We stand on a bank in dense bush looking down at a boulder-filled dry creek bed wondering how the hell we’re going to get across. We are on the right track. A marker on the tree beside us confirms it and we can see another on a tree across the gully. There’s no way a horse would go down this, especially a loaded pack horse. We check the map to see if there is a way around. There is not.
We unload the bicycles and, after having scouted the route, the two of us carefully lower one bike down the steep embankment and wheel-carry-bump it across the boulders where we haul it up another steep embankment through dense bush and up a grassy slope to a gate. We open the gate, leave the bike and go back for the other one, all the while thinking about snakes in the tall grass and hoping we don’t accidentally step on one.
After we carry the second bike across we go back for our panniers and backpacks. By the time we get everything across, two hours have passed and we’ve advanced about 100 metres. We are drenched in sweat, standing in a field with no clear idea of where to go next. There is a trail marker on a utility pole pointing in a general direction. We go that way, slowly cycling trying to discern any kind of track or trail and hoping for another marker. We eventually find our way out of the field alongside a paddock and a farm house to a road. A trail marker confirms we are on the right track.
We are travelling south on the Bi-Centennial National Trail, a 5,500-kilometre-long horse trail through Queensland and New South Wales. We want to cycle as far as the QLD-NSW border but it’s already been a tough go on this first section and we’re not sure we have the will to carry on.
The trail follows tracks and small roads through the forests of the Great Dividing Range and the going is pretty good most of the time. The hills are unrelentingly steep but thankfully never that long. The main problem is water. Lack of water. The drought that’s been plaguing this country has been going on for up to seven years in some places. Every creek we cross is dry. We carry 7-10 litres of water a day, depending on where we are and where we hope to get to. It’s a tough ride.
It’s not that we don’t like tough rides. We’ve done a few. But there is an equation I have in my head with effort on one side and reward on the other. So far, the equation has been heavily tilted in the direction of effort with far to little reward. It’s not all bad, though. Don’t get me wrong. There are the occasional glimpses of lovely country side, gorgeous tracks through the forest, Daryl who brought us eggs at Musket Flat, and birds with feathers that are impossibly blue, red, green, pink, purple and what have you. But we are lacking enthusiasm for carrying on down the trail, knowing what lies ahead and what we’ve experienced so far.
We decide to get off the trail and make our way to Kilkivan, the northern terminus of a rail trail that runs nearly 90 kilometres to Kingaroy. It will give us a bit of respite from the bush bashing we’ve been doing, and a chance to consider our options. We ride on a small road through some lovely rolling farm land, a vast improvement over the dense forest that offered no views the previous days. A quick 20 km with a great tail wind on a highway brings us to the outskirts of Kilkivan where we see a sign for a bush camp, so, we turn down the road to it. The reward: the Bush Bar where we have a fantastic burger and chips and some very tasty cold beers.
In the morning, we ride into town to get some info on the rail trail and we head off. It’s nice cycling with live stock all around and great views. There was an unexpected water crossing, but we managed it. We have to get off the bikes frequently to open and close gates to keep livestock from wandering off but the ride has a nice pace. It’s not as flat as one would expect. This railway climbs and descends constantly but the grade is fairly easy.
We take a break in Goomeri and buy coffee with a snack. It’s typical of many of the small towns we’ve been. They’re dying a slow death. Closed store fronts tell the tale. Many of these towns offer free camping for travellers, hoping they will spend a night or two and spend some money in the local economy. At the end of the day, we find such a free camp site in Wondai, a lovely country town surrounded by farms, state forests and a national park. It must have been a gem in its heyday. The buildings attest to that.
We meet Vince who assure us we can camp and he shows us where the toilets and showers are located. Free camping, hot showers and two pubs to choose from within walking distance. What more do two tired cyclist need? Our meal at the Wondai Hotel is fabulous, as is the setting of this century-old hotel that has been carefully preserved and restored.
Jan and I look ahead on the map to figure out where we’ll head once we get to the end of the trail in Kingaroy. We decide to take a day off, do laundry, shop and rest our tired muscles. Our friends Peter and Sue will drive out from their home in Buderim to meet us. We arrive there the next day and find camping at the showground, another way for towns to attract visitors by offering cheap or free camping with facilities. The showground is used once a year for an agricultural show but sits empty otherwise. This is good utilization of the space and the vast numbers of Grey Nomads travelling about Australia in their caravans and campers take full advantage.
Peter and Sue join us the next day and we wander about town a bit before settling in a pub for lunch. Jan and I have culled a few things from our bags, deciding we can do without them, and they kindly agree to bring the stuff with them when they come to Whistler next winter to ski. They head back to the coast and we plan the next part of our journey. We have a reunion at the camp site with a John and Kathy, a couple we had met a week earlier in Biggenden. We spend a nice evening together sitting by the fire near their caravan.
Bunya Mountains National Park lies to the south and we decide that is our next stop. We ride out of Kingaroy on small country roads, avoiding the highway, although there is almost no traffic on it. The road angles up as we enter the park and we steadily climb. The ramps get steeper as we go and at one point we have to get off to push the bikes. It’s just too steep at 18 per cent. We climb up to 1100 metres above sea level before descending a bit to the national park camp site.
The bunyas rise abruptly from the surrounding plains and the rain forest here is unique. It’s the world’s largest stand of bunya pines and was declared a national park in 1908. It is a place of great significance for the aboriginal people who came here for untold generations to harvest the bunya nuts that can weigh up to 10 kilos and fall from the tops of the trees.
The park is crawling with rednecked wallabies. They are all over the camp site and don’t seem to be too bothered by all the people camping. We make camp, absolutely knackered from the climb, and immediately decide to stay here two nights to do a bit of hiking in this unique place. The restaurant claims to have Australia’s highest whiskey bar and they offer a beautiful menu, as well, from which we happily order dinner.
Hiking this unique forest is a welcome change for the muscles. The diversity of the forest is amazing and a good interpretive trail teaches us about the various species of trees and plants. It’s dry here, too. There is very little water in the creeks and the waterfalls are all dry.
We descend the Bunyas the next day. It’s a quick, steep drop back to the plains as we continue south, riding small roads through the rolling country side. A plan is emerging and by the time we get to Goombungee we have settled on a course.
We head east from there the next day into Crows Nest National Park and across the Perseverance Dam. There is water here but the level is low. More evidence of the drought. The road down to the dam is a thrill ride of several kilometres but we spend the rest of the afternoon climbing back out of the valley until we get to the Esk-Hampton Road which takes us on a nearly 30-kilometre-long gentle downhill through Deongwar State Forest to the town of Esk.
The plan we have come up with is to circle back towards Brisbane and find transport to Adelaide. We are looking into the train but it’s very complicated because we have to pack the bikes in boxes and transfer trains in Sydney. Having a lay-over in Sydney to do some sightseeing further complicates matters. The bus is not at all appealing, so, we decide on renting a car to get us to South Australia and we will see some parts of the country we would otherwise not.
From Esk, we pick up the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail and have an easy day to Fernvale where we find a camp site on Wikicamps, the app we’ve been using to find campgrounds and caravan parks. I phone to make sure they can take us and the man who answers the phone thinks I’m one of his friends playing a practical joke on him. After I convince him I’m really looking to camp he tells me to come over and they will accommodate us.
Tom and Norrie are in the process of creating a small camp site on their property in the hills above Fernvale. It’s not ready but they are happy to let us camp. We are their first guests. We sit and chat over a beer while the sun slowly sinks over the hills. The view is amazing and so are our hosts. What a great find.
Jan helps feed the llamas and a sheep that hasn’t been shorn in two years. It looks like a comical cartoon version of a sheep. I pitch the tent as it gets dark and we prepare to make dinner. There is a cabin on the property that they’ve been renting out for years and we use the shower and bathroom attached to that. It’s all very rustic and lovely.
In the morning, Tom and Norrie are both gone but I call Tom before we leave to thank them for their hospitality. And just as we’re going out the gate, Norrie drives up, having finished work. She started at 4:30 am. We thank her, too, and ride back down into Fernvale to the rail trail and ride the final 35 kilometres into Ipswich where our shiny white bicycle carrier awaits. We’ve cycled nearly 1,500 km in a big loop through a small part of the massive state of Queensland and now it’s time to explore another bit of this vast country.
We stuff the bikes and all our gear in the back of the wagon – it just fits – and hit the road. I have to keep telling myself to look right and stay left. It’s a bit tricky to drive on the left side of the road, sitting in the right side of the car. Every time I signal a turn the wiper blades come on, creating a moment of confusion. But after a while I get the hang of it as we wind our way out of the suburban area and head out on small country roads where I can get a better feel for driving on the wrong side.