Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Grand Ridge Road, Dargo and and the Alpine National Park

In preparation to our trip to South Africa and after getting loads of great Christmas presents, we had to take a weekend trip and try out all the toys and make sure we get the check list ready for the big trip.  We were sure there was going to be loads of things we didn't think of...and we were right.

In South Africa we aim to do around 450km a day.  That would mean a fairly busy day, seeing that we're mostly doing unsealed roads at anything between 40km/h to 80km/h, depending on the type of road.  We'd like to leave some time in there for a bit of sightseeing obviously, so it's going to be pretty tight.  Lets say around 10 hours of riding maximum, per day.  We might have to jump on some of the sealed roads to just give us a bit of time, so I see a revision in the route coming.

I've had some issues with the DR, but in the end it was all quite simple.  The bike hunted when decelerating and sometimes just died.  After a while it'd start again and I'd be off.  I took it to Ozzie Mario, a guy I met on the Adventure Rider forum and he helped me get to the bottom of it.  A bloody mission.  We figured out it was the fuel cap on the Safari tank.  It's got a one way valve on it to suck in air as the tank empties.  The valve didn't work properly (intermittently I might add) and created an air lock, not allowing the fuel to flow through and starving the bike of fuel.  We took that carburettor off three times!!!  I must say, I'm a bit of a mechanical pleb (that's quite ironic, with my dad being a mechanic) and I managed to take the carburettor off and out it back on, with the bike still working (aside from the fuel issue).  I learnt a lot about the bike and now I'm hungry to learn more.

Anyway, so, the weekend.  Brien and I left at around 8am on Saturday.  We had to quickly go and drop off some DVD's from the night before and then headed out straight towards the Grand Ridge Road.  Intercoms on and chatting away, very excited about the two days ahead of us.  We weren't even out of Melbourne and Brien says that his front wheel feels a bit loose .  He had it realigned a couple of weeks before; also the reason we missed the first weekend we planned.  The axle was in the wrong way around, so he had to do some running repairs next to the road.

Right, and we're off again.  So we get to around Drouin and Brien has to stop for his radiator.  He's been having issues with the bike overheating for a while now.  Recently, the radiator cap seal broke and it kept running dry.  So, we phone Liz-Mari, my wife and she gets in contact with someone in Warragul at a Honda/Kawasaki dealership who might be able to help.  We rocked up there, but they didn't have a suitable part.

Then Liz-Mari got hold of a KTM dealership in Leongatha who had the part we were after.  It was quite out of the way, but it was either that or the end of our trip.  So we headed there and took some really nice back roads.  At least the shop had some eye candy.  It had two 990 Adventures parked there.  One standard and one 990R.  Now, that's a bike, but I must admit, probably too much for me.  What I did like was the height of the seat.  The bike's a lot taller than the standard and I must say, that's something I need.  I'm around 1.9m and I really struggle on the smaller bikes.  Even the DR isn't enough.

Next stop, Mirboo North for a quick lunch.  It's our second time here and it's a great pub.  The food's good and the beer even better.  The owner is the brother of our pastor.  Brien's met him at a market and from what I've heard, he's a really nice guy.
Now it's onto the Grand Ridge Road.  First a couple of km's of sealed road and then it was onto the unsealed road.  The last time we went through here it was raining and the road was like snot.  I also had a set of Michelin Sirac tyres on the bike.  They're great tyres on the road and dry unsealed, but not on wet unsealed roads.  Believe me.  This time, I had a set of Trailwings on the bike.

TW301 and 302.  The more aggressive Trailwings.  I really like these Bridgestones.  They're really cheap, they're good on the road and even in the wet and they're good off road.  The rear tyres have lasted me around 8000km now and they've probably got some 2000km left on them.  Great deal.

The last time we did this road, we only did about half of it.  We got to English Corner and had to cut the trip short, but this time we continued on Grand Ridge Rd.  Actually, that eastern section is great.  The road surface is way better and the corners are really nice and flowing.  Going past some Pine plantation on a straight section of unsealed road, we hit a straight section, with a 90 degree left turn at the end.  We both blasted past a retired couple taking a cruise in a Honda S1000 (who was really nice to pull over for us).  I slammed on the breaks and took the corner nicely, but in the intercom I could hear Brien saying "Too late, too late!" and the next thing I saw in my mirror was Brien popping into a ditch and tipping over onto a sand bank at the end of the turn.  He was alright, aside from a bruised ego.  That was made worse by the retired couple stopping to ask if he was alright.  After that you get to a sealed section which is just as nice and flowing.  Beautiful Sunday riding.  You can see why this is so popular with the road bikes.

After that we hit a bit of boring section of the trip.  About an hours worth of sealed road.  Straight and boring.  We got to the Sale swing bridge, took a couple of photos and headed to the supermarket in town to get some supplies for the evening.  From there, the next stop was Dargo Hotel.  The section of road between Sale and the foothills was quite boring again, but as soon as we got into the foothills, things livened up again.  Twisty roads and quite amazing scenery.

Now, Dargo Hotel is quite the experience.  I'd say something every person should experience.  Loads of character and loads of characters.  Great food too.  It's a place for 4wd's to park and  drivers to go over how they've tackled those insane tracks in the surrounding mountains.  Families and German tourists sit and chat away in the restaurant and locals sit and sip on their beers in the pub.  We had a good feed and moved on to get to the camp site before dark.

The camp site is the old Talbotville township site.  The road to the Talbotville camp site was great.

It's an unsealed road that you can probably do with a normal family car, up to a point, where the road descends into the camp.  There it's a Jeep track, which is quite rough in spots and kept us asking each other how two 4WDs would pass each other if there's barely enough space for one car and a sheer drop on the one side.  The camp site's great.  It's a great river flowing along the one side, quite a large camping area, information board (about the old Talbotville township) and toilets.  There were several campers there, mostly using the camp as a base for exploring the tracks during the day.

We picked a site close to one of the river crossings and got the tents up.  Now, none of those Brokeback Mountain quips.  We each had our own tent and each one of us got into his own tent.  That's it.  End of story.  As soon as the sun started setting the mozzies came down on us like kamikaze's.  I'm pretty sure I could hear those Mitsubishi engines screaming and I jumped into that tent like a war veteran with post traumatic stress syndrome.  To be honest, it was almost 2130 and I was knackered.  I read an article in a magazine I brought with me and decided to try out the new inflatable mattress.  I had no inflatable pillow like Brien and had to settle for my fleece jacket bundled up.  I got about 5 hours of sleep that night.

The next morning we took a casual stroll around the camp site and checked out the river crossings.  I'm not too experienced in crossing rivers and the only things I was worried about were the rocks on the crossing.  The middle section had a larger rocks as the 4WDs have eroded the smaller ones away, but the little weir on the downstream side of the crossing had smaller pebbles and they seemed a bit more consistent.  This was going to be my line.  I wanted to make sure it went alright, as if I mucked it up, there'd be a family laughing their arses off nearby.  Talking about them; while we're busy taking down the tents and packing up, our next door neighbour pops over to say hi and offers a cup of coffee to start the day off on.  You can't refuse that.  We have a chat and find out that he rides enduro bikes and is keen to find out a bit more about adventure or duel sport bikes.  They're from Warragul and are camping there just to have their kids have a bit of a base for the night.  Great people and we had a really nice chat.

We set up the cameras for the river crossing.  This'd be the first time we'd attempt this.  We had two normal still cameras with video functions.  Brien set his up on the righthand side of the stream and mine on the lefthand side.  We got geared up and off we went.  The crossing was fine.  Actually too easy.  We picked up the cameras and Brien noticed his camera ran out of juice; not sure when.  The we and headed off on the track up the hill.  Climbing and climbing.  The views were spectacular.  We saw some farm houses down in the valleys.  What a life, but I suppose that doesn't suit everone as I know Brien wouldn't want to live too far from the city.  I on the other hand, don't particularly worry about that, as long as there's some town closeby that has most of the shops and services you'd need.  Anyway, aside from the farm houses, there was nothing and nobody.  It was great.  We cruised up the track, around every corner it just kept climbing, until we got to a junction with multiple branches.  Here, after Brien checked and (over)filled up the coolant bottle (apparently coolant tastes terrible), we headed off onto the Blue Rag Track.

The track started out okay, similar to the previous section.  Really easy, trafficable by normal 2WD vehicles, but it soon start throwing a couple of curve balls and as we started climbing the hill towards the lookout point, it started getting a bit tougher, but quite manageable and quite good fun.  I enjoyed it.  It was just enough to make you smile and not put in too  much effort.  The DR handled it really well.  Brien liked it so much he passed me and left me behind.  When we met up at the top, we took a few minutes to figure out where we were and where to next.  While we were chatting away about the track, I point to his bike, not saying a word.  As Brien turns around, he's gaze is met by the sight of a massive bloody spider climbing out of one of the bike's body panels.  It freaked us both out, but I think Brien more than me.  It must have been there from the camp site or maybe from when we stopped at the junction to check his coolant bottle.  Luckily it was his task to get it out of there.  Stick in hand, he bravely tackled the spider, although tackled might imply that he was close to it.  It was funny though.  I had time to stand back and capture it on video.  Someone had to.  I heard afterwards that it was just a Huntsman.  They're harmless apperently, but man are they ugly and they send shivers up my spine.

I must say that I'm probably more afraid of snakes than spiders, but spiders are creepy nonetheless.  Brien's got some surprises coming in South Africa...

It was 10am and now starting to get pretty hot and they we're forecasting around 40 degrees celcius for the day.  The next section was going to take us down into a valley and across to the Dargo High Plains Rd.  We had two options.  One was to tak a really difficult road, which our map showed as just a faintly dahsed line and the sign at the start said is a seasonal road.  That didn't sound good in any language, especially in this kind of country.  The other was a plain dashed line on the map and we could see it from the lookout.  It looked nice from there and we both assumed it must have been the road that continued from the previous junction, which was nice open and easy.  The descent into the valley was bloody steep.  We laid on the breaks all the way down.  Brien had to take it easy as his bike's weight added to the task.  He tackled the hill first and disappeared around a corner.  I slowly but fairly easily went up the hill.  I can normaly hear that V-Twin of his above my bike's engine as I only have a standard pipe on it, but all of a sudden it cut out and just as I came around the corner the KTM was in the last stages of rolling backwards and keeling over.  It's a helpless feeling to know the bikes going to drop and not being able to stop it.  Your brain takes a couple of seconds to register that you're not going to make it and ou always try and save it until the last second.  It's better to just drop it than hurt yourself trying to keep it upright.

I quickly parked my bike on a drainage berm and walked up the steep slope towards Brien as fast as I could, well after taking a quick snap.

Brien was visibly annoyed with having dropped the bike, as I think most would.  Dropping it's easy, but picking it up, that's another story.  Especially since it's fallen across the road, with the handlebar downwards.  I can tell you one thing, that bike is heavy.  I'd hate to think what it must be like to pick up a R1200GS.  We got the bike upright in several stages.  We'd get it onto our knees and after resting a bit, lift it a bit further and at the same time wedging our knees in further.  We assessed the damage.  No damage to the plastics, crash bar or exhaust, but the righthand side wingmirror broke off.  Not a the end of the world.  After a couple of attempts to get it started, the engine roared into life and Brien got on it.  I thought I'd start walking down towards my bike and try and finish conquering this hill.  I wasn't halfway back to my bike and I heared his bike coming to a halt and when I turned around I saw him in the last stages of dropping the bike again.  Now I could see the frustration in his face.  The bike was just too heavy to get going again.  It kept spinning.  He had Pirelli Scorpions on it and that didn't help either.  This time the bike had a bit more damage on it.  The plastics and crash bar was scratched.  I helped pick up the bike, but now I was starting to get tired.  I can't imagine what Brien must have felt like, gettting the bike upright and then having to fight that beast up the hill.  We both needed a bit of a rest.  The sun was now pounding down us.  I was sweating like a pig and I normally don't sweat much.  I took my helmet off and we rested for a while, taking in some water and the last bottle of Powerade.  Brien asked me to help him keep the bike upright as he tries to get some momentum going, but as soon as a carefully drops the clutch, the rear wheel spins and the bike shifts.  It heads straight for the wheel tracks where the rocks are and then it just starts spinning.  It just just doesn't seem to get any traction.  No matter how hard we try, we just can't get it going or keep it upright and we drop it again.  Luckily it's the righhand side, every time.  That means he'll only have to replace those pannels, but really, that's the last thing he's thinking about now.  I must admit, being the one who's more money conscious, I can't help but feel physical pain when I see damage to such a bike.  Brien's starting to get desperate.  We start talking about contingency plans.  Someone will have to possibly try and get some help.  We either both leave our bikes there and walk or I try and get to the top on my bike and go for help.  We decide on the latter.  I get on my bike and give it a shot.  The DR handles this road a lot better.  Better tyres, lighter and I think a different type of traction.  I head up the track, slowly, but just enough pace to keep me going.  I do really well and the top of the hill's probably only 20m away, but then I have to change my line because of a big rock I spot up ahead and as I cross the middle of the track I go over some loose rocks, the back wheel spins and loose my momentum.  I can't sop the bike from rolling back, I loose my balance and drop the bike.  Brien rushes up to come help pick it up.  After we get it up, we just can't get it moving again.  It ended up on the edge of the track and spins back into the loose rocks no matter how hard we try.  It's really frustrating because we can see the top of the hill is so close.

I call my wife to tell her what our predicament is and that we might be late and I shoot up a prayer.  The next moment I hear the drone of engines in the distance and as I look up I see two 4WDs come down the hill on the other side of the valley, from where we came earlier.  In front a 1990s Land Rover Discovery and behind him a new Mitsubishi Pajero.  Brien just hopes it's not a young family who probably wouldn't be able to help.  They get to him first and both vehicles only have the drivers in them.

They stop and get out and we explain what the problem is.  We couldn't have asked for better as we quickly learn Joe has low range in the Land Rover, meaning he can literally crawl up the hill and Nik knows how to tow a bike as they're both adventure bikers and Nik got taught by a South African friend of his how to tow bike to bike.  They tell us to sit down, give us some Cokes out of the fridge and some extra water and pack all our gear in the Landie.  They hook the tow rope up and Nik takes control of the bike, with Joe letting the Landie crawl up the hill.  Nik does a great job.

Both Brien and I are stunned by how easily he did it.  He dropped it once...on the other side, but all in all we were both way too knackered to be of any help.  They take a bit of break and Nik helps me to get the DR up to the top as well, by pushing the bike a bit and guiding it until I can keep the right line.  I park the bike up at the top and notice that we weren't as secluded as we thought.  There's a tent pitched on a patch of grass right at the summit.  It looked like nobody was home.  Soon the Landie and KTM is at the top as well.  Nik goes back to get his Pajero.  We take some more water, Nik lets us fill our water bladders and we have a chat.  They tell us that the hill is infamous.  It's a really difficult 4WD track and I also hear later that Parks Victoria wanted to close down the track many times and 4WD groups lobbied the government to keep it open.

In the meantime we see the that the tent had some life in it.  A guy and a girl are packing up their gear.  They must have slept late, but in that heat, I'm not sure how nice it would be in that tent.  Hey, lets not guess what they were up to.  I think everyone's happier that way.

After taking a bit of a breather all four of us casually cruise to the  Dargo High Plains Rd.  There we stopped to chat.  Nik made us some Nutella sandwiches and we took a couple of snaps.

After exchanging details we get on the bikes and try and get to Bright as fast as we could.  I can tell you one thing; this is a beautiful country.  We use the Great Alpine Rd.  A stretch of wide and twisty sealed road descending down to Herrietville in the valley below.  When we eventually reach Bright, we get some lunch at 3 in the afternoon.  Tired beyond belief, we take off our boots and sit down for some grub.  Bright's a great little town, but I have the feeling it's for retired and wealthy Melbournites.  The Ovens River flows through town as well and Centenary Park is along the banks where the river meets up with Morses Creek.  It's a great spot and gives families the opportunity to swim in and relax next to the river.  It's like a coastal beach and even has a life guard on duty.

After Bright we decided to call it a weekend and headed home.  After a quick stop in Myrtleford to top up the radiator fluid, we hop onto the Hume Freeway for a short bit.  There's nothing as boring as riding a freeway!  The only bike for this is a Harley, because it's a boring bike and it can't corner.  There, now you know, I don't like Harley's.  I prefer real bikes.

We take all back roads to Alexandra, through Healesville and then into Melbourne's eastern suburbs.

All in all a great weekend.  Although things did go wrong, I don't think we would have learnt so much if everything just went smoothly.  We made loads of metal notes for our South African trip.  I think probably me more than Brien.  I didn't even take any bog role!

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