an informal guide to off-highway bike touring across Australia
An in-depth, full-on, all-you-need-to-know, but not-complete-hand-holding, guide to 20 long distance trail routes and conditions for touring cyclists in Outback Australia.
Well, at least most of the useful stuff about bike touring.
Yay! There are even answers to those usual questions mum likes to know:
- Where to ride? Here are 20 expeditions to get you going.
- What is the best type of bike Clue: reliable helps.
- Where to find water How much to take, how to pack it. All that stuff.
- What to eat Just in case you can’t make up your mind what’s for dinner.
- And, of course, what’s it likely to cost ?
Bike touring, that’s on a bicycle, self-propelled, is a great way to really see Australia. Sure you can rip a circuit on Highway 1 but maybe that can wait until you turn 70. If you are keen to really experience the Australian Outback, to have a trip to remember the rest of your life, you have to ride off that blacktop.
In a country as big as Australia there are plenty of off-road, well, off-the-main-road, trails to explore that hack through scenic territory and have the benefit of not much traffic.
- The 900km Mawson Trail from downtown Adelaide through the Flinders Ranges has been set up specially for mountain bikes. As good a start to long distance off-road riding as any in Australia. The Trail, using mostly existing dirt roads, fire and farm tracks etc, passes through three of Australia’s best wine regions: Adelaide Hills, Barossa and Clare Valleys, old mining towns, Kapunda and Burra, some wildly remote parts, and the backdrop of the Flinders Ranges. Take a day or two off to climb Mt Remarkable or explore Wilpena Pound, ie a feature packed scenic adventure that can continue on to Arkaroola for the intrepid.
- The Munda Biddi Trail, another purpose built long distance mountain bike trail is a complete blast. Long stretches, kilometres, of massive fun screaming down obscure single track. It’s not so easy to find a trail, feeling remote, isolated, bulk single track, most days, for a week and a half, great, free, if well ventilated, accommodation along the way, the opportunity to replenish supplies every three days, plenty of signage, mostly, detailed maps complete with topography sections, no traffic, no people, all within 35km of a major centre. Too rugged to be standard bike touring fare this is a digestible little adventure where after your day’s effort, maybe at 8 km an hour with a little walking the bike, you flop onto your sleeping bag still buzzing, if totally exhausted.
- Cape York is a terrific ride. One of Australia’s most challenging bike adventures due to the terrain, (plenty hilly), the heat, (there’s a lot of it), roads, (can be soft but usually not for long), traffic, (far, far too much of it), the sheer distance, but it’s also one of the most fun. The 4WD track components are the most memorable, Cape Melville, Frenchmans Track and most of all the Telegraph Track, with plenty of opportunities for cooling off in the 26ºC creeks, sometimes a few hours between meeting fellow travellers, invariably in 4WDs, great campsites usually near water, there’s a lot to like.
- The Oodnadatta, Tanami and Gibb River Road are now all unsealed “highways” with plenty of tourist traffic, but enormous distances between supply points. Gotta be prepared. The GRR is the current favourite for East Coast 4WDers doing the Outback safari thing. Don’t tell anyone but the road has had dramatic improvements in the last dozen years to cater to the tourist traffic, it ain’t half the rugged road it once was. Now it’s one third softish, but always rideable, one third great and the remainder, well, variable. Great to ride, scenic too, but plenty of traffic and company in peak Dry Season, (June, July, August).
- Some of the best features in Kakadu National Park need some riding over unsealed roads to access. Many of the National Park’s more scenic attractions require some effort, even if it’s only 10km in to the magnificent Maguk, (swimming hole, err, above the falls, recommended), 50km for Twin Falls or 65km to the more remote Koolpin Gorge. There’s plenty to explore here and it’s all worth the sweat expended.
- The Tasmanian Trail is a roller coaster horse trail, that can be used by mountain bikes, rather than the typical highway bike tour, that heads 500km from Devonport in the north of Tasmania through the Central Plateau to the south coast at Dover.
- The Oodnadatta Track cuts through Australia’s driest landscape in South Australia. The off-road road to get you started on non-highway travel. A generally reasonable surface, if it hasn’t rained recently, in which case it ain’t, with a night or two out between the specks of civilisation along the way. Enormous expanses of nothingness reveal a surreal beauty, and Adam Plate’s roadside signage helps explain the surprisingly interesting features on the Track: the abandoned Old Ghan infrastructure, the Overland Telegraph Line, South Lake Eyre, Coward Springs, all the while heading for Central Australia.
- The 1075km tuf, tuf, tuf Tanami Track, from Alice Springs to Halls Creek, well it ain’t quite so tough anymore. Often a terrific ride through serene, and surreal, spinifex country on an unpaved highway that cuts between the Great Sandy and the Tanami deserts. Following the closure of the Rabbit Flat roadhouse in December 2010 there is a daunting gap between Yuendumu and Billiluna settlements: 600km. That makes it the biggest gulf between civilisation specks on any major road in Australia. Doesn’t change the water situation significantly. You need the capacity to take water for 2 nights out. Renahan’s bore watertank to the Lajamanu Road turnoff tank at 198km is less than the next section to Billiluna, 286km. There’s more traffic than you would think, just watch out for those road trains heading to the mines. But the Tanami challenge is mostly in the mind. Experience it before the road is fully sealed.
- The road up to Karijini National Park via Millstream Chichester National Park will get you right through the heart of the Pilbara. Many of Australia’s best features take a bit of getting to, by bike, and this area pays off on the required diversion. There’s a huge shock of those gorgeous gorges, and a sudden bunch of 4WD encased tourists after days of solitude hacking your way to the Hamersley Range from the coast through archetypal WA landscape.
- The Gibbie/ Wickham track through Jutpurra National Park, the renamed Gregory National Park, is a challenge for keen off-road riders in the Northern Territory. Testing little adventure due to the gnarly track surface. Actually it’s one of Australia’s great off-road trail challenges: from the heart of nowhere to not much else via an obscure track at, say, 7.49km/hour average speed for 5 hours. So why tackle it? My guess, the promise of adventure of a full on, remote, rugged ride. This trail is a fair test of both bike and rider through some colossally uninhabited territory.
- Travelling the south coast of Western Australia it’s best to modify the standard 130km/day bike tourist mentality through this astonishingly scenic corner of the continent. A dozen campsites near great inlets, plenty of National Parks to detour through, the Gloucester Tree climb, Cape Leeuwin to watch the Indian Ocean crash into the Southern Ocean in what feels like the end of the world, big surf smashing in at Yallingup, those huge Karri and Tingle tree forests, Margaret River wineries, Elephant Rocks etc. Not a route to hurry through.
- The Duncan Road/ Buntine Highway takes you through some remote NT cattle country where you might see 4 cars a day. A mostly good, occasionally great, unsealed highway, once the main round Australia road, through cattle country with little traffic and plenty of water spots. Don’t be put off by that sign on the edge of Halls Creek: Kalkarindji 407km, there’s a whole lot of nuttin when you make it there. The waterholes: Carolines Pool, Sawpit Gorge, Marella Hole are as much of what it’s about as the, at times, sublime riding.
- The Mereenie Loop joins a few tourist feature dots on the back route between Uluru and Alice Springs taking in features in the Macdonnell Ranges National Park: Stanley Chasm, Ellery Big Hole, Ormiston and Glen Helen Gorges, Mt Sonder, then Gosses Bluff and Kings Canyon. Not so much unsealed road, 150km actually, but the short sections of sand and longer sections of cobblestones, (need any fillings removed?), require plenty of (worthwhile) effort.
- The Finke Road along the Old Ghan route gets into some lonesome country near the geographical centre of Australia. Not much traffic out here. For those who want a break from civilisation, phone coverage, other members of the human race, etc, and wonder what a post-apocalyptic landscape would feel like to inhabit, this is for you. And then you stumble across Eringa Waterhole. Generally OK, sometimes great, riding but there are occasional crossings of stray, short, sections of the altogether far too sandy Simpson Desert.
Here’s a few random articles to get you started …
Mawson Trail, SA
The 900km long Mawson Trail has been set up as some sort of tourist adventure by the South Australian government and the level of investment in signage and the trail documentation is impressive. The route seems designed by watching the track an ant would take across a map: ie it’s all over the place. If there’s a direct road between places the trail will usually take some other more deviant route up an adjacent valley then with a hill up-and-over involved.
The Mawson is a mountain bike trail, rather than a cycle tour, over pre-existing unsealed back roads, forestry tracks, fire trails, farm roads etc that has had plenty of signage installed along the way. It’s a fantastic introduction to off-highway dirt track riding, more challenging than you might think, particularly the steep sections on the first few days when you head through the Adelaide Hills and into the Barossa Valley. The whole track is scenic but the north section through the Flinders Ranges is particularly dramatic.
health - hygiene stuff
This means the toilet stuff.
Often you will be camping out in the middle of not a lot. There are few public toilets on the 1050km Tanami Track.
Ask any long distance bike tourer who has been at it for a while what’s the toughest part of the journey and there’s invariably one response: caravan drivers.
Not so much their driving which is bad enough but the repetitive questions now been asked hundreds of times.
too much sun
If you haven’t spent time in Australia before you might not realise the power of the Outback sun.
On a long bike trip you will be living outside for weeks at a time. The sun is a real issue. There’s a shortage of cloud cover and extreme UV levels. It’s tempting to take the shirt off but be careful with sun exposure: heat exhaustion, sunburn, sunstroke.
water - it's the outback
Think Outback. Think water.
Less of a problem than you might think.
doing something else
Out there, when 4WDers stop for a chat they often confess they have been driving for 6 hours without a break and travelled 700km since breakfast. Ask them about some feature along the way and they look blank. No, they didn’t see it.
It’s almost as if there’s a fear of wide open spaces, that they must be traversed asap.
avoiding loneliness with your smart phone
Out there on your lonesome, well, these days it’s not so isolating. At least when you have bandwidth for your smartphone. Here’s a few thoughts . . .