One night only: A Sydney-Central Coast bikepacking journey

By Mike Ellott 12 May 2020
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Finding a new thirst for bikepacking – and leaving the comforts of the city to create your own overnight adventure – might just be one gear change away.

I say the words under my breath, “This is the wrong bike.” Standing on a large rock at the top of Bouddi National Park, roughly 100 kilometres north of Sydney, I look down and see my destination, Tallow Beach, and behind its foaming break, a small camping ground. This grassy patch, my home for the night, is tantalisingly close but given my current situation it seems almost out of reach.

A mountain biker spins past me with ease over the off-road track – he looks like he’s riding on air – and with envy in my eyes I labour forward with my racing road bike, which is fully loaded for my trip. Embarrassingly, I find myself on foot, sweating in the summer heat and making slow progress in my socks. I’m carrying my carbon-soled cycling shoes and pushing my bike, its slick 25mm tyres no match for the trail’s mixed surface of soft sand and sharp rock. Neither are my feet, which are screaming with pain, maybe even bleeding. At this rate I’m not even sure they’ll be able to pedal me home tomorrow. 

The last 900m are a steep descent into the campsite. I bounce downhill, shoes on handlebars, hopping from foot to foot. Finally, I walk into camp. Four young uni students (I was to learn this later) simultaneously turn and stare, one gently raises a half-hearted wave from her hip, a welcome that kind of says, “Are you okay?” I reply with the biggest smile I can muster and go about finding my spot for the night. While setting up camp I’m overcome by a victorious feeling – of completing the first leg of my trip and discovering this gem of a place. It’s difficult to believe this slice of beachside paradise and near-deserted campsite has been, until now, unknown to me yet practically on my doorstep.

Looking down to Tallow Beach campground, Bouddi National Park.

Packing a punch

Truth be told, bikepacking is an area of cycling that has never appealed to me. Why? Perhaps because life is busy at best and frantic at worst to even think about it, or maybe it’s the not-so-glamorous side of the sport that’s kept me away. But with bikepacking exploding on social media, there’s a wealth of first-timers’ videos and people’s experiences out there to watch – the seed was planted. I wanted in. I wanted to push myself; not in a how far you can cycle way, but by creating my own adventure, having some downtime and getting away from Sydney with its ‘everything now’ culture. Secretly, like many of us, I’d found myself on a treadmill – the same thing repeatedly – and things had become way too comfortable. I relished the challenge of heading out on my trusty steed with just three bike bags carrying all I needed to get me through the night.

When I put the idea to AGA’s editor that I was thinking of throwing myself into this, his positive ‘go for it’ attitude meant it went from talk to reality very quickly. The tipping point came when I arrived at work to find the world’s smallest sleeping bag, and inflatable sleeping mat, on my desk. This kicked off the planning process. I had so many questions and doubts, the main one being I knew I had the wrong bike. Who’s to say what’s right, but I’m confident if you asked the endurance community, they’d advise against an expensive carbon road bike for this trip. I justified my decision by telling myself I’m sticking to the roads (famous last words), and surely there were heavier riders bikepacking. Added to this was the fact that I wasn’t riding across Australia. If I came undone a train station was never too far away.

From the start I wanted this trip to be self-sufficient. I was more than happy to throw myself into camping and bring everything needed for a comfortable night’s sleep. Importantly, I didn’t want the luxury, amenities and crowds associated with large campsites. Tallow Beach hit the mark – 115 clicks from home – far enough away to test both my legs and bike setup and small enough to just offer a single toilet with no running water. The NSW NPWS website recommended, “Carry everything into camp you need for the duration of your stay.”

On the road

Saddled up, I start my journey along Sydney’s busy Military Road, fully loaded with hopefully everything needed for the night away. Call it beginner’s luck, but the bike handles amazing well, a testament to well-packed bags whose weight was evenly distributed across the bike.

After an hour on the road, my trusty road bike and I make our way out of Sydney and onto the old Pacific Highway, which snakes its way north towards Gosford. It’s then that I slowly begin to understand bikepacking’s attraction; you don’t have to ride fast or be super-human to get to where you’re going. As a regular road rider, a typical Saturday morning for me would be to maybe cycle 70km with a few friends in 2.5 hours. We would eye each other up, battle it out on climbs, fighting to take the week’s frustrations out on the road. I begin to enjoy this pace and the day’s ride ahead. I even stop from time to time to take in the surroundings.

     Pie in the Sky: Just south of Brooklyn on the Pacific Highway, this cafe is a welcome break for coffee and a water stock-up.

After I unpack and set up my tent for the night, I have time to ponder. Two things hit home. One, it’s amazing how little you need to survive the night – especially in the height of summer. And two, it’s amazing how much three bags can store and carry. After the bumpy, gravel track end to the day, everything has worked out; I’m already thinking about little adjustments and what I’ll do differently next time around.

And then, something else strikes me. While I’m comfortable with my food situation, my water supply isn’t looking as good. I thought I’d packed plenty, but because I’d basically walked the last few kays in 35-degree heat, I’m feeling more than a little dehydrated. Sheepishly and with pride slightly dented, I cross the campsite with water bottle in hand. Thankfully, the youngsters I’d met on arrival are happy to help and part with some of their precious water.

     All set up with home for the night at Tallow Beach campsite. 

For the rest of the afternoon and evening I find the solitude I’ve been craving. I wander the beach, wonder at the beauty of the surrounding bush, eat and then fall into an easy slumber that’s equal parts weariness from the 100km ride and contentedness with a day well spent. 

Homeward bound

In my initial planning for this overnighter, day two was just day one in reverse – follow the road back the way I came. But when I’d stopped for lunch on day one, I’d looked on Google maps and discovered a quicker and easier way home. There’s a sneaky ferry across the Hawkesbury River to Palm Beach, Sydney’s northern tip. This detour would bypass a lot of vertical climbing and cut the ride home from 100km to roughly 40!

     Early morning arrival in sleepy Wagstaffe, waiting for the ferry to cross the Hawkesbury River to Palm Beach and a re-entry into city .

I wake early (around 5am), then pack up camp and retrace my steps, slowly walking up the gravel track out of the national park. It’s at this point, sharp rocks pressing dents into my feet, that I choose the easier option and decide the ferry’s the way to go. In no time at all I’m sluicing across the ocean and then spinning my wheels through the northern beaches of Sydney, weaving my way back into the city life and traffic. 

I arrive home on a Monday morning around 10am to a quiet house; the quicker route landing me at home much earlier than expected. Studying my overnighter on a map, it’s pleasing to see a neat loop leaving Sydney, skipping across the Hawkesbury river and back home again – it kind of looked like I knew what I was doing. 

While unpacking my bike and kit I conclude that I couldn’t be happier with my micro-adventure. Naturally, there were a few small errors that maybe should have been avoided, but as they say, it’s the grit that makes the pearl.

And then I fire up my Mac, hungry to find my next adventure. I’m thinking I want to push myself further next time with a multi-day trip. But before I get ahead of myself, I open a Google window and start my research, simply entering the words “gravel and endurance bikes”.