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Conquering the 100km Great East Rail Trail with toddler in tow

Words by Georgie Foster
Images by Jay Dillon

I couldn’t remember exactly how it had happened, but some time in the midst of winter a friend had invited me on The Great East Rail Trail Ride. Back then it sounded like a fantastic idea; 100 kms on a bike, on an old rail trail, fully supported with tents set up for us and meals provided along the way. However one week out, the reality of dragging my toddler behind me in a bike trailer for three days became a cause for concern. I suddenly remembered an invitation from some friends for a girly weekend in Byron!

Just over a year ago, my charming, six-foot cyclist husband died, leaving our two-year old and me with a lot of lycra, tubes, wheels, bikes and multi-tools. Although we had done quite a bit of riding together,  I often felt I was being dragged along.  In fact it was around the anniversary of his death when I decided to do the ride, so I suppose in a way, he still was.

As I prepared for this ride I wondered whether I would enjoy it. 

Maybe I was attracted to being the sole parent doing the dragging (little did I know how literal that would be ). But I wondered, how it would feel doing this ‘all by myself’ – as a widow with a toddler, you often feel alone. 

I would later learn that I wouldn’t actually be alone, the 120+ riders, the amazing organiser, Liz Mitchell of Snowy River Cycling Tours, and her indefatigable team of workers and volunteers, would be there all the time. And I would be with our precious little boy, my friend and his daughter. 

I planned to do this as my muse would have. I would train. I would have my bike and trailer serviced well before the event. I’d be fit and organised. 

I could see myself riding along with the wind in my hair and a smiling toddler loving all the outdoor mummy time.

Three months to go…

With three months or so to prepare, we embarked on our training regime. This mostly consisted of seeing how far we could go with our budget German supermarket trailer. 

As it turned out, not very far without chocolate, milk, lots of stops for chats and cuddles and, very often, “Too fast!”, “Too bumpy!”, “I want to watch Paw Patrol”, “STOOOOP MUMMY!”

Every couple of weeks before the event, Liz would send an email with more information and some exciting facts and tips and tricks for preparation. These would spur more fits of training. 

It wasn’t until I was preparing to leave my home, a couple of days before the ride, that I discovered how encouraging and informative and exciting they really were. 

The first day…

Day one starts in a flurry. The kids want kid stuff, I am putting bikes and the tag-along together, everyone else looks ready, calm, fit and prepared. Quietly, in my head, it’s a red zone; I’m panicking. I don’t want to leave last. I don’t want to come last. 

I’m interrupted in my personal spiral by a very informative briefing. . The mention of a ‘BIG HILL’ cuts through. I heard that! 

All of a sudden it’s a GO. And a minute or two later, tumbleweeds. 

Off we pedal, at last, and last. 

The ride is a cruisy 12 km to lunch and it all seems to be going swimmingly. The idea of the ‘big hill’ floats in and out of my mind as we meander along the lovely once-sealed rail trail. 

We turn off the trail near the beautiful Nicholson River and head to the Nicholson Winery to find a great selection of rolls, some cakes, fruit, tea and coffee and even wine, all enjoyed overlooking the river. We arrive at the tail end but we have plenty of time to relax and play on the grass before heading off again. 

Now we are riding through native grassy woodlands. Red gums stand majestically and peacefully, spaced out in the fields. Native lilies and orchids colourfully decorate the sides of the trail, which are often lined by tall thin eucalypts. As we head into the Tambo Valley we pass some hop kilns that date back to the 1880s, and more excitingly for the toddler, a few tunnels. 

Our team begins to flag a bit, but we come to a road crossing supported by Liz herself, chanting “not much further, it’s pretty much all downhill, you’re nearly there” and other things she knows you need to hear at this point. 

Every time I feel the weight of the trailer on the gently-up bit of undulating earth, I’m gently cursing these lies but soon enough we arrive at Bruthen on The Tambo. 

We know we are having dinner at the pub, so all we want to do is have a shower and head to the Bruthen Hotel for a beer. There is a marquee thoughtfully laid out for weary cyclists, like it is a conference dinner. There is live entertainment provided by the skilled Bruthen Arts and Events Council, and a trivia competition with teams called Tail Enders (us), Magpie Dodgers, and our fave, the MegaSaurAss. 

In between the entertainment, our shearer-worthy serves of delicious lamb shanks and rolled chicken breast are delivered. 

We sneak back to the tent after dessert so I can get the little guy to sleep. Moments later we are tucked up, comfy and warm in our preset Easy Camp tent. We drift off to the sound of the festivities as they seemingly fade into a dawn chorus of birdlife accompanied by the rustling and zipping that marks the international morning ritual of campers finally losing the fight with their bladders.

Coffee is on the boil from dawn and there is a charming retro teardrop caravan providing pancakes, muesli and yoghurt to a small horde of hungry cyclists. This little van with its beautiful setup is from (f)route, a local social enterprise that ‘values art, fruit, environment, good travel, slow conversations and regional communities’.

Liz had warned us that if the gentle 7km hill was likely to set our day up poorly, skipping it in the comfort of the Sag Wagon was an option. I was first in line, and not the only one. We did our best to reassure ourselves that we should be proud we were taking part, not ashamed to be sitting this part out. After all, I could have been in bed in Byron Bay nursing a hangover and staring at the back of a charming random wellness pilgrim!

Most of the day is spent meandering through the Colquhoun forest. Quite a dry, crackly sort of forest with skinny trees that spread out comfortably in the native woodland way. 

It’s at the morning tea stop that I notice people talking about the drought while doing the classic Aussie fly salute. East Gippsland has been suffering terribly from drought for the past few years. The trail is sandy and gravelly and all of a sudden my meandering is interrupted by cries from the trailer. 

Again, I hear “too fast”, which I try and ignore but the words “splashing rocks in my face” grabs my attention. I realise my son is getting gravel and grit from the trail straight onto his face and eyes. I fashion him a shield out of a tube I’m wearing as a sweatband and thank his Dad for buying so much stuff. 

We continue through the forest, past some beautiful old trestle bridges – one badly burnt  and the other a magnificent giant of red ironbark and grey box.  

Before long we arrive at Nowa Nowa, which is to be our destination for the night. After lunch by Lake Tyers we sit at the water’s edge watching fish jump, and wondering what sort of fish they might be, and what sort of person might know. It dawns on us we have almost a whole day stretching out before us and our bottoms are thrilled! 

There are activities for the afternoon: yoga, bike maintenance, singing, water activities and walks. We nap. Later we waddle out into Nowa Nowa to see what’s there. We find the General Store, literally stocked with everything, and find a table on the grass of the rail trail to enjoy our ice creams. 

Along comes the person who knows what kind of fish they are. He is also enjoying an ice cream. Soon we discover he cycles to Orbost for his groceries, regularly, and he’s riding to WA , yes Western Australia, to visit some family next year. 

Feeling lazy, we slink back to the campsite for a dinner of family-sized lasagne portions served by the Mingling Waters (Nowa Nowa) café. There’s a cycling themed outdoor movie night next but after we hear a briefing from Liz about the next day’s pending oppressive heat and hills, we head to bed with determination to ‘get back on that bus’!

Another great sleep, another great dawn chorus, egg and bacon rolls and onto the bus. This is the big day – 43 or so kilometres that I had been training for. My conditioning was not optimal – I hadn’t actually dragged my trailer on an unsealed rocky, chunky, sandy and undulating rail trail but I had ridden 40kms. The threatened heat seemed to be staying away. I overheard Liz saying “What heat?” at the rest stop. I relaxed a bit into my seat.

Famous last words. Soon we were riding through previously burnt forest, with gumtrees, sporadically encountering eerie patches of heat, as if someone was opening and closing a hot oven. 

The trail conditions made it a bit trickier to maintain control of the bike, especially with the weight of the trailer. I seemed to be watching every rock pass under my wheel and feel every revolution turning into kilometres too slowly. Time and distance slowed down and it seemed the ride would never end. 

Tears were sneakily running down my face, I was missing my husband and wishing we weren’t doing this without him. I wasn’t the only one struggling. We had little exchanges and banter with everyone on the ride and lots of people were struggling. It was a particularly hard day for many of the kids on the ride and there were tantrums and tears and the occasional flat tyre and fall. 

Despite this, these kids proved they were full of grit. The support, encouragement and laughs between all of the riders and the support staff was one of the highlights of the ride. The event crew were there with smiles and pumps and lollies and the Sag Wagon for anyone who needed it. 

Pretty soon we saw the 3km sign to Orbost (the end!), where we left the sheltered trail forest and entered the paddocks that led along the road into town. I was elated that we were so close, I wasn’t sure how many more times I could sing Alice the Camel without really knowing how it went.

I missed my husband terribly but he was there – I was wearing his gear, using his backpack, riding the bike he set up for me, pulling our child along. I would never have attempted this without his encouragement, coaching and support and now I know I can do it without him.

As we left the shelter of the forest, I was betrayed and insulted by the weather. Our little boy was howling as the hot, fierce wind blew the bike and the trailer sideways. He was screaming for me to stop because he was terrified. 

It was the first time we had been ahead of our friends but I felt couldn’t stop anywhere safely. After swearing into the wind a bit, I summed up all my mummy-bear courage and battled against this environmental assault until I found a safe place to stop. We waited for our team mates and rode in together. I knew my mate’s daughter didn’t want to come last so we crossed the line together. 

WHAT: Great East Rail Trail Ride
WHERE: Bairnsdale to Orbost
WHEN: 4-6 October 2019

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