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Road to Gundagai: a NSW Southwest Slopes loop

Emily Sharp's picture
Cycling to Cootamundra. Emily Sharp. Cycle Traveller

Some call it 'The Big Dry'. Others call it 'The Millenium Drought'. From 1998-2010, the areas I and my mascots – Kermit the Frog and Verne the Turtle – will ride through on this tour experienced what is considered the worst drought since the beginning of settlement.

In a normal summer, the land in these parts is brown. The cured grass and the stubble of the harvested winter crops give the landscape a rather lifeless look. So it is hard to describe just how lifeless, wilted and dry such a place might look after more than a decade of drought.

For me, a non-farmer, the trees are the greatest visual indicator. During the drought, the eucalypt leaves were dull, insect-bitten and often in various states of die-back. The leaves hung there almost lifeless. Now, new clumps of leaves stand turgid and almost glossy. The new growth fills in the die-back, and there is a visual vibrancy up there in the branches.

The Big Dry had far-reaching consequences, too numerous to describe here. However, one consequence was an alarming rise in suicide rates among farmers. Rural Australia has one of the highest suicide rates among western, industrialised nations – higher than the US, Britain and Canada. It's a tough, old land – hard to make a living from.

Route: Jindera to Bowna, NSW
Distance: 622km
Days: 6+
Surface: Sealed road
Difficulty: Medium-Hard
Vertical climb: 2930 hm
Note: This route crosses paths with the Mountain Madness Route (Albury to Goulburn, NSW) along the Murray River and at Tumbarumba.

Day 1. The Dry: Jindera - Lockhart (101km)

Today, we will spend most of our day pedalling through the dry and gently rolling fields of the Lockhart Shire. We'll end our day in the town itself. My memories of the drought will play in my head all day as I ride these rural roads. My first trip to Australia was in 1998; I moved here from the United States in 2001. For the first 12 years of my life here, drought is all I ever knew. So today, I spend some time thinking about how my perceptions of this land would be different had I spent my first decade here experiencing average temperatures and average rainfall.

One thing is quickly apparent this morning as I pedal the first 20km on a route I ride a few times a week: auto drivers give me heaps more room when I'm fully-loaded. Normally, they scrape by pretty close and fast on these narrow roads. I feel like the panniers have just blessed me with some sort of "zone of safety". Good stuff.

After a morning tea break of ooey, gooey American-style brownies, we commence forth on a more main road. There really isn't much traffic and the drivers are still giving me heaps of room. I push along through the fields of harvested grain, climbing the gentle hills and cruising down through the lower basins. We're in the transition zone between the hills of the Southwest Slopes and the plains of the Riverina. There's enough topography to make things interesting, but it's low enough to impart a massive sense of space.

We roll into town around 3pm. There is not much happening. I'm too late for a pub lunch (usually served 12-2pm) but too early for dinner (usually served 6-9pm). The cafes all shut at 2pm. So I go take a nap in the shade in the park for awhile. Then I go grab a cheap (only $5!), plain burger from the roadhouse. The burger is quite satisfactory. I love that 'plain' in Australia means you still get lettuce, tomato and choice of sauce for no extra cost.

I wander down to the caravan park. There is no one around, but the shower block is unlocked. I make my own site in a shaded spot far away from any electrical hook-ups and designate it the "unpowered" area. I settle down to relax in the shade and wind, accompanied by the sound and smell of a huge colony of fruit bats hanging out in a tree on the opposite bank of the creek.

No one ever comes around to collect money, so I crawl in the tent at dusk and sleep the deep sleep that follows a good day on the road.

Day 2. The Floods: Lockhart - Wagga Wagga (84km)

Emily camping by the Lockhart River on the Road to Gundagai cycle touring route. Cycle Traveller

The cruel aspect of Australia's climate variability is that floods often follow droughts. Dorothea Mackellar nicely sums up Australia and its climate in the famous lines from her poem, "My Country". She writes:

"I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons, I love her jewel sea,
Her beauty and her terror – the wide brown land for me."

And so, after more than a decade of drought in New South Wales and Victoria, 2010 and 2012 brought flooding to many regions.

The town we are heading toward today, Wagga Wagga, sits in a long, sweeping bend of the Murrumbidgee River and has endured more than 77 floods over 8m high since settlement. Extensive levee upgrades were completed in the 1970s after the benchmark 1974 flood which peaked at 10.74m.

The floods in 2012 inundated huge areas, including all of North Wagga, whose levee is lower than that protecting the central business district. At the height of the 2012 flooding, there were fears the levee would fail and the CBD of this city of 60,000 would go under. More than 8,000 people were evacuated in the Wagga area, though the levee held. However, the city, particularly North Wagga, is still recovering from the flood which peaked just 0.18 metres below the record 1974 flood.

After 40km of riding through similar scenery to yesterday, we make it to Collingullie and the Murrumbidgee floodplain. A line of trees marks the river in the distance. It is hard to imagine this all under water just a couple of years ago.

Collingullie has a pub. You can camp out the back if needed. It is here that we need to get on the Sturt Highway (it heads to Adelaide) for 2km to hook up to another back road. These 2km remind me why I fervently avoid the main highways in NSW. There is a heap of traffic, a heap of trucks, and they are all motoring along at a minimum of 100kph. The shoulder is not consistent, and when it is there, it cannot be ridden. It is so lumpy and debris-strewn, and such a mismatch of sizes of chip-seal that I've got to just hug the white line and hold on.

Emily Sharp bicycle touring in Southern NSW. Cycle Traveller

Finally, we reach Mundowry Road, which drops down into the major floodplain. Cattle graze under huge river red gums and box eucalypts. The birds are loud and numerous. The humidity increases as I pass over a feeder creek with deeply carved banks. There is public access here and it'd be a great spot to camp. The road is in great condition – it looks new. It was probably repaved after the flood. I meander through the floodplain among fields of corn and harvested hay.

Soon, I reach an old trestle bridge and cross the Murrumbidgee River. It is a large river by Australian standards and is flowing pretty high.

Once I climb out of the major floodplain, I turn east on the Old Narrandera Road. The wind is a gusty westerly with an occasional southerly blast, contradicting the BOM forecast of a light southerly. The gusts blow me right on down the road. Yippee! The traffic is light-ish, the road surface good. The road reserve is wide and treed between open, brown paddocks. Way down to the right, the trees outline the river. It's a good ride, today.

As I near Wagga, I have to climb over the Malebo Range. It is quite warm by now, so I sweat my way up through the hills. The reward for seven minutes of slow climbing while being swarmed by sticky flies is a steep descent that sees me hit 60kph.

The Old Narrandera Road spits you out at a T-intersection with the elevated Olympic Highway. However, there is a pedestrian underpass here. I think I see some bike tire tracks through the sand, so I go for it. On the other side of the underpass there is thick sand, potholes and the local dumping ground for used mattresses and old TVs. I am uncertain for a moment, but the dirt path does eventually lead to an old road which then leads to Gardiner Rd. This is the bike route out to the university from the city centre, so there is a nice bike lane to take you all the way into Wagga. All of this was underwater in 2012. It blows my mind.

I head on into the main part of town over the Hampden St bridge which has a bike lane/shoulder. Fitzmaurice Street has a HUGE bike lane. Here I come upon the only two traffic lights I'll see on my entire trip.

After a stop at the information centre for the weather forecast, we cruise down to Wagga Beach, the city's local swimming hole. There is a caravan park here (which is the first thing to go under when the river floods). It's busy, and there are plenty of people at the park enjoying the river in the 32 degree heat, but it's all low-key and laid-back. Works for me. We spend the late afternoon in the shade and wind just kickin' back.

Day 3. The Bushrangers: Wagga Wagga – Cootamundra (119km)

In the cool of morning, we head off with a building southwesterly wind. If it is this strong at 7am, I'm going to get a good push up to Cootamundra today! So much for the light wind forecast... I head back through North Wagga and turn onto the Oura Rd. This whole area was covered in waist-deep water in 2012. The road is flat as it travels across the floodplain. The river is a kilometre or so off to the south, though.

The easy riding is over at Oura. The road climbs away from the river and into the dry, grassy hills. Up and down, up and down, through a rolling valley, up, down – it will be the pattern for the entire day.

Cycling the Old Narrandera Road west of Wagga Wagga. Cycle Traveller

After about 20km of up and down through the grassy, rounded hills, we roll into Wantabadgery. There is a recreation ground and a couple houses down in this valley. There is also a general store... inside someone's house on the main corner. A sign out the front says, "Open When Awake". Since it is only 8.30am, I'm not sure I want to test the occupant's waking schedule, but I'm curious how a general store is operated inside a house. I've never been in a store where someone was selling lollies from his living room!

I stop to read the interpretative board and have a snack. The area I'm riding through today was the haunt of various bushrangers, including Mad Dog Morgan and Captain Moonlite (what a cool name). The latter arrived at Wantabadgery Station with his gang in November 1879 looking for food and work. When the gang was refused, they took up to 39 people hostage. Four police officers eventually arrived but were forced to retreat. The Moonlite gang then fled but were caught, and some members killed, in a shoot-out at a nearby property when police reinforcements from Gundagai (about 45km away) and Adelong arrived.

One of the great things about cycle touring is that you sometimes feel closer to the history. You can really feel the distance and the terrain that the bushrangers and the police covered. You can almost pretend your bike is a horse. When I pass by old McGlede's house where the shoot-out took place, I can almost imagine the characters out there in the landscape.

After a pause, I have to climb McGlede's Hill Road. It is steep enough at the top I have to walk the final 150m. Once at the top, however, I get a ripping downhill through gorgeous hills of harvested grain. Huge old gum trees line the road in places. The road twists around one small range, through open grassy forest and harvested fields, and then treats me to another flying downhill to the main Junee-Gundagai Rd.

I ride the main road for a kilometre or so to Eurongilly, a locality of decaying tennis courts, playground equipment, a war memorial and a new fire brigade shed. I then turn off onto the Eurongilly School Rd. Then, I break a record. For the next 1.5 hours, I do not see another vehicle. I see some farmers out working on a stock dam, but nobody on the road. This is the longest I've ever gone without seeing another vehicle on a paved road.

The area I'm riding through is a low, rolling valley. There are undulating hills to climb, but it is low and relatively flat compared with the surrounding ranges. A gigantic skeleton of a gum tree in a pasture is charred all the way to the top. There are dead stands of native Callitris pine; there are clumps of bush skeletons.

Cycling after the harvest near Cootamundra. Cycle Traveller

There was a big fire near Junee some years back – you can still see some of the scars. The fire stats go like this: it was started by a cigarette butt in summer 2006 on the highway near Junee. It burnt 25,000 hectares (62,000 acres), affected 200 properties, and destroyed 10 houses, 4 shearing sheds, 1,500 kilometres of fencing and more than 20,000 stock. The fire travelled 38km in one afternoon on the first day. It was fought by 660 firefighters, 116 tankers and 10 aircraft. The ride takes me right through that old fire zone.

Finally, we pop out at the village of Bethungra on the main Olympic Highway. Bethungra was the haunt of the bushranger Jack-in-the-Boots. Bethungra is best known for its rail spiral, however. Situated on the Sydney to Melbourne line, it is the only full 360-degree rail spiral in Australia. If you look at the satellite version of Google maps, it is clearly visible.
I've actually ridden the train through that spiral, so I don't go check it out. Instead, it's snack time. It's pretty warm out, so it's time for ice cream!!

From Bethungra, we head out on back roads again to avoid the main highway, taking the Ironbong Road which skirts the edge of the Bethungra Range. I even get a flat reprieve for about 13km before I start doing the up and down thing again.

At a T-junction, I turn right on the Dirnaseer Road. This is a proper two-lane road that even has edge markings at times. The best thing about it, though, is that it has almost no traffic and has been newly resurfaced in many sections. This area is quite scenic in a pastoral-backed-by-forested-hills sense. The climb over the range takes me 10 or 15 minutes. I don't stop to take too many breaks, however, because the flies are really awful today. Inevitably, some of these stick with me after a break and continue to annoy me all the way to the next downhill when the wind whooshes them away.

We roll up and down through the grassy hills and open and treed valleys all the way to the road junction with the main highway. This has been a particularly scenic backroad and the gusty and strong southwest winds have been a great help all day.

The final 3km into Cootamundra are on the main highway and again remind me why I avoid such roads. Cootamundra itself is a neat and tidy little agricultural town of 5,500 people. The parks and gardens are well-tended and attractive. It is the birthplace of Sir Donald Bradman, arguably the best cricket batsman Australia has ever produced. There is a statue of him near the Captain's Walk in one of the parks.

The mascots Kermit the Frog and Verne the Turtle. Cycle Traveller

The caravan park is quiet, the amenities block is clean. There are a few permanent sites and about 10 grey nomads overnighting. There is not a kid in sight. The caretaker says, "See that tree by the BBQ shelter. That's where we tell all you pushbike riders to pitch. You'll get good shade there all afternoon."

I find internet access at the library. Free internet access is hard to come by in Australia – most motels, even the nice ones, still charge you. Hopefully, that is slowly changing. Here, I pay $3 for one hour of 'wifi'.

I hang out for the 4.30pm BOM weather forecast update. I need to decide whether to keep heading north or start heading toward home from here.

Crap. The hot weather is returning by Friday. Time to start heading back towards Jindera. ...Continue reading Days 4-6

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Images from top: 1. The road to Cootamundra. 2. Route map. 3. Emily Sharp on tour. 4. Cycling the Old Narrandera Road west of Wagga Wagga. 5. After the harvest near Cootamundra. 6. Team mascots Kermit the Frog and Verne the Turtle.

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