Along the Roads to Gundagai


There’s an old Australian folk song called “Along the Road to Gundagai”, and it lyrics are…

There’s a track winding back
To an old-fashioned shack
Along the road to Gundagai.

Where the blue gums are growing
And the Murrumbidgee’s flowing
Beneath the sunny sky,

Where my daddy and mother are waiting for me
And the pals of my childhood once more I will see.
Then no more will I roam when I’m heading right for home
Along the road to Gundagai.

Apart from the lines “Where my daddy and mother are waiting for me, and the pals of my childhood once more I will see” the rest of lyrics indicated above were my experience over the last week, especially when “home is where the heart is” (ie, anywhere my darling wife happens to be). But Gundagai was the end, the destination, of a cycling adventure.

September 11th, 2017.

The cycling adventure started on the date that has unfortunately etched itself in the Western pysche – September 11th. But the events of many years ago were furthest from my mind as I left Henty bound for Wagga Wagga via Mangoplah in NSW. This was day one which involved a long 70+ km bike ride, with my Topeak rack and bag on the back of the bike and a back pack on my back. Those bag and pack had in them everything I thought I would need for 5 days of cycling, minus sleeping gear as that was provided at the various places I stayed. The weather was good, but I did have a headwind for pretty much the whole ride so it was hard going and by the time I got to Wagga Wagga I was really looking forward to some lunch and a well earned rest. The cycling for day one was over roads I had travelled before on a number of occasions so it was all pretty familiar. I knew where all the hillss and all the major landmarks were. So that was more a re-acquainting that a true adventure, although it was the first time I was kitted out for a multi day ride along those roads. Wagga Wagga is a large town nestled along the banks of the Murrumbidgee River, which is also the river that the township of Gundagai is on.

September 12th.

One thing I did while in Wagga Wagga was I walked some of the Wirajuri Trail which I had never walked before – eventually I hope to walk and / or ride the whole 40lm trail around Wagga Wagga. After a fairly good night’s rest I left Wagga Wagga early in the morning, heading towards Junee about 40km away. This proved to be a very interesting day for me as I am very much interested in railways and trains, and most of the journey is close to the Main South railway line that connects Melbourne (in Victoria) and Sydney (in NSW). I saw a number of railway features and some trains during the day.

It was also the first time I had travelled that route between Wagga Wagga and Junee. But that head wind persisted and after about 30km I was really feeling the fatigue. That might seem strange when I can normally ride around 80km before the fatigue sets in but when I ride 80km or more I try and avoid headwinds on the last half of the ride and I have nowhere as much weight attached to me or the bike. I got to Junee a bit before lunch, and so went to the cafe attached to the railway station and purchased some lunch – a vegetarian club sandwich and something for dessert. As I had about 2 hours before I could book into the Junee Tourist Park I found a seat and had a good rest, watching the world go by. After I checked in to my accommodation for the night I went for a bit of an explore on the bike on the various trails and roads around Junee. Junee is a railway town. If iot wasn’t for the railway the town would probably not be the size it is. There is a 360 degree roundhouse, and it is the junction of the Main South line and a line that branches off to Narrandera and Griffith. In more recent years, the de-regulation of the Australian railway industry and the move to containerised freight has led to the establishment of a transhipment facility at Harefield and so the railway yards at Junee often have railway carriages bound for or moved from Harefield. I heard a number of freight trains rumbling through at various times of the day and night along the Main South line and the Griffith branch. So even today the railwys are busy in and around Junee – that warms the heart of any railways fan.

September 13th.

This day was to prove very different to the previous two.  It was a bit cooler, more overcast. But the best thing about this day’s major bike ride was that it had lots of downhill and a tailwind! My destination was Bethungra. I rode along Old Sydney Road for this ride, which in the days of the Cobb and Co coach service was the route they took between Junee and Bethungra. The road was great to ride on, the hills not beeing too steep, and through beautiful farming country. The reason I decided to take this road was that I don’t like riding on major highways, so to avoid the Olympic Highway, the most direct route between the towns I had to go along Old Sydney Road. This road was entirely unknown to me before I that day but I am glad I decided to ride it. Bethungra is another township very much connected with the railways. Nearby is the Bethungra Spiral, a railway feature built in the 1940’s to minimise the need for double-heading or banking of trains to get them over the mountain range. “Double-heading” means adding an extra locomotive to the front of a train, and “banking” means more or less the same thing – but the extra locomotive is often added to the back of a train to push the train while the locomotive at the front pulls the train. As the name implies, the Bethungra Spiral winds around and goes over itself, using the spiral to gain or lose height meaning gradient is less steep. Bethungra once has as many as 3000 people, but when the railways mechanised and restructured their track work gangs the town almost died, although today it seems to be a small but vibrant village of community minded people.

After checking into the Bethungra Hotel B&B at Bethungra I rode out to the Spiral to take a look, and to the Bethungra Dam / Lake which has a good camping area, and explored the railway features in Bethungra township itself. I also visited the Olde Schoolhouse T-House and had a good chat to one of the operators. It was interesting to find out that they are of the same worldwide faith community as me, and so I chatted for quite some time before going back to the B&B and engaging in some major relaxation – ie, sitting on the balcony outside my room and watching the world go by and hoping for some trains to pass by in easy view of the B&B. But alas the only trains that travelled by were an XPT passenger train (which I saw on the Spiral itself when riding out there) and trains going through at night! Oh well.

September 14th.

Old Sydney Road which I rode the previous day showed on the map as a fairly straight rode. The route for this day’s ride was a very winding one from Bethungra to Cootamundra very much away from the Olympic Highway. When I compared the maps for the two days, I figured that this day’s ride would be much more hilly than the previous days due to the constant changes in direction of the roads on the map. And I was right.From about 15km into the ride until about 10km from Cootamundra it was a fairly constant pattern of ascent followed by descent. Ans so 40 or so kilometres and about 2 and a bit hours later I arrived in Cootamundra. This day was a very cold day, around 8 degrees Celsius. While I was riding that didn’t pose too much of a problem as the effort required to ride up the hills and the 3 layers of clothing I had on tended to keep me warm. But once I stopped at Cootamundra and started to cool down, the wind also seemed to pick up. and so I had to add an extra layer of clothing. Thats’ right – 4 (four) layers of clothing and I still wasn’t feeling particularly warm! I was very thankful for the warmth of the cafe where I had lunch and the wonderfully working heater in the hotel room I had booked for the night. Like Junee, Cootamundra is a very busy railway town. On my exploring around town I saw some locomotives I had never seen before. There is also a foot bridge over the railway lines that gives a good view of the yards and station.

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White Ibis Hotel, Cootamundra. Where I stayed for the night.

September 15th.

This was the last day of my cycling adventure. The previous night I had developed a sneeze or hay fever.  I was hoping that wasn’t a sign that I was getting sick as this days ride was 50+km and I was expecting some major climbs along the ride. As it turned out I needn’t have worried about either as the climbs weren’t that bad and once I was warmed up on the ride the blocked / runny nose stopped being blocked / runny. This ride was in a south easterly direction to Gundagai through the locales of Brawlin and Muttama and for part of the way it followed the now disused Cootamundra – Gundagai – Tumut railway branch line. Spring is a beautiful time to out riding in the south-eastern Australian couttryside as the canola is in bloom and the blossoms of various flowing trees (native and introduced) are also blooming. But then there is the magpies, who also swoop in early Spring. Interestingly, most of the viscious swooping magpies were in the towns (what I call “Town Magpies”). The magpies in the countryside (“Country Magpies”) still swoop but often not as visciously as Town Magpies – another reason to be riding in the countrside in spring rather than in the towns!

I arrived at Gundagai not long after my wife and one of my daughters arrived there and once I Put the bike on the car the cycling adventure was finished. But I had made it. With 284km of riding, mostly through countryside that I had never been or seen before, it was very interesting and enjoyable. And I discovered, or maybe remembered, some things:

  • It is not impossible to find people with whom you have a common interest in the most unlikely of places.
  • Country hospitality really is the BEST!
  • Exploring new places is inherently pleasurable and interesting on a bicycle.
  • While the destination is important, the journey is to be savoured and enjoyed.

Ernest Hemingway once said of cycling “it’s by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and can coast down them”. Bill Emerson said “a bicycle does get you there and more. … And there is always the thin edge of danger to keep you alert and comfortably apprehensive. … And getting there is all the fun”. But for this cycling adventure (and many others), Charlie Cunningham sums up my feelings best: “You’re moving through a wonderful natural environment and working on balance, timing, depth perception, judgement… it forms a kind of ballet”.

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