Cycling in Melbourne Australia
A magnificent team of 8 from NSW and Victoria recently embarked on a 5-day reconnoiter of the first half of the original 1912 Dunlop Military Despatch Relay route beginning in Adelaide. This trip sought to explore the historic ride and establish the route for the proposed re-running of the ride now planned for next year. A historic route is also contemplated to give ongoing life to this historic link to the past and the role cycling played in it.
The reconnoiter kicked off with a talk by cycling historian Jim Fitzpatrick sponsored by Bicycle SA in Adelaide on the 16th. The reconnoiter for the Melbourne to Sydney leg including a talk by Jim Fitzpatrick will likely take place in July or August.
Since coming back from the reconnoiter we have already been in communication with those we met en-route and they have contributed to our understanding and are sending out requests for more to come forward in their communities. It's a wonderful thing to see so many taking up this story and looking for their historic link.
One such link has now been found that includes the original riders on this leg: Adelaide to Melbourne Coverage in the Adelaide Advertiser 1912
We'll update you here as things progress.
Part 1: Adelaide-Melbourne Reconnoiter Blog
Our team assembles in Adelaide and historian Jim Fitzpatrick gives a talk hosted by Bicycle SA. Old maps and photos and wonderful insights into the history of cycling and the Dunlop relay ride. Though a modest sized group, they are captivated and highly supportive and a wealth of ideas and contacts emerge.
Bicycle assembly takes up a few hours and then its off on a short ride to a wonderful breakfast at Rigoni's. The waitress is fascinated as we unfold my ca. 1900 Petersen cycleway map and pose for some not so candid shots.
We then go to Bicycle SA offices and are met by a Channel 7 news crew who interview Jim and I and film the whole team. We say goodbye to Jim and finally get the first stage underway and an epic ride up and out of Adelaide followed by some of the most sublime scenery, autumn colours, clear twisting roads and wonderful lighting one could hope for.
Everywhere we stop people enquire about the filming and are enthusiastic about this possible ride coming through once again. The route takes us through historic Strathalbyn and then a dash towards Langhorne Creek before darkness forces us to stop and wait for our support vehicles. During the wait we are nearly carried off by swarms of mozies who must just wait to pounce on the occasional passing cyclists!
A warm fire and country pub dinner awaits us in Langhorne Creek where we are welcomed by the locals and meet an 80+ year old descendent of perhaps the first European settler on this coast who entertains us with the history of his family, his winery and the area. His great had 13 children, 11 from his first wife before she died (of exhaustion?) and was a shipbuilder from the UK who turned to carpentry when he decided to stay.. He welcomes us to come and read the historic accounts that have been assembled on our next visit. I couldn't help but think that his great granddad and granddad may have sat up to watch the original relay come by this original pub...
We are now in cabins in Meningie and looking forward to our scouting tomorrow.
A real contrast of terrain meets us on Day 2 with coastal views and the famous Coorong. We make our way to more relay points including the infamous Wood Wells that became known for a murder at the inn by a traveller who took a shining to the innkeeper's wife. The innkeeper soon disappeared without a trace. It was not until the housekeeper's murder and her body being found that he was found out and eventually tried and hanged in Adelaide. The poor housekeeper's grave still sits on the hill by the inn looked after by recent owners who fill in the details of the area and history.
We push on and explore some of the tracks that wind by lagoons and dunes. A few venture out to cycle a salt flat, I try my hand at climbing a dune with my bicycle over my shoulder. This route has a surface that alternates between washboard, gravel and hard packed sand and limestone. Despite being quite flat, going very fast here is not an option and those precious about their bikes may consider bringing their alternate or a MTB or Niner.
The coast takes us by wineries in their final blush of colour before we eventually make it to Robe and a stunning coast outlook just as a storm approaches. Again old buildings tell of a long history of settlement and travellers making their way back and forth from the mines. The coast is known for the many Chinese who land here to avoid taxes being levied in the ports of Victoria.
The storm and night closes in but we have one more surprise in store as we look for the relay point of Furner - but not where Google has it. We persevere and it comes to view as a tiny town mostly abandoned. A somewhat derelict old stone building still stands and what could pass for a stable is next door. The inn and stagecoach stop? A walk into the local sports club confirms this. Though bemused that this town had a historic link to cycling, the locals are intrigued and talk with us for some time. We exchange details.
Now running late, we push past Tantanoola to Mount Gambier and walk into the end of the race carnival with a lot of elegantly dressed but bleary eyed people.
We covered over 300km today much of it had to be by support vehicles but the richness of the landscape and the history continues to captivate us and our appreciation for the fortitude of the relay riders goes up another notch.
Mount Gambier offers a crisp morning and he crew get to work doing some riding and filming around the crater lake. We then split with some going forward towards the foot of the Grampians while the others retrace yesterday's final approaches to find less crowded roads - and we find one.
Our next challenge was to find the relay point of Ardno. There is no village just pastures but we spot a home of the same name and pull in. A very helpful owner and kids gather and we discuss what we are looking for. We are pointed to a pasture across the way and a clump of trees that he says would have likely been the old stage coach stop. He spots the neighbour in his truck and calls him to see if we can come across. By the time we get across the gate is open and we investigate.
The trees are within a fence boundary and littered with bits and pieces of home, barn and perhaps stables. Little is left standing but an old stone foundation may be a clue. The owner and his twigs joins us and he is keen to hear more and share stories including of a cheated farmer who got off with a six shilling fine for murdering a man - but that's a story for another day.
The farmer is joined by his brother and point to a fallen telegraph pole that could well have relayed a message about the riders setting off. The worn path in the grass indicates the original roadway that would have skirted the marsh.
We are off again and pause to visit a graveyard with names we have come to learn. It is still surprising to find a number of the tombstones revealing those who died into their nineties. We can only wonder if we will eventually match any names of riders to those remembered here.
Our reconnoiter now moves to Casterton just as a bicycle race is in full swing! Our guys give up the urge to join in the scratch rider category and focus on making more contacts through the local information centre and a search through archives is initiated. More back roads promise a wonderful ride with few vehicles though sharing the narrow bitumen becomes the norm.
More relay points reveal coach houses and GPO's that would have served as the relay points. We pass through Dunkeld where the first group has spent time cycling in the shadows of the majestic Grampians. The views are astounding and the silhouette of the mountains looks like waves about to break on an unsuspecting landscape. We hurry on now on more passable back roads and finally emerge in Ballarat and fine Indian cuisine for dinner. Our last dinner as a group.
Ballarat offers up a 0 degree morning for us so we delay until it gets to 3 and then head off for a quick spin around town. Then it's off to explore more routes and the original road to Melbourne. The back road routes once again offer up the best scenery and are quiet. We pass several pairs of cyclists. Some in our group mount bikes by a lakeside for some more riding and filming.
We reach Gordon and spend some time investigating this town with a wonderful weatherboard post office with a fantastic large clock that reminds me of a grandfather's watch without the chain. We find out the post office and it’s clock are scheduled for further restoration. The local historian is lives across the street from the old wedding chapel in the old inn but a couple of rings brings no response. She is not so well these days we learn. A shop up the road offers up more local character with a Santa look alike talking more about the history of the town. The shop is full of wool hats and caps.
Down the road the groups split and explore alternative routes out of Ballarat. The likely original route goes to Myrniong where a bluestone building would have been the old inn but now serves as quite a handsome restaurant. The road to and from here is not so convincing as a great route these days. The other group finds a wonderful alternative that they ride and rave about over lunch in Bacchus Marsh.
Melbourne is now coming into view as is the bay as we dip and rise over rolling hills. It is a bit surreal after the previous days. We decide to split here with one group heading for the CBD while we head for the last relay point on this leg - Rockbank. It is utterly forgettable. A bit of a suburban outpost now sitting on a freeway. A tour of the town reveals no historic survivor. We will have to seriously consider skipping this place and take a more scenic route in.
We drop off two of our companions at the airport and then drive into the city to rejoin the others doing some final filming on the Yarra by the rowing clubs. The sky is turning different hues of pink and orange but the city is not where we want to be after these days of country riding and hospitality.
As we sit there on our bikes one commuter cyclist pulls up to me and stares. Luckily not at me but at my trusty Renovo wooden steed. He says nothing for some time and then I break the awkward moment and say it’s a wooden bike (often people think it is a paint job) and he says he knows but has never seen one except in pictures. We chat, talk about the reconnoiter, he wishes us good luck and disappears among the many other flashing taillights on the bike path.
Our numbers continue to dwindle with the departure of SJ and then it's just four of us. We split up for dinner and reflections of the day.
We wake to a different daily agenda. First stop, the Vintage Cycling Museum. It's actually not a normal museum open to the public but a private collection that has been assembled in an unassuming building in Richmond. Perhaps I should simply say it is an Aladdin's Cave of cycling history.
It is just beyond imagination what bicycles types can be seen here (almost all are pre-1900) so I will just list some highlights: direct drive bicycles; 2,3, 4 wheel cycles of all dimensions and configurations; 1890's full suspension bikes with shocks in the horizontal tube as well as in the rear stays; all kinds of oil and candle light holders - some well located on the wheel hubs of the three wheelers; fabric hammock seats; all kinds of braking mechanisms and the first gear shifters; a rubber less tire that was actually a series of dozens of compression springs all around the inner rim connecting an outer rim with a leather surface; gorgeous wooden frames and wheels and racing penny farthings so skinny as to make road bikes look portly; handle bars that are perfectly curved and defy imitation. You don't have to be a mechanic or so inclined to appreciate the art expressed in the bicycle styles. There is so much to see on exhibit and crammed together that it could occupy days to go through them properly. As we learn, there is less new under the sun now than back then when innovation was at its peak.
I have to drag myself away but we do have one last appointment - the Ansell office. There in the lobby (opposite the sample tray of prophylactics - not mints!) are the coveted original satchels that the brave riders eventually delivered to Sydney. They are in good condition but well enough worn to be a testimony to the thrills and hardships endured by those carrying them. We have witnessed only half of that on this journey. Other mementos are equally compelling and we are treated to a file of information collected over the years by our contact. One of the original copies of the letter carried in the satchel we learn was only just saved from the dustbin in a service station undergoing renovation. Everything is sealed away behind glass but we are assured that if we run the ride we will have access to them - if briefly.
Too soon it is over and the rest of us embrace and two head for the airport while Barb and I get going down the road towards Berry. Unfortunately the rest of this adventure will have to wait for a couple of months. As we drive home the relay points flash by in the reflection of our headlights... Much too fast and without even a whisper of the stories and adventures that still await us.
Over the next weeks we will begin to put all of our thoughts together as we begin to define what the running of the Despatch next year may look like? And how we can finance it. We are almost certain to have an evening talk and show pics and videos from this ride in Sydney. What is for certain is that this is a wonderful story and adventure that has revealed itself and deserves to be shared and preserved.
My sincerest thanks to the crew: Nick, SJ, David, Angus, Donna, Will and the ongoing encouragement from Barb. And of course Jim for being the inspiration and great ongoing guide and companion on our journey through history.