Flash bikepacking: Canberra – Nowra – Goulburn

With the Araluen Road closed, CyclingGravel has been trying other coast-bound routes. Whilst not exactly a gravel route, the route via Tarago and Nerriga seemed like something to try. Getting there was one thing, getting back another so in the interests of research we travelled back via the Southern Highlands and some gravel there. Whilst the weather was wet and horribly windy, some fun roads were found…..

Day 1: Canberra – Nowra

With a long day ahead, the first goal was to get to Bungendore for breakfast. My preferred way to get there is via Captains Flat Road and Hoskinstown Road, although from northern parts of Canberra it likely is better to come via Bungendore Road and down Smiths Gap. Everytime I ride Hoskinstown Road I’m reminded of the potential of the Molonglo Rail Trail.

From Bungendore the road to Tarago is my least favourite part of the trip. The road itself is mainly ok (with some poor maintenance in parts) and has some good views. It is the traffic volume and limited verge that makes it less fun – it seems to be a well-used route including by local industry: sand mining, Woodlawn mine (now a waste-related bioreactor) and the intermodal train facility delivering waste from Sydney.

After a quick stop in Tarago (snacks and drinks are available at the petrol station, including free homemade cookie with coffee, but having revisited I discovered the Tarago Cafe which is excellent), the road carries significantly less traffic and is a really pleasant ride. The 55km to Nerriga is reasonably swift without being flat – there are a number of descent/ascent combos at river crossings as well as some rolling hills. Nothing too tough, but the photos below of Oallen Ford Road (below) give a sense of the terrain.

After a break in Nerriga for lunch, there is a quick descent on Braidwood Road followed by around 7km of climbing. The average gradient is not high, but there are some bits exceeding 10%. Climbing this hill, however, highlights one of the great advantages of cycling – you see so much more than in a car. At Bulee Gap some of the rock formations are quite spectacular and you also get the chance to see parts of the old Wool Road.

After Nerriga there is also more traffic, but by-and-large there is a modest verge and the traffic has good visibility to pass a cyclist. Once at the top the route is mainly downhill – the last 50km descends over 900m – and can be travelled quite quickly. When so many ways of travelling from the highlands to the coast involve twisting mountain descents, it is a deceptive route when you find after long and fairly straight stretches you have reached the coast near the naval air base, and you cruise into town. In summary: a long day but not particularly tough.

Day 2: Nowra – Goulburn

The back roads from Nowra to Kangaroo Valley are a wonderful way to start the day. I have ridden two ways that avoid Moss Vale Road (which is the main road with plenty of traffic): via Berry and Kangaroo Valley Road (sealed) or via Bugong Road / Mount Scanzi Road (unsealed). Both are recommended, but I really prefer the latter which is how I rode this time.

Starting through North Nowra and then Illaroo Road, the route is sealed with some occasional traffic. Once on Bugong Road (which soon turns to gravel) traffic is rare and you have the route pretty much to yourself. Travelling through areas that were bushfire affected in recent years shows how strong bush regrowth can be, but the fires have also opened up escarpment views.

The Mount Scanzi Road climb is a 2km gravel stretch averaging over 10% gradient, with a few stretches at 15%. The view at the top is great, followed by a rapid descent back down and then into Kangaroo Valley. Here it is a worth a stop (eg for coffee & breakfast) before heading up the escarpment.

Heading out of Kangaroo Valley, there is a 7km long 600m elevation climb to look forward to. It actually is quite a nice climb where you can just change down and churn it out – I have to confess I took it pretty cruisily. It was pretty low-stress with traffic easily passing when it was convenient. I expect that at some times the traffic might be much worse, but given the low speeds involved it seemed like it would be ok on the climb most of the time.

At the top of the hill through to Fitzroy Falls, however, the road is high speed and has limited verge. Thankfully, it is only a 4km run to get to the Falls car park. You are allowed to wheel your bike to the falls (not ride!), and this makes a good place for a rest stop (although the cafe is disused).

Leaving Fitzroy Falls, the road improves after the Sheepwash Road intersection and offered some great views. Unfortunately on the morning I was riding it was showering and windy so I blasted through as best I could and on to a break in Exeter.

From here, I decided that I would push on to Goulburn and discovered a backroad highlight – Canyonleigh Road / Carrick Road. If you have ever wondered if there is a viable route from Goulburn to places like Moss Vale and Bowral without significant time on the Hume or the verge-less Highland Way / Penrose Road then wonder no more. This is a great route. Sealed at the northern end until Canyonleigh, the gravel road then continues for around 25km until becoming sealed again. The photos above show some of the road-like gravel – in some other parts it remains smooth but is more track-like as you pass through some gates (public road through private property). There are a couple of low river crossings that might be quite damp after lots of rain, but that is really the only word of caution. I am very much looking forward to a return trip.

At the end of Carrick Road there is 5km stretch on the Hume Highway – not great but not terrible (with the exception of one well sign-posted bridge with no verge) – before the exit to Goulburn. After a blustery, damp and cold day, a warm shower was most welcome.

Day 3: Goulburn – Canberra

At 7am in the morning the weather in Goulburn was a balmy 0 degrees (feels like -8), winds >50km/h (and gusts >80km/h) and wet. Ouch. With this in mind, I headed home directly, or so I thought.

I had planned to do the reverse of the Canberra – Goulburn leg detailed in my previous flashpack. Unfortunately, I was so eager to change my exposure to wind and rain that I took a slightly early turn from Currawang Road into Taradale Road, rather than the intended Lucky Pass Road. Seeing that this seemed to be a road through to the highway near Collector, rather than turn back after a few kilometres I pressed on as the route seemed to be a viable public road.

Don’t bother with this route. Ever. Eventually, it becomes difficult to understand what is the road vs the farmer’s paddock trails, and they certainly don’t seem to follow any map. Stick to Lucky Pass Road!

After a warm-up at Some Cafe in Collector, I decided to travel home via the Federal Highway – both new on Lake George and old (Hadlow Dr, starting at Weereewa lookout). Whilst not nearly as scenic and fun as heading home via Gundaroo, if you are pushed for time or looking for an easier ride it is a good route.

Tips, recommendations and things I’d change

This trip I tried to be quite flexible. I booked somewhere to stay the first night in Nowra the night before I travelled, but after that I knew that the weather was not going to be great so I figured it out as I went. Stops in Exeter and staying in Goulburn were not originally the plan!

Cafes, pubs and other things

  • The Gathering is my favourite Bungendore stop. For breakfast and lunch it has always been good, and its opening at 8am is perfect for breakfast when embarking on a long day’s ride.
  • The best part of trips like this is stopping where you would normally blast past on the drive. Nerriga Hotel is a great example of this: I’ve driven past but never stopped. I enjoyed a beer and hot meal, and there is a large outside area at the back that I had no idea existed – this would be great on a warm sunny day.
  • Recommended by the folk at my Nowra hotel, South Yeast Brewing Co was a great find. I love the explosion of independent breweries that you can visit, and this great crew sometimes organise food vans for evening meals – seemingly Fridays and Saturdays. Checkout South Yeast on instagram for details.
  • The General is a great coffee / breakfast stop in Kangaroo Valley – worth a stop after climbing up from Nowra.

Things I’d think about doing differently

I’d go when there is better weather.

Other recommendations and tips

This trip taught me the benefits of being flexible. With the weather being quite difficult I decided to press on to Goulburn at the end of day two and organise somewhere to stay on arrival. Whilst this won’t always work when there are limited accomodation options in a location, the flexibility to respond to actual and predicted weather made this a more pleasant trip.

  • In Nowra I stayed at Pleasant Way River Lodge. Quiet and comfortable, this fairly standard (but refreshed) motor inn was differentiated by the incredibly friendly and helpful hosts. It was their recommendation to visit South Yeast Brewing – which was a highlight of the trip.
  • I was very pleasantly surprised at the massive room and quality of fit out at Quest Goulburn. Arriving wet and tired, the check-in staff recommended a ground floor room so I could easily take my bike to the room. Very quiet, an easy walk to lots of eating options, and whilst more expensive than a basic motel room it was very much worth the extra $40.

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