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I’m standing tomorrow out,” declares Gerda, as we wheel our bicycles into the small hotel room, eyes peeled for cleaning staff. The fully laden steeds take up literally half the uncovered floor space. “Don’t you mean ‘sitting it out’?” I ask. While her English is generally excellent, Gerda does sometimes come up with her own weird and wonderful versions of real words and places, e.g., she ‘paddles’ instead of ‘pedals’ her bike, and… “Nope,” she counters, “my bum is too sore for sitting.” I hear her, alright. This, a four-day tour of the Canberra Centenary Trail, is her first attempt at bikepacking, after all. My only previous experience was a 30-day circumnavigation of New Zealand’s South Island, and after 2270 km in the saddle, my arse wouldn’t talk to me for months.

Come to think of it, maybe it’s the saddle that’s to blame? This long Easter weekend, Gerda is using the same bike that carried me around Waipounamu, a cheap but sturdy hybrid mostly used nowadays for commuting. I’m on my dedicated mountain bike, which has been fully serviced for this trip after a long period of inactivity under the stairs. We both have rear panniers supplemented by various handlebar and frame bags borrowed from a mate who lives in Hughes, a quiet suburb of Canberra.

Dan and Gerda, packed up and all smiles, ready to circumnavigate the nation’s capital.

At first glance, our esteemed capital doesn’t appear to be a promising destination for a four-day bikepacking jolly. Indeed, ring roads, museums and politicians are rarely mentioned in the same sentence as the word ‘adventure’ – probably not even the same book – and yet the ACT actually has the largest proportion of national park land of all Australia’s states and territories – a whopping 43.7% (albeit all contained within Namadgi NP). It also boasts the Canberra Centenary Trail (CCT), a 145km loop that encircles the city in its dusty embrace.

Designed to be used by both hikers and cyclists, the CCT is split into seven sections, which together delineate a sort of flaccid ellipse north and south of the city centre, taking in every park, reserve, sanctuary, forest, and lookout available along the way. There are small variations in the route for walkers and riders, the latter running the gamut of urban cycle paths through rural grassland to full mountain bike trails with berms and all. We’d planned a three-day circuit out of Hughes, followed by the reward of a hotel in Tuggeranong. The fact that Gerda is opting to ‘stand out’ the fourth day is a clue that things haven’t quite gone according to plan.

Along the way

I wheel stealthily outside only to realise, as the hotel exit clicks shut behind me, that I’ve forgotten to bring the toolkit, which lives on Gerda’s bike. This means sneaking around the side of the building, counting windows, and furtively tapping on one at a volume I calculate sufficient to wake her, but not anyone else if I’ve got the wrong room. Fortunately, my count is true, and she hands over the tools with a roll of the eyes. It’s only a couple of streets later I notice my bottle cages are lacking their usual contents. Not to worry, a quick detour to the servo furnishes me with a couple of Gatorades. As I bend down to install them, my eyes light upon the empty pump bracket. Talk about a half-arsed job! I’ll just have to cross my fingers I don’t get a puncture. 

At least this morning’s ride, the gentle home stretch, can’t go far wrong. Or so I think until the track I’m following deteriorates into an unkempt bush trail, which in turn gradually peters out at a barren fence line. I remain unfazed. Rather than backtrack, I heave my heavy load over the barrier. By now I’m well practiced in swiftly removing of panniers, bodily hauling the frame up and over, followed by gingerly negotiating the crotch-high barbed wire, and reassembly. After all, I’ve had plenty of practice in the preceding days.

Lifting bikes over, through and under barriers was a semi-regular occurrence on the ride, but didn’t diminish the fun factor.

Canberra Centenary Trail signage has been … patchy. The Parks ACT website explains that ‘Directional Marker Posts provide limited guidance in each section’. ‘Limited’ is putting it politely. The map and signage disagreed more often than siblings in the back seat of a long car journey. When faced with these discrepancies, I can confidently state that we consistently made the wrong choice. For instance, on reaching the Federal Highway north of the city, when the trail markers looked like directing us on a long detour around a distant road junction, we elected to follow the map instead. Once through the underpass, we found ourselves walking our bikes along an ever-narrowing rut between overgrown bushes, which eventually ended in an impenetrable wall of brambles. We were forced to scale a 45° embankment onto the thundering highway to escape. 

Beautiful evening light and a nice wide dirt road up the smile factor. The trail swaps between narrow singletrack and wide dirt roads, to more rugged sections.

Skin-shredding dead ends weren’t the only waymarking issue, either. Too late, we discovered that where the walking and cycling routes diverged, the trail signage only occasionally differentiated between the two with a ‘bike’ or ‘no bike’ symbol. Most of the time we didn’t notice until it we’d toiled up some brutal incline only to find a staircase or some other unrideable obstacle in our path.

Admittedly, we were woefully unprepared for the quantity and gradient of the hills. Straining up a steep, long incline, fully loaded in the hot sun, I felt like I was towing a recalcitrant hippopotamus. On the other hand, there were some lovely surprises, such as a fun length of singletrack hidden in the bush between State Circle and Capital Circle, the ring roads that protect Parliament House on Capital Hill. Who knew?

Who says you can’t enjoy natural spectacles in a big city?

Wrong turns, interminable ascents, and a phone that jumped out of Gerda’s pannier and had to be hunted down via Google location tracking, turned the first day into an epic. With the clock ticking, we only stopped for lunch when we physically ran out of energy. After a quick wrap and a water refill from a dirty billabong, we entered Goorooyaroo Nature Reserve, where relatively flat and well-groomed trails gave us hope we might make camp before nightfall. However, the roos were out in force by the time we crossed into Mulligan’s Flat Woodland Sanctuary, so I made the decision to excise an unnecessary detour to the top of a hill. Shortcutting not only saved us valuable time but stymied the clearly sadistic fantasies of the trail architect. I imagined them hunched over their drawing board, giggling evilly at the thought of sending unsuspecting riders on a pointless climb right at the culmination of a long day.

We were still several kilometres short as the gloaming deepened to full dark. Our head torches weren’t cutting it, so we had to abandon the expeditious downhill for fear of being felled by a rogue rock, or a branch in the spokes. A lift over the fence to the main road seemed a good call, one that required an escalating series of lifts to correct and ending in a field of thigh-deep grass. We bumped our poor machines onward, their chains and cogs clogging with foliage, until we finally identified the lights of the only purpose-built camp site on the Canberra Centenary Trail. At that point we just ploughed over and through every obstacle to reach sanctuary and collapsed in a heap under the shelter. It’d been a rough day.

Freewheeling fun… well, most of the time

It’s a well-known fact that hills work in both directions, and one of the highlights of the weekend was the next day’s sweet, sweet descent off One Tree Hill. The freewheeling seemed to go on forever as we coasted in ecstasy all the way down to Hall, where we celebrated with a pie and a cold Coke. It was to prove a short day; having thoughtlessly used up the single CCT campsite all in one go, we had to aim for a mystery tent icon on the Gaia GPS app. This turned out to be the privately-run Alivio Tourist Park, and although it took us about two seconds to get used to the idea of a swimming pool and a shower, we were turned away due to their lack of unpowered sites. To avoid being benighted in the city and accidentally pitching our tent on a traffic roundabout, we hope to do so somewhere on Black Mountain, where we stealth camped in the forest and were in bed by 8pm. 

Unpacking for a night in th outdoors, with the evening light filtering through some majestic eucalypts.

The early mark effectively put paid to our three-day schedule, but our sorrows were assuaged by a gorgeous start to Easter Sunday. The sun was still glinting low in the trees when we packed up and pushed off, cruising through the beautiful Cork Oak Forest and on to Dairy Farmer’s Hill. While this was another of those unnecessary detours, we tackled it anyway, as it was still early and ascending the series of long, lazy, looping switchbacks made us feel like mountain kings. We rolled cheerily down to the National Arboretum before briefly joining the Lake Burley-Griffin circuit, complete with ambling pedestrians, traffic lights and families of ducks.

If day three seemed to be going too well, fate soon intervened. Gerda casually mentioned her rear wheel was wobbling, and over lunch at the buzzing MTB epicentre of Mt Stromlo Forest Park, I discovered the tyre rubber had perished in storage. It was literally coming apart at the bead and looked like it could pop at any second. How lucky this happened right outside the only bike repair shop we were to see all trip! And how utterly predictable that their range of 26-inch tyres numbered precisely zero.

Repair options exhausted, we settled for swapping bikes for the rest of the day, and I rode with my fingers crossed through probably the most spectacular section of the Canberra Centenary Trail – Red Rocks Gorge. This dual-use track contours along the side of a wide canyon, the Murrumbidgee River tumbling playfully over its rocky bed below. The lookout halfway along is worth a dedicated visit the next time you’re in Canberra.

An aerial view of Red Rock Gorge with trees growing on rocky terrain and a lake.
Red Rock Gorge is one of the major scenic highlights of the CCT.

Our trail architect fantasy had by now evolved to the point where we imagined the first incumbent being sacked for his cruel and unusual detours and replaced with a more benevolent draughtsperson. When the climb out of the gorge made its inevitable appearance, I pictured the two of them fighting over the drawing board, each struggling to imprint their personality on the trail.

We emerged at Tuggeranong, coincidentally the very place to which we’d planned to drive back on completion of the trail, and where we’d therefore booked a hotel. Having a good 20km still to go and a comfy bed beneath her was too much for Gerda. She announced her intention to DNF due to tyre and seat failure and fell upon a bottle of wine like she’d just finished dry September.

Adding up the fun

As I pedalled those last few kilometres to my mate’s place the next morning, I reflected on our bikepacking experience. I scored the Canberra Centenary Trail 7/10 (excellent quality and variety of riding, but infrastructure needs serious work), our luck 8/10 (bad was mostly balanced by good, and the weather was sublime throughout), and our physical achievement 6/10 (joint pain was rife, and Gerda was a hike-a-bike expert by the end). When I averaged these figures to find an overall weekend score, I came up with 10/10. Maybe I’m a poor mathematician, but that seemed about right to me!