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Cycling the Mawson Trail slip and slide: part 1

Peter Webber's picture
Cycling South Australia's Mawson Trail. Cycle Traveller

Peter and Vicki Webber take on South Australia's 900km Mawson Trail, which runs north out of the Adelaide Hills, through the vineyards and up to the State's highest town, Blinman, in the Flinders Ranges. With scorching summer temperatures in the ranges, the pair begin the ride in June during winter. But what troubles will the rainy season bring to the predominantly dirt route designed for mountain bikes and very sturdy touring bikes? Here's part one of Peter's account.

Mawson Trail map. Cycle TravellerRoute: Mawson Trail
Distance: 900km
​Surface: Mostly dirt
Difficulty: Hard
Official maps: Available from Trails SA


Adelaide to Cuddle Creek: 50km

The bikes arrive at Adelaide airport undamaged and Vicki and I quickly reassemble them. We had a 40kg checked baggage allowance and 10kg of hand luggage each and we managed to make the load limit with 3kg to spare. Can't wait until we add food and water to the load. One day we might try to pack lighter, but not this trip. Exiting Adelaide is a simple affair: head North to the Torrens River and pick up the bicycle trail which delivers you at the Adelaide Hills some 30km distant with barely a road being crossed. Most of the day the sky has been dull with only the occasional appearance of blue. The weather forcast for the next day is for high winds and heavy rain, so we forego the initial section of the Mawson, not wanting to be caught out in the mud overnight, and instead head to the Cudlee Creek Caravan Park. The hill up the Gorge Road takes its toll and I am well and truly spent by the time we get there. There is a tavern attached to the park were we enjoy the world's thinnest steak sandwich and chips, but what the steak lacks in thickness the chips make up in volume. The beer tastes great. We head for the tent under a crystal clear sky full of stars.

Cudlee Creek to Birdwood: 36km

We depart Cudlee Creek with increasing wind; at the ridge tops it's blowing 60-80km/hr. This is rarely a problem except for blowing me off the bike twice – who needs to go to Patagonia! We rejoin the Mawson Trail at Croft Rd and enjoy some really nice dirt track and beautiful Adelaide Hills scenery with zero traffic through to Lobethal. Outside Lobethal we turn onto Schuberts Rd. I stop to chat with a guy who is fencing and ask him if he knows where the original Schubert homestead is. Yes, he says, in fact he is actually Mark Schubert and a number of his relatives still own land through the region. We ascertain that Mark is probably a relative dating back around 200 years in Germany on my mother's side, so we dump the bikes and go back to Mark's place to checkout his book on Schubert genealogy as well as his wife's amazing collection of about 14,000 dolls. Afterwards, we continue on to Birdwood although visibility drops to about 1km as the strong wind blows up a dust storm. Travelling down the main Street of Birdwood a van pulls up beside us to tell us a big storm is coming. There are only B&Bs in Birdwood and we are lucky to be put onto one by a nice lady who makes some phone calls for us. We spend the night in what was previously an 1860's barn (Blumberg Mews) and have dinner up at the local pub with our host Suzie, who, as it turns out, was raised within 10kms of where we currently live and lectures at university in a course one of our daughters is taking... small world.

Birdwood to Tanunda: 80km

Bicycle touring on the Mawson Trail. Cycle Traveller

I can hear the rain falling on the roof an hour before I get out of bed so I am surprised when I eventually poke my head outside to find an almost clear sky. A quick breakfast and pack, but by the time we put the panniers on the bike the rain is coming down again. It continues unabated as we follow the logging tracks along the Mawson Trail and for the first time this trip we are forced to push. The track soon winds its way back out to a dirt road, which would be just great riding in the dry. We have a waterlogged 'roo bounding along beside for a few hundred meters 'till it makes a break through the fence, then a small mob of sheep escort us wolves up the road for about a kilometre before they take a side track. We stop at 11:30 for a sausage roll and coffee at Williamston. The bike computer is reading 5°C. After midday the blue sky increases and we slowly thaw and dry out. The colours in the countryside come alive and it is really nice ride to The Tanunda turnoff. There is always a bit of a problem in turning at an intersection in the direction you expect rather than going to the effort of making sure its the right direction, so we turn left. The mistake isn't realised for another 12km. Ooops! An extra 24km of riding when it turns out the town was only 2km in the opposite direction. Damn!

Tanunda to Kapunda: 44km

Tanunda is a very hard place to escape. In the first kilometre we stop three times, bike shop, groceries and hot pie. But then comes Para Road and a vistit to Richmond Grove for wine tasting (Langmiel was packed to the rafters, so no tasting, there) then back up to the main street and out to Seppeltfield for lunch at Seppelts winery. Threatening rain clouds eventually get us motivated around 2:30pm to head to our destination of Kapunda for the day. Down the road from our camp is the footy club, complete with game in full swing. We chat to a local bike tour operator who gives us the heads up about some of the nearby sections of the Mawson being unpleasant or impassable due to the recent rains but also has some good alternate route suggestions. Dinner in the footy club is cheap, filling and noisy. We hear it snowed in the Finders Ranges yesterday – should have bought my skis.

Vicki on the Mawson Trail. Cycle TravellerKapunda to Auburn: 51km

Through the night the rain and wind come in hard. I wake up to a uniform grey vista; it does not look good. Looking like a rest day, we move to breakfast slowly, but by the time we finish the weather has broken and we're underway by 10am. No chance at riding the Mawson, the red clay of the surrounding countryside looks like clag glue so we head to the Rattler Rail Trail, which starts at Riverton. The rail trail is a cruisy 19km and at the end there is a council caravan park run by a nice old couple who make a big fire for us and give us double yolk eggs and sell us a bottle of Taylors Pinot Gingio...Yum

Auburn to Burra: 76km

We leave Auburn on the Reisling Trail in drizzle and stop in for a wine tasting at O'Leary Walker's, which is very pleasant. Pushing on again, the drizzle continues all the way to Clare were we debate the merits of continuing to Burra. We are well and truly soaked so we hide in a cafe for an hour or so, refueling and procrastinating. After expending sufficient time at this activity the rain stops and the weather brightens, so the decision is made for us to continue. Breaking out again on the Mawson is delightful and with a hard yellow road we are motoring quite nicely until... through a gate and electric fence we push up the Camels Hump to some amazing old stone fences in the middle of nowhere (must have been buit by the Romans). Over the top we have a brilliant run down chasing 'roos at 35km/hr on dirt and grass, and then the track turns to custard. I'm trying to pick the driest patches and think "if I just go a bit faster I can make it to the dry patch", the front wheel goes and I correct, but now the backend is going faster than the front. I gracefully 'abandon' the bike in a tangle of panniers and helmet, coming to a gentle stop sliding around in sticky red clay, covering everything. Somehow it manages to conceal my very good sense of humor... dummy spit. We do battle with the evil red stuff for a couple of hours, covering about 2km, so we abandon the Mawson to the re-assuring security of an asphalt road. We make it to Burra with little of the day to spare. A couple of grey nomads take pity on us and cook us eggs, sausages steak and mushrooms, which we devour with great gusto and with delightful conversation.

Burra to Mt Bryan East Schoolhouse: 48km

The forecast is for a sunny day, although we leave in thick overcast conditions and shortly encounter red clay roads. We hear popping sounds as we ride and realise we are riding over thousands of snails on the track – they are about the size of a little finger nail. Fortunately, squashed snails do not appear to make the trail any slipperier. We manage without too much difficulty to overcome these obstacles and make reasonable progress along good roads until lunch. Misty rain passes through and when we resume, we find the red road unrideable. After struggling for over an hour to cover only a couple of kilometres we exit on White Hill road and pick up the good dirt Mount Bryan East Rd for the next 20km or so. The road is up a long wide valley; one car and one tractor pass us by. We reach the Mount Bryan Schoolhouse built in 1884. There is no human habitation in sight. It's amazing that 128 years ago there was sufficient population in this area to warrant the construction of a school and church. Throughout this ride we have been surprised at the number of ruins we have encountered and how the economics of the nineteenth century was so different to more recent times.

Walking up over the Hump on the Mawson Trail. Cycle TravellerMt Bryan East to Spalding: 56km

Today is just one of those magic days. For the first time this trip it dawns clear and stays that way all day. When we set off it is about 3°C. The track surface is good and in the first 45km we are passed only by two trucks, one car, one motorbike and 60 head of cattle/as we ride, I clock some ‘roos at 40km/hr and after a few kilometres we're able catch them. They have their revenge shortly after when I blow the tube in the rear tyre. With the new tube inserted, we raced down some really nice dirt toward Spalding. I stopped to wait for Vicki and when she catches up I look down and have a flat tyre again! Repeat process. On the maps, a camp is indicated 2km north of Spalding. Upon arrival at the designated point, there are big signs saying 'No Camping and Trespassers will be Prosecuted'. We find a camp down the road a couple of hundred meters, but no water. First job for tomorrow – water.

Spalding camp to Bundaleer Forest Camp: 43km

The red colour of the sky at dawn reinforces the weather forecast for the day, needless to say it is not encouraging. Riding today is mostly into a strong headwind in the North Lofty Ranges. Fortunately, the wind dries the tracks and we encounter no rain. The Southern end of the range is endlessly rolling bare hills. These contrast with the grazing country in the ranges a short distance further North, which is more reminiscent of high country NSW with steeper gullies and far more interesting riding. The grazing land gives way to Bundaleer Forest and for the second day in a row we find the Mawson Trail maps to be unreliable when it comes to their marking of campsites. The second half of the day the sky clears and it no longer matters about being blasted by the wind. We camp fairly early and laze about in the sunshine before attending cooking duties.

Total distance so far: 484km

Continue reading...

Click here for Part 2 to see how the journey along the 900km Mawson Trails ends.

Page 1  |  2


Hope you do well, interested to see your progress, maybe O can do this too, have cycled the UK but that was a while back.

part there more? have you finished?

Alia Parker's picture

Yes, part 2 is coming, it will be published later this week.

looking forward to Part 2, am riding this in Sept and this is the only decent writeup I can find with distances b/w towns, trying to figure out resupply options!

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