by Robert Haines
Close your eyes and you’ll hear it. The way each Robbo-production starts: “G’day, Rob here”…When I came up with the idea to run the Bushranger ride, I didn’t intend on running it this close to winter. But boring life stuff happens which meant that late May was the earliest I could muster, and that is what it would be.
In the days leading up to the ride there was news of fresh snow flurries atop the very mountain ranges that we would be crossing, so it was decided that we should ditch the bush camping — which was met with, well, very little resistance actually — and go for cabins instead.
On a cold drizzly morning at Warburton I was met by Trevor, Peter, Anthony, and Mitch — all sporting several layers of thermals and waterproof coverings. We then blasted off up the Reefton spur to Cumberland junction. The trip through Matlock to Licola was on regular dirt roads, uneventful other than slippery in places due to the persistent drizzle.
Between Licola to Dargo is where we would transition from “Roads” to “Tracks” and a few options were available. Due to the rain, we decided that Billy Goats Bluff was out of the question, so the easier option was taken.
Castle Hill and McDonalds Gap track provided some lumpy terrain but in dry weather, I wouldn’t hesitate to use the route on a grade 3 ride, we arrived at Dargo River Inn just before 5 PM for a well-earned beer and pub meal.
This ride was advertised as a Grade 4, with the warning that I was not intimately familiar with the route and that I would not be doing a “recce ride”. I also warned that bad weather could make the riding pretty wild. We were all on thumpers with aggressive footwear, although Peter was on his last-generation Tenere 660, a nice-looking machine — but he definitely had the weight disadvantage on this particular ride.
The morning ride was spectacular, but as the early morning fog lifted we realized that we may have had our luck turn on the weather.
We descended into Talbotville where many campers were packing up their gear ready to continue on their own adventures. We crossed the Crooked River without incident, much to the disappointment of onlookers, and ascended along Brewery Creek road at a reasonably good pace.
Again, for this particular route, I would grade at 3 in good weather — which is what we had at this time — with only a couple of narrow sections with overhanging branches to drag along the saddlebags.
A turn left to continue north on the Basalt Knob track made the ride more challenging, with some evidence of past wet weather leaving wet and muddy sections along an otherwise moderately rocky track. Progress was slowed a bit, as wet made way for some ice and snow. Fortunately, the more rugged terrain meant we were all working a little bit harder in the saddle, we all managed to stay warm even though it was below freezing.
We made it onto the infamous “Blue Rag Range” which, when we reached the top trig point, awarded us with 360-degree views of… Whiteout. Blue Rag range is a no-thru road, once you get to the trig point you can continue down again to the Wongungarra River — we decided against it given the rapid deterioration of the weather. I later found out that this was a very wise move, the long steep section would have likely gotten us stuck.
We left Blue Rag Range with a couple of small mishaps, passed a convoy of 4WDs, and continued north on the Dargo High Plains road. Once we made it to the Great Alpine road about 10 km from the Mt Hotham peak, with howling wind and snow the consensus was to take the “plan B” route, which more or less had us take the sealed road off the mountain, and some other minor roads and tracks suggested by Trevor.
Even the easiest tracks were made challenging by days of soaking rains — I remember one particular hill. It wasn’t even steep but it was that orange/red clay stuff without any hint of rock or gravel in it. Well, the result was walking pace only, with the back wheel spinning about 2 and a half times faster than the front. This particular track may have been a grade 2 or on the easier side of grade 3 if dry — today, I’m not sure what I would grade it. We weren’t really riding at this point — it was ice skating, trying to keep moving forward, trying to stay upright. Everyone made it to the night’s accommodation at Merrijig.
Dawn was dawning on the dawn of another dawning day, this one wetter than the last with a great many millimetres of overnight rain. This would be the last day of the High Country Bushranger, and our intention was to return to the “Plan A” route to take us back towards Jamieson, then Warburton, and then home.
Heading south now, the first sign of things to come was a Holden ute being towed along a road that it could not progress along under its own power, because of how slippery the road had become overnight. We continued on to Mitchells’ track which would be our last track of the trip.
A lot of the route planning I do is based on some prior experience, topographical mapping products, some paper maps with information, and YouTube videos and forum posts. In a perfect world, it would be great to be able to “recce” these rides, but the reality is that there isn’t always the opportunity to. The weather immediately leading up to and during the Bushranger had impacted the conditions of the tracks considerably. Armed with some alternatives and escape routes as well as a lot of experience amongst us, we forged ahead.
The track had some moderately difficult ascents and descents with some slippery sections — one of which almost got me… possibly it managed to claim Mitch. Happy to let Trevor take the lead at this point as he was outpacing me on this terrain. It does get lonely up the front sometimes. Having someone to follow up front is a bit like a canary in a coal mine, probably not the best analogy to use here but watching Trevor gave me some indication of what was coming up.
At one point Trevor was riding in a rut rather rapidly down a small hill with a right turn shortly followed by a left turn in it. I soon discovered that this descent was very slippery and the line that Trevor had chosen was not perhaps the one with the most grip. I made it to the bottom unscathed, but for a few moments, I was very much a passenger on my own motorcycle.
Peter on his 660 followed shortly after, his technique was speed to keep both wheels turning. Well, let us call it technique. It was a ballzy effort. I would not have tried to do it at that speed. I probably would have aborted, — but Peter pulled it off brilliantly, stopping just shy of knocking over Trevor’s parked KTM.
Mitch and Anthony took the safe line which seemed to allow for a slower and more controlled descent. It certainly didn’t look as spectacular, but it got the job done just fine.
After the short stop to grab a drink and talk about this accomplishment, we continued on Mitchel’s track.
They say that what goes up, must come down. The inverse is also true in the context of a track such as this which follows a ridge line. It wasn’t long before we found the “up” that went with our “down”.
So, let’s just stop for a moment and talk about the elephant in the room — in this case the “Chicken Chaser”. The last ride report that I wrote was about the Matlock Woods Point Day ride. On that ride, I farewelled my Triumph Tiger, my “proper” adventure bike. When you type “Adventure Motorcycle” into Google image search, you get a series of photos of mostly multi-cylinder twenty-something plus thousand dollar machines — not a 20-year-old Suzuki DRZ with a windscreen, a big tank, and some cheap half-torn saddlebags. The DRZ has a lot of shortcomings when shoehorned into the role of Adventure Riding, but my Yellow Chicken Chaser has just about enough mods to be able to take on most short-to-medium distance adventure rides with a reasonable (read: bearable) amount of comfort.
Why I am mentioning this now is one of the key features of the DRZ is its “tractability”, that is, the ability to be able to ascend steep, slippery, rutted slopes, on half-worn dual-purpose tires, regardless of how incompetent the rider might be.
As was the case as I started my ascent up what would be the challenge of the trip, about 200m of track we would spend the better part of the next 2 hours on.
Much like the hill we came down, the ascent was rutted, had a semi-graveled but very wet clay base, and had a couple of corners which made a single slingshot up the middle not possible.
My first part of the hill climb went not too bad, but my line choice took me into a rut that was deep enough to ground out my left saddle bag, causing me to dart across to the other side of the track in what started as being skilled looking on the pegs ascent –- into a waddling, wobbly, wheel spinning mess. But, the Chicken Chaser delivered me to the top of the hill unscathed. A feeling of accomplishment followed, but the reality is the mighty DRZ would have made it up there even if I wasn’t riding it.
Trevor was not far behind me, his KTM now dealing with the mess I had made during my ascent. Being another member of the — let’s whack a big tank and some bags on and Wala! adventure bike team — Trevor joined me at the top.
Now with the two smallest bikes at the top of the hill, and the surface of the track oozing with fresh wet clay, Mitch, Anthony, and Peter set about blasting up the hill. There were some really good and spectacular attempts at the hill, with your standard go go go go go … stop… fall, repeat. Peter on the Tenere again wasn’t mucking around with momentum but with the turn in the hill halfway up, too much was lost, and not enough traction to get going again.
Anthony had a really good run too, but it ultimately ended in running out of momentum and a stall… and “FAAARRQQQ….!!!!“ echoing through the trees.
It was getting late in the day now, the time for a civilized lunch had come and gone, so our ride was starting to move into recovery mode. The destination today was Home, and Home was still a good couple of hours riding in normal conditions.
So it was decided, in the interest of time, that Trevor would become our “Rider for hire”, and see if he could get the remaining 3 bikes up the hill.
Well, Mitch’s PR7 just appeared at the top of the hill. We don’t have any photo or video evidence of it, and Mitch has claimed that he just borrowed Trevor’s helmet and jacket, and that made all the difference for him. That’s plausible, I suppose.
I’m not sure if the best time to try out someone else’s bike is to do so on a track that is almost unrideable. Get your feel for the power, control locations, bars, and pegs, whilst well and truly in the thick of it — but here we are.
Next was Anthony’s 701. A good launch up the hill and this looks like Trevor might be making progress. Oh, wait, no … wait … what … Whooooaaa!!
What we had just witnessed was a 701 doing a backflip. Whilst it looked spectacular we also all had our hearts in our mouths as the 701 more or less upturned and landed on Trevor — fortunately, a mix of Trevor’s experience and wearing appropriate gear meant that both him — and the 701 — survived unscathed. Going back to what I said earlier about riding somebody else’s bike: Trevor’s hands are a bit smaller than Anthony’s, and the adjustment of the clutch lever was just a little bit too far out for Trevor’s grip.
Anyway, a quick reset and the 701 was up with a bit of assistance. Next was Peter’s Tenere. Trevor gave it one good squirt to see how far he could get, and then it was all hands on deck with a strap and a lot of manual work, many hands made light work and we were all up the top of the hill. Time had gotten away from us, and a check of the map revealed that we hadn’t made enough progress so, with Trevor’s knowledge of the area, we re-routed down an escape route that landed us in Jamieson just after the kitchen closed at the brewery.
The original bushranger route from here would have taken us over Mount Terrible to get us back towards Warburton. It was far too late to attempt that, and instead, we took the lower big river road and rolled into Cumberland junction at nightfall. We parted ways, and that’s where the story ends.
It is my hope that in the warmer/dryer months I’ll be able to re-run the Bushranger ride using the intended route. Still a lot of territory that we did not get to explore this time around.