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In this second extract from his book Ultimate Cycling Trips: Australia, Andrew Bain takes a look at Australia’s most famous rail trail, the Murray to Mountains, a gentle ride through a virtual menu of gourmet produce and wine.
Bike: The trail is sealed, making a road bike or hybrid the best choice, especially with accommodation-rich towns at each day’s end, limiting the need to carry a lot of gear.
Why it’s special
The Murray to Mountains Rail Trail in northeastern 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 bike trip, but even for experienced cyclists it’s a good excuse for a few indulgent days on wheels.
The trail, which opened in 2002, follows the course of an old railway along the edge of the High Country, near to the highest mountains in Victoria. Its main thread stretches 84km between the regional city of Wangaratta and the alpine gateway town of Bright, with side trails radiating like spokes to Beechworth and Yackandandah, Wandiligong and the Milawa Gourmet Region.
Best time to ride
In April and May, Bright, Beechworth, Porepunkah and Myrtleford get their glow on with golden displays of autumn colour. Bright hosts a 10-day Autumn Festival (brightautumnfestival.org.au) in mid-autumn, celebrating its deciduous delights.
Spring 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 Murray to Mountains so enticing, especially for novice cyclists and families.
It is possible to ride Murray to Mountains out and back in two single-minded days, but the ride described here is for four days — two days from Wangaratta to Bright and two days back, taking in diversions to Beechworth and Milawa, which involve as much grazing as riding.
In the paddocks of the Ovens Valley, cattle hang their heads over fences as if watching my bike pass. Storm clouds gather over the mountains but look as though they might never arrive in the valley. I’ve just emerged from a tunnel beneath the Hume Highway at Wangaratta’s edge — goodbye for now, fast-paced world. Sun pours down, and the trail runs so flat and straight you could run a tape measure down it.
In these early hours on Murray to Mountains, the kilometres tick by easily. For much of its journey, the rail trail runs close to the Great Alpine Rd, but here it’s set far from the road and is more like a ride through the back paddocks of a farm. The rural scene is furnished with cattle, hay sheds and windmills, with birds and farm machinery competing for voice.
As rides around mountain regions go, it’s an effortless start, and will stay that way for much of the day. Hills creep closer to my left, with the town of Beechworth poised atop them, but it will be two more days before I even need think about them.
Around Everton, the land begins to gather more shape. Bends appear in the trail, and folds start to crease the land, a precursor to the sudden rise ahead at Taylors Gap. This low pass, used by bushranger Ned Kelly in his escape from Stringybark Creek in 1878, is the only true climb on the main trail between Wangaratta and Bright, and though it’s an ascent of little more than 100m, it is the one moment that causes trepidation for riders.
There’s a good climb ahead, a cyclist warns me in Everton as though the ascent is of alpine proportions. In reality, it’s a gentle, well-graded climb — bless those railway builders. A dry creek runs like a trench below the trail and parrots dart across my path as thunder rolls in.
As I crest the gap, my day’s work is effectively done, even though Myrtleford is still 10km away. I cross the Great Alpine Rd and begin the long freewheeling descent past Gapsted Wines and into the town of Myrtleford, where the trees are suddenly bright with autumn. It is a literal red-carpet ride into town.
This day might be described as a ride through the Ovens Valley’s misspent youth — tobacco and hops. The latter has been grown here since the 1850s. The region has bloomed into one of the southern hemisphere’s largest hop-growing regions, while Victoria’s entire tobacco production is within a 75km radius of Myrtleford.
It’s also a day that’s like a gourmet trail mix. No sooner have I left Myrtleford than the trail pops out beside the Ovens Hotel and a coffee van, and it’s then just a few hundred metres to Pepo Farms, Australia’s only pumpkin-seed producer. It’s like a full meal in just 5km of cycling.
The menu continues as I pedal up the valley, where there’s a garden centre-cum-cafe, a berry farm, hazelnuts, walnuts and, approaching Porepunkah, a brace of wineries: Feathertop and Ringer Reef.
It’s just 7km into Bright from Ringer Reef, and bike numbers grow proportionate to the distance from town. Soon we are a herd as much as cyclists.
If autumn was a place, it would be Bright. Crossing the Ovens River, the rail trail enters town along a perfect corridor of deciduous trees. When the leaves turn, it’s all brightness and beauty, like cycling through a paint chart. It’s the perfect approach to one of Australia’s most colourful autumnal displays. Bright is a town that’s good in any season, and as one of Victoria’s favourite holiday towns, it’s filled with accommodation and eating options.
Day 3 — Bright to Beechworth (72km)
This day returns down the valley, retracing the ride through Myrtleford and up and over Taylors Gap, before climbing to Beechworth.
The gentle downhill run is counterbalanced by a headwind — the yin and yang of cycling slowing my progress, but I’m in no hurry. Tobacco kilns tick past once more, some converted into accommodation, others content just to be smoking mementoes and Mt Buffalo rises like a giant stone wall over the tops of the hops gardens.
As I pass the entrance to Gapsted Wines again, at approximately the halfway point of the day, I’m planning to simply cycle on, but instead I turn, head up its long driveway, and lose another hour on lawns with wine glass in hand. A theme seems to be developing.
Taylors Gap is just a warm-up for a bigger climb this day. After 57km of backtracking, just before reaching Everton, I leave the main trail and turn north on to a branch trail to Beechworth, pointing now at the hills that have paralleled so much of my journey.
It’s a 15km detour to Beechworth, the town famed for its Ned Kelly connections and gold-rush riches, with 300m of climbing on the ride’s most significant ascent. Within 2km the climb is already flavoured with grape vines and olive trees, and the valley seems to fall further behind than the effort suggests. True to its railway origins, it’s not a steep climb. Beechworth is one of the prettiest of Australia’s gold-rush towns, with plentiful possibilities for a feed and a bed.
What goes up must happily come down. In the morning, long after Beechworth has blown off its dawn mist and frost, I return down the trail, reaching Everton in a fraction of the time it took to go up.
The simplest way back to Wangaratta is along the rail trail, but the tastiest way is through Milawa. In Everton I take to roads, following a route marked for cyclists. The roads are quiet and wide — plenty of room for bikes — and the ride crosses the Ovens River, with large eucalypts casting shadows across the road.
The route weaves into Milawa, Australia’s original gourmet region, presenting a cycling platter of cheeses, smoked meats, mustard, honey, berries, bread and wine. I crawl through town, stopping to graze and sip grapes. The rain is coming but I have less than 20km to Wangaratta. There may be time for another tasting.
This is an edited extract from Ultimate Cycling Trips: Australia, by Andrew Bain, published by Hardie Grant Books (Flexibound, RRP $NZ50), available in stores nationally.
Image credit: Andrew Bain (unless otherwise labelled)
Full details about Murray to Mountains, including accommodation and other services and a downloadable map, can be found at Ride High Country (ridehighcountry.com.au).
Beechworth-based The Bike Hire Company (thebikehirecompany.com.au) has a range of hire bikes that can be delivered to you anywhere along the trail; it also operates self-guided tours.
Australian Cycle Tours (australiancycletours.com.au) runs self-guided Murray to Mountains
trips, while Tour de Vines (tourdevines.com.au) has guided and self-guided rides.
Tu Vietnamese Street Food
Vietnamese street fare from this Myrtleford purveyor of spicy egg noodles, vegan bowls, pho and the like. The rice-paper rolls are perfect for a takeaway pannier lunch. 109 Myrtle St, Myrtleford; open Wed-Sat for lunch and dinner; tuvietnamese.com
Set apart from the main Bright bustle, the unfailingly good Tomahawks runs the gamut from small plates (cauliflower and mozzarella fritters, yum) to cheeseburgers, while blurring the lines between a bar and a cafe with its excellent wine and beer list. 15 Camp St, Bright; open Fri-Sun for lunch, Thurs-Sun for dinner; tomahawksbright.com.au
The doyenne of Beechworth dining, under the watch of one-time Good Food Guide chef of the year Michael Ryan, Provenance is a classy fine-dining affair inside a gold rush-era bank building. 86 Ford St, Beechworth; open Fri-Mon for dinner; theprovenance.com.au
Motel on Alpine
It’s hard to beat trailside digs, and Murray to Mountains rolls right across the driveway of this low-slung Myrtleford motel with standard rooms and more spacious (and self-contained) corrugated iron cabins. 258 Great Alpine Rd, Myrtleford; motelonalpine.com.au
Bright Colonial Motel
Cyclists rejoice this trailside motel has a bike-wash bay, a maintenance bench and custom-built bike security shed with individual racks. 56 Gavan St, Bright; brightcolonialmotel.com.au
Beautifully restored cattleman’s hut transplanted from the Goldfields to Beechworth for a bit of rustic period luxury. 4 Surrey Lane, Beechworth; 1860luxuryaccommodation.com
Options abound, with caravan parks in Wangaratta, Everton, Myrtleford, Porepunkah, Bright, Beechworth and Milawa.