(MTB Article) Apollo Landing. MTB Off The Great Ocean Road
By Michael Lancaster
Tel: 0405 759236
Our quest for the best mountain biking Australia has to offer had brought us to Apollo Bay, a beautiful seaside town at the heart of The Great Ocean Road just two hours outside of Melbourne. It is a strikingly beautiful seaside idyll that many visit just for the scenery. It is famous for its golden beaches and its world class surfing, but not for its mountain biking. But behind the vista, away from the glistening water and golden sands, deep in the forests that surround the town on almost every side are trails that until recently, have lain undiscovered and unused by riders. This was the treasure we sought. We wanted to get down and dirty on these virgin trails deep inside the rainforests of the Otway National Park.
The forest rises up steeply on every side of the bay from the back of the town forming a stunning rich green backdrop. The dense Blue Gum and Mountain Ash forests hide a labyrinth of trails that until recently have been the preserve of horse riders and four wheel drive vehicles. We had contacted Otway Expeditions, a small company who are passionate about opening up the Otways to riders. The company specialises in tailored off-road tours and with their deep knowledge and genuine passion for the park and its trails they were ideal for us outsiders to get a taste of what the Otways had to offer. We were being driven up to a place called Beech Forest, high up on the mountain ridge above Apollo Bay. The ride was to head down through the seemingly impenetrable forest and eventually, after 25 to 30k of uninterrupted down-hilling, arrive back in Apollo Bay. As I had never ridden in a genuine rainforest before I really didn’t know what to expect.
We had persuaded a couple of friends to accompany us on the ride and as the coach drove up the increasingly rough forest track, and as the light faded and the forest began to close in around us, I began to get flashbacks to another occasion where I had persuaded other people to join in my adventures. Many years ago, in Port El Cantau, a bustling port in Tunisia, I had persuaded two complete strangers to join myself, my daughter and an ex-girlfriend on a boat tour. The two older ladies had been pondering taking the trip on a large beautiful catamaran to see the dolphins that swam off the coast. I persuaded them (as I had done on this occasion), that it would be a life changing experience. Unfortunately, less than a mile out of port, a squall blew up, the boats sails ripped like paper and we began to take on water. The inexperienced crew turned the motor against the wind with what was left of the sails still up. The force of the storm ripped the back off the boat and sent the motor to the bottom of the sea. In a panic, they threw down the anchor, still without taking down the sails which again hastened the boats demise. One of the crew then jumped overboard abandoning both us and the ship. The boat had no radio, no flares and no life jackets. We were left stranded, anchored to the seabed with wave after wave crashing down on top of us for what seemed like an eternity. We were rescued, eventually, by a local powerboat. But the look on those old ladies faces as I helped them navigate between the banging hulls of the two boats will stay with me forever. As I glanced across the bus at the excited faces of our friends, I preyed I hadn’t inadvertently done it again! As one of our guides turned the conversation to technique and the use of your chocolate foot I began to feel a little more comfortable.
We stopped in a clearing deep in the forest and as we jumped off the bus we plunged straight into thick deep mud. Although the mud made me feel at home, I hadn’t expected it. I don’t know which bit of ‘rainforest’ I didn’t understand but for some reason, it wasn’t what I had anticipated. As the boys from Otway Expeditions took us through our paces, it quickly became apparent that these guys knew their Onions. They explained the trails and what we could expect and they soon had us riding confidently downhill. From the off, mud was the defining feature of the ride. Within minutes the guys with v-brakes were struggling and even though my bike was dialled in before the ride, everything quickly began to struggle and stick. There was nothing for it but to ignore the granny rings, put the gears up top and bomb for all I was worth! There was no time to take in the forest’s flora and fauna as the corners came thick and fast. Carving them was a constant gamble as the sliding mud demanded complete concentration. As you banked out of the corners the track would suddenly dry leaving you struggling for grip on the death cookies with tyres fat with mud. Although the trails were more than satisfying, they were far from virgin. Quite a bit of the trail was cut up by the four wheeled drivers who had previously had the trails to themselves. At times there was no choice but to dive into the deep gullies they had carved and hope they weren’t to deep to pedal out of. Ben, our guide, had mentioned Leaches and I wasn’t sure at this point if he was joking. The flying mud made it impossible to see the trail properly, with or without my riding glasses, but occasionally, out of the corner of my eye, I could see the Blue Gum Trees stretching out for mile after mile below. It was the first clue to how high up we actually were. Being deep inside the forest you really had no clue. As we sped downward the forest enclosed upon us from all sides and as we went faster and faster it began to resemble an aqua ride at the swimming baths, but with wheels! I knew we had descended heavily, but how far was anyone’s guess.
As we stopped for an unnecessary breather ( I hadn’t turned a cog for over a mile) at the edge of the forest, I surveyed the valley below. The mountains went on for ever, valley after valley of uninterrupted rainforest. It was strikingly beautiful! With typical Aussie understatement, Ben, pointed deep into the bush. “Can you see that down there”, he said. We all peered into the impenetrable forest. About thirty feet down the steep cliff was what looked like a car or a trailer. “Yeh, once you go over there, there’s no coming back, he said before adding, “Although, we have had a couple of school kids go over and they were all right”. We all looked at him with a universal look of horror. “Aah, the bush is so dense it breaks yer fall.” He smiled broadly, “So if you go over, spread yourself and you’ll be right”. We backed away from the edge en masse. As we continued on our way, I restrained my carving and centred the corners a little more.
After a while we hit a good gravel track with ample carving and good opportunities for taking air. The trail eventually spat us out on a B road a couple of miles outside of Apollo Bay. The feel of the tarmac flat beneath our tyres and the sudden lack of an incline came as a shock to the system. It acted as an immediate depressant. I was itching to go straight back up and do the whole ride all over again. My energy levels were good and my adrenaline was still pumping as the ride had been almost entirely down hill. I think we were all desperate for another fix. Apparently, on club weekends the Otway Mountain Bike Club operate a ferry service to the top of the trails allowing you to ride down as many times as you want. I would imagine it’s a busy bus!
Later that day, as we strolled down Apollo Bay’s main street looking like mud monsters from a low budget horror movie, the children pointed and their parents stared. Our filthy appearance was jarringly at odds with the beach chic and bronzed flesh that surrounded us. But, as we creaked and crumbled in the afternoon sun, we all agreed, we would wear our filth like a badge of honour. The mud was our medal and possibly the best souvenir a rider could have! Unfortunately, the restauranteurs didn’t agree and as we trudged from one disapproving waitress to the next our lunch proved harder to nail than the ride.
Otway Expeditions: http://otwayexpeditions.tripod.com/id1.html
Otway MTB Club: http://moshroost.tripod.com/index.html