Words by Sarah Hammond
Photos by Sarah Hammond & Pete Toogood
After a lengthy break from running weekend getaways, Flashpacking is finally back for 2022!
Marysville is part of the Vic Alpine region and sits at the base of a popular ski season peak, Lake Mountain. Jesse and I regularly spend time in this area, an absolute gravel paradise and the place to ride for tough off-road climbs.
Unlike most flashpacking trips, we opted for three days to get the most out of the area this time.
Day 1 - Eltham to Marysville
Distance - 115 km / 3,000 vm
With rain forecasted, it was a delight to wake up on day one to see a perfect bluebird sky outside, surely a good sign! Riders made their way to the start location at Eltham train station, where we introduced each other and I went through the ride brief for the day. I always enjoy looking around at what people pack on their bikes, assessing who can live without less for three days. It is always a very quiet start to these rides, as people may not know each other; however, it is always chatter and familiarity by day three. I broke the ice pretty fast by taking a wrong turn almost immediately.
The start of the ride was mostly bike paths and quiet backroads to steer clear of the main roads towards Christmas Hills. However, some rude steep ramps got the legs and expectations firing! Once on more friendly gravel roads, the group began to settle, and the conversation was plenty.
Once through Steels Creek, we started the first long climb up Dixons Creek Old Toolangi Road. A gradual 6 km climb, offering views over the Toolangi State Forest and a good way to prep the legs for Mount St Leonards, the tougher climb for the day.
There had been a ton of rain in the area of late, so the climb up Mt St Leonards seemed much harder than it should have. The water sits in the gravel, making it feel sludgy and heavy. Like riding with a flat tyre. Despite only joining the climb 3 km from the top, it was a slow grind into the clouds for many. Some riders appeared worried about what they had signed up for this weekend.
As we regrouped for lunch at the top, I assured riders the next section on Monda Road was worth the effort. There was a moment when the rain appeared to be closing in on us, but the clouds cleared for the second time that day, offering sun and blue skies. Monda Road is a stunning section of about 18 km that weaves through the forest and all the tall trees whilst rolling across the top of the ranges. Plenty of photo opportunities through here and more mud than planned as one section had us all pushing our bikes through deep muddy 4WD tracks. However, a fast descent towards Narbathong was the reward before one last climb for the day.
Riders were tired, but showers and hot meals were not too far away. The last climb up Plantation Road was gentler, lined with big green ferns as we climbed onto the ridge-line for the last time that day. A few more rollers and a long 10 km descent took us all into Buxton, just 12 km from Marysville. The temptation of a servo sighted up the road was too great. Many opted for that quick can of coke or strawberry milk as Tim chose.
The group then rallied together and pushed into Marysville, well before sundown at our destination - the Marysville Caravan Park.
With some time before dinner at the pub, everyone took turns showering, cleaning muddy bikes and drivetrains, plus shopping for groceries and ride snacks. All our bikes were then piled into a locked, disabled bathroom for security.
Dinner was at The Duck Inn, and the group was heavily comatose quickly from large plates of food. By 830 pm, everyone was ready to retire for the night and hopeful for sleep before the hardest day of riding to follow.
I was fortunate to share a cabin with April and Lorena, and we chatted for some time that night about adventures both past and hopeful in the future. We presoaked oats for the morning and then heard the heavy rain begin.
Day 2 - Mt Vinegar Loop
Distance - 72 km / 2,500 vm
I often woke from the constant rain, and it was super wet at sun up.
We decided to wait for the rain to pass before heading off a little later, at 9am. I briefed the group on what lay ahead, suggesting not to let the shorter distance fool anyone; the climbing was tough and plenty.
As you leave Marysville, you start climbing, no matter what direction you head. The day started with steep, slippery trails to confirm everyone’s legs were awake. The main climbs for the day were Mt Vinegar and Feiglans Road, with plenty of climbing in between. The elevation gains were fast as the group took on Dom Dom Road in good spirits whilst April blasted tunes from her portable speaker.
The start of the Mt Vinegar climb is just off the Maroondah Highway (Black Spur region) and is marked by a large gate and a steep grassy incline into the tall trees.
Mt Vinegar is always covered in tree litter, which is partly why this climb is challenging. Constant navigation of debris, chanting ‘bark or branch?’ all on a steep gradient. The climb is in two parts - a short 2 km pinch and descend to undo all that hard work. Next, it’s a 6 km slog, etching up 600vm. The pointy sections push over 21%, and if that isn’t tough, having to stop and start for fallen trees is enough to break rhythm and test patience. Despite this, the climb is beautiful, with big trees and vast views on most switchbacks. And like all great climbs, the last 500m is the steepest.
Once at the top, the amount of water was incredible, making it hard to push through the soaked track. We re-grouped and had lunch together before taking on the descent.
Much like the climb, the downhill was rugged and bumpy, with water intercepting all the good lines.
Next, a short commute on Acheron Way (sealed) and onto the second climb up Feiglans, a smoother gravel forest road. At 8.5 km, this climb isn’t too steep, but on tired legs can feel like a slog. Riders smiled and tapped away slowly, regrouping twice to keep everyone together. Again the last push to the top peaks at almost 25% as you climb over 1000 metres high.
We stayed high for a short time, rolling along the ridgeline, then a big descent down Yellow Dog track and onto Fern Tree Gully Trail. A highlight for many, and the cherry on top of the day, Fern Gully is a flowy trail, lush with big ferns and rivers running alongside. The trail ends in the town centre of Marysville.
Bikes were once again cleaned, extra snacks scoffed and back to the pub for dinner. The food portions seemed bigger again, plus we celebrated Blair's birthday with a mountain of doughnuts piled on a plate, bonded together with whipped cream.
Bed came fast again for many that night.
Day 3 - Marysville to Lilydale
Distance - 102.5 km / 2,200 vm
Today, we waved goodbye to Marysville and started the climb out of the ranges to the ridgeline we rode the day prior on Paradise Plains Road. A much colder morning (-2°C) and plenty of frost on the top of the climb kept the group moving to keep warm, despite a perfect blue sky and sunshine. This time we descended Feiglans, landing back on Acheron Way. This road is a sneaky gradient, enough to notice and make 20 kph feel difficult. Acheron Way is a popular tourist drive and is mostly sealed until the last few kilometres to Cement Creek.
Cement Creek is the halfway point of the sealed tourist road (21 km) to the summit of Mt Donna Buang. We turned right and pushed our loaded bikes the final 10 km to the summit and lookout tower. For those who don’t know this climb, there is a fantastic spring 3 km from the top with the greatest water in the world. People drive up just to collect massive gallons of water for personal use.
The summit was freezing, and after a sandwich break, we pulled out all our jackets, arm warmers, and buffs for the 35 km downhill into Launching Place.The first 12 km is dirt commonly known as ‘Dirty Donna,’ a beautiful off-road alternative to the summit and closed to traffic in the winter season.
Once at the bottom, we could feel the temperature increase immediately, and everyone started to peel layers of clothing off, enjoying the sun on our skin.
The last section follows the Warburton Rail Trail into Lilydale. After so much amazing weather, it was no surprise that we finally got served a headwind finished. The group rode tightly, and a few people shared the front to get everyone through.
Trains frequently run from Lilydale, so most of us headed for the greasy fish and chips shop for big burgers, chips and onion rings. Nothing tastes better than a big burger (veggie for me), with bonus potato cake inside after three days of big effort pedalling.
The train ride home was full of chatter, recapping the weekend. The best quote was, ‘I’d ride it again, but not right away.’ People's legs were well and truly empty.
You can ride this course by downloading the GPX files below.