Smithfield sits about 20km north of the CBD of Cairns, right at the bottom of the road up to Kuranda. It’s just inland from the beautiful Trinity Beach, and also home to James Cook University. Smithfield is one part of Tropical North Queensland that the infamous Mud Cows called home.
Wait – the Mud Cows?
If you look back a little over 20 years, a group of core mountain bikers were playing on bikes in the forest – essentially figuring out what mountain biking could be. Pushing bikes up the hill to ride down again, finding out what the limits of mountain bikes could be, without anyone telling them. They released a video, and a few more… and people noticed. One thing lead to another and Cairns hosted a World Cup in 1995 at Smithfield, and a World Championships in 1996, on trails that many riders called the best they had ever raced on. Given much of it was the handiwork of Glen Jacobs and his trail crew, his services were called on again, many times over, around the world.
Those very trails are still in Smithfield mountain bike park, and it was Australia’s first mountain bike park. There are plenty more trails now, and while some of the originals have been engulfed back into the rainforest, much was reworked for the 2014 World Cup, and then reworked again for the 2016 round just two weeks ago.
There is now an extensive network of trails at Smithfield. From a downhill and cross-country World Cup course (the former with restricted access) to shared use trails, and beginner, intermediate, difficult and advanced trails.
With the trail’s proximity to a number of different users, they get quite a lot of use, by a variety of riders. We obviously know of them from the World Cup, but the Crocodile Trophyholds stage one at Smithfield, the Australian Gravity Enduro championships have been held there in 2015 and will be again in 2016, and there are numerous club run events at the location.
Riding at Smithfield for stage one of the Crocodile Trophy in 2012 was my first experience of riding the trails in the jungle up there. It was pretty surreal, being able to race on some of the trails my mountain bike heroes had raced on almost 20 years earlier. I even recall suffering up Snakes and Ladders, passing Glen Jacobs who was trail-side spectating.
Now, even with quite a few visits, both for work and for racing, it’s still great to go back, and ride the trails that helped put Australian mountain biking, and mountain bikers, on the world stage.
Singletrack in Smithfield
Day two of the training camp was a little different to what we expected. While our original plan was to roll out of Atherton after a coffee, and drive to Smithfield, which is right at the bottom of the range… with Justin in hospital overnight it was somewhat different.
Seeing as the World Cup had just finished on Sunday, my thoughts were Tuesday would be a good day to play on the singletrack down at Smithfield, with the crowds gone and the trails recovering.
In the end, with Justin laid up at Atherton base hospital, and Sebastian running up hills with a cast on his hand in Bright – it was just me and Rob Conroy hitting the somewhat damp trails.
In late April, you are right on the tail end of the wet season in the Tropics. Which is what Monday and Tuesday were demonstrating, as there was frequent rain until after lunch when we headed out.
The creek crossings were up a bit, there was a bit of mud in some sections, but basically the place was eerily quiet. The forest is pretty thick in parts, and also pretty dark, no matter what time of day. With plenty of cloud overhead, at times it feels like you’re riding through a tunnel of dark green.
There’s a bit of a legend about the area too, summarised here by Cairns MTB Club:
“1892 – A Local bullock driver called Stan McGregor was forging a trail from Smithfield to Kuranda during the monsoonal rains, when he became stranded on a peak known as Saddle Mountain. He was near dead when found by a local Aboriginal tribe and nurtured back to health. Despite their warning of the dangers involved, Stan left the tribe and forged onto Kuranda, never to be seen again.
1927 – A local timber cutter was felling timber on the high peaks behind Smithfield when he discovered a hideous sight, an old saddle with a scrambled message carved roughly into the leather wedged high in a rainforest tree. The message read “Something is here, something is stalking me” – there was also a strange paw like symbol alongside the words.
1962 – A surveyor working in the misty rainforest peak behind Smithfield, came across the remains he believed to be bullock bones and harnesses, scattered underneath a rocky ledge. Not far from this evil lair, he noticed a panther like animal stalking him from the slopes above. He quickly made it to a trail that lead to a waterfall, where he dived into the water and made it to safety. Since that day all attempts to find evidence of this elusive creature have failed.
1992 – While cutting trails through the Smithfield hills, Glen Jacobs discovered a strange sabre toothed skull which he believed belongs to the conspicuous legend. Aboriginal legend talks of a sabre-toothed rainforest cat named the minjin, which means “Mountain Devil”
Now – The legend of the minjin lives on, and many who dare to ride alone return with stories of noises, strange shadows, and the feeling of being followed, in the rainforests of the Smithfield trails.
So who knows what that’s based on, but as Rob and I left the trailhead near AJ Hackett bungy there was a feeling of disappearing. Probably because everyone else was at work. However, as I have visited the area plenty of times before, it is amazing to see the power of the rainforest. We passed by the old dirt bowl, which just 2 years ago I recall rolling into. But we had to ditch out bikes and hike off the trail through young trees to find it. The jungle moves quickly, and consumes what isn’t used.
While much of the trail is well-kept, especially the World Cup course which had some maintenance before the event, plenty is really raw. Roots are exposed, ruts are sliced down long descents, and the exposed rocks were greasy with fresh rain.
As a marathon racer, it’s easy to switch off a little when mountain biking. many of the trails in Atherton the day before don’t require the same constant attention and line assessment. But Smithfield is different. In slippery conditions, the trails of Smithfield demand constant attention. You need to be aware of what your tyres are doing, how the track is changing, where your body weight is, and how you’re using both your brakes and your pedalling.
We rode many of the older trails that weren’t used in the World Cup Green Frog, Green Fields, Blue Marlin, Stumpies… they are all signposted and easy to follow.
The nature of the trails means you can create your own loops depending on the ride you are after. Flat and fast will see you staying down on Green Fields and Flat Snake. But if you want some shorter climbs and very testing descents you’ll likely head to Black Marlin and maybe even Barracuda.
So while our ride at Smithfield wasn’t what I expected, it allowed for a blast on some XC trails, slipping around and having fun. Just what was needed after a mate ended up in hospital. If things had played out differently perhaps Sebastian would have been taking Justin and I around the World Cup course, showing us the race lines that sometimes only an elite XCO racer can spot and explain.
And that is one of the biggest benefits of Smithfield for any bike rider or racer – the opportunity to improve. With flat and swoopy beginner trails, a pump track, then intermediate, difficult and advanced trails through to current World Cup trails – there is constantly a progression there for a rider. MTBA were holding a Junior Development camp at Smithfield after the World Cup, and it is an excellent resource for any riders or teams looking to organise a training camp in the tropics.
Best of all, it’s close to the beach, Cairns CBD, lots of accommodation… and plenty of fantastic eating down along the Esplanade in Cairns.
Full trail details with descriptions, lengths and maps for Smithfield can be found on the Ridecairns website.