Cycling the Muddy Mawson

By Andrew Bain 7 January 2015
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The Welsh have bog snorkelling. Now South Australia brings you bog cycling – just try tackling the Mawson Trail after winter rains.

IT’S ONE OF those rare Adelaide days when the River Torrens actually looks like a river. The Torrens is pouring out of the Mount Lofty Ranges after a day of heavy rain even as I’m trickling up into the range. I’m beginning what I expect to be a two-week cycling journey along the Mawson Trail, a 900-kilometre mountain-bike route from Adelaide to Blinman in the Flinders Ranges.

It sounds simple: meandering through the Barossa and Clare valleys before rolling along at the foot of the Flinders Ranges. After all, I’ve cycled around Australia, and to the tip of Cape York, and I’ve towed my children across the European Alps and Dolomites. This should be a doddle.

It will be the toughest ride I’ve ever undertaken.

The Mawson Trail begins with the sort of natural drama you don’t usually credit to Adelaide. Funnelling into the Torrens Gorge at the edge of the city’s eastern suburbs, the road is pinched between cliff faces, with the river flowing like mud beside the road. The climb out of the gorge from Castambul is brutal, ascending 500 metres in five kilometres on dirt roads. It’s the sort of climb that will hurt me for a couple of days, though I’m consoled by the thought that they will at least be easy days, tootling through the Barossa and Clare valleys.

Through the Adelaide Hills, no moment seems flat. There are climbs – about 1300 metres of climbs this first day – and there are descents, but nothing in between. Already I’m looking forward to the valleys.

The hills end when the trail drops into the Barossa Valley from Trial Hill. It’s a name I hope signals the end of the trials – I’ve finished the Mawson’s hilliest section – but actually they’re really just ahead.

Riding through the Barossa is like pedalling through a wine catalogue. Cellar doors with famous names – Jacob’s Creek, Langmeil, Penfolds, Simpatico – flash past. However, on this day the Barossa is also like a wine catalogue that’s been left out in the rain.

Recent downpours have soaked the unsealed back roads – my guiding lines through the valley – and stirred the red, clay-loam soil into a muddy soup. Regularly, my bike sinks to a stop, wheels locked with mud as thick as bolognaise sauce. It’s strangely fun, though I’m relieved to straggle into Kapunda at day’s end.

Sticky situation on the Mawson Trail

Mud is still foremost in my mind the next morning. There’s been heavy overnight rain, but now I’ve crossed through the Barossa I live in hope that the soil type and mud consistency may have changed. And they have… for the worse.

Beyond Kapunda it’s as though resin has been stirred into the bolognaise sauce. The moment my bike touches the mud, it’s encrusted in the stuff, seemingly doubling the weight of my load. My tyres sink up to an inch into the mud, though in truth I can no longer see tyres, just large doughnuts of mud.

I find a certain masochistic pleasure in the sticky challenge, though it ends when, about 25 kilometres out of Kapunda, the mud forms such a carapace around my bike’s chain and its rear jockey wheels that the derailleur snaps off.

To get my bike moving, I need to break the chain, shorten it and turn the bike into a fixed-gear. But through the mass of mud, I can barely see the bike, let alone the pins in the chain.

I look around and there are only paddocks, their grasses as green as my mood is black. What I need is water, and not just this dribbly stuff falling from the sky. I lift my bike over a barbed-wire fence and push it across farm paddocks until I spy a dam. I take off the panniers and unceremoniously pitch the bike into the dam, climbing in after it to scrub it clean. I feel like a parent washing out a child’s mouth with soap.

My bike emerges like a phoenix risen from mud and after a few minutes of work I have a single-speed bike. Can I now ride 750 kilometres of dirt tracks in one gear? Probably not, but I can sure try.

Within a few hundred metres my bike and I are again armoured in red mud. Every moving part on the bike creaks and groans and clatters and clutters. Soon, the chain has locked again and both wheels have ceased to turn. This is the worst mud I’ve ever encountered. I climb off and begin to push – or, more correctly, pull – the bike, though it’s like pushing with both brakes engaged.

I turn and head for the nearby sealed road, following it back to Kapunda, from where I’ll cadge a ride into Adelaide. I’ve been beaten by the Barossa Valley, of all places. Ridiculous.

Cycling the Mawson: Take two

In Adelaide I organise to replace the hanger that once held the derailleur to the bike. The mechanic grumbles about needing a chisel to remove the mud. My plan is to return to the Mawson Trail, though I will rejoin it at Burra, a town that almost rests against Goyder’s line, the invisible barrier through South Australia indicating where rainfall is supposedly no longer adequate to sustain agriculture. Surely, in such a place, I can expect drier, more favourable conditions.

To restart in Burra means cutting out about 100 kilometres of the trail, but the purist in me drowned somewhere back in Kapunda’s mud. This time I carry a spare hanger and derailleur – I’m taking no chances.

Out of Burra, the Mawson Trail begins its most serpentine journey. From this former mining town to Spalding, the distance by road is 43 kilometres. Along the Mawson Trail, the distance is 130 kilometres, with the track writhing across the countryside, heading east to remote Mount Dare then turning almost back on itself towards Spalding. It promises the kind of riding I love: indirect, unhurried and scenic.

As I leave Burra, fog lies low on the hills and there’s at least only the threat of rain. The road out of town, past the prison that featured in the film Breaker Morant, is white and firm. I could almost kiss it. Within five minutes, however, it has degenerated into a familiar, sloppy mush – swimming pools of clay.

I try riding through the long grass at the road’s edge, but even it is spongy with water. I push the bike up hills and try to freewheel through the descents. As my wheels lock up with mud yet again, it becomes more like skiing than cycling.

At Cobb&Co Corner, beside perhaps the most photographed farmhouse ruin in South Australia, I hear a familiar fatal sound: my rear derailleur pinging against my spokes. The hanger has snapped again, broken by the weight of another colossal load of mud. I am less than 10 kilometres out of Burra. I have a spare hanger, but not a spare heart. I am beaten.

I fit the new hanger and turn south, riding back towards Burra along the Barrier Highway. A hail storm scuds through, ice thuds into my helmet and body, and I wonder if there might be a travel agent in Burra selling beach holidays in Bali. In the driest state on the driest inhabited continent on Earth, I’ve been defeated by water.