The Goldfields Track (aka the Great Dividing Trail)
by Andy Hewat 25-27 March 2011
I looked up and the harsh focussed beam of my headlamp scoured the pile of debris before me. It was at least two stories high and totally impassable, a conglomeration of trees and rubbish swept up by floodwaters and deposited on this bend in the creek. It was impossible to imagine the forces that had created such a mess. Perhaps I should have taken notice of the ‘Track Closed’ sign. Perhaps I should have checked out some of this trail in daylight. Perhaps a lot of things, but the cold, stark reality of the situation was now I was stuck with no hope of finding the path through, across or around this mess in the dark. I wandered up the dry creek bed until I met another similar but smaller mess barring my way. I gave up and climbed back to the gravel road and the sign. It was dark. I had been running for over 30 hours and was desperate to get into the nearby town of Creswick before everything closed. I was hungry and now getting cold. Decision time. I looked at my map through bleary eyes and with a mosquito buzzing in my ear. The official track was supposed to join the highway in another 3km anyhow. Solved, I would double back a kilometre and follow a dirt road out onto the highway and then run into town and try to get some dinner. It would add a couple of kilometres but the road would be faster. I had no choice, the official path was closed anyhow. From Creswick I still had 43km to go and heading into my second night without sleep I was keen to refuel before facing the last big leg to Ballarat.
I found the highway and picked up the pace. My pack was light but my legs had 175km of continuous trail kilometres in them. I kept looking at my watch. I didn’t know Creswick at all but was certain it was small and likely not to have many options for food this late. I craved hot chips. I was running hard. Flat out really, probably only 5:30min/km pace but under the circumstances it felt like a sprint. If I missed the shops at Creswick it would be muesli bars for dinner. After muesli bars for lunch and afternoon tea. It could be a long night.
I passed the familiar Goldfields Track sign pointing down to the Lake where I would have come out had the creek track not been closed. Finally the 60km/hr road sign that signalled the edge of town. It was close to 8:30pm. I had a bad feeling and hunger made me run harder. Lights, buildings. Suddenly I was in the township and it was even smaller than I thought. This is not looking good. I turned into what must be the main street and there was little to see. I stopped outside the only takeaway food shop but it was dark inside. Two ladies talking on the footpath asked me what I was looking for. Food, any sort, preferably hot. They had just closed this shop and said my best bet was the restaurant next door.
I slipped off my headlamp and cap and wandered in. It wasn’t full but all the patrons turned and looked quizzically at me dressed in lycra and carrying trekking poles. I was sweating profusely from the ‘sprint’ into town. My heart was still pounding and my legs quivering a little. The young waitress came up and I asked if there was any chance of getting something to eat. She replied that the kitchen had just closed. I’m sure she read the disappointment in my face as she suggested she would go and check with the chef. I clung to that shimmer of hope. The warmth and the food smells inside the restaurant were doing little to allay my hunger.
She came back and said he would serve me. I’m sure he had no idea how much that meant at the time. I grabbed a couple of cans of coke from the fridge and found a table. I tried to stay clear of other diners as I was well aware that I hadn’t showered since yesterday. The hot dinner and the warm restaurant were the perfect end for my day of toil.
But stopping suddenly, then the food, the warmth, the tiredness, the leg fatigue all worked on me. I didn’t want to go back out there. It was cold and windy. I was getting really tired. I knew I would end up having to sleep on the side of the track at some point. That didn’t overly concern me but the possibility of a bed had crept into my psyche. Why not? Suddenly I really didn’t want to run through another night. Not in the cold. Not alone. Not tonight. I asked the waitress about motels and she told me there was one down the street. I emptied the bottle of table water into my camelbak and grabbed another can of coke just in case I couldn’t get a bed and ventured back out into the now bitterly cold night wind. With my fingers crossed.
How did I end up out here on a Saturday night? Who’s idea was this? I had recently failed in my attempt to run the Australian Alps Walking Track solo and unsupported. While wallowing in self-pity, Trail Runner Aus/NZ magazine Editor, Chris Ord suggested I go and try run the Goldfields Track. Never heard of it but you know what they say about falling off horses. Just look for a smaller horse. This could be the right panacea. The Goldfields Track follows a series of parks through the old gold mining towns of Bendigo, Castlemaine, Daylesford, Creswick and Ballarat before finishing on the summit of Mt Buninyong. Despite living less than an hour from the southern terminus of the track, I had never heard of it. So with just a weeks notice, site unseen, I loaded my pack, grabbed the official trail maps and headed to Bendigo.
Why is it I love to set myself up for failure? What was I thinking? 209km of trail. Only reliable water would be in the towns. Travel light: no tent or sleeping bag. I could curl up on the side of the track if needed. I carried 3 litres of water and enough energy bars to keep me moving between towns where I hoped to buy some real food en route. As I stood still damp with sweat and shivering in the main street and the cold dark night closed in around me, I felt a dramatic sense of déjà-vu sweep over me.
The motel had one room left. I had a credit card. We had a deal. Phew, what a lifesaver. I ordered the porridge for breakfast and went for a much-needed shower. Understatement. Having no spare clothes I had to wear my rain gear around the room until climbing into bed and crashing out. The 11 hour meals and sleep break would punch a big hole in my time for the end-to-end but this run was just about finishing. And enjoying the ride.
Bendigo railway station is the northern terminus of the Goldfield Track. My wife dropped me there at 11am on Friday morning after a 3-hour drive from home. I was surprised how easy it was to follow the trail through the suburbs with clear signs on every corner. The dedicated maps (3 to cover the whole trip) were good but the 1:100,000 scale and the aerial photos with road overlay was fairly useless in the townships. This led to problems entering and exiting some of the other towns. On the track, though, the signage was fantastic and only a couple of poorly angled posts and one blatantly wrong arrow out of 200km was better than expected.
Even before leaving the outskirts of Bendigo I was in parkland and running smooth trail. Overall, I was impressed at how much of the track was off road and pleasantly surprised how much was singletrack. The first 30km out of Bendigo follows an open aqueduct. As I warmed up I settled into a steady pace on the flat wide, winding track. Marvelling at some of the old infrastructure I couldn’t believe the scale of the engineering feat that produced an essentially gravity fed watercourse over such a long distance. At one point the channel disappeared into a hill and re-emerged on the other side and the original bluestone blocks were still there 150 years later. Men died blasting that tunnel.
This trail was built as a monument to the pioneers who settled these plains. The path followed is based on that used for the famous pilgrimage of gold miners as they flocked to Ballarat in the lead up to the historic Eureka Stockade in 1854. Almost ironically I found out a short time before my own weekend journey that my maternal great, great, great, great grandparents had followed this very path to join the democratic uprising. My great x4 grandmother was actually one of the three women who sewed the famous Southern Cross flag that flew over the Eureka Stockade. I now had a personal connection for my pilgrimage.
Leaving the aqueduct I climbed for the first time into the Mt Alexander Regional Park and the manna gums. The map showed a camping ground so I was hoping to top up water here but never saw the promised toilet block, which must be off the trail. The cool weather meant less pressure on my water reserves but I now looked like having to go the full 58km from Bendigo to Castlemaine on the one 3-litre bladder. Not recommended.
Massive erosion from the record spring and summer rains had eaten away much of the track. Cavernous washouts in places 3 metres deep, carved into the old 4WD track. The massive underground root network criss-crossed through the wide cleft in the earth like a maze of spider’s webs. Dropping down the other side of the hill and a huge landslide had torn a massive crater in the hillside. Trees and rocks were strewn about like children’s toys.
Dropping back below the tree-line the trail followed a narrow, 2 metres wide ‘path’ fenced in by barbed wire on either side. This linear passage between the tracts of private land was at least ½ a kilometre and dead straight. The grass was long and in places the ground was boggy and under water. I was worried about snakes. I emerged onto a gravel road with soaked and muddy feet but no sign of any snakes.
The track now followed some gravel back-roads, threading under the Calder Highway before back into forest on the approach to Castlemaine. I was getting hungry and the blackberry bushes were beckoning. I luurve blackberries. The actual berries, that is. I hate the bushes. They are insidious feral weeds that choke our forests. But the berries I just love to eat. And I find it difficult to run past a bush in fruit. When you have been eating muesli bars all day fresh berries are irresistible. When I came across a vine heavily laden I would simply have to stop and run the gauntlet of the prickly thorns to extract as many of the fresh juicy berries as possible. After stopping a couple of times, one such feeding frenzy went horribly wrong. My fingertips were already stained purple from the juices as I plucked and popped the little bundles into my mouth rapid fire. Until one went ‘crunch’ and the most repulsive metallic taste invaded my buds. I spat it out, too late to avoid the permeating stench from ruining the snack. I looked at the next one on the vine and noticed one of those little Spanish millipedes embedded in a berry. Eewww yuck. I rinsed out my mouth with water in a pathetic attempt to dislodge the foul flavour and headed off back down the track.
I was in the Castlemaine Diggings National Heritage Park and reminders of the past were everywhere. None more impressive though than the massive brickwork remnants of the Garfield Waterwheel. Almost like some Mayan or Aztec ruin, the two huge stone buttresses that had supported the 21 metre diameter water wheel were still standing some 120 years after they were built.
After skirting the little village of Chewton without actually visiting it, I was on the outskirts of Castlemaine at last. Almost 60km in the first 6 hours. The sun was getting low and I was getting hungry. I hit a gravel bike path passing behind some houses. This meant I was getting close. But I couldn’t resist a wild pear tree in the scrub and hunted around until I found a near ripe pear. It was tart, but like the berries, a welcome respite from the muesli bars.
As I left the bike path the Goldfields Track post turned me right onto sealed road. I followed this, running solidly trying to get into the town before dark. Suddenly I was heading away from houses and back into farmland. At a major crossroad there was no Track signpost and my heart sank. I was off the Track. I turned and ran back nearly 2km to the last post. And started again down the road trying to work out where I had gone wrong. Finally I pulled out my GPS and could see how close I was to the town centre so headed in that direction. Turns out that post should have pointed left and I was only a block away from where I should have been. I ran into town with my headlamp on, now tired and very hungry.
I found a little pizza shop and put in my order then crossed the road to the supermarket. I turned a few heads walking around town on a Friday night in my tights, pack and trekking poles. I bought 4 litres of water and some iced coffee and went back for my pizza. I devoured half and the guys wrapped the other half up for me to go. They pointed me back towards the track and I headed back into the dark. It was cold but my belly was full and my pack was loaded so I was ready to face the night.
I walked to the outskirts of town still eating pizza. I was a weird contrast to world around me. People were dressed up and headed to parties and restaurants in pairs and groups. I was dressed down and headed back into the bush all alone. I felt strangely at peace with this process. I was doing what I loved and would not have traded places with any of them. With the well-marked exit from suburbia I was soon back on singletrack winding through dense forest alongside the Poverty Gully Race, a disused watercourse. The twisting, turning, narrow track would have been a hoot in the daylight but at night it was a maze of spider’s webs.
I hate spiders. Well, actually I hate spider’s webs. I don’t really mind the spiders themselves. And I admire their spectacular architectural work. But not across the trail. And not every 5 metres. And not golden-orb spider’s webs that are laced with titanium. I kid you not they were so strong that several times I was pulled to a stop when I ran into them. I actually had one web rip my trekking pole off the back of my pack where it had been tied and then it dangled, suspended mid air. Another time a stone hit me between the eyes. It was attached to a web I had run through and as I moved forward the stone catapulted up into my face. I have never seen so many extensive and ambitious webs. They reached metres across the wide-open track. Clearly their intent was to in fact ‘catch me one of them humans’! And catch they did. I spent most the night dodging and weaving to avoid that horrible feeling of web wrapped around your face. The worst part was not knowing where the spider was. And these babies were big spiders. Think ‘Lord Of The Rings’ or ‘Harry Potter’ type spiders. Huge. Their bulbous bellies were close to golf-ball proportions. Consequently my night was reduced to a walk as running became impossible without continually being snared in webs. As much as I hated to damage their labouriously created meticulous works, I often had to tear a path through them with my trekking pole. Mental note: next time run with someone tall and make them go in front.
Much of my night was spent walking. Despite regular Track posts, the trail was often difficult to find amongst the leaf litter of the forest floor. And the arrows weren’t reflective so you had to get close to see them. And of course there were the spiders. While the darkness hid many of the trailside historical sites, I still encountered obvious mining ruins. In the dead of night the decaying structures were particularly eerie.
With the rising sun on day 2 came some of the best running of the whole weekend. After a long stretch of gravel road I was on endless singletrack that hugged the walls of shallow river valleys through lush green forests with tree ferns and babbling brooks. The Track followed a big arc to the west around Hepburn Springs and then continued south again towards Daylesford. Despite being tired from running through the night, I was energised by new day the picture-postcard trail that unfolded before me. This is what I run trail for. I ran like a kid let loose from school at the end of term.
Suddenly I popped out of the bush onto the Midland Highway. This was a major junction in the trail. It was about one km into the official trailhead and then another km from there into the township. I desperately needed water and more importantly I wanted some hot food. Decision made.
Daylesford is a picturesque little hamlet very popular with trendy tourists and semi-retired baby-boomers. And with that goes good eateries. I wasn’t fussy and picked the first, ordered and sat out front at a table on the footpath. I smelled pretty bad and despite assurances from the lady serving me I wasn’t going to spoil breakfast for everyone else inside. And besides, it meant I kept my Spot and GPS active. I repacked my pack while waiting and got out the last map. An encouraging milestone. The food was lovely but I could have easily eaten twice as much. I headed for the supermarket and bakery. I refilled with water, a sticky bun and a couple of iced coffees to go. And then the long slog back around the picturesque lake to the trail junction. An extra 5km and a couple of hours but I was refuelled for the next long leg to Creswick.
It was now late morning and the combination of a full belly and no sleep suddenly made me very drowsy. So much so that I saw a patch of grass beside the trail and just curled up. I was asleep in seconds and awake again merely 5 minutes later. The power of a power-nap. The Tack was an old 4WD road and I was nearly run down by a guy in horse and cart training two trotters. There was a lot of undulation that meant a lot of walking. I seemed to lose track of time and ran in a little world of my own. One state park blended with the next. I had been going for well over 24 hours now and was feeling in-synch with the trail. I knew people were following my progress via my GPS Spot tracker. I would get an occasional text message when in range. But it had become just me and this trail and the job of getting to the end of it. Suddenly all of that changed.
As I left the wombat State Forest I got a text message: ‘you OK, seem to be heading north’. It was Phil, and he was right, I was heading away from my destination. But what was worse was for the first time I was running on bitumen. The forest gave way to road and looking at the map I had a huge chunk of it to cover before rejoining the bush. The sun was getting low in the afternoon sky and soon I was running right into it. I put my head down and really poured on the pace, resolving to just get this over.
I ate and drank and ran hard for over two hours of roadway before finally I was on a dead-end gravel road. Through a gate and I was faced with three road options. And no familiar trail marker. And my map didn’t show any of this. I chose the high road but soon it was arching the wrong way. I went back and tried the low road. Uncertainly and again chasing fading light I ran on until I finally hit trail and the Goldfield Track marker again. Glad to be back in the bush the light was fading and I was keen to get into Creswick to get some dinner before everything shut. I pushed hard, putting off stopping to put on warmer clothes and my headlamp. And then there I was looking at the big pile of rubble in the creek bed in the dark before my sprint down the road to end day 2.
Day three and on the home stretch. Well rested and well fed I was going to finish this thing. On paper just 43km to go. That was basically a marathon. Averaging 5km/hr as I had done Friday and Saturday I could be finished in 9 hrs. With a slow-down factor I figured on 10 hrs. Starting fresh the first couple of kilometres were back along the highway. Then off into the bush once more. Again I was surprised how much was singletrack. But there was some gravel roads and 4WD tracks.
Reaching Slaty Creek campground and I was confronted with another “Track Closed” sign. A detour was mapped out and I spent some time familiarising myself with where I had to go and headed off down the gravel road. I made good time on the undulating road before it deteriorated into a logging track and I was in pine plantation. A maze of tracks meant I had to pull out my GPS to work out where the real track was meant to be and soon enough the familiar little yellow marker posts reappeared.
I could tell I was getting closer to Ballarat as I met walkers and mountain bikers on the track. Then a runner was coming towards me wearing a 6 Foot Track t-shirt. It was John Lindsay, now living in Ballarat, out for his long Sunday run in training for Comrades. Turns out he had been following my progress online and figured he might as well run out to greet me. After running solo since Friday it was a pleasant change to have some company. It had now been 48 hours since I started and my senses were getting a little furry, despite the night of sleep.
Coming into the streets of Ballarat I realised having John with me had picked up my pace. I stopped and stripped off my thermal and windshirt, both drenched with sweat. I rang my wife to arrange a pick-up as she would have an hours drive to get to the finish. The markers through the town were a little tricky to find but finally we were at the train station that used to be the southern terminus of the Track. In true Ballarat style, it is a classic piece of 19th century architecture. Making our way out of town the markers again proved elusive and at one point we did a big block back to where we had been trying to find the correct path.
After following a creek out of town, the Track pretty much followed roads now all the way to Buninyong. Having John along took my mind off the hard pavement and kept the pace up considerably. Threading through the small hamlet of Buninyong, again we missed a marker. I was tired but was not going to come all this way then cut corners at the end. So back we went and found the little post we missed. 200km clicked over and my legs didn’t miss a beat. But I was feeling the fatigue and looking up I kept seeing the mountain and we didn’t seem to be getting any closer.
Crossing the highway and onto a little lane through some paddocks and we were climbing steadily up Mt Buninyong at last. Like so many long ultras I have run, sometimes when I approach the finish euphoria sweeps over me. I was tired and fairly drained emotionally. I reflected internally on what it had taken to get here. A little collage of the weekend highlights played through my mind. That damn long road section, eating cobwebs, huge spiders, wallabies in the night, flat fast bush track, fascinating relics and amazing architecture, miles of blissful singletrack through green river canyons. But above all else a sense of fulfilment, a sense of achievement, a sense of satisfaction washed over me. John let me lead up the final pitch of singletrack and we emerged into a small clearing with a carpark and my wife’s car. I looked around and realised this was it. I had finished. I had run all the way from Bendigo on the Goldfields Track. 209km in 53hrs and 21minutes.
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