Low-carbon emission escape from the city

Living in the city can at times be challenging, particularly when you want to escape “right now” but didn’t really plan ahead. And if you want to integrate the sustainability thinking into your holiday, choice can definitely become limited.

For me this limitation was actually a blessing. Having quite a demanding agenda in my work life I hardly ever plan a holiday and when the big day arrives, I am usually stuck. Avoiding planes and spending my days off locally unless I can combine holidays with a work trip, I don’t own a car and given a poor public transport system in Melbourne, it was clear that I would escape the city on a bicycle when a pre-Christmas week holiday lie at my doorsteps. Now, that wouldn’t be a problem were it not for all my equipment including touring bicycle still being back in Europe….

Half an hour of googling around on internet brought quick relief. An excellent bicycle review and an even better service at Lygon Cycles[1] helped me to find my best Christmas present in years. Three days later I was the proud owner of a fully equipped touring bicycle including front and back panniers, new shoes and all that for well below $2000.-!

bike equiped

Apart from being the most carbon friendly mode of transport cycling has many other advantages: you go everywhere you like, can bring with you whatever you need, can leave at the time you please and finally, don’t need to worry about parking.

Traveling by bicycle combines the advantages of cycling with the beauty of being outside: while you can cover reasonable distances (I made 850km in 7 days) you feel, smell, see and experience many things that people traveling in cars will never be able to appreciate. That is definitely a blessing in a county like Australia, whose “extremes” and beauty can best be enjoyed outdoors.

map overviewOverview of my one week tour around Victoria

Here some examples of what I encountered on my trip. Please consider that I didn’t plan anything beforehand and all that I visited and encountered was pure coincidence. I know there is plenty more to enjoy if one knows what to look for:

Flora and Fauna
There is definitely plenty of flora and fauna everywhere in Australia and most of us get to see a lot of it. Yet, the beauty of a bicycle is that the travel speed and particularly the low noise level allow for many encounters that are not possible on a motorized vehicle. Some of the highlights I found include the singing of skylarks that accompanied me over lonely miles of never-ending country roads, numerous flowers living in the dry landscape that from a car looks like one monotonous yellow-brown and which are only visible for the slow traveler, a lizard with whom I shared the only tree available in the surroundings[2], the leftovers (exuvia) of the last nymph stadium of cicadas[3] including the deafening sound of the emerged adults, and finally black birds singing from high above the beautiful big trees in Castelmaine. Maybe not so spectacular for others, the singing of blackbirds around sunset gives me the feeling of a higher level of existence: a home away from home.

cicada exuvia Exuvia of a Cicada…

cicada holes…..and the remaining holes in the ground where the nymphs emerged before undergoing their transformation to become adults.

lizardI would never have discovered this lizard were it not for my bicycle and the need for a tree against which to lean it.

Be it the beautiful forests of Yarra Ranges NP and Lake Eildon NP, astonishing views in Brisbane Ranges NP and King Valley, interesting canals and waterways of a very sophisticated irrigation system around Shepparton or never-ending dry flatlands, they all are of incredible value and traveling in slow motion reveals how diversified our landscape is. In one week I have seen a small percentage of Victoria only and yet I have experienced a variety of ecosystems that most people would never expect to discover so close to Melbourne.

swiping views at Lake Eildon NPThe Eildon-Jamieson Road is quite steep and long but rewards with beautiful views over Lake Eildon.

A “beauty in the desert” and from an environmental engineering point of view very interesting feature are the Winton Wetlands, found on maps still as a huge blue spot named Lake Mokoan which no longer exists, so if you travel there, you might as well leave your bathers at home. Yet, I promise you won’t be disappointed to make it all the way there! To learn more about the history of Winton Wetlands, Lake Mokoan and how latter was transformed back into a wetland as part of the Murray-Darling Basin water recovery scheme please refer to their websites. Highly recommended.

lake mokoanDead trees as witnesses of former Lake Mokoan.

winton wetlandsWinton Wetlands or what Lake Mokoan has become today.

While I enjoyed many wonderful sunrises, sunsets and other natural spectacles throughout my trip, this one in Howqua at Lake Eildon was indeed remarkable:

sunset lake eildonWhen the sun was still setting in the West…..

moon rising…the moon was already rising in the Northeast. (Both pictures were taken at the same time!)

Weather and climate
Residents of Melbourne like to point out how unpredictable and changing the weather in our city was. Well, that is true, but the same applies for the country side as well and traveling on a bicycle, things get more intense than in an air-conditioned car or in the sterile environment of an office.
A cold night and a very humid following morning in Marysville (I had to pack my tent completely soaked and dry it later during the day), extreme heat (> 40° C) and nasty winds all the way from King Valley to Heathcote, with a sudden downpour that let temperatures drop by 20° within few minutes, it was all included in the package and made the experience all the more unforgettable.
Fighting strong headwinds at temperatures of more than 40° is definitely challenging and combined with detours via mile-long dirt tracks with no signs of civilization over hours can bring one to its physical and mental limits.

road to nowhereThis road seemed to have no end and given temperatures above 40° C and a dry wind that dehydrated every single part of my body (even my contact lenses didn’t want to stay any longer in my eyes), I soon lost not only water, but also hope. After a while I was only carried by the logic that “every road needs to lead somewhere”; it kept me going.

Although not fuzzy when it comes to water as long as there is enough, I must agree that you can get very tired of drinking lukewarm water. Yet, after it almost starts to boil, you ran out of it, because the grocery shop as much as the post office in the only village connecting two cities 80km away from one another are both closed and for sale, everything that hydrates tastes great!
Cycling can at times be tiring as such and combined with difficult weather it easily leads you to the point of despair. However, it also brings you closer to life, something that we city people don’t get the chance to very often. Experiencing nature, climate and the countryside without the support of all the amenities we dispose of is something we all should do from time to time. It would help us to appreciate more what we have instead of complaining about what we don’t have.

Be it emotions, curiosity or simply the fact of having something to talk about, people seem to love talking to strangers traveling on bicycles. I experienced that in many countries and appreciate it as one of the highlights of cycle touring: in exchange to briefly explain where you’re from and what brings you where you are, people reward you with the most beautiful stories, local knowledge or good advice. Particularly older men get very emotional about bicycles and listening to what they experienced years or decades ago can be extremely enriching.

One of my highlights was the encounter with Chris Dawson[4], a beekeeper and “father” of many wonderful honeys that you can find at farmers markets or local markets in the city. Compared to Chris’ knowledge about the countryside and his experiences with wildlife and nature, my cycle trip seems ridiculous.
A beekeeper from his heart he is so passionate about what he is doing that he travels hundreds of miles together with his bees for you to enjoy the best honeys possible!


Food and other goodies
A thing not to be missed are all the local delicacies, and constantly burning calories “allows” cyclists to taste everything they see without having regrets or worrying about gaining some extra kilos.
What stood out on my journey were an excellent ricotta tart and double espresso (that couldn’t even be better in Italy) at Pitari’s in Wangaratta, a spinach pie baked to perfection at Gaffney’s in Heathcote, the most delicious (and so far best in my life) custard tart at Wesley Hill Bakehouse in Castelmaine and one of the award winning Vanilla Slices at Tatura Hot Bread in Tatura (of course). I only realized when in the shop that I had read about the bakery’s fame at the tourist info in Shepparton, but when I did so, there was no way I could not taste the Vanilla Slice, although I swear I only wanted to have a coffee …oh, well.
Of course there were many more things I could have mentioned and others that I didn’t get the chance to taste like the products of numerous local wineries (I combined the week cycling with some alcohol free days). Unfortunately, a week is only a week and one can only enjoy so and so much.

Talking about food there is another point that speaks for traveling by bicycle: given that it’s not so easy to ride from supermarket to supermarket, cyclists are more likely to buy at smaller stores and support local businesses than people traveling in cars. Good for locals and the cyclists.

blue cheeseFlies may be a real pest and can turn every rest into a nightmare. The only thing they didn’t touch was this blue cheese that put up worse with the heat than I did. I wondered if a blue cheese flavoured sunscreen could kill two birds with one stone.

I don’t deny that touring on a bicycle can be challenging at times. Before anything else, one needs a certain commitment and some endurance. When it comes to the physical condition, I believe that most people underestimate themselves and/or overestimate cycling. At the right speed you don’t need more effort than walking and considering that even many coach potatoes can walk for hours without having had accordant physical training, touring on a bicycle is accessible for anyone: simply choose the right bike, the right speed and you’ll soon be into it. Personally, I wasn’t in a very good shape when I started my tour a week ago (after my accident last year, I had a mentally hard time riding a bicycle in and around Melbourne), but could still manage to do quite a long trip.

On the other hand one shouldn’t be silly and it’s definitely advisable to always carry enough water, sunscreen, some extra food, a repair kit, a good map and even a better judgement. Don’t take any unnecessary risks; a good advice anytime in nature not only on a bicycle.

crossroadCross-roads can be confusing and many signs are largely useless. A good map and sound judgement are the best way forward.

kirwans bridgeKirwans Bridge crossing Goulburn Weir near Nagambie was a bit of a challenge riding a fully loaded touring bicycle and hence, provided some extra shot of adrenaline.

Now, I hope that one or the other of you readers got inspired and will give it a try, too. If you look for a sustainable alternative to a holiday overseas or simply a quick escape from the city, I warmly recommend considering a bicycle trip before booking your next ticket to Bali.

I often hear people complaining how expensive it was to travel in Australia. What to me sounds like a good excuse to catch a plane overseas is simply not true. Considering that a week away cost me less than $2000 in equipment (that I will definitely use again) and less than $200 in accommodation[5] the cost argument is not valid (less so, if you consider carbon emission as an unfortunately not-yet-taxed externality).
Apart from that, the most wonderful sunsets are still here in Australia. Living in Docklands I know what I talk about and was spoilt with another one arriving home yesterday evening.

sunset docklandsSunset in Docklands (VIC) with Yarra River in the front.

To all skeptics, it is certainly true that there is carbon emission in the form of grey energy in everything we buy, including bicycles, and hence, people shouldn’t buy new equipment if there is the possibility that they will only use it once[6]. However, as you have hopefully taken from my post, there are many gems to be found that we don’t even know they exist so close to the city. All of them accessible on a bicycle and without polluting the environment.
Consequently, the risk of not using a touring bicycle once you bought it is rather small, because there is something else to cycling that I didn’t mention yet:
it is highly addictive!

me bike

Have a safe ride all you cyclists out there!

[1] A big “thank you” to Riley for your professional and friendly support. I think a lot about your comment that you and other younger Melbournians prefer to ride their bicycles around town rather than owning a car. Good on you guys, together we will revolutionize the world!

[2] That was at a lookout where the tree was the only place to lean my bicycle against. I would never have seen the lizard were it not for my bicycle. The fun part was that it didn’t even move when I approached the tree and I had to turn my bike several times not to squeeze one of its feet; in the barren land, sharing is imperative!

[4] Chris, thanks again for the lovely present. I loved your honey before, knowing you in person and the passion that comes with each of the pots that you sell, I will remember our interesting lunch talk near Tolmie (ever heard of a place called Tolmie? If not, you can’t claim to have seen Victoria) for many years to come. I wish there would be more people like you who could see the beauty of simplicity.

[5] That said, I must add that I always stayed at caravan parks. If you want it even cheaper, there are plenty of free camping sites everywhere in Australia!

[6] I know a lot of people who bought a bicycle and then used it only once because they figured that it’s not their thing, probably mostly because they bought the “wrong” bicycle. My recommendation: why not renting or borrowing a bicycle from a friend first before buying? The same can be done with a touring bicycle; it’s what I did when traveling in WA. And before buying I would always advise less experienced cyclist to get some advice from professional bicycle shops, of which there are plenty in Melbourne and elsewhere in Australia. They know so much more than internet and can tell you what bicycle is the best for you.
By the way, there is also a touring bicycle club in Melbourne as there are in some other states within Australia.


About blaubear

Born in 1973 in a small village in rural Switzerland and into a society largely dominated by cows (not only was the human population of one-hundred-and-forty outnumbered by them, but politics were driven by unreasonable subsidies for diary products) I was connected with nature from early age on. Observing nature on one hand and the deficiencies of a dysfunctional Swiss agricultural policy with farmers that had lost connection to the land that provided their income on the other, I soon started to question society and the meaning of life. Suffering also under a farcical public education I developed curiosity to discover on my own. That was how I soon learned that little of what I had been taught was true. Skepticism and interaction with people from for me new cultures fostered my interest for the world and eagerness to leave a life shaped by federalistic layman-ship. At the age of twenty-three I hit the road for the first time, an event that later translated into passion. Traveling between cultures has since become part of my life. At the age of thirty-three I finally realized my dream and did a degree in Environmental Engineering from which I graduated in 2009, only to leave Switzerland once more for my "real home" Spain. Unfortunately, the stay was a short one: a couple of months later I was offered a job in Southeast Asia, where I worked and also lived (with some interruptions, e.g. I live in Melbourne since late 2012) ever since. Having worked for a Japanese company earlier in my life, I soon felt captured again by Asian culture and thinking which makes a lovely contrast to my European heritage. My journey through different countries and cultures has taught me that regardless of how different our thinking and values are, no matter what approaches we take, we all can learn from each other. And if we are open enough to see the common instead of pointing out the differences, then we have a chance to live in harmony and peace: Life is all about integration, not exclusion! It's an old wisdom that "knowledge is power", as such I never get tired of being around new people, having interesting talks, and reading lots of good books. I hope that my blog can contribute to the conversation.
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3 Responses to Low-carbon emission escape from the city

  1. Pingback: Of mateship and machismo. Driving in Australia. | Ideas for a greener environment, a fairer society and a future driven by sustainability

  2. Justin Roborg-Söndergaard says:

    Great article…glad you enjoyed & survived your trip. ‘Local is lekker’ is how we In South Africa refer to our local produce; here in Portugal ‘local’ is still the best – cheese, wines, meat, honey (from rosemary bushes) & seasonal fruits…keeping it local & reducing our carbon footprint…

  3. Pingback: Mountain highs in May | Style Wilderness

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