Mountain Biking at Menai
An old favourite riding spot is back on the very short list of legal trails in Sydney, thanks to the hard work of a small collective of passionate trail builders and advocates.
Mill Creek Conservation Park in Menai, south of Sydney, has been in use by a wide range of recreational groups long before industry and urbanisation caught up with the area. Bicycles were ridden in the dirt (and on the rocks) in Menai before the activity was known as mountain biking, while the tyres of motos and four-wheel drives had been pounding the terrain for decades.
The old laissez-faire approach to trail access left mountain biking at a standstill back in 2012, but Menai is open again with trails that’ll give experienced riders a thrill and newer riders B-lines until they’re ready for more. The trail network is still growing, so there are opportunities for those who’d like to have a dig help shape new trails as well as maintaining the current loop.
Old as the Hills
In the ’90s and through the 2000s Menai was a popular spot for all kinds of mountain bikers including cross-country trail riders and freeriders, but then access was revoked. At that point, mountain bikers were riding trails that spread through land that was owned by ANSTO (Australian National Nuclear Research and Development Organisation), Sutherland Shire Council and the Gandangara Local Aboriginal Land Council. The trails rolled across a mix of terrain – including classic Sydney basin sandstone and sandy soils – ranging from unspoilt bushland with pockets of endangered Sydney Turpentine-Ironbark forest as well as more degraded land.
The majority of mountain bike trails were located on ANSTO land and they objected to the unauthorised trail building—riding in the area was brought to a close. This prompted a handful of riders into action; they were determined to bring the trails back and make them better than ever.
The return of mountain biking to Menai began the way it usually does; copious letter writing to the relevant parties. Doing this, riders gained the attention of the land managers and began negotiating to rebuild a trail network in Menai. With this they formed a working group that mainly consisted of riders from the Sutherland Shire Cycling Club.
The number of land management groups involved, combined with the changing borders of crown and council land at the time, meant that finding a solution that met everybody’s needs wasn’t straightforward. In the end the green light was given to a trail network on council land only, but this green light came with full support from the council as well as some funding for trail building and environmental regeneration purposes.
This council-sanctioned return of mountain biking to Menai came with conditions; a reduction in the overall amount of trail, a heightened level of environmental awareness and a need for compliance with any trail building or maintenance in the area.
After auditing the network with the council and planning the new version of the trail, the working group appealed for volunteers through internet forums and word of mouth. They then set about closing and brush-matting some sections, revamping approved old trails and building new sections to link it all together.
Trail builder Dan Greenwood, who has been involved in the access, planning and development of the new generation Menai trails since the shut-down, said that the biggest hurdle in making riding in the area a reality was aligning the wants and needs of all parties involved.
“The biggest difficulty has been the meeting of riders’ expectations whilst also meeting land managers’ requirements; everyone involved has their own vision of how mountain biking trails should look and feel based on a personal preference of what they like to ride,” Mr Greenwood said.
“Land managers also had their preference on what they wanted the area to be like and these two visions didn’t really line up in the beginning.
“The land manager (Sutherland Shire Council) has been really accepting and understanding of our need for progressive, mountain bike specific trails.
“However, it has been a long process of gaining trust in our ability to provide sustainable trails that suit the landscape, and also trails that provide something that’s suitable for all levels of rider.”
Now more than ever, the trail builders’ approach is reaping big rewards in the form of better trails to ride.
“Over the past 12 to 18 months particularly, trail design and construction in the area has taken a huge step forward with the introduction of the area's first purpose-built mountain bike trail (Black Hawk Down – more on this later) instead of rehashing old walking or motorbike tracks,” Mr Greenwood said.
“Additionally, the existing trails have had significant upgrades and realignments that are more sustainable and provide better links for the network.”
While environmentalism has been a mandatory factor in rejuvenating mountain biking in the area, it would be dishonest to portray Mill Creek as a pristine area.
Right next to the trailhead is the SUEZ Lucas Heights Resource Recovery Park – yes, that means a rubbish dump – and depending on wind direction and the activity of the graders shifting and burying garbage, it can emit more funk than Bootsy Collins to certain trail sections. Additionally, a breeze will see rubbish blow in from the tip, peppering the native bushland with old plastic bags and other junk.
Another border of the trail is shared with the clay target shooting club, which doses the soil with lead pellets (all in the name of sport). One more close neighbour to the trails is Australia’s only nuclear facility, ANSTO. There used to be many kilometres of well-loved trails on the ANSTO managed land but these were closed down to avoid environmental degradation.
The unchecked activities of four-wheel drives, motorbikes, dumpers, people who enjoy smashing bottles, tailings deposits and folk making walking trails wherever they please have all had their impact over the years and its not hard to see the remnants, as well as the odd discarded car engine block. Far from adding to the destruction, the planned return of mountain biking to the area has helped bring changes that will produce long-term environmental benefits.
“One of the other big issues with the area has been illegal use by motorbikes and four-wheel drives,” Mr Greenwood said.
“Menai has always been a ‘go-to’ place for them but over time, with the installation of gates, signage, rider surveillance and trail design, we have managed to keep illegal access to a minimum, with only the occasional ‘lost’ motor bike rider coming through.
“This has been a big focus for Sutherland Shire Council, as the trails are in a conservation area.”
Mountain bikers have remained true to the environmental brief they were given. The new trails are being built properly, with rock armouring where it’s required, using existing trail where it is good, avoiding fall lines and providing run-off areas. As a result it is still in good shape after some heavy rains this year. You don’t need to ride far to see where less sustainable sections have been closed and covered with brush matting to start the regeneration process. It’s also possible to find old sections of trail that have been rerouted to avoid and preserve ancient Aboriginal rock carvings.
Sustainability aside, it’s also a lot of fun.
Short but Sweet
The current network stands at a distance of eight kilometres, although this is growing with new sections currently under council evaluation prior to building.
The trails provide a mix of terrain; the technical sandstone that people loved for all those years is still present and just as enjoyable. Gravity fans still have a good reason to turn up and lycra clad cross-country flyers will have no problem getting their heart rates up or negotiating the trails on lighter, racier bikes.
After turning off the access road from the recycling centre, the trail begins with the tellingly named Methane Alley. This trail warms riders up with flowing undulations, fast corners and some little rises to pop off and distract you from the tip smell, which will fade from there onwards.
Methane Alley rolls into Toxic Flows, which starts with some rocky roll-downs and then leads into some twisty dirt sections that’ll help you get your drift on, before connecting to the fast-flowing Creek Dash.
Following on is Twisties, which features a series of wooden bridges that were installed by the working group to help avoid soil erosion in the area. Twisties leads to the beginning of a highlight for many visitors to the trail network.
Black Hawk Down, named after the helicopters that frequently buzz the area when coming and going from the nearby Holsworthy Army Barracks, is the jewel in the crown of the Menai trails. Planned from the beginning for mountain bikes and built by hand over eight months, it is where you’ll find the gravity lovers punching out runs, floating over the gap jumps and popping off the rollers that build up to opportunities for air when some pace is applied. Like much of the trail network, Black Hawk Down is rollable for those less confident and not intimidating when you do want to step it up.
From Black Hawk Down you also have the option of turning off to Yellow Mellow, which becomes Pump Action. In that direction it’s a fun, techy descent for those who like it rough and rocky. Back in the other direction, The Gully and Kill Bill provide cross-country fans a chance to smash out some fast and sometimes technical climbing on the way back to the fire road. This takes you back to the trail head so you can hit it all again.
It may only be eight kilometres in total but the trails are very much a work in progress; there is much more in the pipeline if the trail builders continue their successes.
“The big picture for the park is to provide a facility that suits all skill levels and takes advantage of the unique landscape,” Mr Greenwood said.
“The ‘master plan’ (subject to council approval) has another six trails to be built, and those trails will lead in and out of a central hub area at the lowest point of the creek.
“There is also a beginner loop in the plans which will be suitable for families and it will have some fun features along the way.
“Car parking, toilets and bike wash facilities at the trail head are also on the wish list.”
Legally built MTB trails within 45 minutes of Sydney’s CBD are quite a rarity, and these tracks really are fun to ride. Whether you’re a beginner or a well versed gravity addict, there is something for everyone. It’s well worth a visit and going by the efforts of the volunteer trail builders, it will only get better as time goes by.
“Menai MTB park has a unique feel due to the mix of rocky terrain and flowy singletrack,” Mr Greenwood said. “The park is in its infancy and there’s a long way to go but it still has plenty to offer.”
“Rider numbers have increased as the word has spread and it’s great to see people out enjoying the hard work that’s been put in by the volunteer build crew.
“I would like to encourage anyone who wants to help out on a dig day to come along on the first Saturday of the month and put back into the trails, as this network is 100 percent volunteer built and maintained.”
To join the conversation on mountain biking at Menai, go to the Mill Creek MTB Facebook page.
Mill Creek Conservation Park is located around 45 minutes to an hour and a half south of the Sydney CBD (around 30 minutes from the airport). The trails start from Little Forest Road in Lucus Heights, just off New Illawarra Road.
The best place to leave your car is the ANSTO parking area, which is accessed via Rutherford Avenue, off New Illawarra Road. To reach the trail, cross New Illawarra Road, go up Little Forest Road and continue past the entrance to the SUEZ Lucas Heights Resource Recovery Park to the fire trail. The trail begins next to a wire fence and is marked with signage and a detailed trail map.
Other Ride Options
If you’re travelling from far away and need more riding after a few fast loops of Menai Mountain Bike Park, there is one other nearby option with authorised MTB trails.
Loftus, just 10 kilometres away in the Royal National Park, offers up a loop with 10 kilometres of relatively easy cross-country focused riding—a good wind-down after Black Hawk Down and Pump Action at Menai. There are plenty of options to extend your ride here with fire trails that take you to some picturesque locations, but with less of an adrenaline rush than what some Menai fans will be after.
To ride the Loftus Loop, stop at the Loftus Oval car park off Princess Highway.
For more information go to www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/things-to-do/cycling-trails/loftus-loop-trail