The hills around Victoria’s Latrobe Valley are spooky. There are stories of cattle suddenly stampeding as they crest the rise overlooking Lake Narracan, and tales of strange sounds and rhythmic thumping coming from the ground beneath your feet. There’s lore of an ethereal stockman roaming these hills searching for his herd, and before white settlers reached Gippsland, the traditional owners took a wide berth around the area, because it was rumoured to be haunted.
Whether or not the aptly named Haunted Hills between Newborough and Morwell is a paranormal hotspot, the folks behind Gippsland’s newest riding destination are leaning into the hair-raising mythology of the region — though there is a cemetery next door, so it might actually be haunted.
Need to know
- The first stage of the Haunted Hills Mountain Bike Park is nearly complete with 12km of machine-built singletrack.
- Located between Newborough and Morwell Haunted Hills is 145km from the Melbourne CBD.
- Haunted Hills will fit into a larger mountain bike destination encompassing seven trail networks in Gippsland.
Stage one of the project encompasses a 39-hectare site and will open 12km of singletrack on Halloween weekend (30-31 October 2021); the Haunted Hills Bike Park results from nearly a decade of work.
Beyond the ghastly roots of this development, it hasn’t manifested through the traditional channels where the project was led by the council, which secures the funding, conducts the environmental assessments, and ensures all the planning permits are in order. Instead, the Gippsland MTB Club was the catalyst.
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A grassroots bike park
After spending time overseas and riding places like Whistler and Fort William, Nick King, who has long been involved with the Gippsland MTB Club, and is now a Project Manager with Destination Gippsland, met with the mayor and local council in 2011 to propose building something that would bring that bike park experience to southeastern Victoria.
“The council put it to us: ‘if we found the land for you to build a bike park, would the club be interested?’ We were like, ‘hell yeah!’ As it worked out in the Haunted Hills, there was council-owned land which had a tip next to it, and a transfer station. Where we ended up was the old depot area.”
Situated just off the Princes Highway and a little over an hour east of Melbourne’s outer suburbs, Haunted Hills will serve as a gateway network to a larger destination project called the G7 (Gippsland 7), a group of seven unique bike parks based around central Gippsland.
The seven parks will eventually include Maryvale Pines, Somewhere Good, Blores Hill, Avon-Mt Hedrick, Erica, Mt Baw Baw and of course Haunted Hills.
Pulling this overarching project together will involve six councils, a web of government land managers and private landowners, all working together. While sometimes getting this many stakeholders to be on the same page can be a bit like hearding cats, the roots of this project were laid out in the Gippsland Tracks and Trails feasibility study. Spurred in part by the events of the last two years, each independent interest is motivated to push the initiative forward.
“Since we’ve had the Black Summer and the floods, we’re also in a pandemic, and local governments are looking at visitor economy and tourism projects,” King says. “We’re all locked-down at the moment, but the bike parks are absolutely chockers because you’re still allowed to go riding.”
King’s goal, is to make the G7 a nationally significant trail destination, and once completed will offer over 250km of singletrack, within a 60km radius, with the main nodes at Traralgon, Morwell and Moe accessible by public transport.
“Haunted Hills is like the signature gateway, and then in Traralgon, the next town over there is 20km in a pine forest. Go to Glengarry (Somewhere Good) where you can ride in state forest which is all eucalypt. Go to Erica, and you have cool temperate rain forest, or up to Mt Baw Baw where it’s sub-alpine, then go to Blores Hill which is in a rain shadow, so it’s dry year-round — even in the middle of winter, it’s perfect. Then you’ve got Avon-Mt Hedrick for backcountry wilderness riding,” he says.
King says they are also working on the Baw Baw Adventure Ride, which starts at Mt Baw Baw resort and descends first to the Erica Bike Park, and the former gold mining town of Walhalla, before connecting Glengarry Bike Park, and finishing in Traralgon.
“It’s almost a 100km adventure ride you would do over two days, or you can do legs of it. Think of it like an IMBA Epic that ties in an alpine resort, a gold mining village, an old timber town and then hits a railway line back into town,” says King.
What is the Haunted Hills Bike Park like?
King was inspired by the feeling you get when you ride up to the bottom of Whistler Bike Park, and you can look up the hill and see the playground that awaits. That’s what he wanted for Haunted Hills.
“When you come into the park, it’s pretty amazing,” says Garry Patterson, the Director of Trail Scapes. “You’re looking across the valley, and you have this awesome view of all the killer trails right there in front of you, it’s pretty impressive. It’s not often you turn into a trailhead, and everything is right there in front of you like that.”
“It doesn’t have that big mountain vibe because the hill is a lot smaller,” continues King. “But it’s not just a normal trailhead; you can see seven trails in the main depot area; you have five descents and two climbs all visible from the bottom.
These are only short descending and climbing trails, but they sum up the ethos of the network. Almost every trail network aims to offer something for every rider, but the design of Haunted Hills puts an emphasis on progression. Danny Dilger, who runs Gippy Cycles and coaches juniors with the local MTB club, says this focus on building skills is what has him fired up.
“The exciting thing for me is that there are blue, green and black trails that all run alongside each other. So a lot of the kids that we coach on the road and mountain bikes can run those trails parallel to each other and build up skills, that will be absolutely huge for us — including me. It’s going to give you the chance to do a blue run and then try a black run, and then go to the other runs with the big gap jumps, so you can build your confidence gradually,” he says.
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These descents are only a portion of the network, and there will also be a pump track in the shape of a skull and crossbones, as well as kids trails you can roll a Stryder bike down and janky double blacks that will test your technical skills.
Ben Oliver, Trail Scapes’ Head Trail Builder at the Haunted Hills Bike Park, tells Flow the only thing the trails lack is rocks, and they have had to import most of the geological features where needed.
“The top 200mm of soil is organic, that’s the really black looking stuff. From there it turns to sand, and then if you’re lucky you can get really good clay as well,” he says.
Oliver says they have been relying on borrow pitting on the flow and jump trails to utilise as much of this clay as they can to improve durability and help trail features hold their shape. This handy work has already been put to the test.
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“Traralgon just had a one in 25-year weather event and experienced drastic flooding — there were cars floating away in car parks. After that, it (the trails) held up really well, we had a few things to patch up, but we were astounded to see how well it turned up when we arrived on Monday morning,” he says.
The first stage of the trail network is all machine built. King says this is because the initial section of the network is designed to cast a wide net and attract riders of all levels from Melbourne and the outer eastern suburbs.
“Our black trails are still machine built, but a bit tighter, a bit skinnier and running through the tea tree that’s on the site,” he says.
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“For Stage two, which the Victorian Government has now committed to fund, we are working on a detailed design with Garry and the team (from Trail Scapes), that’s going to be more old school, so more techy trail riding. We are also building a journey loop because we will have 60-hectares, and there will be space for it. So you can knock off work and go do a one hour loop without having to descend, climb, descend, climb, descend, climb,” he says
Thanks to a $1-million grant from the Victorian Government, stage two will roughly double the footprint of the Haunted Hills Bike Park. King tells Flow they are already working on funding for stage three, which would double the area again.
Nearly complete, the park is opening with a bang, with Rocky Trail Entertainment coming in to run ghostly editions of the Fox Superflow Enduro and a four and six-hour Shimano GP — provided that Coivd restrictions allow for it to go ahead.
Dilger tells Flow the excitement is reaching a boiling point, with his shop fielding phone calls from Melburnians asking for updates on the park, and locals have been putting orders in for 150-160mm travel bikes to suit the terrain of the park.
King says he has not had a single bit of negative feedback in the decade he has been working on this project and the wider community sees the value it will bring to their town.
“I think any kind of community-based development is a good thing. As humans, we all have different interests, and that will attract a different market and bring in a different demographic, with different needs, and it will bring businesses that are aligned with that particular development,” says Hrishi Venkatachalam, the owner of the 3844 Bar and Café in Traralgon.
” The bike park situation is good because it’s healthy, it’s getting people fit, and getting them outdoors. It’s really a win, win,” he says.
The Local Beta
Haunted Hills Bike Park is just off the Princes Highway between Newborough and Morewell, about 2-hours from Melbourne CBD.
King tells us the best place for a beer is the Good Land Brewery, or if you’re in the mood for a cocktail, toddle over to The 3884 bar.
To satisfy a ghastly post-ride hunger, check out Moe Hot Bread for Bahn Mi or Little Prince.
For a caffeine fix on the way to the trails, King recommends Cont Speciality Coffee Bar.
There are two major bike shops in town Gippy Cycles and S & J Cycles.
For more info on the Haunted Hills bike park, follow them on Instagram or check out the Gippsland MTB website