Day 134: Wannon Falls Reserve Campground to Drajurk State Forest - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

January 7, 2015

Day 134: Wannon Falls Reserve Campground to Drajurk State Forest

We wake up to a world that's still dark and head back to the road moments before the sun pops over the horizon and tints every tree and home and paddock in a cast of orange. After several days of ideal summer riding weather, a 110-degree bastard of an afternoon is forecast to descend upon us, so we decide to start early, get somewhere cool by late morning, and not come back outside until the worst of the heat had passed.

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It's a rewarding choice. We ditch the highway and pick up a paved one-lane back road where the only traffic is a pair of loaded bicycles. In the spots where no trees grow the sun hits from straight behind, throwing our shadows fifty feet in front of us. But mostly we ride in the shade of skinny gums, every one of which seems to have at least two screeching cockatoos perched somewhere within its branches. We talk about how with every passing day we're becoming more convinced that there's no more relaxing place to ride bikes around the countryside than rural Australia.

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Then from what seems like out of nowhere, the land on which we ride drops away and we shoot down steep hills. They level out for a few dozen feet while crossing a creek before climbing up what feels like a wall on the other side, as if they've been imported from New Zealand. It's like this all the way to Castleraine, where stock trucks with double-decker trailers taller than a two-story house rumble down the highway through the center of town, leaving the stink of cow or sheep shit hanging in the air behind them.

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In the farmland beyond town a curious little white and brown terrier spots us coming, and in an instant bolts off the front porch, tears across the yard, and kicks up tiny clouds of dust as he flies down the driveway and past the wide open gate at top speed. When we stop, he stops, and the three of us stand there watching each other as the dog barks and wags his tail and tries to see what we're all about, because we're the most exciting thing to come down this quiet country road in who knows how long.

Moments later one of those weird half-car-half-ute things we see all the time rolls up slowly with the window rolled down. The guy inside has a dirty green ball cap paired with a dirty blue work shirt, and as he rolls by me he says through a mouth full of yellowed teeth, "Got a gun? Use it," and then laughs quietly to himself as his foot rotates against the accelerator and he pulls away.

Nice.

As soon as the car-truck and the awful bastard inside drop out of view around the next corner we say goodbye to our little onlooker and start to pedal. Satisfied that he's learned what he set out to find, the terrier doesn't chase or bark or even look our way again. He just turns around and heads back home, tongue hanging out of the left side of his mouth, and both his tail and his nuts bobbing subtly back and forth until as he trots in no great hurry toward the island of shade from which he came.

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The road we follow is an old road, a fact that reveals itself by the way the unlined surface follows the curves of the hills instead of powering over them unless there's no other way around. When the wind's behind us, our forward progress eventually matches its speed, so that all we hear is the drone of bike tires on blacktop and the high-pitched hiss of the yellow grass that parallels it all the way. But as the path curves toward the wind, the air thunders over our ears and we have to put out maximum effort to stay upright at five miles per hour as tiny chunks of thistle down dance across the sky on the breeze.

When at last the valleys have been exhausted and there's nowhere else to go but up, the road arcs its way over the spine of the hills at the lowest possible point. But in this part of Victoria, where the terrain is rippled from thousands of years of erosion by the many rivers and creeks and who knows what other geological forces, even the low hills are still very steep, which means the riding is slow going.

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With the heat pushing past ninety and dozens of hills having exacted a price from our legs, we're both heading toward wasted by the time we roll into Casterton. But I fall into the loving arms of a steak and bacon pie, a cold bottle of Coca-Cola, and the most delicious eclair I've ever had the privilege of stuffing into my face hole, and that's all it takes to set the world right again. We pass the next five hours in the sheltered cool of the library, looking out on the town's main street. From this perch it becomes clear that there are few things in life more efficient than the lines in which humans travel to go from one air conditioned place to the next when it's sunny and 110 degrees outside.

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We order a pizza across the street after the library closes. A group of four skinny, floppy haired fifteen-year-olds in tank tops and sandals who look like they might blow away in a strong wind drink soda and eat candy bars and talk about nothing. At one point a car pulls up, parks next to them, and they talk to the older teenagers inside who are smoking through rolled-down windows. But although the younger ones know the older kids inside, they just aren't in the same place yet. The young ones are still friendly to the people who work behind the counter at the pizza place, they hold the door open when a woman approaches with her hands full, and the thing they're most concerned about isn't beer or weed or guns but the status of their chill cheese fries, and "can we get a fork with those, please?" There are some towns we go through where I get this feeling that I'm watching the future wife beaters and drug dealers of Australia walk or drive past, but there's so little of that in Casterton. We couldn't have asked for a better place to pass one of the summer's hottest days.

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We follow the pizza with ice cream and then immediately start to climb the long hill that leads away from the river and downtown and up to a rolling plateau. Dripping with sweat but beyond the danger zone of projectile vomiting, we head on in good spirits. But soon we call out to each other when we notice jagged bolts of lightning slashing out of a featureless gray-blue wall of storm. At first it seems distant, but within a few miles we look off to the side and over our shoulders every twenty seconds or so to assess the danger of the weather that turns out to be barreling toward us. In between these checks we mash the pedals in a race toward the white clouds and light blue sky and sunshine that mark the outer edge of the shit that extends so far behind us that we can't see its end.

This isn't looking so good.
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But soon the road curves to the right, toward the direction of that evil looking wall, and it doesn't take more than a minute of pedaling beyond that for it to become clear that we need to get off the bikes and find a safe spot right now. And as luck would have it, a road into the state forest through which we're traveling appears off to the left a few hundred feet up ahead. We pull off and try to ride up it, but to our great surprise we realize that it isn't made of dirt or gravel but sand. This is of course the first time we've seen such a thing since we set out from the coast three weeks ago. But the situation being what it is, all we can do is let rip with an avalanche of profanity and then push the bikes through it with all the strength we have.

Not really at all.
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We find a clear spot where the trees stand at least thirty feet away on all sides of us. The hope is that by staying low to the ground among a bunch of trees that the branches and trunks will act as lightning rods and catch the brunt of whatever terrible things might sneak out of the sky and charge in our direction. Then we drop the bikes on their sides and set to work constructing the tent with greater speed and accuracy than either of us has ever before constructed a tent. In less than three minutes our shelter is done, we throw everything we own except for the bikes inside, and then zip shut the door flaps and hope for the best.

So close and so far.
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White electrical flashes pop like flashbulbs against the yellow rain fly that obscures our view of the madness that rages and swirls outside. Thunder booms from the north — the direction from which the storm is moving — and fans out toward us in trembling waves. As soon as we settle inside, fat rain drops fall heavy on the rain fly and the wind buffets the top half of the tent shell back and forth and back and forth.

The air inside the tent is thick and humid and unmoving with the fly cutting off the airflow, so we sit with legs crossed as sweat beads on our foreheads and arms and in the little crevices formed by the bends at the back of our knees. Every time I turn and glance at Kristen she looks back at me with big eyes and an expression of anxious concern spread across her face, followed by a deep breath and exhale that say, "What the hell are we doing out here?" And it strikes me that I feel almost none of that. Statistically I know that our chances of being struck by lightning are so low they're almost an impossibility, and that the real danger on this trip — in any weather — are the cars and trucks and distracted drivers that pass by us all day, every day on the highways and back roads on which we log hundreds of hours every month. Even when Kristen explains how if a strike is imminent I'll feel the hairs on my arms and legs stand up like there's so much static, I don't feel scared or unnerved or somehow at risk.

And in that way we sweat and we wait.

The minutes turn into hours and the storm continues on. The rain and wind will fade for awhile, but they always return. We play the game of watching the lightning flash and counting how many seconds pass until the thunder arrives, and even though this sometimes stretches to fifteen seconds it never goes away either. All of the other thunderstorms we've experienced in Australia have passed in a relatively short amount of time, but this one's big and broad and has nowhere else to be. This means we have nowhere else to go, and so on a dark sandy patch less than a hundred feet off a rural highway we unroll the sleeping pads, and unstuff the sleeping bag. With the smell of burning eucalyptus in the air but no halos of orange visible in any direction we settle in for what promises to be an otherwise unsettled night.

Today's ride: 44 miles (71 km)
Total: 4,256 miles (6,849 km)

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