My First Bikepacking Trip – Bunyip State Forest
Words & photos by Anthony Campana
There is an ongoing joke in my friendship circle that my physical travel experiences includes the tiny suburb of Coburg, our family beach house on the Mornington Peninsula and my first camping experience in my early 20s to Mallacoota (which was fully catered and during the day in an air conditioned mud brick building). So when I decided to undertake my first ever bike packing trip to Bunyip state forest it was met with a few laughs and crazy talk.
Two years ago, I had ZERO knowledge that cycling anywhere more than local commuting was even a thing let alone camping with a tent that you transported by bike on your handlebars. My two close mates Chad (an actual “Chad” on the bike) and Jacob (think blacksmithing, permaculture and choosing to walk to Sydney) showed me the world of bikepacking (or whatever you want to call it). I was very sceptical and intrigued at the same time. The discussion of how the journey can be more of the reason to go away than the destination fascinated me. Not to mention the budget approach, a solid amount of encouragement to challenge myself out of my comfort zone, and a forced day off work was a recipe to set me off on my first trip.
The prep was almost just as much of an anxious yet exciting experience as the trip itself! I obtained secondhand gear from friends and family in the two weeks leading up to the trip. I learnt how to use a Trangia, set up my tent in the dark, did multiple rides with a loaded bike locally and tried packaged instant Pho for the first time. The plan, a VERY relaxed 90km loop over two days to Bunyip state forest starting and ending at Pakenham station.
First Lesson in Route-planning
With some early morning messages from parents and friends, my location sharing active on my phone, two panniers, tent strapped to my handlebars (without a dry bag) and my coffee machine packed i was on the 8.00am train from Fawkner destined for Pakenham (which i only discovered the location of a week before). Jumping off the fancy trains in the east I was on the road heading towards Mortimer Picnic ground, while only 30km away it felt like I was about to start the Tour de France. Weather was great, a slightly fresh autumn morning with no need for a jacket.
I used RidewithGPS to set a route and being my innocent self trusted its auto planning to my destination. About 15km in I came to a sign saying “no thru access” but a gate ahead was open and I could see car tracks descending down the path, so I decided to ride on thru. Down and down and down the hill I went, again to another sign. It was too late to head back up the long hill and fearing the hike-a-bike situation I would be in, I pressed on.
Then a noise I was not expecting in the least hit my ears. A dog bark that made my heart instantly race well above the BPM it was designed for. A 2 foot tall black and white dog was running at full speed towards me, I was in flight mode, pedalling like I was running from death itself (no kidding, the image of a farmer with a shotgun ready to fire came into my head more than once). I reached a house and at this point was trapped, dog behind me and gate in front. I rushed to open the gate and not look back, hoping to find freedom. But the dog network had been alerted and I was faced with 2 large farm dogs barking 1 foot away from me. I froze, not knowing what to do.
A deep booming voice called the name of the two dogs and I was saved. The kind soul grumpily gestured towards the gate and I ran with my bike with my heart in my throat. Feeling like I had just escaped death.
Ride, Camp, Relax
I stopped for lunch 10 minutes down the road (peanut butter and bread) slightly shaken but determined to push to my campsite. I saw the sign welcoming me to Bunyip and discovered the physical meaning of “corrugated roads” (35mm tyres at high PSI don’t end well). Cycling with a desire to reach my campsite I found a small off road path with a sign pointing towards it! A short hop skip and a pedal and I was home, in the open space of Mortimer campground. Putting my bike down I checked the time and it was only 1.00pm! What was I going to do for the next 9 hours?! Well it involved doing what people do I guess, reading, making a fire, getting bitten by mosquitoes, realising my desire for mobile reception to play Genshin Impact. I was asleep by 10.00pm, slightly worried about my phone’s battery life and unsure what the next day would bring.
The next day rolled around and all my fears of my first solo camping trip faded away. Awoken by the sound of laughing kookaburras, and the light patter of rain on my tent. I roll over and start my stove prepping a caffettiera while reading a book. It hits 10.00am and the rain is getting heavier, forcing myself to get moving. I pack up the tent and all my wet gear, being so grateful that I am on my way home today. The route was through Gembrook, and down to Pakenham, 40km. By this point it is bucketing down… I am only wearing my water resistant jacket and wool gloves, my phone touch screen isn’t responding and battery is on 40%.
The nerves are kicking back in and I so desperately wanted to be home. I make it out of the state forest and can see signs to Gembrook! Heading in I can smell the rain all around me but a hint of freshly baked hot cross buns goods in town. I instantly get off and walk into the cafe order the usual with a buttered hot cross bun. It is heaven.. Half way through I ring one of my supports, my Mum. While she was probably more nervous then I was, I can remember the feeling of talking to her and expressing how happy I was to be where I was and her encouraging words washing over me giving me the push to finish the day off.
I’m back on the bike and everything is wet.. I’m muddy, my bike gears sound like someone’s nails on a blackboard. But loving it.
Knowing that I was getting where I needed to and pushing through to that warm train ride home was more than enough of a motivator. I‘m following the Puffing Billy Rail Trail and am greeted with the joyful steam horn as it passes me. Upon reaching the last 10km I get a text from my aunty who knows I have been out and am greeted with the invitation to say that she has made fresh Gnocchi. I text back and am instantly in new spirits. Nothing can stop me getting home faster now and I finally make it back to the train. Muddy, tired and so hungry. 2 hours later I’m sitting around a white lace covered table in Fawkner surrounded by family and more Gnocchi than I could possibly eat.
Take away: that small adventurous side of you that wants to get out there, let it blossom. Take one small step. But you don’t have to do it alone even if the trip is a solo one, lean into your support and share the experience with them through reflections and stories (and Gnocchi if possible).
Here’s the route adapted to take only public roads: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/45490076