In May this year I headed out on a bike trip that would take me from the ocean to the Outback. The conditions were often testing, but the scenery and overall experience was simply phenomenal. This is my story.
Our wheels were whirring underneath us, bouncing through corrugations that had filled with water overnight. Dirt and grit was getting picked up and flung at our faces as we recorded a video diary about the day’s theme: wet floors and resistance training. Having already clocked up 700km on the Mawson Trail, there was no doubt this day was going to have its challenges.
The road lost elevation quickly and we soon found ourselves navigating our way into a dry creek bed. Not even a solid night of rain could wake this beast up. We confidently carried our speed in and over this sleeping beauty and were flicking our shifters to find the perfect gear to get us back to flat ground. But while the dormant river may have permitted our crossing, she didn’t consent to us escaping without a fight.
Spinning and whirring as tiny raindrops fell from the sky, our tyres started to squirm; the power we were laying down was disappearing as our wheels spun without any forward propulsion.
We looked down and it was peanut butter mud. Not just ordinary peanut butter — this was the crunchiest, stickiest, most impossible-to-wipe-off-your-knife kind. Rocks, thorns and small branches made up the next layer, and when there was enough structure in place, a new layer of peanut butter wrapped itself around our tyres until our chainstays were fully sealed closed.
This wasn’t what we had envisaged four days earlier when we were sipping our lattes in Adelaide.
The Mawson Trail starts in the hills behind Adelaide, meandering north along dirt roads and 4×4 tracks that pass world-renowned wine regions, giant wind turbines, concrete aqueducts, rusty old gates and the gloriously red Flinders Ranges. The last trail marker on the verandah of the Blinman Pub indicates you’ve finished the ride, some 900km from the hustle and bustle of Adelaide.
The guys that put their hands up for this trip were Dan Bonello (aka BonBon), a Continental-level racer of road bikes and model for flashy kit manufacturer Attaquer; Ben May, a quiet achiever who banks more kilometres than most in preparation for the self-supported, 4,500km long Transcontinental Race; and me, Alee Denham, a rider of bikes across dozens of countries and multiple continents in order to meet the people of the world.
Day 1: Adelaide to Kapunda (149km)
The roads out of Adelaide were pedestrian, but at a certain point we reminded each other that these would be the last traffic lights for a long time. We made our escape from the city fun by taking shortcuts through parkland, which immediately demonstrated the capabilities of the Cannondale Slate as an off-road bike.
The autumn colours flooded our vision as we twisted our way up Gorge Road, a well-known haunt for both local riders and WorldTour riders like Simon Gerrans who start their season early at the Tour Down Under.
Near the start of the infamous Corkscrew Road climb, we pulled off the smooth bitumen and onto the official start of the Mawson Trail. The surface quickly turned to dirt and we were in our lowest possible gears which, as it turns out, weren’t low enough.
The climbing was generally short and steep. Not the steep you’re probably thinking, but more like 26%+ gradients at times. As a result, our 42mm slick tyres were breaking traction on the loose dirt as we monstered the gears, trying not to drop cadence. Luckily we are all rather experienced riders and had the ability to power the steep sections while recovering on the moderate gradients. But we aren’t ashamed to admit there was one particular hill that beat us.
Given the quick elevation change, the views over Northern Adelaide and Mt. Misery were stunning. The skies had opened up nicely by the afternoon, making the distant landscapes look razor sharp. At the highest elevation of the day we were climbing through kilometres of pine forests that are quite the contrast to the dry and dispersed nature of the Australian bush.
Back on fast roads again, we entered what we dubbed, “strada bianche”, white dirt roads approaching the Barossa Valley. Riding in an echelon, it felt like we were in Central Italy with a chasing peloton of classics specialists, as we sat low on our Slates to beat the headwinds coming in from the north. With fresh legs, we were able to push the tempo hard for periods, although we all knew deep down that what we were doing was totally unsustainable with five long days to go.
By late afternoon we were checking our weather apps to determine how much light was left for the day. Sitting on the ground in the middle of a supermarket carpark, trying to stuff bananas, chocolate and bread into our mouths, we determined there was just 45 minutes to find somewhere to stay.
As the sun set in the west, a positively gigantic full moon was rising in the east, lighting our way to one of the older European settlements in South Australia – Kapunda.
Day 2: Kapunda to Mount Byron (153km)
Waking up in a submarine-style triple bunk, we could all hear the gale force winds outside. It wasn’t at all reassuring to peel back the curtains and see strong northerlies bowing every tree in sight.
There was barely a murmur from any of us as we rolled out of town. We didn’t need to discuss the 50km/h headwind – instead we just flicked into our small front chainrings and spun away. You know the wind is strong when your uphill and downhill speeds are the same!
For whatever reason, farmers were plowing their fields on this day and losing huge amounts of topsoil. It seemed like a futile exercise, and we joked that they could probably take some advice from us city slickers about taking the day off and trying again tomorrow.
We were in serious need of the Red Ambulance (aka Coca Cola) after just 30km. As we took a break from staring at our stems, we could see on the horizon two guys crouching behind some bushes. It was our film crew, busy getting banger shots of us suffering in the wind.
Tim Bardsley-Smith was behind a gigantic lens and Mal Bloedel was documenting us through moving pictures. Tim and Mal weren’t just our film crew; they were propping up the whole adventure. They were the guys who did our shopping, booked our accommodation and checked if we were ok every hour or two. These guys are what one would call ‘bloody legends’.
The CT teamcar was parked on the side of the road, waiting to be pillaged by three cyclists desperate for caffeine, sugar and a good break. While we lay in the long grass with our legs up, Mal fired questions our way to try and capture moments of weakness. Hopefully he got in quick enough because the Black Doctor (aka Coca Cola) was performing miracles and we were soon feeling on top of our game again.
A slightly uphill yet sheltered bike path in the Clare Valley provided respite from the windy fields. For the first time this day we got to be social on the bike and found out things about each other, like the fact Ben has been with his partner Rishi for over half his 34-year life!
Light rain started to fall as we made our way out to Burra. We were heading into a crosswind that was doing wonders for our average speed, but unfortunately with the rain came energy-zapping mud that slowed us back down again.
A final push through the barren cattle-farming region near Hallett had us finishing at accommodation in the form of a converted train carriage.
Day 3: Hallett to Melrose (188km)
Crisp air was forcing its way in and under the carriage door and doing battle with the hot air from our fan heater. Those who felt the cold huddled next to the heater for the best chance of a warm start to the day. Undershirts, jerseys, thermal jackets and rain jackets — everything we owned — were all being used as insulation.
Blue skies, low fog and wind turbines created a picturesque backdrop as we motored along faster and with less effort than the previous days. Sheep were dotted sparsely across the monotonous Australian landscape as we twisted up and over the rolling hills.
We peeled off the wide farming roads and onto an aqueduct trail, our first section of proper hiking track on the Mawson.
It’s certainly lovely riding along small and twisty tracks, but we soon discovered that they were littered with closed gates. Although we developed a system whereby one would open the gate, the next would grab the last rider’s bike, and the last rider would close the gate – it was still a tedious affair. Here we also found the famous bindi thorns and our first puncture for the trip.
With all of the fences and gates, kangaroos would end up hopping ahead for long periods of time – even with generous gaps on either side of the trail. The kangaroos rarely let us pass and instead just went full speed parallel to the nearest fence.
We dubbed what they were doing as “Perimetering”. Not too dissimilar to “Everesting”, a Perimeter is when you circumnavigate a notable landmark – the bigger the better. A beginner’s Perimeter might be cycling around Uluru; and an advanced Perimeter could include cycling the entire coast of Australia on a fat bike!
The trail got steep and rocky as we climbed into a small mountain range near Jamestown. As we were tapping up the climb, all we were thinking was how the hell the lowered SS Commodore had made it up this. Tim and Mal were pretty impressed with their driving efforts up to the top, capturing some killer drone footage as we crested with them.
On the way down the other side, we were moving rocks and large branches from the double track where the Sportwagon needed to go. Watching the V8 wagon roll across deep ruts on the tightest possible angles in order to maximise clearance, was probably nervewracking for the camera guys, but quite amusing to us on the bikes.
For the rest of the day, we were in and out of pine forests, following livestock tracks carved into the hill contours, riding steep 4×4 trails and bombing down wide dirt roads. Despite being the longest day on the bike in terms of time and distance, we were feeling better than any other day given the favourable weather conditions.
Day 4: Melrose to Hawker (183km)
Our alarms went off an hour earlier than usual. We’d organised to go mountain biking in Melrose with some local riders who were keen to help us get some good sunrise images before heading out into the desert. Half-asleep, we rolled into the mountain bike park and were taken straight up one of the steepest trails. Given that we’d already covered 500km over three hard days, this was a rude shock first thing in the morning.
Despite the town being so small, the singletrack in Melrose is well known across South Australia, making for a suitable holiday destination for those who crave adrenaline. After riding through a number of iconic sand-coloured ruins in the mountain bike park, the local bike shop opened up just so that we could talk shop and share caffeine.
The trail out of town followed big farming roads that went in straight lines for as far as the eye could see. It was somehow engaging though; the landscape had changed completely from what we’d previously experienced.
The earth was becoming a dark red colour, trees were disappearing and small shrubs were cropping up everywhere – we were now in the Australian Outback. A stud of horses ran alongside us for a few hundred metres, their manes catching the wind majestically as they attempted their very first Perimeter.
Quorn is a beautiful historic town with lots of charm. The local proprietor of the department store-turned café and museum was proud to inform us that horror flick Wolf Creek was filmed in town. That got us wondering if any serial killers were living in the run-down properties out this way. They’d probably have a good chance of luring us in with icy cold drinks and bike cleaning services!
By afternoon the wind picked up, the trails got sandier, the corrugations grew and the desert really started to expose itself. BonBon was clearly feeling good, evident when the cameras appeared and he upped the tempo until the rest of us couldn’t hold on anymore.
As the light disappeared behind the Flinders Ranges, it was a windy slog into Hawker. Despite going downhill, we had to work harder than ever to finish the day off before the temperature dropped.
Day 5: Hawker to Hawker (4km)
It was 7am and there was heavy rain falling on our tin roof. Ben was looking at the rainfall charts for the next 24 hours, and it looked like there wouldn’t be a single hour of respite. Not only was it wet but the temperature was hovering at around 10 degrees Celcius too – not what us fair-weather cyclists signed up for.
We decided to have a coffee and discuss the potential of altering our route to suit the inclement weather, but there wasn’t really an alternative option that didn’t miss everything.
And so we rode our bikes on the trail – for 4km. And then, as you already know, our bikes got bogged.
After digging as much mud off the bikes as possible, we locked them into the roof racks and called it a day. We made the decision that we wouldn’t risk taking the car back down into the creek bed, in the event that it wouldn’t get up the other side.
Driving just a few hundred metres away from the creek, it was apparent that just like our bike wheels, the Commodore was fighting for traction as the mud wrapped around the tyres and into the guards.
With the front wheels locked, we were trying to make a right-hand turn but the car was struggling to do anything but go forward. After a bit of pushing and shoving we ended up getting the car straight, but it still wouldn’t go anywhere by itself.
The three of us spindly-legged cyclists plus camera-guy Mal pushed the car slowly up the road until a ridge between the wheels halted all progress. We were properly bogged now.
We called the local service station proprietor who had a good chuckle at the city slickers who decided to drive on muddy roads in their lowered Sportwagon, before deploying a rescue vehicle. As the 4×4 approached our bogged car it slid 90 degrees and almost lifted two wheels off the ground. The peanut butter mud was like ice!
Two older guys muttered to each other about how they would tackle the tow, tying a rope to the back of the car, and dragging it off the muddy road and onto the grass beside it. With the 4×4 shadowing, we were able to drive slowly through the shrubs to the safety of the hard bitumen.
Day 6: Hawker to Blinman North (170km)
Given that we’d lost a whole day, we had some serious ground to cover. Most weather reports had highlighted that “the first 15km out of Hawker” was the worst section following rain, so instead we rode the parallel bitumen to Wilpena Pound. The weather was looking a little dicey, but with the big, wide, sweeping desert views we just didn’t care.
After 50km we had reached our first section of dirt where we prayed both that our wheels wouldn’t clog and the car wouldn’t bog. A 4×4 coming the other way gave us the promising news that there was only a 100m long mud section that might cause us problems – good enough for us!
The road passed closely between two mountain ranges that offered great eye candy. The visual pleasure was certainly at odds with the Strava segment called “Corrugation Hell Road”, and for good reason – it’s the roughest section of the Mawson.
It’s a pity we didn’t have access to a helicopter to see the Flinders Ranges from above – a few hundred metres up and these mountains are at their most picturesque. Do yourself a favour and look up some photos of Wilpena Pound.
The Mawson Trail started to really deliver over the last 100km to Blinman. We were finally riding proper singletrack and having a good giggle as the back end of the bikes slipped out. A 15km descent was enough to put big smiles on our faces for the rest of the day, as we climbed long ridgelines and went up and over hundreds of rolling hills.
As the sun disappeared behind the mountains, we were lucky enough to spend some time following families of emus and kangaroos – it was wildlife galore out there.
By the time we pulled onto the final stretch to Blinman Pub, we were able to stop and think about what had happened over the last week. With the exception of one day, we were on our Cannondale Slates from sunrise to sunset, completing possibly the best off-road bike route in Australia. We had conquered wind, hills and the worst kinds of mud.
In just a few hard days we’d learned more about each other than ever before. The Mawson Trail isn’t just a bike route – it’s an adventure ready to test you.