Bike riding on the Munda Biddi Trail

By John Pickrell 30 July 2014
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Upon its completion, the 1000km Munda Biddi Trail will be one of the world’s longest, dedicated, off-road cycling tracks – saddle up and come for a ride as we take up the challenge of this wilderness adventure.

IT’S A QUARTER PAST eight and already the air is starting to warm up in this wild and thickly wooded patch of south-west Western Australia. Bright shafts of sunlight stream through any breaks in the jarrah canopy to illuminate smatterings of delicate wildflowers, which provide blotches of colour along the narrow dirt paths our tight little convoy has been following for the past five days. The distant “kerrreee-kerrreee” calls of red-tailed black cockatoos can be heard through the quietly rustling gum leaves.

My morning coffee, brewed on a camp stove, has barely kicked in, but already I am knee-deep in water and clambering across slimy rocks in a shallow, but fast-flowing section of WA’s Murray River. We are about 5km south of Dwellingup, and I am half pushing, half carrying my mountain bike. My legs are stiff and sore for the fourth morning, but I have a great fat grin daubed across my face.

“I told you there’d be a surprise coming up,” says fellow cycle tourer Dr Melanie Bell, 45, of Sydney, with a cheeky glint in her eye. “That was pretty fantastic,” I have to admit, as we reattach the heavy panniers and strap on our tents, sleeping bags and other gear to our bikes – a routine not unlike loading a pack horse, and one that has now become second nature.

“I figured that the trail was just across the river from the campsite and so we oughta just check it out,” says Melanie, a Flagstaff, Arizona, native, and cycling fanatic, who works as a cancer researcher at The University of Sydney.

“I started wading in to see how deep it was and I turned around and Bill had his pack back on and he was already walking across and I thought, ‘Alright, we’re committed.’ It shaved off some kays, saved us a little bit of time and it was fun.”

This is not how I pictured this week turning out, when our team of four – experienced photographer and adventure-sports fanatic Bill Hatcher, and Sydneysiders and cyclists Melanie Bell and Bryan O’Donovan, and I – set out from Mundaring, east of Perth. From getting lost on badly signposted dirt roads, and navigating steep, slippery and deeply rutted sections of trail, to climbing constantly undulating hills – frequently leaping into waterholes, rivers, pools and cascades – and just coping with the technical complexity of up to 60km a day of difficult terrain, there’s been much more scope for serious adventure than I could have anticipated.

The Munda Biddi, I quickly discovered, is hard work. I didn’t know it when we set out, but the 333km section we were attempting over seven days would be one of the most sustained physical challenges I’d ever attempted.   

Opened in 2003, the northern section of the Munda Biddi (‘path through the forest’ in one of the local Nyungar dialects) winds over 498km from Mundaring, in the Darling Range, to Nannup on the Blackwood River. It zips through thick forest and open patches of dry bushland, lovely river valleys, and along a massive escarpment that looks out over a 30km-wide coastal plain to the Indian Ocean.

“It’s a cycling wilderness experience that’s probably the best you’ll get in Australia,” says Munda Biddi Trail Foundation (MBTF) volunteer Stewart Parkinson. “In some of the state forests, you’re going into areas that are totally uninhabited and you’re the only person for miles. It’s quite primeval.”

An additional section has now opened 84km further south to Manjimup, but the grand plan is yet to be realised. The Munda Biddi Trail will eventually wend all the way down through the stately karri forests of the south via Walpole and Denmark to Albany. To this end construction crews are working in tandem.

“We’ve just opened the section through to Manjimup and now we’re working on two fronts – one from Albany and one from Manjimup,” says Ron Colman, chairman of the MBTF, when he joins me for a cuppa in Jarrahdale, halfway through our journey. “In late 2012 we’re looking for completion and in November we’ll do the inaugural end-to-end ride finishing in Albany.”

Once completed, the 1000km track will be among the longest continuous off-road cycling trails in the world. Other off-road trails such as the 150km Otago Central Rail Trail in New Zealand rival it as a dedicated and well-organised off-road cycling trail, but are a fraction of the length. South Australia’s Mawson Trail, from Adelaide through the Barossa and into the Flinders Ranges, is 900km long, but much of it is on roads and there are no dedicated huts or campsites.

“What makes the Munda Biddi unique is that it’s one trail, it’s got purpose-built huts, and it is effectively wilderness,” says Ron, who has the kind of substantial grey moustache more normally seen on motorbikers.

“I don’t know of any other long-distance, off-road bike trail that has purpose-built huts or that is signposted in this way,” agrees Melanie, who has been on cycle tours from New Zealand to Iceland. “It’s really unique. I’ve never really seen anything like it.”

The trail is designed so that every 40km or so there is either a town or a hut, of which there are eight between Mundaring and Manjimup. These huts are partly open on the sides, but modern and tidy. They have rainwater tanks, seating areas, tentsites, long-drop toilets and spots to store and maintain the bikes.

Strung between Mundaring and Manjimup are the towns of Jarrahdale, Dwellingup, Collie, Donnybrook and Nannup – as well as the Lake Brockman Tourist Park. The idea is that you stop in to restock on food supplies (so you never have to carry more than a couple of days’ worth), carry out any repairs (on both bikes and weary bodies), get a shower and sleep in a comfortable bed. It’s a great system that leaves you rested and ready to hit the trail with renewed enthusiasm the next day.

In some spots the trail intersects with the Bibbulmun Track – WA’s epic walking trail. “The Munda Biddi started as an attempt to get the mountain bikes off the Bibbulmun [in the ’90s],” says Ron. “The Bib is purely a walking trail…so it was a case of giving the bikers their own dedicated off-road trail.”

The WA Department for Environment and Conservation (DEC) took control and construction began in 2001. Much of the trail is through government-owned state forests and water catchment areas. The DEC owns the trail, but it’s run by the cycle enthusiasts of the MBTF. There are no fees for using it, but the MBTF makes money by running events, selling merchandise, touring guides and maps (essential if you don’t want to get lost).

Loving the natural environment of the Munda Biddi

AT THE END of the third day, and 137km into our journey, we roll into the Dandalup Campsite. On top of a vast escarpment – the Darling Range – and facing the coast, this hut has the most stunning view along the northern part of the trail.

From here you can see across 30km of coastal plains to the sea. A charming uphill section of narrow trail twists and turns through open woodland, studded with primitive-looking, multi-headed grass trees. The hut sits within a stand of rare and endemic butter gums, or Darling Range ghost gums, which have a pale, powdery bark that turns butter yellow in autumn. There is a decking area, well designed for the vista, so we all sit – panting at first and glistening with sweat – to take in the view. Later we watch the sun set over the ocean and puzzle over both mysterious lights in the distance and crossword clues.

While preparing a dinner of noodles and resting my weary limbs, I try not to think too much about the pea gravel – two innocuous sounding words that belie a whole world of pain.

We’d been warned about it – “Little gumball-sized rocks, like riding on ball bearings, sometimes so thick you get bogged down,” Melanie says – before we headed out, but nothing had prepared us for the trial of riding on it.

“It’s difficult to cycle on, it’s difficult to maintain a grip, it’s difficult to steer. At times I feel like I’m fighting the bike and fighting the trail, which is really frustrating,” says Bryan, 38, an IT professional originally from Ireland.

“The experience has been tough. Particularly given the heat, the surface of the trail, and the pea gravel. The hills are fairly well graded and challenging too, so add it all up over a few days and it’s more of an endurance test than anticipated, but it’s very rewarding as well.”

Two nights before, we’d been at the Carinyah Campsite – the first hut along the trail, set in a grove of she-oaks. Here we’d met free-spirited young riders Anthony Glauser and Laura Hogan; they had cycled from Perth that day, and were pleasantly surprised by the challenge. This cheery, chilled-out couple had recently finished a 1300km, 10-week walk from Wiluna to Perth, via Kalgoorlie, campaigning against uranium mining.

“I didn’t really like the idea of being back in a city after being out bush for 10 weeks and someone said there was this bike trail. To be honest I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to do it at first because the photos looked quite boring – it looked quite flat and easy to ride,” says Laura, 23, of Canberra. “But then a few people told me it’s not that easy, and as we discovered today, obviously it isn’t.”

Laura says she’s only done one similar trip before – a five-day ride from Canberra to Albury. “I loved that; it was magical – and it’s good to be on the bike again.”

“I’ve done a little bit of bushwalking through here and I thought it would be cool to do so much more distance. I really like mountain biking, but I’m a complete rookie,” says Anthony, 22, sporting dreadlocks and glasses. He says he’d only started biking six months earlier and had borrowed battered gear from his dad for this trip. “I’m finding this whole pannier business a bit full on…they’re just falling to bits and tied up with a billion ropes.”

“We were only 3km down the road and they’d already fallen off,” chips in Laura, laughing. With a few weeks to spare, they were hoping to make it down at least as far as Nannup.

Munda Biddi Trail – Not an easy ride

THE NORTHERN PART of the trail up to Dandalup features the greatest concentration of sections graded ‘challenging’ and ‘medium’ by the MBTF – meaning they are steep and the trail condition can be poor. But the great thing about the Munda Biddi is that there are many entry points from roads, so you can devise a trip to suit fitness levels and thirst for excitement.

“You’ve actually gone through the two hardest days of riding,” Ron tells me when we meet him in Jarrahdale at the end of the second day. “As you go further south there are more old railway formations” – trails made on disused logging railway lines that are flatter and easier to ride.

“When people say ‘Where do you suggest we start?’ I actually suggest they get onto the trail where you cross the Albany Highway at Gleneagle and come into the Wungong Campsite [26km north-east of Jarrahdale],” Ron says. “Get dropped off in an afternoon, camp at Wungong, and head off south in the morning. From here it’s a lot easier. A few sections of loose gravel, a bit of sandy stuff, but certainly not one of those big climbs out of the valleys.”

You’ll need about three weeks to do the completed 1000km trail, longer if you take rest days and do it comfortably – but most riders just come for a day or two.

In 2008–09 about 21,000 people used the trail, but only a fraction of them were doing the touring route – just 6240 used the campsites/huts. Most are day riders, says Crystal Reed, executive officer of the MBTF. “Pretty much anyone can ride it. You can be an experienced rider and ride end to end, or [just]…do a day ride, or you can be a family wanting to stay overnight in one of the campsites,” she says. “The design of it caters for all different kinds of cyclists.”

One important thing to be prepared for is basic bicycle maintenance – and the MBTF offers courses in Perth. “If you’re thinking about doing the trail, you need to understand the impact on the bike and be prepared in terms of tools and know-how to repair punctures and simple problems with gears, chains, spokes and brakes,” says Bryan, who experienced two flat tyres and lost a chunk of a gear cog. “In a failure situation you can be a long way from anywhere, and you know, if you’re 40km from the nearest town, then you’re kind of stuffed.”

Munda Biddi Trail construction

IT’S THE END OF the sixth day of riding – and 227km into our journey – and by now I have lost track of the dates or the days of the week. Our lives out here this week are driven by rhythms: the sun rising, passing across the sky and setting again each day; the packing up our gear and saddling it to the bike each morning; the wheels and spokes as they spin, and the repetitive crunch of the pea gravel; the constant eating to fuel the pistons that our legs have become (nuts, chocolate, trail bars, lollies, bread, peanut butter, Gatorade); the morning, afternoon and midday breaks; and the rhythms of the bush, as the rustling and buzzing rises into a crescendo and falls away again each day. At points I feel totally unplugged from civilisation.

After scrambling and climbing down a steep bank, dense with charred-looking blackbutt trees near the Yarri Campsite, I find my way to a shallow and secluded creek, overgrown and delightful. I lie on the pebbly riverbed, my head on a log, and let the water bubble and wash over me. After lying quietly for a while, letting my thoughts swirl with the water, I am rewarded with a serenade from a croaking chorus of frogs.

This evening we are joined at Yarri by Stewart Parkinson, one of the volunteers instrumental in maintaining the trail. We sit sipping tea on a decking area, overlooking a pretty patch of blackbutt forest with twittering and flitting birdlife.

Stewart, 56, from Bunbury, says he wanted to put something back. “If you want things to happen you can’t always rely on other people or government departments to do all the hard yards, you’ve got to pitch in and do stuff yourself. I wanted to support the concept of having a long-distance, well-maintained facility out here.”

MBTF administration and volunteer coordinator Sarah Holland says that volunteers, who are each given a section to look after, do essential work. “The trail has been broken into 43 sections between Mundaring and Nannup, each between 8 and 15km, and the volunteers commit to going out three to four times a year,” she says. They do pruning and tidying up, and report fallen trees and sections that get deeply rutted in winter rains.

“I look after a 12km section in the Wellington National Park near Collie,” Stewart says. “I go out every four months on average, cutting back all the overgrowing undergrowth.”

The heavier track work, such as grading, is done by the DEC, and much of the construction of the trail and huts is the work of prisoners. “Prison crews have been out there doing a lot of the grunt work. You saw sections [of old rail formation] that had sleepers in it? They had to go through and remove sleepers, put gravel in, compact it and fix up the trail surface,” Ron says.

“It’s usually the guys heading for parole. It’s seen as an opportunity to get out of the prison in a work crew and into the bush in quite a controlled way. We’ve presented these guys with certificates when they’ve completed sections. It’s a bit sad when they say, ‘That’s the only certificate I’ve ever received in my life’. It puts things in perspective.”

The conclusion of the adventure

THE NEXT DAY is our last on the trail. The final stretch into the coalmining town of Collie is more open, flanked by farmland, and even though it’s late spring and the wildflower season is waning, there’s still a sprinkling of flame peas, Woodbridge poisons, pom poms, fringe lilies and other blooms.

Our convoy makes a sudden stop at one point to avoid two feisty western shingleback lizards sunning themselves on the path and flashing their tongues at us. We are joined later by a large and noisy flock of wheeling red-tailed black cockatoos, which settle into a dead tree – a favourite hangout. It seems appropriate that they’ve come to bid us goodbye, as they’ve been a recurring theme, with Melanie, Bill and I often dropping our bikes and gear to stand in awe of them.

“They generally liked those big dead trees, I guess to be able to see things better,” Melanie says. “But they were just such characters, screaming at us as we rode by. And sometimes we’ve seen flocks of about ten to twenty of them, which was a real treat.”

One of the benefits of cycling over bushwalking is that you get to cover much more ground. “Walking would have been too slow through this kind of terrain,” says Melanie. “What I enjoy about cycling is that you are going fast enough that you feel like you’re actually going somewhere, but you’re also right in the environment, not like being in a car.” Stewart concurs: “Once you’ve been bike riding it’s a bit hard to go back to 4km/h.”

Despite the fact that I’d found the past seven days a massive challenge, I have to say that I’m starting to agree, and as we roll into Collie I’m already thinking about where my next mountain biking adventure might be.

The full story can be found in Australian Geographic #107.