Great Victorian Rail Trail
Showered with unprecedented federal funding, Victoria’s brand new Great Victorian Rail Trail is worth every cent, finds Jon Miller.
Tallarook, a small Victorian town about 100km north of Melbourne, near Seymour, is best-known for featuring in the Dad and Dave song Things is Crook in Tallarook. But this has changed with the opening of the Great Victorian Rail Trail, Australia’s newest and Victoria’s longest rail trail. It starts in Tallarook and stretches 121km eastwards, through Yea to Mansfield. There is also a 13km side trip from Cathkin to Alexandra, making a massive 134km in total of trail riding.
The Tallarook–Yea railway line opened in 1883 and was gradually extended, finally reaching Mansfield in 1891. The branch line to Alexandra was completed in 1909. The trains were used to carry timber from the forests of north-eastern Victoria as well as wool, fresh vegetables and farm produce to the markets of Melbourne. Of course, there was also plenty of passenger traffic, with the section from Tallarook to Yea being known as one of the most scenic rail journeys in the state.
As with so many of our train lines, the rise of the car led to its demise, with the last passenger train running in 1977 and freight services stopping a year later. Almost immediately, a proposal to convert the line into a rail trail was put forward but no action was taken until 1996. After several years of lobbying, community meetings, consultations and stop-start construction, the Federal Government tipped in $13.2 million in 2009 as part of its Economic Stimulus Plan. Added to this was $1 million from the State Government, plus commitments from local councils, and construction began in earnest.
Public transport access from Melbourne to the trail isn’t completely straightforward. Tallarook is on the main country rail line through to Seymour, Wangaratta and beyond. However, not all trains stop there. And none of the new trains with the ability to carry up to 30 bikes do so. Also, the first train from Melbourne on a Sunday doesn’t arrive until 12 noon. Make sure you check the timetables carefully before you leave home. V/Line coaches service many of the towns along the trail but the drivers refuse to carry bikes now unless they’re folding bikes. Happily some enterprising locals have started up a bike-carrying bus service, as exist with some other rail trails.
If you arrive in Tallarook by train, don’t expect any signs directing you to the trail from the station. You’ll have to cross underneath the railway line to the eastern side of the line to the Upper Goulburn Road. Turn right and head south if you want to visit the very small township; there’s a general store–cafe and a pub. There’s also a small arboretum which is a pleasant place to wait for a train home on the return journey.
To get going straight away, turn left after the underpass and follow the right-hand fork in Upper Goulburn Road; you will soon come across the beginning of the rail trail on your left. When I first jump on the trail, you are riding in the footsteps of explorers Hume and Hovell, along the heritage-listed Trawool Valley following the Goulburn River. The valley floor has been largely cleared for farming but much remnant vegetation remains along the river banks and in Tallarook State Forest to the south. There are some good views to be had over the rolling farmland as well as glimpses of the Goulburn River and the rocky slopes of Mount Hickey.
Birdlife is abundant on this trail. You see rosellas, galahs, rainbow lorikeets, king parrots, wag tails, literally hundreds of cockatoos, magpies and many others. There are lots of rabbits and farm animals and you might spy kangaroos, wallabies and wombats.
After 13km you come across Trawool Resort, which offers accommodation, a restaurant and an inviting log fire on a cold day. It’s a good place to stop for coffee and a snack if you missed out in Tallarook. After Trawool, the next place to stop is the town of Yea, another 25km further on. This is a reasonable-sized town and makes a good place for a break as there is a wide range of eating options, plus supermarkets and public barbecues if you prefer to self-cater.
The Yea wetlands have a walking track with storyboards detailing the natural history of the area from an indigenous viewpoint.
Leaving Yea, it’s almost all uphill for the next 10km or so as the trail climbs up over the Black Range. Gradients reach 1 in 40 here, which was very steep for locomotives 100 years ago but a gentle climb for a modern, geared bike. The historic Cheviot Tunnel was built at the top of the climb in 1899 to cut through McLoughlin’s Gap. The tunnel was built from handmade bricks which were sourced locally. It’s over 200 metres long and it is quite dark and eerie passing through it. Thankfully, I have lights on my bike!
After the tunnel, it’s largely downhill to the small town of Molesworth. The section of line from Molesworth to Cathkin was one of the most difficult for the original engineers to build. It crossed the Goulburn River flood plain and required numerous bridges. For the same reason, it was the last section of the rail trail to be completed. All of the old timber bridges have decayed and been replaced with modern steel and concrete ones, although the remains of the old bridges are still clearly visible.
Cathkin is where the link to Alexandra branches off the main trail. There is a sign here saying that a flora and fauna reserve and picnic area will be built, but there is no sign of it yet. Continuing on towards Mansfield, you soon arrive in Yarck. I wonder if this town is named after the cry of the cockatoos, which are plentiful in the area! As well as the obligatory pub, there are the Yarck Tearooms to visit. These are not Devonshire tearooms you’d expect, but quite a trendy Italian restaurant, which seems a little out of place in such a small town. It was created when the owner left Dal Noi, his popular South Yarra restaurant, behind and headed for the bush. I didn’t have time to sample the menu but this place has quite a following which is sure to increase as the rail trail becomes popular.
The trail from Cathkin is slightly uphill, and continues uphill until just before Merton. This is the longest climb of the entire trail, as it rises 200 metres over a distance of about 20km. It’s not very steep but is very long, with beautiful views over the rolling hillsides to distract you from the climb. You’ll appreciate stopping for a rest in the small, shady park next to the Merton General Store.
From here, it’s downhill from Merton to the shores of Lake Eildon. Until recently, no-one would have known that there was a lake here, with the extended drought all but emptying it. But now it is 100% full and beautiful to look at with lush, verdant grass on the banks and the tops of newly submerged trees poking through the surface. You soon reach Bonnie Doon and the 387m bridge over the lake. The bridge seems to go on forever and you get some sense of just how big Lake Eildon is as you cross it. It’s only another 20km before I roll into Mansfield, the largest town on the route. The trail finishes at the Tourist Information office on the old station site after passing through the Mansfield Wetlands.
Very few people will attempt to tackle the entire trail in a single day. Fortunately, there are plenty of towns along the way which provide accommodation. At 38km from Tallarook, Yea has everything from a caravan park to hotels, motels and B&Bs. After Yea, there are towns every 20km or so – Molesworth, Yarck, Merton, Bonnie Doon and Maindample. These have at least a pub and sometimes a general store, campground or B&B as well. Alexandra and Mansfield are both sizeable towns with plenty of choice in where to stay and eat. The location of these smaller towns isn’t always obvious from the trail and a few more signs would be welcome. To be fair, many other rail trails suffer from a lack of signage too.
The Great Victorian Rail Trail is a valuable addition to Victoria’s rail trail collection. It has so much going for it: a well-compacted gravel surface; easy gradients; lots of toilet stops; pleasant scenery; interesting towns en route; proximity to Melbourne and a range of places to stay and eat. All it really needs is easier public transport access, better signage and some more rest areas – all of which I’m sure will come in due time. It is sure to be an asset to the region, eventually attracting riders from all over the world.
Need to Know
Distance: 121km from Tallarook to Mansfield, plus an extra 13km branch from Cathkin to Alexandra
Surface: Well-graded rail trail
Kind of bike: Road, mountain or hybrid bikes
Scenery: Farmland, rivers, lakes, wetlands
Key attractions: Cheviot Tunnel, Lake Eildon, Yarck Tearooms, Goulburn River
More information: www.victorianrailtrails.com.au – This is the official website of the trail, and is a fantastic resource with tourism information, maps, and trail usage guidelines.