Friday, 28 March 2014

Gong Pelagic March 2014

After a solid dose of the wheeled obsession it was time to indulge in the feathered reptiles again.  As far as my twitchpowers are concerned I’m particularly weak on the seabird front.  And as with most things in life, the most honest remedy is practice.  Simple enough, and I have a romantic fascination with the ocean.  The only problem is I lack the intestinal plumbing to deal with it.  Case in point; my most recent pelagic foray.

Rob encouraged me to do the March trip out of the Gong.  At this time of year Albatross (my favs) would be scarce (being way south) but a few species of shearwater were going to dominate.  A good thing as I particularly struggle with the mutton bird collective.

With a cold brewing, and after a restrained Friday night on the booze I was in the car at 5 and arrived in good time for the 7 am depart.

(With apologies to Colleridge;)

'The ship was cheered, the harbour cleared,
Merrily did we drop
Below the kirk, below the hill,
Below the lighthouse top.

Mostly true enough if one ignores the fact that no crowds were there to bid us farewell.  Conditions were mild and the SandraK (looking progressively worse for wear) set course for the shelf, ploughing into what turned out to be a strong current.  Despite the relative calm, and despite having eschewed breakfast (apart from those gingery pills), after about 2 hours conditions got the better of me.  I succumbed to that very unpleasant ashen sensation of dry wretching over the side – I think I was the only one on the boat to do so.  The rest of the motley crew (and birders are generally a motley lot) carried on munching down snacks and sandwiches, unperturbed.  One of our number turned out to be Mr Weigel, an American herpetologist (he owns the reptile park near Gosford).  John smashed the Australian year record in 2012 with 745! Incredibly, he is doing another big year in 2014, and already has 499 under the belt.  To put this in context, my Australian life list is approx. 380 species.

At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God's name.

Almost spot on this time – apart from the lack of fog.  A lone Black-Browed Albatross tagged the boat for most of the day, periodically scattering the shearwaters squabbling for the sprinklings of the chum continually turfed out the back.

'God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look'st thou so?'—With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS.

No truth whatsoever, although said albatross did grace pixels on my camera.

And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work 'em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!

Fortunately, the albatross-derived breeze wasn’t blowing too hard.  Weigel, who obviously has a stomach for this sort of stuff, was up for a bit of a chat to pass the time (I don’t think he added to his Big Year list on this trip, although my life list was expanded by 2!).  On recounting a trip to Christmas Island – he looked at me and commented that I, in particular, would love it – given that the boat trip alone required 3 days in each direction.

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

If only this were the case!  My stomach would have been so grateful.  Due to the prevailing current it took us over 5 hours just to get to the shelf, where we dawdled for an hour before motoring for home.  Aside from ferrying those with binoculars and cameras, another aim for several on board was to catch and tag as many birds as possible.  To this end they almost broke a record, tagging approx. 130 shearwaters (most of them the wedge-tailed variety).

Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.

That’s my stomach talking again.  Had to work very hard not to lose it another half dozen times on the return trip.  Very grateful to finally make it back to port, although it took quite a few hours for the stomach to settle.  That might just be me Pelagic’d out for the year, although come September maybe the lure of Albatross might draw me back for another round.

 Wedge-Tailed Shearwater
 ...and Flesh-Footed Shearwater.

 Great views of Pomarine Jaeger, with breeding tail plumes starting to appear.  They are on their way back to Siberia to breed.

 Crested Tern
 Australasian Gannet
 Wilson's Storm Petrel.  Not a great shot, and a new one for me, but got great views through the bins of these dainty wagtail-sized birds dancing on the slick.
 Grey-Faced Petrel 
That's the CBD just visible

 Storm brewing.  We get back just as big drops arrive.
 The scraggliest Kelp Gull i've ever seen, and this is before the storm hit.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

3peaks going on 15

It was that time of year again; summers waning heat allowed for cooler, longer, sorties in preparation for that big day of suffering in the Victorian high country known as 3peaks.  I was lucky to be doing it at all.  Firstly, having done the first four installments (surely enough to be cured) it was only Andy's unbridled enthusiasm to want to do the "real" course (following on from last years "burnt to a crisp" edition) that goaded me into another lap.  Having passively accepted the inevitable (“yeah, um, er, ok”), frantic keyboard activity was required to secure lodgings, picking up one of the last places on the mountain.  I breathed a sigh of relief then somehow forgot to enter and the event sold out.  Fortunately for me, but unfortunately for Hoggy (who had an entry but had to pull the pin) a transformation in silico occurred which made it possible after all. 

We were a group of 6; Andy, Ham, GK, Carl, Anita and I.  Perhaps best prepared was Andy who had a battle plan laid out months in advance and pretty much stuck to it; including some mammoth back-of-Calga adventures, capped off by a 265 km mega day.  Having survived nearly 12 hours in the heat last year, he had 10 hours in his sights for his second outing.  That’s a big turn around on a harder course.  Ham had also been partaking in the Kelly regime and was looking good for a considerable PB.  Carl was out to make amends for last years dry roasting and, like Andy, was hoping for a nice cool day with which to sample the course traditionale. Anita ("Stravers") was probably in her best ever condition and aimed go under 11. GK was probably the least well prepared of all of us, his schedule sidetracked by racing cars and other romantic diversions.

I had fewer miles in the legs compared to last year, but was nevertheless keen to see if I could sneak home under 9 hours and better my 9:09 of 2 years ago on the original course.  Finding 10 min sounds simple until I acknowledged that in 2012 I had a dream run; solid on the climbs, fantastic working groups to Harrietville and after Trapyard Gap to the end.  The only real fat to be trimmed would be on the far side of Dinner Plain, where I was with limited company for extended periods.  But I did have faster wheels underneath, and if mountain bike enduros have taught me anything it is the value of starting conservatively.  Maybe combined these minutiae would be enough.  A snapped front derailleur cable only a few days prior hopefully got any mechanicals out of the way.

Clear skies and 13 C greeted us on what turned out to be a pearler of a day.  We assembled at the tail of the new starting chute, which compressed the field of 1800 back through the streets of the village.  Not quite what I had in mind.  The guns set forth at 6:45 but it wasn't until ~7:15 that we were finally under way.  But starting at the tail has its advantages.  Normally not noted speedsters, Ham, Anita and I found ourselves enjoying such a role as we carved through more conservative riders in a pretty safe and predictable convoy.  At the bottom I bid them farewell, and likewise to Andy and Carl, before hitting Tawonga proper.  Up the climb I deliberately toned it down a bit, keen not to over cook things as per last year.  I'd started in just a gilet, without singlet, gloves or arm warmers, and despite shivering a little on the descent, the sheet of newspaper had done its job and I was now happily devoid of clutter, open gilet and jersey flapping in the breeze as the temperature started to rise.  

The downside of starting at the tail, however, is that despite passing hundreds up the Tawonga climb, when presented with the valley road to Harrietville I was still mostly in a sea of hairy legs and little understanding or enthusiasm for rolling it over, despite the impressive array of kit on show.  Nothing for it but to knuckle down and do what I could, along with 2 or 3 others, and drive it up the valley for 20 km.  I downed my mtb secret weapon (400 ml of coffee milk I'd carted over Tawonga on my back), crushed the bottle, added the gilet to the pocket, and eased onto the Hotham climb with the clock at 2:13.  

Just after The Meg I passed GK, who was looking good having got away with the early starters.  Gel #2 was consumed on the mid climb false flat, where a young 'un, "Joel", and I swapped off some nice turns - finally well into the clean legged brigade.

The top of Hotham was nasty (as always), but having topped out I did my best to shove down a cliff bar and empty my second bottle of Staminade before the feed.  At Dinner Plain (110 km), amidst hundreds of others all attempting to do the same, filling bottles was hampered by poor water pressure.  In at 4:11, but out at 4:16, as compared to 4:15 and 4:18 splits in 2012.  Bettering 9:09 was going to be tight.  Having to fiddle with home-made powder sachets also wasn't helping - the sports drink on offer being unpalatable.

Leaving Dinner Plain I quickly bridged to two others and our number swelled from the front as well as from behind, but once again there were primarily just the original three of us who seemed keen to work a smooth paceline.  Hats off to Chris (from Sydney), and Andy (from Melbourne, in Hells500 kit).  After the frustrations of the Harrietville slog I was expecting a little more contribution from other slick company.  Most annoyingly some would nip off the front in ferocious spurts only to be re-sorbed half a K later.

And so the kms ticked by until Omeo was gained.  With full bottles Chris and I kicked off for the long drag that eventually gains the sublime winding traverse to Anglers Rest.  A tree with a view afforded my only piss for the day – 1 minute well spent.  Rolling again we picked up a bunch of about 20 for the pick-a-plank bridge and the traverse itself.  Finally, a nice group to share turns with in the sense that now at least 6 of 20 were working. 

It was just shy of Anglers (~km 185) that I got my first twinges of cramp for the day.   I still had a full bottle so shot through at Anglers, popped gel #4 and pulled no more turns before WTF corner at km 200, which was gained with the clock at 6:58.  In 2012 I turned that same corner at 7:15, cleaning the final sector in just under 2 hours.  So I sensed I was on track and nursed myself a little up the "Back of Falls". I got through most of it with only a couple of twinges of cramp, although did my share of weaving and favoring my right leg before the steepness finally relented.  At Trapyard, with 24 to go, I filled bottles for the last time, downed gel #5, and hooked up again with Chris whom had caught back up after pitting at Anglers.  We mostly rode the next 10 km side-by-side, chatting away, again accruing a bunch of following wheels.  

With about 15 to go it dawned on me that this was hardly the driving paceline finish of two years ago.  At the current tempo there was a very real chance that my sub-9 hr target might slip by.  I nervously fumbled with calculations in my head, with yet more rises before us and still no view of the lake.  There was little urgency displayed from the rest of the group, who were either completely knackered or had settled for a sub 10 finish.  At the risk of cramping it was time to drill it home.  During the final throws of such a big ride you tend not to feel the effort so much because everything is hurting anyway.  So, as Karel would say, “I was happy for it”.  And it was satisfying reeling in stragglers one by one.  I got a brief respite at the far end of the lake then it was back to the front for the last couple of Km into the wind until crossing the dam wall at the outskirts of the village.

With 1 km to go suddenly 20 others wanted to do a turn.  So frenzied was finish-line fever that I thought we were going to have pile ups on the last 2 corners.  Fortunately, sanity prevailed and I rolled into the finishing chute at the back of the mob, very relieved to see my clock at 8:57 (66th on time and ~150th home out of 1800 starters).   A puncture, more hesitation, a bout of cramp, or simply another uphill km might have killed the dream.  Incidentally, in perfect conditions the course record fell to a pair pulling 7:35!

On the village lawn I got an update on everyone else's progress courtesy of Sara via txt.  Everyone was through the last checkpoint, which was great news.  Normally Kev would be hot on my heels, but this year he was absent, albeit only in body, following proceedings on-line from afar.  Soon Andy was in.  All that preparation had well and truly paid off, 9:53 being a less nerve-wracking accomplishment of his sub 10 aim.  Terrific achievement!  Carl was next home (10:22), no mean feat for a strapping lad of 90 kg on a very lumpy course, and a fitting way to expunge the roasting of last year.  Anita had a hard time of it past Trapyard, but was only a few minutes shy of Carl (10:25), and about 80 min quicker than 2012 (~15th woman home).  Hamster did it harder than the rest of us, getting his first bouts of cramp on the slopes of Hotham, which made for an especially tough outing. On several occasions good groups had to be abandoned in order to allow knots to loosen.  Despite it all, he came in (10:38) approx 1 hr quicker than in 2012.  GK was not too far back, a shade over the 11 hr mark.  Although not quite bettering his 2012 effort it was still a terrific ride given his preparation.

So that's the way it panned out with the Equipo Sydney-ACT mob for 2014.  Of course I'm most certainly cured and won't be partaking again, but I get the impression that some of the others haven't quite got the damn thing out of their systems yet.  See you all next year.

 That's GK in the yellow, sneaking into the lead group

the rest of us at the soon to be wagging tail

WTF corner