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Five days in the Outback: Australia’s Mawson Trail

In-depth
27 Apr 2021
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At the biennial Outback Odyssey, Cyclist Off-Road discovers the wonders of the 920km Mawson Trail

Words: Bob Barrett Photography: Tim Bardsley-Smith

Track down an Australian $100 note printed between 1984 and 1996, and look at the face on the front. The stern figure, wrapped in a scarf and balaclava, is Sir Douglas Mawson.

He may be little known in the UK, despite being born in Yorkshire, but in Australia, the country he grew up in, Mawson is as famous as Robert Falcon Scott, Roald Amundsen and Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Like those men, Mawson was an explorer and geologist who mapped uncharted areas of Antarctica at the start of the 20th century and inspired great tales of heroism and survival.

As such, it’s only appropriate that he has lent his name to the Mawson Trail, a 920km stretch of dirt and gravel that leads from Adelaide on Australia’s southern coast to Blinman in the dusty heart of the Outback. It’s a place perfectly suited to explorers and adventurers.

When I first heard about the Mawson Trail, it felt like an epic before I had even left my living room. Just looking at it on a map, it covers a significant chunk of South Australia, which isn’t exactly a small place. The full length of the trail is the equivalent distance of London to Inverness, but with only the occasional town or outpost along the way.

It’s a huge undertaking by bike, and not one to be approached lightly. Luckily for me, once every two years event company Bike SA organises the Outback Odyssey, a multi-day, mass-participation ride along the Mawson Trail with enough support to make it accessible to all-comers.

The full event takes 15 days to complete, such are the distances involved. That’s a bit more time than I have spare, but fortunately there are shorter versions that allow entrants to do chunks of the route and get the true Outback experience in the space of a week.

That suits me better, so I have opted to skip the first part of the event from Adelaide, and instead my start point will be Melrose, a small town about 550km to the north along the trail, which will leave me with five days of riding to get to the finish at Blinman, another 369km further on.

Now I just need to decide which bike to take.

 

Ray of sunshine

When I arrive at the Bike SA head office in Adelaide ahead of the bus ride to Melrose, I notice I am just about the only one on a gravel bike. It’s definitely a mountain bike crowd.

This causes me a bit of a concern at first, especially considering the remoteness and terrain ahead, but over the coming days I will come to realise that I have probably the most appropriate tool for the job.

The road journey to Melrose is about half the distance it takes to get there on a bike via the Mawson Trail, meaning we can do in three and a half hours on a bus what the riders will take several days to achieve by bike.

Of course, we don’t get quite the same views, but if the scenery from the bus is anything to go by it is going to be an awe-inspiring ride.

At Melrose more than 200 riders and crew are fed into the local community hall, where we receive the first of our daily briefings.

It is delivered by a man called Ray, whose duty it is to inform us of the following day’s riding while throwing down some historic anecdotes for good measure.

It’s only day one for me, but it is obvious that the crowd of participants who have ridden from Adelaide are used to these rambling speeches from Ray, who has well and truly found his groove.

He goes on and on, part briefing, part stand-up comedy routine, complete with tall tales of years past that are quite possibly more fiction than fact.

It’s all very entertaining, and it ends with his final words of wisdom, which he reportedly uses every night: ‘Remember guys, the hills are just roads on a slant.’ Cheers for that, Ray.

Into the wilderness

The morning is brisk but the sun is out and already doing its Outback thing. Melrose to Quorn is first on the menu, a ride of 71km, and the day, we discover, is made a touch more challenging due to the very small turning markers. The teacup-sized purple logos affixed to waist-height wooden posts are what we’re hunting today, but when there’s so much else to look at they’re easy to miss.

The conditions are near perfect – cool but sunny, with primarily smooth and fast gravel roads bisecting vast rolling countryside. In between spotting turn markers, I realise just how big and remote this place is. There’s nothing out here bar the odd rundown sandstone foundation with a few crumbling walls remaining.

The day passes quickly, and by the finish I feel happy about the way it has gone. There have been no major incidents, my legs have held out pretty well, and the backdrop has been beautiful in a stark, empty way.

It’s Quorn to Hawker the next day where the scenery really starts to kick off. I roll past rock formations that look like gigantic, red layer cakes. It’s like something straight from a movie set. This is what I came for.

The sand out here, no doubt swept off the top of those surrounding formations, forms a fine red dust that gets into everything. Apparently it is notorious for turning into bogs when it rains, but when the weather is dry like this it’s smooth and fast to ride on.

And thank goodness, because today is the longest day at 112km, so the thought of doing it while squelching through wheel-sucking mud isn’t an appealing one.

We head through a plateau with crumbling rock ridges on all sides, and the voice of Andrea Bocelli seems to play in my head as we ride through this open, dry landscape to Simmonston, the town that never quite made it.

‘Some crackpot in the Government changed a proposed train route away from Simmonston after they had begun building foundations for the town, so it ended up being the town that never was,’ Ray tells us later that evening once we reach the settlement at Hawker, although it’s hard to tell if he’s relating fact or making it up on the spot. One of his other nuggets includes, ‘Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.’

 

Deeper into the interior

Hawker to Rawnsley Park might be only day three for me but I’ve already begun to feel the Odyssey pinch. Tiredness means I miss my alarm, and to delay my start even further I’ve suffered a mysterious overnight puncture. At least it’s a bit warmer now. The first few nights were super-cold, and I ended up sleeping in my thermals.

I ride beside a jagged ridgeline in what seems like a dried-out riverbed. The trail meanders through the vast open flats, which give me no sense of what direction I’m ultimately heading in. Along the way I cross some gullies with big boulders that have been rounded as if they have been under flowing water at some time in the past.

Beyond the ridgeline I hit flat, compact gravel roads. It should make for fast riding but I’m heading into a strong headwind. I put my head down and push fairly hard – the sooner to get it over with – but there is no respite.

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The road is straight and I can’t see a turn or a climb at the end. It just vanishes into the horizon, so I know I’m in for a long haul. When the road does finally turn the relief is short-lived. It’s the same again, an endless straight into the horizon.

Eventually the gravel gives way to tarmac for the run-in to Rawnsley Park, past the tiny dirt strip of an airport for tourist flights and into camp for the night. It has been a short but gruelling day, and I’m thankful that tomorrow we have an easy day and a chance for a lie in.

Day four is just 26km from Rawnsley Park to Wilpena Pound, a resort in the shadow of a natural amphitheatre of mountains, and serves to allow riders a chance to recuperate in readiness for the final day to Blinman.

‘Serious riding starts tomorrow,’ says Ray. But then he says that every day.

Blinman or bust

The last day of the Outback Odyssey is 66km from Wilpena Pound to Blinman. Ray tells us to look out for the very last signpost of the trail, which directs riders straight into the pub. As with much of his wisdom, I wonder if this is true.

We leave the majestic Pound behind us, still heading north. Straight out of camp we hit the best singletrack of the trip. It leads us between low, bare trees on purple gravel as the morning light splinters and flashes through the branches, and it puts me in a great mood right from the beginning. My legs feel good and the bike feels fast.

The terrain today is never boring. I find myself forever cresting a hill, rounding a corner or bursting out of some bush into a completely different world. The only problem is that I can’t help stopping frequently to take photos.

 

Before long I hit a wider section of trail that is really lumpy but mostly downhill, so carrying speed makes for some exciting riding. Deep drops are followed by sharp rises and blind corners.

This leads into a section with some taller trees that look out of place in this Outback landscape. This in turn takes us to an open valley with the most perfectly manicured shrubbery I’ve ever seen outside of a garden centre. Even the gravel is perfect, like red snow, with a trail that carves between the shrubs like they were slalom markers.

After five days, even the smallest rises are beginning to take their toll. There aren’t any proper climbs, but the time in the saddle is grinding me down. Even when things flatten out I begin hunting for the smoothest line in the gravel to save energy, but I never find it. The grass is always greener, and the line over there is always smoother.

The run in to Blinman is on tarmac, and while it lacks the beauty of the gravel roads my legs are thankful for it. A few little hills in the final kilometres drain the last of my energy reserves, but it doesn’t matter – from the top of one of the rises I can see the pub!

The Bike SA crew are there waiting and cheering as I roll in. And, sure enough, there on the pole by the door of the pub is the last signpost for the Mawson Trail.

• Looking for inspiration for your own summer cycling adventure? Cyclist Tours has hundreds of trips for you to choose from

The route we took

Cyclist Off-Road did the final five days of the Odyssey

The whole Outback Odyssey is a 15-day epic covering 920km. For those without the time to do the whole thing, you can do one of three sections: Adelaide to Burra (278km); Burra to Melrose (273km); or Melrose to Blinman (369km). We chose the latter.

Melrose to Quorn, 71km

The first few days seem daunting because they’re the longest, but the gravel roads are fairly easy going in good conditions.

Quorn to Hawker, 112km

The longest day, but with only 450m of climbing it’s manageable – there’s just the wind to deal with.

Hawker to Rawnsley Park, 94km

A long one, but incredible rock formations make the day fly by.

Rawnsley Park to Wilpena Pound, 26km

Somewhat of a rest day, we get a lie in and time to relax.

Wilpena Pound to Blinman, 66km

The last leg to the edge of Flinders Ranges National Park. A final stretch on tarmac makes for a smooth run to the pub.

The rider’s ride

Giant TCX, from £1,300, giant-bicycles.com

The Giant TCX is essentially a cyclocross race bike, so not really designed with long distance adventures in mind. That said, it is fast, light and agile, which proved to be perfect for the mostly flat gravel of the Mawson Trail.

Certainly, by the end of the ride I felt a bit smug about my choice of bike when compared to the majority of riders who turned up on mountain bikes, some with full suspension.

The gearing is quite racy, but luckily there were never enough hills for that to be a problem. The only thing I might have changed would be a switch to tubeless tyres.

I suffered quite a few punctures and going tubeless might have saved me some time wrestling with inner tubes. That’ll teach me for wanting to stick with my funky green tyres. I really should have known better.

The details

Sign up Down Under

What: Bike SA Outback Odyssey  
Where: Adelaide, Australia  
How far: 920km (shorter routes available)  
Price: From £650 to £1,400  
Contact: bikesa.asn.au