Sitting down to write this field report to accompany The Tasmanian Trail, I’ve been searching for the big ‘why’; the profound story of life rediscovered, connections and friendships reaffirmed. Solid click-bait. But I fear that’s missing the point. What happened was Marcus (aka Beardy McBeard) called me up and said ‘do you want to go ride 500kms of dirt from one end of Tasmania to another?’ - and I said ‘yes’. No deeper rhyme nor reason, just an excuse to get outside and do something challenging.
And that’s enough for me.
The way Beardy puts it, it’s something he’s wanted to do for a while. With roots in Tassie, and plenty of road miles under his belt down there, he wanted to get remote and explore the island. Let the beard roam free, Grizzly Adams-style. So he set himself a challenge, to ride Tasmania end-to-end on the road less travelled; to make his way from Margate to Devonport, sans-bitumen, come hell or high water.
And so, with a little research, and resident optimist Dan Campbell-Williams in tow, we headed for Tasmania to attempt 2 weeks of bike touring in just 5 days.
Day 1 - Bluestone and the screaming stranger
Margate to New Norfolk. Distance 89.3km Elevation 2,008m
It started well enough. Waking up in a house perched on a hill, in the trees, overlooking a river. A postcard. However, 2 hours of mechanical labour later, some of the shine had worn off our sunny disposition. With our Giant TCXs now all loaded up, and running beautifully, we finally set off into the wilderness. Well, not quite. Halfway down the driveway, chipper Dan sprung a leak in his rear tire.
That pleasant feeling quickly returned, as gravel roads rolled smoothly towards the trailhead; all grassy hills and unicorns. The riding weather was perfect – not hot, but warm and bright. Spirits were high as we cantered into Huonville for a coffee, then on towards Judd Creek Rd and the oil-on-canvas babbling brook to fill our bottles.
An adventure like this, though, is for someone who really wants to shake it up – get out of their comfort zone. You know, that feeling of not knowing where you’ll sleep that night, and the singularity of purpose and focus that comes from truly being in the ‘now’. So, it was not entirely unexpected then, that, shortly after Judd Creek Rd, things started to get tough.
It started out rocky, but rideable. Then it started getting steeper, pinches approaching 20%, the trail peppered with large slabs of bluestone jutting from the ground. One by one we dismounted and continued the long push to the top amongst the ochre and the ferns. Mild annoyance gave way to darker dispositions as hours of painfully slow progress dragged on.
As we finally crested and made our way onto Jeffries track, a quiet sense of accomplishment, a constrained jubilation if you will, set in. It was, both geographically and emotionally, downhill from here. Almost. The universe is not without a sense of humour and that welcome descent turned out to be equally frustrating. Quad bikes, 4WDs and heavy rains have left little for the rest of us as we carefully picked our lines and crawled forwards.
There is a silver lining here, for eventually the track improved, offering up some of the most enjoyable gravel descents you could ever hope to find. Gravel gave way to bitumen and we were coasting for New Norfolk – our stop for the night. We missed the pub, eating pizza in the street, while a screaming stranger threatened to appear from behind the local shops. Luckily he didn’t.
Day 2 - Lieutenant Dan and the great water shortage
New Norfolk to Ouse. Distance 78km Elevation 1,906m
The second day of bike touring is always the hardest. You’re sore from the day before and not quite yet into the rhythm of things. The memo was sent from your brain to your muscles – they just haven’t read it yet. After a rough sleep and only a little street pizza in our bellies, we were grumpy, tired and hungry.
Putting all that right, including a big fuel-up at the local bakery, meant we left late, with a hot day already starting to bear down.
There would be no rolling start today, we immediately started to climb. The first 3kms weren’t so bad – the final 5kms were brutal, rising 450 metres. Dan was renamed ‘Lieutenant’ Dan as he charged into the climb like a man howling into a storm from the crow’s nest. With a fully-loaded 23kg bike and 36×28 gearing to get me there, I crawled at 9km/h in the rising heat. It took 45 minutes to climb those last 5km.
We continued along our course; through poppy farms and across The Derwent River to Bushy Park. With no drinkable water at Bushy Park we pressed on, looking without luck for a stream to fill our empty bottles. Instead we had to barter with a local farm, buying bags of cherries in exchange for access to their tank.
That water didn’t last long – the day was now scorching hot; we were exposed with limited shade. Carefully rationing our remaining supply, we pushed forward along the hot, dry track of steep rollers and endless stretches. We were dehydrated, and the trail was becoming lost in the long grass. That singularity of purpose set in again and the chatter stopped. Again we found ourselves pushing our bikes up 20%+ pinches of unrideable rock. Spirits and bodies were tested until we happened upon a roadhouse in the near-middle of nowhere.
We stayed longer than we should have.
It was about this time our Garmin decided to die, and the backup battery failed. We now had to finish this adventure with Beardy’s printed maps. Appropriately, we hit our first river crossing. Shoes off, bikes carried gingerly across. The river rocks make short work of soft city feet.
By the time we arrived in Ouse, the pub was shut… again. This time, though, Beardy’s puppy-dog eyes did the trick and the publican took us in. We feasted on pasta and beer, before heading down to the river for a soak. A pub meal and a shower never felt so good.
Day 3 - The big climb and the robust flush
Ouse to Miena. Distance 85.3km Elevation 1,893m
Day 3 couldn’t have started any better. After 2 days of makeshift or long-drop outdoor toilets, we were chuffed to discover running water and a robust flush. After sitting like kings upon the throne, we cooked our oats and made some coffee. Truthfully, the coffee was pretty rough and sent most of us back to the aforementioned toilet – which was, as has already been pointed out, a pleasure. The gift that keeps on giving, you might say.
We learned our lesson from the day before and headed out early, at 6am. Beautiful riding weather quickly turned to thunderstorms rumbling in across the valley. It was going to be a long, cold and wet day.
And, almost entirely uphill.
We climbed out of Ouse, through the lower parts of the forest on rugged trails. We climbed 600m over 30km of wet, smooth gravel on Victoria Valley Road. We climbed past the fishing shacks that marked trout territory, past lakes and lagoons towards Bronte Park for food.
Fueled by toasted cheese sandwiches and hot chips from the roadhouse (the restaurant was closed) we continued to climb on tiring legs and wet, heavy bikes. The Lieutenant forged on into the wind and the rain and the cold, beckoning us to follow towards the Great Lake.
As we reached the open flats of the Central Highlands we were met by the long, muddy stretch of gravel road that leads to the Great Lake Hotel. Up here the conditions are more pronounced – the wind stronger, the rain harder. The wind blows the rain almost to the horizontal, straight into your ear canal.
Finally, we reached the Hotel. Beers, a decent meal, some warmth. Like drowned rats we scurried in – an idiom that resonated with at least one local – “you’re supposed to ride around the lake, not through it!”.
As the temperature dropped to 6ºC and the rain somehow got heavier, we unanimously elected to stay at the hotel in ignominy, rather than set up camp. A hot shower, a warm bed, a laundry. Weary bodies slept soundly for the first time in 3 days.
Day 4 - Tasmanian surrealism and the flaring of tempers
Miena to Golden Valley. Distance 138.9km Elevation 1,862m
And so, we reached the penultimate day. Our longest day by distance (almost 140km) and perhaps the most isolated. A day of almost no roads and few spots to stop for food or supplies. A long day with only the company of your fellow riders, tired and moody after 3 hard days of slog. We should have seen it coming…
We delayed our start until the only small shop opened for supplies. Muesli bars and glucose – light and efficient. Still, you can’t stop thinking about getting your hands on a proper meal.
The sparse Highlands were blanketed in a chilly mist, engulfing us as we crunched along the gravel trail. It was quiet, almost desolate, save for the odd Echidna. A suspended, surreal landscape in the middle of this incredible island.
The surrealism continued as we reached Tods Corner power station, a remarkable piece of architecture right in the heart of nowhere. Part utilitarian sculpture, part giant cigarette butt, it sits starkly against the natural landscape – a giant concrete pylon displaying it’s title just a little too proudly in oversized white acrylic letters. It’s one of the more interesting man-made structures you will see when least expecting it.
Somewhere in the midst of our architects-anonymous meeting we unwittingly missed a turn. After making our way past a series of cozy, yet rugged fishing huts (clearly the domain of serious fisherman) and over a few rollers – we hit a dead end at the water.
With the mist making visibility difficult, tempers began to flare. Beardy, tired, and now more than a little angry, was the first to speak up. ‘What the hell are we doing?’ he demanded (sounding more like ‘what the hell are you doing?’). The way he tells it, he was looking at us and we weren’t doing a whole lot of looking back, on account of also being rather tired. ‘Empty eyes’ he said (author’s note: the Lieutenant and I felt fine, we solemnly swear, and quietly bristle at Beardy’s insinuation). Still, Beardy, as a leader of men, took it upon himself to get us through. With scarce food, water and energy, wrong turns were, apparently, a luxury we could not afford. So, after a quick pep talk we backtracked past the charming fishing huts and located our misstep. The mist started to lift and we were back on track.
Then, the descent. After days of climbing, this was our earned reward and, I must tell you, bombing a long alpine style road on a fully loaded bike is something else. It feels seriously dangerous – but oh-so-much-fun. Sweeping hairpins, where you lean so low your panniers almost hit the ground, and where your brake rotors burn hot as hell.
Thoughts again turned to food as we approached Bracknell, but, again, our timing was off – the pub was shut. This presented a tantalising choice; wait for the pub to open and get a hearty feed (and make camp after dark), or buy food and carry it up over a tough 2 hour climb to the camping grounds while we still had daylight. I insisted we wait for the pub to open and then climb light – arriving to camp late being a small price to pay for a good meal and a cold beer. Beardy, however, pulled rank, preferring to get the riding over and done with first. Decision made, we quickly made/scoffed hunger-staving sandwiches and loaded our bikes up with supplies for dinner on the other side.
The climb started off with a punch, on muddy and badly rutted tracks, which did little to lighten our mood. So much so that we almost missed the view from the top. Beardy noticed it first, and called us back. Only a few meters off the track, between the gaps in the trees, there opened a spectacular view over a cliff and across the Valley.
From there it was downhill towards Golden Valley and our stop for the night. The campsite was cold and windy and full of semi-permanent international cherry pickers. Some of them had been on the site for 2 months. We cooked our hard-lugged pasta and licked our wounds. A tough, testing day was now put behind us.
Day 5 - Needles in Paradise
Golden Valley to Devonport. Distance 119.8km Elevation 1,902m
Nothing beats the feeling of the last day on a journey like this. Aside from that small, slightly masochistic desire for it to continue on, the sense of a job-well-done and a finishing-line-in-sight provides an indomitable sense of positivity. The fat lady may not quite have started singing, but the chantreuse has certainly reached for her bubbly water and started warming up the ol’ vocal cords.
And so it was we sprang from our tents, any residual animosity erased, and set about eating our burnt oats, packing up camp and heading out for the last time.
After a couple of kms on the road, we switched to gravel, meandering alongside the appropriately-named Meander River. Before you start getting stuck into my dad jokes, there is a theme here. Because then we hit Needles. Needles by name… Here the trail turned into a seriously steep and rocky road with sharp-spined bushes aside the trail, puncturing skin as you rode by.
The landscape rolled out a series of old favourites – a mighty river crossing, long/sharp climbs for the Lieutenant to charge, and the brutal, yet beautiful scenery that so defines rural Tasmania. Last-day legs were burning as we rode up steep ascents alongside the Gog Range, but the view afforded more than offset any pain. Our mental batteries were being recharged by sweeping views of the looming mountain range as we punched along some rather nice gravel sections.
And then we rolled into Paradise.
For those religious folks reading this, I can tell you that Paradise consists of a rather nasty climb, made all the worse by the approach. You can see the angle the cars are on as they drive down – and it puts a god-fearing-sized lump in your throat. But it’s over soon enough and you are rolling down the other side into Sheffield, the Town of Murals.
Quaint little bakeries marked our final stops. Old, disused railway corridors (sans tracks) rolled us through rugged countryside. Even when we got a little lost, the trail marker was eventually found on a rusty old farm gate, swinging open to guide us home.
Pushing through Latrobe we hit the River Rd and put the hammer down a little towards the bridge into Devonport. With the campsite not far, and light fading, it was then time to empty the tanks completely. A final dash (going way too hard for a bunch of guys that had just been through 5 long days of riding heavy bikes) and we were there.
Our adventure came to a close enjoying burgers and a beer by the beach with friends. Simple and straightforward – a fitting end to our first expedition Over Yonder.
Thank yous and Final Musings
Firstly, a very large, heartfelt thank you to all those who have supported Over Yonder and our burning desire to head, well, Over Yonder. Thank you to Giant Bicycles Australia for their ongoing support, as well as Giant Sydney and MC Cyclery for their mechanical expertise. Thank you to Tourism Tasmania and Alex at Cyclist Magazine for the tips and tricks along the way.
A big thank you to the good people of Tasmania – your hospitality was unexpected (from a bunch of city slickers), generous and very much appreciated. Your support and genuine interest in our journey helped carry our spirits through. We’ll be back.
In closing, maybe we did find that reason ‘why’ in the sweet serendipity that carried 3 mates across more than 500kms (and up almost 10,000m) of wilderness on a whim. I mean, for a moment there life was rediscovered – it was new and fresh and heart-pounding-ly exciting. New connections were made and friendships reaffirmed – all that jazz I mused about at the start. However, we talked about it, and this is the conclusion we reached: that stuff is nice (it really is), but it’s nothing more than a good outcome.
We’d prefer to leave you with this. George Mallory, who died on the slopes of Everest, was once asked ‘Why?’. His famous answer is better than mine could ever be.
‘Because it’s there’. Perhaps that should be our motto.