From the city to the deep outback, the Mawson Trail is a unique Australian bike ride. Leon Hill makes the tough journey on the Outback Odyssey event.
There are some experiences that are unmistakably Australian—climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge, gazing on Uluru at first light and cycling the Outback Odyssey. While the latter mightn’t be familiar to everyone, this 900km supported adventure ride along the Mawson Trail from the centre of Adelaide deep into the South Australian outback could well be regarded as the definitive Aussie cycling experience. Over 16 gruelling days, riders experience all that outback cycling has to offer—searing heat, bitter cold, choking dust, and relentless wind, complemented by staggering scenery, personal triumphs and the camaraderie that comes with sharing a challenge with 200 other cyclists.
The Mawson Trail is a mountain bike route stretching from Adelaide’s cosmopolitan CBD, through the scenic Adelaide Hills and Barossa Valley, north into the iconic outback landscapes of the Flinders Ranges. On a map the route appears somewhat convoluted, but the trail planners carefully selected a mix of quiet dirt roads, forestry tracks and singletrack to minimise bitumen roads and vehicular traffic while still passing through country towns along the way. The rugged and remote Mawson Trail has a reputation as being an unrelenting test of bike and rider, so Bike SA hosts the Outback Odyssey event to encourage people to experience the trail as a supported group ride.
The Outback Odyssey comes in four different flavours to cater for different fitness levels, time commitments and personal interests. The organisers divide the route up into three sub-trails of approximately equal length that people can join the ride for, as well as the option to ride the entire 900km. Interestingly, most riders choose to complete the full 900km. Ride On joined the ride for the final 300km section, which is arguably the most spectacular, starting at the town of Melrose, heading north deep into the Flinders Ranges National Park and finally to the event finish line at the tiny outback town of Blinman.
Location: Flinders Ranges, South Australia
Surface: Sealed road, smooth gravel, rough gravel, mud, singletrack
Duration: 5–16 days
Choice of bike: Mountain bike
Skill level: Intermediate
Fitness required: Moderate to high (endurance is essential)
For more: bikesa.asn.au/outbackodyssey
As nine other riders and I tumbled out of the Bike SA shuttle bus into the Outback Odyssey event village, it was easy to feel a bit overwhelmed by the size of the rider’s camp and the hive of activity all around us. We were surrounded by dozens of tents, marquees, trucks and of course, cyclists of all shapes and sizes whizzing about following their own routines preparing for the following days of riding. The feeling was a bit like arriving at a party and not knowing anyone other than the person who invited you. However, as newcomers to the Odyssey, we weren’t left feeling like strangers for long, with the Bike SA volunteers and the more seasoned riders going out of their way to help us find our feet and prepare for the challenges that awaited us out on the Mawson.
We awoke to our first day of riding (the eleventh day for those that had cycled the Odyssey from the beginning) to clear skies but very wet ground courtesy of an overnight storm. Riders were responsible for setting their own routine in the mornings, with breakfast starting at 0630, the route opening at 0730 and the final riders expected to leave by about 0830. After filling up on a massive continental breakfast in the Melrose town hall, riders stuffed their backpacks and handlebar bags full of the staggering amount of trail mix, fruit, electrolyte and cake on offer to sustain themselves through to the first refreshment stop out on the trail. The adage goes that an army marches on its stomach, and the same could be said for 200 cyclists ploughing through the dust and dirt of the outback. The quality and amount of food and drink supplied at all points during the event is of the highest standard.
Following breakfast, riders packed up their gear, placed it in one of the large support trucks, and trickled out of the campsite through the still sleeping town of Melrose. The Mawson Trail route is clearly marked and riders are equipped with excellent maps showing the trail, surrounding road networks and points of interest along the way. Immediately, we pedalled onto a smooth, quiet dirt road through picturesque grazing land. However, the surface quickly turned into a quagmire due to the heavy overnight rain. To say the outback mud was diabolical would be a profound understatement—the dark brown goo was so tenacious that each and every bike ended up with a derailleur that looked like it had unsuccessfully tried to eat a meat pie. The length of the trail between Melrose and Wilmington was littered with stuck cyclists pushing their bikes along the boggy road, stopping for the occasional futile attempt to clear tyres and drivetrains using twigs, sticks, grass and whatever else they could find. The only bikes seemingly unaffected by the sticky conditions were the handful of cyclocrossers, the skinny tyres managing to somehow cut through to the mud to the firm surface below.
The roadside morning tea stop at Wilmington saw an impressive spread of cakes, road food and of course electrolyte, as riders shared tales of their hardship through the mud and tried to get their bikes running again for the remaining 40km of off-road riding for the day. After morning tea, the mud abated and the riding surface became smooth and firm, but it was the wind’s turn to have a go at slowing riders, with a stiff northerly battering the riders on a deceptively long and tough undulating ascent up to Richman Gap. Cresting the gap revealed the Outback Odyssey lunch camp, with delicious filled rolls, salads, meats, sweets and of course more road snacks to get through the afternoon. Organisers also provided a coffee van for riders to get their caffeine hit at each roadside stop and event village along the way. The coffee guy must have surely been one of the hardest worked staff of the tour, pulling coffees from before dawn until well into the night each day.
After a long gravel descent, riders finished their 71km day at the impressive and already established event village set up at the Quorn town oval. Throughout the Odyssey, a small army of volunteers worked throughout each day to pack down the camp, truck it all to the next location, then set the whole thing up again. This army of volunteers was led by the indefatigable Russell, who worked tirelessly to provide the riders with an experience they’ll never forget, as well as manage all the food, showers, luggage and logistics for a travelling caravan of over 230 people. Some of the riders were fortunate enough have selected the ‘deluxe camping’ option, arriving at camp each day to find our tents already pitched—a welcome luxury at the end of each long and exhausting day. Once bike maintenance was taken care of and gear prepared for the following stage, riders headed to the lively bar area to share trials and tribulations of the trail.
Just as the morning had required the following of a particular routine, the evening bought a new camp routine to learn. In between each of the hefty three courses of dinner, the ride organiser provided a detailed briefing about the following day’s riding. While the Outback Odyssey technically follows the Mawson Trail for its entire length, the organisers encouraged riders to “choose their own adventure” along the route, offering a range of side tracks and easier trails for people to follow if they chose. Following the rider briefing, the Mawson Man and Wilkins Woman trophy was handed out, which was a humorous perpetual trophy awarded each day to those whose exploits most embodied the spirit of the event. With the formalities and dinner dispensed with, riders continued to enjoy a full range of refreshments well into the night, and the new arrivals for the last leg of the journey were made to feel very welcome. The daily routine of the Outback Odyssey could best be described as a kind of intricate dance involving 200 like-minded people—somewhat mystifying at first, but once mastered it allowed us to focus on the riding experiences that were to follow.
The following two days from Quorn to Rawnsley Park Station bought about a definite change of scenery, from open pastoral lands into the iconic red rocky landscapes of outback Australia. Setting off in light drizzle, riders headed north as the trail meandered along Yarra Vale Road, before winding up to the spectacular lookout and dropping through Yarra Vale Gorge. Arriving at the abandoned historical settlement of Simmonston was a grim reminder of the harsh reality of pioneering life in this unforgiving part of the world.
In a somewhat sombre mood leaving Simmonston, many riders thought they could hear snippets of ominous opera music drifting in on the buffeting wind. Fortunately their mind wasn’t playing tricks on them—ride organiser Russell had rigged up a huge set of speakers in a van and was parked in the middle of a vast plain, blasting grandiose opera at the riders to motivate them along the smooth, empty dirt roads under a mind-bogglingly vast sky. Riders shared a quick pit stop that turned into an impromptu session at the Cradock Hotel, a historic stone-pitched pub seemingly plonked in the middle of nowhere. Thankfully the route turned north, creating a tailwind all the way into the town of Hawker, where we camped for the first time among the red rocky shale of the South Australian outback.
Although the previous day’s 112km might have been the longest, the 94km stage from Hawker to Rawnsley Park Station was judged by many riders to be the toughest. The ride started off heading north out of Hawker, climbing sharply up Wonoka Hill, before a bone-jarring, brake searing rocky descent that saw many tired riders choosing to hop off and walk. A 10km stretch of blacktop provided some welcome relief from the bumpy conditions, before turning southwest onto the legendary Moralana Scenic Drive, a 28km corrugated and rough gravel road, punctuated by rocky river gum creek crossings, nestled between two spectacularly imposing outback mountain ranges. Another transit section along the bitumen bought riders to the overnight camp at Rawnsley Park Station, deep in the Flinders Ranges, for a much needed rest and light bushwalking to stretch weary legs.
The following morning was a sleepy and slow pace at Rawnsley Park station, with riders only having to cover 26km on this penultimate stage of the Odyssey, from Rawnsley Park to nearby Wilpena Pound. The atmosphere out on the trail here was much like a social mountain bike ride, as the entire group of cyclists rode almost as one along the spectacular single trail skirting around the imposing bluffs of Wilpena Pound. The short day of riding allowed an early arrival at Wilpena Pound camp, leaving everyone plenty of time to take a short bushwalk up into the huge natural amphitheatre made up of rocks so ancient they pre-date fossils. The early arrival at Wilpena Pound also meant that riders could retire to the well-stocked bar area for an extended opportunity to meet and mingle. Outback Odyssey riders come from all walks of life, representing the full spectrum of fitness and ability levels. Over the years the ride has developed a cult following, with most riders returning for their second, third or fourth Odyssey—despite most swearing they’d never put their bodies through it again!
The final day of the Outback Odyssey proved to be the most spectacular, containing all elements that make the ride great condensed into a 62km stage. Riders blasted north through Flinders Range National Park, along winding single trail that undulated through pine groves, over rocky creek crossings, across sandy desert plains, along red shale ridges before arriving at the improbably steep Bunyeroo Hill. While a few hardy souls managed to cycle the full way to the top of this oft-photographed outback mountain climb, a great many admitted defeat in the South Australian outback and walked their bikes up to the final lunch spot of the tour. With the lunch and coffee dispensed with one last time, 200 tired riders headed downhill to the bitumen for the final 20km push into the tiny town of Blinman, where the final Mawson Trail marker directed riders straight into the front bar of the only pub in town.
Rolling over the finishing line at Blinman was an immensely personal experience for each rider. Even though 200 cyclists had faced the same challenges and celebrations on the trail, each individual rider crossing the line had a different experience of the same event—and that is the magic of the Outback Odyssey. The ride is physically demanding, mentally taxing, spectacularly beautiful, socially entertaining, personally rewarding and iconically Australian. The Outback Odyssey has firmly cemented its place as one of the legendary supported rides along one of Australia’s most remote mountain long distance mountain bike trails. With the next Odyssey scheduled for 2017, the seasoned veterans will already be preparing to once again face the South Australian outback and a batch of new faces will be signing up for the cycling experience of a lifetime.
Photography by Leon Hill
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