Growing up in a southern state, I never learnt much about the history of Tropical North Queensland. Well not beyond the basics. So that means that each time I visit – I learn something new. 2011 and during my first Crocodile Trophy, it was a real eye opener to the life and times on the Atherton Tablelands. And in 2013 I was lucky enough to ride the Bump Track late one afternoon, before then racing it about a year later as the final stage of the Crocodile Trophy. From Wetherby Station, through the rainforest off the range, and finally down to the beach and the reef beyond.
After spending time riding in Atherton and taking a little bit of frustration out in Smithfield, we were due to head further north for our last full day in Tropical North Queensland. Of course, with amendments due to injury we missed out on time to go for a spin on the trails at Davies Creek, which would have been an easy enough side trip on the way north from Atherton.
While Davies Creek is often overlooked for not being rad enough – the truth is the trails offer a lot of drifty fun, and are probably the trails that will be the most dry if it is wet. The trail head is signposted off the road, and there’s a map at the carpark. You can’t get lost, but you might just surprise yourself with how much fun you can have on beginner and intermediate graded trails.
Riding the trails of history
So there was no side trip to Davies Creek for us. Instead, I dropped Justin down at the airport for an early flight home. He had been diagnosed with a bump to the head and a sprained ITB. Although a later diagnosis showed his hip had been fractured in three places.
Picking Rob up in Atherton we drove just about due north, heading towards first Mareeba, and then towards Mt Molloy. A small town of barely 300 people, Mt Molloy is a historic mining and forestry town. These days the local industry is pretty much cattle grazing, and we were heading through Mt Molloy to Wetherby Station.
The outback cattle station was established in 1878, and the old weatherboard cabins that were built provided accommodation for the people who came seeking their fortunes gold prospecting on the Hodgkinson River goldfields. Prospectors would make their way up the Bump Track from Port Douglas, and the station was right on the way to the goldfields, making a perfect place to rest their bullocks or pack animals on the way up.
These days Wetherby is a cattle station and ecotourism operation, and it’s also the start of the historic RRR mountain bike race. As Wetherby sits right on the edge of two bioregions, the Wet Tropics and Einasleigh Uplands, the property has savannah grasslands and bush – but at the edges the rainforest begins.
The RRR stands for rural, rainforest, reef. And that’s exactly what the race route does. It takes you from the rural and historic Wetherby Station, through the open bush and paddocks, along the still-used sections of the Bump Track.
While the course used to start from Wetherby Station and start marching east towards the rainforest, the course was lengthened to add a loop around the cattle station itself. Primarily pinch climbs and rough farm trails, the real joy in the race comes as you move towards the descent.
The Bump Track section is a ‘rainforest’ component, as you descend down the old access road to the Tablelands. The route has been maintained in parts and is closer to wide singletrack than firetrail in many sections. Although it used to have bullock trains hauling up it, it is now best suited to the hikers, mountain bikers and horse riders who use it.
The third part of the course, and the name, is the reef, where the race ends at Port Douglas. Not only is the event the oldest mountain bike race in Australia, it is also probably the most varied, being a classic point-to-point route taking you from open bushland, through dense rainforest, and ending in a resort town on the beach, opposite the Great Barrier Reef.
The RRR race, like so many other mountain bike events around the world, lets you race along routes that have been part of our history. Just like Transalp stages sometimes lead you through the Fascist strongholds in the Alta Valtellina, and the Convict 100 takes you along a road built by Convicts, and the Swiss National Park Bike Marathon sends you along the historic route of salt and wine… the RRR route takes you along the original road from Port Douglas to the goldfields. Used by pioneers, prospectors, and even as an emergency access road by the armed services in World War Two. Now we ride bikes on it.
Previewing the RRR route and the Bump Track
We were due to meet Steve Rankin, who owns Bike’n’Hike Tours who run guided tours on the Bump Track, but also has ingrained heritage in the area. His ancestors ran bullock trains up the Bump Track and he, and his guides, are a wealth of knowledge on the area. Especially for useful information like how to tell which plants are stinging tree and which aren’t!
Steve has a lot of riding experience, both competitive and social, on road and off. We meet at Wetherby Station, where he runs a some tours from – although normally the guided routes start near the first river crossing.
While I’m here to check out the race route for the RRR, and Justin had been aiming to compete in the event, I also wanted to know what else is up here. Every visit to Tropical North Queensland ends up with a local telling me something I need to ride… next time. It’s as if the truth is never fully told. Steve tells me there are untold amounts of old forestry roads in the range behind the station. Some old roads are serviceable, others need some maintenance to get a mountain bike through. With permits to guide in the area, Steve just needs to time to lead some serious adventures.
There are a few creek crossings as we cross the property, and start to climb up a small rise. The landscape changes, it actually gets really dry. Steve points out a trailhead which used to be used as part of the RRR route, and he laughs as he recalls his race lead being shut down on the stretch of trail through their in hist first year transitioning from road racing to mountain biking.
With a fast doubletrack descent off the ridge top, we pass through another creek and start climbing a dirt road. The scrubby bush has just turned into temperate forest, and ahead a wall of rainforest awaits. Within minutes, we are at the trail head for the Bump Track, on a deep red dirt road, looking down through a tunnel in the jungle.
While the Bump Track does descend about 400m, it would be wrong to call it all down hill. It undulates a lot, before a really steep drop, and then with more undulations along the coast before reaching the surf club at the end of 4 Mile Beach -although those last kilometres are pancake flat!
We turn onto the trail, and Steve leads the way. It’s worth being mindful of wait-a-while vines hanging down, as they’ll rip you right off your bike. Thankfully, the Bump Track is a heritage route and has quite a lot of maintenance.
There’s one good line, noticeable because the majority of leaf litter is pushed aside from fast moving tyres. Either side you just see impenetrable rainforest. How people ever got this trail in is a mystery. Of course, a mystery solved by a lot of hard work. The trail has lasted over a century and is set for another.
The top half of the trail is not technically difficult, and the climbs are short so it’s not physically difficult either. However, you do come to another creek crossing, and the entry is an ever-changing challenge. The bridge is long gone, with just some supports left visible. And while a concrete ramp goes some of the way down, and a metal grid comes some of the way out, both are a test.
The fast line is down the concrete and drop off into creek and pedal! It’s deep, and the line out is on the right… if you can make it. Don’t go near the metal grate it is lethal! You can also sneak around over the trees which works.
We played around with some line choices, before figuring that it’s always going to be a bit different anyway depending on rainfall and erosion.
We climb out, then up a bit more. The climb tops out at a landing, or what used to be a landing, for the bullock trains to rest after the major part of the climb. For us, that means the steepest part of the descent is to follow.
We follow Steve down, and it is actually steeper than I remember. With water bars, some erosion ruts and leaf litter it is hard work for cross-country tyres and brakes. Along with the last creek crossing, what you might consider a beginner’s ride has just become a lot more advanced. There are plenty of times you could rally come unstuck with too much speed, and not enough traction or brakes.
After what seemed like an endless chute, we turn right down through a cutting, and sight the farmland below. it was a fast, exhilarating descent, marked by the smell of burning brakes and smiles all around. Even Rob!
We pedal along the country road, past cane fields and along a farm trail next to the road. We cross under the road, through a creek which recently had a 3.5m saltwater croc pulled out of it. We follow Steve’s wheel as we trace through the back of Port Douglas before exiting onto the black sands of Four Mile Beach.
We ride, laugh and play the whole way up the beach. Behind us, the northern reaches of the Great Dividing Range push straight to the sky from the ocean. Out to our right, we know the Great Barrier Reef stretches hundreds of kilometres north to south, preventing the beach from having surfable swell. And closer, we’re just about certain there would be a salty lurking.
We get to the surf club, and use a hose to wash our bikes down then order a burger and beer at the cafe, sitting across from the palm trees and beach. Our ride hasn’t taken too long, and at about 37km it’s not a huge distance. But the variety of terrain and the experience of crossing from an outback cattle station to a world class resort town is something else.
Sitting at the cafe opposite the surf club, I know what lies ahead. The cleaning, the packing, the drive back to Cairns, returning our Subaru and Thule racks, and the flight home. That’s the inevitable part. but right then, with the sun getting a little lower in the sky and with the laid back attitude of a Tropical North Queensland town – none of it seemed too hard.
Full details on the RRR race can be found online.