The Long Read: North? Sure!
It's ominous. I am ushered into the park ranger’s office and I feel a wave of déjà vu. I’ve seen the insides of land managers' offices before... and yup, there are the maps with the illegal trails highlighted on the table.
“We’ve got concerns,” Martin Krieg, Senior Planner at Parks Wildlife and Heritage starts.
“We have all these mountain bike trails to build. We're going to be really busy making sure they are really good trail experiences, rolled out in a relatively short period of time”.
Hang on a minute... I'm not in trouble? Over the next hour the rangers lay out the plans to roll out more trails than we could reasonably hope for. Am I dreaming?
The Northern Territory government earlier this year announced a 'Turbo Charging Tourism' stimulus package, with words like '$100 million' and 'mountain bike' being used a lot, often in conjunction with words like 'National Park'. But what is the potential? We leave the meeting with pages of notes and plans for three weeks of non-stop trail hunting.
The goal for our road trip was simple. Ride every piece of singletrack we could find and check out the new areas under the Turbo Charging Tourism campaign. We already knew of Martin Krieg, who has worked for decades in the mountain biking space, first for Bicycle SA and then with IMBA (who were auditing the trails in the Northern Territory in 2013).
Marty isn’t a government bloke who used to work the Meat and Dairy desk before getting transferred to mountain bike trails. He’s a mountain biker who goes where they need mountain biker knowledge. It felt like we’d snuck a fox into the hen house. He hits the trails on his bike with the local riders in his government work shirt. The situation of government not understanding what riders actually want seems unlikely to happen.
Starting at the Top (End)
May is the start of the dry season in Darwin, which is the earliest most of us fragile southerners would want to ride. The bush is still green: landing at the airport and getting into town was easy. There are several local bike shops and the local MTB club is endearingly called DORCs (Darwin Off Road Cyclists).
“Yeah, you need to chat with Kevin,” is the standard reply we got when visiting one of the shops. We finally catch up with Kevin at Cycle Zone bike shop and were shown the photo album of club adventures over the decades – including Kevin’s dad riding his mountain bike through flooded areas, with only saddle and handlebars showing above the water.
“Yeah, it was pretty wet,” is Kevin’s (ironically) dry reply.
Pages and pages of photos from the club prove that the locals are a hardy lot and had been having fun on their bikes for many years. We agree to hook up with Kevin next day for a ride.
Hitting the trails
The next day we meet with the locals for a ride around Casurina. Riding with the locals is great because the wet season (November to April) results in the trails disappearing under a layer of tropical growth and every year the club opens the trails back up.
There are some trails on open ground that fare better in the wet season, but trails like Blair Witch are exactly how you expect a trail named after a horror movie to be. Dark, with thick tropical growth and the odd random twist before we get comfortable... and totally engrossing. Some modern flow-style trails have also been built in the area and we wound back through this complex network of trails to the surf lifesaving club house, stopping to inspect machine gun turrets that were built to defend Australia in the Second World War.
If you're within 20km of the beach, it seems you’re contractually obliged to go down to the sand and watch the sun go down. It's thirsty work, and we enjoy some of the coldest beers we’ve ever had with our new riding buddies. Now this is living.
The next day sees a brutally early start to ride the fast and flat-out Howard Springs trails. While it's warm, the strategy is to ride early or late to stay out of the heat. Howard Springs features more than 30km of trails, keeping the local riding community sane by offering them year-round access.
Darwin also has a great network of off-road cycling paths. We check out East Point, a popular place for families and kids to ride. We ride around a massive 9.2-inch gun at the Military Museum, the largest ever used in defence of Australia.
Next up is Charles Darwin National Park, which is within a couple of kilometres of the centre of town. There is a long history of mountain bike trails here, even before it became a National Park. Kevin stops to show us a massive hole next to the trail caused by a Japanese bomb dropped from an aircraft in one of the attacks on Darwin in the war. The complex network of trails here is a delightful mix of local-built trails and flow trails built by contractors. More work is being undertaken to make these trails all-season access, as well as to open up more of the network.
Just when we thought we'd ridden everything Darwin had to offer, we hear about Tim Ellison, who runs a mountain bike development class behind Sanderson School. We rock up to see a horde of kids getting stoked, riding multiple lines around berms and over table tops.
Afterwards in the pool with a tinnie (hey, when in Rome…) we contemplate Darwin as a ride destination. Casurina and Charles Darwin National Park are easily the standouts and it's great that more trails were being built in both locations to improve year-round access and expand the network. Charles Darwin, in particular, has an exciting future with lots of bush to expand into. Would you be nuts not to pack your riding gear if you are going to Darwin? Absolutely.
Litchfield National Park
Next stop on the massive tour is Litchfield National Park. More than $12 million has been allocated to “develop adventure opportunities”: we hope that's government speak for trails.
You may not have heard of Litchfield, but it's many a Darwinian's favourite location. The waterfalls and swimming holes are stunning. Again with the help of our friendly park ranger, we check out the areas being considered for mountain bikers. Initially it looks like trails will occupy areas that are currently tagged for 4WD access
With the popularity of the park in peak season, the thinking is to try and spread users out, rather than everyone heading to the stunning Florence Falls or Wangi Falls. Talking to long-time Darwin riders, Litchfield seems to be a favourite destination for all-day adventures on old access tracks. It will be interesting to watch what happens to this area over the next couple of years.
Katherine lies 320km south-east of Darwin. The locals have developed a network of trails around the river in the middle of town. It all starts and finishes at the Pop Rocket Café, whose owners are keen mountain bikers and offer rental mountain bikes.
The trails are submerged every wet season, meaning they have to be opened up for the dry season. They offer a fun experience, but the highlight for most travellers are the hot springs just next to the café. Gently floating down the river post-ride in bath-warm water, our minds drift to questions like 'why can’t every trail have a thermal hot pool?'
We check out Nitmiluk National Park, previously Katherine Gorge, which is spectacular even by NT standards.
The immediate action plan allocates $10 million over the next four years to the park with “visitor facilities such as mountain bike trail networks in new areas”. The friendly rangers point us into the areas of the park that are being considered.
The main area of the gorge is actually made up of nine separate sections. The far sections of the gorge network are a long, hard walk, but covering this ground on mountain bikes has the potential to make an epic all-day ride using rarely-used tracks (with time for a swim).
We arrive at Pat’s Lookout in time to watch the sunset. A good mountain bike trail in such stunning surrounds would be a massive drawcard. The plan is out and the money has been promised... and we’re excited.
Winter in Alice Springs is simply perfect: it's probably better for riding than many Aussie locations in summer. With rolling hills in all directions and reports of more than 300km of trails, it makes the perfect riding destination over the winter months.
We tour the East, Telegraph and Western trails, which are extensively used in various events in Alice. Having ridden every trail location in the NT, we can attest that they are currently the finest trails on offer.
What really catches our attention is the $12 million allocated to the area, which includes funding for an adventure cycling track through the MacDonnell National Park west of Alice. This area is already a highlight to most visitors: a bitumen bike path goes 17km out to Simpsons Gap, the first of many gorges along the ranges.
There is a walking track called the Larapinta Trail which extends over 220km along the range, taking walkers around 20 days to complete. For anyone who thinks this area is flat, the hikers do about 5,000m of climbing and the peaks are up to 800m above the plains. With a bitumen road running parallel to the range, the hike is broken up into 12 stages, with multiple camping facilities dotted along the escarpment.
Driving out to check out the stunning gorges like the proposed terminus at Redbank Gorge, it becomes apparent that all of the complementing infrastructure for a cycling track is already in place. The road allows easy access to those doing one section or exiting early. Gorges filled with water are dotted along the range. It's practically made for an epic adventure ride and, once complete, it has all the ingredients to be a world-recognised IMBA Epic trail.
With our heads spinning at the possibilities in the MacDonnell National Park, we head south to Uluru.
This special place is obviously culturally sensitive, and the traditional owner takes a dim view of visitors using sacred sites as their personal playground – hence climbing the rock is becoming a thing of the past.
Luckily, a bike is the best way to get around the rock, and you can hire bikes out near the base. We ride the easy trail around the rock and enjoy the views, catching up with the ranger who confirms that bikes can go most places walkers and cars could.
We visit the Kata Tjuta (formerly known as The Olgas) which are just as spectacular. We leave wondering what the future would be for this place. There is a lot of cultural learning and admiration at a distance, but for riders like us who like to engage with the environment, those experiences are incredibly limited.
Luckily, Kings Canyon is just up the road. The rim walk is one of the finest walks we’ve ever done, scrambling up, over, around, in between and down some amazing rocks. We can only dream that with the success of mountain bikes in other NT parks that a Moab style of slickrock trail might one day appear.
Can the NT topple Tassie as our top domestic riding destination? A large segment of both locations' local economy relies on domestic tourism so it makes sense they are both trying to attract riders to visit.
Alice Springs provides a lot of reasons to jump on a plane during the winter months, and the future is only looking brighter. We can’t help but think that half a year in Tassie and the other half in Alice Springs might be a perfect combination: their riding seasons are perfectly opposed, so they aren’t in direct competition.
Way back in 2015, we visited Derby in Tasmania when the first trails opened up. In the article we wrote for MBA at the time, we said 'imagine if Derby really took off. Surely other regions would see the benefits and invest in world-class trail destinations too.
'If this place is a success, it could really move mountain biking forward in Australia.'
The future looks very sunny in the NT, and if they pull it off, we can’t help but think they might owe their Tassie friends a beer or two.