Bikepacking in Tropical North Queensland
SOMETIMES, SHIT HAPPENS. It mightn’t seem fair and it mightn’t seem right, but life does not make promises about fairness or justice. Neither does adventure. And nor does the jungle, especially not in North Queensland. If it did, Dave McCloskey would have been standing at the top of the climb all sweaty and hot. Instead, he stood there all sweaty and shivering. Were everything fair, we would have been discussing the breathtaking fecundity of the rainforest, or the innumerable shades of green, or the rich tapestry of tropical life. Instead we talked of puking, dry retching and, well, when I said shit happens, I meant it literally.
It was the fourth day of a five-day bikepacking trip we’d started from Cairns. Climbing through jungle to the drier tablelands, we’d linked the mountain bike parks of Smithfield, Davies Creek and Atherton, and also traced a stage of the Croc Trophy, the world’s oldest MTB stage race. Now, via the Misty Mountains – where pristine high altitude rainforest tumbled down to thundering rivers – we were returning to sea level at Innisfail.
It had been a grab bag of flowing singletrack, rutted bush tracks, fire trails and quiet gravel roads. There had been jungle, yes, but also dusty savannah, rolling farmland, and plantations of banana and sugar cane, avocadoes and mangoes. And there had been water; dams, rivers, waterfalls and far, far too many creeks to count. They’d flowed crystal clear through the jungle, slipping through boulders and sliding with limpid clarity over shoaled beds of gravel. And it was this water that had been the source of our problems, when we were tempted by its beauty, its siren song of refreshment, and by our stupidity to drink it untreated…
Even loaded with gear, Atherton’s playful Link Track is a blast; working on skills at the Atherton MTB Park; artwork at Bare Hill; Ravenshoe Hotel puts a new twist on bar service. (Image: James McCormack)
Regret borne of foolishness
Few places in Australian mountain biking are as storied as Cairns. It hosted our first World Cup in 1994 and our first World Champs in 1996. In 2014, then 2016, the World Cup returned, as will the World Champs this September. The focus for these events is the Smithfield MTB Park, an area that – with just 25km of official singletrack – has exerted an outsized influence on our country’s MTB scene. In fact, the park’s mere existence is groundbreaking, for it was Australia’s first.
It seemed apt then that we began our trip at Smithfield. And fitting, too, we were to be shown around by legendary Cairns-based trailbuilder Glen Jacobs – the only Australian ever inducted into the MTB Hall of Fame – since it was here he cut his teeth. But sadly, Smithfield was appropriate in one last way, in that we started our trip here much like we finished it: with regret borne of foolishness. Just as stupidly as drinking untreated water, we didn’t allow ourselves enough time in Cairns.
The plan was to fly in, ride Smithfield for half a day, then set off that afternoon. Instead we sat like spellbound school kids as Jacobs – a welcoming man of boundless enthusiasm in both deeds and, as we discovered, words – told us of building trails as a 10-year old in the 60s, of filming MTB heli-drops and bungee stunts in the 90s, and of his seven years building World Cup race courses. He spoke of sustainability, recreational versus race trails, economic recovery, E-bikes, the philosophy of momentum and… Oh no. What?! 1pm? Already?
We jumped on our bikes. Jacobs lived just a few hundred metres from the trailhead; within minutes we were in the blaring jungle. We made our way to Black Snake, a climbing trail that Glen said held special meaning. At its crux, it twisted up a razorback ridgeline where the earth dropped away sharply to a waterfall on one side and an abandoned quarry on the other. Building a trail here looked almost impossible. In fact, exactly how to do so had initially stumped Glen, until another rider, looking at the contemplated route, scoffed, “I’ll bet my house you’re not getting a trail up that.” It was the spur Jacobs needed. That evening, he knocked on his door and said, “Keys, bitch.”
The descent that followed, Pines – with its buffed and cavernous berms – only emphasised the regret we felt for barely tasting even a morsel from Smithfield’s smorgasbord of trails. At least our time riding with Glen wasn’t quite done. We were heading west to Copperlode Dam, and while the sealed ascent is Cairns’ signature climb for roadies, it also serves MTB-ers well; a half-dozen ripping downhills plunge off it, one of which Jacobs was meeting with a small crew to ride. Together, we curled up through extravagantly jungle-smeared hills, with grades so mild that – even laden with overnight gear – the climb could be described as pleasant. So pleasant in fact that, in an act of uncharacteristic charity, I decided not to ruin Dave’s afternoon by mentioning what lay ahead.
Which was? Well, I couldn’t be sure, but knowing the climb beyond Copperlode was called Heartbreak Hill wasn’t reassuring. And when I’d mentioned our route over the phone to Mark Knowles, president of Atherton’s MTB club, I’m sure he’d snickered. “Oh, it’s all rideable,” he’d added between stifled chuckles. “You just need a big enough ticker.” He then said to be ready to jam our saddles’ noses up our bums if we wanted our front wheels kept grounded.
My body may have let me down, but the Norco Optic 9.2 and Revelate Design bags never did. (Image: James McCormack)
Having split from Glen, Copperlode Dam looked beautiful when we reached it; sedate and sheened, with crinkle-cut coves and rainforest plunging to the shoreline. But there the beauty ended; at least I think it did. I couldn’t be sure. The road – now restricted-access – shot skywards at such eye-poppingly steep grades I couldn’t afford to waste energy farting around looking at scenery. Calling this Heartbreak Hill, I realised, comically undersold it. This didn’t merely break your heart; instead – after raising it to 300bpm – it reached in and ripped it out whole, threw it on the ground, then stamped and mashed it into the dirt. And then spat on it for good measure.
Had I possessed any intelligence, I would have dismounted and walked, saving my quads for the days ahead. Instead, I rode the whole damn way, tough enough unloaded but near-lunacy when laden with gear. That said, I was riding light enough. I had a 400g sleeping bag, a featherweight tarp, a 180g sleeping mat and an old Fancy Feast tin I’d fashioned into a 6g metho stove. At least I thought all this was light, until I mentioned it to Dave halfway up.
“You’re not travelling light at all,” he said. He was right; for all my gram counting, I still lugged around nearly 7kg of photographic equipment; I was shooting this for Outdoor, after all.
“I guess my camera gear weighs a ton,” I replied. “But that comes with the gig.”
“Not your camera gear; your clothes. Look what you’re wearing.”
I did. A T-shirt and shorts didn’t seem particularly remarkable.
“You need to meet G-string Rik,” Dave continued.
“Yeah, Huddo’s mate. (Huddo being a mutual friend). You have no idea about travelling light until you meet Rik. Once he’s out bush, he’s in a G-string.”
“Instead of undies?”
“No, that’s all he wears, a G-string.”
“Nup. Probably also plucks out half the stitches to save the grams.”
Dave’s trip preparation primarily involved getting his teeth capped the day before we left, and he flashed me a pearly white smile worth several grand. Meanwhile, I began digesting his words. I pictured G-string Rik, and then, worse yet, imagined my own G-strung buttocks after five days’ bikepacking. It was not – and I cannot emphasise this strongly enough – pretty.
More ghastly still, I’d not expunged the image hours later. We’d plunged down in dim light to the Bridle Creek Road junction, where we set up camp under blazing stars. Fireflies swirled lazily in the trees. On any other night, they might have sung me a visual lullaby. Tonight, however, the brightness I saw upon closing my eyes was not of glowing fireflies; it was of my damned alabaster white butt, jiggling through the rainforest.
On course The following morning we awoke to a chorus of birdsong like no other I’ve heard. There were gorgles and warbles, krauks and cracks, twittles and giggles, whips, shrieks, wockles and waaacks. There were sounds melodious and sounds discordant. Tucked in there was a screeching feline. “It’s a catbird,” said Dave, who unlike me has at least rudimentary ornithological knowledge. “It’s probably looking enviously at your cat-can stove.”
Sensing the faraway look in my eyes as I pictured a furry whiskered thing gliding through the jungle he added, “They actually exist. They look like bower birds.” He gave that same expensive smile he gave last night. It seemed a little too smooth. Doubts bubbled up.
“Hmmm. Does G-string Rik really wear a G-string?” I asked.
“His pack is tiny. Just an amazing bushman.
Incredibly efficient. Brilliant to watch.”
“Yeah, but the G-string?”
“No,” he finally admitted, “he’s a stubbies and volleys man.”
“Is he even called G-string Rik?”
I was about to press him for truth on catbirds when a 4WD pulled up. Out bounded a khaki-clad man who struck me, despite the broad smile, as being tough as nails. It was Gerhard Schönbacher, organiser of the Croc Trophy. I’d been expecting to meet; the route we were following was Stage Two of this year’s race, which happened to be starting in three days’ time. Gerhard was out marking the course.
An ex-pro cyclist, Gerhard raced the Tour de France in the 80s. The following decade, as mountain biking became more popular, he wondered why no MTB equivalent of the Tour existed, so he decided to create one. Although Austrian, he looked to Australia, which he remembered fondly from his racing days. He plotted a 2600km course from Darwin to Cairns, figuring on similar daily distances to the Tour. “But I’d never sat on a mountain bike before,” he said. “I had no idea how hard 200km on dirt was.” Nonetheless, 68 riders participated in that first 1995 event. Most were European; two had been cyclo-cross world champs. “I’d never seen world champions cry before,” Gerhard said, before laughing.
Another in the endless succession of climbing switchbacks in Atherton MTB Park. (Image: James McCormack)
Nowadays the Croc has trimmed to just 770km, and starts each year from Cairns. “It’s no longer the world’s toughest race,” Gerhard admitted, “but it’s still certainly one of the harder ones. But it’s the riders who make it hard. If they went slow, it wouldn’t be hard.” I would soon beg to differ, because once we departed, Lord knows I tried going slow. It didn’t help. With 107km and 2600m of climbing, this second stage would be tough at any pace, and that’s having knocked over the worst of it last night. Well, I’d assumed we had, until the National Parks guy unlocking gates for Gerhard said what lay ahead was, if anything, worse. “Really?” I replied. “Yesterday was pretty freaking steep.” Frankly, I didn’t believe him. Frankly, I was wrong.
Whereas yesterday I’d ridden everything, today was too much; I resorted to walking. At least, though, this let me admire the jungle. Huge tree ferns punched upwards, vines spun webs everywhere, and the forest arced overhead into an interlocking canopy. And the track itself – closed to traffic – was impressive. Despite the tremendous rainfall, it had been constructed so beautifully there was barely a hint of erosion, and thick leaf litter obscured the gravel. It felt not like a road at all but a carpet, smooth and silent and soft.
And then we were out of the jungle. Just like that. There was nothing gradual about this. One minute towering greenery surrounded us; the next, drab olive scrub. And by the time we reached the aboriginal rock art site of Bare Hill, less than 10 klicks on, we’d entered essentially savannah. Coming through as we were at the dry season’s tail-end, the land felt bleached and tired.
But the dryness is not without its advantages. A little further on, we reached Davies Creek MTB Park, and while not a huge network – with just 25km of trails – its rain-shadow location is half its popularity. “We have 300 sunny days a year here,” Megan Harris of the Mareeba Mountain Goats told me earlier via phone. “When it’s wet and the trails are closed in Cairns, riders come here.”
The first trail builders at Davies Creek weren’t MTB-ers but cattle, Megan said. Most trails were originally cow pads, which were later realigned as necessary. But not all; a few years ago they constructed 4km of machine-built singletrack which, naturally, we were keen to sample. We peeled off the Croc Trophy route to head up Balboa (it’s rocky) and then onto Tank track, the one real ascent Davies Creek has on offer. Up we weaved through termite mounds and stands of cycads, on a switchbacking trail baked hard and white. It fluttered like a ribbon, ever upwards before a buffed descent of berms and flowy sweepers returned us to the main trails.
On we continued, south now, on a dusty farm track of constant undulations with never a flat moment to spin and relax. The temperature had ratcheted up, in the mid-30s or more, and the country seemed harder and drier than ever. When we reached Emerald Creek, verdant and lush, it seemed like a surreal oasis.
It also seemed like a thief. Well, of time anyway. We took photos, swam, ate lunch, swam, took more photos, and then suddenly realised we’d played far too long; making Atherton tonight via the Croc’s Stage 2 was impossible. We rode instead to the Barron River, down through plantations before waging a 20km battle with stiff headwinds on the highway. Even then, we only snuck into town under cover of darkness. At least, I thought we’d snuck in. Yet again, unsurprisingly, I was wrong.
“That was you then,” said Mark Knowles. “I was wondering who’d be that stupid.”
“Yes,” I admitted to Atherton’s MTB club president, “that would be us.”
It was just after 6am, and I’d met Knowlesy along with Nick Bowman for a 16km spin around the MTB park. Dave had stayed in bed. In truth, he sorely needed beauty sleep, but instead I explained his no-show by mentioning our late arrival. It had not gone unnoticed. Although Atherton, an agricultural town of roughly 7000, owed its location to being where the rainforest broke – for the old-timers, clearing timber was a right royal butt-ache – pockets of jungle still existed. One of them was the Tolga Scrub, and hitting it at dusk thrust us abruptly and unexpectedly into a darkness to make black holes seem rather bright and cheery. Barely able to see us, motorists showed their appreciation, some by beeping, others by yelling. One passing driver happened to be Knowlesy.
Our ride this morning commenced by leaping immediately into another rainforest pocket. The trails – 60km of purpose-built singletrack – begin literally 100m from Atherton’s town centre, and while usually you expect anything called ‘Link Trail’ to be ho-hum, this was anything but. We swooped across watery crossings and ricked and rolled and dipped and ducked on flowing singletrack that had Glen Jacobs’ signature all over of it.
After the flatter, more open trails of Knowles Nard, Two Tooth and Forty Stitches, we climbed Beady Eye to a ridgeline col known as the Roundabout. From here the real extent of Atherton’s trails became apparent. Singletrack spilt off in every direction; four different trails, each looping back to make eight paths spreading out like spider’s legs across the landscape. Quite honestly, I’d never seen anything like it. Some ran bench-cut under ridgelines; others cascaded down out of sight. Across the valley climbed Stairway to Heaven, as impressive a sequence of switchbacks as I’ve seen anywhere.
Back down in Atherton – after descending Ridgey-Didge, a pedalling optional 2km berm-fest – Knowlesy admitted the trails hadn’t come cheap; roughly a million dollars had been injected a few years ago. Not that construction had ceased; our final trail into town, Penny Lane – another swooping rainforest delight – was just weeks old. And over coffee – something Dave deigned to show up for – Knowlesy outlined plans for more: a DH track, extending the rail trail and more rainforest singletrack.
When we pushed off, it was back into the park. This time we took Rocky Python to Top Deck to Stairway to Heaven, a succession of trails that carried us to the network’s highpoint. I say “carried” specifically; for 5km the singletrack climbed, but an almost preposterous succession of uphill berms made it seem half the work was done for us. We powered into each uphill corner without washing speed, knowing a berm would catch us. As we ascended, it began greening. Like Davies Creek, Atherton lies in the rain-shadow of coastal ranges. But the Great Dividing Range actually runs through the MTB park, catching secondary moisture. The grasses changed from brown to lime to green; by the time we’d summited the trail network we’d re-entered the rainforest. There were palms and vines and ferns and towering trees. The air was thick with birdsong. Butterflies danced. Best of all was a deliciously cool breeze.
We swung south now onto a forest road. For more than 15km we traced the Great Divide’s spine, remaining in jungle for the first half before it turned into scrub, thirsty and hard. We peeled off onto an unmaintained fire road where the surface became a sketchy mixture of sand, kitty-litter pebbles and baby head rocks. Our descents became barely controlled freefalls.
Neurotoxins and lawyers
Little more than a kilometre off the Divide, the town of Herberton is Queensland’s second highest. We swooped down to refuel before taking 35km of quiet back roads to arrive at Ravenshoe, population 860, the only town higher. But there’s not much in it. “I think we’re something like two and a half inches higher,” said Wayne Edwards, who with Wendy Stanford owns the Ravenshoe Hotel. The state’s highest pub is also the town’s crowning jewel. A huge, verandahed establishment in the traditional Queenslander-style, it possesses barely a straight angle, and polished wooden floors dip and roll in waves. Wendy’s grandfather actually built it back in 1927, entirely of local timbers. The staircase is silky oak; the dance floor uses black bean and maple; the fireplace surrounds are red cedar; so too the doorways.
Red cedar was once so prolific here that prior to 1911 Ravenshoe was called Cedartown. “Huge cedars came right up to town,” Wendy told me. “People spoke of being in awe as they approached Ravenshoe.” With logging, the cedars went. When the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area was declared in the 90s, so too did the logging. More recently, Ravenshoe’s other main industry, dairying, also crashed. “It’s been hard,” said Wendy. “People hoped for more tourists, but they never came.” That said, Ravenshoe still draws some, one prime attraction being Millstream Falls, Australia’s widest.
Another draw is precisely the reason we were here: the Misty Mountains. Spread over three national parks – Tully Gorge, Tully Falls and Wooroonooran – Ravenshoe is a gateway to this 130km network of trails, half of which are open to mountain bikes. The paths weren’t purpose-built; most were old logging tracks. Some in turn were old aboriginal paths connecting the ‘gambilbara’ (the rocky tablelands country) to the ‘yabulmbara’ (the coastal plain).
The name Misty Mountains is another of the region’s euphemisms; Catsndogs-Pissingdown-Bucketing-Rain Mountains would be surely more apt, given Wooroonooran National Park receives Australia’s highest rainfall. Nearby Mt Bellenden Ker has received nearly 1000mm in just one day, 5000mm in just one month and 12000mm in a year. Also in Wooroonooran is 1622m Mt Bartle Frere, the state’s highest peak. The combination of precipitation and rugged mountains means the area has Australia’s finest and most pristine high altitude rainforest.
And perhaps also the country’s most prolific blood suckers. Whenever I mentioned Misty Mountains to a local, invariably they warned of leeches. Wendy’s tale was the worst: a few years back, some mountain bikers rocked up to the Ravenshoe Hotel. They’d just traversed the Mistys, not long after the monsoon, and it was wet. Leeches dangled out of their noses. Their ears. Their eyes. It was, she said, a bloodbath.
As it turned out – spoiler alert – neither Dave nor I got a single bite. But discovering the Misty Mountains had other ways to extract blood didn’t take long. Just a few hundred metres into the Cardwell Range Track, a crimson rivulet streamed from my arm courtesy of Calamus muelleri, a barbed vine that hangs like tentacles though the jungle. Most locals call it wait-a-while; that’s what you yell to your partners as you detach yourself from it. Given its bloodletting tendencies, however, I prefer its alternate name: lawyer vine.
A little further on, though, there was a small trackside sign, one to make even lawyer vine seem friendly: STINGING TREES, it announced. I knew they were around, but until now I’d dismissed them as a threat. Hah! A sting. Big deal! I’ve messed with a bee. But as the sign’s words jumped out – neurotoxins… extremely painful… symptoms last for months – a reassessment seemed in order.
Especially since stinging trees – and lawyer vines too – grow well in disturbed areas of forest, say, like tree blow-downs. Or, more pertinently, along old logging tracks like the one we were on. Relaxation became a zero-sum game; while the track had impressively long coasting descents needing neither pedal nor brake, offsetting this was the concentration required to slalom wait-a-while and stinging trees.
The darkness didn’t help. Dense walls of vegetation gave the feeling we rode through a shadowy green tunnel that – save for the creek crossings – was almost without end. There was a sense of complete immersion, as if the jungle had swallowed us whole. Meanwhile, the thick sounds of insects and birds blared. There was growling as well; not by catbirds now but rather our guts. Approaching the trailhead, Dave announced his stomach wasn’t good; within half an hour, mine, too, was howling in distress. But in this time Dave had further deteriorated. Despite the scant pedalling, by early afternoon when we reached Hinson Creek campsite, he flopped down and sprawled across the grass. Ninety minutes later, he’d barely moved.
A few days ago, I’d asked Dave about his most epic epic, the outing where things had gone most painfully awry. I’d never asked anyone that question before, let alone while on a trip. Now I could see why; it was ludicrously courting fate. “We’ve gotta go,” I finally announced. Dave moaned. Fifteen minutes later, I said it again. Really, I added.When he roused himself a few minutes later, he took one look at me lying on the ground and announced, “You look as bad as I feel.”
But from here our trajectories diverged. Once back on the bike, I began improving. Dave went the other way. After we emerged onto a forest road and began climbing, he began puking. Then dry-retching. Then shivering. Summiting one of the hills Dave announced, “I can’t do it. I just cannot do another climb like that.”
Good over bad
You know what? When I said earlier it seemed wrong talking of sickness when I should be talking of beauty, I’ve decided forthwith to stick by that, except to say the following morning Dave awoke and said simply, “Worst. Night. Ever.” But I’m not going to dwell on these details. I’d rather finish by talking of only the good. Of the fact there were no more “climbs like that”. Of the magnificence of the South Johnstone River, where next to our campsite ran dark, polished waters slipping through smooth boulders. I will talk instead of the four-storey high ferns. The 10-storey high trees. The cloaking vines, woven so densely they draped like sheets over everything.
No, I won’t dwell on the bad. I will talk of waterfalls. Of slashing white ribbons leaping through the jungle. Of the long gentle descent down the Palmerston Highway. Of the views over farmland. Of the lush rolling hills. Of the remnant rainforest left in the folds of otherwise cleared paddocks. Of the red earth. The fat cattle. The sugar and tea plantations. The unmanned honesty-boxed fruit stalls, with juicy papaya and melons and passionfruit. I will talk of blue sky. Fluffy cumulus. Of the lord of it all, Bartle Frere, whose jungle-smeared flanks rose to a cloud-cloaked summit. I will talk of beer at the pub in Innisfail. Of flopping down at Innisfail Station for the train back to Cairns. And lastly, and most importantly, I will talk of relief. Because relief, as an element of adventure, is underrated. Sometimes, on even great trips, the most delicious, most satisfying, most indelible emotion of all is that of relief.
How long: Give yourself enough time for the trip. We had five days; seven would have allowed us to really explore Smithfield and Atherton MTB Parks to the extent they deserve. But if it’s possible, give yourself more still; Cairns has loads of other cool things
To do: the train to Kuranda, Tully River rafting, hot air ballooning at Mareeba, heading out to Dunk Island, climbing Bartle Frere, swimming in the natural spa pools at Cardwell.
Seriously, the list goes on. Be aware if you’re taking the train from Innisfail to Cairns that places for bikes are available but limited to two per train. Book early.
Hot tip: Make sure you stay at the Ravenshoe Hotel; owners Wendy and Wayne are truly hospitable and it’s a great pub.
Always treat water taken from waterways.
More info: tropicalnorthqueensland.org.au