The thermometer on my bars reads 40 degrees. The water in my bottle is warm and has long since lost its ability to quench my thirst but I keep drinking it anyway. I’m parched. Jan slowly pedals ahead, melting into the infinity of the dry, rocky landscape. A bird overhead breaks my trance and I get back on the bike. Just keep going.
We stop at the grave of Hugh Proby, the third son of the Earl of Carysfort, who acquired a 100 square miles of land in what was to become Kanyaka Station. During a storm in August, 1852, he rode out to gather up a bunch of cattle that had broken away. Upon his return to the homestead, Willochra Creek was flooded and he drowned while attempting to cross. He was 24. The irony of his drowning does not escape me as we cycle through this parched land. We’ve been here for two months and it hasn’t yet rained. Great for cycling but not so good for the land and the people who are trying to make a living from it.
We stop again at Simmonston, the town that never was. The railway was going to come through here so land parcels were sold and bought by speculators, and the beginnings of a town built. Then, the railway decided to build further east. The landowners were left with worthless lots and time took care of the rest. Nothing but crumbling walls left now. Broken dreams.
The weather is changing. Quickly. When we get to the Flinders Ranges Highway we decide to take it north to Hawker in the hope of not getting stuck on the dirt track to Craddock because it will turn to mud if it rains. It’s a gruesome 25-kilometre ride into a headwind but we arrive in Hawker just before the rain starts.
We’re a bit ragged from riding nearly 100 km in the heat and wind and try to re-establish some equilibrium over cold beers at the Hawker Hotel. We take a room, wheel the bikes into it and have showers. Outside, much-needed rain pelts down. Feeling a bit better after showering, we go into the pub and have a huge meal. It’s fantastic. After, we collapse into bed and sleep like the dead while the weather rages outside.
We are on the Mawson Trail, kind of, heading north into the Flinders Ranges. The trail runs 900 km from Adelaide to Blinman, and is promoted as one of South Australia’s premier mountain bike routes. But after consulting with some fellow cyclists in Adelaide we have come up with a loop that will incorporate much of the Mawson Trail and will get us south and east to the Murray River without having to ride the same route out and back.
We stayed with two different Warm Showers hosts in Adelaide. After dumping the rental car, we rode to Sharon and Rick’s house where we stayed for two nights. It’s always so great to meet like-minded people and learn a bit about them and their hometown. We had a fantastic curry dinner and chatted the night away. The next morning, while Rick was officiating at a nearby bike race, Sharon took us to the local market where we picked up a few things for dinner and had a lovely breakfast from one of the food trucks. Many people on bikes and families milling about, buying produce and other goods from local producers.
After two nights with Sharon and Rick, we moved to Maggie and Tim’s, only a few blocks away, to spend one more night in Adelaide. They took us for a ride through town to the beaches of Brighton and Glenelg, followed by a dinner with some other local cyclists, Brian and Katie. We received some great advice from them for our ride north on the Mawson. Meeting locals is what this is all about and the Warm Showers forum is a great facilitator for this.
Our ride out of Adelaide followed the River Torrens. A beautiful bike path runs along it all the way through the city and into the Adelaide Hills. It’s a fabulous greenway through this city of 1.3 million people. When we reach the edge of the city where the Mawson Trail heads up a very steep dirt track, we instead take Gorge Road through Cudlee Creek. It’s a much more forgiving climb and a great lunch stop at the Cudlee Café. (Thanks for the recommendation, Rick)
The road keeps climbing through Gumeracha and Birdwood, all the way to Mt. Crawford. We load up with water at a Birdwood gas station, anticipating a wild camp somewhere in the forest. When we ride by the Cromer Tennis Club, we stop because there is lots of space to camp. The sign says: “New members welcome” but the state of the courts, frayed nets and all, tells us not much tennis is being played here any longer. The building is open and has a kitchen and furniture and when I flick the breaker on the electrical panel, the lights come on. There’s no water in the tank, though, but we have enough. We drag out a couple of chairs to enjoy the last hour of sunshine over cold drinks we picked up at the Birdwood Hotel pub an hour earlier. It’s a great way to cap off a great ride.
We pitch the tent under building’s awning and cook our dinner inside the building, out of the wind. We learn that it used to be the Cromer School, opened in 1899 and closed in 1950. I wonder what stories these walls entail.
We head north through the Mt. Crawford forest on back roads to Lyndoch, the south end of the Barossa Valley, famous for its wine and one of the reasons we decided to not just stay on the Mawson Trail, but to take advantage of some of the region’s best offerings.
From Lyndoch, the Barossa Trail runs north through vineyards with convenient stops at several wineries where we taste some of South Australia’s very fine wines. We also do a gin tasting in Nuriootpa. Feeling the effect of the wine and gin, we decide to call it a day. Riding any further would be irresponsible.
We continue north on the Mawson to Kapunda. At a local bakery, where we stop for a coffee and a meat pie, we meet Chris and Mark, a couple also cycling north on the trail. They are staying in Kapunda but it’s too early for us, so, we continue while they go to their hotel. We ride through gorgeous rolling farm land, climbing slowly to the top of a low spine of hills. The reward, besides the great views and scenery: a 10-km downhill.
Out of Riverton, we ignore the rail trail to follow the Maswon but it’s a dusty gravel road with some farm traffic, so we turn back and get on the rail trail that takes us, traffic-free, all the way to Auburn. It’s the Riesling Trail that continues through the Clare Valley. We camp in Auburn and continue on the wine sipping trail the next day, cycling only 23 km because we keep stopping at vineyards to taste their juicy goodness. That evening, we ride back to Seven Hills from the Clare campground and have dinner at the hotel. Our ride back to camp is the first time we’ve ridden in the dark but our lights illuminate the trail very well.
In the morning, we awake to a frosty camp site but the sun quickly warms us up and we get on the trail. From Clare, we veer off the Mawson and go north on a gravel road to Spalding past the Bundaleer Reservoir and into the Bundaleer Forest. For a while, we follow two big water pipelines that come from the Bundaleer Reservoir. It reminds us of Iceland where similar pipelines run along the road. Only those lines pump hot water. The land is getting drier and browner, a stark contrast after the many shades of green in the Clare Valley. Nevertheless, it’s beautiful.
We stop in Georgetown to watch the end of the AFL Grand Final but amazingly, the hotel pub is closed. Aussie Rules Football is like religion here and we hope to watch it with a bunch of locals. No luck in Georgetown so we continue another 12 km to Gladstone. It’s a quick ride and we make camp in the caravan park, have a shower and dash down to the pub where we watch the end of the game. It’s a close one and West Coast beats perennial favourite Collingwood in the final few minutes. There were only a few people in the pub so it isn’t the cultural experience we had hoped for but we chat with the locals and have a nice time. We cook dinner back at the caravan park’s camp kitchen and hit the sack early.
The trail winds north through Laura and Stone Hut, from where a small, rutted track through the forest goes partway up the mountains to Telowie Gorge. We’re only about 15 km east of Spencer Gulf but we never get high enough to see it. It’s hot and we grind on slowly, climbing all the time. Eventually, the road tilts down and the last two kilometres are a swift descent into Melrose.
We pick up a couple of cold drinks at the pub and head to the camp site. It’s the labour day weekend and the place is packed but the woman at the counter tells us there’s lots of space.
“Camp where ever you like,” she says, directing us to an area on the other side of a dry creek. We ride over to the area she pointed out and it’s absolute pandemonium with caravans and tents helter skelter all over the place. Smoke billows from camp fires. Kids are zipping around on bikes and scooters. Parents yelling. It’s like a scene from Blade Runner but without the rain.
We’re tired. We just want to sit down and enjoy our cold drinks. We find a spot between some caravans and break out our chairs, the drinks and the ever-present peanuts. We always have a bag. It’s protein and quick energy. We look at each other and wonder if we’ll get any peace and quiet that night. The ear plugs help and things do settle down well before midnight. Amazing, given the number of people here.
We follow another rail trail out of Melrose for 25 km to Wilmington where the Mawson heads off on a small gravel road. There is so little traffic on these back roads. Seeing a vehicle is a rare occasion. The country is getting drier and drier. Towns smaller, fewer and further apart. We have to make sure we have enough water with us as there is none to be had along the way.
The track slowly climbs until we gain a kind of plateau and we ride through more rolling farm land. How they grow anything around here is a mystery to me. It’s so dry. It must rain some time. We’ve been heading north on the Old Gunyah Road when a Mawson Trail marker points off to the left and through a gate. The track heads into a place called Richman Gap and culminates in a steep climb of about 1.5 km with grades up to 10 per cent. At the top, a wide vista opens up of the valley below with a 10-kilometre-long descent into the town of Quorn. It’s a great descent.
We arrive relatively early in the day and have enough time to do laundry, have showers and relax in the campground while the laundry hangs in the breeze to dry. We decide to head for the pub for a meal instead of cooking tonight. The special is fish and chips in paper for $8. We order two with a couple of beers and sit outside enjoying the warm night. There haven’t been too many warm enough to just sit out in a t-shirt.
We devour the fish and chips and order a third and more beer before the kitchen closes. We are ravenous. We’ve been riding for seven straight days, not something we do often. We tend to take a day off after four or five but we have a ways to go and we have set a date with friends in Melbourne, so we feel the need to keep going.
The following day is the scorcher through Kanyaka Station that ends with us escaping the rain in a Hawker hotel room. We rise early, have a quick breakfast and head to the café for a coffee before pointing the wheels to Rawnsley Park Station. It’s a fast ride on a slightly rising false flat with a tail wind. We cover the 38 km before lunch and decide to take the rest of the day off. We’re tired.
The Flinders Ranges are stretched out before us from our primo camp site. It’s an impressive landscape with the red sedimentary mountain ranges jutting out of the parched plains.We go for a short hike up the ridge behind camp to watch the sunset. The folded rock in the two mountain ranges speaks to the geological forces that are at work here. The red rock glows in the failing light of dusk. We soak it up.
We leave our tent and most of our belongings in camp the next day and ride up to Wilpena Pound. Unfortunately, we leave too late in the day and when we arrive there discover we have to walk into the Pound and can’t ride our bikes, despite the road going in. We don’t have enough time for the hike so we return to camp in Rawnsley Park. We are a little disappointed but the ride back is so fabulous that we quickly forget.
That night in the camp kitchen we strike up a conversation with a group of people at the next table. They offer us a pile of left-over sausages and vegetables. We happily accept them to add to our pasta. We can not seem to eat enough these days. They are interested in our journey and before long we have been invited by Karelle to stay at her sister Sally’s place in Swan Hill when we get there on the next leg of our journey.
I joke with her that it’s so generous of her to invite us to her sister’s house. She laughs and assures us it’s okay.
“She’s on couch surfing. There’s always people staying there,” she says. We take Sally’s phone number and promise to get in touch. Karelle texts us the next day confirming we can stay with Sally. The group passes us on the road, tooting their horns as they whiz by towing their trailers and caravans while we ride south to Carrieton. They don’t hear me but I thank them again for the sausages.
A few kilometres from Cradock we see a couple of dots on the horizon, possibly other cyclists. As we get closer we recognize them: it’s Chris and Mark we met in Kapunda a week earlier, still on their way north on the Mawson. We have a roadside chat for a few minutes and continue on our separate ways.
We arrive in time for lunch at the historic Cradock Hotel. There isn’t much left of the town. Aside from the hotel, there are a couple of churches that are now private residences, and very little else. Pastoralists and settlers arrived in the 1870s with the false promise of fertile lands in this semi-arid region north of Goyder’s Line, a line on the Australian map from east to west where annual average rain fall is 250 mm and suitable for growing crops. The town grew but, unsurprisingly, successive crop failures only led to despair and the people left almost as quickly as they came. But the hotel has remained open and appears to be flourishing.
We arrive at the camp site in Carrieton. It’s a small town barely hanging on. The store is open but doesn’t have much. The hotel and pub closed more than a year ago and there is not a soul around. There are only two caravans in the camp site. It’s an all too familiar story. Many of these small rural towns are dying out as making a living has become nearly impossible. The ongoing drought is not helping.
At the campsite we find lots of literature about the local area and decide to take the “scenic route” to Orroroo through Johnburg. It doesn’t disappoint. It’s an easy climb of about eight kilometres followed by a long, gradual descent through arid, rolling pasture where sheep are scratching out a living from the dusty red soil. Crumbling homesteads dot the landscape. More broken dreams.
We’re cycling on a track through a sheep station and eventually get back on a small road that takes us into Peterborough, the largest town in this part of the country. It was a long day of nearly 90 km, and day 12 of riding without a real break. The “day off” we had at Rawnsley Park, we rode 60 km on unloaded bikes to Wilpena and back.
As we’re setting up camp, a van pulls in beside us and kids keep appearing. It’s a single mom with five kids ranging from a two-month-old baby to a 15-year-old. They all set up their own swags and get settled in. The kids are pretty chatty and we enjoy their company. They are on school holidays and headed into the outback for a camping trip.
We continue south on small roads and pick up the Mawson Trail again in Hallet. We hope to buy a few things in the store but it’s closed. We eat the last of our lunch food and will have to figure something out the next day. We fill up the water containers and head east into the hills.
By the end of the afternoon we arrive at the Mount Bryan East school. It’s one of the huts on the Heysen Trail, a walking trail that sometimes overlaps the Mawson. The school was restored by volunteers in the 90s and has since been free accommodation for walkers and cyclists. There is water in the rain tanks and there is a new toilet block out the back.
We spend the night in the bunks that have been built in this old school house near the homestead of Sir Hubert Wilkins, a decorated photographer in World War I and a polar explorer. Some of his combat photographs have been wrongly accredited to Frank Hurley, another polar explorer and photographer who was with Ernest Shackleton on his famous Endurance expedition. Wilkins joined Shackleton on his last Antarctic expedition aboard the Quest. Wilkins received his early education at this country school before going on to University.
In the morning, the weather has changed. It’s cloudy and rain is threatening. We are on the final bit of the Mawson Trail to Burra, a section we omitted on our ride north. The route takes us into the hills that make up the range of which Mt. Bryan is the highest. The grades are steep and by the time we get near the highest point, the rain starts but quickly moves on. We barely get wet.
It’s an easy, 30 km downhill ride into Burra where we buy some groceries and have lunch at a café. There is a bicycle parked at the café and we quickly spot the rider. It’s Hugh, a cyclist we had been in contact with through Instagram. It’s a chance meeting as he’s on his way north on the Mawson and we are finished. We have a nice lunch together, swapping stories from the road. Hugh is travelling very light with only a handlebar bag and a seat bag. He’s eating in restaurants and staying in pubs. It’s a great way to ride this trail and I’m a bit jealous, having lugged way too many kilos around on my bike. Next time, I silently promise myself.
We had planned to stay in Burra but a with a strong northeasterly blowing we decide to head out on the End of the World Highway toward Morgan, a small town on the Murray River. We’ve already cycled 55 km and Morgan is another 80 km.
The road is aptly named. There is nothing but salt bush and the occasional emu as a ribbon of asphalt stretches out before us to the horizon. From Burra, it’s downhill with the wind and we zip along at 35 kph with very little effort. We will get to Morgan before dark.
About 25 km from our destination, a truck pulls off the road in front of us and the driver hops out. It’s obvious he wants to talk so we slow down and stop. He’s concerned we still have a long way to go on this desolate road and, since he’s pulling an empty trailer, offers us a ride to Morgan. Jan and I hesitate but we accept his offer. We had already ridden 110 km and the scenery was less than stunning.
Peter helps us load and secure the bikes onto the trailer. The bags go in the back of his Land Rover and before long we are zipping down the road at 110. We chat and tell him about our journey while he tells us a bit about his life. He has a farm and vineyard in Barmera on the Murray River, the very river we plan to cycle along on the next part of our trip. Peter invites us to stay at his farm and we gratefully accept.
We arrive at his home and are greeted by an exuberant Foxy, happy to see her human and his two visitors. We get settled into a spare room, have showers and drive into town where Peter takes us to the hotel for dinner. We chat the night away and learn about each other’s lives. We stay with Peter two nights. We need the rest. It is another chance meeting on the road that makes travelling by bicycle so rewarding.