Takes you places

An Outback Odyssey by Bicycle

ABW has opened lots of doors for me since joining 16 years ago to get back into my long lost interest of bushwalking. As well as walking and kayaking, ABW also offered bike riding activities, especially in the warmer months. These range from social day rides to extended touring and camping rides in the Flinders Ranges and elsewhere. Like a few other members I now enjoy the full range of bike riding from mountain bike to road riding.

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    Bunyeroo Valley
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    Large sections of mud had to be traversed on the ride, near Tanunda
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    Morilana Drive looking up at Wilpena Pound
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    The rolling hills of the mid north
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    The welcome sight of the Blinman Hotel

ABW has opened lots of doors for me since joining 16 years ago to get back into my long lost interest of bushwalking. As well as walking and kayaking, ABW also offered bike riding activities, especially in the warmer months. These range from social day rides to extended touring and camping rides in the Flinders Ranges and elsewhere. Like a few other members I now enjoy the full range of bike riding from mountain bike to road riding.

Most walkers know about the Heysen Trail and a few Club members have walked its full length. While walking the Heysen you will often see trail markers for the Mawson Trail, a cycling alternative, which shares the same route in quite a few places.

I’d become increasingly interested in the Mawson Trail which runs from Adelaide, Gorge Rd, to Blinman at the front bar of the pub. This year I was offered two opportunities to ride it, a private, self-supported, bike touring ride and a fully-supported, organised ride with 200 other enthusiasts.

As much as I enjoy travelling and camping in remote areas and being away from the ‘mob’ I have also developed a liking for extended, organised and supported bike rides such as the Great Victorian Bike Ride which can have around 4000 people of all ages, shapes and sizes participating.

These rides can be a bit crowded sometimes, however everyone spreads out over time and distance wise, and these rides also have a lot to offer. Firstly, and possibly foremost, is the opportunity to ride and, for once, dominate some roads with likeminded people most of whom you get on with very well. Being supported and fully catered for makes life easy so you just have to ride and put up your tent. Having routes planned and signed and marshalled, where required, allow you to just ride and enjoy the countryside and the places you pass through. All very relaxing and enjoyable while getting some moderate exercise.

So I opted to do the ‘Outback Odyssey’, the fully supported ride along the Mawson Trail organised bi-annually by Bike SA. As it turned out it was a good decision. I very much enjoyed the camaraderie of the approximately 200 other participants and I particularly appreciated the organisation, support and catering without which I don’t think I’d have managed the ride, especially not in 15 days.

The Outback Odyssey provides you with a full set of maps and additional signage where needed along the trail, three meals a day plus snacks at morning and afternoon rest breaks. Accommodation is in your own tent which, with your other gear, is transported in a truck between campsites. For an extra fee you can have a tent erected for you at each campsite.

Catering is done in the towns along the route by the local communities in their local halls, clubrooms or in a large marquee that travels with the ride. Portable toilets and showers are available at each camp site. Volunteers man the rest stops and assist with the ride logistics and there is medical support, a mobile bike mechanic, marshals on bicycles to assist if required and a sag wagon if you or your bike can’t finish a day’s ride.

The catering was excellent, wholesome and plentiful country style food of a good standard washed down in the evenings with beer and local wines of your preference. After a long, hard, wet, cold and muddy day all was well again when you joined your new friends in a warm hall for a chat, a laugh and plenty of wine and food. We even had cooked breakfasts on four or five days. At the end of the ride there were buses to take people, gear and bikes back to Adelaide. There were options of doing just one or two sections of the ride, each approximately a third of the total distance. The cost of the full ride was around $2100 plus any bike repairs and spares, coffee stops, beverages and incidentals. Most days, if you made an early 7.30am start when the route opened, an average rider, barring incidents and not too many punctures or beer stops, could be in the next campsite by lunchtime or mid-afternoon, leaving plenty of time to make camp, have a shower, a coffee or a beer and a nanna nap or a walk around the town before dinner at 6pm.

The demographic on this last ride was a little surprising to me. Around 50% of riders were from interstate with a few from overseas as the Outback Odyssey develops a reputation amongst mountain bike enthusiasts. The average age of riders was 55 with around 15% being 70 or over. The level of fitness and skill of some of the older men and ladies was quite remarkable given the rough and strenuous nature of mountain bike riding. They are a tough, capable bunch. I’d done some mountain bike touring and camping previously but was not quite ready for the rigours and challenges of this ride and had to work hard to get to the bar at the Blinman Pub!

The intention of the Mawson Trail is to provide an interesting, mostly off-bitumen ride for mountain bikes. Some of it, like the Heysen Trail, is a bit plain and through farm land on dirt roads. In quite a few places it is a more challenging ‘single track’, that is a rough, off road route for bikes or walkers only, through creeks, forest, scrub and quite rough country some of which, when wet, is unrideable and almost unwalkable. There are a lot of spectacular views and pleasant countryside to ride through but you have to keep your eyes on the track! A few sections of the single track were challenging for even the stronger and experienced riders and on many of those steeper, rougher sections I joined many others in walking our bikes up, down, through or around these obstacles.

There were a few sections where, in my opinion, the Mawson Trail goes too far out of the way onto tedious farm back roads for no reason other than to avoid a stretch of bitumen. A few slower riders did take bitumen short cuts but most stayed on the track. I resorted to the bitumen once due to a mechanical failure when a broken cable left me with only three gears instead of 27 to limp to camp with and also when the organisers directed us away from some muddy sections a couple of times. The ‘young guns’ and some fit older riders rode those sections anyway and covered themselves in glory and lots of mud.

The ride started in Victoria square at 9am on 9th May and we were escorted down King William St and across the Torrens to get onto the Linear Park bike track to ride to Gorge Rd. Then came the first sign of things to come – a very steep climb (walk) on a soggy track on our way towards that night’s camp on the Lobethal oval. That night we were hit by the quite severe storm which went through the State and brought with it rain and strong, cold wind which dogged us for the next three days. The wind was actually blowing me off the track in places.

After Lobethal the stops were at Tanunda, Riverton, Burra, Hallett, Spalding, Laura, Melrose, Quorn, Hawker, Rawnsley Park, Wilpena, Blinman (Alpana Station). There were much welcomed rest days at Burra and Melrose also used for washing, bike cleaning and repairs.

It was, for me, an interesting and challenging ride from which I learnt a lot about mountain bike riding. If I was going to do it again and get into this type of riding I’d be investing in a better, more capable bike although my old ‘truck’ got me through and didn’t let me down except for the cable breakage under extreme conditions. I’d also get some lessons in dealing with the rough terrain. You will always get through, even by walking, but having the right bike and some skills and experience can make it much easier and more fun.

The best parts of the ride were the last two thirds and especially the final sector from Melrose and through the Flinders Ranges notwithstanding some quite exciting track sections and some really long, frustrating, corrugated dirt roads. One feature that most people don’t see is the large water channel network and the impressive viaduct, all now unused, near Spalding. It is an amazing piece of local engineering history and now part of the Heysen and Mawson Trails. Riding through the Wirrabara forests was fun and challenging and I also enjoyed seeing Herbert Wilkin’s restored childhood home near Mt Bryan for the first time. Everyone should know about ‘our’ Herbert but many don’t.

The rest day at Melrose was very enjoyable and provided time to take in the history of the town, the old jail and police station being a must-see. The locals catered very well for us and there is also a really great bike shop in Melrose that provides bikes and gear for the many mountain bike trails in the area. They do a great coffee as well and the shop is well worth a visit. A few hardy (silly) souls used their day off to explore these local riding trails.

Riding through the Flinders was great but not always easy due to steep, sharp climbs in places and some rough sections. You’ve also got to keep your eyes on the road but there was a lot of ‘oohing and aahing’ coming from the interstate and overseas visitors enjoying the scenery for the first time.

The Mawson Trail is marked but some signs are easily missed. I went my own way a couple of times but only to a minor extent. You are occasionally riding alone so having the maps handy is essential.

In attempting to put into practice what I’d been told by the ‘experts’ about negotiating rough sections of track, ie ‘ just keep going and charge through it’ I came off a few times, albeit and luckily, with only a bruised ego, so I tended to let discretion be the better part of valour and let my feet do the walking. Maybe with a better bike and more ‘balls’ and maybe 20 years ago I’d do better.

As far as I know there was only one significant accident/fall during the ride causing a broken collar bone. There was also a fractured wrist but that guy kept riding with his splint. There was some serious damage to bike gears, especially in the muddy sections so the mechanic was kept busy.

Our longest day was 112kms (Quorn to Hawker) which was a very long day but through relatively easy and flat terrain and mostly on reasonable unsealed road. The average day was 70km however some of the harder days were shorter on tougher terrain and roads.

We had a short day from Rawnsley to Wilpena, virtually a rest day, but I’d picked up a head cold by then so didn’t mind at all having a quiet afternoon at Wilpena while some interstate visitors climbed St Mary Peak. The very last leg of the ride was 20km uphill on the bitumen to Blinman. I’d ridden that morning’s picturesque, mostly off road section with tired legs and a runny nose hoping I could get to the bitumen and the last lunch stop without incident and I was extremely pleased when I did. Then after lunch, it was off on the gentle, but uphill, slog to the Blinman Pub. I was so very pleased to join the happy, noisy throng gathering and celebrating at the pub before the 5km ride back along the bitumen to Alpana for the night. I had a pic taken, went to the Pub bar, ordered a double whiskey on the rocks and a coffee and quietly and gratefully sat and enjoyed my achievement.

After erecting my tent at Alpana, having a shower, a Panadol and a nanna nap I was ready for an enjoyable evening of celebration in the dining marquee with fellow riders and that’s what it turned out to be with music, end-of-ride presentations and banter. The bus left for Adelaide at 9am the next morning after a lovely cooked breakfast.

I can thoroughly recommend the Mawson Trail ride to any bushwalking bike riders who’d like a different challenge and to see the countryside from a different aspect. I can also recommend the ‘Outback Odyssey’ event as a great way to do it if that suits you.

I would definitely recommend having a good mountain bike, having some serious practice at mountain bike track riding and being bike fit. Having said that, you could still get a lot out of it by taking bitumen short cuts if, and where, required if that suited you – you would not be entirely alone.

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Categories: Cycling, Flinders Ranges

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