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Two Gippsland gems

12 November, 2012

Rich in rail trails, Gippsland has some shorter options that are often overlooked but well worth a visit. Jon Miller has some route suggestions. 

Gippsland has long been a source of farm produce, timber and minerals for the people and businesses of Melbourne. From the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, a veritable spider’s web of railway lines criss-crossed this part of the state, transporting the bounty back to the city. Apart from the main line out to Bairnsdale, none of these lines still exist.

The good news for bike riders is that some of them have been converted to rail trails. Many readers will already know about the iconic Great Southern and East Gippsland rail trails. There are also other shorter, lesser known, trails in the region that can be incorporated into a longer ride if combined with some on-road riding. Or if you happen to be in the area anyway, they still make pleasant rides in their own right.

Bass Coast Rail Trail

This trail starts at the former station site, Apex Park on Murray Street in Wonthaggi. The old station building is now a museum run by the Wonthaggi Historical Society and well worth a look before you start your ride. Also in Wonthaggi is the State Coal Mine Historic Reserve containing a Visitors’ Centre, restored buildings, some mining relics and an old shaft which is open for underground tours.

Leaving town, you head west along the rail trail. After about a kilometre you get to the Central Mining Area. There is a short walking track to McBride Tunnel, the entrance to the underground workings. A little further along the track is the old Rescue Station and a massive derelict structure of timber and corrugated iron known as Number 5 Brace.

The nine kilometre section from Wonthaggi to Dalyston passes through a mixture of wetlands, open farmland, ti-tree and coastal scrub. There are some short tracks through the wetlands just as you leave Wonthaggi. Riding is permitted on these tracks but it’s worth getting off your bike and walking as you will see more bird life that way. The massive turbines of Wonthaggi Wind Farm can be seen to the south.

Construction vehicles travelling to the new desalination plant have badly chewed up the trail where the access road crosses it at Dalyston. There’s lots of mud, deep ruts and loose gravel, so take care. Fortunately, it only lasts for a couple of dozen metres and hopefully it will be remedied once the plant is complete.

Dalyston to Kilcunda is probably the most scenic section of the trail. It passes through a narrow strip of coastal reserve where kangaroos are sometimes seen. There are extensive views of Kilcunda Beach with its pounding surf. Just before you arrive in Kilcunda – a pretty little seaside town with a pub, a few cafes, picnic and barbecue areas and access to the beach – there is the famous trestle bridge. Dozens of these timber railway bridges are still in existence around the state. Most of them have been decommissioned due to safety concerns and have been left to rot away, but the bridge in Kilcunda is still in use and is a feature of the rail trail.

After leaving Kilcunda, the trail crosses the main Bass Highway and starts climbing towards Anderson. It’s almost all uphill for the final three kilometres but it isn’t very steep and the elevation gain is only about 40 metres, which makes it not very taxing at all.

Once you arrive at the end of the trail in Anderson, you will soon realise there is nothing to do there. It is little more than a car park which serves the V/Line coach interchange. Water is available and there are toilets and a picnic table. You can also follow a sign from the rail trail promising cold drinks to a large rambling shop selling “Antiques and Stuff”.

V/Line coaches run to Anderson and also Wonthaggi; however, only folding bikes are allowed on these – standard bikes are no longer permitted. The nearest train station is Stony Point on the south west of the Mornington Peninsula. From here you must catch the ferry across to Cowes on Phillip Island then ride across the island, over the bridge to San Remo and on to Anderson, a distance of about 25km.

A nice two or three day tour, popular with the Melbourne Bicycle Touring Club, involves catching the ferry and riding to Anderson then getting on the rail trail to Wonthaggi. You can stay the night there or continue on to Inverloch. The next day, it’s about a 70km ride to either Warragul or Drouin station. If you have time, you can split this into two days, staying the extra night in Korumburra or Leongatha.

The State Coal Mine in Wonthaggi was opened in 1909, primarily to supply black coal for Victoria’s growing fleet of steam trains. Initially, the coal was transported to Melbourne by ship but a railway line was quickly built, branching off from the South Gippsland Line at Nyora. Such was the huge demand for coal that it took only three months from approval to the first train running in 1910.

Diesel locomotives were first introduced in the 1950s and the gradual phasing out of the old steam trains began. This reduced the demand for coal and the mine eventually closed in 1968. Although the line also carried other goods as well as passengers, the closing of the mine was the beginning of the end for the Wonthaggi Line. The last passenger train ran in 1977; the line closed a year later in 1978 after the running of the last freight train. The tracks were ripped up in the 1980s and by the late 1990s, the first section of the rail trail from Wonthaggi to Kilcunda was open. Upgrading of the trestle bridge over Powlett River and the extension of the trail to Anderson soon followed but
development has stalled since then.

There are plans in the Bass Coast Shire’s Bicycle Strategy to continue the trail from Anderson through Woolamai, Glen Forbes and Kernot to Nyora. In April 2012, funding was announced for the 6km section from Anderson to Woolamai. Unfortunately, no date has been given for the work to start. The land is still unused and the tracks and ballast are long gone so it shouldn’t take too much effort. Some maps even show it as already completed all the way through to Nyora. Parts of the trail can be used by walkers and horse riders now but aren’t really suitable for bike riders as the surface is rough and overgrown, making for very slow going. If and when the money is found to complete the entire trail, it will surely become one of the premier trails in the state and be a big drawcard for the region. Until then, we have to be satisfied with the 16km section we have.

Distance 16km

Difficulty Easy

Surface Hard-packed gravel

Scenery Beaches and coastal scrub

Web link http://bit.ly/NsZssG 

Grand Ridge Rail Trail

The Grand Ridge Rail Trail starts at Railway Park in Boolarra. While there is nothing left of the original station buildings, some tracks are still visible. This is a pleasant park with toilets, picnic tables and some storyboards containing some history and other details of the town. The original pub, which predates the railway by a year, is nearby and there is a general store opposite which sells coffee.

The trail leaves from the western end of the park via an entryway designed to look like one of the wooden trestles which supported so many railway bridges. The entryway is emblazened with the trail’s former name: Boolarra–Mirboo North
Rail Trail.

Almost straight away, you will notice a gradual incline to the trail. In fact, it’s uphill most of the way with Mirboo North being about 240 metres higher than Boolarra. Don’t let this put you off; it’s a very slight gradient. Locomotives of the 1880s didn’t have the power to climb steep hills so engineers of the time worked hard to limit the gradients. Rail trail riders of today reap the benefit.

Near Boolarra, the trail passes through a lot of farmland but trees line much of the route providing some shelter from the elements. There are several road crossings with gates across the trail to prevent access by motorised traffic. These gates do their job too well; it is difficult to get around them on a bicycle.

Soon you will come across the first of the replacement bridges. These are impressive structures, far superior to the small, wooden ones they replaced. Stop while crossing the new bridge and peer down at the charred remnants of the old one decaying in the creek below. Now turn your gaze to the banks of the creek and notice the steep tracks that lead to the water on either side. Before the fires, riders had to negotiate these often muddy tracks to cross the low-level bridges.

Around the halfway mark is the Darlimurla station site. This too has been recently refurbished. There is a shelter, picnic table and information and map boards of the trail. Nearby is the big tree. The area has been heavily logged and all of the trees are comparatively young. The big tree is one of the few remaining original grey gums.

The trail is more densely forested between Boolarra and Mirboo North. Birdlife is plentiful and native animals, such as echidnas and wallabies, are occasionally seen.

The rail trail ends behind the Grand Ridge Brewery in Mirboo North. Despite only being a small town of perhaps 2,000 residents, there is quite a lot here. There are two or three cafes in the main street where you can stop for lunch. If you prefer, there’s a bakery and small supermarket where you can pick up supplies for a picnic in the park. The pub serves counter meals and there is an excellent restaurant attached to the famous brewery as well.

The closest train station to Mirboo North is Trafalgar, 29km to the south. Boolarra is 25km from Morwell station. A pleasant day trip involves catching the train to Morwell, riding from there to Boolarra before getting on the rail trail to Mirboo North. Lunch can be had at the famous Grand Ridge Brewery or one of the handful of cafes in town. After lunch, it’s a mostly downhill ride to Traralgon and the train back to Melbourne.

For a shorter day, you could ride the rail trail one way and return via the Mirboo North Road. This is a sealed road with very little traffic and some expansive views. If you’d like a two day trip, drive to Balook and leave your car at Tarra Bulga National Park. Ride the Grand Ridge Road to Mirboo North on the first day. The second day, take the rail trail to Boolarra then ride through Budgeree back up to the Grand Ridge Road and Balook.

Like many other branch lines built in the late 19th century, the Mirboo North railway was built as a result of years of lobbying by local residents. The steep terrain and high rainfall of the area made it very difficult for them to get their produce out by road.

Work began on the line branching off from the main Gippsland line at Morwell in 1883. Compared to the Wonthaggi line, construction continued at a glacial pace taking almost three years to complete.

It is unlikely that there was ever enough demand to justify the building of the line in its own right. However, there were plans to extend the line further south to the coast at either Corner Inlet or Welshpool. These plans never came to fruition as the surveyors were unable to find a suitable route down from the rugged Strzlecki Range. Then, with the building of the South Gippsland line from Dandenong through to Leongatha, Foster and Yarram, there was no need to extend the Mirboo North line to the same area.

Trains began running from Morwell to the 12 mile peg once this section of the line was completed in April 1885. A construction camp grew while workers continued on the rest of the line. Though there were settlers in the area before that, this construction camp morphed into the town of Boolarra.

When the railway line was completed, there was nothing at the terminus apart from open paddocks. A town grew up around the railhead and came to be known as Mirboo North.

Patronage on the line was slow at first but gradually increased as land was cleared and more settlers came into the area. It reached its peak in the 1930s and 1940s after the discovery of bauxite in the area.

As always, the decline began with the rise in popularity of the motor car. The last passenger train ran in 1968, while the bauxite traffic kept freight trains running until 1974.

The railway land in Morwell was quickly gobbled up by commercial development and expansion of the open-cut coal mine. Enough land was kept in public hands for the construction  of the rail trail in the late 1990s. There is a possibility that the trail will be extended north 9km from Boolarra to Yinnar.

Bush fires in January 2009 severely damaged the trail. Two bridges were completely burnt out and the surface compromised. A state government grant under the Bushfire Recovery Plan has enabled the trail to be rebuilt. The bridges have been replaced with modern steel ones that are sturdy enough to carry an emergency vehicle. The rest area at Darlimurla has been upgraded, some vegetation replanted, drainage dug, signs replaced and the whole trail has been resurfaced. The trail is now in far better condition than it was before the fires.

Distance 13km

Difficulty Easy

Surface Hard-packed gravel

Scenery Dry schlerophyl forest and open farm land

Web link www.grandridgerailtrail.com.au

For more information about Gippland, visit Inspired by Gippsland.

Ride On content is editorially independent, but is supported financially by members of Bicycle Network Victoria. If you enjoy our articles and want to support the future publication of high-quality content, please consider helping out by becoming a member.

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