Tom Rooney and the crew from the Ministry of Silly Rides head out into Australia’s Yarra Ranges on a rainy 100km overnighter in search of a hut atop Mount Terrible. What could possibly go wrong? Read on to find out…
Words and photos by Tom Rooney (@roonsnake)
I’m told the Ministry of Silly Rides came about when Will Hartnett (@willatlarge) and his mate Joe used to look at maps, find some point that looked or sounded cool, and then try to ride there, however impractical the location. Their routes often include dubious shortcuts that are found on some maps, but not others. Inevitably, these shortcuts always seem to turn into three-hour hike-a-bikes, viciously unrideable downhill fire trails, or heinously overgrown tracks that necessitate carrying a machete or folding saw to bush bash through. No matter their good intentions while planning, this seems to be a running theme of all Ministry of Silly Rides missions.
The first time I met Will was at his bike shop, Commuter Cycles, in Melbourne. I was probably going in there to get some bolt or screw for whatever vintage beater I was trying to resurrect at the time. What struck me – and I think a lot of people when they first start talking to Will about riding bikes off the beaten path – is that there is a wildness behind those blue eyes of his. Having spent many years as an outdoor tour guide, in addition to riding bikes and working in bike shops since forever, he’s accumulated a wealth of experience to draw from. Early on, I remember thinking “this guy is crazy” to myself, but he piqued my interest to get back into the outdoor world I always loved as a child but had long since forgotten.
Specifically, he got me into bikepacking after I went to see him give a slide night presentation at Commuter Cycles. He’d just finished a solo ride along the Oodnadatta Track, an unsealed 617 km (383 mi) outback road near the center of Australia. He rode south from Alice Springs to Adelaide along the Oodnadatta Track and parts of the Mawson Trail. And so it came to be, after hanging around the shop and buying a few too many bikes, that I started heading out with Will and a few others on some bikepacking adventures.
A Straightforward Ride to a Hut and Back
This mission started out like any other Ministry of Silly Rides endeavour. I picked up our crew from Commuter Cycles at 6:00 am on a particularly miserable and wet Sunday morning. Our intended route would take us from the top of Lake Mountain, in the heart of Victoria’s Yarra Ranges, along an undulating course of tracks and fire roads to spend the night in a hut atop Mt. Terrible. We decided to begin the ride at the top of Lake Mountain, which, in hindsight, was both a blessing and a curse. Starting at elevation is always good, but riding back up at the end of a trip can be tough. In this case it was very tough indeed, and Mt. Terrible certainly lives up to its name in our minds.
On paper, the route looked good. About 100 km with 3500m of climbing over two days is challenging, but doable. What we didn’t know was that Will’s kilometer-long shortcut we had elected to take was going to be a nearly four-hour, machete wielding, bush bashing, slippery log clambering affair, and with fully loaded bikes to boot. Will’s machete proved invaluable as we took turns scouting ahead and cleaving a path through the undergrowth. Royston Gap Road still doesn’t exist, but now the trail has been blazed, or least hacked and trampled. It was a textbook Ministry of Silly Rides experience.
It was almost midday when we finally emerged from the thick, dank undergrowth. I was elated at being out of the bush and back on a proper track, but we still had a ways to go, and the weather showed no signs of clearing. Luckily, Will provided us with a soul-lifting pickle back shot (a swig of whisky followed by a gulp of pickle juice). Delicious!
By the time we stopped for lunch at 2:00 pm we’d barely ridden 20 km and were pretty cooked. We still had about 30 km and 1500 m of climbing ahead of us before we reached the hut on Mt. Terrible. I was getting beat, at least in my mind. I knew we still had so much more to ride, and I’d heard that the tracks only got rougher. Food definitely helps put me at ease, so after a cheese and salami wrap, we pushed on.
After an undulating few hours on Big River Road, the route spit us out onto Hope Track. I think whoever named this track wanted to lull people into a false sense of security for what followed. The first pitch on Hope Track is steep nigh unrideable, and it only gets worse from there.
By then, it was already nearly 5:00 pm and pretty much dark. Despite a momentary break from the foul weather, it was starting to turn again. For me, there’s something about the start of a rain shower coinciding with the start of a big climb that really dampens my spirits (no pun intended) unlike almost anything else. What followed was an extreme test of all our mental and physical limits, as we pushed up 15% inclines in the dark, wind, and rain.
During these times of extreme type 2 fun, I often find myself thinking back to past trips to put my mind at ease, to times when I’ve been through similar situations. It helps me get through whatever I’m dealing with because I know that I’ve been through something like it before, no matter the odds I’m facing at the time or what might lie ahead. And sometimes, when that doesn’t work, I remind myself that I’m among friends who I’ve been through equally difficult situations with before, and who I know I can count on.
Finally, four hours later, we all reached the hut around 9:00 pm. We were freezing cold and drenched to the bone, but ecstatic that we got there. We made it. We all stripped off our wet clothes, got the fire going, cracked the icy cold cans of beer we’d been lugging around all day, munched down all our food, and toasted to our idiocy! That night, we slept like logs as the soothing sounds of Cold Chisel and John Farnham played from my phone.
The following day was less grueling as we made our way back down (and up) Mt. Terrible Track to Hope Track and then battled along Big River Road once again. We had decided to take the easier way back up to Lake Mountain via a sealed road, then tackle the final climb back up to the car from there. We had pretty good weather until we hit the sealed roads, where it got cold and wet one last time. Climbing for the final few hours of the day was brutal, but looking back, it was actually kind of fun, and certainly a challenge for us all. Dinner and a beer at the pub in Healesville on the way back capped off another unforgettable Ministry of Silly Rides weekend.
Trips like these make me realize that it doesn’t matter how far you ride or what your Strava segment time is. What I like most about riding bikes is the time spent hanging out with mates or loved ones on the trail in challenging situations. Despite how brutal this trip was, none of us felt any anger or annoyance at our fearless leader for his planning or routing. Instead, there was a feeling of elation and pride that we had managed this self-imposed feat of stupid athleticism, and we had done it together.
About Tom Rooney
Tom is a furniture maker and amateur photographer based in Melbourne, Australia. When he has time away from co-running his joinery business, he’s always trying to get out for a ride in the Australian bush or to find somewhere new to drink a beer with mates. Check out more of his adventure photography at TomRooney.net or follow along on his Instagram @roonsnake.