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The return

Riding for redemption in the Budawangs

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Not all rides go according to plan. The Over Yonder crew found that out the hard way when they ventured into Budawang National Park on an adventure that was cut short by thick mud and questionable equipment choice. It was an experience that left the crew with unfinished business — a return to the Budawangs simply needed to happen.

So, equipped with more appropriate bikes (and crucially, brakes), they ventured back to the south coast of New South Wales to finish what they started. What follows is the story of Over Yonder’s unsupported journey from Lake Conjola to Milton, a three-day trip spanning 375km with 6,300m of climbing, almost all of it on gravel roads.

Words: Tam Allenby | Photos: Simon “Esjay” James | Production: Matt de Neef

Day 1: Unexploded Ordnance

We’d been here before – and it wasn’t good. Our previous disaster of an adventure to The Budawangs (or ‘Mudawangs’, as they came to be known) had spat us out with our tails between our legs and a bad taste in our mouths. Like a kite in a hurricane, we had been ill-equipped and unprepared for mother nature in all her savage fury.

But that was then. Here at Over Yonder HQ we’re nothing if not stubborn. No line on a map was going to keep us down for long. So, we decided to return to The Budawangs, better equipped, better supplied, and screaming for vengeance. Still, of the original crew, only one was brave enough (ehm, available) to return.

The other three of us were fresh meat with only one other Over Yonder adventure between us. That was Summers, who had endured our greatest stitch-up to date, the Fainter Freezer. Toby and I were gravel adventure newbies, guided by the grizzled Over Yonder pack leader himself, Esjay, who rounded out the four.

It started well enough. A comfortable after-work drive south from Sydney to Lake Conjola, ready to roll out on a three day gravel adventure.

Budawang National Park

The Budawangs are a rugged mountain range located within the Budawang and Morton National Parks in the South Coast region of New South Wales. A Budawangs are a spur of the Great Dividing Range and the highest mountain in the range, Mount Budawang, tops out at a surprisingly solid 1,129 metres.

We rolled out of Lake Conjola at a gentlemanly hour, with the escarpment dominating the horizon. It was clear the only way (for the foreseeable future at least) would be up.

After half an hour or so of pedaling, we spotted what would become a recurring theme of the trip – tiny, tiny horses. Happily distracted, we started the Porters Creek Road climb.

Mercifully, the climb was sealed for most of its length, making the 25% pinches and rainforest humidity a little more bearable. An impressive rock formation hung over the road near the top, complemented by a roadside cave. The final, steep gravel section to Pointer Gap lookout rewarded us with sweeping views north to Jervis Bay and south towards Eden.

On top of the range the terrain changed and we entered a section of bushland which intermittently broke into flat, rocky plateaus.

Tianjara (as the area is known) was requisitioned from graziers during World War II to be used as an artillery range. It remained in the hands of Commonwealth from 1942 to the early ‘80s, when the land was returned to the state of NSW and incorporated into the Morton National Park (and later became part of the Budawang Wilderness).

Hiker and biker beware: remnants of those explosive days still remain. In addition to the pockmarks and otherwise damaged land, the area is littered with target debris and unexploded ordnance. Step off the safely-worn trail at your peril.

For the most part, trail conditions remained relatively smooth and enjoyable (though slow-going), save for a few sand pits and loose dirt sections that had been loosened and flattened by recent tractor work. On a later section of mud, Toby recorded the only fall of the weekend, after losing precious traction, while Esjay slashed open his tyre on a rocky fire trail descent.

Five minutes down the road, the bone dry Tianjara Falls somewhat underwhelmed. Save for a discarded typewriter which we could just make out at the bottom of the cliff, there wasn’t all that much to look at – and, more importantly, nowhere to refill our rapidly diminishing water supply.

After a fast descent towards the pub, nudging close to 100 km/h on paved roads, we beat a seemingly-not-so-nasty motorcycle gang from the Southern Highlands of NSW to be first in line at the bar. The mid-ride beers and salty snacks were good. Less so was the thinly veiled threat from one of the bikies that we’d better turn off the main road before they caught us.

A classic roadside Australian pub established in the mid-1800s, the Nerriga Hotel was first known as the Cricketer’s Arms Hotel. Located on the old Wool Road, the small village of Nerriga grew around the pub, following the discovery of gold in the area.

These days the town’s population is less than 50. There are only a few houses left, two churches, a community hall and the pub – which comes complete with a giant Ned Kelly sculpture bolted atop a tree stump.

The main stretch of highway between Nerriga and Braidwood was paved in 2010, making Charleys Forest Road the dirty alternative. Not only was it more scenic, but it also fortuitously skirted a large, localised storm. Not so dirty after all.

Passing through a rolling section of cleared forest and green pasture, with Mount Budawang a constant presence on our left side, we zoomed through the village of Mongarlowe (population 117) and were soon back on sealed road, with only one short berg to tackle before the downhill cruise into Braidwood.

First settled by Europeans in the 1820s, Braidwood was the subject of Australia’s first Royal Commission in 1867, concerning the extent to which bushrangers had benefited from police corruption or indifference.

The area was also home to the Clarke brothers, ostensibly “Australia’s deadliest bushrangers”. Responsible for a reported 71 robberies and hold-ups, as well as the death of at least one policeman, brothers Thomas and John were captured during a shoot-out in April 1867 and later hanged in Sydney.

Our lodgings for the evening would be Braidwood’s Royal Mail Hotel. Aside from playing host to the cast and crew of a Ned Kelly film adaptation in 1969 – in which the eponymous bushranger was played by Mick Jagger – the hotel’s main claim to fame is that it is, apparently, haunted.

Grown men have been known to leave during the middle of the night after experiencing a ghostly encounter. Many of these experiences centered around Room 14, where Toby and Summers would be staying the night.

Apart from a truly supernatural-sized chicken parmigiana, our only encounter in the haunted hotel would be with two particularly ‘eager’ hotel guests who shouted their availability down the hallways after what must have been a few too many. To be clear, their calls of ‘come play with us’ were much less The Shining, and much more Joe Dirt than any of us could handle. Either way, the offer was ignored – a ghost would be have been much more interesting.

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Day 2: Irish Corner

After a big serving of eggs at The Albion cafe, we headed back out of Braidwood on the same road we’d come in on the previous evening. The false-flat, sealed downhill that we’d so enjoyed the day before now provided the perfect warm-up for a tough sophomore day.

Reaching Mongarlowe, we took a right onto Northangera Rd, and struck first gravel. Far more scenic (and less risky) than taking the Kings Highway out of Braidwood, this route also offered us a quick stop-off at the ‘fish-friendly’ Mongarlowe River crossing for a spot of rock skipping.

Soon we reached the Kings Highway again, turning back towards Braidwood for a thankfully short section of white-knuckle shoulder-hugging – as logging trucks and caravans hurtled by.

From there, we swung left onto Tudor Valley Rd and pedaled through a long, enjoyable section of rolling hills and fertile pasture land known as the Tudor Valley, or, more affectionately, ‘Irish Corner’, so-named for the Irish that flocked here in search of gold.

Our route would also take us close to, but not into Reidsdale, an area where many of these early gold-seekers eventually settled. Turning to an agrarian lifestyle modeled on their European heritage, “Man to the plough, wife to the cow” (in the words of one local historian) became a way of life in these parts for decades.

Another kilometre, another amazing tiny horse. Then, a very dead snake that had evidently met its maker under the wheel of a car. But ‘snek’ hadn’t died in vain, providing Toby with a photo-op and a chance to channel his inner Steve Irwin.

Regular signage for Sully’s Cider House had us thinking we might have been in for an earlier-than-expected lunchtime sampling, but unfortunately we turned right onto Monga Lane only a few hundred metres short. Maybe next time.

Shortly afterwards we stumbled upon a rather famous local landmark. The Araluen Fairy Tree is firmly entrenched in local folklore, with its exact location a closely guarded secret. The tree is itself a giant — more than three metres wide — with an enormous hollow at its base, likely caused by a fire long ago.

Legend has it that in the 1800s, children in the area were told of small, hairy ‘Red Men’ who lived in the forest and rode on rabbits. In the 1960s this particular tree became popular among local kids, after a concealed Redman’s hideaway was allegedly found in its large hollow, complete with carved furniture.

Ever since, generations of local children have been leaving decorations, toys and furniture at the spot, before sneaking in to see if they can catch a glimpse of a Redman.

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Our stop for lunch was Majors Creek, a sleepy little hamlet that hugs the edge of the escarpment. We timed our arrival to perfection, stumbling upon a local country music festival already in full swing, complete with an all-you-can-eat barbeque and salad bar put on by the local pub.

Named after the first European settler in the area, Major William Sandys Elrington (who was granted 2,650 acres upon his retirement from the British military) Majors Creek only sprang up after gold was discovered in 1851.

Surprisingly noticeable on our approach into town was the impact of over half a century of gold mining activities in the area, with the banks of the creek still clearly showing signs of historic wear and tear.

Rolling out of town rejuvenated by a great feed and mid-ride schooner, we soon hit the most significant and gnarly gravel descent of the trip, which would see us drop more than 500m into Araluen.

The beginning of the descent is marked by Clarke’s Lookout which overlooks the valley – so named after the notorious Clarke Brothers we had learnt all about the day before.

Our descent vacillated between thrilling and reckless. Given the lack of any natural guardrail and the near-certain death drop-off awaiting us on the other side, the difference was only ever one botched line away.

The name Araluen means ‘place of the water lilies’ in the local Aboriginal language, and was described at the time of European settlement as a broad alluvial valley – with many natural billabongs covered with water lilies. Unfortunately, no such billabongs are left today, with the natural landscape of the area destroyed by rampant mining during the gold rush.

The town of Araluen experienced a decline after a destructive flash flood virtually swept it away in 1860, killing 24 people in the process. A second flash flood came in March 2012, killing one person.

Aside from some pretty amazing views – seemingly hemmed in on all sides by mountains – the main highlight here was a particularly amusing piece of road signage. We’ll leave it up to you to decide if it is actually funny, or whether we’re just immature.

Reaching the end of the valley, we hit dirt again – but not the smooth gravel we’d enjoyed earlier in the day. The next 60 kilometres would be characterised by a rough, poorly graded surface, with plenty of corrugation and loose gravel in the corners just waiting to catch out any overly eager cyclist.

The winding Deua River valley felt remote; many of the houses and farmsteads we rode past had their own garden patches, solar panels and satellite dishes, kitted out for a life off the grid. Stopping at the fence of one property to say hello to a truly gigantic pig, angry shouting could be heard coming from inside the nearby weatherboard house. As the shouting intensified, we were unsure if it was aimed at us – or was of a more domestic nature.

Still, as said fury reached fever pitch, and with only our MIPS helmets to protect us from any high-velocity projectiles that we strongly suspected might start whizzing around at any given moment, we swiftly got moving again with our curly tails between our legs.

Halfway along Araluen Rd, we stopped to refill our bottles and freshen up in the river, a welcome reprieve from the bone-jarring road surface.

Although seemingly flat, or even slightly downhill according to the profile, the final slog into Moruya was a slow and painful one, our spirits frequently lifted by the road turning to tarmac … only to return to rough gravel a couple of hundred metres later.

The riverside town of Moruya would be our home for the night. For the last hour or so of the trip, we’d harboured hopes of a classic south coast fish and chips dinner. However, having rolled into town at the relatively ‘late’ hour of 7pm, we had to settle for the once-was-frozen-now-is-fried option at the local pub. At least the beer was cold.

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Day 3: Shallow Crossing

Ten bucks goes a long way in Moruya. The Tradie’s Breakfast, at the local greasy spoon, came complete with a bacon and egg roll, hash brown and bucket-sized cappuccino. It wasn’t half bad either.

Departing Moruya, we crossed back over the Deua River – a water-stop in the valley the day before which we then followed out of town towards the Pacific Ocean.

To avoid the busy Princes Hwy, we took a detour around Garlandtown and Mossy Point, tackling the steep double track through the forest up Mogo Hill.

After a fun section of roller coaster-like fire trail, we crossed over the highway onto Runnyford Road. Only a couple of hundred metres along, we met a local making a stop to check out an old car wreck off the side of the road. The poor old fella had been in the wars – suffering from a terminal illness, and now searching for his missing dog (hopefully not the one sitting behind him in the back seat – we were too polite to ask). He implored us to “keep an eye out”. We assured him we would.

Still holding good pace on the smooth gravel road, it wasn’t long before we passed a number of signs proclaiming ‘RUNNYFORD BRIDGE CLOSED’. At this point, though, there was no real need for concern. Esjay reasoned that the bridge might simply be closed to cars, and we’d be able walk across, or, in a worst case scenario, swim.

Descending to the riverbank at speed, our progress soon came to a definitive halt. The Runnyford Bridge really was closed, with a dozen or so workers repairing its central span. We wouldn’t be getting to the other side without getting wet.

We crossed a paddock to reach the water’s edge. Summers was spooked by an inquisitive horse, the rest of us more focussed on the river. Our bawdy confidence in being able to simply swim across suddenly looked foolish. This was not an insignificant body of water (even though it was, thankfully, low tide).

Preparing on the bank, readying ourselves for the swim, we hatched a new plan: two people would swim across the river and come back with a couple of borrowed canoes that we’d spotted on the opposite side. We would then shuttle our bikes across without having to submerge them and risk our gear.

It was a solid plan, but in the end it wasn’t required. A hi-vis hero came to our rescue at the 11th hour and saved the day. He kindly offered the use of his punt to cross the deepest section of the river. We waded through the shallower section with our bikes, loaded our gear onto the punt and were soon on the ‘snake infested’ opposite bank. Success!

A bit of soggy-shoe-cleaning later we were back on the road, moving forwards again. Still, the empty promise of a case of beer for our saviour seemed to float alongside us, our dishonesty haunting us in the breeze.

After tackling a few solid, winding climbs through the eucalypts, gravel turned to tarmac once more as we rolled into the somewhat forgotten town of Nelligen.

Ever since the Clyde River punt was upgraded to a bridge in 1964, people have tended to blow right past Nelligen in favour of the larger and more coastal town of Batemans Bay. In fact, there’s little left to suggest that the place was once an economic powerhouse during the Gold Rush.

Still, we’re a bit old-fashioned and nostalgic for such things – so we made a point of stopping to eat. Lunch was chicken and gravy rolls, fish and chips, and a round of cokes from a takeaway on the banks of the Clyde. Summers ate too many chips.

Not content with our meagre economic contribution, we were literally chased out of town by an irate dog (perhaps belonging to the tradie who had, by now, discovered his case of beer wasn’t coming anytime soon).

The next section of road was riding nirvana, following the Clyde River and dipping in and out of rainforest and lush green farming land. This section of gravel was also undoubtedly the smoothest of the trip – like plush velvet compared to the bone-rattling goat track of the Araluen Valley.

Shallow Crossing, a ford across the river, was the perfect opportunity to freshen up and refill our bottles from what is a truly pristine water source. Had it been any hotter, it could also have served as the perfect spot for a mid-ride dip.

Our next stop was Brooman, a ghost town with a relatively obscure, one might say almost non-existent, history. There were, from what we could gather, a few run down, clearly abandoned houses, a weather sign, and a somewhat bewildered-looking donkey. Otherwise, there wasn’t a whole lot going on. We just wanted to be able to say we rode through a ghost town really, as a handy call-back to the haunted hotel on day one.

The GPS profile made it look like we were in for an easy, downhill run into Milton. Of course, the GPS doesn’t have to worry about small trifles like a hammering headwind. Still, being this close to the end of our redemption saw us find another gear, and grind our way into town and to the IGA.

We had finally made it through the Budawangs, on our second attempt. As an underachieving Meatloaf might say, one out of two ain’t bad. At least we got to, finally, show you this beautiful part of the world in all of its subtle splendour.

As for us, there was little more to do than pack up the cars and start the drive home, via the nearest KFC.

Find out more about this adventure at the Over Yonder website.