Earlier this week, while leading a ghost tour through the Monaro, I guided my troupe of intrepid paranormal purveyors into the Bombala Heritage Restaurant for a candle-lit dinner.
This stately circa 1866 former bank building is our usual haunt for these spooky outings, but tonight something is different. Haphazardly propped up against the walls are at least a dozen two–dimensional orange cut-out bicycles.
Curious as to their purpose, I ask our host Les Atkins about their origins. Perhaps the spirits rumoured to lurk in the cellar vault have taken up cycling as a past-time?
"No, they're for owners of other businesses in town to collect over the next week and display in their shops as a show of support for the Monaro Rail Trail," explains Atkins who clearly appreciates the diversion from my over-zealous ghost busters who, since our arrival, have been scanning him with EMF meters for signs of spirit activity.
For the uninitiated, rail trails are popping up on disused railway lines all over the world, with notable success in Victoria and New Zealand, and similarly the Monaro Rail Trail is an ambitious plan to turn the 208km railway corridor from Queanbeyan to Bombala, which closed in 1989, into a mecca for recreational cyclists.
Further, it appears as if the proliferation of cut-out bikes isn't just in Bombala, for after a long night chasing shadows, next morning while driving through Nimmitabel several shops have similar orange cut-outs proudly displayed in their windows.
"We're set to become a mini-Braidwood," declares one hopeful shop-owner peddling antiques in the old 19th-century general store. While his claim might be a tad optimistic, there are a couple of other new businesses in town. Following the closure of the railway, a series of droughts and contraction of the timber industry, after a couple of decades of decline Nimmitabel is staging a recovery of sorts and the rail trail is viewed by many as the shot in the arm the town needs.
As Steve Rickett, proprietor of the cheery Bellz Café which sits up against the haunted (a story for another day), Royal Arms B&B points out, "this rail trail would be great for Nimmitabel, in fact all the towns along the old line from Queanbeyan to Bombala."
However, not all locals are keen on the concept. Some farmers are especially concerned with cyclists riding through their paddocks, where, although the rail corridor remain gazetted as Crown land, they now graze sheep and cattle.
One farmer who definitely doesn't need convincing of the benefits of a rail trail is Will Jardine, a fifth generation Nimmitabel cocky. And it's little wonder, he has owned the town's iconic bakery for the past seven years, and we all know how much the lycra brigade love a good pie and cappuccino. Although with a handshake firmer than a blacksmith's grip on an anvil, its obvious Jardine leaves the baking duties to his bubbly wife Caroline.
I pull up a seat in the bakery's picnic area, directly under the gaze of "George", a larger-than-life elephant sculpture transported here from Bali by a previous owner as a talking point to keep the cash register ringing.
"We won't need fake elephants to entice people here if the rail trail goes ahead," says Jardine, who admits he has a vested interest in the project, "sure, businesses like mine would benefit, but I'm also pro rail trail for other reasons".
"Under the watch of the older generation, towns like Nimmitabel and Bombala have fallen from prosperity to hardship and this rail trail offers an opportunity to reverse that.
"I want to see Michelago, Bredbo, Nimmitabel and Bombala rejuvenated and all fired up again."
According to Jardine, who is also a keen cyclist, and his fellow members of Monaro Rail Trail Inc, a committee set-up to lobby for community and government support for their cause, another benefit of their proposed rail trail is the conservation of heritage-listed timber bridges and stations, fast falling beyond a state of repair after three decades of neglect.
"It's much, much cheaper to update a bridge to carry a bike or two than to support a train," he explains.
Jardine is hoping to drum up more support for the rail trail next weekend when L'Étape Australia – a cycling race endorsed by Le Tour de France – attracts thousands of riders to the Snowy Mountains.
"We will have these orange bikes everywhere by then," exclaims Jardine, adding, "although competitors will be on road bikes, as part of the cycling community we hope many will be sympathetic to our concept."
After bidding farewell to Jardine (OK, I did sneak in another pie), I wander down to the Nimmitabel Train Station, once the beating heart of this town.
It's dilapidated to say the least. Dodging grazing cattle, avoiding tall thistles and ducking under an old gantry, I try and pedal a short distance along the track but you can't go far without having to turn around at a partially-collapsed bridge.
But wow, imagine if the rail corridor was brought up to a standard to allow you to pedal on a smooth surface between the tracks - I know I'd come just for the views of the rolling green hills, backed by the spectacular snow-capped spine of the snowy mountains.
Further, imagine if the old timber station was spruced up as a café and the fettler's shed reinvented as bunkhouse for weary cyclists. The potential is endless.
This column often waxes and wanes over the stark beauty of the Monaro, with its boulder fields, rivers and mountains. A rail trail would expose these landscapes to a new generation of travellers and at the same time bolster local economies thereby helping prevent places like Nimmitabel from turning into, dare I say it, ghost towns.
Monaro Rail Trail Inc: For videos, photos and details on the proposed rail trail www.monarorailtrail.com.au
L'Étape Australia by le Tour de France: This unique road cycle event staged on December 2 in the Snowy Mountains provides an experience as close to riding in the Tour de France as it is possible for an amateur to get. For information on competitors or spectators (don't forget your cow bells!): www.letapeaustralia.com/
Having explored much of the length of the Monaro railway corridor, here are my top three points of interest.
This 161 metre single tracked tunnel which cuts through granite and bluestone quartz is lined with half a million bricks made at Bredbo.
This unassuming bridge which spans the railway cutting near the top of Ingelara Hill supposedly played a role in Russian secret agent Vladimir Petrov's covert activities during the Cold War. According to local folklore, under the cover of "a Sunday drive", Petrov and his wife would regularly head south form Canberra along the Monaro Highway. When Petrov reached this railway cutting, he would apparently park beside the road and leave secret documents under the bridge for another operative to pick-up.
An unexpected site on a lonely stretch of track between Nimmitabel and Bombala, this three story concrete and corrugated iron ruin of the Maclaughlin Meat Works is often coined "the white elephant of the Monaro". It opened in 1939 and employed 90 people processing pigs, cattle and sheep but was plagued by problems including drought and militant workers and operated for only three years.