Day 1 - Blinman to Wilpena Pound
On the first day of riding the Mawson trail home to the Adelaide Hills, I fell in love with riding dirt roads. The Mawson is my first off-road bikepacking adventure, and despite being told to trust my tyres I’m slightly hesitant about enjoying riding on mostly rough terrain.
South Australia’s 900 km Mawson Trail runs from the tiny town of Blinman in the Flinders Ranges to Adelaide and is undeniably a route that has a bit of everything; spectacular scenery, remote gravel trails, the risk of death mud and, the infamous Magpie Satan. Like so much of inland Australia, the Flinders Ranges have an other-worldly, almost prehistoric aura; the panoramas so reminiscent of ancient landscapes that my tyre tracks in the red dirt seem strangely out of place. After a few hours of riding through undulating trails surrounded by native forest, I make a short detour to The Golden Spike near Trezona. This, the reference point for where the Ediacaran geological period begins, is the only Precambrian Golden Spike in the world, first discovered and cautiously dated by Reg Sprigg, husband of Griselda, who my bike is named after. I pause in the small amount of shade offered by the sunbleached River Red Gums, eyes scanning the layered sedimentary rock for remnants of fossils, running one hand over the cemented metal plaque, the other batting away persistent flies.
The water tank at the campground is empty, so I continue riding against the southerly wind until the sudden appearance of Middlesight water hut announces my first resupply point. I stop for lunch (re-reading my previous logbook entry: “it’s sweltering”) then continue until I reach the scenic lookout on top of Razorback. This is one of my favourite views in Australia; the juxtaposition of the blue sky and red dirt with the gravel track snaking through is so utterly striking. It’s not only the view that’s breathtaking, but the notorious climb up Razorback also is renowned, and I’m grateful to be rolling down this time.
I’ve cycled this section of the Mawson before. Still, as I fly down the descent, fingers grazing lightly over my brakes, the wind a cacophony in my ears, I reflect on the change in mindset I’ve experienced over the day. This track has previously demanded all my concentration, but I don’t need to concentrate today. I can just ride.
Day 2 - Wilpena Pound to Mayo Hut
Within minutes of leaving Wilpena, I encounter a cyclist riding from Adelaide to Leigh Creek. He crosses the central divide and hails me down, pausing to adjust a bag strap before introducing himself as Andrew. His sense of humour and outlook on life is as contagious as his habit of pushing his grey hair back from his eyes. We talk on the hard shoulder for some time, me cautiously looking out for cars that never pass before pedalling off in opposite directions. I expect to encounter many more like him, but he’s the only cyclist I see that day.
Just as I congratulate myself on not getting lost as frequently as I did on the Heysen, I realise I have missed a turn. There is a dust storm and severe wind warning forecast for the Hawker area, so I plan to stop at the Mayo hut to shelter from the elements. With 15 km to go, the sky darkens ominously, a wall of dust gathering in the distance, the wind gusts are strong enough to make cycling in a straight line impossible. The hut is only slightly off route and delivers a welcome respite; I heat some water for a bucket wash and lay out my sleeping gear on the lower bunks. The vent turbine on top of the drop toilet squeals ominously as the wind picks up and the windows become almost opaque with dust. The roof rattles all night discomfitingly, and I’m relieved when the sun rises in a clear sky.
Day 3 - Mayo Hut to Buckaringa Gorge
As I roll into Hawker, I turn and pause momentarily to appreciate the distant views of the ranges. Hazy shades of blue line the horizon, then I’m interrupted by a man who stands so close to me I can see the smears on his sunglasses where he’s wiped them too hastily:
‘Have you come from Parachilna? I’m heading up there. Is there water in the creeks?’ Believing him to be concerned about the possibility of having to hike a bike over the creeks, I reassure him that there’s no water in the creeks. But, unfortunately, just the mention of the word water brings back harrowing memories of “walkers follow creek” signs for kilometre after kilometre along this section of the Heysen Trail. He looks confused, ‘I’m planning to drink that water, is there water in the creeks?’ Again, I tell him there is no water in the creeks, but I show him the location of various water tanks and inform him they all contain water apart from Trezona. He shows little interest in water tanks or my map of them and continues to press me for creek information, as though if he asks again, water will have miraculously appeared. Then, he gets back on the bus, ignoring my advice about the water tanks, seemingly determined to survive off non-existent creek water and lousy advice.
I continue on the trail to Craddock, the ranges slowly disappearing over the skyline, where I detour to the pub in anticipation of a bowl of hot chips. Instead, I am served a gigantic bowl of wedges. Despite multiple attempts to finish them, I eventually admit defeat and pack them away in a Ziploc bag later.* I take a slight detour off the trail to reach Buckaringa North campsite, and just before the turn off, an Emu and his flock of chicks step out ahead of me and pick their way down the track. I slow down to ride behind them until they spook and run away in their delightfully ungainly way. At the fence, I discover the way not to haul a loaded bike over an obstacle. As I set Griselda down and staunch the bleeding from the barbed wire, I think I hear voices drifting from the campsite. The last time I camped here, my only company was a herd of goats possessing a terrifying screeching bleat. It was a restless night, and I'm glad to see three hikers perched on the camping platform. Ben, Ollie, and Sharon are walking a section of the Heysen together, and I warn them about the shrieking animals as they make a space for me amongst their camping gear on the platform. We talk until the solar lamp attracts too many mosquitos then drift our separate ways to bed. I sleepily watch the lights from their head torches glow behind the material of my tent as I fall into a sleep mercifully uninterrupted by goats.
*this is a terrible idea, the chips went soggy and tasted disgusting
Day 4 - Buckaringa Gorge to Wilmington
As I leave the gorge, Dutchman’s Stern dominates the skyline as one of the most unmistakable peaks in the area; the roads are primarily empty, although anything passing churns up enough dust to block my view until it settles again. I begin playing a game called “stick or snake?” that thankfully mainly involves the former. I stop briefly in Quorn for lunch, finding a picnic bench in the shade near the toilets and chopping fresh vegetables with my ancient swiss army knife to dunk in hummus.
In Wilmington, I stay at Beautiful Valley campground, mainly to have a shower but also to say hello to Stefan, the owner, and let him know my ankle accident had healed well from when I hobbled in a few weeks ago. In the shower, the water turns red, pooling at my toes before spiralling down the drain. The feeling of being clean after days of dust and sweat is terrific. I pitch up next to a tree, so I have something to lock Griselda to, however it later turns out to be the meeting place of several very naughty possums. Being from England I find possums endearingly adorable, but then I find one stuck head down in my stash bags trying to steal snacks and the other urinating on my saddle. I’m now slightly less enamoured.
Day 5 - Wilmington to Ippinitchie Campground
Today’s first stop is Over the Edge in Melrose, home of great coffee and the lovely Kerri and Rich. They’ve been storing my Heysen resupply box for weeks and upon opening, it becomes apparent that what was necessary food for a six day hike to the next resupply point, will take just over a day to cycle. So I sit near the playground watching the mountain bikers zoom past, eating as much as possible. Then, just as I cycle off, Ben, Ollie and Sharon drive past on their way home and wish me luck on the rest of my trip.
As I leave Melrose, I’m on the receiving end of the trip’s first high-velocity magpie swoop. I’d experienced a few halfhearted attempts, but this was different; repeat attacks on my helmet for almost a kilometre. Despite screams/shouts/arm waving, he was not to be deterred until I’d cycled out of his territory. Well, that must be Magpie Satan I think to myself as the green hills begin the other side of Goyder’s line. How wrong I am.
Towards the afternoon, it starts to rain, just enough to leave me a little damp. The Wirrabarra forest emits that wonderful petrichor as I wind through it. I pass the old Wirrabarra YHA schoolhouse that used to be a hostel, it’s empty now with the walls of the drop toilets rotting off their hinges, the inside infested with spiders. Unsettling signs of once-habitation emerge from the dusty windows: a child’s stuffed toy, mugs left on the table in the common area. Despite being deserted, an overwhelming feeling of trespassing into someone’s life passes over me. The abandoned hostel is eerie, and I don’t linger. I follow the corrugated path slightly further into the forest until I reach Ippinitchie Campground; there is a small wooden shelter that I claim as the only person on two wheels rather than four. Setting up inside shelters with concrete floors requires some imagination in place of tent pegs, and I rope and weight my trusty Nemo Hornet down out of the rain. A nearby car alarm goes off infrequently, interrupting the peaceful sound of the rain falling on the corrugated roof. I cook, wash and go to bed early, happily wrapped in my sleeping bag.
Day 6 - Ippinitchie Campground to Curnow’s hut
When I wake up, the rain has stopped, although the trails are soft and damp from the deluge. The single track before Laura marks the end of a mud-free Griselda. In Laura I huddle under a shelter in a children’s playground wearing every layer of clothing I have to eat my lunch without shivering. The magpie attacks begin in earnest as soon as I leave; in an attempt to fool them and disguise myself as a tree, I stick a few branches through the holes in the back of my helmet. They sway hazardously in the wind, but they do prevent beak to helmet impact despite being extremely uncomfortable. I lose count of the number of magpie beaks and claws I am at the mercy of during the day.
Sometime after Laura, the gates begin. I open the first large gate whilst balancing a fully loaded bike. Only to hop back on and find another gate a hundred metres further on! This inspires the sort of irritation usually reserved for middle-aged men who state the obvious (“are ya ridin’ are ya?”). Some gates were heavy, others completely unnecessary. Whilst one had such an intricate opening mechanism that I ended up hauling my bike over the top. There were so many gates that they briefly took over from magpies as my least favourite Mawson experience.
After a slight detour along the Heysen Trail, I reach the clearing where Curnow’s Hut is situated. The surrounded forest is populated by a flock of galahs that cackle as I unpack my bike. Inside I find the logbook containing a note from my lovely friend Sophie who hiked the Heysen a week or so ahead of me. She reminds me of how far I’ve come and how amazing I am. These small words in now-familiar handwriting bring a smile to my face as I think of the incredible outdoorsy women I am fortunate to call my friends. I leave my note for the next visitor to read and enjoy the sun’s warmth through the hut’s windows before sunset. Although, this is the only hut I’ve encountered where the door doesn’t lock from the inside, there’s something slightly spooky about the huts after nightfall, so I jam the door shut with a broom and a couple of chairs.
Day 7 - Curnow’s Hut to Hallett Railway Station
After today I now understand why there are so many wind turbines situated along the ridgeline. This area is very windy. Sadly, it’s an unfavourable wind, although it not only works against me but also against the magpie’s dive-bombing from behind. The green rolling hills dotted by white turbines are almost reminiscent of the UK, apart from the dazzlingly blue sky that begins where the green ends. Just before Spalding, I finally come up against Magpie Satan. It’s, unfortunately, a stretch of trail where there is no escape; the only option is to pedal hard, trust the helmet branch, and scream. The “attack shriek” as I come to think of it gives me some warning to engage manic arm-waving alongside the branches to deter another collision. He is the definition of relentless; I have dents in my helmet but thankfully retain the use of both eyes and miraculously shed no blood.
At the crest of the last hill before Hallett, I come across a group of four cycling up to Blinman and back again, one of the men recognises me on my pink bike, and as I lean over my handlebars to catch my breath, they share their plans. It’s a strange feeling being recognised. I’ve only experienced this on the Nullabor. I was the only non-male cyclist crossing; many grey nomads would pull over and hand me water, telling me the west-to-east cyclists had mentioned a young woman cycling alone.
I race down the hill and make it to Hallett Country Store just in time to pick up my final food box. The owners are typically kind country people and explain how to reach the railway station converted into a hikers hut. It’s a hut that someone local has taken pride in maintaining, with a wood-burning stove and solar-powered fairy lights. In the logbook there, I find an entry written by Allison from her bikepacking trip cycling Adelaide to Alice Springs, and I scan the pages for other familiar names and entries. Finally, as night falls, I light the fire and wrap myself in blankets, watching the flames flicker inside the grate until my eyelids become heavy.
Day 8 - Hallett Railway Station to Burra
There is a spectacular section of the trail outside Hallett leading up to the summit of Dare’s Hill. The green fields and farmland suddenly give way to red dirt and scrub. After a short section through trees that conceal the view, a climb to the summit reveals a valley of hazy blue skies and endless horizon. As I stop to take photos, Scott from Treadlite Bike Bags rolls around the corner. We spend a good while admiring my bike, the views, and planning a date for me to come and get my bags sized up before he continues. Finally, I pause at the summit, crouching in the shade created by balancing my bike on a Mawson marker post to eat the last packet of salt and vinegar chickpeas that aren’t horribly crushed.
I intend to make it to Burra today, where Jimmy works with a school program. Rain is forecast for the next few days, so I’m keen to avoid the track while death mud is possible. The trail from Dare’s Hill is endless ups and downs along dusty and sandy tracks, my drivetrain starts to squeak, and I stop at Black Jack hut to clean it. The hut appears to be one of the lesser-known or utilised ones, given that the outdoor loo consists of a lonely toilet surrounded by the four walls that have collapsed onto the ground around it. There are signs about shooting nearby and entries in the logbook about gunshots at odd hours. I don’t linger long. There are endless undulations on the last 30 km to Burra, and the motivation begins to run low as my speed slows. Meanwhile, the thought of a hot meal, warm shower, and seeing Jimmy keeps the pedals spinning.
Day 9 - Burra to Marschall’s Hut
After taking a few days in Burra to allow the rain to pass and the mud to harden, I ride the trail towards Clare. From there, the Riesling Trail between Clare and Auburn is pleasant but occupied by inebriated wine tourers on electric bicycles that require multiple shouts of “coming through” and a wide berth. I stop to chat to a fellow Curve rider Nick Martin who’s heading north considerably faster than I have gone south. I pass a sign that declares “Number 1 sausage in Australia and multi-award-winning small goods” and wonder how such sausage quality is measured and what “small goods” are precisely?
At Riverton, I divert to Marschall’s Hut, hidden on the side of a hill. Just as I get closer towards it, a man in a ute pulls over: ‘Ah, you must have come from Riverton today then, heading to the hut, are you?’ Riverton is 8 km away, and it’s 4 pm. I genuinely wonder if the enquiry is serious. He’s astounded that I’ve cycled further than Riverton over the day and says something to the effect of “not bad for a girl.” The hut is occupied, but thankfully by Gail, a lovely woman I immediately like. Will and Trina also turn up as I finish a hasty bucket wash. The couple has been accidentally hiking at the same pace as Gail for the past few days, and their company is hilarious and wonderful. Will locates a dusty box of wine with an expiry date, suggesting it may have turned into vinegar, but he and Gail share a glass and don’t look too disappointed. We discuss the merits of various dried food as we cook our separate dinners and prepare for bed.
Day 10 / 11 - Marschall’s to Birdwood
The trio of hikers has packed up and left by the time I wake up, planning a pre-dawn start to avoid the heat of the day. I enjoy brewing coffee alone in the early morning light, filling my saucepan with water from the rain tank, filtering through a sock to stop wrigglers sneaking through, and lighting my battered Trangia with my last few matches. As I wait for the water to boil, I notice a creepy one-armed doll perched on the highest window of the hut, and I’m grateful I didn’t spot it last night. Finally, I turn away and scoop coffee into my java drip; fresh coffee while camping is one of the simple joys in life, and this little setup has proved efficient and reliable through tens of thousands of kilometres of adventure.
The prevalence of vineyards announces my arrival into the Barossa Valley; as far as the eye can see, pathways of grapes line the hills and fields in a carpet of green. The climb out of the valley up Steingarten Hill is grueling in the heat; however, past the initial incline, the ascent eases up, and the panoramas are immensely rewarding. Once I drop into Mt Crawford, the vineyards are replaced with native trees, and the trails turn gravelly again as they snake through the forest. I decide to camp at Birdwood, where there’s some land on a farm near the River Torrens, although the river is unrecognisable as the same one that cuts through Adelaide’s CBD. I find myself camping with four grey nomads who invite me over to their campfire for tea and biscuits, the fire is so welcoming that I accidentally get too close, and the smell of melting rubber fills the air as the bottom of my Teva’s bubble. The four are fascinated by my bicycle trips and pepper me with questions about equipment and sanity. My final night on the road is cold, and I heat some water to pour into my Nalgene as a camp hot water bottle. As the water slowly boils, I raise my eyes skyward to pick out the Southern Cross, now as familiar to me as the Pole Star after two years in the Southern Hemisphere.
Day 12 - Birdwood to Home in the Adelaide Hills
The final day on the Mawson brings a mix of emotions: sadness at the end of another great adventure and excitement at being able to wash my clothes and swap Udon Noodle Supreme for something that doesn’t require just pouring boiling water over it to cook. I leave the Mawson Trail at Lobethal and take the Amy Gillett Bikeway towards Hahndorf and the road home from there. As the landmarks become more familiar, I begin slowing down, eager to eke out my final hours on the bike; eventually, there is no trail left to ride.
I began this trip uncertain and slightly overwhelmed, daunted by the unfamiliar terrain and the difficulty of the trails. However, I finish full of joy at overcoming a barrier I’d unintentionally placed around myself, refreshed from my time alone and with renewed confidence as to what I can achieve on two wheels.
Somewhere along the Mawson trail, I have learned to trust my tyres.
Written by Allie Geddes