Saturday, November 17, 2012

Back on the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail

What a year it's been.  As I sit here typing this, I've spent a total of over 700hrs this year so far sitting in this office chair, working on a postgraduate uni course I foolishly undertook.  University study, combined with a long recovery from major surgery, has meant I have not been on the bike much at all this year.  This lack of riding turned into kind of a big problem for me - on the one hand I was wanting to get back out riding again, on the other hand I'd kind of gotten comfortable with the inertia of having a convincing excuse to do nothing, and on the third hand I had a lot of fear about just how I'd go back on the bike with the new wrist, and just how that would work out.  

 Fusion of my right wrist.  They took bone from my hip, chopped my ulna down, removed all my joint linings, bunged in a bit of alloy from my forearm to my middle finger and bolted the whole lot solid.  The plate is a permanent addition - my wrist won't be moving again.

I thought I'd be three weeks off the bike, it ended up being closer to three months.  A few weeks after getting my cast off I gingerly headed out for a 7km ride.  It totally destroyed me - I was weak in body, heart and spirit.  I stayed off the bike for another few weeks, before making a point of forcing myself just to have easy, relaxing rides.  I managed 30km one week, then 35km the next, then 45km, and within a couple of months I was back up to doing 75km rides without too much difficulty.  The body seemed to be getting back on track, but my head was still all over the place.

During my recovery I was keeping myself motivated by saying I'd go and ride the southernmost part of the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail, then as each weekend approached I'd enable myself to not go for the ride somehow.  It would probably rain.  Or be too boring.  Or be too easy.  Or be too hard to get to.  Or I couldn't be bothered putting the bike in the car. Or some other excuse.  For a ride that starts only 60km from my house, I certainly was doing a great job of equipping myself with a whole lot of reasons to stay at home in my comfortably lazy state.

Jump forward to a couple of weeks ago, and here in Brisbane we had a visit from my wife's parents (ie my parents-in-law).  I've always kind of been on the same wavelength as my father-in-law (herein referred to as Laurie), in that we're both somewhat similar in being hermits who like doing things the difficult way.  Despite knowing him for over 13 years, I don't think we'd ever spent any time together just he and I.  I'd been chatting about rail trails and the like, and Laurie seemed keen to go and have a look at what they were all about.  One overcast Sunday morning we were faced with a choice - go with the womenfolk to some local organic market to watch people being all "passionate" and "local" and fret over "macrobiotic food miles" and other such nonsense, or get out of town and do something slightly adventurish.  Laurie hadn't ridden a bike much lately, and I'd never been to the southernmost section of the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail, so we chucked my wife's old mountain bike in the car, chucked my touring bike on top of it, and got out of town.

I know this place...
We drove into the town of Fernvale at around 10 in the morning, pretty late to be starting a ride, but we only planned to ride the first 8km of the trail before heading back for afternoon tea  The whole area is reasonably familiar to me, having spent 4 years at university in the nearby town of Gatton, back in the 90s.  As we unpacked the bikes and made our way over to the trailhead behind the Fernvale information centre, it all came back to me.  I suddenly remembered a much less pleasant visit to Fernvale in recent years, when I was stopped at a pre-dawn checkpoint on a wet and miserable midnight century ride (which basically involves riding for 160km, starting at midnight).  As we rolled up to the start of the ride, I resolved not to punish myself as severely as I did that night, and make a big effort to have a relaxed and easy day.

The Fernvale trailhead of the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail.  For some reason I didn't have really high expectations of this section of the trail - I was to be proven very wrong.

Laurie heads out of Fernvale, towards the town of Lowood.

The trail out of Fernvale winds westwards through the lifestyle blocks on to edge of town, next to a quiet backroad across the Lockyer Valley.

Laurie on the mighty Malvern Star, purchased circa 1999.  It weighs roughly as much as my car, but with a set of Detonators on it was rolling easily across the well-groomed gravel surface.

We slowly made our way out of Fernvale, across a dead flat bit of trail running about 5 metres from the road.  So far the trail was living up to my expectations - it was pleasant enough, but not exactly what I would call the full rail trail experience.  Despite having not been riding in the dirt since March, the whole experience was leaving me a bit cold - goes to show what a spoiled little adventure sook I've become!  We rolled along past all the hobby farms and small agistments as we headed slowly west.  Had I been by myself, I think I might have found this section of the trail a little dull - but I found that Laurie's excitement for the trail and being out on the bike was infectious, making for a very enjoyable ride.

After a few kilometres the trail veered from the main road and headed high above the Brisbane River - it looks very different up here to the muddy waterway that winds its way through the city of the same name.

Even though we were still only about 20m from the main road, we were also about 10m above it, so we could no longer see or hear most traffic.  It really changed the whole tone of the ride to have just that little bit of distance between us and the cars.

When I was trying to find info about the trail on the Internet, people were saying all sorts of things about the gravel surface, much of it not very kind.  The reality is that between Fernvale and Lowood on this section of the trail, the surface is smooth, firm and fast - a kid could ride a scooter along it.

And here was where the whole tone of the ride changed - some old rail infrastructure!

Heritage happens
Up to this point the whole experience had basically been a pretty nice ride along a dirt road, although certainly nothing particularly rail-ish had happened.  We climbed a little further up the embankment, turned a corner and it all happened - some railway heritage.  The whole tone of the ride immediately changed, and all of a sudden all the feelings I enjoyed about riding came flooding back.  It truly was a great moment after so long off the bike and unsure of what riding would be like when I got back into it.  It was the moment when I went from "I wonder if I will do cycle touring again" to "I'm doing cycle touring again".  I wasn't the only one feeling very pleased about it all - Laurie was beside himself that all the old structures and artefacts were still sitting around untouched, in pretty much the same condition as the day the last locomotive went through.

Laurie was intrigued by some layer of rock (I'm going to go ahead and call it metamorphic), among all the layers of sediment.  He raced up the steep slope for a look, as it turned out getting up there was a lot easier than getting back down.

An old brick and sandstone block retaining wall near Lowood.  This went on for ages, sometimes about 5-6m high.
Laurie's welcome to Lowood was discovering that I obsessively and continuously adjust my bike if there's even the slightest noise.  Today it was my rear brake squeaking a bit that was driving me insane.

Heading into Lowood on the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail was very reminiscent of heading into one of the towns along the Otago Central Rail Trail, with the old line heading running literally into the centre of town.

Pausing for a second at the restored Lowood railway station.

The trail passes within a few metres of the Lowood bakery.  Obviously the only sensible thing to do was to have a baked treat and a soft drink.

In the middle of nowhere, close to everything
Given our late start, it was about 1130 by the time we finished our morning tea.  We'd only covered about 8km, and decided to press on towards the small village of Coominya around 12km away.  I'd heard the trail got a little rougher between Lowood and Coominya, and I must admit as we rode through the town section of the line, I wasn't in love with the rough gravel surface.  After a few hundred metres we crossed a stile, and all concerns about the slightly rougher nature of the rail trail were forgotten as the landscape opened out into wide open agricultural plains, stretching far away to the mountains in the north and west.  It was at this point the trail well and truly left civilisation for the next 10 kilometres or so, cutting directly overland, far from any local roads.

Leaving Lowood as we rode towards Coominya.  The weather got a bit strange for an hour or so, but I once again felt the landscape energising me to continue, a feeling I'd not really felt since getting back from New Zealand over a year ago.

The first railway cutting of the ride - exciting times.

I was really getting into the swing of it now, riding through a vast valley with not much about other than weird clouds and a black soil plain.

Even though we were still really close to a major urban centre and not far at all from the nearest town, we were both taken by how remote the stretch between Lowood and Coominya seemed.  It was an unexpected treat.

It's been a long time since I've seen one of these - a deserted country road.  We crossed over it briefly before continuing along the trail.

When I was younger and used to drive through the area a lot in the car, I always though the entire Brisbane Valley was kind of the same.  Now on the bike I was amazed by the diversity of landscapes we were moving through.  In the space of about 15 minutes we'd gone from cropping land, through cattle grazing properties, and now were passing a lush, green dairy farm.

As soon as we got up close to the cows, Laurie started up with the dad-jokes.  Well I can hold my own in the dad-joke stakes (I have two daughters), so I started firing back with some lame cow related one-liners as we rolled along.  The weather was getting very warm by this point - we were pretty surprised as we thought it would be Friesian out there (yes I know they probably aren't Friesian cows, just thought I'd give you a sample of the champagne comedy on offer).

A very unexpected surprise
We eventually came to a spot where the trail suddenly turned sharply left onto a small farm track.  We could hear some people tearing about on trailbikes nearby, and I decided to continue straight ahead to see if I could spot where the old rail line continued.  The trail appeared to stop in a big clump of grass, I parked the bike and continued on foot.  Pushing through the grass I made a very unexpected discovery...

The old rail bridge crossing high over Lockyer Creek.  It certainly didn't appear stable enough to get a bike across, and it looked like we would have to cross the creek far below.  As an added bonus, sometime right about this point my compact camera went all weird - the poor old thing.

I had read about this crossing of Lockyer Creek, apparently it can be quite slippery in the wet.  The climb back out the other side looked insanely steep.

I was standing there looking at the bridge and creek crossing while Laurie walked out on the ricketty old structure a little way, before deciding that was actually a pretty bad idea.  A short distance away, a group of local teenagers on dirtbikes and quads pulled up and surveyed us with interest.  After a little while the lead guy cautiously approached us to say hello.  It turned out they were local guys and girls (one on them lived on the property the trail passed through here), and they were very knowledgeable and justifiably proud of the trail.  We made the usual chit-chat for a while, before the whole group eagerly escorted us down a little track to the crossing, and ensured we made it safely across.  I must admit it was a pretty cool encounter to have out in the middle of nowhere, and I thought it was a huge endorsement to the value that local people place on the trail as a recreational facility to showcase the region and bring pie-eating and chocolate milk-drinking tourists like us through the little old towns.

Down a steep switchback the Lockyer Creek crossing below the old bridge.  The local lads were all concerned that I had stacked it on the way down - I had just stopped to get some photos.  What a bunch of caring legends.

Laurie puts his shoes back on after crossing the calf-deep water, before starting the steep climb back up onto the plain.

This is the only bridge I've seen remaining on the rail trail - not sure if it's the only one left along the 150km-ish length of the line though.  The dust in the bottom left is one of the local tearing off on his bike after he was confident we knew the directions into the next town (as it happens you just follow the trail along).

The local guys stopped to pose for a photo and / or laugh at us attempting to get up the steep bank on the other side.  I opted for the cyclocross run up to the top - in the process discovering just how spectacularly unfit I've become.

Looking back across the Lockyer Creek railway bridge.  Not sure why this particular bridge is still there or what the plans are for it, but it sure adds something awesome to the ride.  It would be easy to say it should be fixed up to allow bike traffic, but in truth I really enjoyed the little detour to the creekbed - it added an unexpected touch of adventure.

The trail runs alongside the road here.  Laurie wisely suggested to ride along the road into the township of Coominya.  Good call.

Riding along the middle of an empty country road, how I have missed thee!

Turning point
After a few kilometres of riding along the bitumen I arrived in the little town of Coominya, crossed over the main road next to the crowded pub, and headed over to the restored station buildings in the centre of town.  This place was very familiar to me - we used to go to the pub boozing on the weekends when I went to uni down the road at Gatton.  In more recent years I passed by there at about 2am during a midnight century ride -  back then I got out of town and realised I needed a nature break and pulled over to the side of the road to take care of business pro-peloton style, managing to very skilfully piss all over myself, my bike and (somehow) my handlebar bag.  Fortunately I had no such issues today.  Looking back down the road I spotted Laurie stopped a little way away - I was unsure if he was lost or having cramps or what was going on.  He eventually made is way over to the station and we had a muesli bar in the shade to celebrate reaching the halfway point of the ride.

Exploring the old station complex featuring an assortment of historical railway artifacts around the place.  Despite the overcast conditions, the weather in Coominya was scorchingly hot.

After riding the Otago Central Rail Trail last year, I actually appreciate the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail a lot more than I did.  The local councils and community organisations have done a great job providing a real adventure experience, with very little money and even less support from the powers that be.

A feral bush ute at Coominya - this is something of an Australian rural tradition.  The basic concept is get a ute, put truck mudflaps on it, and as many stickers, flags and aerials as you fit.  This was a particularly good example, with the bed of the ute full of artistically arranged random junk.

Risk it for a biscuit
I had originally planned for us to ride straight back down the rail trail to get back to Fernvale, however Laurie wasn't too keen on the idea of bouncing along for another couple of hours.  I suggested we try the main road back to Fernvale, along the sometimes busy Brisbane Valley Highway.  From my memory of a few years ago the road was mostly flat, and reasonably short (wrong!), so Laurie said "let's risk it for a biscuit" and take the main road.  I wasn't too concerned either way, but I do enjoy biscuits, so off we headed away from Coominya and out to the highway.

I was slightly economical with the facts and "forgot" to mention to Laurie that there was a 2km moderate climb from Coominya up to the highway - I figured it was probably best he just did it without getting too stressed out about it beforehand.

With the only hill of the ride dispatched with, we rolled along the highway towards Wivenhoe Dam.  

Laurie had something of a trial by fire today.  He went from not really riding at all, to a 45km ride with me a week ago, to riding 20km along a rail trail earlier in the day, to riding on open highway.  Of course as with any ride on a main road in Queensland, he was treated to the full works - trucks, idiots in lime green commodores passing within 20cm of him, bogans beeping horns and revving engines in his ear, young dickheads in Monster energy drink caps with their ears tucked into their hats hanging out of cars yelling "oiyafuggenpooftacunnnnn!!!".  All pretty standard stuff to me, but no doubt new to him.  He took it all in his stride though, never flinching once and always holding his ground.  We stopped for a drink and the top of a hill and he said with a chuckle "good to see we have a few supporters out on the road today!".  I think I can learn a lot from the way he just laughed it all off.

We had the pleasure of riding over the Wivenhoe Dam wall.  Another novel experience for Laurie, as most people just rip over it in a car at 100km/h and don't get to see just how huge that expanse of water really is.  I kind of got the feeling that Laurie was becoming a bit of a convert to the whole cycle adventure concept.

A short ride from the dam and soon we were back at Fernvale.  Laurie was quickly becoming skilled at pulling awesome poses every time I pointed the camera at something.  Note to self: bring the better camera next time so I can get one of his amazing photo poses into a magazines article.

Aprés velo meal of champions = pie and chocolate milk.  One of the great things about this ride is how often it passes through little towns, and how many of those towns have bakeries.  Pretty sure I finished this ride heavier than I when I started.

I finally did it
I was so pleased with myself at the end of that ride.  The ride itself was easy and reasonably short (about 50km), but the fact that I had actually got back on the bike, made the effort to go somewhere new and spark my interest in cycle touring again was a huge milestone for me.  As an added bonus, my new wrist passed all tests with flying colours - even in my unfit state I had a lot more strength and agility handling the bike than previously.  I definitely came away from Fernvale with a big smile on my face - I was very much "back in the saddle".

The other big bonus of the day was how awesome the southernmost section of the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail is.  I'd read mixed reviews, but after being out there for a day I can safely conclude it's awesome.  Starting under an hour's drive from Brisbane, the Fernvale - Coominya section offers a prefect slice of rail trail experience, including lots of little towns to resupply at, plenty of restored and original rail heritage, and just enough riding challenge to keep it all interesting.  Definitely high on my recommended rides list and I'll most definitely be back.

As I sit here now, I have no more university study left to do - I finished my course yesterday.  It's Saturday night and a huge storm is hammering Brisbane.  Rain is bucketing down and the house is rattling from all the thunder.  There is only one sensible option - grab a map book, sprawl out on the couch and plan my next ride.  

It certainly does feel great to be back.


  1. Great write up Leon. Awesome to see you back out there.
    That bridge is safe to cross. We rode from Ipswich to Esk yesterday, then back to Fervale, up through Brisbane Forest Park then home to Logan today. There are another 3 or 4 bridges between Coominya and Esk. I have done the trail twice now and the Coominya to Esk section is the best bit. On a par with the Linville to Blackbutt section. All the bridges are safe to walk your bike across. You missed the driftwood/debris stuck in the sleepers on that bridge. The flood water got that high last year! Yikes!

    1. Hi Dave,

      That's like an epic ride you did yesterday - I was looking for something to do this coming weekend and I think I'll have a chop at Comminya to Esk, maybe even continue on and overnight up there somewhere. I love the idea of breaking it up overnight at somewhere like Light Line Rd. Do you have a track log of your ride anywhere? Keen to check it out and get some inspiration!



  2. Hey Leon.
    Yes, the log is on Garmin Connect. If you click on the track link on my blog post it should take you to that Garmin Connect page, or search for it by the "Esk to Cornubia" name. All my rides are public.
    There is a locked gate and "No Trespassing" sign at the end of Banks Creek Rd. This is the shanty town. There is usually no one there, but they do seem ok with (polite) cyclists going through their block. Pushing up Whoa Boy will test your patience but is worth it. There is a camping area on the corner of Dundas and Goodes rd that has a water tank and flat area.
    As for heading north, we were originally going to ride to Toogooloowah but ran out of light so we are not sure what the rail trail north of Esk is like. Maybe you could check it out for us? ;)