For years I’d been a MAMIL – middle aged man in lycra – racing around the streets of Newcastle on a light racing bike, sipping espressos in cool cafes and loving being a cyclist. But the adventurous part of me wanted more. I wanted to travel on a bike. I had an old Giant mountain bike in the shed and figured that I could fix it up, add some racks and panniers and I’d be ready to go. But where?
I did some research and settled on the Mawson Trail in South Australia. The Mawson Trail is a 900km mountain bike trail that runs from the outback village of Blinman in the Flinders Ranges to Adelaide. It’s named after Sir Douglas Mawson, an Australian scientist and Antarctic explorer. Given a good chunk of this trail is in the desert or very dry, hot areas, I decided to do it in late winter. I would learn some great lessons about solo travel, bicycle touring and about myself.
It’s 5 days until I fly to Adelaide from Sydney.
I’m more nervous than I’ve been before any trip be it hiking in the Snowy Mountains, the night before a 100km Oxfam Trailwalker or even in the lead up to walking to Everest Base Camp.
I realise that I’m now getting close to something that is epic in ways that those other things could never be.
This is me. Just me. No Pete. No Mik. No Grey Ghost. No Team at all. It’s just me getting my bike and my gear together and riding a hell of a long way through big spaces with few people.
Months ago I craved this. I felt claustrophobic as people and the world closed in on me. But that was then.
Now I stare at maps and feel my legs and my heart start to hurt.
In the background there are tectonic shifts in my life – my dearest friends are dealing with cancer, other friends are going through a break up and I have relatives in hospital with various ailments. Their advice? Go! Enjoy life while you can.
And I know that I’ll miss my 3 kids terribly.
I also worry about my business. What will happen in the time I’m away?
I spoke to my parents today and they reiterated that the Mawson Trail should be attempted with at least 3 riders, just in case something goes wrong. “I’ll be fine,” I reply. I’ve always been fine. Though the seed of doubt has been planted.
Weighed against all this is the sheer joy of breaking free. Getting on my bike, my crusty old Giant Boulder, and hitting the trail for a few weeks. My bike that I have adapted and modified and turned into what I hope is a tough tourer. My bike that I stare at as it sits in the living room, somehow tougher and more beautiful than when it was just a shiny new mountain bike. I’ve fallen in love with it.
THE TRAIL BECKONS
Day 1 – 13 September 2014
I wake early, a good half hour before the alarm, not long after 5:00am.
I decide to rise and start getting organised. As I pack and check my gear, I’m nervous. There’s a looming sense of dread about this little adventure.
With my bike fully loaded, including 10 litres of water, I hit the streets of Adelaide. The bike feels crazy, very unsteady due to the weight. Again that sense of dread. Why didn’t I do some test rides with all the gear on board? I worry if my bike will make it 1 kilometre, let alone 800 or so.
We leave from Adelaide central bus station at 7:15am. The driver, Graeme, is a jovial chap. He was born and raised in Balaklava, a few hours north of Adelaide.
I’m joined by Daniel, a New Zealand born guy with Sideshow Bob hair. He’s heading further north where he’s assisting with the study and writing of an interactive dictionary of the local indigenous languages.
The other traveller is Jerry. He’s from Launceston, looks insanely fit and is also riding the Mawson Trail, albeit he wants to leave from Parachilna Gorge, the end/start of the Heysen Trail.
The drive is uncomfortable and gets hotter the further north we drive. What is it with transit minivans? They’re terribly uncomfortable. What made the trip was being able to scope out some of the trail and the company of Daniel and Jerry. Our discussion ranged over many topics over those hours. Daniel’s knowledge of the region and its people is extensive.
We stop in Blyth for one of the weirdest experiences of my life. It turns out that Graeme has grown up with the local shopkeeper, hence we stop there for a coffee (insipid and way too hot) and morning tea. I ask for a sausage roll with sauce. The old lady serving lifts the top of the sausage roll to pour sauce on it. Weird!
We keep heading north. We pass through Melrose though it’s the one place we probably should stop given it has the Over the Edge bike store and the best hotel around, the Northern Lights.
We later stop in Wilmington. The three of us grab some lunch whilst Graeme gets fuel. There’s a weird museum that has about 6 old Land Rovers parked out the front. Otherwise, not much is going on in Wilmington. It’s clear that some shops have closed in recent times and the town is doing it tough.
We stop in Quorn to drop off some supplies. Quorn looks nice with some good looking cafes.
The drive from Quorn to Hawker is hot and flat and our first experience of desert. Jerry and I ascertain that the Mawson Trail traverses this hot dry plain. Not looking forward to that.
We stop briefly at Hawker. Shit it’s hot. I grab some cool drinks from the service station before we head north.
Eventually we arrive in Blinman at around 3:00pm.
Blinman was a diversion Graeme didn’t want and so he couldn’t wait to get my stuff out of the van and get back on the road. No doubt a cold beer and old friends awaited him at the end of the day.
I put the bike together and enter the pub for a beer. There was no-one in the bar. Maybe it was self-serve? I take a photo and then hit the road.
The first 20km or so is on the main road we’d driven up from Hawker and apart from the 4wd traffic, it was ok. I finally hit the dirt at the Bulls Gap Track. It consists of sandy creek bed crossings, steep ascents and long sweeping descents.
It’s hot in the afternoon sun and I feel that maybe I should’ve started a week or so earlier.
On a flat section, the clamp on the front pannier gives and the rack goes under the front wheel. I was only moving slowly under the weight of all my gear, so there was no off. This is the first mechanical and it’s a real dumb one. I saw that clamp as a weak point when I put the bike together and did nothing about it. The front rack is now slightly bent though works.
After some hours, I make it to the Trezona Campground. There were a few 4wd campers so I decided to push on for another 3 km to Middlesight Water Hut. I arrived after sunset, very tired.
At the Hut I am greeted by Michael. Michael is one of those people you hope to meet on the trail, very friendly with great stories. He was walking a section of the Heysen Trail from Wilpena to Parachilna Gorge. Though he lives in Queensland, he said he has been over here every year or so for 5 different treks. He was shocked by the heat. He said he was here in August last year and it was freezing!
He told me he would get up at 4:00am to make up some kms in the cool.
We chatted til about 8:30pm and then both crashed.
Day Two – 14 September 2014
Michael woke at 3:00am, packed and was gone by 3:30am.
I dozed til 5:30 when my alarm went off. I snoozed it til 6:00am. Big mistake!
After having tea and breakfast and checking the bike, it was 7:20am when I finally turn pedals. I knew it was going to be a tough day with one of the biggest climbs of the trip into Wilpena.
The sky was crystal clear as I headed through pine forest. I scared many kangaroos and emu as well as a few sleepy shingleback lizards.
The views from above Bunyeroo Gorge were exceptional. The colours of the Heysen Range, spectacular.
The descent into the Gorge was fast and fun, except for when an emu took a particular dislike to me and chased me for a few heart racing moments.
At the bottom of the Gorge, the trail heads south and the long climb begins.
I stopped many times over the next few hours. The heat was really getting to me, 28 degrees apparently. Pushing my load up hills made it feel 15 degrees hotter than that.
I knew there was a long descent into Wilpena at the end of the climb. When I got there, I started a fast and exciting run on single track. I had gone no more than a few hundred metres when I looked down and saw my front tyre was flat. 2km from Wilpena, are you freaking kidding me! I could almost taste the cold drinks!
I tried a repair with gaff tape. Fail! New tube.
All that stuffing around meant that it was after midday when I rolled into Wilpena.
I sat at the cafe, ate and drank, wondering what to do next. I’m quite apprehensive after the flat tyre and I’m worried about whether my gear can handle this trip.
Nothing for it but to get moving. I leave Wilpena in the burning sun just after 2:00pm.
The Trail follows a few kilometers on asphalt before turning onto the Telegraph Trail, an emergency 4wd track. At times it was a struggle, at others I raced along.
At one point I raced a family of emu, the 6 or 7 chicks about 3 feet tall. Strange things emus, they don’t run away from you, they criss-cross your path. Any wonder so many are sadly dead on the side of the road.
There are beautiful views of Rawnsley Peak and the Range to the south. The last 10 or so kilometers into Rawnsley is tricky. The trail is quite often single track and the creek crossings are over large rocks. I have a bad fall at one creek. My hands, arms and legs are quite sore, though thankfully not broken. The Giant is okay.
I arrive at Rawnsley Park at 4:30pm. I book a cabin and settle in. I have a couple of beers and a welcome cool shower. My face is burning from the day’s ride.
I watch the ABC news and Doctor Who, then crash at 8:30.
Day Three – 15 September 2014
I wake before 6:00am. I pack and hit the road by 6:40am. There’s a strong wind that has picked up during the night. It’s cold and there is cloud over Wilpena Pound and the Elder Range.
It’s a tough 10 or so kilometers to the Scenic Trail turn-off. Hawker is 25km away. There’s a strong headwind. Part of me wants to stay on the main road to Hawker. The other part decides to turn onto the Scenic Trail.
There’s a headwind most of the way. It gets cold. I stuff around with my saddle and get frustrated. The views would be spectacular on a clear day, but today they’re grey and muddy, much like my mood.
I struggle on.
Eventually the Trail meets the Outback Highway. It’s 42 kilometers to Hawker. Holy shit! To make matters worse, the headwind has increased and I have to ride into it all the way to Hawker.
I struggle on, barely able to go for more than a kilometer or so without the need to rest. My panniers are like sails and I’m pushing them, me, the bike and all my gear into the wind.
I get another flat tyre. Upon inspection, there is about 8cm of wire protruding from the tyre. I make some repairs and hope for the best.
There follows uncounted hours of the worst riding of my life. The constant noise of the wind. The massive road trains that almost knock you over as they past at speed. The smell of rotting animal carcasses. The constant struggle. It was the most energy sapping thing I’d done. At times I walk just to get some different muscle groups moving. I have a GPS in my bike and try to move for a kilometre and then rest.
I stagger into Hawker late in the afternoon. Exhausted, I drink 2 ginger beers and eat a sausage roll with sauce.
As I’m drinking the ginger beer, Michael pulls up. Surprised to see me here, we decide to share a cabin for the night.
The shower is a relief.
I’m sore in my legs, chest, back, neck, and backside. Very sore. My body is used to long, quick rides on a light road bike. Lugging all this gear into a headwind is way beyond what I’d been training for.
Michael and I head to the pub for a beer and a great dinner (steak for me, lamb shank for Michael). I thoroughly recommend the Hawker pub.
Michael and I talk for a while. He’s been married twice, has two children to his first marriage and three to the second. He’s quite bitter about the process of the second divorce. The parenting thing didn’t go well. All that has left him reluctant to get into another relationship, though he is a really nice bloke.
We both crash not long after 8:30. I sleep like a dead man.
Day Four – 16 September 2014
Great sleep, weird dreams though. I remember waking thinking life was all a bit wonky. My legs feel full of lactic acid and my butt is sore, otherwise okay. I make a coffee and go for a walk. Sturt’s Desert Pea flowering in the caravan park. A light fog and quite cool. No wind for now, though heavy winds forecast.
I check the bike, another flat tyre. Shit!
I decide to replace the tyre and tube. I decide to re-fix the front pannier as well, so basically spend 45 minutes stuffing around with the bike.
Michael is fussing around. He’s driven from Queensland and has a heap of gear in his car and a bike on the back. He offers me a lift to Quorn in light of the forecast.
After some thought, I decide that I can skip the Hawker to Quorn section. I remember looking at it on the way north and thinking, that will be shit. It’s flat for miles.
As soon as we leave Hawker, I know I’ve made the right decision. Driving that section is enough, riding it would be hell after almost 10 hours in the saddle the day before. And despite the still morning, the wind is picking up.
Quorn is beautiful. Michael has stayed here often and is excited to take me to Emily’s Bistro for a late breakfast. He recalls that the girl who ran the place was attractive and his interest in women must have been stirred during our conversations last night.
Emily’s is an amazing place. Originally an Emporium, the building is wonderfully preserved. The food and service is fantastic. We enjoy bacon, eggs and tomato.
We head back to the local caravan park and Michael choses a site. I fuss with the bike and finally am ready to hit the trail again.
Michael has been a great companion for the short time we shared. It was a genuine farewell between travelers as I rode off.
I grab a Quorn sticker for the bike and a cloth patch and then head out of town. Pretty much as soon as I get on the bike, the headwind (southerly) increases. It was after 1:00pm and here I was, slogging along a flat dirt road into the wind. Deja vu?
The ride over Richmans Gap offers great views of Devils Peak to the west. The Gap is a small gorge with quite different vegetation. At the top I stop for a coke and enjoy the views to the east. Spectacular.
As I start the descent, I notice the front brake cable rubbing against the larger tyre that I installed this morning. I decide (stupidly) to stop and relocate the cable. The end of the cable is frayed and basically it all goes to shit. Thankfully Melrose is not too far away and I should be able to survive with just the back brake til then.
There is a great descent, more shingle back lizards than you can poke a stick at. Then I have a 35km ride to Wilmington, up and down the Gunya Road. Did I mention the headwind?
My legs at times feel like lead. Despite this, I’m surprised by how strong I’m feeling.
Basically it’s a really nice ride, beautiful country and views, the wheat fields an emerald green.
I ride through some cows. I have to accelerate to stop them moving ahead of me and further from their paddock. Later in the afternoon there is one sheep on the road. It moves ahead of me up the last climb of the day. I can only get past it on the descent. I speed past, hoping it doesn’t swerve into me like an emu.
The last 5 or so kilometers into Wilmington are pretty awful. Headwind and a mixture of sandy road and then large, sharp gravel. Even without a headwind it would be difficult to go very fast.
I arrive in Wilmington at around 4:20pm.
I was hoping for a sausage roll with sauce at the store. The store is closed.
I head to the pub for a beer and a room. I sit on the verandah listening to some local shearers swearing and talking about life. The air is sweet with cigar and cigarette. I’m very tired, though enjoying a beer.
Tomorrow I hope to ride early and get to Melrose to get a new brake cable fitted and to rest for a day.
Day Five – 17 September 2014
Wake early, again. Though I thought it rained during the night, it turns out to be the air conditioner dripping after each cycle.
In crisp and cool morning air, I load up the Giant and hit the trail by 7:15am.
The ride from Wilmington to Melrose is almost dead flat through paddocks and green wheat, gold canola, sheep and cattle. Mount Remarkable looms through the ride.
My thought was to arrive at Over the Edge bike store at around opening time, book the bike in and then chill out for either a few hours or the rest of the day.
The last few kilometers into any town is always a slog and Melrose, despite the flat track and lack of any wind, is no different. I ride over a dead snake on the main road. The memorial on the side of the road to Goyder is a stunning disappointment, but then all the guy did was delineate good from bad farming land. Couldn’t be that hard!
I arrive at Melrose shortly after 9:00am and go straight to Over the Edge. As soon as I enter, the mood changes. There is great music and the smell of good coffee. Richard, the guy who owns the store, is there and is keen to help. I book the bike in for a new front brake cable and order coffee and a huge slice of lumberjack cake.
The bike store is full of way cool stuff. The trails around here look great, though with my thighs feeling swollen and sore, they don’t beckon me at this point in time.
I take work calls that bring me back to earth. It seems a court case I’m involved in is going to hell in my absence. Ach, Murphy’s Law!
I wander around the village which is quite pretty. The old brewery is an amazing 4 storey stone structure that is begging for a Grand Designs style makeover. The Northern Light is a wonderful old pub that Richard informs me was renovated from a wreck to what it is today with a 50/50 loan from the government. He says without such support, it’s just not economical to repair old buildings in these rural areas.
As the days roll by, I see what he means. Every day I pass beautiful old stone houses, schoolhouses and the like that are falling into disrepair. The number of them is quite staggering. It’s quite sad to see beautiful buildings sit abandoned.
At the Hotel, I grab a used copy of “About a Boy” for a small donation. After a hearty lunch (hamburger with bacon & egg) at the Hotel, I collect the Giant from the shop and hit the road at around 12:30.
My plan is to head toward the Wirabara Forest and camp or stay at the YHA for the night. Richard told me that the forest was burnt last summer and so I should call Fire South Australia. I do only to find out that the main campground and the YHA are closed. The only option I have if I want to camp in the forest is to ride back to the FSA headquarters, buy a $7 permit, then ride back and out to a campground off the Trail. Not attractive, but an option.
The ride from Melrose is up and down through rolling wheat and canola fields. It’s tiring, though the landscape is inspiring.
The last push up into the forest is a long climb.
Despite the forest being burnt in parts, it’s quite pretty. The worst burnt areas are made attractive by the fact that the fire has allowed the wildflowers to grow. Amidst the black columns of burnt trees is a carpet of many coloured flowers.
The descent is long and fun. As soon as I turn toward the forest headquarters though, there is a very cold headwind. I struggle on, wrapping myself in more layers to keep warm, despite the afternoon sun.
I pass the YHA which is in an old school house. It would have been a great place to stay.
I decide to push on to Laura. There are a few hours of daylight and the trail doesn’t look too bad. The only issues are the cold and my physical fatigue.
A few hours later I make the final push into Laura just on dusk. Freezing and wet with sweat, I walk straight into the North Laura Hotel. They don’t have any rooms. I settle on a beer and a packet of chips.
I ride on in the dark to the caravan park. Barb, who runs the place, is very friendly and offers me an on-site van for the night. I can’t wait to have a warm shower and get out of my wet clothes. The van has an air conditioner, so I get it warmed up while I shower.
I head back to the pub for $10 schnitzel night and a cold beer.
That night I lie in bed watching the ABC. Perhaps tomorrow will be a rest day?
Day Six – 18 September 2014
I sleep in. After slowly rising, I walk up to the local cafe for a bacon and egg roll and a coffee. The town of Laura is pretty and the home of something I had never heard of before – The Golden North ice cream factory. I drop into the local information centre to buy my essentials – cloth patch and a sticker for the bike. The lady is very friendly and suggests I stay for the day. But the Trail beckons.
I attend to some work issues then pack my bike and hit the trail around lunchtime.
My plan is to camp at Curnow Hut in the Bundaleer Forest.
The hills on the western side of the Bundaleer, the side from which I approach, are bare. The climbing is long and slow. The local magpies tag team each other and they swoop me for hours. In the afternoon I have a moment of wondering what the hell I’m doing out here alone. Perhaps it’s an omen.
I finally reach the Bundaleer and count down the few kilometers to the Hut. I know that the Hut is a few hundred metres off the Trail. When I finally arrive, the gate to the Hut is locked and there is a FSA sign prohibiting entry.
What the hell!
I’m exhausted and cold. I have little choice other than to keep heading along the trail and maybe find somewhere to camp.
After about 500 metres, during which I see some wild deer in the forest, the Trail heads straight into a paddock. Deer and horses on the left, sheep on the right.
The Trail undulates for a kilometer or so through these paddocks. If I was fresh, this would be a great experience.
The descent from up on this ridge is long and steep and takes me down to the R M Williams Way. I’m now 14 kilometers from the village of Spalding with about an hour of daylight left. I ride into town, very cold, arriving after the sun has set.
I get a room at the Barbed Wire Hotel, a great pub. I finish dinner at 7:30 and almost fall asleep at the table. As the pub fills up, I head to bed. I fall asleep with the electric blanket and the tv on. All up, I have about 11 hours sleep, though am woken at various times by the sound of motorbikes and people chatting.
Day Seven – 19 September 2014
I think it was a big night in the pub last night as a few Harley Davidson riders (Tim from Alabama and Terry from Port Augusta) arrived late. They are really friendly guys. Tim is in Australia for a month or so and has ridden from Sydney. He’s heading north to Darwin. Terry will be with him some of the way, but basically Tim is traveling alone. We discuss the occasional madness of riding big distances alone.
Today I plan to stay in Spalding to rest up. It’s a bit more than 60 kilometers to Mount Bryan East School and I know I couldn’t ride that far today. Hallett, a village on the Trail, has a population of around 100 people, so options could be limited.
I end up reading a lot of Nick Hornby’s “About A Boy” in the local park. The river that runs nearby looks clean. Maybe one day I can return hear to fly fish for trout.
As the afternoon moves on, I return to the pub and spend a few hours talking to Simon. He works as an IT guru (my words, not his) for the banks in Melbourne and Geoff the publican.
It turns out the Geoff lived in Mildura about 25 years or so ago and his kids grew up with Simon. There is another guy, Gavin, who owns the Harley Davidson dealership in Mildura. He’s taken Polly, the new English barmaid, for a ride on his Harley.
Turns out that Simon has ridden motorbikes all round the world. He is only 33, but he has run a manufacturing business out of Bulgaria (making bike accessories) and has worked in banks in several countries, including England. He has ridden his bike around Australia alone. He’s a really interesting guy.
When Gavin and Polly return, we share a beer and some stories, before having dinner (fried rabbit). We watch the Swans comprehensively beat North Melbourne in the preliminary final. I retire to bed having consumed a red wine or two more than I should have.
Day Eight – 20 September 2014
I wake at around 6:30, rise and start getting my gear together. It’s another beautiful day and I know I have a reasonably hard ride to Hallett. My body aches more than ever after having a day out of the saddle.
The Trail today passes over two ranges that run north south. Each bare ridge is covered in wind turbines that are 124 metres tall. It’s rather disturbing to be making my way through a pretty much treeless landscape and to pass in the shadows on the turbines and hear the whine as they turn.
It’s a very dry and dusty day on the Trail. I’m really low. I’m exhausted and a few times I sit under a tree next to the gravel road and wonder what the hell I’m doing out here.
In the last 2 years I’ve spent more time alone than at any other point in my life. Initially that time gets filled with looking after the kids, work, socialising and riding. But after a time, being alone turns into being lonely. That loneliness starts as a small pain in the gut. Before long, it becomes all-consuming. As I sat, sweaty, dusty and alone, that truth was like a knife to my heart. I’ve lost the will to ride the Trail today.
By the time I reach Hallett it’s hot and the wind has picked up.
Hallett is tiny. I need a cool drink. I find the local store. It’s closed, so I go to the pub, the Wildongelechee Hotel, also known as the Wild Dog.
I’m met by the friendly owner Maree. My mood lifts instantly. It turns out that Maree and her husband only purchased the hotel 3 months ago. They consulted with the locals as to what they wanted and have responded accordingly. There are no gambling machines and works are being done to improve the utilities and general appearance of the hotel. It’s great to see such enthusiasm. This is a great old pub and I hope that they do well with it.
This is one of a number of themes I’ve picked up on whilst travelling. Some hotels look like they have given up. They have gambling rooms hidden away in the dark and the bar people are dull and lifeless. Then there are places like Spalding and Hallett where you sense a genuine attempt to make the hotel what it once was, a social hub for the community. That means no gambling. [Interestingly, when I arrive in Burra, I see the hotel in the centre of town proudly proclaiming that it was gaming free. Everyone Wins!]
I order some food and unpack the bike. I need to do some maintenance. There has been an annoying rubbing sound with the front wheel. I suspect that it’s something to do with the disc brake. After checking it out and giving everything a tighten, it seems to have been solved.
There’s a lounge and an open fire in the bar. The preliminary final between Port Adelaide and Hawthorn begins and some locals start to fill the bar, the energy rising.
I get a call from a friend. They’re going through some difficult times in their life. I can hear their fear as they stand at a new frontier. I love you and I’ve got your back is all I can say as I stare out across the vast flat plains to the north.
It all seems like a sign. Mount Bryan East can wait. I walk back into the bar and ask Maree if I can book a room for the night.
As I eat dinner, I start to plan tomorrow’s ride. A big part of me wants to turn south and ride down the highway. The weather forecast is looking bad for mid to late week and I don’t want to roll into Adelaide a soggy mess.
My options are to do an 85km, big climb route from Hallett to Burra via Mount Bryan East or to ride 32km down the highway. My only concern with the highway option is the traffic, especially the trucks. This is the Barrier Highway which sees a lot of traffic from Broken Hill in New South Wales, only 3 hours away. I consult a local truck driver at the bar. He says that Sunday morning should be very quiet, so long as I leave early enough.
That night I have my recurring dream of being trapped within a short distance of an escape route. This time I’m in my Land Rover, but stuck only metres from the road I need to get to. I’m getting very tired of this form of dream, it’s exhausting.
Day Nine – 21 September 2014
I am up at 6:00 packing. I have breakfast with Maree and then hit the highway.
The run is great, pretty much all down hill. The kilometers fly by and I can’t wipe the smile off my face.
I stop at Mount Bryan for a photo of the bike with a turbine blade.
Then some 7km from Burra, I stop to take a photo of the house that is on the cover of Midnight Oil’s album, Diesel and Dust.
As I eat a banana, two riders approach from the north. They are Peter and Tony from Adelaide. Each weekend they hit the trail for a few hours on their mountain bikes. We ride into Burra together for a coffee and a chat.
Tony is English and Peter is Adelaide born and bred. Over the years they either together or individually have ridden the Mawson Trail and walked parts of the Heysen Trail. Peter’s knowledge is encyclopedic. They are two really interesting and genuine guys who give me some tips for the ride ahead.
They leave to head back to Adelaide. I grab a Cornish pastie and head back to the Trail, taking the route out of town that Peter suggested. It works and saves me some hills and time.
Before long I’m flying along on a generally downward trending road. As I ride through fields of canola, a bee hits me in the face, it’s sting lodging into my skin near my eye. It hurts like hell for about 10 minutes. I cover serious ground very quickly. Though having said that, I can imagine what these trails would be like in the wet – impassable clay!
I quickly arrive at the start of the climb over the Camels Hump Range. It’s long and hot. The views are amazing. The descent is long and fast.
That leaves just one more climb into Clare. I’m getting tired as I’ve ridden over 70km for the day. The final descent is along the Riesling Trail.
I find a bed for the night and then walk next door to taste wine and beer at Knappsteins. Lovely wine and beer, I settle on a bottle of Riesling.
I head to the local store and get organised for dinner – BBQ chicken and coleslaw.
That afternoon I relax and watch a great old movie, The Battle of Britain.
I enjoy a few glasses of the Riesling but sadly some must go down the drain as I simply have no way to carry it.
Day Ten – 22 September 2014
I wake to a beautiful Monday morning. I have thoughts of an easy ride to Riverton down the Riesling and Rattler Trails built on old rail lines.
With some fruit for breakfast, I have an optimistic notion that a winery along the trail will make great coffee and breakfast.
A few kilometers down the trail and I head off to the Little Red Grape.
Thankfully the Riesling Trail is well signposted making little detours predictable and worthwhile.
I enjoy a good, strong coffee, a great pie and a piece of German cake that has a name I can’t recall at the moment. Basically it is sweet bread with a layer of creamy custard. All delicious.
From Clare, the Riesling Trail climbs for a while before a long descent to Auburn. Along the way I pass Watervale and Leasingham, both very well known and loved wine areas.
I have a strong tailwind and easily roll out the 24 kilometers to Auburn.
In Auburn I stop at Cogwebs. There I meet Judy, an English lady who now runs this cafe and bike hire business. She came to Australia 10 years ago as a very senior nurse, though always held dreams to get out of nursing and into a business as well as having a small acreage. She has fulfilled those parts of her dream.
Judy makes me my first Golden North milkshake. It is unbelievably delicious. She is a mad cyclist and her partner is a mad motorcyclist. She encourages me to relax on the lounge for a while. She takes photos of my bike and loves all the stickers from the different places I’ve been on this trip. I leave my now completed copy of “About A Boy” on her shelf, time for another weary rider to enjoy reading it.
After an hour or so of great conversation, I ride off to find the Rattler Trail.
Unlike the Riesling Trail, the Rattler has just been opened and does not yet have the level of signposting and other information that the Riesling Trail has. Regardless, it is an enjoyable 19km to Riverton.
When I get to Riverton, I ride up the main street. It’s small and quiet after Clare. I have a cold ginger beer and contemplate my options. My legs feel good, so I make the decision to push on to Kapunda, my optimism getting me in trouble again.
I look at the maps and estimate about 25-30km to go. That is after the 43km already. Most is downwind, always a relief, however there are several climbs and my legs are fading fast.
I struggle in the afternoon sun. The Trail climbs and climbs until I can look south-west and see the buildings of Adelaide. I can also see the water of the Gulf which is nice, given it seems I’m a long way from the sea.
My instincts prove right and I am soon powering south with a strong tailwind. Closer to Kapunda though, the road starts to go up and down quite steeply. My front brake starts making a horrific noise which suggests new pads are needed. I start to walk the bike up the steeper hills. Eventually I arrive, tired and sore in Kapunda just before sunset.
I end up staying in a cabin in the local park. Kapunda is a beautiful little town which has maintained many of its old stone buildings. The local park is well maintained, showing a pride often lacking in country towns.
The park manager recommends the local pizza joint. I shudder as many country pizza places are terrible, but damn I could slaughter a good pizza.
After a shower I walk to Main Street, order my pizza and grab a couple of Coopers Sparkling Ales.
The pizza arrives not long after I get back to the cabin. It’s simply awesome, one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had. Washed down with the beer, it’s a perfect way to end the day.
That night I watch the Brownlow Medal, hopeful for Joel Selwood to win. In the end he finishes well down the list, a massive surprise. What a champion!
Pretty much as soon as my head hits the pillow I‘m asleep.
Day Eleven – 23 September 2014
I wake at 6:00am as is becoming usual. No rush this morning as I have an easy 25km ride to Tanunda. I have work that needs to be done on a couple of court cases and plan to spend a few hours at a hotel desk on my computer and on the phone.
I replace the front brake pads on my bike, organise a room for the night and slowly pack the bike.
I’m so sick of wearing my cycling gear, it’s driving me crazy!
Only a few more days, I tell myself, then I can throw some of this gear in the bin and forget about it. It smells pretty bad even though I wash it out every evening. I can hardly comprehend what people must think when I swagger into their shop or cafe.
Today I feel weary on the bike. My legs feel like they don’t really want to keep riding anymore. Each small rise is a struggle I don’t need. The climb to the top of Koonunga Hill is hot and windy. The descent is dusty. On the way into Nurioopta I see my first live snake of the whole trip. It’s only small and making its way between vineyards.
The road deteriorates badly as I get close to town. I ride along a small ridge between two chasms. No wonder there’s a sign that reads – Dry Weather Access Only.
I pass through Nurioopta quickly, pausing for a cool drink and a sausage roll at the bakery.
As an aside, there is this weird thing in South Australia. When you ask for tomato sauce, quite often they will inject the sauce into the sausage roll for you.
Then I pause for a photo at Penfolds Wines before making the short journey to Tanunda on smooth bike path heaven.
I’m too early for my room, so I ride into Tanunda to grab a coffee and a bite to eat. Then I head to the local bookstore. Hooked on Nick Hornby, I grab a copy of High Fidelity to read. The lady at the bookstore is lovely and we have a long chat that invariably ends up being about life and the lives of those around us. She tells me about her daughter who has 3 young sons. Her daughter’s husband is rarely home and so the lady helps out a lot. She says she enjoys it, though when she had a choice for a holiday, she chose Victor Harbour by herself. She said the time away alone was bliss. I tell her I understand.
I head to the motel to check-in as I have telephone conferences this afternoon – work beckons.
It’s almost 5:00pm when I complete my work obligations. In the intervening hours there has been a large thunderstorm that has dumped a lot of rain. As I leave my motel room, the sun is shining.
There’s a cellar door just down the road – Grant Burge’s Illaparra – so I jump on my bike and ride there.
The lady serving is lovely and invites me to try many wines. I’m heady with the fact I can relax this afternoon and I buy a bottle of local Merlot. I know, I know, fucking Merlot! But it was perfect, though I knew I would not be able to finish it. That evening I curl up in bed with my wine and my book. In terms of traveling alone, perhaps this is as good as it gets. The only thing to dampen my spirits is what, or more correctly, where the hell am I going to ride tomorrow?
Day Twelve – 24 September 2014
I wake at 6:00am. I grab my maps and laptop and start looking at options. The Trail maps are not encouraging, warning that a lot of the Trail over this section will be very difficult with a heavily loaded bike. I need another option, but what?
On the one hand, I can find a road route that will link me back to the Trail at say Cudlee Creek, but this is an unknown and may involve a lot of climbing, something my body is growing more allergic to. The other option is to stay on main roads, head to Gawler and then to Adelaide. The latter option is not appealing, given it will involve riding with traffic.
Some internet searching discloses another possibility. From Tanunda, there is a new cycle trail – the Jack Bobridge Track – that links through to Gawler. The Barossa website proudly boasts – the track also provides a continuous sealed link from the Barossa to Adelaide via the Stuart O’Grady Track.
I search up the Stuart O’Grady Track and can find nothing other than some complaints about the poor signage. There is not even a map available online.
There is a link to an article where some South Australian politician proudly announces that there is a cycle path from McLaren Vale to Barossa.
I decide on the Jack Bobridge Track.
That left the accommodation for the night. Gawler sounds as interesting as a bare paddock, so I look to Adelaide. I chance upon a glamping (fixed tent) option at a park on West Beach. In a moment of abandon, I book it. Then I find out how far away it is – over 80km. Another big day in the saddle.
I eat breakfast and then pack the bike.
I’ll start with the bad stuff, the Jack Bobridge Track (“JBT”) does not go from Tanunda to Gawler. It goes from Tanunda to a country road about 3km from Gawler. Also, the signposting is garbage, especially where the cycle track ends and leaves you standing in the middle of nowhere wondering, where to from here? Also, it spits you into the main street of Gawler, a busy and congested strip very unfriendly for cyclists.
The good stuff is that the constructed part of the JBT is excellent, especially the Barossa Valley section. It weaves along Jacobs Creek and takes you through many vineyards.
So, I arrive in Gawler. I look for any hint of signage for the Stuart O’Grady Track (“SOGT”). Nothing. I look at my map and head toward the freeway. There are cycle lanes that disappear at dangerous intersections. There is so much traffic.
Lost, I give up and see if I can find a contact number for the local bike store. I speak to a guy who gives me directions. In the end, I am not that far from the start of the SOGT. Even when I’m nearly on it, the signage is crap. All up, I have wasted about an hour dicking around in Gawler where a few signs would have made a huge difference. I’m not a happy cyclist.
The SOGT runs parallel to the freeway. It’s dull and uninspiring, especially as I am beating into a significant headwind. The kilometers roll by in the noisy funk of the headwind rider.
All the effort means I go through the water in my bidons quickly. Surely there is water available on the SOGT? Guess again. Nothing. And the towns are some distance off the track, so any detour is going to be lengthy. I decide that sooner or later there must be a takeaway or fuel stop, and press on.
In the distance I see a snake making its way across the track. It’s so windy that I worry it won’t sense my approach. Thankfully it gets off the path and there’s a foot of tail hanging from the weeds as I pass.
Then the SOGT just ends. The freeway turns into some industrial hell nightmare road and there’s a sign saying Adelaide is a further 25km. Alongside the roaring trucks is a cycle lane as inviting as eating 7 day old road kill. There’s no other option, I trudge on.
I’m super cautious. When the bike lane is too slender, I head into the gravel to give myself some more distance from the traffic. I stop when the lane shrinks and wait until there’s no traffic. This is worse than hell.
Eventually there’s a service station and I grab 3 litres of fluids. People stare at me as if I’m some kind of alien. I certainly feel that way.
I struggle on through the industrial traffic until I reach the main intersection for the Port Adelaide exit. At this point, the crappy cycle lane also disappears. An omen? I decide to head to Port Adelaide with some vague plan to get to the beach and head south. It’s all the one beach right?
About 1km along the road, there is a wetland with a gravel path. Deciding anything is better than riding alongside a highway, I dive into the unknown. The wetland, I have to say, does not seem in any way related to anything other than industrial waste. There are numerous timber bridges that make me very nervous as I ride over them. My nerves are justified as on one bridge, there is a gaping hole between broken boards. I unclip my shoes just in case one of these bridges gives and I end up in the water.
The path suddenly disappears at a dead-end road in a massive industrial area. Or I should say, it seems to end. Through a gap in a man-proof fence, the path continues. I follow it. It goes over a much higher and longer bridge (more nerves) before spilling into salt marsh. I follow the trail but it ends at a locked gate. There’s nothing more to do than turn around and retrace my steps.
At the dead-end, I turn onto the road and head into the industrial area. Some several kilometers later, I’m in Port Adelaide. I spot a road heading south parallel to the coast and follow it for several kilometers. I pass Alberton Oval, home of the Port Adelaide football club. I keep riding on into the strong headwind.
The road ends so I turn west. After several minutes of effort, I’m on Henley Beach. The sun is shining and beautiful people are out strolling along the foreshore on a stunningly beautiful afternoon.
I happily remove my helmet and start promenading south. It’s a gorgeous afternoon, the more so given the trials of the day.
At around 4:30pm, I check in. I dump my gear and my bike and go and put my weary feet and legs into the ocean. It’s cold, but a massive relief.
After a shower I begin to feel human again.
Tonight I’m glamping in a large fixed tent. It’s very comfortable. I enjoy some fish and Cooper’s beer whilst watching some QI on my laptop.
By 8:00pm I’m too tired to stay awake. I shut everything down, including myself.
Day Thirteen – 25 September 2014
On my final riding day I wake at 6:00am. I decide to lie in and listen to some music, John Mayer’s Born & Raised. At around 7:00 I head to the showers.
Then I grab my bike and head back to Henley Beach for some breakfast. I enjoy muesli and yoghurt, fresh orange juice and a strong coffee. This area is popular with cyclists. My battered old Giant mountain bike looks foreign amongst the sleek carbon road bikes. I’m so proud of my bike though.
I return and slowly pack, read some more of my book, and then leave West Beach.
There’s a pretty good cycle path all the way into the city, about 14km all up. I say pretty good, because as I seem to find everywhere, path’s end with no explanation of where to from here. How can a perfectly good asphalt cycle path suddenly become a single track bush track for no reason? And in the centre of the city as well. Completely bizarre.
I pull up in front of the Adelaide Oval, take a seat and take in the city of Adelaide. It’s hard for me to comprehend that I left here nearly 2 weeks ago and have taken the time in between to ride back.
It seems like it has taken a lot more than 2 weeks. I know my legs feel like it’s taken much longer.
I think back to all those little twists and turns, the places I’ve seen and the people I’ve met.
In a way, perhaps this trip was a way to see if I still loved Australia. I think the answer is that after two weeks, I’m still ambiguous. I’ve met some wonderful people and seen some beautiful places. But it’s hard to say that any of it truly floored me apart from the northern Flinders Ranges around Wilpena Pound.
Otherwise, I’ve passed through a lot of spaces and places that seem to me to be trying to redefine themselves in the era of modern roads and vehicles that can travel vast distances quickly. All this in the face of change – local factories closing, local kids heading to the big smoke for education and careers. Some towns cling to their heritage in the face of this change, hoping somehow that this alone will maintain outsider and insider interest in the place. Others embrace their heritage whilst accepting and trying to adapt to the challenges of the future.
What have I learnt about myself? I guess the major lesson is that I can travel alone and, at times, enjoy it. At each new place I enjoyed meeting people and finding out their stories. I find people infinitely fascinating. I’ll miss that now that the trail has ended.
I always knew I was a determined bastard, to the point of pushing past exhaustion, but that can’t overcome bad preparation. Like many gear sports, cycling has so many gadgets and cool bits of kit and I got more obsessed with having the gear than with doing the training with it all. Road cycling was no substitute for loading the Giant and getting in some kms. As a result, the Mawson Trail kicked my butt.
Things I Won’t Miss
Packing the bike up each morning.
The sweaty, smelly clothing.
Magpies – must have been attacked well over one hundred times on the trip. A few times I’ve pulled over and thrown rocks at them to scare them off, all to no avail.
Trucks and RVs – the bane of any long distance cyclist.
Organising accommodation every day.
Worrying about the bike. Worrying about water.