A ride of loss, love, and longing among the mountain ash

In the lush rainforest of the Dandenong Ranges, Peter Foot was able to gain some much-needed perspective.

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Cycling writer Peter Foot takes us along for a stirring ride as he ventures onto quiet tracks and dirt roads in the Dandenongs Ranges, east of Melbourne, Australia. As you’ll read, this wasn’t your average bike ride – it was an opportunity to step back and take a look at a world gone mad, and to feel grateful for the things that mean most.

The dappled shade makes it hard to see rocks from a distance. The track angles down and I pick up speed. I feel the breeze on my neck, hear the whir of the freehub. 

A couple of fast sweepers. I look ahead to discern a line, then glance down to check for rocks, then back at the line. There is the bike, and my connection to it, and the trail, and the loamy smell of the forest. I position my hips so that the tyres bite and drift just a touch and the whole bike feels primed like a bow that snaps back and shoots me through the exit. Yes. There it is. 

There is something depthless about it, this kinetic experience. When you’re overbalancing, when one foot stands in chaos, it brings you back. I need that now. I’m wound up like a thousand-day clock, to borrow the words of former Australian prime minister Paul Keating. It’s been a strange year. 

And I’m tired. So tired. Without making a conscious decision I stop pedalling. The freehub winds down then clicks to a halt, and I choose a more-or-less random spot by the side of the track and lie down. I take my helmet off and let my head rest on the soil and I close my eyes. 

It’s been a strange year. The pandemic, of course. In Victoria, one of the world’s hardest lockdowns. Who would have predicted, a year earlier, that in the winter of 2020 you would need a piece of paper – essentially a passport – to travel more than five kilometres from home? That in the evening I could walk into the middle of the street outside my house – technically breaking curfew – and see not a soul. No person walking, no cars, no sounds, like the apocalypse. And strangest of all, that a coalition government would double the Jobseeker payment

Then there were the bog-ordinary things that suddenly became complicated. The risk calculations you make about hugging a family member, or shaking the hand of a mate. The way you would go over, sometimes obsessively, how that person coughed near you at the supermarket, or you absent-mindedly rubbed your eye? How through a small, innocent mistake, you might jeopardise the safety of your loved ones? Sometimes it feels like 2020 was primarily an exercise in managing anxiety. At least I’m better at it now.        

I gradually tune into the space around me. The rustle of leaves in the breeze and the shriek of a white cockatoo. I savour the cool mugginess of the shade. A couple of ants crawl on me. A little tickle on my ankle, another on my arm. The odd fly buzzes around. I feel my brain getting pulled down by gravity. I’m leaning into the fatigue. Falling away …

… a sharp sting on my knee. An involuntary spasm brings me upright. A march fly. I bat it away with the back of my hand. How long have I been here? I want more rest, like a thirsty man wants water. But I’m awake now. Kind of agitated. May as well keep going. I climb wearily back on my bike.  

I trundle along the easy double track of Dandenong Creek Trail until I reach Zig Zag Track. It’s called that because it switchbacks steeply up towards the summit of Mt. Dandenong. I sit and grind away, keeping my weight low and forward. The front wheel lifts slightly off the ground and I swing left and right to keep balance. Sweat is making my T-shirt stick to me. A jogger passes me going down and we exchange a hello. 

I reach a level bit of track again, and then a fun little downhill that’s straight with a few rocky bits. I hold it in line and weight the forks. I clomp over the rocks and I feel the bumps work through the oil and the air chamber and up through the headset and the bones in my arms. Yes, there it is again. There’s bliss in movement. Bliss.  

There’s a group of people milling about on the trail ahead. I slow down and when I am near them the vegetation to my left ceases to be there and instead there is a view of the city. It’s wide and unhindered, like standing a few feet away from an IMAX screen.  

The CBD is a little cluster of sticks in the distance. The suburbs stretch out all the way to the base of the mountain below me. I can see the dark blue of the bay to the south and the hazy grey of the ranges to the north. It was like a vast prison, not long ago. This whole city. Encircled by the bay and the ranges and police checkpoints. Crazy.

My wife got a positive test result early in the year. But it wasn’t for COVID. She was pregnant with our first child. COVID-19 hadn’t reached our shores yet, but when it did it sure complicated things, like all the contact with the medical system involved in gestation and birth. More risk calculations, weird new procedures. For one of the ultrasounds, partners were banished from the waiting room. I stood out in the laneway with two other dads-to-be, looking at my bemasked wife through the glass. One of the guys who already had a child told me a bit about fatherhood.     

The uncertainty ratcheted up as waves of pestilence came and went. It was decreed that partners would only be allowed to stay in hospital two hours after birth. It was decreed that labouring women may not use a bath or shower, a very common strategy used for relaxation and pain management. What other decrees might be suddenly enacted? What if I happened to have a fever when it happened? Would I be allowed in? Would my wife labour alone? Would I miss the birth of my child? In the end we opted for a home birth.    

I leave the view of the city behind and a short while later the trail goes from flat and wide to steep, rocky singletrack. I stop at the top and look down. It’s line ball. On my other bike I wouldn’t hesitate. But I am without a dropper, and possess more stem length than fork travel. A couple of years ago I went over the bars on this bike and broke my arm. That won’t do now, with a baby and everything. 

I dismount and clamber down with my bike. My movements are impatient and imprecise. I’m not here, really. My mind is getting caught up in little things, like how that fly woke me up before. I chastise myself for thinking about something so silly. I’m wasting this beautiful day, and that just makes me more tense. I’m wound up like a thousand-day clock. 

Fifteen minutes later I come to a cafe. I order a roast vegetable foccacia and a mango smoothie. While I eat I breathe. Just breathe. I look down the ranges and into the dark waters of Silvan Resevoir, a deep looking hole in the green canopy of the forest. I chew and I breathe.  

After lunch I find a shady spot near a gazebo and lie down on the moist ground. I’m going to have a proper rest now. Nothing can disturb me. Thoughts eddie and swirl. They wash up on the shores of my mind, and I watch them recede back into the water. I feel the breeze against my skin. A while later I open my eyes again and spend a few minutes looking at how the sun lights up some of the leaves a radiant green, while others are in shadow. The breeze makes the light flicker and hop. 

I rub some sunscreen into my arms and face and neck. I swing my leg over again and trundle along some smooth singletrack. I ride through a grove of the tallest tree ferns I’ve ever seen. In one large dead eucalypt, someone has installed a little door. I open it and there is a surgical mask inside. 

I come out onto Olinda Creek Road. It descends the eastern side of the range. I pick up speed. I fly past cobalt blue agapanthus, their bauble heads reaching out from the side of the road, like they’re craning their necks to watch me pass. What a beautiful name: agapanthus. How delightful it is that they exist, and that they have such a lovely name, and that the sun is out. 

At the end of the road I look at my map, and I set off down an unfamiliar track. And I do what I came here to do. For the next couple of hours I set off down unfamiliar tracks and I run my eyes up and down trees and I chortle. I find a seldom-used stretch of singletrack with many small logs down over it. I weight the front and spring over them and sometimes the back wheel scuds over the bark, and sometimes I clear them clean in one movement. 

Later I pedal along a wide, flat track and I pass a walker and I observe the bark on the eucalypts. Later I grind up a straight, overgrown track that goes through a stand of broad leaf trees. It’s beautifully shady and it reminds me of a North American forest. For a moment I forget everything and I feel that I could actually be on the other side of the world. I stop for a minute and see a lyrebird scratching in the soil. The Dandenongs are criss-crossed with such trails. It’s worth taking a day to explore them.  

In the late afternoon I realise that the road I’m on leads all the way back to near where I started. I didn’t intend for it. It was serendipitous. It’s management-vehicle only, it’s relatively flat, and it means I can avoid the main road and its traffic. It goes through a sprawling arboretum. On the left are groves of California Redwoods. On the right a broad leaf tree from Asia. Chinese Boodelie-boo, or whatever the little sign said. The sun is getting lower and taking on that golden hue. I continue my chortling.

I round a bend and come to a row of large mountain ash. Their enormous trunks line one side of the road. So much mass in them. The sun slants in on an angle. It’s enchanting. I’m half expecting to see a forest fairy hopping between the trees. I stop and take in the scene, and I can’t help but think of dad. It convulses through me at random times, the weight of it. 

He received his diagnosis just as the novel coronavirus COVID-19 was being declared a global pandemic. He had two surgeries, rounds of chemo, and other stuff. The day after the first surgery, he was giving me advice on the phone from ICU about a job interview I had coming up. Typical dad. Always thinking of me and my sister. Another time we sat in the courtyard of the hospital and patted a neighbourhood cat, and talked about family.  

When he could still walk we used to walk around the park during lockdown, with all the other joggers and dog-walkers and frisbee-throwers. I savoured the talks we had. I savoured them more than I think I’ve savoured anything. He put things in perspective for me always, and listened. 

“Look after that wonderful wife and son you’ve got,” he would say.  

“I will Dad.”

I’ll never forget the light in his eyes when he first met my son. I’ll always be grateful that he could be a grandfather before he died. I’ll always be grateful that my dad and my son could share a few months together, here on earth, in the place where the mountain ash soar. 

The route


You can find a detailed ride guide for this route at Peter’s website, Adventure Cycling Victoria.

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