Ride High Country - planning the perfect micro adventure on two wheels
Words: Alice Rose King | Photos: Ben Cirulis
I’ve always thought that the perfect way to explore a place is by bicycle. Walking takes me through a mere fraction of the area in the same time (and without the joyous rush of wind in my hair). And cocooned inside a car, bus or train I find myself feeling curiously removed from my surroundings, the layer of glass muffling my experience of the outside world.
But as English writer Beatrix Campbell puts it “I love everything about the (bicycle) – the sensation of the tyres on the road, the mobility – and I love the fact that you have this intimate relationship with the elements, and the landscape.”
So when it came to planning a trip to Victoria’s High Country, the one thing I knew for sure is that it would involve a bicycle (or several). But what else did I need to consider to create the perfect micro-adventure?
For me, place is as much a ‘why’ as a ‘where’. Why am I drawn to this area, what do I want to see and experience while I am here…and how do I want to feel?
Do I want the freedom of wide alpine spaces, immersion of riding through sun dappled bushland, unearthing of history from sandstone walls, discovery of stunning art installations in remote locations, the connection (and deliciousness) of tasting local produce straight from the surrounding land…or something else altogether?
North East Victoria promised us all of these, stretching south from the long, lazy length of the Murray river, over the western slopes of the Great Dividing range. As we only had a few days to play with, we decided to explore the rural Taminick, Wangaratta and Beechworth region, immersing ourselves in the living history of some of Australia’s oldest vineyards and gold era towns and surrounding Warby-Ovens national park.
One of my favourite parts of visiting a new place for the first time is watching my roughly scrawled mental map bloom with colour and detail. The little rural town of Benalla comes alive with vibrant street art, larger than life characters populating the sides of buildings and back alleys.
A Glenrowan vineyard I know by name alone becomes a rusty old bike leaning against grapevines, the taste of locally grown shiraz on my tongue and the owner-grower talking me through their cellar.
The topographic lines of the Warby ranges unfurl into furrowed ridges, with hazy blue vistas of the valley below.
PLAN (…BUT NOT TOO MUCH)
Personally, I feel like my best adventures happen when planning meets spontaneity. So while I researched where best to ride, stay, eat, see and do (which was all too easy for this trip using the official Ride High Country website), when it comes to the trip itself, I try to stay flexible.
If I’m hurrying to keep to a strict timetable, I’m less likely to pedal in circles around the Benalla skatepark for the sheer, silly fun of it, turn off the main street to gaze down into Beechworth’s magnificent gorge, say ‘yes’ to the offer of a behind-the-scenes tour of Taminick cellars. And those unexpected moments can be the ones which stay with me the most.
Taking local conditions into account can also mean the difference between being caught sweating up a hill in the late afternoon while the sun is in its zenith, and being parked in front of a cool beverage at the local brewery. (Which I learned quickly after the first day!)
Rather than be tempted to bite off more adventure and activities than I can chew, I try to plan for downtime, too. Because no one ever regretted an extra iced coffee and a lie down in the sun after riding the beautiful Ryans-Taminick loop around Wangaratta.
Living in temperate Sydney, it can be easy to forget what the true changing of seasons looks like.
In the Kings Valley and surrounds, each month of the year has its own distinct personality. There’s a kind of magic in it, knowing that if I came back even a few weeks later, the light would be lower over the fields, the days shorter and cooler, different crops and wild flora blooming and animals seen out and about.
Speaking from experience, taking the time of year into account when you’re planning activities (and what to wear) makes things imminently more enjoyable! Our early autumn trip was perfectly suited for long rides under the full gaze of the sun, while browned fields lay testament to the hotter summer months and crisp mornings hinted at colder weather to come.
In another month, visitors would be flocking to historic Beechworth to see streets set alight by autumnal colours. The seasons are echoed by local events and activities too, with different things to see and explore throughout the year.
The people who really know a place are the ones who live there. Connecting with the locals is an opportunity to experience their home through their eyes.
One of the easiest ways I’ve always found to do this is by bicycle. Before I went, I got put in touch with Michelle Armstrong, co-founder of the High Country Women’s Cycling Festival, who volunteered to take us around her favourite local loop.
From meeting Michelle for the first time at 8am on the side of the road, by the end of our ride I knew about the terrible fires that devastated the landscape 20 years ago, what moving from the city to the country and raising children here had been like, and how she had seen tourism change in the region over the years, expanding from vintage car shows and autumn leaf viewing to adventure activities such as riding, hiking and running, bringing a whole new wave of people to play and stay.
People’s pride in their region and what it has to offer was evident – and infectious. Alison Angus at Benalla’s visitor centre was bubbling over with enthusiasm and directions for their wall to wall street art. James Booth of the Black Dog Brewery lit up talking about mountain biking through the hills behind their vineyards. And our server, Luis, at Rinaldo’s Casa Cucina said “Wangaratta wasn’t like this when I was growing up here. We didn’t have places like this. Now it’s an amazing place to raise a family.”
My favourite local though, was probably the echidna we found ambling steadily across the road while descending the Warby ranges. As we stopped pedalling to admire him (and keep an eye out for approaching cars), the farmer across the road told us “An echidna on the move means rain’s a-coming”. And what do you know, he was right on the money, with the rain clouds rolling in that evening.
Adventure is something that looks very different to each person. While I might choose to grind my way along isolated back roads on the #TourdeBeechworth loop, others may prefer a sleep in and amble along a rail trail.
But a defining factor is the feeling of putting one foot (or a whole leg) out of your comfort zone. In planning my trip, or while I’m there, I try to keep an open mind and ask myself ‘what is something I might not ordinarily do?’ It’s that sense of discovery, and expanding my own boundaries, that helps create an adventure to remember.
With boundary expanding as the definition, a lazy lunchtime wine tasting at Baileys of Glenrowan learning how to properly ‘swirl and sniff’, is every bit as much of an adventure as pushing my bicycle up an endless firetrail somewhere out the back of Beechworth. (Though I recommend doing the latter before the former).
And if there’s one thing I’ve learned when it comes to the more physical type of adventure, it’s to take snacks! I can’t appreciate a pretty view nearly as much when breakfast was four hours ago.
Eventually, all adventures must come to an end, and our High Country trip was no exception. As we started the long drive back to Sydney, I reflected on what, exactly, I get out of an experience like this one.
It’s the forging of connection with people and place, and falling a little in love along the way.
It’s slowing down to soak up the sunrise and pausing for passing wildlife, getting back in sync with the rhythm of the natural world.
And as Terry Pratchett sums it up “Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours”.