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Biking the Big Nasty: how to survive the National Trail

Alia Parker's picture
Vincent Brouillet cycling the BNT near Boonah, Queensland. Cycle Traveller

Vincent Brouillet migrated to Australia from France about five years ago, working as an IT consultant in Sydney. But restlessness soon got the better of him and determined to escape the “fish tank” of corporate life, the 28-year-old packed up and moved to Victoria to train for a few months before tackling the Bicentennial National Trail (BNT) – or as others have nicknamed it, the Big Nasty Trail. It would be his first real bike adventure.

“It was like a big bang effect. All this energy, compressed, suppressed for some time. When it blew, it was massive and unstoppable,” says Vincent. “I knew I was jumping into the unknown, but I was feeling OK with it.”

The Bicentennial National Trail (BNT). Source: BNT. Cycle Traveller

The BNT is a 5,330km trail from Healesville, Victoria to Cooktown in North Queensland, which was originally established as a horse trail by a group of passionate stockmen, including the likes of R.M. Williams. These days it's also used by cyclists and hikers, but those on four legs remain at its heart.

Starting in Victoria and travelling north, Vincent has now cycled about 90% of the trail over five months and is homing in on Cooktown. He took some time to fill us in on how the adventure has panned out.

CT: How much experience did you have before tackling the BNT?

VB: I've always used my mountain bike to get around and explore as a kid back in France. I was also a Scout when I was younger. Those experiences at a young age helped me to overcome obstacles and toughen up when it was needed. However, I would soon learn the difference between toughening up and knowing my body's limit.
When the idea came to my mind to do the BNT, it was like a huge mountain or a wall to climb. So much to do and think of. I had actually never done any bikepacking before, only a two-day trip when I was 12 years old. Ever since then I had been wanting to get back to it, but waited until I turned 28 to actually do something about it.

CT: What preparation did you do for the adventure?

VB: I'm sort of a perfectionist, and I reckon that helped. Someone had told me I would have to prepare it like a military expedition. I knew this person was right, but I didn't understand why and how at that time.

For a couple of months I researched the equipment I would need and started to go out riding to test it all. I thought that at the end of the two months I would be ready to go. Turns out I made a mistake. Not knowing the difference between fatigue and pain, I pushed too hard on my first weekend overnighter back in Sydney. I would ride with so much pain in my knee that I cried. I kept pushing to finish my little challenge, to prove something to myself. The result was that I hurt my knee so badly that what followed was weeks off the bike, consulting the best sport doctors available (and paying the price, literally).

Muddy creek on the BNT. Source: Vincent Brouillet. Cycle Traveller

Over almost seven months of preparations, I learnt a great deal about my body, my limits, and the equipment. Things that were meant to fail on my bike did fail during the training, and the same applied to me. I failed in my training so many times that eventually I had become stronger and wiser.

CT: Did you ever think of giving up?

VB: It was too late to give up, I was in, committed. I had sold all my belongings and quit my job, knowing that I would not come back for a while. I have only two small suitcases left in Sydney. It's been a liberating and necessary process for me. Not everybody needs to do that, but for me it worked. I didn't have a home to come back to, I didn't have a job. I just made it so I had no choice but to go ahead.

CT: Now that you've ridden most of the route, how does the experience compare with your expectations?

At the beginning, I thought of it as a sort of spiritual journey – learning, growing, being relaxed most of the time, and getting through the physical challenge. It does not work like that. It has felt more like a routine, like I have been clicking in and out of my daily job. I have similar tasks everyday, although the landscape and the people are changing continuously, not giving me time to really settle in the routine and relax.

I'm always busy; busy riding, busy camping, busy planning, busy dealing with the logistics and so forth. And when I stop for a few days, I start by planning the next leg. I'm continuously on high alert. Anyone I meet has the potential to be helpful in one way or another, and I remain open to anything.

CT: Where have been some of the most rewarding sections to ride?

Emu. Cycle Traveller

VB: At this stage, I have high expectations for the last 10% I have yet to tackle: North Queensland around the Tablelands and the Daintree. But so far, the most rewarding section has been across the Alpines. It was by far the most difficult section of the trail and one of the most difficult things I have ever done; so hard I thought of pulling the pin.

In the Alpine region I needed all my concentration to not slip down the extremely steep tracks. So steep, I stopped thinking. I'd have micro-sleeps resting my head on the handle-bar. I had no momentum at all, pushing the bike a few centimetres further; there was not much riding. I'd catch my breath, looking again at where I could step next on the loose rocks.

The silence up there above the tree lines was just immensely pleasant for me. Up there, there were no farms, no cattle. Only me, the mountains, the silence and the wildlife. That is what I was looking for.

CT: In your blog you mention having to call farmers for permission to cross their land. Is that something common on the route?

VB: Yes, it is very common, especially in NSW, although not as much in Victoria and rarely in Queensland. I think it is especially important for horse riders who could disturb work in progress with the cattle.

A pushbike is more discreet. Horse riders have to get feed and check the water availability at the water tanks, dams and creeks, so they are constantly in touch with farmers for all that; they can’t actually do it without their support. Calling for getting access to the property is also an opportunity to introduce yourself and have a chat about the conditions.

BNT trail market pointing in wrong direction. Cycle Traveller

But predicting in advance where I was going to be and calling the farmers accordingly became a challenge. Some days I would make 20km and it was a big day, some others I would do 100km on a good dirt road. On top of this, mobile phone reception is not that great in places.

With the experience, I can now sense when a phone call is mandatory and when it does not apply to me (because it was something to do with horses).  At times I decided to not call and go with the flow. I would meet the farmers on the way or meet someone who knows them.

At other times, I called and got some pleasant surprises, like being invited to stay at the farmer’s home, share a family dinner and get a tour of the property.

Locked gates are the biggest issue. Eventually with some patience, almost any fence can be overcome, but it takes time to unload the bike, and lift it up above the fence to repack on the other side.

It's important is to respect the farmers and their decisions. It’s the best way to keep the BNT in place. If people start to trespass and go where they are not supposed to go, then it might upset some people.

Camping on the BNT. Cycle Traveller

I found it was useful to get in touch with the BNT's section coordinator or a few friendly locals. They will tell you who to call, who is very keen to help and who is less keen. That makes things a lot easier.

CT: How is the BNT as a bikepacking route? Do you need to make many detours?

VB: The horse trail is a 'living' trail – it keeps changing and being updated. In other words, it would be plain stupid to follow it strictly. At some point, one needs to use common sense and deviate. I was really keen to stick to it the whole way, and I did up to a point. But back in May, when I reached the Northern Rivers region (around Ebor in the Guy Fawkes River National Park), I was advised not to follow the BNT due to heavy rain.

There were 50 or so creek crossings to do. One section of the creek had swollen to four meters deep, and other parts were shoulder deep. I heard there had been an accident and pack horses had drowned. At that point, I was feeling a little bit low and wasn't ready mentally for something of that level.

Bikepacking the BNT. Cycle Traveller

I thought it was a good opportunity to get off the trail for a while and rest my body and mind with something easier. Safety can be a concern and it's not a good idea to put yourself at risk; other people might have to rescue you and risk their lives too.

I’m considering doing the Guy Fawkes on foot or horse one day as it’s gorgeous there. It was a true disappointment to have to detour from the trail for so long.

At other times, the trail would have small detours to dams or other water sources or places with lots of grass for the horses. Those are not needed on a bike. Go with what works for you – the BNT is a guide to a crazy adventure, not a race with a series of checkpoints... + continue reading

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Hello to Vincent,
What a tremendous effort, so well done, nearly at the end, am cheering for you mate.
Happy Biking

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