Bikepacking is trendy and nowadays, races are popping up like mushrooms out of the ground. The one challenge that’s a bit longer than the other. “Race to the Rock” appeared online about a year ago and I was instantly sold, this would be my 2016 challenge. In recent years, I have cycled many of these types of challenges, in Morocco, Greece, Sardinia, the Tour Divide, Highland Trail, Transcontinental Race, Arizona Trail Race, … but Australia, no, I had never been there before.
The route is 2,300 off-road self-supported Australian outback kilometres from Adelaide in the south to Ayers Rock / Uluru, the magical rock in the middle of Australia; it’s some landmark. The route is divided up into two parts. The Mawson Trail takes you through the Barossa Valley wine region to the Flinders Ranges and is made up of singletrack and gravel roads, with a generous helping of up-hill work. After Flinders Ranges, the second part, you arrive in the real outback – long flat sections that make any possible refuelling stations seem further and further apart. Where in the first part you could easily have food and drink every 100 km, here the distances can easily reach 200 or even 300 km. The message is: plan ahead, take enough water on the route.
Part 1: The Mawson Trail (km 0 to 1,122)
The Mawson Trail is a 900-km long cycle/MTB trail from Adelaide to the Flinders Ranges, ending in Blinman. The high altitudes are mainly in this first half of the race. It is a sequence of singletrack, trails, and some asphalt…from one village to the next.
Saturday 3 September, 6 am, about 20 participants were on Victoria Square in Adelaide. The atmosphere was relaxed. It was mainly Australians at the start line, a few New Zealanders and a Belgian who has lost his way. I had spoken to a few of them the night before last in the pub. Jesse, founder and winner of the Trans Am 2015 edition, got it all going. We soon left the city behind us and rode through parks and winding paths, up and down. Everyone chatted among themselves, the atmosphere was relaxed until the first climb. Jesse shot ahead like a rocket, Justin tried to catch up, I had to let the two men go and find my own pace.
We didn’t really get to see much of the sun, on the other hand we saw a lot of rain and there was a biting wind. That was not how I had imagined Australia. I finally reached a service station around noon and half a litre of coffee returned my body temperature to normal. We were presented with a few strips of mud; the clay stuck in your tyres making it difficult to cycle. My Rohloff/Gates belt combination ensured I can beaver away at full power. Justin and Jesse were having more trouble and were more cautious with their derailleurs. The temperatures dropped dramatically in the evening, I underestimated the cold. At night, after having reached 275 km, I reached the deserted Burra and a disabled public toilet offered me shelter from the cold and rain.
After a few hours of sleep I crawled back into my wet clothes and departed. It was still dark. Jesse, Justin and Sarah were ahead of me. Sarah was the only female in the platoon and she also rode the Trans Am this year. I reached Sarah just before sunrise and we spend almost the entire day riding together. The landscape was very green with gentle hills and slopes, kangaroos everywhere. Quite a lot of cattle roam free in this area, too, and we regularly had to pass through gates. There was nowhere near as many as on the Arizona Trail Race but here, too, every gate has its own opening and closing system. A rather high gate was padlocked so the only solution was lifting the bike over. In a biking accident a few years back, I tore a tendon in my right bicep and have lost strength. It was hard work getting my bike over the gate and I dropped the back wheel in agony. My pedal got stuck in the iron wire and the spring in my pedal broke. Damnit! That’s a setback. I crawled over the gate, untangled everything and tried to click it all back in place. The springs in a Time Atac pedal are all connected, so I couldn’t click them back into position. Fortunately, I did my homework. There is only one bike shop on the entire route, in Melrose, and that is 120 km away. I had but one option, to cycle to Melrose.
I left Sarah behind me in the dark forest, it was cold but the gardening gloves I bought this afternoon in a supermarket offer some warmth. A blessing in disguise, there was a party going on at the bike shop, so I could still buy new pedals although it was late in the evening. I got two pints and some tall stories on top of that and an hour later, I laid down under a lean-to next to the shop. At night, I laid there shivering in my sleeping bag, I hadn’t imagined Australia would be so cold. Even before dawn I was back on the bike and the first faint rays of sun heated me up like a microwave oven.
Melrose – Cradock – Blinman
The following two days, I cycled alone. Jesse, Justin and Sarah were ahead of me but within catching distance. It was going to be difficult keeping up with Jesse. The route was still amazingly beautiful, especially through the Flinders Ranges. It was cold in the morning, the mist hung between the trees and the fields, the plants were speckled with morning dew. You could see kangaroos in the distance and there were emus walking around here and there. The route through Flinders was a sequence of singletrack and creek crossings. It was spring in Australia right now, as it was obvious from the plants and trees. There had not been a drop of rain for the past two days, and luckily the temperature was increasing.
In Blinman, I devoured a large hamburger, the other tourists and the locals at the bar didn’t quite get it. A Belgian coming here to cycle from Adelaide to Ayers Rock … is he mad? The descent was very fast, glorious. Here and there, a creek crossing; the message was to reduce your speed, you never know how deep the passage could be.
Finally, after 940 km, I reached Parachilna. I quickly downed two colas in a café. And all of a sudden there was a camera crew in front of me wanting a brief interview. Anthony and Michael were following the race and tried to post a short report on the internet every day. To my great surprise, I heard that Jesse had dropped out due to a wrist injury and that Justin had been sleeping here in this café since this morning … Sarah was an hour and a half ahead. Fill the drink bottles and off to Leigh Creek; get there before closing time and then ride on to Marree, that’s my plan. That would put 305 km on the counter today, 1,122 in total, just under half the race and in second place.
I arrived in Marree at night. A few hours before, I had loaded up my bike with enough food and drink to reach William Creek. The last 120 km from Leigh Creek were smooth, a flat route. Around midnight I almost fell asleep on the bike but I kept pushing on until I reached Marree. I spent the evening in my bivy in an open kitchen at a campsite. I got up a few hours later and got onto the Oodnadatta Track before sunset. Still another 1,000 km to the finish…
The sunrise was amazing. The yellow and orange glow over the ‘desert’ were fantastic. It soon warmed up. Where the first part was varied, from here it was a straight route through the desert. Some find that monotonous, but I like it. The solitude, the feeling you are on the moon. If one 4×4 per hour passes, that’s a lot. The temperature started to increase – eat a lot, drink a lot, that’s the message. Besides my usual drink bottles, that were enough in the previous part, I have added a 2 litre water bag. Further along the track, I could fill a second water bag or even a third if I really need to. It was with good reason that I decided to cycle with a frame bag and rack, I can easily carry the extra litres and kilos on the bike.
The infamous corrugations made it a tricky route. They were an assault on your Achilles’ tendons, your ankles, and your behind, too. It was a case of constantly looking to find a smooth bit; keep going, keep going. From left to right. The route is easily 8 km wide but at some places there was no flat strip to be seen. I had anticipated this as there are the same type of strips in the Tour Divide. Just get your head down and push on, staying in the straps as much as possible.
I reached my destination just before sunset. A café, an airport, a fire engine, a service station and cabins … that was the total agglomeration that is William Creek. Oodnadatta, 200 km further is even smaller. The track from William Creek to Oodnadatta had been completely blocked off for motorised traffic. I was tired, for the first time in days the corrugations had really taken their toll on me. It was 210 km to Oodnadatta. I ordered a soda and stopped to think … and quickly make a decision. Have a good meal for a change, rent a cabin, take a shower – first in six days – get up at 3 am and ride to Oodnadatta. A man with a plan. The barman at the William Creek café had a few sandwiches made for me for tomorrow, after all there is nothing until the Pink Roadhouse in Oodnadatta.
William Creek … William Creek
3 am … GSM alarm goes off. I felt empty, I got myself to the toilet and 5 minutes later I feel even emptier. This doesn’t feel good. Adjust my plan, no panic. The race is only another 1,000 plus km. Back to my bed, sleep until 7:30 am, double breakfast, 1 to 2 hours’ rest and then leave, ride onto the Pink Roadhouse. I probably won’t get there until night time, sleep on a patio and when the shop/restaurant opens, eat, buy drinks and ride on to the next café over 300 km away … that was my new plan.
When I was ready to leave late morning, the barman didn’t think it was a good plan, he advised me to talk to the pilot by the door. “The creeks are really high just before Oodnadatta and we expect bad weather by late afternoon.” That, in a nutshell, is the pilot’s feedback. I don’t have many options and I leave. Today was slightly warmer than yesterday and the extra hours of sleep and breakfast have done me good. The corrugations were still just as big a challenge when trying to pick up any speed but the “mood was high”.
In late afternoon, I saw the first storms appearing, and as the sun started setting I could see lightning. The sun continued to set, the ground got wetter, it had clearly rained here already. I am still dry so far though. On the one hand, the lightening in the distance was quite something to see but on the other, it scared the life out of me, I had to go in that direction. I took a few photos of the setting sun and just as darkness fell, fate struck. In only a few seconds, my tyres filled up with mud, they became the size of 5-inch fat bike tyres. Everything got stuck. Mud everywhere. The drive was under the mud. I got off the bike and was up to my ankles in mud. This was the nightmare everyone fears. It’s got nothing to do with choosing good or bad tyres, you just can’t get through this. I instantly think of the pilot’s advice; he was right …
I examined my bike and started taking off the mud with my hands. Pushed the bike ahead 2 metres and repeated the ritual. This was a pointless task. I looked around me. The moonlight shone in the puddles beside the track. I made an attempt to get to the side of the track. Took the handlebars like a cow by the horns and dragged the bike forwards. This took a lot of energy. Stop. Think. Look at the GPS. I am over halfway, 120 km of the 210… Dragging the bike all the way to Oodnadatta is not an option. Maybe it’s just a little bit of bad luck, I was stuck in a bad spot, one filled with mud. I decide to leave my bike behind and walk no more than half an hour… If it gets better, then I will come back for my bike and battle through. But will it get worse again later on? I left my bike behind and started walking. Walking? It is more like skating on mud. My Gaerne shoes were unrecognisable as such, the mud sticks to everything.
I must have been walking for 20 minutes and hadn’t got far at all … I started to lose heart. The mosquitos were driving me crazy, buzzing around my head, my legs have been bitten to pieces by the awful things. I plod back to my bike. Desperation. There you are, in the middle of nowhere … there is nothing in a 200-300 km radius … and no one will pass by in the next week. Sleeping here was not an option, it won’t have dried up by tomorrow morning. Out of pure despondency, I started shouting out, the tears are not far away… Months of training, great physical condition, but this is pure shit, miserable. The mosquitos were only adding to my frustration.
In the end, I decided to cycle back to William Creek. I couldn’t see any way of getting through this, maybe there would be 5 km, or perhaps another 50 like this. You should really take heed of advice from someone like the pilot, in the end they are the ones who know the area well. Facing my bike back towards the south was painful, really painful. At that moment I knew I would not be riding the full route, that I was quitting the race, that I was giving up my 2nd place. That was a major come down. I dragged my bike back to the cycleable part of the trail. It took ages before I could get my feet back on the pedals. But it’s not long before I saw a sign, “WC 120”, so another 120 kilometres to get back to William Creek.
I wasn’t worrying about food and drink and I tried to charge myself up mentally. All kinds of things were racing through my head. The kilometres passed by. Lightning in the distance all around me, but I was still dry. It cooled down quickly. The hours passed by and with only 60 kilometres to go, a big windstorm picked up. The GPS read only 7 km per hour…. another 9 hours of this??? If I kept going at this slow pace I would even miss breakfast in William Creek… The storm intensified and in a short time I was blown off my bike twice landing on the trail, the second time I landed painfully on my handlebars. Pfff … The storm finally died down a bit and at 4 am I was standing at the spot I left from yesterday, having cycled 240 km and not advanced a single inch. There were public toilets on the square in front of the pub. I put my bike in the disabled toilets (I wonder how many wheelchair users come here?), I put on my down jacket and crawled into my sleeping bag, muddy clothes and all… I tried to sleep but I was trying to think of an alternative. I couldn’t come all the way to Australia and simply give up. Nature has won, today any way…
William Creek … a 3rd meeting with the barman in the middle of the outback
The alarm went off at 7:30 am. Tired and worn out, I packed everything up and staggered to the café. The barman was both surprised and not surprised to see me there again. A double breakfast, please, and another three sandwiches … I will need them. Figured that one out in my sleep. The track from William Creek to Coober Pedy and then on to Oodnadatta, it’s open for 4x4s … The same route as the film crew, that’s the one I will follow! I will add an extra 600 km but I was determined. Fatigue was getting to me after seven days but I was still physically fit and the will was strong. As I tucked into four eggs and bacon I was preparing a mail for the travel agency to change my flights. No connection, I will send it when I get to Coober then.
I bought some sweets, filled up my drink bottles and water bags and departed. The first part of the track was exhilarating, gently up and down, a bend every so often breaking the long straight parts, even a sporadic creek crossing. Late in the afternoon, I heard a hissing from the back wheel followed shortly afterwards by a loud bang. The small tear in the tyre by the edge of the rim was enlarged and the inner tube had forced its way out, it had hit the rim and blown up. I cursed but didn’t panic. I had a second inner tube with me, as well as a patch to seal any tears. I detached the Gebla box, took the Rohloff out of the mount and started fixing it up. It took some effort to put everything in place, the tear was at least six centimetres long and just by the rim. Finally, everything was back in position and I could increase the tyre pressure.
Night falls and again the sunset was breathtaking. You could see a series of colours in only a few minutes. But then fate strikes again, for the second evening in a row. The protective strip on the tyre must have shifted, again the inner tube came out and with the loud bang I knew it was all over … No more inner tube, you can’t repair a tear with plasters. I looked at my GPS, still 45 km to Coober. If people can run 42 km then I can walk 45 km is how I figured it. I could see my whole plan falling to tatters, but I would reach Uluru, that’s for sure. I started walking and saw 4.8, 5.2, 4.9 … displayed on my GPS … that means it would be at least a nine-hour walk, so until some point early tomorrow morning. A sense of resignation fell over me. I could consign myself to this happening, after all, it is an adventure, it can happen and you are on your own. These are the kind of challenges I set myself.
After walking for about an hour and a half, I suddenly saw a 4×4 appear in front of me, it had stopped, stuck in the mud. I went left to avoid the mud pool, and knocked on the 4×4. The indicators came on, the window came down … I looked inside and we both had the same reaction at the same time “You!?” … the barman from William Creek …. For the third day in a row. We could almost accuse each other of stalking. He had been stuck for over 7 hours and was waiting for someone to come looking for him; there was no phone connection here. After a chat, I decided to sleep in the 4×4, maybe help will arrive and I needed a lift to Coober. The 4×4 was filled with mosquitos, we both squashed countless numbers to kingdom come. Every hour the barman put the engine on for ten minutes or so to warm himself up. I was lying cosily in my sleeping bag in the back, he was in his sandals, shorts and shirt … that’s all he had on him. I slept reasonably well, last night was a short night and the darkness started fading at about 6 am. Still, no one has passed by. We hadn’t moved an inch. I decided to get all my bits together and continue my walk. Less than 40 km to go, it was chilly but I kept my down jacket on and the sun started to warm me up.
Outback – Coober Pedy – Marla
After about two hours I heard noise behind me, I turned and, yep, another 4×4. Yesterday afternoon I saw a trailer stuck in the sludge, it was the owner, he had gone to pick it up. He had to leave it there a week ago because the track was so muddy. The barman was also in the truck. We slung my Santos on the trailer and I took a place in the back … on route to Cooper.
The search for a new tyre didn’t go swimmingly, on the contrary. The hardware store didn’t sell them. The lady from the clothing store across the street only had inner tubes. She had never heard of 29”. Give me a 27.5” thorn proof 1.5 kilo inner tube then. The duct tape from the hardware store didn’t stick to the outer tube very well. The inner tube valve was too big to fit through the hole. The hardware store didn’t have a drill so I could drill out the hole. My only option is to see if I can get another inner tube from the lady in the clothing store across the street. She appeared to have a drill. After that I drilled out the rim, tyre on, inner tube in, tyre on the rim, pumped it up … a good result. Once again it took a lot of energy but…. I could get back on the road.
I decided not to ride back into the outback but to take the Stuart Highway. I think it would be foolhardy to go back into the outback with a cut and stick solution. The 45-km walk could become one of 100 km. If the tyre gave way on Stuart Highway, I would at least be able to hitchhike to my destination. Buy food and drink and 490 km to Erldunda, the intersection to Uluru.
Roadkill … the road was littered with dead, stinking kangaroos. Not killed by wild animals but by monster trucks. I passed those beasts regularly: a truck with 3-4 trailers. When they overtake you at 100 km/hour you are stuck in their slipstream for another 30 seconds, if they come from the other direction … hold on to your drop bar! Riding into Istanbul during the Transcontinental Race felt like suicide and this comes close.
The kilometres increased rapidly. I reached the first service station of the day in the evening, grabbed a burger and was on to Marla. An hour and a half later I stopped in the middle of Stuart Highway, I needed to brush my teeth. My mouth was stuck together from all the sweets and biscuits and it had been at least three days since I brushed my teeth. It was 1 am, after 234 km and all the tyre misery, here beside the service station seemed a good enough place to sleep as any.
A quick look at Google Maps showed me that I was exactly 501 km to the finish in Yulara. Perfectly achievable over two days, but also in one go, why not try? During the night, I had to get up three times to go to the toilet and at 5:30 am I got up for good. Deprived of sleep I got back on the bike until I reached the service station for coffee and food, quickly freshen up a bit in the toilets and then … I noticed I was peeing blood. Not simply dark urine, it was quite clear but with a stream of blood. Bummer. I took a selfie in front of the mirror, nine days of outback racing takes its toll on a person’s body. I grabbed a coffee and sat down in the parking lot, on the ground with my back against the wall, staring into infinity. I quickly Googled ‘blood in urine’ … kidney stones, dehydration, exhaustion, common with mountain bikers … It didn’t hurt. It is the third setback in as many days, I didn’t know what’s wrong, whether it will get worse or cause other complications … The nearest doctor is in Alice Springs, 450 km away. I decided that my Race to the Rock must end here. It didn’t bother me giving up the saddle sore, painful Achilles’ tendons from the corrugations, losing weight on route or falling asleep while cycling … these things are all part and parcel of long-distance cycling. But urinating blood was not on my list, there is a limit and my body appears to be letting me know that I’ve reached that now.
Thumb in the air. Hitchhiking, I finally reached Yulara, the resort by Uluru. I spent another two days with Jesse, Sarah and the film crew, Anthony & Michael. Four fantastic people I have had the privilege to get to know. Sarah was the only one to ride the full route. Where it all ended for me on the Oodnadatta track, she had an incredible adventure; creek crossings over a metre deep, terrible corrugations and sand on the track, so you had to get off your bike, hats off to her achievement. After me, three other participants arrived in Uluru via alternative routes.
The following morning, a final bout, I got up at 5 am to see the sunrise at Uluru with Michael, one of the cameramen. A spectacular experience, the brown mountain turned orange as the sun rose. Kata Tjuta / Mount Olga, bit further on, has a somewhat different rock formation but is no less impressive. I hitchhiked back to Erldunda, a final hitchhike to Alice Springs, packed up the bike at the local bike shop, hopped a flight to Melbourne and spent two days in the big city, enjoying food and drinks before the long return flight to Belgium. Australia … I’ll be back!
Check out more stories from Gunther on his website here.