Labour day weekend was the Port Fairy Folk Festival, which is something I’ve wanted to do for about five years now. Since I don’t ever think about coaches as a real transport option and I like riding bikes, I convinced my very good friend Steph to ride from the end of the train at Warrnambool to Port Fairy with me.
The theory was we’d take the train to Warrnambool and then the rail trail on to Port Fairy. The first problem would be getting our bikes onto the train. V/Line seem very recalcitrant about taking bikes on their longer distance trains, and we were not the only girls at the dance. Three other riders were looking to load their bikes for a ride back towards Melbourne along the Great Ocean Road. Ultimately we did manage to get our bikes loaded and find seats on the train (we hadn’t managed reserve seats on the outbound trip).
Of course, it failed to occur to me to factor in the train travel time into our day’s plan. We arrived in the late afternoon, around 4:30, with about 3-3½ hours of light available. In retrospect, the 7am train would probably have been a better idea.
We road through Warrnambool via the back streets, parallel to the trail before joining it at Swinton Road where we almost immediately got lost in the carpark at Levy’s Point. The map marks this alternate route at Levy’s Point, which is an incredibly steep climb through slushy coastal sand. It was signed and we hadn’t seen any other signs, so it must have been right, right? After about 10 minutes of searching and wandering about and riding little bits and figuring this couldn’t be right we gave up and went back out from the carpark where we saw another tiny sign leading down to the carpark of a rendering factory. We’d been on the alternate route. Still none of this looked like a rail alignment but we figured we’d give it a go.
The carpark led to some horrid, degrading trail full of loose gravel that provided for very technical riding when fully loaded. It was windy and uneven. I wasn’t convinced this was the trail either except for the tiny signs on the gates, which required unlatching and relatching on each side. Turns out while you can unlatch and open a gate while on a bike, you can’t close and relatch it. Finally this then opened up into a dry swamp with quite a nice bridge before returning to degrading gravel again.
Finally it opened up onto road base along a lane and then the side of the Illowa Road. This was fine, except there were a number of climbs. Again not very rail-like. I’d later learn by talking to locals in Port Fairy that none of this this is the original rail alignment. The rail line went via Dennington (this bit of line still exists) past the Fontera factory, across the Merri on a bridge that doesn’t exist and then more or less follows the A1 before heading up towards Koroit (see map).
Approaching the underpass for the highway we’d taken about an hour to go very little effective distance and we became worried about the light. Especially if the rest of the trail was in the same condition. So after some discussion we decided we’d ride the shoulder of the A1. This meant two things: first was climbing Tower Hill and the second was a 20kph headwind. For the most part the A1 has a pretty good shoulder with not too much crap in it, but there’s still something I find less than fun about being buzzed by cars with caravans at 100kph when you’re barely hitting 15.
More concerning was that Steph was getting tired and her line was getting shaky. My biggest concern became not about losing the light, but that Steph would veer into high-speed traffic.
We did finally make it though. Tired and a little sulky but without incident. Arriving at our campsite about 30 minutes before sunset. Enough time to pitch camp and find a delicious meal of hot, salty chips. Total distance ridden around 32km.
We did three nights in Port Fairy for the Folk Festival where it was pretty great to have our bikes. Our camp site (Catalina) was about a kilometre away from the venue, so we got pretty comfortable riding that section of the A1. It was pretty glampy site, with access to a kitchen, cooking surfaces and kettle. No need for the cooking gear I’d brought. Hot showers. Access to power in the kitchen to keep phones charged (and to make smoothies if you’re one guy we met). Strongly recommended if you don’t feel like roughing it. The people we met couldn’t believe we had ridden in. The girls who had ridden in we were referred to as.
With access to a kitchen we got some pretty great camp cooking done. I’m quite proud of the ziplock bag Cajun marinated BBQ tofu we made. Interesting side note, you don’t need tongs or a spatula when you have travel chopsticks. Much more versatile too.
This trip I also brought along an Aeropress coffee maker. I’d been thinking for a while that it would be a convenient and lightweight way to make passable coffee on the road. It works quite well actually, because if you roll your ziplock bag of ground coffee properly, you can fit it in the end of the plunger.
We left Port Fairy around 11am on Monday morning after a lazy breakfast and striking camp. Talking with locals convinced me that the Port Fairy end of the rail trail was quite good and so we decided, with the approximately 6 hours that we had before our train, that we would find out. We were already on the A1 so we rode the A1 back to where it crosses the trail (going back into Port Fairy would probably have just been a pain, the trail park had been taken over for the Folkie).
Indeed the Port Fairy end of the trail is good. Well signed too. With each chicane having a the name of the road you’re crossing and the distance to the next town. For the most part the gravel has been fairly recently compacted and it was pretty easy riding. There’s a slight uphill towards Koroit, but the tail wind makes up for it. Just past Koroit it’s downhill and with the tail wind you don’t even need to pedal.
Koroit is a small town whose single purpose appears to be the Devondale factory. Very, very quiet because of the public holiday. I don’t think they get much traffic.
We’d decided Koroit was the lunch stop. We’d packed a small picnic and had originally planned to take it up to Tower Hill to check out the wildlife reserve, but when we got up there it started to rain. We backtracked to the botanical gardens (I love country town botanical gardens) and had lunch in the BBQ rotunda. We then dropped into the local café/tourist information bakery for a coffee.
They’ve been restoring the old railway station, which looks really lovely. We also came across a school group who were riding from Tower Hill to Port Fairy on their matching mountain bikes.
From Koroit we continued along the rail alignment, underneath the A1 and back down the Illowa Road. The scenery, like for the whole trail is not really that exciting or varied. It’s paddocks and cows and the occasional crop. The cows did reply when moo’ed at. The highlight was this piece of classic Australiana: a windmill.
Instead of following the trail onto Millers Lane and thus through the swamp again, we continued along Illowa Road until it joined the A1 just outside of Dennington. Here it slows down to 70kph and pretty soon the road shoulder becomes a legit, bona fide bike lane (albeit not a very good one). At some point we crossed over the railway line and then decided to turn back towards the railway line, past the hospital and to Warrnambool Station some 3h before the train was due to depart. Total distance around 42km.
We dropped our bikes off in the luggage room at the station where we were informed that this was a big train and if there was too much luggage our bikes would not be able to go. I decided that it was best to be polite and sweet about this, because I wanted to be seen as someone worth helping, but inside I was seething that even though we were the first people to check luggage for the train bikes did not apparently count as luggage. I really want Bike Network and V/Line to sort out a better policy for bikes on V/Line services, including on coaches. Ultimately though, there wasn’t that much luggage for the train, and we not only got our bikes on, but five more people who arrived later also managed to do the same.
Got into Melbourne around 9pm. The idea of riding home exhausted me (even though I’d originally ridden to Southern Cross, but that was Friday), so I jumped on the Epping line train home.