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North by Bike

morning teaskyscapeen route to burra

On a cool Saturday morning in early May, I bade farewell to my house and garden and jumped onto my mountain bike, looking forward to a good ride. Nothing unusual in that, except that I wouldn’t be returning home for a couple of weeks. The Outback Odyssey was here!
I cycled into Adelaide, enjoying the peal of the Post Office clock chimes as I rounded the corner into Franklin Street. The sky was blue, the wind was minimal, and the day was warming up nicely. I arrived at Bike SA headquarters and could immediately feel the buzz. Over the next hour, a hundred or so riders arrived and prepared themselves for two weeks of cycling hi-jinks. Some were there for the first time, some for the fourth - everyone was there for the adventure. This was to be my third crack at the Mawson and I was looking forward to catching up with friends, making some new ones, and having a blast on my bike.
There are a great many things to enjoy when riding the Mawson Trail. What follows is a summary of some of the things that keep me coming back.

Being there

To be able to spend two weeks out in the open, away from the myriad distractions of home life, is a treat in itself. The beautiful blue skies seem bigger, the landscapes are breathtaking, and the wildlife is abundant – parrots, kangaroos, emus and wallabies are never far away. The view of the heavens on a clear night in the country is something to be savoured. The country towns are great places to visit – especially when the local community is involved in some way with the ride. Not to mention the country pubs…
There’s also the uncomplicated, single-purpose nature of most days. Just ride. The sense of solitude can sometimes be almost overwhelming – in a very positive way.

bikes having a rest on the way to Burra...
bikes having a rest on the way to Burra...

The friendships you strike with other riders and volunteers is another great aspect. I have made many friends through bike riding and quite a few have come from the Odyssey. I think the nature of the ride tends to encourage a strong bond between all involved.
I still pinch myself when I think that I am actually lucky enough to be able to do this ride. The efforts of those who maintain the Mawson Trail, and stage the Odyssey, should never be taken for granted.

just a false flat
just a false flat

Fun and games

Despite the fact that the terrain of the Mawson Trail is generally good, there are many opportunities for riders to test their technical skills. Some of the scrabbly climbs had me breathing hard at the top, but I’m pleased to say that I made more of these in 2009 that I have before. I only had to put my feet down a couple of times, and more often than not I had just the right amount of luck to keep me bouncing in the right direction. There are some great climbing sections along the way, some long, others mercifully short. The slog up Stone Hut Road (aka Castambul Hill) on Day One lingers longest in the memory, but others such as Swamp Road on Day Three, Lynches Road just outside of Laura and Richman Gap on the way into Quorn all are great fun while being rather challenging.
It is only fair that you have to earn your downhills.

Bound for Burra

There’s something about the ride to Burra that I love. I think that this is where I get my first sense that I am leaving Adelaide’s environs, and heading into real Mawson country. After three days of riding, I also find that the bike, body and brain are finally working as a unit. I get the feeling that I am settled in for the long haul. Just out of Clare we leave the bitumen and head along Angus Court Road - the dirt gets redder and the landscape spreads before your eyes. At least it seems that way to me. After the short climb to the top of Camel’s Hump riders are rewarded with a fabulous view of the plains to the north and east. There’s also the long downhill, although riders need to keep their eyes peeled if they are to avoid the occasional deep ruts. The last couple of kilometres into Burra are fun – after a sharp, rocky climb past the cactus farm it is a fast and bumpy downhill that takes you into town along the Mawson. Riders who choose to take the highway into Burra are missing out on a real treat.

Quorn to Hawker

Another of my favourite days is the third last. It is the longest day, and there are some rather tedious stretches but, all in all, it is a great ride. This year we started in sunny, but very cold, conditions. We crossed the very shallow Willochra creek, laughing and whooping like kids enjoying their first adventure. I thought I could hear a strange noise in the distance but decided it must be my imagination. We pushed on a little further, approaching Simmonston. Ray asked me if I could hear anything. It sounded almost like music. Onwards we pressed. As the ruined remnants of the ‘town that never was’ came into view, we realised that it was music we could hear. Opera. Michael Bridge had set up his audio system at the refreshment stop, and the sound of Verdi could be heard sweeping across the landscape.

Here we were, enjoying high culture while in one of the most desolate places in the state…

yarrah vale gorge
yarrah vale gorge

desolation boulevard
desolation boulevard

The other highlight of the day comes as you leave Wilson Road and head across the dirt to Hawker. For a few kilometers, the track is all but indistinguishable. With a map, a tyre track or two to follow, and a little luck, riders will soon find their way onto a much more noticeable trail. This ride across this ‘no mans land’ is another one of those moments where you can really get a feel for how hard this country must have been for settlers. You wouldn’t have to go far wrong to be lost, almost without hope.

Leaving Wilpena

One of the riding treats of the trip comes on the very last day. The single track out of Wilpena Pound is fast and fun and is sure to have riders focused. The trail broadens after a few kilometers but still provides another hour or so of marvelous fun as trees are ducked and dodged, creek beds are entered and exited at speed, and bikes are bounced along the rocky trails.

I had to keep my elbows tucked as I passed between narrow gaps, as well as remembering to shift my weight as I passed through the rocky creeks. This part of the ride is guaranteed to have your heart pumping just that little bit faster.

The Blinman Pub

Arriving in Blinman is a great moment. It’s not so much the fact that it marks the end of the ride, but the sense of achievement at having made the journey from Adelaide that makes it special. There’s a subtle difference. There’s plenty of hand-shaking and cheering as riders come in. Riders have been known to enjoy the odd beer or two as well.
The road to Blinman has been sealed in recent times and this makes the final leg of the trip a little easier on the body.

job done!

beer o'clock!
beer o'clock

In closing…

It’s not all beer and skittles. There are plenty of bumps, aches and bruises, days of weariness, boring stretches of road, nasty winds, deep sandy tracks and mechanical problems. Yet these are the things I forget all about when reflecting on the Odyssey. The good things definitely outweigh the bad. By a long way.

This has been a scattered memoir of some of the many lasting memories I have of the Outback Odyssey. 2009 was a great ride, and I am happy to have shared a couple of weeks with so many good people – everyone involved in making this ride happen deserves a medal. Every rider will have their own tales of joy, hardship and adventure; these have been a few of mine.

sunsetgood advice in melrosemoonscape at tooralie

To see more photos, go to: http://tinyurl.com/odyssey09 - just make sure you come back!

© Copyright David Robinson, 2009

Not to be reproduced without the permission of the author