"Takes you places"

The Mawson Trail – Bushwalking on Steroids

Armed with a borrowed mountain bike and trailer, I set off on May 1 to do the Mawson Trail. I had allowed 15 days. Two others were with me - Brian Slater, the only ABW member who joined this ride, and purely by chance Adam Taylor; a young man who was riding from Melbourne to Darwin via the Oodnadatta Track.

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    Me and my rig - only one is upright at this stage
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    Mawson often follows the Heysen Trail
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    Outside of Wilpena
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    Simonston - The town that never was
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    Up - near the end. Hard work with a trailer
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    Willochra Creek
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    Lord, give me a sign
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    A gate in the Flinders
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    A taste of mud
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    Brian and Adam out of Kapunda
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    Call that a road
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Armed with a borrowed mountain bike and trailer, I set off on May 1 to do the Mawson Trail. I had allowed 15 days. Two others were with me – Brian Slater, the only ABW member who joined this ride, and purely by chance Adam Taylor; a young man who was riding from Melbourne to Darwin via the Oodnadatta Track.

Prior to our departure, Brian and I had our bikes checked by my son Adam, himself a bike mechanic par excellence, who indicated some work Brian’s bike needed and gave us a lesson in basic bike mechanics in case we got into trouble on the trail. We were unsupported except for a SPOT tracker device.

We knew bad weather was coming so we decided to leave a day earlier than planned. It was a fine day when we set off from the new footbridge next to the Festival Theatre in central Adelaide.

Adam Taylor had already ridden some 1500 kilometres with his panniers to get to Adelaide but for Brian and me, getting used to the weight of panniers in his case and a single wheeled trailer in mine, took some time. When we reached the end of the Torrens Linear Park and the start of the Mawson Trail, we at least knew we could steer our bikes and remain upright!

After a couple of kilometres up Gorge Road we turned right onto a dirt track which marked the beginning of the mischief. So steep and rough was this road that our back tyres spun on the dirt requiring us to dismount and push the bikes most of the way up the slopes. But at least it was dry and the sun was shining.

I was half way to Lobethal in the middle of an impenetrable forest when a vertical axle broke on my trailer. Was this the end of my ride? Out of nowhere a forest ranger appeared and offered to take my trailer into Lobethal where I managed to fix it that afternoon. Was it my lucky or unlucky day? That night we camped outside the Lobethal Horse Riding Clubrooms and scored a good meal at the sports ground where the manager offered us free hot showers the next morning.

Next day we were off in near perfect conditions; destination Tanunda. The ride, predominantly on unsealed roads and vehicular tracks, took us through some beautiful country although we lost the official Mawson Trail a few times due to poor signage / inattention. Weighed down with our stuff, about 35 kg each with water, camping kit, clothes and food, it was harder going than we thought, and we had to call it a day at Rowland Flat where we camped in less than ideal conditions on a council reserve.

Next morning we were off again at 8 am heading for Riverton. An hour in Tanunda where we bought supplies from the local IGA and had breakfast at the local bakery meant that we did not reach Riverton but we found a great camp, courtesy of a kind farmer who directed us to his own private bush camping spot. We were weary but happy. The day’s ride had been excellent despite a strong warm northerly head wind.

We knew rain was expected later the next day so we set out early with the wind in our faces. While I was pleased it was not raining, I was not sure which was worse – rain or a headwind. Our heavy rigs were difficult enough to pedal anyway without a very strong wind in our faces. We reached Riverton at about 10 am and headed on towards Clare via the Riesling Trail where we wanted to spend the evening safe from the elements on my property at Maggies Farm. It was tough going, especially the Riverton to Auburn section which was not on the relatively easy Rattler Trail but rough unsealed roads and tracks. We were starting to get the idea that the Mawson Trail had been designed by some mountain bike deviant who would happily send riders way out of the way just to find a hill or a rough track. No wonder it was 890 kms when the bitumen road from Adelaide to Blinman (the end point) was only 511 kms!

After a tough day, we bought some real food in Clare and headed for Maggies Farm where we enjoyed a hot shower, a great meal and real beds. It rained and blew something ferocious that night but we didn’t care in the least.

We set off about 8:30 am the next morning and had almost gotten to Clare township when the skies began to open again. We headed for the local library where we spent an hour or so waiting for the rain to abate. Once it did, we headed off for Burra. Earlier on in our ride we had seen the red earth tracks so much feared by riders of the Mawson Trail which turn into virtually impassable mud when wet so rather than chance it we stayed on the bitumen.

The wind was still blowing a gale but this time it was at our backs. At one point on our dash for Burra and going downhill, Brian clocked our speed at 64 km/h! And it was here I came close to finishing my ride. My trailer, which had no brakes, starting to move from side to side causing the bike itself to snake back and forth at a frantic pace. As I wrestled with the steering at close to 60 km/h, I was sure the bike was going to spear into the road and throw me over the handlebars. Someone was looking after me, however, and I managed to save myself and my rig. It was a lesson learnt though. Trailers can be dangerous things!

We reached Burra, had a shower and a meal at the local pub. It was here than Brian left us.

Next day Adam and I bid Brian goodbye and headed to Hallett on what was going to be a long day. It was cold and a strong westerly was blowing. Some way into this ride, along the usual unsealed roads, Adam told me he was spent and needed a day off. He had been riding for almost two weeks with hardly a break so we abandoned the rest of the day’s ride and headed for the Heysen Trail’s Railway Station Hut in Hallett.

Next day, I set off alone agreeing to meet Adam at Laura two days later. I followed the trail encountering my first red mud. Not good. Like glue it stuck to the tyres and was soon all over the frame of the bike and my trailer. Fortunately, I was out of it before it could do much damage but I vowed to avoid it at any cost. The ride to Spalding, through the Bundaleer Forest and on to Laura, was interesting but not spectacular.

I met up with Adam as planned and the following day we set off for Melrose via the Mawson. Again it was cold and, as had been the case for the last four or so days, an increasingly strong head wind was blowing. At one point the freewheel on the back wheel seized but we were able to fix it. We enjoyed the Wirrabara Forest and our approach into beautiful Melrose standing in the shadow of Mt Remarkable. We were now out of the North Mount Lofty Ranges and into the Southern Flinders Ranges.

It was at Melrose that Adam decided not to continue on the Mawson but to stick to the bitumen – he did not want to risk damage to his bike which might jeopardise his ride to Darwin. As had been the case for the last two days, I would take the Mawson and he the bitumen and we would meet up in the towns. It rained that night and I delayed my departure until the gentle rain stopped the next morning. Because of the rains and the prospect of wet red earth, I decided to take the rail trail to Wilmington in lieu of the Mawson but it was in such bad condition I left the trail and jumped on the bitumen half way there. Again at Wilmington and with a side wind, cold conditions and the adjoining hills bathed in mist, I rode the bitumen all the way to Quorn.

Although I was tired at the end of each day’s riding, I still felt I had something left in my legs, but by the time I reached Quorn I could feel the effects of accumulated fatigue. I needed a rest. Adam and I both decided to have a day off in picturesque Quorn.

Two days later I headed off again on the Mawson and found myself on a pretty good road in the very beautiful valley behind the Ragless Range. The scenery was stunning, the weather fair and the wind mild. This was one of the most beautiful sections of the ride. Given the time I had been riding, the distance I had travelled and the scenery I had enjoyed, I felt as if riding was like bushwalking on steroids. I was covering so much distance and seeing so much country it would have taken weeks to do the same distance on foot. I was starting to actually enjoy it. I had long given up measuring the kilometres (as road riders do) and instead counted the hours in the saddle!

The next day I left Hawker and set out for Rawnsley Park just outside Wilpena Pound. It was cool and a south easterly wind was blowing. But the tracks were awful, barely passable, and I had to do a lot of pushing as I headed north emerging on the bitumen road to Parachilna. After a spin along the bitumen, I turned east to ride through the Moralana Gorge. The same strong wind which had pushed me along the bitumen was now in my face. Despite the rest day, my legs were very tired. It was now a mind game. Part of me was hoping I would have a serious mechanical breakdown so I could go home but my pride still intact, while the other was willing me forward. Pushing through the 28 kilometres of the Gorge were the hardest of the whole trip.

It is hard to describe the elation a rider feels when re-joining the bitumen after a tough ride on dirt. It arises out of sheer relief. So it was for me. Although I was knackered, the hard part was now under my belt and my evening camp lay only 20 km away. I pedalled, one kilometre at a time, eventually reaching a surprisingly picturesque caravan park in Rawnsley Station overlooking Rawnsley Bluff on Wilpena Pound. And they had a well-stocked shop. As I had done everywhere else, I raided the store in search of carbohydrates and sugar. I simply could not get enough to eat.

The next day I set off for Wilpena Pound, just 25 km away. The track out of Rawnsley was tough, especially with my trailer, and I had to push my rig through most of the eroded but fortunately dry creek crossings. I was fading fast. I met my mate, Adam, in Wilpena and rested for the rest of the day.

The last day sapped me of any remaining strength. It was not a particularly hard day although there were certainly some challenging sections. The daunting hills and savage inclines of the Bunyeroo Circuit were a particular heart breaker and I had to push my rig up those slopes from the Bunyeroo Gorge. Other sections of fine shale made my trailer feel like an anchor. I chose to walk over some of these tracks trying to save my legs for the afternoon finish. Onwards now on the last leg, a very pretty section with a surprising variety of topography and vegetation, before exiting onto the bitumen 20 km out of Blinman. It was nearly over.

I threw down a couple of Mars bars as I fought the gusting and sometime headwind and the climb to Blinman. On the last hill of the bitumen I had to dismount and push the bike up the slope. I had nothing left in my legs at all. At 3pm I arrived at the Blinman pub. I had finished – and was finished.

I swore at Blinman that I would never attempt the Mawson Trail again but now, some weeks later, I reckon I could do it again – sometime in the future. But I would allow at least three and possibly four weeks, I would ride shorter daily distances, have more days off and spend more time exploring the attractions along the way. And I would not ride in bad weather. I would leave the completion date flexible so I could enjoy it and not feel as if I was always racing against the clock.

Is the Mawson Trail hard? Yes. Do you need to be bike fit? Certainly. Is it worth doing? Yes. Will I do it again? Hum. Maybe – but not for a while!

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Categories: Cycling

Comments (2)

  • Sammi

    Hi Richard, great article and well done. Some of those tracks look horrible! We can hear the pain but good on you for getting to the end. Sammi

  • Benjamin Campbell

    You have summarised my thoughts about the trail and future attempts perfectly.

    I have often thought how the Heysen and Mawson could be combined into a series of loops – one day riding on the Mawson, and then a two or three day walk back to the intersecting trail head via the Heysen trail. Then leap-frogging via the tarmac on two wheels or four to the next trail head to repeat.

    Especially in the Flinders, I missed how quickly the scenery whizzed by, and often looks up into the valleys where the Heysen trail paralleled the dirt track and wondered what the scenery was like there?

    There are many towns where the Heysen and Mawson intersect, so setting up a comfortable base and taking time to enjoy the scenery, and the return, could offer a more relaxed and interesting way to see the North – plus giving the legs a rest on alternating activities!

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