Far North Queensland (FNQ) already has a great reputation for world class cycling opportunities - from the well established mountain bike (MTB) parks of Smithfield, Davies Creek and Atherton - to great scenic country rides. Conversely the outstanding potential for additional rail trail development is less known to the broader public.
While the recently developed Atherton Tablelands Rail Trail continues to appeal to locals and tourists alike, there is little knowledge and limited information about the outstanding cycling opportunities on former railway lines and associated tracks and trails within the region.
This was a good enough reason for a group of 4 cyclists to embark on a self-supported 230km bikepacking adventure during mid-April. We had planned a loop within 100 km west of Atherton on the central Tablelands. For the record we were not disappointed! We had beautiful weather conditions characteristic of the FNQ dry season (May to September). We enjoyed riding on virtually deserted, back country roads - with mixed surfaces, between the rail trails. And to top it off the country side was outstanding (think African savannah landscape without the bities!) as our route took us through remote, but beautiful dry savannah country with its associated beguiling mining and railway history.
Our group of 4 comprised Matt Marsh and Liliana Williamson - local operators of Tableland Adventure Guides (TAG), Peter Tuck, TAG founder and past owner and ‘ring in’ Brendan - a freelance journo form Los Angeles who happened upon this trip by accident whilst doing an article on FNQ wildlife. It wasn’t long before he realised that he was on a seriously ‘out there’ bikepacking adventure and much to our relief he capably took it all in his stride. As an enthusiastic photographer, his specialty was getting close ups of our sweaty faces with his wide angle lens!
Our group made do with what gear we had including some heavy backpacks and an assemblage of dry bags and various straps. Average pack weights on the bikes and our backs (including backpacks, handlebar rolls and saddle packs), were in the range of 14 - 19kg including a mandatory 3 - 4 Litres of water each day. We were determined to be fully self-supported and only failed the test with a beer - or two, at local pubs at the end of each day.
Our day 1 took us on a terrific 80km downhill ride from Atherton to Dimbulah via Channel Road and then Springmount Road. We covered the distance in 6 hours with the breeze at our backs and were soon settled into the comfortable Dimbulah Van Park camp ground. Approximately 17km of this ride was on the well maintained Atherton Tablelands Rail Trail. One day, one rail trail!
Day 2 found our excited group itching to get away on the Dimbulah to Irvinebank leg of our ride. The road heading west to Chillagoe was quiet by the time we set off so we rode the 5 km from our camp on a wide road verge to Boonmoo Station turnoff. Another 8.5 km of mixed gravel and bitumen found us at the station homestead. We had prior permission to traverse the property but it was a pleasure to meet the friendly owners Grant & Laurelle Gundersen. We also got some interesting insight into the condition of the track following serious rains in March!!
The former railway line - now used effectively as a station road - travels upstream alongside Eureka Creek. The trail exhibits an easy grade for about 17 km from the homestead with the balance 3.5km along Bock Creek to the Stannary Hills Road intersection being more ‘adventurous’ - i.e. steeper. One of the overriding memories of this leg is the determination of the local spear grass to make it an unhappy day of riding. While it failed to get us down, there was much activity at each stop as the group picked and pecked at their socks to get rid of this temporary curse. Once on the well maintained gravel road at Stannary Hills Cemetry, the group forgot the somewhat challenging day and enjoyed 15km of easy cycling into the small township of Irvinebank. As a bonus the former Stannary Hills to Irvinebank railway line runs parallel to the road and there are opportunities to ‘ride the rough line’ on this sector.
Unfortunately the local tavern is closed Mondays but we had the good fortune of meeting 3 likeable campers who swapped a few beers in exchange for our pleasant company! We also had the opportunity of cooking our meal on their terrific ‘yet to be patented’ home made stove named ‘bush pig’. The small village green makes for a convenient campsite with showers and toilets nearby. Another great day of 50 km of riding, 17km of which was on rail trails with a further potential 6km of ‘ungroomed, ride at your own risk trails’!
We realised day 3 was going to be a ‘big one’ as we were to be riding into some unknown territory. We were accordingly packed, fed and on the road before 8am, heading 25km westward on the smooth, but hilly, Irvinebank to Petford Road. A kilometer after Emuford Crossing we took the hard option and headed south west on Gurrumba Road with the objective of intersecting the wonderful Lappa Rail Trail at California Creek crossing. Gurrumba Road is a road by name only, with multiple, very rough mining tracks offering enticing ‘options’ all of which lead invariably to challenging climbs which were more ‘hike a bike’ than ride a bike given the incline and boulder navigation skills required.
There were a few concessions including a welcome dip in the beautiful Gregory Creek - (3km into this leg) and an improved road after 12km of tough climbs and rocky descents. From the Gurrumba Station homestead we were pleased to see that the local council had specially manicured the last 6 km for our gentle downhill run to California Creek and the fabled Lappa Rail Trail. After a light lunch, we climbed a further - but easier - 10km of winding trail through the Featherbed Ranges.
The top of the range at 750m offers outstanding views over the intriguing countryside and speaks volumes of the hard work the ‘navvies’ put in to complete the 65km Lappa to Mount Garnet line in 1902. From the top of the range it is a further 8km of good rolling road which run adjacent to the original rail line before reaching the former rail siding of Nymbool. Here it is possible to jump back on the rail trail and ride the remaining easy 9 km which lead to the quaint Travellers Rest Van Park just outside Mount Garnet.
After a 70km day and 9 hours on the road we were relieved to set up camp and head into Garnet for a well deserved beer. It was also time to acknowledge that approximately 20km of today’s ride was on the former rail trail.
We recognise - in retrospect - that the original plan for day 4 was a ‘bit’ ambitious. After the challenge of the previous 3 days, a quick 90 km ride back to Atherton seemed like a bad idea. After all we had ridden the 50 odd km up Silver Valley Road to Herberton many times before and that uphill is a real tough one. The idea of riding to Wild River Caravan Park just north of Herberton on day 4 was alluring, as this suggested a relaxed start on day 5 and an easy cruise of 22km alongside and on the rather bumpy railway/road alignment from Herberton to Platypus Park, Atherton. We reasoned - again, that this was not necessary as we had also done this one a few times before and jeez our backsides were feeling it!
Thus, after minimal dissent within our small group a quick resolution was made. Why not take the easy way out for a change? We were all hanging for a soak in the tepid baths at Innot Hot Springs a mere 20 km east via bitumen from Garnet. An easy hour and a bit later had us relaxing in the glorious baths an hour ahead of our arranged pickup courtesy of Trixie Tuck - a fitting way to end a great trip!
Were we disappointed that the 4.5 day trip was reduced to 3.5 days/230km? Definitely not! Had we achieved the goal of experiencing 4 rideable ‘rail trails’ in 4 days? Well no and yes, as we effectively closed the intended loop having traversed the balance of the planned distance on previous occasions. Also, we had experienced some magnificent country that we had not seen before and had a lot of fun with some challenging days on the trail in the process.
They say that adversity makes us stronger and wiser and we agree that there is a case for that latter view in this short experience. We may have bitten off a bit more than we could chew this time but as we clambered into the TAG ute for the drive home an idea came to us - ‘wouldn't it be great if we could avoid the bitumen altogether and get back to Atherton from Innot Hot Springs via Coolgara and Mount Misery Roads then pop onto the outer Wallum loop and cruise down Herberton Range Ridge Road into the Atherton MTB Park?’ You've gotta be dreaming mate!
Words by Peter Tuck (April 2018)
For more info:
Bike packing - which has taken off road cycling to another level by facilitating MTB touring through the use of MTB compatible gear such as handlebar rolls, frame packs and saddle packs, is the ideal way to experience our part of the world. See more details at http://www.bicyclingaustralia.com.au/reviews/gear/bike-packing-101-which-bike-bags-do-you-need and https://www.outdooraustralia.com/articles/Guide-How-to-get-the-perfect-bikepacking-set-up-05084.
For further details on the Atherton Tableland Rail Trail see the following link: https://www.railtrails.org.au/trail-descriptions/queensland/north-queensland?view=trail&id=95
For camping on Boonmoo Station and warning advice see following links; http://travelnq.com/boonmoo/ and https://www.railtrails.org.au/trail-descriptions/queensland/north-queensland?view=trail&id=97
For further information on precautions and riding conditions on the extended Lappa trail see the following link: https://www.railtrails.org.au/trail-descriptions/queensland/north-queensland?view=trail&id=94
For further details on the proposed shared trail between Atherton and Herberton see following Link; https://www.railtrails.org.au/trail-descriptions/queensland/north-queensland?view=trail&id=95
Tableland Adventure Guides run multi day trips in this region - go to https://www.tablelandadventureguides.com.au for more details