There are few parts of the world these days that have yet to be explored by the 2 wheels of the bicycle. With MTB stage races in some of the most exotic and isolated parts of the world such as the Mongolia Bike Challenge, Simpson Desert Bike Challenge and MTB Himalaya, it seems difficult to find a spot where you get that feeling of being on a frontier atop your 2 wheeled machine.
Having raced and ridden across 5 different continents including the privilege of racing in amazing countries like Rwanda, Mongolia, Russia, Jordan, Timor Leste I must admit that as I age I find that zest for adventure/ excitement on the bike a little harder to muster than it was in years past. No matter where you live, the same old training roads/ trails can become a little tiresome after a while, especially since covid travel restrictions have become a part of many of our lives.
Having flown over this stretch of ocean countless times, the islands of bass strait between Victoria and Tasmania in Australia had always intrigued me. Bass Strait is renown for its incredibly rough seas, countless shipwrecks and for being a crucial challenge for those in the world famous Sydney-Hobart yacht race. King Island is the most populous of the islands in Bass strait with a bustling population of 1 723 people. The Island is 70km long and 35km wide, it is best known for its incredibly healthy dairy industry. King Island receives on average close to a metre of rainfall each year, making the ground incredibly fertile and conducive to developing healthy bovine. Some of Australia’s most premium cheeses and beef originate here in King Island.
Tourism has also been a factor in King Island’s economy, however with resources incredibly hard to access from King Island, the infrastructure to service tourism is difficult to establish. Golf has been popular here with a few golf courses built atop the green rolling hills that typify the island. However, cycling has not ever existed in much capacity here whatsoever. I was told the entire island had 2 or 3 bicycles that belong to a few of the local children. As a guest of the island for their ‘Small Business Month’ I took the opportunity to take my bike on the twin engine propeller plane that services the island to check out what the place was like from a cycling perspective.
I took my team Norco Threshold CX/ gravel bike which was the perfect tool for the job. With a small population but a large farming industry this means there is actually quite a large network of roads on the island and absolutely 0 traffic lights, stop signs or anything resembling traffic to be seen. Staying in the islands municipal centre Currie that sits in the mid west coast of the island I had a few routes open to me that I had sussed out from my map. Strava heat map is of absolutely 0 use here. There was 1 segment which I found I was the 3rd one to complete since 2014 (I got the KOM). From Currie heading south staying close to the west coast the road traverses the lumpy green terrain with a stunning vista of the surrounds every 1 or 2km. The scenery is reminiscent of riding in southern England or Ireland, rolling green fields with stunning coastline. However, here on King Island very little signs of any other human existence unlike in the UK.
After an hour or so of riding I came across a memorial for a ship wreck named the ‘Cataraqui’, interestingly to this day this was the greatest civil disaster on Australian soil. Reading about this at the memorial was both shocking and interesting. 399 people passed away in this shipwreck. It was bound for Melbourne after travelling from Liverpool, England. It was the final evening of its 5 month journey when the ship struck grief on King Island’s western coastline in bad weather. 9 people survived the shipwreck and shared stories of the utter horror that occurred on board the Cataraqui as it struck ground. Many of the bodies are buried to this day in the dunes where the ship was wrecked. Apparently, to this day artefacts from the ship still wash ashore on the coast.
After digesting that info I continued exploring the island, south from here you can continue on the gravel road to a calcified forest and reportedly one of the best surf breaks in the world. Then pop out at the community of ‘Grassy’ once the engine room of the King Island economy, Grassy is home to a mine for hardened metal and also has a port where shipping goods arrive for the island. Grassy looks like a town that time forgot, many of the houses of the former mine workers lay empty and have done for decades on the streets on Grassy. However, there were signs of life here and according to local gossip the Grassy mine has plans to reopen within the next 18months due to the increasing global price of Sheelite used in drill pieces and other hardened metals.
Although I was time pressed and had to cut this loop short, this would be a stunning 80km loop over a mix of gravel and sealed road south from Currie along the coast to Grassy then return via the sealed road in the middle of the island. The elevation accumulates quickly without realising it, even though no major climbs per se on King Island the rolling terrain encourages you to constantly be working on the pedals.
In the later afternoon I visited the Northern end of the island, ‘Cape Wickham’ is home to the tallest lighthouse in the southern hemisphere and as with most of the island gives you a taste for real Southern Ocean elements! The terrain here is seemingly more dramatic than the southern end of the island. Traffic jams do occur up here, but it will not be cars- you will be stuck behind by cattle moving between paddocks. From cape Wickham it is a sharp climb over a rise to ‘Disappointment Bay’ which contrary to its name is one of the most stunning places on the island. Again, it was the location of many more traumatic ship wrecks in years gone by. The terrain flattens out as you head south and becomes more resemblant of the fields of Belgium or northern France, the island is narrower to the north meaning both coasts are close by, so easy for a local to grab a stunning sunrise and sunset! The beaches are beautiful and completely isolated.
Further south is a settlement named Naracoopa it is home to some ‘to die for’ seaside real estate, however as with most parts of the island no access to services immediately. Here the French settled in the early 1800’s and the french flag was even raised on the beach here, however not for too long as they vacated before the island became a place of isolation seeking fishermen and seal hunters. Later ex convicts were given land on the island and instructed to live off the supplies that were shipped in from Melbourne once every 3 months.
Although mainland civilisation is much more accessible today, life on King Island is a step away from whatever you may consider normal in any mainland capital city. The difficulty in surviving somewhere so isolated is reflected in the thriftiness and friendliness of the locals here. Most King Islanders seem to be a jack of all trades, as if something is to be here, it is up you! There is not a hotline to call for many services. They are keen to show off their piece of magic island. Visitor numbers have been drastically impacted by Covid and it has taken a dent out of many of the businesses here. They will be so excited to see visitors return and remember to wave to EVERY car you see on the road here! This island appears to work together to survive!
If you want to be somewhere you feel like you are truly on a frontier, see some amazing scenery few have experienced, learn something you never thought you’d know and meet some of the most down to earth people you’ll come across, Visit King Island and bring your bike!
Where: The western end of Bass Strait between Victoria and Tasmania, Australia.
How do I get there: Sharp Airlines flys to King Island from Tasmania with flights from Burnie, Launceston and Hobart. They also have flights from Essendon fields in Melbourne.
REX airlines flys daily (post covid) from Tullamarine (Melbourne)
King Island Airlines flys from Moorabbin in Melbourne
Warning: travelling with a bike will require booking in advance. The planes used to service King Island are very small and space is a premium.
When to go: King Island is spared the brutal cold of Tasmania as it is tempered by the sea. Summer is the best shot at drier, warmer weather. However, there is a charm to experiencing King Island in all its elements. Winter (May-Aug) is the wettest time of year.