My children have grown to associate all rail trails with long bike rides. Like many cycling enthusiasts, my Darling Hubs and I bought the bike trailer, then the tow-along attachments until finally, and to our considerable relief, our boys grasped the fine art of self-pedalled propulsion. The forgiving paths of rail trails were a godsend, as the children learned to wobble their way to wheel independence.
Fast-forward a few years and Teenage Son Number Two remains remarkably adept at finding trees and aiming his bike at them, even on the most unobjectionable of road surfaces. Fortunately for him - and his bike - there is no shortage of rail trails to explore in Victoria, and they have much to recommend them.
I've been wanting to cycle the Grand Ridge Rail Trail for aeons and the planets finally aligned for us during the last school holidays, facilitating the first family bike ride in months. At 13 kilometres in length, the Grand Ridge Rail Trail is fairly short, as rail trails go. It is part of a former branch line known as The Mirboo North railway line, completed in 1886. It branched from the main Gippsland line at Morwell and ran for 32 kilometres, before terminating at Mirboo North. The branch line closed in 1974 and the Grand Ridge Rail Trail was constructed on part of the original route, between Mirboo North and Boolarra, in the 1990s.
Boolarra, the Gunai/Kurnai word for plenty, used to be a thriving agricultural and commercial centre, with a population equal to Morwell's a century ago. Its main industries were sawmilling and butter production. Timber is still harvested in the area but from pine plantations instead of native blackwood forest. It's still possible to get a sense of the cool-temperate rainforest which once covered the area, especially at the Mirboo North end of the trail.
Regenerating dry sclerophyll forest, pine plantations visible in the distance
Mirboo North is considerably larger than its kissing cousin at the other end of the track and boasts a supermarket, brewery, pub and a number of cafes/restaurants. If the weather is good then picnicking is a possibility at either end of the trail, which has parkland, playgrounds, barbecue shelters and toilet facilities at its start and finish.
If you have rusty or novice cycling companions, it's a good idea to start your ride at Mirboo North, as the trail gently descends for most of its length. We parked our car at Baromi Park, site of the town's monthly country market, which takes place on the last Saturday of every month. The compacted-gravel trail leads east, past the former station - now repurposed as a children's playgroup - and it isn't long before the track gently descends out of the town and into remnant eucalypt forest.
There are scenic surprises galore along the trail's length, from pastoral panoramas and patches of wetland to expanses of native woodland - a mixture of dry sclerophyll forest and temperate rainforest. Pine plantations can be glimpsed at intervals but a tree-lined trail and sections of high embankment mostly shroud them from view.
We were surprised to find ourselves alone on the trail, apart from one group of four walkers, which made the whole experience very immersive. There were no noisy main roads nearby to drown the sound of birdsong, and our senses were bombarded by the scent of sweet eucalyptus sap and the sight of indigenous flora in full bloom throughout our ride.
A trail highlight used to be the sight of The Big Tree, a 61-metre eucalyptus which stood near Darlimurla, at the route's halfway point. Sadly, the tree, a mountain grey gum which had survived threats from logging and natural calamities for 320 years, was destroyed in the bushfires of February 2009. The same fires damaged the trail, resulting in its temporary closure, whilst the route was repaired. Bridges may have been burned but funding was secured for their replacement, allowing the trail to re-open in 2011.
Cartwrights Bridge, one of two new bridges on the Trail
A car shuttle is essential if you're planning to cycle in one direction only. We parked a car at both ends of the trail but, on the day, my DH felt sufficiently energised to rise to the challenge of an uphill return journey to Mirboo North. Whilst we waited for him to return with the car and trailer, the rest of us amused ourselves with performing stunts on the Boolarra's BMX track. Teenage Son Number One managed to scrape a good percentage of skin from one knee, shin and hand. To everyone's astonishment, Son Number Two emerged from his bike ride and track stunts completely unscathed. Evidently, miracles do happen.