7 Days Bikepacking Through South Australia – Part 1

As I turn off the bitumen about 20km out of Blinman, it comes home that now it really is just me, my bike and what’s in the trailer. There is no one else out here, no 4×4 coming down this track. I get my priorities in order and say out loud to myself “ok, Anthony. First priority, by quite some measure – do not crash…

Way back in January or February this year, which seems like a lifetime ago. I was easily commuting 200km a week on my bike and riding gravel at the weekends. I decided I was going to ride the Mawson Trail – a 900km trail that starts in Blinman in the Flinders Ranges and winds its way back to my home town of Adelaide. I booked two weeks off work in September, almost certainly the best month for touring my part of the world. Then COVID hit, and along with many other things we took for granted my commute disappeared. Still lucky enough to be employed and able to work from home – I was still riding, forcing myself out of bed through winter to ride an hour most days before work. Sometime in mid July I thought I better start riding with the loaded trailer, I needed to get used to that as my ‘new normal’ (haven’t we thrashed that phrase this year?). It was beginning to dawn on me that maybe riding the whole Mawson Trail was going to be too big an ask. Between being nearly all on dirt, the topography and carrying all my gear, means it is a very different challenge to normal riding. So I just decided to go, see how it went – what I was really seeking was something different and a sense of adventure – something I’ve found increasingly hard to find behind the wheel of a 4×4 lately.

Thumbs up if that sounds like a plan?


Now I nearly never post about gear, I think all outdoor activities industries are way too focussed on it (experience first, gear second, is how I think it should be. Too often it’s portrayed as the other way round). However, it is fair to say I became pretty gear obsessed in the lead up to this adventure. When you have to consider temperatures from 0-35 deg C, you’re solo and unsupported, with a finite amount of room and a finite amount of muscle to move whatever you take, you really focus on what you need, what you think you might need for X,Y & Z scenario, and most importantly what you are going to leave out.

I purposely didn’t look at many other peoples experience on this trail, I wanted this to be my adventure, I didn’t want to know what to expect. I’ve been doing these sorts of activities long enough I was confident I wouldn’t die. I watched videos of guys going ‘bikepacking’ for one or two nights, carrying everything on the bike and eating in cafe’s, or on an open fire. Then there were ultra athletes doing massive trans-continental record breaking rides – but not much in between. It should be noted I am no athlete, I’m no sack of shit, but I’m no athlete either.

Here are some shots from my (almost) final pack a couple of weekends before leaving.

All the clothes I would be taking. Some dedicated cycling gear, but also just good outdoor clothing. Plus some light ‘running gear’ to wear off the bike.

I was taking a backpack, mostly just emergency essentials or stuff I would need to access regularly went in here.

The majority of stuff would go in the bag for the BOB (Beast Of Burden) bike trailer. It might seem like a lot, but if you think I’m sleeping in a body bag and eating freeze dried foods, you probably don’t know me very well πŸ™‚ I subscribe to this theory. (there were some things I took, that I didn’t use and wouldn’t take again, but I got it more right than wrong – which as this is really my first crack at this type of thing, I’m happy with that)

 

Unusually I left the bike set up to someone else. I had only been back into riding for a year and basically everything has changed since I could last call myself a rider, at that was all on mountain bikes. I knew what I wanted, I just didn’t know what the best solutions for it were. So I just went to a local bike mechanic shop with a good reputation, told them what I wanted, and let them get on with it.

Hat-tip to Biomechanics Adelaide.

So onto my Giant Revolt 1 went, new tyres (Terravail), saddle (SQ Labs), crankset (SRAM Rival) – to be able to run a 33T front chainring, to give the 1x drivetrain suitable lower gearing for the terrain and pulling the trailer. Plus general maintenance and prep for the bike and trailer to try to ensure no major mechanical issues en route – 7P’s and all that.


Where is Blinman?

So a couple of good mates, ran me up to Blinman on the Saturday.

A quick breakfast and they headed back home. Even on the bitumen the vastness of the landscape is not lost.

As I said, once you turn off the bitumen, it really focuses you on just how small you are in a very big and unforgiving landscape. Which of course is why you’re here, that edgy feeling, right? The Mawson Trail uses a lot of ‘Emergency Vehicles Only’ tracks. The ones you wish you were allowed down in your 4×4. I quickly realised that being on a bike opens up parts of the country that are previously off limits (it also changes how most people react to you, as opposed to driving…). So I would be on trails I had never seen before, great. The safety net of someone else being along soon didn’t exist on these trails, as it does mostly around Australia. Good.

Still no country for old men.

That first section of trail is a cracker. Majestic views, plenty of rocky climbs and fast descents – don’t crash… and no one literally for miles around – don’t crash…

 

Riverbed, South Australian style.

Touring set up, below.

So, off to a great start. Then it all started to go wrong.

The rear mudguard on the trailer kept noisily rubbing on the trailer tyre, having broken over a cattle grid on the bitumen this morning. So I just took it off, not much sign of mud round here.

Eventually I spilled out into the road to Brachina Gorge, part of Flinders Ranges National Park. This dirt road I would be sharing with tourists in their 4×4’s. So far I had been following the Mawson Trail signposts. I had paper maps and GPS too, but the signposts had been easy to follow, I hadn’t needed anything else. It was only when I eventually got to the end of the road and the junction with the bitumen highway that I realised I was off track, not the first or last navigation error I’ve made. However as opposed to being in the Land Cruiser, I only had my own legs to recover the lost distance. Looking at the map I had probably missed a signpost about 5km back, it looks like I could pick up the Heysen Trail (a similar trail, designed to be hiked, this one around 1200km in length) for a while which would intersect the Mawson Trail. I was annoyed at this simple error, I would need to be more careful with the navigation, it’s not just the effort of the extra distance, it’s the impact it has on your morale. Something you have to be careful with on these solo adventures.

I stopped to have something quickly to eat, I should have had a more substantial lunch and a rest, but I had that feeling of being ‘behind’. Seems ridiculous now, writing about it.

At least the scenery and the bird life were spectacular. It’s a cliche, but you do see more when you slow down your mode of transport. I watched three striking golden coloured birds putting on an aerobatic display (maybe a grey fronted honey eater, googling images afterwards), and not for the last time, regretted not bringing the binos.

I pedaled on to this Heysen Hut, I had heard of these shelters along the trail for the walkers.

With some relief here the Heysen and Mawson Trails intersected, so back on the right track and in good spirits I pushed on.

A flat-ish ride for an hour or so, then back out to the NP dirt roads and some bigger climbs and descents.

I had been checking the map, noting where the trail went for the next foreseeable section. I could see the trail eventually went through Wilpena Pound Resort, the main facility here. The idea of a shower and someone else cooking dinner was pretty appealing, should make it there in good time…

This is perhaps the most popular area of the park, judging by the corrugations on this road. The first time I hit them at speed on a downhill section I was nearly thrown from the bike. The shaking was so savage I couldn’t see. I was considerably more circumspect of them after that, and had a new appreciation for what 4×4 suspension and tyres have to deal with.

At the next stop I tightened the bottle cage that had come loose.

As I’m grinding up one of the many climbs that afternoon I realise I haven’t seen a trail sign for a while. I was sure I was just following this road to the resort. I switched the GPS on my phone (I ran it in ultra low power saving mode most of the time), and confirmed for myself what I already suspected, I had lost the trail again…

Demoralised, at making the same mistake twice in one day. Only tempered by the fact I hadn’t ridden so far in the wrong direction this time. The detour only costing about an extra 5km, rather than the 10km this morning. Pretty fed up I pulled a u-turn, as I’m riding back a tiny bird flew in front of my wheel, just a flash of green and gold, like a flying jewel, if I had blinked I would have missed it. I took it as a sign.

When I did find the trail again, I didn’t feel so bad about missing it, the trail-head was 20m off the main road, and in their wisdom they had put the sign at the trailhead only.

So I pushed on, and I mean pushed. I was tiring quickly. With the ride to breakfast (we camped outside of Blinman) and then the detours, not to mention all the climbing and the roughness of the trail, not eating enough… With tiredness comes more poor decision making. Passing up several good campsites I decided to still try for the resort tonight. It was quite hot, the trail was technically and physically taxing. I was getting through litres of water. Unbeknown to me I had picked up a front tyre puncture this morning, Stan had my back, but I managed to rip out the seal on the rocks that afternoon. It sealed back up again, however it was another blow to my enthusiasm.

The last 5km of trail before Wilpena Pound is shared with the Heysen Trail, and is more goat track than fire trail.

5km or not, I just didn’t have the energy for this. Plus my slow progress meant there was every chance I would lose the light.

This rock step finished me off mentally (I was already finished physically!), nothing to do but drag the bike and trailer up here, but that was it. Forget about a shower and a steak. Find a camp.

[the above pictures I walked back and took the next morning, I was beyond taking pictures that afternoon]

Thankfully a couple of hundred metres later there was a clearing.

With what little energy I had left I set up camp, made dinner, and crawled into my sleeping bag in my clothes. I slept 11 hours.


I awoke, aware that much of yesterday had been a shit fight, and I would need a different approach from here on. No focus on getting anywhere particularly, and just take the day as it comes.

The ride to Wilpena Pound Resort was fun this morning, late yesterday it would have been a nightmare. I probably would have crashed, with fast sections and many dry creek crossings.

So stopping, and stopping earlier rather than later, is the answer. You’ve got all this gear to be self sufficient, may as well put it to use.

Arriving at the resort, reinforced that there would have been no benefit to pushing onto here. It is many, many years since I’ve been here and I remembered it to be bigger than it was. I think there must be a restaurant in the actual resort section, but the camp ground just gets a cafe/shop next to the visitors centre, that would have been well shut by the time I got here.

Anyway, I was able to get a coffee and something in plastic packaging to eat. More importantly I was able to refill my water. I was down to the last bottle.

On the way out I checked out the old Wilpena Station homestead, back from before it was declared a National Park.

Out of Wilpena and back onto a ‘Emergency Vehicles Only’ I was alone and it was good riding.

As the sun steadily beat back the chill of the morning. I stripped off my merino wool layer and lathered on the 50 SPF sun block.

The track pops back out on the bitumen for a stretch before heading back into the bush in front of a monolith known as Rawnsley Bluff.

Being springtime, these pretty little flowers were in abundance. I called them chives, because they look like chives (they are not chives).

Still dreaming of a steak or a hamburger, I arrived at Rawnsley Park station around lunchtime. Which has accomodation and camping facilities. It also has a restaurant, which would be open for dinner… drat. My calculation of carrying 3 days worth of food was starting to look about right.

Both helicopter and plane scenic flights were available, to view the famous Wilpena Pound from the air.

A few km down the road I stopped at a viewpoint for lunch. An older couple pulled in and they explained they had enquired about staying at Rawnsley Park, and the most basic cabin was $470/night. I’m all for paying a bit more in the country, you should expect it, however…

 

Another couple who were living in Australia from overseas, and had just done a 14,000km trip in their Pajero, and were making their way back to Sydney. Stopped for a chat (remember how I said the bike makes people react differently towards you…).

We talked about getting out and seeing ‘the other Australia’. They explained how they had seen more of Australia in the short time they had been here than most Sydney dwellers they knew, who had lived here their whole lives – who were only focused on “getting a house by the beach and a load of investment properties” – as the song says, Β I guess it depends how you measure success.

Another picturesque dirt road that afternoon. My post midday endurance aided by stopping properly for lunch.

Again, being an all access road it was rough, enough that I was happy to hit the bitumen again for a stretch that afternoon. Before turning off, taking the trail onto Mt Little station.

Time to think about a campsite. Despite looking pretty bleak and barren, I could see creek lines running off the range, these looked the best option for a more pleasant campsite.

As I made my way through the station, I was entertained by a little desert bird that would land on the track ahead of me and then run in front of me, not that it couldn’t fly, it could, it just preferred to run. It was pretty fast too. I saw a few of them so it must be a characteristic of the species.

An almost unfathomable amount of work must have been required to originally build this structure. Once again it comes as no surprise that religion played such an important role for the early settlers – you would need to believe

This looks like a good spot, ‘Riverside Camping’ South Oz style.

I set up camp and cooked dinner. My standard backpack/bikepack meal is this:

Macaroni – because it cooks quickly, in less water than other pasta.

Tin of tuna in oil

Half an onion (optional)

Sundried tomato pesto

That terrible grated, ‘parmesan cheese’

Chop the onion (on a book! – the book is optional), cook it in the water with the macaroni.

Strain the pasta/onion once cooked and empty the tuna and oil into it, add a good couple of spoons of pesto, mix together. Top with the fake cheese.

It’s seriously hearty. Packs plenty of carbs and protein, and nothing needs refrigeration.

This was a great camp.

Thanks for reading. More to follow.

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