Happy trails

"Roo ahead!" exclaims our leader, Stephen Alegria, as he firmly applies the brakes on his mountain bike, sending up more than a puff of dust. Alegria's sudden stop sets off a chain reaction as all dozen of us, riding in single file behind, slam on our brakes in unison.

"Phew, that was a close shave," splutters Alegria, who has come to a halt less than a metre short of the lone kangaroo, which gives us a puzzled "Who the heck are you?" look before hopping off into the dense scrub of the Tidbinbilla.

Following my recent column on the Thredbo Valley shared bike-walk track (Cracker Track, November 23), many readers asked if there was a similar kid-friendly shared-use track closer to Canberra. In response, Alegria, the regional manager with the ACT Parks and Conservation Service, myself, and a diverse range of other mountain bikers are road-testing (or should that be trail-testing) a new network of shared trails just opened at Tidbinbilla.

We are a motley crew. There is a full range of ages and skill sets, from preschoolers, parents, school-aged kids, and even a splattering of stretch-fabric-clad retirees. Heck, even Paralympian Michael Milton is here doing a remarkable job pedalling his daughter around tight corners on his tandem bike.

The near-miss with the roo isn't because we are cavorting at breakneck speed along the trail; rather, it's a case of the kangaroos not quite being used to bikes at Tidbinbilla. Since the valley was declared a nature reserve about five decades ago, the roos have become accustomed to bushwalkers and cars, but not mountain bikes emerging around blind corners.

"They can be alarmed by our sudden approach," explains Alegria, who adds, "it's best to ride slowly when roos are present or when riding through these densely vegetated areas."

As Alegria hops back on his bike, and we all follow suit, he offers some sage advice: "Roos are very used to human voices, so it's a good idea to make your presence known as you approach them by calling out or just having a chat to others in your group as you ride." One of the more energetic BMX Bandits-style youngsters in front of me yells "Hey roo!" and, as if on cue, the rest of us respond in animated chorus.

I've been hiking in Canada's back country, where you are strongly advised to yell out "Yo bear!" to avoid startling a grizzly, and I've also loudly clapped my hands to scare away the odd unsuspecting snake in the Australian bush, but I've never yelled at a roo.

Just like the Thredbo Valley track, Tidbinbilla's shared-use trails haven't been built to test the skills of our country's finest mountain bikers. "It's another family-friendly way of exploring Tidbinbilla," Alegria remarks as we pedal along the main Congwarra Trail, which meanders through grassland from the visitor centre to the Nature Discovery Playground.

From here, it's choose your own adventure, as the trail twists and turns its way over bridges, around trees and under giant granite tors.

We end up at Greens, a secret picnic area on the banks of the Tidbinbilla River, complete with wood-fired barbecues and a heap of gumtrees on which to lean our bikes. We've worked up more than a sweat and don't need any invitation to cool off. This is one of those rivers that kids (and big kids!) love to explore. There are shallow pools of water for the littlies and a maze of semi-submerged boulders for an aquatic version of hide and seek.

Since its completion after the 2003 bushfires, and with its knockout flying fox and giant climbing spiderweb, Tidbinbilla's Nature Discovery Playground has become something of a hub for families with pre-teens. Now this carefully crafted network of shared-use trails provides another way to explore this patch of the Tidbinbilla Valley. Just remember to practise your "Hey roos!" before strapping on your helmet.

Cycling @Tidbinbilla There are about 15 kilometres of shared-use trails, including the Congwarra Trail (family-friendly) and the Gibraltar Peak Trail (steeper gradients). There are also many kilometres of fire trails that are accessible to both walkers and cyclists, including the Jedbinbilla trails. On your way into Tidbinbilla (you'll need to pay for a daily use pass if you don't have an annual pass) pop into the visitor centre (ph: 6205 1233) and ask for a map. www.tidbinbilla.com.au

Tidbinbilla is an easy 40-minute drive south of the city centre. Access is off Paddy's River Road, via Cotter Road.

Watch-out for The terrain on the Congwarra Trail (three kilometres or four kilometres, depending which route you take) changes quite often from gravel to sand to grass and there are a few short steep sections and some tight corners. Take care and enjoy!

Don't miss The coffee at the new Cafe Tidbinbilla. Also lots of yummy cafe-style food, from lighter nibbles, fresh-cut homestead sandwiches, salads and heartier fare. After a long ride and splash in the river, I recommend the Tidbinbilla kransky twist seared kangaroo sausage sauerkraut and hot English mustard.

SIMULACRA CORNER

THE CASE OF THE DISAPPEARING DRAGON

While the magical powers of dragons are well known, I don't think they extend to making images of themselves vanish into thin air. Yet last week's photo of the "dragon tree", which Ross Young of Giralang stumbled upon while wandering through the woodland of Mulligans Flat Nature Reserve near Gungahlin, was mysteriously absent from these pages. John Simpson of Oxley bemoans, "I thought it might have been like an instant scratchie ticket, but despite scratching all over the page hoping for the dragon tree to reveal itself, it didn't – I just got sore fingernails." Well, today Young's dragon (hopefully!) appears in all its glory. Can you make out its eye, and long jaws ready to chomp?

MAILBAG

SEAL OF APPROVAL

Last week's exposé on the "friendly" leopard seal encountered by the Bolger family near Mystery Bay (Snoozing seal, page 30) prompted Michael Young of Mawson to send in this photo taken at Durras North while he was exploring the beach with friend Don Gardner on July 5, 2009.

"It was low tide when we found the seal and we planned to wait until high tide to see whether it would return to the sea. It was dusk and there was a chilly breeze blowing when the tide was high enough to reach the seal. But although the sea lapped around it, to our disappointment, it showed no inclination to take to the water."

The next morning, when Young and Gardner returned, they noticed a ranger (whom they'd tipped off the day before) erecting warning signs on a makeshift rope fence around the seal.

While the beachcombing duo left Durras without knowing the seal's fate, Young reports that they "like to think it did return safely to the sea". I hope so, too.

BEST REST STOP #4

This week's featured rest stop is recommended by Ben Roberts, of Hawker, who regularly travels the Hume Highway to Melbourne to visit family with his wife, Romy, and their two dogs, Shadow and Ralph.

What: Dog on the Tuckerbox. Cafe, historic monument and dog-friendly parkland.

Where: Hume Highway just north of Gundagai.

Why: According to Roberts, it's a pilgrimage spot for all dogs or people who love dogs. "After nearly two hours on the road the boys always have a relieved look about them after a stop here. For humans, the cafe is pretty good, too – the best value salad sandwiches between Melbourne and Canberra."

Tim's verdict: Having not stopped at this historic roadside attraction for several years, during the week I took the Yowie mobile for a spin down the Hume.

The cafe has a shady outdoor area under some old peppercorn trees and, although I travel sans-dogs, my two kids, aged two and five, enjoyed their run around the big, green areas as much as any hound would.

Did You Know? The Dog on the Tuckerbox monument is supposedly based on an incident that occurred to a teamster named Bill the Bullocky on the road to Gundagai in the 1850s. One day, while trying to drag his wagon out of a bog, one of his bullocks unfortunately broke the wagon's yoke. Bill gave up and decided to have his lunch. To top of his run of bad luck, he found his dog sitting (or some say worse . . .) on his tuckerbox. In 1932, Prime Minister Joseph Lyons opened the monument featuring the dog, which raises money for the local hospital via the collection of coins that travellers toss into the surrounding wishing well.

Have you got a favourite rest area? If so, I'd love to hear from you. To help break up your road trips this summer, I'll feature a different one each Saturday for the remainder of the school holidays.

The story Happy trails first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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