“Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of riding a bike.” John F. Kennedy
Planning a social bike ride in the midst of winter is a risky proposition, especially when the destination is South Gippsland in Victoria, Australia. It might just be a coincidence, but almost every time I visit this region the heavens open to gift the countryside with torrential rain and gale force winds. On our drive from Melbourne to Leongatha, there was a light misty rain and fog so thick that visibility was extremely difficult on the winding hilly roads.
The Great Southern Rail Trail runs 49km from Leongatha to Foster, through rich farmlands and forests and via the appealing country towns of Koonwarra, Meeniyan and Fish Creek. You can ride the entire length in either direction, but if you start in Leongatha there is the added advantage of downhill gradients at the start and the finish of the ride.
Miraculously, the fog lifted, and sunshine and blue skies greeted us when we arrived in Leongatha. It was still very brisk – about seven degrees – but there was no wind, and the conditions were as close to perfect as I could’ve hoped for. The ride was a family affair with my two nieces, Erin and Michaela, and my sister, Lynn, joining me. We also had a support team – my mum and my brother Peter, with his dog Sasha in tow. They meet up with us at various points along the route, saving us the hassle of a car shuffle (which is necessary if you want to ride the trail from end to end).
It was an easy beginning from Leongatha and the first eight kilometres to Koonwarra were so beautiful that I wanted to turn around and do it all again. This is rich dairy farmland and we cycled past cattle grazing in the paddocks. The rolling hills were so lushly green that it reminded me of Ireland, while autumnal colours still graced many of the trees. Occasionally a light breeze gathered some of the remaining leaves to scatter them across the trail.
Dairy farming has thrived in this area since the 1870s and the railway from Dandenong to Yarram, via Leongatha and Foster, opened in 1892 after lobbying from local residents. Existing towns grew larger and new ones appeared as farmers began to transport dairy products and other produce to markets in Melbourne. Timber and coal industries also flourished, with coal from this area used to run the entire fleet of steam locomotives on the Victorian Railway during the 1930s and 1940s.
Between 1981 and 1991, passenger train services were withdrawn, re-instated, and then withdrawn again. Freight services finally ceased in 1992 (100 years after the railway’s initial opening) and soon afterwards local residents began lobbying for the creation of a rail trail. The section between Leongatha and Koonwarra was the first to open in the late 1990s.
While Leongatha is South Gippsland’s commercial centre, Koonwarra is a charming little village renowned for its fine food and wine and its promotion of sustainable living. In 2005, Koonwarra became the first ‘Waste Wise Village’ in Australia and in 2006 they won the ‘Tidy Towns Award’. The community promotes the use of organic foods, innovative health and wellbeing services, and is plastic bag free.
Purely by chance our ride coincided with the South Gippsland Farmers’ Market (held in Koonwarra on the first Saturday of each month), so we headed up to Memorial Park to join the happy crowd milling around the stalls. There was fresh-baked bread, hazelnuts, goat’s milk products, plants, organic fruit and vegetables, and lavender products for sale. It was tempting to grab a coffee and linger here but we still had 41km to ride so reluctantly left the market behind.
The Great Southern Rail Trail is extremely well maintained and there are plenty of places to stop for food and drink, as well as toilet blocks placed at regular intervals along the route. The only drawback is the incomplete section between Koonwarra and Minns Road (which was initially due for completion at the same time as a scheduled road upgrade in 2011, but is still not finished). Here the route diverts to the road for about three kilometres and cyclists need to take care as the shoulder is quite narrow and at times completely disappears. The only other option is to explore the trail in sections or shorten the route by riding from Meeniyan to Foster (making it a 32km ride).
But we were happy to ride on the road and it was a very picturesque part of our journey. There were great views across the Koonwarra Wetlands and the Black Spur Creek valley. At the top of a hill we stopped to admire the view of the old trestle bridges – this will definitely be a beautiful section of the trail when it is finally completed.
The re-entry to the rail trail was via a fairly steep and roughly graded path, which took me by surprise. I stopped suddenly and almost planted my foot on top of an echidna. The creature got as big a fright as I did, curling up into a ball and digging furiously in its attempts to get away from me. This was the first time I’d seen an echidna in the wild and all I could see was its impressive defensive spines. I counted myself lucky that my foot didn’t connect and departed quickly to let it know I meant no harm.
A short time later we arrived at the new Pumphouse Bridge, which spans the Tarwin River and flood plains. The steel bridge has been built in the same style of the original wooden trestle bridge that remains standing alongside it. On the other side of the bridge I saw Peter striding towards us with an excited Sasha straining against her lead. We meandered along with them until we reached Meeniyan, where we took another short break to explore this cute little town with its cafes, art and craft galleries, and antique and jewellery stores.
For the next 19km to Fish Creek the trail is pleasantly undulating as it rises up to Stony Creek and Buffalo. We rode through sections of native forest before entering the foothills of the Hoddle Range where we had to work a bit harder up a gradual climb. It was still a relatively easy ride though as the trail detours away from the bigger hills. That’s the beauty of most rail trails; they are built in abandoned railway corridors that typically avoid steep hills and this makes them perfect for all levels of riders. Most of our group hadn’t cycled 49km before so getting to the end was challenging enough.
By the time we arrived in Fish Creek we were ready for our lunch break and there were plenty of options available, including pub or cafe meals. At the distinctive Orange Roughy cafe you can indulge in a hearty pot pie or burger. It’s also worth taking a stroll around town to check out all the fishy memorabilia – street signs, fish-themed shops and park benches.
Eventually we decided to make tracks, with only 13km left to ride. It was a four-kilometre climb to Hoddle Summit where we had great views across the farmlands to the coast and Wilsons Promontory National Park. From there it was an easy ride – nine glorious kilometres of freewheeling as we literally rolled into Foster. A light drizzle began to fall as we secured the bikes to the racks and by the time we were back in the car and heading home, a torrential downpour had set in.
Without a doubt the Great Southern Rail Trail is one of Victoria’s best rides; just don’t forget the rain jacket.
A version of this article was first published in Bicycle Network Victoria’s ‘Ride On’ magazine.