7 hours to cover 60kms was certainly not what was planned. Don’t try this route yourself :-)
Our original plan for Saturday was to ride a loop from Glenreagh to Ulong on the mountain plateau, but a short reconnaissance on Thursday by car revealed that this route was remote and not welcoming, even for the most adventurous gravel-seeking city folk. We found an alternative route quickly by searching online for what other gravel enthusiasts had already ridden. There was no time for reconnaissance and our new plans were based on someone having ridden it before us to map it out.
The Bowraville route (as planned) was a 90km 2260^m loop with one major 7km 700^m climb (The Bowra Sugarloaf, peaking at 823^m), starting and ending in Bowraville. Bowraville is a small town in the mid-north coast of NSW, in the Nambucca Valley. The route was going to be remote, with few (if any) options for water. We were careful to ensure that the route plotted on strava.com didn’t include any ‘unspecified’ sections (otherwise interpreted as ‘risk your own life’), so we expected enjoyable paved and gravel sections.
The morning was casual with a coffee and muffin in Bowraville with the local barista promptly recognising the four of us as “cyclists”. The remainder of the day was nothing casual.
Starting on the North Arm Road, we rode 20kms of the most delightful country roads - rolling and meandering with spectacular valley views from vantage points on high. While we knew we were to pass through Mistake State Forest, and the main climb was named Sugarloaf (which we presumed was named after a Welsh mountain), foolishly these hints of treachery didn’t alert or deter us. They should have!
The route took us into a private farm which overlapped with the firetrail climb. We greeted the farmer as we met him randomly walking his property to feed his rescue horse and bull. He was fine with providing access through his farm and advised “it is a constant climb, but you should find tree cover from the hot sun.
After passing the private gate, the ‘adventure’ started. We had early water crossings which were refreshing and inviting, but then it was up. A paved road climb for 7km climbing 700 metres is one thing…but the unrelenting climb on technical gravel in the searing heat pushed the limits early. Harvey was uncharacteristically overheating. Sean was walking pinch points. It wasn’t long before we were all walking the 10-15% gradients together, mostly silently.
Sean had hoped to see wildlife along the route. And Karen was ‘looking up’ for native koalas in trees. We struck gold when Sean found an out-stretched diamond python along the trail. “Should I pick it up by the tail?” “No way, get a stick to move it away.” With the longest branch he could find, Sean cautiously manoeuvred the snake away.
After 4 hours and 30kms, we reached a junction which felt like the top of the climb, although there was still another 1km to the lookout. That was one serious 30kms ride! At the junction, signs pointed to Bowraville via Hanging Rock Road (38kms). That was much shorter than our planned route, but we agreed we must climb the last 1km to the lookout before we considered any re-routing.
The lookout was at 823 vertical metres and provided a stunning view once we wiped the dripping blinding sweat from our eyes. We were all very relieved to be at the top of the climb, and hoped that the second half of riding was downhill to Bowraville. While there was a breeze, it was intensely hot. There wasn’t a lot of talking, as we caught our breath and considered our options - to follow our original route (60kms), to return down 1km to take Hanging Rock Road more directly to Bowraville, or to take a Google Maps suggested direct route suitable for bikes (27kms).
Due to our toll of the climb in conditions, and the fact that we had run out of water, the resounding consensus was to find the shortcut to make the route 60kms in total, and not 90kms. We found the shortcut ‘road’, which also had a sign to water, so we agreed to take it despite it looking a bit overgrown. Later, we realised that this decision occurred in the middle of Mistake State Forest - how ironic.
The descent was pretty extreme in parts. Karen was already tired and braking on the descent was taking its toll. In a final attempt to slow down on some of the -15% gradients, she voluntarily used the embankment to stop, like an emergency braking line. At our waiting stop, we cleaned the blood and straightened the bike.
The ‘road’ was rideable, but overgrown with thorns and broken trees - care was needed. Thankfully it was downhill, and in theory, heading back to town. The ‘road’ came abruptly to a stop in an overgrown dead end. The only way through was to bike-hack through the thicket, to find the creek. The prospect of water in the creek was very attractive, but this creek was slow-running. Certainly no drinking there.
We looked for what became of the ‘road’, which included Sean bush bashing to find it and then losing his way back to the creek. We had no idea which direction to go - up the creek or down the creek? Or into the bush? After some jiggling of gps and google maps, we headed down the creek. Could this creek be the road? We didn’t know, but any good boy scout would follow the creek, which at some point, should head down the valley.
The only way out of this predicament was to walk our bikes down the creek as we waded in deep, and deeper, sections of murky water in the hope to find a gravel road somewhere nearby.
The creek was the road for the next 5kms! It was slow going on foot, and unbearably hot. We had no water. The creek wasn’t drinkable, but at some points, I thought about drinking from it and risking potential sickness.
It was sweet joy when the creek cleared to a small gravel track which led to a private property. This was now our new way home. Getting back on our bikes and rolling, with restored hope, was pure exhilaration.
Our new route passed a disbanded house with a sheriff’s eviction notice on the front door. It wasn’t looking promising that we would find fresh water, but we looked anyway. We only found warnings to leave.
And if things couldn’t get worse (and slower), Sean flatted both tires on a water crossing. The debate of tubeless and tubes and alive and well, and tubes were going on as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, Karen went looking for water in a farm house nearby, but returned quickly after being too scared to go alone.
At that point, Karen offered me some food suggesting my eyes rolling back in my head wasn’t a good thing. A few jelly beans brought me back from the brink. She then took a lie down.
We approached the farm house together, in force, and very politely asked for water refill for 8 bidons. The couple there were accommodating of us disturbing their afternoon, and had no idea how thrilled we were to have two full water bottles for the remaining 16 kms.
It was now a beeline for Bowraville. We dreamt of salty chips, redbull, multiple cans of coke, beer…in any order.
We arrived in Bowraville and headed directly for the only shop in town still open. In a dazed state, we hunted for rewards in the IGA, which included simply standing in the cool air of the refrigerator.
Sitting on the street, in front of the closed cinema, we reflected on survival and great adventures as we devoured our drink rewards. We then headed over the road for a beer at the Bowraville pub - it was an absolute delight.
Everyone had a ‘moment’ on this ride. No one lost their cool, or gave up. But instead, we came together to ensure that we all made it through what was confronting and uncharted. It was tough, but there was no option but to keep going despite the circumstances.
We questioned ourselves as to whether we should have taken the shortcut or stuck to the original route? Would the original route have been better (on gravel roads), even if it was longer?
And the lessons? Don’t ever follow a strava route with ‘unspecified’ sections. Don’t ever follow Google Maps on bike-recommended routes. These are for the much braver.
Sean is not brave enough to tell his wife what happened on this ride, for fear that she may not allow him to gravel again. It’s just our little secret!
But, as our friends at UDOG say, “amazing trails can’t be discovered without getting lost.”
Until the next adventure!