Pedal-power in the Flinders Ranges

A cycling trip through the Flinders Ranges is the ultimate mountain biking journey and when John Bushell talks about going off-road, he really means off-road.

With best mate Andrew Leak, John cycled the length of the southern and central ranges across paddocks, along dirt roads, up escarpments, down gullies and through gorges.

“The terrain was really challenging,” he says. “The escarpments are high and, of course, rugged, so sometimes you have to carry the bike over rocks. We had to ford creeks, avoid kangaroos, emus and sheep, and battle dust and heat. When we were on dirt roads and 4WDs came past, we had to shelter from the stones they threw up.”

This challenge was part of a larger one: to complete a ride along the Mawson Trail. Named for Antarctic explorer, Sir Douglas Mawson, whose early career as a geologist was spent in the Flinders Ranges, the 800km bike track begins in Adelaide and ends at Blinman. Dividing the journey into about 10 stages, squeezed between work, family and social commitments, the two men and their wives/support team, Margaret and Anita, took around four years to achieve their ambition.

The Flinders provided a grand finale.

“We’d been riding through undulating cattle country up till we arrived at Melrose at the beginning of the southern ranges,” John recalls. “Then suddenly the country became hot, dry and flat and the escarpments began. We’d passed the Goyder line – the line beyond which the climate is too dry to sustain agriculture. The early settlers didn’t realise this and the landscape is scattered with abandoned cottages.

“A fascinating aspect of the journey was to trace some of South Australia’s history and see how people who had gone before had lived. We visited the house of Sir Hubert Wilkins who grew up in dire poverty in the area. The house was so bleak.”

As the trail pushed north the landscape became more and more spectacular.

“We got these fantastic views of the escarpments as we approached, and then as we rode through them. In a car you miss a lot because of the roof but on bikes we could take in the towering cliffs of the gorges. From sunrise to sunset the light transforms the ranges completely. The afternoon sun reflecting off the cliffs of Warren Gorge is an especially brilliant memory.”

Although summer was a no-go season, John and Andrew nevertheless struck some very hot conditions. “Heat exhaustion became an issue. We had to stop often, drink plenty of water and shelter in the shade of gum trees in gullies – with all the flies!”

The supporting wives, too, were pushed beyond their comfort zone. Driving along dirt roads in a Toyota Camry, far from settlements and out of mobile phone range, the threats of puncture or break-down were constantly visualised but happily never realised.

While camping is a popular option in the Flinders and Wilpena Pound Resort offers four-star accommodation, the adventurers chose to stay in local hotel accommodation.

“The further north we travelled the more historic the hotels became,” reports John, “with features like pressed tin ceilings in brilliant condition. The rooms were basic, some good, some bad, but the people were friendly and helpful.”

Having finally reached trail’s end at Blinman, John and Andrew didn’t press on to Arkaroola in the far northern ranges. However, John is already considering the ride from Alice to Birdsville.

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Hawker, generally considered the Gateway to the Flinders is around five to six hours drive from Adelaide.

For comprehensive information on the Flinders Ranges and beyond, visit SA Tourism’s www.flindersoutback.com

For the Mawson Trail and more, visit www.southaustraliantrails.com

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