No, that's not JK Rowling's rewrite of Mad Max. That's the Australian Tail of the Dragon and the B500, Great Alpine Road. Also known as two of the best days' riding you could have - in either hemisphere.
As I planned this stage of the ride, one road had come up again and again. A good half-dozen people suggested it. The Omeo Highway. Clearly, it was a road I shouldn't miss. I plotted my course from Sydney and set off: fabulous riding once I got clear of the city and the motorway, hugging the coast to Narooma.
From there I turned inland on brilliant, flowing roads, into the Kosciuszko National Park (named after Australia's highest peak). This was the Alpine Way – some tight, challenging sections of roads alternating with some more flowing sections. Great riding. Why had nobody recommended this road? I found myself wondering how much better the Omeo Highway would have to be, if this brilliant road hadn’t even merited a mention?
I stayed the night in Albury, chatting with Cheshire-men Mike and Bob who had the neighbouring rooms in the motel: they’d been riding together since they were 19, more than 40 years earlier. Now Mike’s settled outside Sydney, Bob comes over every few years and they tour Australia. Lovely chaps – Bob even gave me some of his throat lozenges to sooth my cough.
What I hadn’t done was contact the people who suggested riding the Omeo Highway. I scrolled through emails looking for addresses to no avail. I looked on Facebook but remained clueless. In the end I threw a last-minute invite on the MCN Facebook page, but of course it was too late. Next morning I set off on my own, Billy No Mates as usual, but far from the only bike on the road. With the MotoGP at Phillip Island at the weekend, it seems every other biker in Australia is riding down there this week – mostly through the mountains.
The initial run from Albury was open and sweeping – in any other country they’d be fast roads, but there’s no such thing over here. The police are too hot on speeding and the fines too steep to make it worth bothering with the risk. Instead it’s all middle-of-fourth-gear, rolling along at an indicated 65mph which the Garmin tells me is 98-99kph. That left plenty of time and brain space for soaking up the sunshine and making puns on the place names on the signs: my favourite being Tangambalanga; I’ll settle there and open a doorbell shop called Tangambalanga Ding Dongs.
Soon, though, I turned onto the Omeo Highway and, pretty much before I could say to myself, “Let’s see what all the fuss is about” I saw what all the fuss is about.
Oh. My. God. What a crazy twisty road! It’s essentially North Carolina’s Tale of the Dragon, stretched out 100 miles rather than just 11. Imagine a tightly wound spring pulled just enough to see a hint of daylight between the coils… On the ToD, each corner feeds relentlessly into another so you’re breathlessly flicking the bike from one side to the other without a moment’s respite. On the Omeo Highway, you have about a half-second straight in which to get yourself together before the next turn.
Actually, even that does this amazing road a disservice – because it wasn’t all like that (though much of it was). It’s 100 miles long so I found there was a real dynamic shift as it cuts through a range of Australian landscapes: past well-tended grasslands; through dark and dense forests; through more-open bush, curling along at the top of ravines and dropping down to hug the valley-bottom rivers. Sometimes the corners came in a flurry of left-right-left, all tight radii and challenging cambers. Sometimes the bends were longer and more forgiving. Occasionally the road stretched like a cat in the sun, offering a tantalising few seconds of straight tarmac before disappearing into a long, lazy corner.
My planned route wasn’t to go all the way to Omeo but to turn off to Falls Creek and Mount Beauty… but I was enjoying the road so much, I chased it to the end. Besides which, I knew there was fuel and food to be had in Omeo, which was just (“Just”!) 40km past the turning. I filled up the Kawasaki Z1000SX and got the best chicken-salad sandwich of my life in Omeo and backtracked… to find the road closed. For adverse weather. This must be a mistake, I told myself, looking at the perfect blue skies. Someone’s forgotten to flip the sign over.
So of course I ignored the “road shut” signs, rode 13km into the mountains on a steep, rough and twisty road… to find a solid barrier across the road. I did seriously think about seeing if I could lift it and carry on, but sod’s law said there’d be a plod with nothing better to do waiting 50m on the other side to ticket people trying it. So I turned round and retraced my steps to Omeo, on one of the twistiest sections of the entire road. Fabulous, but tiring… I stopped for another drink at the same café in Omeo, then continued along the Great Alpine Road to my overnight stop in Bright.
While this was no bad thing, in many respects, it did make me itch. This was planned to be my road out in the morning and I’m one of those route-purist-pedant-people whose natural reflex is to regard riding the same road twice as a route-planning fail. Except… not in this case.
When I did my tour with Ali in our hired Suzuki Swift, we came into Bright from Mount Beauty and carried on North on the Great Alpine Road, the B500 (yes, the same as that road in the Black Forest) so I know that it’s alright but pretty unexceptional as it continues on to Wangaratta – apart from the mind-blowing detour up Mount Buffalo. This section, from Omeo to Bright, turned out to be a very different kettle of kippers. That was an entirely exceptional stretch of road.
I’d kind of expected that. The section over Mount Hotham is apparently the highest road in Australia (though I’m damned if I could find any helpful sign marking the actual highest point). Getting to ride this stretch of road in both directions was not a chore. Not at all. In fact, it was a treat. There was the standard “isn’t this like Col d’Aspin in the Pyrenees” approach through grassy farmland, though the fields here were studded with gums and eucalyptus trees, not olive or oak. But then things got serious, scrambling up and gradually getting steeper and twistier – and occasionally bumpier – all the way to the Dinner Plain ski resort. I hurried past to the miniature-French-ski-village of Mount Hotham, through its tunnel and… boom. Mind. Blown.
This was proper Alpine riding. Perhaps more in the Nockalmstrasse riding-across-the-top-of-the-mountains sense than the classic up-Alp-down-Alp of the French and Italian passes. The road coiled along a ridge, dropped down the shoulder of one small peak and scrambled invitingly around the next one. Who was I to resist? I gave chase, noting but not stopping at the various very Australian places it passed – Blowhard Hut, True Blue Creek, The Black Hole, Graveyard Creek, and my favourite, the final steep descent to Harrietville simply called “The Meg”.
I was elated but exhausted by the time I got to the bottom. Though it wasn’t too late, shadows were stretching in the valley as the sun settled behind the high surrounding peaks. I made it to Bright to find one car and about two dozen bikes in the motel car park. I scored some fish and chips, then turned in early.
So today I got to do the ride all over again and, I have to say, I think it was even better as a climb from Bright to Omeo – tackling the tighter, steeper half first. Maybe that’s because I always prefer ascending to descending; or maybe it’s simply that it’s easier to ride this kind of road when you’re fresh at the start of the day than when you’re tired at the end of it. Either way, what I knew was a fabulous road felt even better. This time I stopped to take a few pics as well.
I got lunch in Omeo again, then continued south towards the coast. The descent was gradual and gentle, but I could feel the temperature rising with every dozen miles. From a pleasant 18° at the top of Mount Hotham, it was a sticky 27° by the time I’d made it to my overnight stop in Maffra. The big question now: where to next?