A Light at the End of the Tunnel: Bikepacking the Otways
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Following months of lockdown in Melbourne, Mateo Arango Guerrero closed out 2020 with a solo trip into the nearby Great Otway National Park to disconnect and reflect on the ups and downs of the year behind him. Find his story of using his bicycle to find comfort amid the uncertainty here…
Words and photos by Mateo Arango Guerrero (@matangog)
As I write this, there are only 10 days remaining in one of the most challenging years of this decade. An irrepressible urge brings me to planning this bikepacking trip with which I expect to close, in the best possible way, a 2020 that was loaded with uncertainties, disappointments, and fears. Fortunately, the contingency plans established by the Victoria Government, aka one of the longest lockdowns in the world, yielded good results and we can now get a taste of that Australian summer freedom we all greatly feared losing.
Among the indecisiveness of choosing a route characterized by forests or beaches, there is a place that stands out on the map and gets my attention by combining both: The Great Otway National Park. It’s a park made up of more than 100,000 hectares of land and is home to the greatest area of rainforest in Victoria, stretching from Torquay, along the worldwide famous Great Ocean Road, and into the inner Otways.
As I’m plotting the route on Google Maps, it shows me some alternate and rarely travelled routes that are ideal for the disconnection that my body and mind so desperately need. A camping site by the sea appears on the map and I immediately choose it as my destination. I pack my bags, tune my bike, and head to my starting point in Apollo Bay.
When I arrive in the small coastal village, I immediately sense that I’ve chosen the right place for my adventure. As my watch strikes 11 a.m., I see an elderly couple enjoying a bottle of wine by the sea, surrounded by greenish mountains beneath a deep blue sky. I start getting in the spirit and inevitably I begin to feel slightly anxious to get pedalling as soon as possible. I quickly make sure I have all the essential items. Among them is a fishing rod, the latest addition to my bikepacking gear, which I’m excited to use. Then I’m off and my adventure begins, loaded with excitement and expectations.
A constant flow of cars raises the dust accumulated during the last summer days along the first few kilometres of the route. This wasn’t what I expected when I chose this track, but a couple of turns later the route takes a detour, following a road blocked by a fence and a sign warning that cars may not enter—the holy signal that tells me you are where you ought to be. It seems as if this is the gateway into a kind of Jurassic Park, forgotten by time. As I pedal, the eucalyptuses grow bigger, the ferns turn greener and more leafy, and the road begins to narrow, devoured by nature, evidence of the positive effects the lockdown has had on the environment.
Lunchtime approaches and my body begins to demand fuel. I continue for a couple of kilometres until I find a scenic spot to enjoy some food. But it’s not my lunch that I’m particularly looking forward to. Rather, it’s my dessert: a small container with some magic mushrooms. Although I have experience with them, I’ve never tried them while riding my bike, much less on a new route.
Accompanied by a bag of Haribo candy, I eat them one by one, curious about what’s to come. I pack my utensils and continue pedalling through that prehistoric world, feeling as if I’m beginning to pass through some kind of magical threshold.
The route takes yet another detour, but this time, the faint road I’d been following becomes so narrow that I can hardly pedal. I continue advancing steadily, dodging branches (or so I imagine) and circumventing all types of obstacles until the footpath I was following disappears completely. I get off my bicycle to evaluate the situation, aware that my dessert has begun to take effect. I know so because a tree covered in foliage begins to breathe right before my very eyes, letting me know there’s no turning back. It’s not the best feeling, I’ll admit, as my mind fills with doubts and thoughts of anxiety. Should I turn back to the main road? Will I make it to the camp in daylight? Those thoughts remind me of the first lockdown and bring back memories of the uncertainty I felt when the pandemic first started to take hold.
However, I take a deep breath and I realize that not all the feelings are bad. To be immersed in nature, to hear the birds singing, and to see the sunbeams shining through the leaves makes me feel a great connection to the environment. I feel at peace with all that surrounds me. I say some words of encouragement to myself and begin to push my bike through the dense jungle.
The colours of the forest seem to become saturated and my attention to detail magnifies, allowing me to uniquely enjoy the small things around me: textures, sounds, patterns, movements. It’s a kind of sensory overload that’s overshadowed by some feelings of doubt.
In the first clear space I find, I take the opportunity to lie down, ground myself, and see it all from another perspective. I look up to enjoy the trees dancing in unison with the wind. My GPS shows one bar of signal, indicating that the main road isn’t far. It fills me with the hope I need to keep moving.
While I push my bicycle through the scrub, I remember my worries hours before about how the route might be too crowded and I can’t help but let out a loud laugh right there in the middle of the jungle. An old tree laughed back in between breaths. Suddenly, right in front of me, a bouncing deer comes to a stop under a light beam and turns to stare at me. There are deer in this region? Or maybe it’s a hallucination. At my slightest movement to grab my camera, it takes a couple of jumps and dives back into the dense vegetation.
As if the deer had been a sign, a couple of meters ahead I make it to what my GPS indicated as the main road. Main road? It seems that my GPS isn’t the only one seeing things. The road is nothing more than a forgotten path covered by vegetation. However, at least I can pedal, which restores my peace of mind and fills me with the spirit to finish the last segment.
After a couple of hours battling on this green “motorway,” a sign alerts me that I’ve arrived at the campground. As I make my way through, cars and tents appear, which serves as a sudden reminder of my strong desire to avoid interactions with other people. Luckily, the area where I’m hoping to camp for the night is situated a bit off the beach, so I head off to the sea in search of a place where I can set up my tent.
The spot where a river flows into the bay offers me the necessary shelter from the wind and is also the perfect location to try my fishing rod. Without further ado, I set up my tent and take my fishing rod to test my luck in the river. Of course, when it comes to fishing, so-called beginner’s luck doesn’t exist, since if you don’t use just the right hooks and bait in the right location, nothing will magically happen. I knew that beforehand, but I was nonetheless determined to give it a try. In spite of my failed attempts, fishing is a kind of therapy. Cast the line, wait, see life pass you by, retrieve the line, and repeat. I can’t stop thinking about the situation in which I was a couple of hours ago and how good it feels having overcome all the anxiety and moments of uncertainty. I’m grateful for the moment I’m living in and I let myself relax while the sun sets.
With the euphoria coming to an end, I get ready to start a small campfire, my favourite part of the day and of every trip. This moment of solitude in front of the fire allows me to reflect on all the lived experiences, giving me calmness to face the night, and filling me with the hope that everything will be fine, regardless of the ups and downs the day or year may bring.
Even though I don’t know what 2021 has in store for us, and knowing that even more lockdowns will undoubtedly come, it’s comforting to have the certainty of a little light at the end of the long and dark mental tunnel of a difficult day’s ride. And I’m glad to know riding my bicycle and camping will always give me a taste of the life that the pandemic has done its best to take away from us.
About Mateo Arango Guerrero
Mateo Arango Guerrero has been riding on two wheels for as long as he can remember. Born and raised in Colombia, a land that breathes cycling, his passion for riding grew as he experienced different aspects of cycling, from BMX, to enduro, to road. He discovered bikepacking after moving to Australia and has been using photography to inspire others to give it a try since then. You can keep up with him on Instagram @matangog.
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