It didn’t take long to pack up in the morning. We hadn’t really unpacked, the dreary abode not exactly making us feel at home. We were on the street, once again looking for coffee, by six-thirty.
During the previous evening’s exploits, I had determined the nearby Fishtails Café opened at six every morning. We had enjoyed meals there on previous trips, so knew it to be something of a local institution, serving good food cheap, breakfast, lunch and dinner, seven days. As we approached I felt rather silly to realize it was the same place we had avoided the previous morning because from a distance it appeared “a dubious looking mob lingered outside”. I considered that our horrible accommodation may have adversely coloured our attitude. This morning, the Fishtails Café was our saviour.
Our V/Line train back to Melbourne didn’t leave until just after noon. After a hearty breakfast we cycled off to take in as much of the Warrnambool to Port Fairy Rail Trail as we could in the time we had.
For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, “rail trails” are former railroad right-of-ways converted to mixed use walking/running/cycling trails. Usually, they are a delight for leisure cycling. The trains that once traversed them were lousy at climbing hills, and the tracks the trains travelled upon demanded a proper foundation, or ballast, lest they wash away. As a result, rail trails, even those that climb large mountains, rarely have an incline of more than three percent, which most any cyclist can handle. Furthermore, good drainage keeps them dry even in the worst of conditions.
Best of all, as abandoned railways, rail trails tend to be in places where the industrial revolution has come and gone, or never took hold in the first place. The trails don’t miss a thing, passing through every settlement, most of which exist because they were once on the rail line. Mostly, usually, generally, it is really easy and safe off-road bicycling through pristine forests and farmland.
Mostly, usually, generally. We had little trouble finding the start of the Warrnambool to Port Fairy Rail Trail. Predictably enough it was not far from the train station. Our morning trek meandered alongside the Merri River for several kilometers. It was a gorgeous morning, the drizzle finally having cleared in favour of bright blue skies. The track started off behind a pleasant suburban neighbourhood, then continued inland behind sizable beach dunes on a well-groomed but unsealed surface. Through salt marshes, water fowl was in abundance all around us. Pretty neat.
For the most part, rail trails are built and maintained by the local government, although one trail may pass through many jurisdictions. As you might expect, to some municipalities rail trail building and maintenance is a higher priority than to others. All will avoid creating a new rail trail where there’s an existing alternative trail of some sort.
Five kilometers along our rail trail ceased to be a genuine rail trail, diverting instead on something called Rundell’s Mahogany Trail. I looked longingly at the old rail bed as we left it, long and flat and straight and dry, but utterly un-rideable, covered in rocks and weeds.
We lost the trail for a moment, but after riding around in circles a bit, found it down a steep road. There, in the middle of the pretty coastal billabong was a large sign identifying the Midfield Co-Products plant. As I pondered what a “co-product” might be, a large dump truck passed, bringing with it a smell so foul as I have rarely if ever experienced. The truck deftly reversed itself, then dumped it contents next to the plant – hundreds of animal carcasses, fresh – or maybe not so fresh — from the nearby abattoir. The co-product manufactured here, it appeared, was bone meal.
The eye-watering stench was overwhelming, so we accelerated on to Rundell’s Mahogany Trail. Our acceleration was short-lived, though, as it became obvious that this was a horseback riding trail. It was sandy, lumpy, potholed, and strewed with horse shit, slowing us considerably. More problematic, its surface was corrugated, the by-product of motor vehicles suspension systems. The corrugations made everything attached to my bicycle rattle, including my teeth. Our map indicated the trail would take us back to a real rail trail eventually, but after another five kilometers it was uncomfortable enough to make us turn around. We had a train to catch, anyway.
In all, our morning excursion was only about twenty-five kilometers. That was something of a disappointment given the Warrnambool to Port Fairy Rail Trail is advertised as thirty-five kilometers each way. On our next annual visit to the region, I vowed, we’d leave more time and do the whole thing. Well, maybe we’ll find a way around the Rundell’s Mahogany Trail part, but otherwise, the whole thing.
Back in Warrnambool, we picked up our bags at the accursed accommodation, sliding the key under the door as instructed as we left. Luncheon sandwiches in hand, with “water bottles” re-filled, we returned to the station for the train ride home.
At the station we found a half-dozen other cyclists with the same idea. V/Line policy on the matter is “Bicycles can be carried on V/Line trains, if there is space available… V/Line conductors will determine whether there is enough space for bicycles on each service.” That’s reasonable, I guess, although any policy that gives wide discretion to a potentially moody V/Line conductor presents risk.
On this Monday, eight cyclists, including ourselves, stood tensely by the waiting train’s baggage car door. After what seemed an eternity, the conductor appeared, fifteen minutes before scheduled departure, as promised. He was in a good mood, directing us to load the bikes by destination, first-in, last-out. Everybody was happy.
Check that. Two hours later, when we stopped in North Geelong, four tired-looking middle-aged cyclists on the platform were refused permission to load their bikes. From my free, comfortable first class seat I could not hear the conversation, but I could see the conductor shrug his shoulders with his hands outstretched, as if to say “What can I do?” As we left the station the faces on the four cyclists respectively reflected: furious, crushed, exhausted, and perplexed. They certainly were not happy, as they had a two hour wait for the next train, and no assurance they’d get on that one either.
But we were happy. We rode home from Southern Cross Station along the foreshore to St Kilda on a warm summer’s afternoon. By sundown we were planning our activity for tomorrow, Australia Day: fumigating anything that had come in contact with our Warrnambool accommodation.