“Ever bike? Now that’s something that makes life worth living! Oh, to just grip your handlebars and lay down to it, and go ripping and tearing through streets and road, over railroad tracks and bridges, threading crowds, avoiding collisions, at twenty miles or more an hour, and wondering all the time when you’re going to smash up. Well, now, that’s something! And then go home again after three hours of it…and then to think that tomorrow I can do it all over again!” Jack London
Some time ago I wrote an article for Bicycle Network Victoria but it was never published. They decided that given the state of the trails depicted in my article they probably shouldn’t encourage anyone to go cycling there. But, honestly, I loved getting out in this part of Victoria and, although challenged, we did have a lot of fun… so I’ve decided to share my story here. I also adore Walhalla, having been there many times, and I would highly recommend a visit to this historic township, even if it’s not on a bicycle.
When I suggest to my siblings Pete and Lynn that we go for a bike ride on a couple of short rail trails, I’m not expecting it will take us all day. The Walhalla Goldfields Rail Trail, which runs from Erica to Thomson in Victoria, is only 14km return and, on paper, looks relatively easy. Admittedly, there has been some recent wild weather but we don’t imagine this will have impacted on the trails too much.
Initially the route takes us away from the railways original alignment, where there was once a trestle bridge, and there are steep, slippery sections to negotiate. At Jacobs Creek we meet a couple of amiable firemen, who are refilling the water tanks on their truck, and they tell us we could’ve begun our ride at the Walhalla-Tyers Road to skip this messy section. Moments later we wish we had, as we come to another nasty climb. None of us has the legs to get more than halfway up and we are momentarily off our bikes, walking uphill. It’s an early sign of things to come.
From the Walhalla-Tyers Road there’s another steep descent before the trail blissfully levels out for several kilometres. It’s peaceful riding through the forest, listening to birdsong and noticing the colours of spring wildflowers, and eventually glimpsing the Thomson River in the valley below.
There are signboards along the route including one at ‘Horse Shoe Bend’ where the railway once traversed a very sharp bend. This was one of the most photographed views of the railway as passengers on the longer trains were able to view the locomotive travelling in the opposite direction. Today it’s difficult to see because of the thick forest.
Just after the replica station at Platina, there’s a turnoff to the heritage-listed Horseshoe Bend Tunnel. For those inclined, there’s a very steep track that leads down to the river where you can see the Thomson River emerging spectacularly from a hole in the cliff face. The river was diverted through this tunnel during the gold rush as it allowed easier access to alluvial gold in the riverbed.
But we continue on and suddenly find ourselves negotiating a lot of debris on the trail. There’s a minor mud slide and then a huge tree completely covering the trail. We scoot under the first leafy branch and clamber awkwardly over a couple more branches. It’s strenuous work, but makes us laugh. This is more like an obstacle course than the leisurely Sunday bike ride we had envisaged.
Gold was discovered in Walhalla in 1863 and a railway from Moe was proposed in 1883, but construction didn’t begin until 1904. It was a huge undertaking, as the narrow gauge line had to carve its way through rugged mountainous terrain, but was finally completed in 1910.
Unfortunately, the decline of the gold rush in Walhalla had begun and, in 1914, the main mine was closed. Ironically, many of the miners transported their small wooden cottages via the railway to other locations. By the 1930s, the train only operated once a week and the Walhalla to Platina section was closed in 1944. Ten years later, the Erica to Moe section also ceased operating and the track gradually returned to nature, becoming overgrown and impassable, until work on the tourist railway began in 1991.
As we negotiate another fallen tree, I sense that Lynn is beginning to doubt my definition of an easy ride. The last time the three of us cycled a rail trail we tackled the Grand Ridge Rail Trail from Boolarra to Mirboo North about a year after bushfires had destroyed all the bridges. We had to come up with some creative ways to cross a few of the creeks and the 13km ride was much more strenuous than we were expecting, much like today.
Because of the obstacles, we don’t quite make it to the Thomson Railway Station. But when the trail is clear, there is the option of catching the tourist train into the historic village of Walhalla. The train runs on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, and bikes can be carried aboard. We decide to ride back to Erica and then drive to Walhalla for a late lunch.
There is plenty to do in Walhalla including tours into the Long Tunnel Extended Gold Mine or visiting the historic cemetery that is perched on a steep hillside. There’s also the Tramline Walkway for views across the township, but we are happy to wander along the main street looking at the old buildings and reading the interpretative signs that tell of life in the gold-rush era. The Fire Station, which was built in 1901, is a tad unusual in that it was built across a creek due to the lack of flat ground.
After a bite to eat and a warming hot chocolate, we head back to Erica for our afternoon ride on the Tyers Junction Rail Trail. Fortunately, this trail proves to be less of an obstacle course and more of a ‘let’s have fun in the mud’ type ride. It’s definitely a mountain bike trail and I spend the first half an hour wondering if my hybrid will survive the journey, before I begin to relax.
On the approach to each muddy section, I drop to a lower gear and pedal furiously. I’ve realised that the trick is to just commit and go ‘hell for leather’. Soon we are splashed with mud and laughing hard. Pete tells us the mud has rendered his brakes ineffective and that he is using ‘Fred Flintstone brakes’, which only makes us laugh even more.
As well as dragging our feet along the ground to slow ourselves down, there is also a bit of side-saddle riding as we negotiate a couple of fallen trees. Other obstacles include creek crossings where the bridges no longer exist, but it’s generally a beautiful ride through the forest and fern gullies.
This trail follows the route of a tramway that was used to transport timber from the Tyers Valley up to the Moe to Walhalla railway line. Interestingly, although the tramway used the same gauge as the railway, there was no physical connection and the timber had to be transferred by hand. The tramway was discontinued in 1949.
After about seven kilometres of riding we emerge to Telbit Road, where we decide to loop back to the main road. The rail trail does continue for a further four kilometres to Caringal Scout Camp but, after a couple of rides today that were more strenuous than we were expecting, we are ready to head back. Telbit Road is a well-graded dirt road and the first couple of kilometres give us our only freewheeling for the day. I sit back in my saddle and enjoy the cool wind in my face.
The final two kilometres are steep and winding, a slow grind, but it’s nice to be on a relatively smooth surface. I’m somewhat astonished that I managed to get through the day without damaging my bike or getting a puncture and definitely recommend mountain bikes for both of these trails. They are not your typical rail trails but, if you pack a sense of adventure, they are certainly a lot of fun.