ImaginaryVolcanics

Few people know that Melbourne fringes the world’s third-largest volcanic field. I planned a 1,400-km circuit, but COVID-19 intervened — so I ditched my bike for a virtual trip.


Let me set the scene by explaining Eugene von Guérard’s own change of plans.

Born in Vienna and trained as an artist, he arrived in Victoria in 1852 as part of a gold rush to this brand-new British colony where, the year before, nuggets had been plucked from the surface. Of course, such easy pickings were quickly subsumed by the crush of hopeful immigrants. Soon, diggers were upending millenia of volcanic effluence to find the buried rivers that once carried yellow metal.

But von Guérard was left with only mud in his hands. He returned to his former occupation, relying on nature’s more egalitarian riches: the sublime and picturesque. In my view, he painted no better than Tower Hill (1855; pictured above), an enchanting vision of the fertile aftermath of a series of eruptions west of Melbourne.

However, by the end of the century, Tower Hill itself had been thoroughly denuded by Euro­pean settlers. James Dawson, the progressive fellow who had commissioned the painting, revisited the site in 1891 and was disgusted by the destruction of trees and the crater lake’s pollution.

In a turn of events that would have pleased Dawson, the cone-shaped hills have since been rehabilitated, with a revegetation program that drew on von Guérard’s botanically accurate illustrations. From life to art to life. So goes our constant negotiation with the world — our imaginations are shaped by its delights and perils, and its future is ours to influence.

This is true of Tower Hill in more ways than one. The painting may be our earliest visual depiction of the site, but it’s been in the Dreaming for generations. Artefacts retrieved from beneath volcanic debris suggest that humans occupied the area before the most recent eruption — over 33,000 years ago. This dates Koroit­gundidj oral traditions that appear to reference such activity.

Imaginary Volcanics draws from these encounters with the land. I float between the spiritual and scientific. And the quirks of digital technology are ever-present, as the trip consisted of clicking around, not pedalling for weeks on a diet of oats, lentils and TVP. I recorded some glitters — I’ll let you decide whether they’re gold.


Contents


Background

When I conceived this project in June 2020, Australia had weathered its initial peak of COVID-19 cases. There hadn’t been a death in weeks, and daily cases had dwindled to single digits — in fact, on June 9, Victoria recorded zero new cases. The curve had flattened. But it didn’t last. Weeks later, the state faced another outbreak. Infec­tions hit new highs. Masks became mandatory, yet cases mounted. In August, a curfew began, and outdoor exercise was limited to an hour near home.

Among the most trivial consequences of these restrictions, it doomed a bike tour I’d hoped to take in September: a three-week excursion of the Newer Vol­canics Province, the third-largest volcanic field on earth — some 700 vents spread across 23,000 square kilometres. The field extends west from the city, through a swathe of regional Victoria and into South Australia’s south-eastern corner.

I couldn’t tell when camping would be allowed again — let alone crossing a state border. And I didn’t want to push the trip too far back, as it would interfere with my training for an upcoming footrace. What to do?

For a decade, I’ve been low-key obsessed with Google Street View as an artistic medium. With that context, it won’t surprise you that I turned the trip virtual. You could see this project as an elaborate extension of the fact that cyclists consult Street View to gauge unknown roads. How busy is it? Is there a shoulder? How rough is the dirt? Here I embarked on a trip wholly conducted in such a fashion.

What follows, then, is a fictional narrative mediated by the internet. For clarity’s sake: I didn’t use a stationary bike trainer to translate sweat into on-screen movement. I sat on my bum the whole time. I wasn’t after a simulcrum of a physical trip. This proved to be its own, unique journey — and required far fewer calories.


The route

20 volcanic sites in 20 days. Neat, huh?

The Newer Volcanics Province has hundreds of eruption points, but I was after the greatest hits. There were some shoo-ins: Tower Hill, obviously, followed by the most recent (Mt Schank) and most voluminous (Mt Rouse) eruptions. From there, I considered cultural and aesthetic value, and of course, the set had to make a loop.

Each day’s end is marked by a numbered icon showing where I stayed the night — that is, where I would have likely stayed: campgrounds, a few stealth spots, the homes of friends and strangers. Large triangles mark volcanic sites that I chose to visit; small triangles are those that didn’t make the cut.

You may wonder why I detoured along the coast rather than stay inland near the volcanic sites. Simple: having never travelled on the famous Great Ocean Road, I figured that there’d be no better time to experience it than during cool September weather on abnormally tourist-free roads.

Heh. “Tourist-free” now includes me. OK — from here on, I’ll commit to the conceit.


Horses graze in a rocky field and powerlines extend into the distance.

Lowlands

Across the lands of the Wurundjeri & Wadawurrung peoples

Northcote to Parwan
67 km

If calendars everywhere vanished overnight, I could still pick Sundays from the rest. The morning air is crisp, the road smoother than usual, the houses silent. As I navigate the first few familiar streets, a holiday lightness en­velops me.

My mind soon drifts back to the material plane. I can’t help but notice, in a front yard, large dark rocks with thousands of tiny pits — each a bubble of gas solidified by fast-cooling lava. Classic scoria. Then, in another yard — and on the verge —

Scoria, scoria, everywhere.

I sweep down the Capital City Trail to Docklands, put the CBD behind me and beeline west to Sunshine along the train line. These are familiar paths, as I used to commute on them. I decide to stop for lunch. I’ve only cycled 20 km, but no visit to Sunshine is complete without banh mi. I order my usual sandwich and a couple of banh tieu (a moreish deep-fried hollow donut), laze in the sun, chase my meal with a can of grass jelly drink. Then it’s time to hop back in the saddle. I return to the station, cross the tracks and shimmy onto Kororoit Creek Trail.

On the winding creek, I pass places where early diggers such as our man Eugene forded its waters en route to the goldfields out west. Back then, as the crowds grew, bridges and hotels were often erected with smooth basalt, a common igneous rock known locally as bluestone. Quarries in the vicinity of Kororoit Creek also yielded much of the bluestone found elsewhere, including the paving stones that add such character to the city’s laneways.

Looking from a bridge down onto the verdant Kororoit Creek.
An older man holds a leaf blower and stands beside an older woman, their hands on their hips in mirrored fashion, algorithmically blurred faces pointed to the camera.
Torn-up rocks by the side of a road, beneath a large sign that advertises land sales.

Melbourne’s west feels different to its east. Class and demographics play a large role. The area I’m riding through — Sunshine, Ardeer, and St Albans, and their surrounds — has a rich diversity that started with an influx of Southern and Eastern Europeans post-WWII. At the time, there was no electricity and migrants washed their clothes in the creek. Since then, other communities to establish themselves include people from Vietnam, the Phillipines and recently, the Horn of Africa.

The differences run deeper, though, into the very soil. The west lies on a large basalt plain formed by gentle lava flows from about twenty vents — one of which, Mount Cottrell, I am about to visit — between 1 and 5 million years ago. This basalt layer, as thick as 100 metres in places, filled in and blanketed far more ancient bedrock. The shallow clay soils that developed, together with dry climate and Aboriginal fire management practices, resulted in open woodland and grasses; that is, markedly different surface vegetation to the leaf­ier east.

This becomes obvious once I veer off Kororoit Creek. A short stint through Caroline Springs, a suburb only established in 1999, and abruptly, the houses end. The sky widens. Flat, treeless fields greet me, strewn with loose boulders that have so far withstood erosion; an archetype of the basalt plains, and here dressed by little more than power lines and a scattering of horses.

I continue west, and soon pass a tear in the landscape — an emerging greenfield development, the next Caroline Springs, sales underway. So goes sprawl. I keep my eyes peeled for a left turn — here it is. Five minutes up a sloping road, and I’m leaning my bike against a tree at the foot of Mount Cottrell, the first volcano of the trip.

It’s modest: a symmetric rise, a shield fallen to the ground. The summit is on private land. It looks like telecomms, not a residence, so I hop the fence. At the top, the crater is preserved as a subtle depression, with a break on one side where molten rock once flowed. Turning back east, I can see clear to the distant skyscrapers. The intervening land is so flat, like an unfurled scroll.

An access road leads to a low hill, a rubble wall lines the foreground.
Another shot of a rubble wall, this time accompanied by a row of prickly pear, with majestic cirrus clouds above.

As I ride away, munching on a leftover banh tieu, I admire the low stone walls by the road. Further down the hill, I find prickly pear hedging the rubble barriers — a telltale combination of Maltese farmers. Later, I’m chuffed to find out that my island heritage is, in fact, after English, the most common in Mount Cottrell. Here, atop the font of the city!

I pedal for another hour bathed in gold to reach my hosts for the night: fellow cycle-tourists, a couple who live in a mud-brick home and greet me with dal simmering on the stove. Their property backs onto the Werribee River. I set up my tent on its south bank and fall asleep to the chirping of crickets.

Parwan to Maude
57 km (124 km)

18-minute pack-down — slow. I’m rusty. Won’t take long to halve it, though.

Heading southwest this morning, I eye the road’s unkempt edges. Last night, my hosts had explained how they cultivated their patch of grassland, where Themeda triandra (kangaroo grass) was dominant — and, sadly, how the vast majority of the original grasslands of the volcanic plains has been destroyed. In springtime, as it is now, the pre-colonial fields were thick with wildflowers, a rain­bow riot.

They said remnant strands eke an existence on the thin strips of council land beside the road. I don’t spot any in an hour of looking, but I reward myself for trying nonetheless: oatmeal hot off the Trangia and a dozen strawberries.

After breakfast, I keep on in the same general direction. The countryside is a Gursky photograph — bands of white cloud, blue hills, grass, red soil, blacktop.

By midday, I reach my second site: the Anakies, a volcanic complex that — alas — is again on private land; a vineyard on one side, opposite a quarry. Still, there is a decent view to be had on the dirt road separating them.

This site has an unassuming but very cool feature: little more now than a mudbath the size of an AFL field, it’s likely a maar; the mark of a phreatomagmatic explosion. Such explosions occur when upward-bound magma encounters a body of groundwater just below the surface, boiling it instantly. Steam takes up 2,000 times the space of water, so this ruptures the rock and sends up a shower of tephra (the ejected magma and ripped-up rock). This material falls in a ring around the freshly torn hole in the ground, and often comes to gird the edge of a lake, as the crater fills with groundwater and rain.

It’s wild that such violence birthed this bird-frolicking dip in a nondescript field.

A dusty dirty road beside a vineyard, hill rising under a clear blue sky.
Dozens of sheep have a yarn together under the trees.

The afternoon is a blur of quiet bitumen. I see more sheep than humans, no contest. Late lunch of tofu, hummus and tomato wraps. There is a sharp descent to cross a creek, then a little way back up to where I camp for the night, a place known as Bunjil’s Lookout, named after the wedge-tail eagle, the creator spirit of Kulin country. I watch shadows lengthen in the valley of the Moorabool River and turn to ink.

Maude to Torquay
58 km (182 km)

I wake with a start. In the night I’d sunk down, way down, hundreds of kilometres into the body of the earth, tracing magma flows through their fissures, swirling in figure-eights in the convection zone, bass in my bones, red with the primordial heat of the planet’s formation. My silk sleeping bag liner sticks to my back. It’d been a warm night.

On the dull roads to the coast, I dwell on my dream. I’m struck, as I often am, by the incredible facts of geology and astronomy, the ongoing mysteries beneath our feet and in the sky, and their simultaneous banality. They suffer from a primary-school rank in the hierarchy of our lives. In contrast, the ancestral being Bunjil; his son Binbeal the rainbow; Waa the trickster raven — these stories aren’t mine, but as my thoughts turn with the pedals, what I know of them takes on a certain power and grace. They speak a poetry of the local, the awe behind the numbers.

I make Geelong in no time; it’s an easy descent, losing the 200 metres of elevation gain I’d climbed over the past two days. In the suburban streets that skirt the M1, I come across a fellow hunched on the footpath. It’s only 10 in the morn, but perhaps he’d had a very big night. “Mate, you alright?” I call, slowing to stop. Then he grunts and looks up — ah, he’s edging the nature strip. Of course. Mad respect.

Powerline shadows and road lines guide the eye to a man on his knees on the parched yellow grass by the sidewalk.
A group of a dozen schoolchildren in matching outfits on matching bicycles, one of whom flips the bird to the camera.
The cliffs of Point Addis, with a wide, empty strip of sand beneath massing grey clouds.

Onto the Barwon River, briefly, then south to Torquay, where I hang with friends who live there. We drive a couple of coves over to Point Addis, which has a wide beach enclosed by dramatic limestone and sandstone cliffs. Evidence that my detour had begun. See, the nearby basaltic plains largely formed in the Pleistocene, no more than a few million years ago; their relative youth puts the “Newer” in Newer Volcanics Province. I was about to cross landforms shaped not by lava flows but by sediment deposition and uplift as far back as the Cretaceous (66–145 million years ago), when dinosaurs ruled and flowering plants first appeared. A heady period by any measure.


A wet, steep, forested road, shining in the post-shower sun.

Ranges

Across the lands of the Wadawurrung & Eastern Maar peoples

Torquay to Jamieson Creek
61 km (243 km)

Heavy sleep overnight — body responding to a bed — then refreshed by a roll in the waves. I farewell my friends and set off after lunch. If tourism still existed, the Great Ocean Road would be choked with buses and campervans. Even now it isn’t quiet given that it’s the main thoroughfare this side of the Otways, so I avoid what I can with a dirt track between Anglesea and Aireys Inlet.

When I rejoin the blacktop, it’s perfect: fast and swoopy and just enough up and down to engage the muscles, coupled with a blue-on-blue view and salty breeze. Even in this, the invigorating air, there’s the trace of volcanism; we can thank deep-sea vents for interacting with the water to maintain its salinity over eons.

Once I pass Lorne, the wind picks up. Low and dark clouds. I pull off an anonymous bend in the highway — no buildings in sight — up a steep 4WD track, find a clearing that overlooks the ocean, and watch the squall pass from inside my tent. As night falls, I cook a one-pot stew with a mixture that’s been soaking in a spare water bottle all afternoon. Fuel for tomorrow’s hills.

Man stands at a lookout, facing the blue line of the horizon, with head turned back to the camera.
A strange glass box of a house on a concrete stilt sticks out of a steep forested hill.
An orange-vested fellow holding up traffic has his head on his shoulder, as if asleep, one hand in his pocket and the other holding a sign that reads SLOW.
Jamieson Creek to Lavers Hill
82 km (325 km)

Pre-dawn start for the first time on this trip. I love entering this groove: the calm, methodical packing in the dark, everything still and silent but for dripping leaves. The satisfaction of a night’s rest in an unmarked corner of the world. Those first strokes on a loaded bike, limbs alive with the day’s promise, leaving behind the dry rectangle where my body had lain. Watching the sun rise above an empty road.

Well, almost empty. Two enterprising souls in a cherry-red van honk and wave as they pass. My mood, already light, soars. This day is too good not to share!

I roll into Apollo Bay mid-morning; eat breakfast at a café. Right after that, the road cuts away from the sea and climbs 300 metres in 10 kilometres. I snail up the glinting ribbon, and an hour later crest the top, hemmed in by grand, densely packed mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans). Then the road turns back down. I lose all the elevation I’d gained, speeding along but not quite able to fully open the brakes, because the surface is still wet.

The road bottoms out, kisses the coast before it curves back up another, even higher hill. Before tackling that, I take a break at a lookout. This is nearly the southernmost point of the Australian mainland, and as I squint into the distance, where the Southern Ocean blurs into the sky, I imagine Antartica stretching out its icy hand — wait up, don’t leave me behind!

These rugged cliffs are well-known — among paleontologists, at least — for being rich in fossils, including dinosaur bones and tracks; harking from a time when Victoria was within the Antarctic Circle — the so-called polar dinosaurs of 100 million years ago would have endured very cold, sunless winters. Later, snug in my sleeping bag in a Lavers Hill backyard, I think I hear the squawk of a fleet-footed raptor in the wind, and drift off to replays of Dinotopia in my head.

Lavers Hill to Warrnambool
116 km (441 km)

The morning is nothing but sweet downhill, with expansive views through gaps in the green. I’m still a full day’s ride from any volcanoes. As I visualise the distance in my head, I remember how odd it is that Victoria has an extensive volcanic province at all. The forested terrain I’m now descending was pushed up 45 million years ago due to accelerated sea-floor spreading that simultaneously widened the Southern Ocean. For most of the time since — and unlike any other continent — Australia has lain in blithe repose in the middle of a crustal plate, away from the violent boundaries that typically produce volcanoes.

A straight section of the Great Ocean Road stretches to a vanishing point, sheer cliffs visible on the left, low scrub on either side.
In the back streets of Warrnambool, a doubled apparition of a young tradesperson who wields a whipper snipper.

How, then, did we get volcanoes, if tectonic activity isn’t the culprit? We don’t know for sure — the dark below holds surprises yet. But there are a few theories.

The main thing to keep in mind is that magma needed to come from somewhere. Was it from a “hotspot” in the mantle underneath? Probably not, as there isn’t a distinct chain of volcanoes, as you’d expect to appear over time if the plate were drifting over a stationary region of relatively hotter magma rising to the surface. Another idea is that the volcanic activity can be traced to great “plumes” of the mantle — diapirs, as they’re known, the very word a trisyllabic incantation that conjures rocky phoenixes from the deep — that broke off during Australia’s tearing from Antartica, and took many millenia to spread and leak to the surface.

The newest, most favoured account is somewhat less poetic: that abrupt changes in lithospheric thickness in the Newer Volcanics Province drove the convection that produced the molten material. What everyone agrees on is that further mapping and eruption dating is needed to nail down the story. That’s science for ya.

A strange concrete water tank held aloft way above a building by a large orange tripod.
The heads of Agapanthus just visible above a fence line, purple and resplendent.

Tomorrow would bring Tower Hill, the place of von Guérard’s enchantment. Until then, the afternoon has its own share of delights: the sheer awe of the massive limestone stacks standing offshore, the white noise of waves clawing at the cliffs, the life-giving mix of salt and sun.

By the time I pull in to Warrnambool to stock up on food, I’m whipped by the exhilaration and mileage of the day. It’s a quirky town, though, with an eye-catching spherical water tower in its centre, and it’s fun to explore a mess of streets after having been on the one road for three days. Still, as the day dies, I gladly seek a lee on the golf course and hit the hay.


An exposed tuff bed shows the depositional history of Tower Hill.

Hinterland

Across the lands of the Eastern Maar & Gunditjmara peoples

Warrnambool to Budj Bim
90 km (531 km)

Rolling farmland. The occasional tall-gated frontage, manicured trees, looking silly amid the paddocks. Train tracks embedded in the road surface, alerting me to the passage of a converted rail trail. I follow it for half hour but then split due west to Tower Hill, the sea big on the horizon as I circle the caldera to find its entrance.

Crossing the wide Merri River, bird hanging in the air.
Chimneyed house being slowly reclaimed by surrounding vegetation.

The thin, curving road dips down steeply from the rim into dense verdure. A flock of corellas departs; the shallows are full of spoonbills, ducks, ibis, more. Most marvellous are the undulating hills, the mark of sequential phreato­magmatic eruptions. See, where magma once ruptured the water table to flee, if only briefly, its chthonic origin, a lake will often form — serving to ignite future upwellings; a cycle doomed to repeat until the molten vein is exhausted or dammed.

Besides Koroitj (Tower Hill), the Gunditjmara clan here identifies many local features, including Yatt mirng (“white eye”) for the central, flat-floored crater of the island, Yaal for the scrub on its west side, and Mitjil for the lake itself (from mitj for “skin”). Names with a numinous power. Seeded in the land before the colonialists, before the first peoples. As I look at the hilltops and banks, I sense my gaze being returned.

To behold is to become beholden to. And yet there have been failures. Soaking in the lush surrounds, a von Guérard replica achieved through decades of sore backs and dirty hands — over 250,000 plantings between 1964 and 1984 alone — I’m shaken by poignancy; that the landscape had been restored to its former splendour, but its appropriation could not be undone.

Despite this, it’d be sacrilege not to linger amid such beauty. I breakfast in the picnic area amid other tourists, all of us amused by the candour of passing emus. A family from Adelaide strikes up conversation upon spying my loaded bike, and we share the simple joy of enthusing about what we’d seen and would see.

A slice of the lush green lake scenery.
An itinerant emu in the picnic area car park.

After completing the road’s circuit, exiting the crater by a stunning exposed tuff bed whose layers reveal the site’s depositional history, I pedal to Koroit, stopping for a coffee at a trendy conversion of a red-brick mechanic’s shop. I leave its warmth with some dismay, as darkness had settled in the air. Sure enough, a light rain starts by the time I rejoin the rail trail, and it pours as I zigzag northwest on dirt backroads.

Hours pass. The dirt turns to mud. I become disoriented. As the afternoon begins to fade, I encounter a yellow-coated farmer on his tractor. “This is a private road, lad,” he calls, with some pity. I double back, press on. Upon struggling into Budj Bim National Park, I lay down a while before making camp, defeated, the landscape little more than a black snake against a grey sea.

A fluffy sky, thin line of the ocean and intervening cropland.
Dirt rail trail curving into woodland.
The farmer on his tractor, sky low, muddy paths.
Budj Bim to Hotspur
47 km (578 km)

Ugh. Everything is slightly damp after setting up in last night’s drizzle, a drizzle that continues in the pale dawn. My camera has died, too; I’d forgotten to charge it in my exhausted state. I stay in my cocoon a while, then slither from the silk, resenting the chill touch of the air.

I have to face the day. At least I’m somewhere to get excited about. Budj Bim! This region is a freshly minted UNESCO World Heritage Site owing to the six-millenia-old aquaculture systems of the Gunditjmara people; an extensive set of weirs, dams and canals designed to harvest kooyang (short-finned eel), olive-green and up to a metre long, smoked in the hollow of manna gums and red gums.

The most well-known fishery is at Lake Condah, 7 km west of here, and not open to the public. Instead, I trudge up to Budj Bim (“high head”) itself, whose most recent eruption had produced a 165 km2 lava flow, fertilising the landscape and offering basalt to build dam walls.

Charred trees on the path speak to bushfires that blazed through here back in January — there was a silver lining, though, in that the understorey burned away to reveal yet-undocumented fish trap systems. I reach the crater’s edge. The lake below is a deep red-brown. The forest hums with raindrop hi-hats, winged flutters and muted crashing of wood, the symphony of frog society. Bats and bandicoots slumber in their nooks, ants prosper in the still-warm earth.

Revived, I break camp and return to the farm roads. I go slow. The sun turns unseen behind the pall. In the early afternoon, I call it. Time to cosy up and read a book. I’m in a nondescript patch of forest, a spooky place, serviced by rotted benches and zero toilets. So I’m surprised later when, assembling my stove for dinner, a familiar cherry-red van appears.

“D’ya mind if we join?” Two tanned faces look hopefully out the driver’s window.

“Not at all, but my pot’s a little small for three.”

They laugh, and the driver gestures behind her at what I presume is a cavernous storage space full of crockery. “We got you.” Turns out this was the last night of their annual surfing pilgrimage. They were from Broken Hill, an 8-hour drive into the desert that they’d tackle tomorrow. I ask them where they’d been today.

“Blacknose Point, near Portland. It was smokin’! My knees are still shaking.” The break is adjacent to a basalt cliff, boulders strewn at its feet; the sort of gnarly spot that finds surfers on their own, no swimmers in sight. They chortle as I describe the distance I have ahead of me, amazed that I’d even bothered to ride from where they’d seen me last, on the east side of the Otways. Different strokes!


Looking down into Mt Gambier's iconic Blue Lake.

Young'uns

Across the lands of the Gunditjmara & Bungandidj peoples

Hotspur to Mount Schank
98 km (676 km)

We share breakfast, mulling our respective big days ahead. The world has dried overnight, and I eat up copper roads with vigour. Once I hit the tarmac, its speed and smoothness makes me shout. The sun really comes out, lighting a pine plantation to one side that continues for kilometres.

I cross the Glenelg River and suddenly find myself in South Australia, fanfare-free and grinding along a boring highway with a 110 km/h limit on a shoulder that’s bumpy as hell. Lucky the traffic is light.

A barcode of dirt and tree shadow.
Nuttin' but a highway. Blue skies. Green scrub.

An isolated cone rises in slow motion from the horizon, only 100 metres high, but soon it towers over the fields. I leave my bike at its base, then walk up, wind gusting, and down into its belly. The crater stops short of the water table, so it’s bone dry, a carpet of ferns. Austere but stately, the absence of ornament has me ponder the upheaval it would’ve caused.

Because people were certainly living in the vicinity when it last erupted. It is, in fact, the youngest volcano in Australia. Local oral traditions tell the story of the giant Craitbul, who with his family had to move from place to place, fleeing an evil spirit called Tennateona (resembling the Djab wurrung word for lava, tintaeaen). They abandoned Mount Schank when the shriek of the bullin warned them that the spirit — signifying an eruption — was imminent. Later, they lived at Mount Gambier, roasting roots in ground ovens, but their ovens kept filling with water, from the bottom up, four times, like the water-filled maars of the area.

I’m keen to survey the lakes, but after days of bush camping, I dearly need a shower, and I ought to air my damp belongings. I book a room at the pub minutes from the mount; its flank visible between lace curtains, fading from red to purple.

Mount Schank to Mount Gambier
17 km (693 km)

Halfway. Tuesday. Good as any for a rest day.

Mount Gambier is just an hour’s spin up the road. I chew on my oatmeal from a lookout over the iconic Blue Lake. It’s supremely peaceful. I smother my disappointment that the overcast sky has leached the lake of its usual brilliant azure.

A maar lake beside a curving road.
From the lake lookout, a look over the flat regional town.

I continue into town proper, a regional centre studded with colonial architecture that reminds me of Newcastle, down to a decommissioned railway line through the middle. I cruise the streets aimlessly. Do I really need a rest day? Perhaps I should push on, put this place behind me.

A bizarre housing estate, each house with gaping black portals for windows, reminds me of Mount Gambier’s other attraction besides the maar lakes: limestone sinkholes. Indeed, the town exists where it does thanks to a 30-metre deep cave, now a garden, that supplied settlers with water in the 1840s and ’50s.

I lunch at a Thai restaurant and browse the cycle-hosting site to see who’s in town. I’m excited, though not surprised, to find someone who mentions caving on their profile. As I finish my basil stir-fry, he replies to my text message with his work address — a nearby pharmacy — and says to come by whenever I was free. With nothing else to do, I head directly there. He’s behind the glass at the back of the store; a willowy, white-coated figure.

Houses with gaping black glass windows and oddly geometric garden beds, devoid of plants.
Disused railway line beside a cottage with colonial masonry.

He looks up at the clack and crunch of my cleats.

“Nathan?” he grins. “That was quick! Gimme five, I’ll meet you out front.”

When he emerges, he’s wearing khaki overalls. “Let’s go!” Where? “To a cave! You were curious, right?” We put my bike into his ute’s tray between ropes and duffel bags that clink as we shove them aside. The town recedes; familiar fields slide past. We retrace my morning ride, pass the pub, on our way to the kar­stic coast.

Look — this is supposed to be a story about volcanoes. Suffice to say: pharmacists be crazy, and caves are… y’know, I like an open road, sweeping vistas. I feel the pull of the dark, the truly unknown, but I haven’t finished exploring the surface.

Mount Gambier to Casterton
72 km (765 km)

I claw my way back to consciousness, fending off shrieking bats, dissolving walls, dust floating rubylike in a subterranean glow. On the road, I notice my shadow contort and flit from fence to fence and sometimes, for an instant, disappear entirely, and I wonder where it goes.

Today is an easy grind on country roads. The monotony is a needed reset. I settle into a comfortable mindlessness, let my legs take over. Brown fields, blue skies. Lowing of distant cattle, rasp of roadside grasshoppers. A border crossing with even less fanfare than before; not even a “Welcome to Victoria” sign.

Evening approaches. I arrive in Casterton, a sleepy town cradled in the meanders of the Glenelg River. Given a 1-in-1000-year flood, the pub and the bank would be the only buildings left poking above the water.

I settle into sighing grass by the river not having spoken a word all glorious day.


The sweep of a road that climbs up the side of a dormant volcano, covered in stumpy trees and yellow grasses.

Structures

Across the lands of the Gunditjmara & Eastern Maar peoples

Casterton to Hamilton
70 km (835 km)

More meditative miles through beaut land, hillier than yesterday. My thoughts turn to time. Camping trips, especially when solo, are best once synced with the sun: wake with the birds; walk or ride all day; sleep soon after dark. For me, this is their base appeal — this regression, or rather, retreat from industrial time, an awareness of other temporal patterns. One day I hope to do a long trip — six months at least — to relinquish modern rhythms, feel seasons change, watch flowers pulse to life.

A weird side effect of longer trips is becoming out of sync with people you meet along the way. They’re marching to the drumbeat of daily life, while the only thing on your agenda is to keep pedalling. I imagine the effect would be extreme after being on the road for six months, twelve months, more. Not unlike a soldier returning from service.

The spectre of war has been hovering for days — since the Great Ocean Road, really, the world’s largest memorial, carved from the cliffs by diggers who survived the First World War. It’s not a ghostly doubling of past conflict, like in Europe; history draped heavy over minor roads and mountains. The soil of Australia was similarly seeded with violence during the colonial frontier, but the mark of the World Wars is one of absence and almost subliminal awareness: roadside monuments, plaques, lines of golden ash and eucalyptus planted in their name.

I’m cruising down Casterton–Portland Road. Were I to follow it 100 km south, I’d end up at the surf break off Blacknose Point. Instead, I make a left, head due east on the single-lane Henty–Paschendale Road. Henty after the seven Henty brothers, the state’s first permanent agricultural settlers; Paschen­dale after a rural Belgian village, the final objective of a terrible five-month WWI campaign. The Battle of Mud. Half a million lives lost; 38,000 Australians dead. The Paschen­dale of Victoria — population 30 — was formerly Struan Estate, purchased by the government in 1919, renamed and subdivided into soldier settle­ment blocks.

Passing through Paschendale, I consider our furious fighting on this thin shell of the planet, the deep-time forces that fold the land, providing battlefield advantage and shelter. It reminds me of the uneasy connection between war and scientific progress, no better encapsulated than by geology’s immense leap forward in the 1950s and ’60s due to technology developed during WWII.

Plate tectonics theory is now indispensible to the earth sciences — akin to DNA and biology — and it arrived on waves of evidence provided by sonar, bathymetry, and seismic imaging. The tools to detect Soviet subs and nuclear strikes uncovered the stitching and magnetic striping of the sea floor — the very places that most earthquakes seemed to emanate! It’s easy to imagine the thrill of the scientists who made these sudden connections, a jigsaw puzzle coming together with pieces as large as continents.

A dirt road between quiet green fields, sun low, the next bend in shadow.
A tall town wall painted Mondrian-style.

Red dirt, whispering tussocks. Pooling shadow. A tawny calf on the wrong side of the fence, mother keeping watch. A black-shouldered kite whistles far above. I arrive in Hamilton, a large town that boasts an ALDI, two golf clubs, and a disused train station. Dinner by the dam, skipping stones along its glassy skin. Then, at the edge of town, I find a secluded spot by the creek to bed down.

Hamilton to Byaduk
38 km (873 km)

Snapping branches — a kangaroo? Phone check. 5:52. Twilight. I blearily unzip the vestibule and fly, come face-to-face with —

“Sorry to wake you!”

It’s a young doctor on placement in Hamilton, trying to glimpse a platypus.

“This isn’t the most direct path to the hospital, but I’ve visited the creek every morning for six weeks now — still no luck!” They’re nocturnal creatures active at dawn and dusk, hunting not by sight or smell but by electric fields; homing in on the muscular signals that betray hapless worms, shrimp and yabbies in the creekbed and currents.

I explain my trip and she’s enthusiastic, tells me to visit her friends if I need a place to stay in Ballarat. “Gotta run to my shift. Safe travels!”

As I stoop to refill my water bottles: silver ripples, the flash of a furred back.

An hour down the road is Mount Napier State Park. A dirt track winds upwards, terminating in a small car park, where I abandon my bike and use a steep walking trail to reach the summit of Tapoc (Mt Napier). At 440 metres in elevation, it’s the highest point of the entire western plains.

Wallabies munch on the flank below. A stretch of manna gum, blackwood, bracken. Farm boundaries compress in the middle ground, a geometry decorated by windmills, white streaks holding up the horizon.

I explore the crater, topped by ramparts of congealed spatter; remnants of a lava fountain that flared hundreds of metres high. As the lava was so runny, the flows could spread thinly over many kilometres before cooling, eventually joining up with the flows of nearby Budj Bim.

Sometimes, the surface of the flows froze in place, but lava continued to move beneath. When the hardened crust impeded the advancing lava, pressure could build and lead to bulges and cracks in the tubes. This produced lava tumuli — circular mounds of rock in otherwise flat terrain. Back in the saddle, riding southwest, I spot one hulking in the fields: a dark, house-sized blister amid nonchalant sheep.

Near Byaduk, two large sinkholes have formed. Collapsed lava tubes. I have no appetite nor rope to enter the cave system. Instead, I walk the perimeter, delighting in the profligate ferns. Before pteridomania can set in, I take a handful of saltbush to boil with dinner, and move on.

Byaduk itself isn’t a town so much as a church by the road. A peaceful place for a pause. I raise my tent behind the cemetery, wash my clothes, string ’em up between eucalypts, read in diaphanous shade, wander the headstones until sundown.

Byaduk to Caramut
74 km (947 km)

Sequential days of bright sun and bovine company have carved a groove; a golden doze of the mind to mirror the yellow fields, in which my muscles perform without supervision and my brain enters an entirely satisfactory stupor.

It’s in that languid, half-sensate frame of mind that I float into the Volcanoes Discovery Centre in Penshurst, absorbing the information panels and microscope displays like an archeologist in his tent, examining an artefact he’s just unearthed from the dig, slotting unknowns between the known.

So, too, do I slowly pedal up the road that wraps Kolorer (Mt Rouse), overlooking the town. I ascend some rickety stairs at the summit for a 360º view of patchwork farms spread over the stony rises, the blue-grey shapes of nearby Tapoc and Budj Bim. Fertile lands, rich in phosphorous, these red-brown soils, black loams and clays. And below, the porous rock of Kolorer’s flows sucks up rain and then releases it in low-lying swamps and microreliefs called gilgai.

In Caramut, aware that a few more days camping is ahead, I opt for a room in the pub, its bar room ceiling adorned by a huge Australian flag, and cop the owner’s ribbing when I realise I can’t eat anything on the menu. I settle for a schooner of Stone & Wood and a chip sandwich.


From an elevated view, a complex volcanic landscape can be seen, with crater lakes and lumpy hills, and in the distance, the flat surface of Lake Corangamite.

Lakes & Craters

Across the lands of the Eastern Maar & Wadawurrung peoples

Caramut to Camperdown
87 km (1,034 km)

I punch out the first hour under an eerie, blown-out white and the occasional bugle of a passing brolga on its way to the nearest wetland. The clouds burn away by the time I hit Mortlake, a cute town full of Monday bustle. I’ve become used to ghosting these places, rolling through in silence, and folks that turn to me do so because they sense a presence, even as they look right through my body.

Mt Shadwell rises in the fields north of town, past a tiny one-room chapel, a simple cone from afar, but as I close in and circle its perimeter, I see that it’s surrounded by smaller hills and rocky gullies. In fact, the cone is not even symmetrical, as I first thought — from the south, it’s an idle beast with curving back, cropped green fur and antennas for antlers.

This has clearly been the site of multiple eruptions in space and time. The land’s deformations and fiery origin are plain in the story of Murkupang, a sorcerer who devoured his mum-in-law’s grandchildren. To avoid retribution, he fled to this area, then sang and stamped to menace the mountain into shifting and parting such that he had shelter. Soon, however, warriors sent by his mum-in-law delivered his comeuppance by suffocating him in his cave with stringybark set alight.

Green on one side, brown the other, and at the vanishing point rises the green cone of Mt Shadwell.
A group of teens surrounding a ute face the camera, in front a row of houses with dirt everywhere one might expect paved surface.
On a wide road, a man of indeterminate age on a mountain bike looks over his shoulder.

A short stint later, I find the site of Mt Noorat similarly multifaceted. From the flat, I can’t tell where the main vent is. I pedal up a crescent, valley ribs flaring with mine, but it’s not until I dismount at road’s end and walk to a viewing platform that a vast, yellow-grassed crater opens up to me. Half a kilometre wide, 150 metres to the floor, nestled in the hills yet deeper than the surrounding plain.

I retrieve my panniers and return to the rim, eat my hummus wraps in contemplation. Trees hug the crater, leaning into the slope. A magpie warbles, exquisite. Ants appear from hidden fissures as if to remind me that their work makes a mockery of this surface complexity.

The afternoon sees me reach Camperdown, the largest settlement since Hamilton two days ago, and the only good chance to restock supplies for the next two. Tomorrow, I’ll make a dogleg north around the massive Lake Corangamite in sparsely populated country. Tonight, I idle over a pizza in town, waiting for night to fall, then camp surreptitiously by Lake Bullen Merri — a deep crater, possibly the conjoint of two or more maars, a three-kilometre cloverleaf of dark blue. The gentle chop of waves fills the tent, ensorcells me, fades to nothing.

A narrow road is flanked by shallow lakes on both sides, heavy clouds above.
Lumpy green hills indicative of volcanic behaviour, halfway up Mt Noorat.
Camperdown to Alvie
76 km (1,110 km)

The sky is dark as I rise, roll my mat, tie the tent to my rack. My hands are cold. Trees are violet blurs. Mists rise from the waters. Unseen thrushes and larks rhapsodise the nascent light. Carpe diem. I brush dew from my saddle, grip the clammy bars, head up and over the tuff rim that encloses the lake.

An access road takes me right to the summit of Mt Leura. The view overlooks Camperdown, a grid of houses bleeding into a rust of windbreak trees. Familiar elements by now, though this area, known as the Lakes & Craters district — a Ror­schach blot of blue, Lake Corangamite smeared in the centrefold — offers glitter in the early light, sapphires scattered by a giant hand.

I think about how early explorers and geologists didn’t have access to the celestial sight we now enjoy, accessible from the pocket. They drew their own maps from the vantage of hills and horseback. I think about how even now, stripped of utility, a good outlook has potency and a sense of the sacred.

The world laid in front of me: homes, schools, commerce, cemeteries. Three thousand lives, twinkling in and out of existence on billion-year-old bedrock. It’s all so small, and yet, and yet — 

An old yellow school bus parked in a driveway.
Cows gather in a field, the scene a split of bright green and blue, a scatter of clouds.

Having borne witness to the birth of the day, I descend back into town.

I loop east, pass Lake Purrumbete. Noon comes and goes. I fly along the shoulder of the Princes Highway for an hour, then take a left, pedal north. Suddenly, over an imperceptible rise: the endless sheen of Lake Corangamite, a hypersaline body of water that formed when lava flows dammed the streams of a lowland.

I set up shop in the shade nearest its shore. It’s an eldritch place, this stretch of empty road and vacant paddocks by the all-consuming salt. As I doze off, I wonder how deep the lake gets; how steep its sides. How far into its brackish warmth could I wade? If not for my bike, my tent, materials marking an absence, how long would pass before a helicopter spotted my pickled remains?

A strange hedge by the road, the lower half cropped and brown, topped by green mops of new growth.
The flat salt plain of Lake Corangamite stretching into the distance beneath a perfectly clear sky.
Alvie to Corindhap
63 km (1,173 km)

Salt in my nostrils. Honk of shelduck, frantic trill of plover. Morning.

After breakfast, it’s a short ride to the lookout. The air is sharp, the road is smooth. Red Rock is a beautiful place. Red Rock is a destroyed place. Thirty vents, spatter ramparts, layered tuff, the works. A surreal, bubbled landscape.

There are nine craters here, some filled, some not. The maars are the result, of course, of dramatic phreato­magmatic eruptions. When those had depleted the groundwater, the volcanic party was sustained by “dry” eruptions, more effusive than explosive, that produced scoria cones and partly buried the maars. And then the cycle started again, lasting as long as the magma.

I think about the early 18th-century dispute in geology between catastrophists, who held that sudden, brief events — volcanoes, earthquakes, great floods — shaped Earth’s features, and uniformitarians, who argued for slow, incremental forces over vast spans of time — rivers gradually eroding mountain valleys. The concept of gradual change dominated for a century, but more recently, certain extreme events are recognised as having exerted influence on geological formation.

A wooden walkway leads a short way up from the Red Rock carpark, black donut marks scribbled on the tarmac.
A two-lane road curves along a flat, white lake.
Cream-coloured dirt, burnt yellow fields, the fluffiest of white clouds you have ever seen.

As I depart Red Rock and continue north, I reflect on our present crisis, the winds of change that batter society. Martin Luther King Jr understood that both gradualism and catastrophism play their role: on one hand, he popularised the idea that the moral universe has an arc that, though long, “bends towards justice” — but a helping hand was sometimes due: when it came to segregation, gradualism was a “tranquilizing drug”.

Will the pandemic speed up needed improvements, more than it exacerbates the inequities? Like volcanoes, viruses are neutral to our needs. Time will tell. For the moment, I take in the dusty road, perfect cumulus clouds marching ever forward.


A forested hill rises above a red-tilled field.

Homeward

Across the lands of the Wadawurrung & Wurundjeri peoples

Corindhap to Ballarat
63 km (1,236 km)

From the reserve where I camped, it’s uphill all morning, leaving the plains and lakes behind. I love the steady rhythm of a continuous climb. As the sun draws higher, the valleys reveal themselves, and soon the view extends for kilometres, clear to today’s target: Mt Buninyong, whose name is often glossed as big hill (yowang) like a knee (bunning). From my current angle, it does indeed resemble a man lying on his back with his knee drawn up.

In Buninyong, the town at its base, I pop into a grocer for the day’s supplies. The roads here are generous, wider than ever required, laid down in the fracas and before the fizzle of the Victorian gold rush. In 1851, a blacksmith found a deposit in a gulley of the Buninyong ranges, sparking an influx of prospectors. That reef was soon exhausted, but in the meantime, more substantial deposits were found in nearby Ballarat — those lucrative fields that enticed von Guérard and company.

I slip my chain onto the biggest rear cog and spin up the mountain. At 745 metres, Mt Buninyong is one of the highest cones in Victoria — and the highest elevation that I’ll reach the entire trip. There’s a fire lookout tower at the top; I leap up its steel stairs to pop above the treeline. Goldfields country in every direction. During the rush, the flats would have been filled with tents and campfire smoke. To the north is Mt Warrenweip, which I’ll ascend tomorrow: a dark mass plonked in the fields, the only other forested scoria cone in the state apart from the one on which I stand.

Over an escarpment, a blanket of forest, pools of dark green pine in between lighter green natives.
Grand, two-story Victorian architecture lines a street.
An ex-corner shop still bears an old painted wall advertisement for Ballarat Bitter.

I fly back down to the flats, trace the Yarrowee River into Ballarat proper. Find my way to a mint-green weatherboard sharehouse. Last night I’d called the platypus-seeking doctor’s friend; I spot them now, on the verandah, feet on the railing. They hear me crunch into the drive, wave.

“Hey! You made it. Welcome to Wendouree!” It turns out the phrase is an oxymoron: the suburb’s name is from the adjacent Lake Wendouree, a dammed swamp, and derives from wendaaree (“go away”). Clearly, European settlers weren’t always conscious of whether the words they recorded were placenames.

After tea in the overgrown garden, lorikeets achatter, two housemates retrieve their bikes from the shed to give me a tour of the town, its heyday writ large in the staid Victorian architecture. I experience a tinge of melancholy. Just as Ballarat is past its peak, my trip is winding to a close. From here, it’s due east to Melbourne.

Ballarat to Lerderderg
75 km (1,311 km)

A lovely morning with new friends, then onwards. Half hour from town is Mt Warren­heip, that black stone dropped from the sky into the fields, but when I get to the top there’s no visibility nor amenities, so straight back down I go.

I cruise along Old Melbourne Road, passing ghost diggers on their way to Ballarat, faces alight with hope. There’s a moaning in the air. It takes me a minute to identify its source: traffic from the Western Freeway, out of sight, a few fields across. The construction of that road — the second busiest freight highway in Australia — broke ground in the 1960s and it’s been continually extended and upgraded ever since.

I remember that recently, a section near Ararat (an hour’s drive from Ballarat; a day’s ride west) has been a flashpoint. A proposed duplication of a problematic stretch threatens many culturally significant trees, some up to 800 years old, that are enduring Djab wurrung sites of birth and burial. Colonisation never ceases.

In a contemplative state, I enter Ballan, lunch, then split from the main road and zip through backroads to Mt Blackwood. It’s another scoria cone, sitting adjacent to the Lerderderg Ranges, which are eroded formations dating to tens or hundreds of millions of years. This distinction plays out visually: ancient, nutrient-poor sediments remain forested, while volcanic soils, rich in nutrients like iron and magnesium from the underlying basalt, are prime lands for cultivation.

From Mt Blackwood’s summit, the city’s outer suburbs are visible. I spy the shield volcano — Mt Cottrell — I visited almost three weeks ago. I return to the dirt roads and dense forest. At a creek crossing beneath messmate and white gums, I methodically set up my final campsite, listen to insects buzz, watch the moon come up over the canopy.

Lerderderg to Northcote
130 km (1,441 km)

Creek gurgling, birds melodious. Glory! Lying on my back, I watch mozzies bump against the vestibule. Now that the adventure is almost over, I dawdle. But a big day of riding awaits — one that ends at my front door. No bike disassembly to contend with, cramming parts into a cardboard box, no red-eye flight. I’ll finish my trip seconds from a shower and soft mattress. Resolved, I launch into action.

Rough tracks, an upward slant into a paling sky. My presence sends swamp wallabies crashing through the woods. Dust, dust, tarmac. I punch the downhill, reckless. Sunbury slides into view, still encircled by farmland, an exclave of the city. And an enclave within that exclave: Mt Holden’s yellow dome, its chin barely above the waters of suburbia.

As much as it’s easy to bemoan air-conditioned development consuming natural space, I get a certain thrill from this collision of the mystical and mundane. I wonder if the new homeowners know or care about the fact they live on the flank of a volcano. The real estate agents probably don’t mention the distant possibility of lava in the backyard. It’s all about the outlook!

Between black-trunked trees goes a cracked dirt road.
Mount Holden rises behind a new cul-de-sac only a minute from its summit, with a house under construction.
Beside the train line, native grassland bent in the wind.

I stop for brunch at a café in an industrial zone, gazing from my perch near the barista to the auto body shops arrayed around the cul-de-sac. Ten breaths later, a patch of salvaged native grassland along the train line. Then an hour spent with starlings and sheep and tussocks, every second bump a minor volcano. Through Mickleham, best known for its quarantine centre off Donnybrook Road, where every pet newly arrived in Australia must languish for ten days. Apropos that Donnybrook Road itself marks the northern extent of “metropolitan Melbourne”, an abstract concept most of us first grappled with when told not to leave its bounds for fear of infecting the country­side.

Apropos, too, that on this road lies the final site, the source of the molten extrusions that shaped the northern suburbs. Turning down the road, I seek a formation I first glimpsed online over three years ago, weeks into my move to Melbourne, having wondered at the history of a creek that I commuted along many kilometres to the south. This time I’m to see the volcano in the flesh.

A railroad crossing, a row of trees. Bright green fields, another low rubble wall, and there: a gentle slope, unmistakably Hayes Hill, as I have imagi — oh, my heart seizes. Interposed on the green are turquoise blotches, garish flapping signs that advertise a future housing estate. They’ve rebranded the site as Peppercorn Hill, named after an imported evergreen, a peppy arrogation complete with sculpture.

Dear, foolish heart. Hadn’t I marvelled at the same sight, albeit some years advanced, earlier this morning? Found poetic the vulgar vanquishing of a volcano? And yet from the side of the road I watch the landscapers with slack jaw, wishing they weren’t there.

The mud-tracked entrance to the new Peppercorn Hill development, the rebranded hill itself in sight a paddock across.
Along the Darebin Creek Trail bends a bluestone-paved road.

This was different. I knew this place. I’d seen its unbesmirched paddock on my laptop screen years ago, acknowledged its fiery deeds while riding in a valley cut through its lava. I thought then, and more so now, that it’s in naming and understanding our surroundings, even a nondescript hill, that a notion of place can — did — take root. That a sense of belonging can flourish. This seems to me a necessary condition for conservation. You can’t easily mourn what you never knew.

The day stretches on. I’m suddenly keen to get home, to settle my bones. I turn south to Wollert, then join oh-so-familiar Darebin Creek. This creek was the feature that seeded my curiosity about Melbourne’s volcanic history years ago, though I haven’t been this far upstream before, beyond the Western Ring Road.

Each bend lulls me into a recognisable reverie. When I first rode this path and felt this feeling, I’d only looked backward, awed by the ancient and powerful processes in plain sight for any who choose to look. After this strange excursion, I’m better aware of the layers — the geological and human histories — and I’ve glimpsed the transience of both, see more clearly that the present is in flux.

As I leave the creek, the trail abuts a basalt-paved street, its grey arm beckoning in a different direction.


Footnotes

  1. Dawson lamented the lake’s transformation into a “seething, stinking, mud-pool”, and persuaded the government to investigate the town drainage of nearby Koroit. Unfortunately, his activism came to naught. Worse still, the Council began quarrying Tower Hill the following year, which continued for 70 years. Justin & Clark (2014) offer a detailed history of the site. 
  2. “Koroit” itself, of the clan name and town, suggests volcanic activity, according to Dawson’s daughter, Isabella (the two of whom studied western Victorian Aboriginal languages). It may mean “smoking, hot ground” — toponymic evidence that humans witnessed the last eruption, or at least understood its marks on the landscape. For an overview of volcanism in oral traditions, see Nunn et al. (2019) and Wilkie et al. (2020)
  3. My long-extinct Tumblr blog extolled Jon Rafman’s Nine Eyes (an ongoing set of found images), Michael Wolf’s many distinct series, and obscure pieces like Greg Allen’s walking man. Recently, I also learned of Jenny Odell’s Travel by Approxi­mation, a virtual road trip through the United States. She cleverly inserted herself into found images (often, but not only from Google Street View) and wrote a diary that appropriated online reviews and other material as dialogue and exposition. 
  4. Besides the fact that such VR experiments have been done before, they preclude the non-linearity of my approach. I enjoyed jumping between adjacent streets (say, to glimpse a river path untraversed by Google) and even entire “days” of the trip, or re-doing sections to see what changed between time periods of footage. 
  5. The vents on the map are an illustrative subset of those published in Boyce (2013). And if you’re interested, you can see the route’s elevation profile (and get the GPX file) here
  6. I learned this in a pamphlet on Kororoit Creek published by Melbourne’s Living Museum of the West. Interestingly, there used to be many sources even closer to the city. Tim Edensor has pointed out that nearly every park in the inner northern suburbs was once a bluestone quarry or clay pit for bricks that’s since been filled in. 
  7. Many sources sketch the evolution and composition of the Werribee Plains to the degree I do here. To go deeper, see Hare & Cas (2005)
  8. The area between Geelong and Werribee is the driest part of southern Victoria due to the combined rain shadow of the Otway Ranges and ranges in the Ballarat region. 
  9. It’s worth noting that most extant dry stone walls in Melbourne’s west predate post-WWII migration. According to Vines (1990), they were built by immigrants from Great Britain between the 1850s (when land was first opened for sale) and 1880s (when barbed wire and other cheaper fencing options became preferred). Still, the crude walls I saw may have been (re)built more recently by farmers who lacked the requisite skills. At the least, I’d wager on the prickly pear being a more recent addition. 
  10. Kulin country is the combined territory of five nations centred on Narrm (Melbourne). You can hear a short, evocative story of Bunjil told by a Bunurong elder here
  11. This happens where tectonic plates are divergent (as is the case for the nearest boundary to the Otways; the Australian Plate, which separated from the Antarctic plate 45 million years ago, continues to move northward about 5 centimetres per year faster than its ex). Water that percolates into the crust is superheated, exchanging chemical elements with the rock, and then expelled. I learned this in Teach Yourself Geology by David Rothery, which also informed my understanding elsewhere in this piece. 
  12. If this interests you, “The Strange Lives of Polar Dinosaurs” explores their implications in more detail, and of course, there’s a relevant Wikipedia page
  13. The Ring of Fire, a horseshoe of tectonic activity around the Pacific Ocean, accounts for more than 75% of the world’s volcanoes and 90% of its earthquakes. 
  14. Here, I draw on Heath (2019) and The Edge of Memory by Patrick Nunn—though the latter’s main subject is the scientific dating of First Nations stories of coastal drowning at the end of the last glacial period. Well worth a read. 
  15. Victoria is laced with flat, gravelly tracks that once used to be logging railways. They make for pleasant, if somewhat dull, cycling… I prefer a good gradient! 
  16. Aboriginal micro-toponymy was sourced from the ethnography of James Dawson (1881), as reported in Clark (2009)
  17. Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing: “Learning the names of things was my first step in perceiving not just ‘land’ or ‘greenery’, but living bodies […] And at some point, this led to something in excess of disinterested observation — not just with [birds], but with everything, the plants and the rocks and the fungus. Eventually, to behold is to become beholden to.” 
  18. For a detailed history and evaluation of the Tower Hill rehabilitation programme, including the identification of precolonial flora, see Anderson (1995)
  19. The Gunditjmara eel traps are a linchpin of Bruce Pascoe’s remarkable book Dark Emu, which draws together early settlers’ accounts to explode the idea that all First Nations peoples were (only) hunter-gatherers. 
  20. At time of writing, of course, the South Australian border is patrolled by police and indefinitely closed to Victorian tourists. Hence, y’know, this whole project. 
  21. This story was recorded in 1880 by Christina Smith, a teacher and missionary. My retelling is based on the discussion of Wilkie et al. (2020), who speculate that the bullin’s shriek may have been escaping groundwater steam. 
  22. I’ve had many great Warmshowers experiences that revolve around hosts’ adventurous hobbies, from the wild stories of a mountaineering couple in the Pyrenees who ski on their lunch break, to a moonlit rock climb with a fellow in a village east of Avignon. 
  23. There were over 60 documented massacres of Aboriginal people in a 15-year span in Victoria alone as settlers pushed them from their tribal lands. The Gunditjmara people near Budj Bim resisted for decades. Clark (1995) compiled an illuminating register of massacres in western Victoria (1803–59), the first such histiography of one Australian region. I also recommend Grace Karsken’s People of the River (that is, the Hawkes­bury–Nepean River in Sydney) to grok the slow and cumulative violence of colonisation. 
  24. This article provides information about Australian involvement in the Ypres campaign, and I read about Paschendale’s soldier settlement here. The scheme wasn’t altogether successful in Victoria, as apparently most soldiers left their blocks after two decades. 
  25. I became aware of this connection in an interview with geologist David Montgomery. It’s not in the transcript — you gotta listen to the unedited version! To learn about the development of plate tectonics theory, start with the Vine–Matthews–Morley hypothesis and keep clicking. 
  26. Pteridomania (pteridophyte + mania) was a fern craze in England from the 1850s to ’90s, and in The Colonial Image, Tim Bonyhady suggests that colonists and visitors to Australia were smitten with the size of Australian ferns. Eugene von Guérard was not immune, with fern tree gullies among his favoured subjects to paint. 
  27. Robert Louis Stevenson, An Inland Voyage: Gliding effortlessly seaward in a canoe, day after sunny day, “we began to slip into that golden doze of the mind which follows much exercise in the open air. I have stupified myself in this way more than once: indeed, I dearly love the feeling; but I never had it to the same degree as when paddling down the Oisé. It was the apotheosis of stupidity.” 
  28. Here, I again draw on Wilkie et al. (2020), who themselves rely on a recording of the story by ethnologist R. H. Mathews in 1904. 
  29. Kobayashi Issa (1763–1828): “this dewdrop world / is a dewdrop world / and yet, and yet…” 
  30. From his “I Have a Dream” speech (1963): “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.” 
  31. For more about First Nations placenames, see The Land is a Map and this factsheet. It’s also worth quoting John Dunmore Lang on this topic, from a letter written in 1840: “Indeed, the infinity of the native names of places, all of which are descriptive and appropriate, is of itself a prima facie evidence of their having strong ideas of property in the soil; for it is only where such ideas are entertained and acted on, that we find, as is certainly the case in Australia, nullum sine nomine saxum [no stone (is) without a name/without a tale to tell].” 
  32. Djab wurrung members and their allies established a protection embassy near the proposed roadworks in 2018. In October 2020, while most Victorians were celebrating the premier’s announcement that lockdown restrictions were to be eased, police used their newly invested COVID-19 powers to arrest and move on dozens of protestors. In their absence, one of the trees was felled. 
  33. Development in Sunbury also encroaches on 1000-year-old earth rings, possibly the site of Wurundjeri ceremonies, but their exact purpose is currently lost to history. One at the base of Mt Holden is circled by houses, and several more are next to Jackson Creek. 

Glossary

basalt
by far the most common igneous rock; fine-grained, dense and dark
composite
steep, conical volcano composed of stratified materials
diapir
a less dense body of rock that pierces through denser rock
gilgai
ephemeral, soggy clay depressions that swell and shrink
igneous
rock type formed by cooled magma (from Latin ignis meaning “of fire”)
lithosphere
rigid, outer shell of the Earth comprising the crust and upper mantle
maar
shallow volcanic crater from a phreatomagmatic eruption
mantle
thick layer of rock that begins 7–35 km underneath the crust
phreatomagmatic
caused by interaction between magma and groundwater
Pleistocene
most recent glacial period (11,700–2,580,000 years ago)
scoria
dark, vesicular (pitted) rock formed during eruptions
shield
low-profile volcano formed by highly fluid lava flows
spatter
welded fragments from a lava fountain exiting a vent
tephra
catch-all term for fragmentary material produced by eruptions
tuff
relatively soft rock made of volcanic ash (fine tephra particles)
tumuli
hummocks of rock caused by pressure that ruptures a lava tube

Colophon

This counterfactual bike tour was inspired by Craig Mod’s (factual) Ise-ji: Walk With Me, which had me seek a local adventure and provided initial design cues.

Body text is set in Calibre and headings in Fruktur (which I think evokes magma oozing from cracks). The numbered icons are Concourse Index. All screenshots of Google Street View were unedited but for cropping, and shown with PhotoSwipe and LazyLoad. I created the graphic dividers by vectorising cooled lava. I planned the route in Ride with GPS and show it on a custom-styled Leaflet-powered map.

Lastly, I did my cycling — real and imagined — on a well-loved Surly Disc Trucker.