sealed rather than the current chert/granitic sand base. One woman said she felt rather unstable and slipped about a little. The surface didn't bother us, although we feel quite at home on off-road surfaces. Having said that, a sealed surface would be preferable and easier to ride, but we are so glad that a rail trail even exists there in the first place that we're content to take what we can get.

The sticks on the trail are a hazard and while our fear of one jamming between our spokes and front fork didn't materialise, we did witness it happen to another rider.

Signage could be improved greatly, and other cyclists also brought this up in conversation.

Carry plenty of drinking water as none is available from the trail itself and the taps in some towns run off bores or tanks and the water needs treating.

Getting there and back

The Great Victorian Rail Trail is accessible via a direct train from Melbourne on the V-Line Seymour line stopping at Tallarook. The trail starts near the swimming pool in Tallarook, or near the information centre in Mansfield. Riders can also organise bike hire and a return vehicle pick-up service via All Terrain Cycles and Rail Trail Bike Tours.

Maps & accommodation

There are a number of towns along the rail trail, but be wary that some of those listed on the map are historical only and have no facilities. The main places to stay along the route are Mansfield, Bonnie Doon, Yarck, Alexandra, Molesworth, Yea and Tallarook. There are also a few small accommodation options available between these stops.

For more information on where to stay as well as maps, visit The Great Victorian Rail Trail website or print out a copy of The Great Victorian Rail Trail booklet, or pick one up at the information centre at the start of the trail in Mansfield.

Images from top: 1. Cycling across the Eildon Bridge at Bonnie Doon. 2. Link to map and elevation profile. 3. Passin through a cutting. 4. Riding through the Chevoit Tunnel. 5. Taking the obligatory tourist photo in the park at Yea.

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