Curve ambassador April Drage recently spent a long weekend riding the Mawson Trail, taking two friends along for their first remote off-road bikepacking experience. Long days, big kilometres, hot sun, headwinds, and bugs. April shares the experience and her learnings as a teacher.
One of the things I love about bikepacking is that the devil is in the detail:
- Preparing your bike to be reliable enough to travel far;
- Working out exactly what gear you need to bring for safety and a little bit of comfort;
- Getting all of these essential things together and attaching them to your bike in a way that makes sense for efficient and straightforward packing and unpacking, as well as lending itself to the sort of terrain you’ll be riding;
- Preparing the body in the lead-up, making sure that the bike fit is good and you’re comfortable and strong enough to reliably pump out the kilometres you’ve planned to cover in the time available;
- Preparing a rough plan and contingencies for the journey ahead - route maps, distances between essential things like water and food and how to pack anything extra to cover long distances between resupply.
This list is kind of the tip of the iceberg. So much of it becomes second nature, part of the ebb and flow of the experience, and it’s beautiful that there is no single ‘best way’. The craft of the activity is as creative and unique as all the quirky cats that get a kick out doing it. The approach to each trip evolves along with your body and character over time. Most people start slowly, a little ‘touring’, an overnighter, some gravel rides and flashpacking to gain confidence.
Bike packing ‘experiments’ are incorporated into every trip I take; sometimes they’re little things (different snacks or a new tyre size), and other times they’re big; complete change of sleep set up or a new drivetrain. I love figuring out what works, what doesn’t and why.
The idea of fast-forwarding through all of this preparation, time, consideration & experience is a recipe for a rough, steep learning curve. It’s a high risk, high reward strategy. But, it’s the ultimate experiment, and I found that concept very exciting! Who’d have thought that I would have two friends, Alice Jolly and Margaret Easson, with virtually zero bikepacking or endurance cycling experience, game enough to do just that? But, it was also uncanny that they were both available simultaneously & foolhardy enough just to say “yes”. So, when I pitched the idea of cycling the 880 kilometre Mawson Trail in 180 kilometre days, at very short notice, I was, of course, enthusiastic about having some great company for this trip. But, I was curious to see how this would pan out; would they become addicted to this slow-moving mayhem or perhaps put off attempting something like this again.
I provided some detailed updates as our trip progressed. Aside from the ‘what happened,’ both Alice and Margaret reached their goals with a few more battle scars than envisaged. There’s more to be said about what I noticed and how those two brave souls felt. Would they still agree to join me if they had their time again?
In the short lead up to this trip, I plotted the details checked campsites, temperature forecasts, store opening hours and more to make for a smooth and enjoyable journey. I shared all this along with gpx files and a list of recommendations for “must-have” items for safety. For example, the capacity for 5 litres of water on their bikes and lights bright enough that they won’t be scared riding trails in the dark. The messages flowed thick and fast, bikes, parts, bags and bits borrowed, camp shops and hardware stores raided. So many packing experiments, things were cast aside and added back in. I noted that as the anticipation of the ‘grand depart’ rose, more items were packed than less; for newcomers, there is often a feeling of security that comes with carrying a higher volume, packing everyday items ‘just in case”. It’s not until you’ve been out there hauling all these items over climbs and wild terrain for a long time that you realise that volume has the opposite effect. A heavier load results in a slower pace and is harder on the body as the kilometres accumulate. There’s a balance to be struck that each individual can only determine, and the only natural way to figure that out is through personal experience. Despite their significant disadvantage, these women did so well with their packing. Alice won the ‘best dressed’ award for this excursion with all the variety that came out of her Mary Poppins style of packing.
It’s hard to explain just how long a section of 80 - 100 km can take and how much food and water one might need. It’s also tough to appreciate how much the mental game of long-distance cycling is improved by not anticipating too much; just riding (or walking) what is immediately in front of you. Once you’re confident that you have everything you need and all you need to do is make forward progress, it’s much easier to enjoy the present. The other aspect to the mental game that I’ve been noticing in myself, and for Alice and Margaret, was how powerful expectations are in dictating the experience you have out there. For example, if you’re expecting to be arriving in a town at 5 pm and are a long way off of that goal, it can be demoralising. If you’re expecting to move through a trail quickly because the elevation profile makes it look flat, then instead you’re slogging it out on rocks and sand, it’s easy to become frustrated at how ‘slow’ it is.
The entertaining result that I discovered is that there are many ways people can ask ‘are we there yet’ when they’re fighting discomfort, searching for an answer that can help them out of the mental cage created by expectations. “Is the next bit sandy? Is it hilly? Will we make it to the pub for dinner? How many kilometres to the next resupply? You said it would be flat?”. Oh my.
I found it exceedingly entertaining watching Margaret get to the point of delirium, where everything is funny; you just can’t think straight anymore. However, I also saw how horrified she was at how filthy the whole experience was. It’s on par with lathering up with sunblock on a hot day and rolling around in the sand at the beach, then running a long way. Plus worse, then repeat.
I have my personal system at resupply points, and at the end of the day, essential for when you are tired and can’t think straight. For these reasons, a system is helpful. I make sure the bike is running okay, check water supplies, apply/check sunscreen electrolytes, and do I have enough food until resupply. I loved watching my friends develop their own systems, trialling their refuelling and packing experiments. There’s so much opportunity for practice and learning when hitting the bikepacking game with intensity. I learned a few things, got new ideas, and thoroughly appreciated Alice and Margaret’s positive energy and jokes, even when struggling.
I was using this trip as a bit of a ‘shake down’, I expected it to feel pretty ‘easy’, and it did. As the kilometres progressed, I felt better and better but could see just what an understandably tough entry it was for my friends. I love being out on these journeys. It’s joyful, and I am often overwhelmed by the sights and sounds; the sky, the birds, the wildlife and more. I experienced all of that on this adventure and could see that my friends were in awe at the trail’s beauty. However, I was also preoccupied with thoughts of how I could make life easier for my friends. Partly because I care so much about these beautiful people and maybe just a little bit because of the overriding feeling that this might have been the ultimate “April Stitch Up”. Alice and Margaret trusted me, although I may have led them well and truly astray.
To appease my feelings of guilt, I took the headwinds where ever I could. I offered a wheel on the climbs tried to be honest and helpful in answering their many questions. I provided playlists I thought they would enjoy when I felt they needed the distraction, I lubricated chains, carried extra water, and ensured there was dinner waiting at the end of the day for us. I packed interesting snacks or drinks for motivation and reminded them to eat when I could see they were starting to lose momentum. It’s a fine line to walk when people are struggling, and you feel like you’re having the time of your life.
Now that the trip is complete and only a little fatigue, a million photographs and some wild memories remain, I asked these mates of mine for some honest feedback about how it all played out for them.
I was surprised at what they had to say.
“My intentions were to dip my toe in some proper bike packing, carrying shit on my bike, going bush and seeing what it was like to sleep on a thin mat coz Lachlan Morton makes it look so cool. What I got out of it was a big fat punch in the face but in a good way! The riding was tougher than I expected, and I was constantly worried about water! Knowledge and planning are vital, and without April’s guidance, we would have died in the desert! Whilst it was one of the toughest things I have done, it has been so rewarding, and of course, I will do a lot more of it! Normally after something hard, I go into a big black hole (I have suffered from debilitating depression for 20+ years!), but I feel fucking awesome - who would have known - this may be my cure.”
- Alice Jolly
“I never prepare for things well. I’m a leave it to the last-minute person. When I used to run a lot, I never did half the training I meant to and then just tapered (this has always been a joke). Usually, I’m very time poor, but when April said she was going north, I thought, “why not?”. I thought it’d be good if I could make it to Clare by Monday. I had no idea how tough this would be! Many people said it was way too many kilometres in a day to be enjoyable. Still, I set off. April, you are a seasoned bike packer and ride at a ridiculous pace. Alice, you are an all-around awesome mountain biker with amazing skills and much tougher stuff than me. I guess what I got from it is that I depended greatly on your positivity and April’s organisation. I know I’m pretty determined when I set my mind on something and never give up. This nearly got me, though!!! The toughest thing I’ve ever done. The pain in my feet was agony, and by Burra, I was sore all over (from head to toe). I honestly couldn’t see me making it to Clare. However, I dug in and got it done. On reflection, I’m glad I’ve done it. Still licking my wounds, and I may have to consider more realistic daily kms if/when I do this again but hey ho, never say never!” - Margaret Easson