Cold and alone: The beauty of winter bikepacking

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We all seek out adventure for different reasons. For some of us, it’s a chance to get away from real life. For others, it’s a chance to see more of the world. For cycling writer Peter Foot, a winter trip to the stunning Grampians Nationals Park in Western Victoria was both of these things and more.

Over three foggy days and two frigid nights last winter, Peter had more than punishing conditions to deal with — he also found difficulty in the shape of an existential malaise. This is the story of his journey.

The tarp sags above me like a limp lettuce leaf. Light rain blows in the open end. Water drips from the seam and beads on my sleeping bag.

“What am I doing here?” I think to myself.

It’s deep winter and I’ve ridden my mountain bike out to the Grampians. I don’t usually ride much in winter. I’m also trying out tarp camping, using my bike as the structural part of the shelter. It isn’t going well. I pull a towel over me to soak up the drips, then roll over, put my head back on the pillow and close my eyes. I just want to go home.

I wake a couple of hours later and the rain has stopped. It’s daylight and water drips from gumleaves. As I lie there a wren flies in and flits around my gear. I crane my neck to watch it. It’s only an arm span away, hopping around the fork legs of my bike. Its feet look so fragile.

Maybe it won’t be so bad. I’ve come all the way out here.

Yesterday I stepped off the train in Ararat, and pedalled through a maze of farm lanes to get here. I’ve come searching for a good mountain biking route to add to my blog. The blog has become popular recently, and I’m starting to think that just maybe it offers some direction. A way to pay bills and fold adventure into my life. A way to ease the tension between a restless heart and a comfortable gladness.

I know very little of this area. There are just some lines on the map I’m curious about. One is a walking track that also appears to be a management vehicle track. Perfect, I think to myself. No cars. It goes through a valley so it’s relatively flat.

I pack up my stuff and stretch on a picnic table and then get to the road. It’s still, and thick fog hangs in the air, and it’s cold, very cold. My fingers ache with it. I hit them against the bars to keep the blood in them. I pedal quietly along a sandy four-wheel-drive track, with the bush damp and moisture on my cheeks. A wallaby sees me and crashes off into the undergrowth, just a dark hump and a tail, and thuds on the ground.

Soon I’m climbing into the ranges themselves. I unzip my jacket and my jumper and let the cold air sting my chest. Slabs of sandstone stacked like pancakes watch me pass, blotched grey, like the barnacled hide of a whale. How many travellers have they ushered through these canyon walls? They stand attentive, and mute, yet they say much, in their own way. They stir something in humans, the ones who are still here.

I get to the main road and pedal along it for a while. The tyres whirr on the bitumen. There is little traffic. Winter. I turn onto another track and start climbing again. The fog has cleared now. A bush at the side of the track has pink flowers. They are delicate and deep in colour and they shock the dun green of the forest.

I reach the track that I’ve been curious about, and I start to pedal along it. I soon come to a fallen tree that I have to lift my bike over. And then another. And then another and another. And then it crosses a creek and starts to climb again and there is another fallen tree. And then another and another.

The track is in serious disrepair, and for the whole afternoon I can’t pedal more than a few minutes without coming to another fallen tree. And then I start to wonder what I’m doing here again. What am I doing, for heaven’s sake?

Shouldn’t I be earning actual money, setting myself up? Developing skills that might be useful? I’m riding a bike in the bush on my own at the moment and what the fuck is it all for? And what the hell is this giant tree doing across the track and why is there a huge steep uphill behind it?

A while later I try to ride over one of the smaller trees. It lies at an angle across the path and its surface is slick with the wet. It spirits away my front wheel, taking it way off to the left as it slides along the trunk, and I spill onto the grass next to the track.

I’ve never had a career trajectory, as such. That’s fine by me. But sometimes doubt picks at you, frays the edges of you. Sometimes you wonder: is it that you’ve got the guts to do your own thing or are you just foolish? You wonder why everyone else has things under control. You have to remind yourself that nobody does, actually.

I get up again and keep pedalling. The track levels out for a while and the sun comes out and the eucalypts become a warm orange.

Late in the day I descend a section of single track with yet more trees across it and come to a campground. It’s big, with lush lawn, and in summer it would be pumping. Now there is nobody. Winter. A few Eastern Grey kangaroos hop away as I roll in, and I spend some time watching them graze, and I sense that it’s going to be very cold quite soon.

I put all my clothes on. The tarp seems unappealing, so I roll out my sleeping bag in front of the dunny block, under shelter. Light rain moves in and I go to sleep with it tapping on the tin roof.

My phone alarm wakes me in the darkness. God damn it’s cold. I wriggle out of my sleeping bag and shovel some trail mix in my mouth and pack up quickly. I’m aiming to get the midday train home. When I start riding I’m still wearing all my clothes. I have to hit my hands against the bars again, and I also have to swing them around in circles.

I love being out at this time. Just the headlight in front of you, the bush so peaceful. There is thick fog again, and the light bounces off all the water droplets in the air and it’s hard to see the road for all the grey. Light begins to seep into the sky ahead, like dye soaking into cloth, and before long the outlines of trees loom from either side, dark shapes, twisted and quiet as old spirits.

I descend out of the ranges and I’m back on farm lanes. It’s daylight now and the fog makes everything poetic. Everything. The road trailing off into the murk. The big old gums. The rails of the livestock pens and the shearing sheds that sit there in the fields like old bulls. When the sun finally comes up the whole place glows a dilute orange. It’s otherworldly. The trees become skeletal outlines against the light. Sheep dot the paddocks like ghosts.

I keep riding and droplets build up on the front of me. On my shorts, my leggings, on my jacket and in my beard and eyebrows. As I get closer to Ararat I climb a hill and come out above the fog. The day is clear, fresh. Behind me the pastures and lines of gums roll away. Fog lies in the valleys like lumps of cotton wool. I can see all the way back to the Grampians, the sandstone walls still watching. It’s a long clear view. That’s the best we can hope for. A long clear view.

I savour the sunshine on my face, then I look down at my jacket and notice something funny. Some of the moisture has turned to ice. I pick it off and hold it, and look at its crazed, delicate structure, and slowly it melts in my hand.

Ride route

About the author

Peter Foot is a freelance writer and bike shop employee who lives in Melbourne, Australia. For over a decade he has been exploring his home state of Victoria on two wheels, as well as other parts of Australia. In 2016 he created, a guide to the best bikepacking and touring routes in Victoria. When he’s not pedalling or clacking the keyboard, he’s probably settled on the couch with a book and a pale ale.

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