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Murray to Mountains Rail Trail
Nuts & bolts
Distance: 206 kilometres (128 miles) Days: 5
Ascent: 1200 metres (3940 feet) Difficulty: Easy
Bike: The rail trail is unsealed but the surface is smooth and wide, so is suited to any bike - a tourer or hybrid will roll best.
WHY IT'S SPECIAL
The Murray to Mountains Rail Trail in north-eastern Victoria is Australia's premier rail trail and a perfect introduction to cycle touring, with gentle gradients and an abundance of wine and food stops. It's lovely as an easy ride, but even for experienced cyclists it's a good excuse for an indulgent few days on wheels.
The trail, which opened in 2002, follows the course of an old railway along the edge of Australia's High Country, near to the highest mountains in Victoria. The main thread of the trail stretches 84 kilometres (52 miles) between the towns of Wangaratta and Bright, with side trails radiating like spokes to Beechworth, Wandiligong and the Milawa Gourmet Region.
BEST TIME TO RIDE
In April and May, Bright and Beechworth get their glow on with golden displays of autumn colour. Bright hosts a 10-day Autumn Festival
(brightautumnfestival.org.au), celebrating its deciduous delights.
Spring (Sept to Nov) is also a nice, mild time to ride.
Winter and summer are times of climate extremes and best avoided.
Though the trail is in the mountains, it's not through the mountains, because railway builders share one ambition with most cyclists - they seek to find the flattest route possible. It's this that makes trails such as Murray to Mountains so enticing, especially for novice bike tourers or those, like me, with kids in literal tow.
It's my first cycling trip with my two preschool-age children, and a carefully chosen one. I've pedalled the Murray to Mountains Rail Trail several times without kids, and know that the distances between distractions are short and that there are things to please both tall and small along the journey. Few compromises are needed to ensure the kids' enjoyment.
It's possible to ride Murray to Mountains out and back in two days, but we've come for five days - two days from Wangaratta to Bright and three days back, including a day on the side trail up to Beechworth.
Murray to Mountains is the most famous of Australia's rail trails, and the one that has popularised rail trails in the country. If you enjoy this ride, there are many similar possibilities in Australia. Rail trails exist in every Australian state, though Victoria has the most extensive rail-trail network. Close to Melbourne, you can set out on the 40-kilometre (25-mile) Lilydale to Warburton Rail Trail, or perhaps stretch things out on the 134-kilometre (83-mile) Great Victorian Rail Trail, which noses into the foot of the state's High Country from beside the main highway between Melbourne and Sydney.
The longest rail trail in the country is the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail, which stretches for 161 kilometres
(100 miles) through south-east Queensland. If you happen to be cycling the East Coast Tasmania ride (see p. 123), there's an option
to ride the North East Rail Trail out of Scottsdale.
The Rail Trails Australia website
(railtrails.org.au) is a good resource, covering all rail trails.
WANGARAT TA TO MYRTLEFORD (57KM/35 MILES)
We begin on one of Murray to Mountains's side trails, setting out from the trailhead in Apex Park in the regional town of Wangaratta, at the trail's western end, towards Milawa. It's a fine way to start; a section that proves that cycling, gastronomy and children can happily coexist. Even by the standards of this easy rail trail, it's a flat ride to Milawa, following the King River south. Without the anchor of the child trailers, and the distraction of the treats of the gourmet region around Milawa and Oxley, it's a 20-kilometre (12.5-mile) stretch that could easily be cycled in an hour. But on a trip this leisurely, time is elastic, and this short ride fills an entire morning, especially since it begins beside a playground in Apex Park - our bikes are parked and the kids are scrambling out of their trailers before we've even started - and it's surrounded by vineyards for much of its length. More time is spent cycling between cellar doors than in actually getting to Milawa itself.
In a morning that will set the tone for the week, we stop at three vineyards before we've even reached Milawa. Each one has toys to amuse the kids, while we're being amused by tastings. There are dogs to pat, and tricycles to ride at one of the vineyards. It's a promising start.
When we leave Milawa in the afternoon, we set out riding on roads for the only time in the trip, following first the Snow Road and then Markwood-Everton Road, heading north to meet the main rail trail outside the small town of Everton. It's a ride through a landscape that's almost monochrome, with gum trees rising like florets above dry plains that shimmer in the heat haze.
From within the trailers, there's barely a murmur of discontent as we ride through this snapshot of classic Australiana. Songs and nursery rhymes are our soundtrack, every cow and galah draws comment, and the trailers slowly fill with stones, flowers and other treasures gathered each time we stop.
At Everton, we swing onto the main rail trail for the first time, and in the heat
of the day the trail hazards are those common to Australia - snakes warming their bellies on the hot path. It's a strange form of traffic jam, stopping us each time, but it's not the snakes that occupy my mind. Towing a child behind me for the first time, I'm more concerned about Taylors Gap, the most significant of the two discernible climbs on the main section of the rail trail.
When we arrive at the base of the climb, which ascends little more than 100 metres (330 feet), one child is singing songs and the other is asleep. I almost envy my own children at this moment.
As I pedal up the hill, my daughter Kiri pushes at the inside of her trailer - helpful in her mind, if not in reality. 'I'm pushing you up the hill, Dad,' she calls, though there are few things as heavy, or as determinedly helpful, as a child in a bicycle trailer during an uphill ride. Somewhere just behind me I hear my son Cooper, suddenly and instantaneously awake, ask a straightforward question from the trailer of his mum's bike.
'Where are we going?' he calls. 'Uphill,' she answers, though the truthful answer is Myrtleford.
The steepest moment on Taylors Gap comes at its top, though thankfully it's a short pinch before the trail crosses the Great Alpine Road, the main thoroughfare between Wangaratta and Bright, and begins its descent to Gapsted Wines, where we stop to graze again, sitting out on a deck overlooking the lines of vines.
From here, the ride gets positively civilised, with a queue of vineyards and primary producers dotted along the trail all the way into Bright. But it's not as if all the fun is in the stops. This side of Taylors Gap, the landscape seems decidedly brighter, and the rail trail passes through a rural landscape populated by cows, horses, goats, kookaburras and cockatoos, and for children on a bicycle it all seems within view and touch.
From the winery, it's just 7 kilometres (4.5 miles) to our night's stop in Myrtleford, a rural town long regarded as little more than a gateway into the mountain grandeur of Victoria's High Country, but which is now sprinkled with good cafes, restaurants and a wine bar.
MYRTLEFORD TO BRIGHT (32KM/20 MILES)
Past Myrtleford, as Mount Buffalo begins to fill the view, there are signs of what might be called the Ovens Valley's misspent youth. Tobacco once grew all through this valley, and it's still dotted with tobacco kilns, including one that's been converted into a cafe just outside of Myrtleford.
Today the tobacco is gone, but its natural companion - beer - remains, with the rail trail rolling past the fields of one of Australia's major hop-growing areas. Cycle past at harvest time, as I've done before, and the scent can be intoxicating. Luckily, there are fine and inviting craft breweries in both Bright and Beechworth, though the kids, of course, are far more interested in the valley's berries and the possibility of an ice-cream or three.
The ride from Myrtleford to Bright is gentle, almost always climbing but imperceptibly. The Great Alpine Road is right beside us now, but so beautiful is the landscape that I barely even notice it. It's unquestionably the most attractive section of the rail trail. The bare granite walls of a deep gorge on Mount Buffalo rise above the foothills, the hop fields look like hanging gardens, Mount Hotham peeps through a break in the mountains and, as the trail nears Bright, our home for the night, it becomes lined with poplars that turn to ingots of gold in autumn.
Bright has long been the mountain town of choice for Victorian holidaymakers, drawn here by the nearby ski fields in winter and the mountain access in summer, though the town has an inviting beauty of its own, with parks (and the brewery) lining the Ovens River, and quality eateries lining the streets.
BRIGHT TO MYRTLEFORD (32KM/20 MILES)
In Bright, we pause before turning back on our own tracks along the rail trail. Instead of riding directly back to Wangaratta, however, we will detour (on day four) up into the hills to Beechworth.
The first day on the return ride is as leisurely as it's possible to get, retracing our route to Myrtleford. From Bright, the rail trail slopes ever so slightly downhill, so time is abundant, allowing us even more indulgence in winery and ice-cream stops. There's a strong chance that by the time we roll into Myrtleford, more calories have gone into our bodies than have gone out.
MYRTLEFORD TO BEECHWORTH (41KM/25.5 MILES); BEECHWORTH TO WANGARAT TA (43KM/27 MILES)
As we leave Myrtleford the next morning the forecast is for rain, and there are comforting words from my passenger.
'It doesn't matter if it rains,' Kiri chirps. 'It's only water.' Easy words from someone who will be cocooned inside a trailer.
Our other passenger is more conspiratorial about the conditions. 'Mum and Dad are going to get soooo wet,' Cooper says to Kiri in those toddler whispers that aren't whispers at all.
In nearby Albury, 25 millimetres (one inch) of rain will fall this day, but we ride as if in a rain shadow, remaining dry all the way to the base of the climb to Beechworth, which starts around 25 kilometres (15.5 miles) from Myrtleford.
This detour to Beechworth - the most demanding section of the rail trail's various tentacles - rises up the hills that enclose the northern edge of the Ovens Valley. It's not steep, but it is persistent, climbing almost 400 metres (1310 feet) over 16 kilometres (10 miles).
But at least I have help for the climb, or so I think. As we begin the ascent, moving slower than even the I-think-I-can locomotives of days gone by, I look behind me, expecting
to see Kiri pushing in earnest from within her trailer. But she is asleep. I will have to shoulder the burden of this climb alone.
Beechworth is a welcome reward atop the climb. The popular tourist town is famed for its gold rush, bakery, lolly shop and the prison time of Australia's favourite bushranger, Ned Kelly. The vast golden wealth of the 19th century also helped furnish the streets with enough grand architecture to turn Beechworth into one of Victoria's most beautiful heritage towns.
The other beauty about Beechworth is the very thing that awaits us the next morning - the long descent back down the hill, before we turn west and return along the rail trail to Wangaratta. We roll off the hill, gathering momentum, and there are no offers of help coming from within the trailer now. I can only hear squeals of delight.
Full details about Murray to Mountains, including accommodation and other services and a downloadable map, can be found online (ridehighcountry.com.au).
At the rail trail's ends, Rock and Road Cycles (Wangaratta, rockandroadcycles.com.au) and Cyclepath (Bright, cyclepath.com.au) hire out bikes, including ebikes. The Beechworth-based Bike Hire Company (thebikehirecompany. com.au) also rents out bikes that can be delivered to you anywhere along the trail, and operates self-guided tours.
This is an edited extract from Ultimate Cycling Trips World by Andrew Bain published by Hardie Grant Travel.