Sometimes its fun to pick a well-known trail and spend months in excited anticipation and planning. Other times you just want to get away with your bike and wing it. This tale is of an adventure of the latter kind.
I recently bought last minute tickets to South Australia, arriving on Good Friday with nine days to play. This kind of spontaneity doesn’t come cheap on a holiday weekend, but the freedom to head interstate in a world recovering from COVID seemed priceless.
I took this journey solo. Those who enjoy cycling alone probably get this. Many other people (quite reasonably) won’t. There’s something about riding alone in nature that allows me to see and hear my whole self with a clarity that’s challenging in the city. But when the safety of women – in our streets, schools, and parliaments - has made headline news for months, thoughts of what it meant to be out venturing alone were never far from my mind.
I started my journey before dawn in Sydney, arriving in Adelaide to an airport bicycle ‘station’ (perhaps a generous term). There I managed to re-build my Kevin, configure my bags and change into knicks in the corner of the airport carpark. With little reason to hang in town on a public holiday, I rode to central and hopped on a train to Seaford and the start of a gpx file pinched from a Curve flashpacking trip.
I was soon reminded its not that relaxing to begin a 98km ride at midday fully loaded, particularly on zero recent training. Those of you who get periods may also empathise that I was on day 1 of another cycle - rarely my favourite day for a huge ride. The views of the Fleurieu were spectacular from the sandy cliffs part way in, but my enthusiasm to push on to towns with zero campsite vacancies (thanks Easter!) was already waning.
Day one of winging it meant opening my Warm Showers app to see a single host nearby. I messaged with low expectations and received an Easter miracle of a reply - ‘sure, come use our spare room later’. Thank you Rick and Annie of Aldinga for a warm evening of trading stories, laughter, a spare gas canister and a cosy bed!
Revived by the kindness of strangers, day two started ambitiously with a climb up Old Sellick’s Hill road. I felt upbeat at the top after finding an unbarbed opening in the fence, avoiding lifting my bike over a locked gate solo. Scoffing a hot cross bun at a coffee spot in Myponga I met a trio of bikepacking guys who tipped me off to a basic, un-bookable campsite on the Heysen hiking trail where they’d comfortably spent the night prior. I dropped a pin in my navigation app. Perfect.
After a Normanville lunch, I spent the afternoon quietly crunching along gravel in the heat. I rolled into the tiny Robinson’s Hill campsite to signs of a beautiful sunset and a few 20-something guys lugging eskies and speakers from nearby 4WDs. My gut lurched, but tired and with few obvious alternatives I set up my tent behind a row of trees a few metres back from where they’d thrown their swags.
In the hours that followed, I lay in my tent taking in their increasingly amplified music, drunk and high conversations, and at 1am when the music finally cut, jokes about sexual acts role-played with female voices. My inner monologue ticked: do I tell them to turn it down? No, don’t give them reason not to like you. Do I put in earplugs? Nah, you might need to hear if they’re coming. Where’s my knife? Out in your bags but that’s probably safer in case it gets used against you anyway. My body was exhausted but my mind raced. I didn’t sleep, yet I’m guessing the guys were completely oblivious to their impact on my heart rate. It felt frustrating and unfair.
Though the night had brought renewed awareness of my vulnerability, sunrise brought equal reminder of my own strength. I packed down swiftly, soon finding myself on a stretch of stunning coastal track, accompanied by the haunting cries of black cockatoos. The sun came out as I pulled into Victor Harbor, re-fuelling on coffee and stockpiling baked goods before retreating from the Easter crowds. I climbed sections of Tour Down Under route and wove north along pine-lined back roads, my legs increasingly willing to handle the weight of the loaded bike. Eventually I looped back to Myponga and the Smiling Samoyed brewery where despite a closed kitchen the staff somehow produced fries for my tired face. Magic. I skipped camping for a sweet BnB run by a warm woman named Jayne who made sure I had a long, sound sleep.
Easter Monday was a transition day. It started with a plunge down (thankfully, not up) the famous Willunga Hill and through McLaren Vale vineyards to meet the Genesis bus. The move was another ‘winging it’ moment, inspired by a call to Commuter Cycles looking for route advice the day before leaving home. ‘Just take the Genesis north and ride back on the Mawson’, they laughed. Now I was hurtling north a few days later on a shuttle through dry and distinctly Australian landscape. I hopped off in Melrose, a small town in the shade of Mount Remarkable with time to grab new brake pads, explore the lowest sections of the MTB park, and enjoy sunset at the pub’s footpath bar while a million noisy corellas flew by.
Over the next few days I settled into a trail rhythm. Up at 5.45am, riding by 7am – the early hours in low light were my favourite, full of birdsong and promise and no wind. I’d fuel up on whatever (limited) options presented themselves in the next town, fill, scull, and refill my water, then double down on suncream and head out to finish things off in the heat. Bumbling along freshly-graded gravel on my first afternoon, a ute pulled alongside and its occupants – Leigh and Des out checking their sheep – insisted on gifting me cold sodastream water. Another vote for the kindness of strangers.
I kept plotting rides of around 120km over sunrise coffee, and kept revising this down in the afternoon, opting to rest in small towns over pushing on into dusk and remote huts. I knew they were huts I would have romanticised on social media if I were here riding with others, but my gut kept reminding me I had nothing to prove. Instead I relaxed into wherever I wound up: from a pub counter in Jamestown talking Tesla batteries, to answering questions from wide-eyed year 11s on sport and rec camp at a campground in Hallett, to joining a table of oversized personalities for oversized parmies in Burra. Sometimes I camped, sometimes I stayed in the pub, depending on what felt right when I arrived.
It was in daylight that I most skirted with solitude on this trip. Riding for hours through sparsely vegetated hills under huge skies, life became pared back to the basics. No headphones, no chatter, no email notifications. A kind of moving meditation: the silence of the outback, sun on my skin, the trail arrow on my bike computer, an occasional movement of a sheep or a kangaroo in my line of sight. My body became more attuned to the bike. We trusted each other, together climbing wind-farm spotted ridge lines, plunging down loose tracks, navigating swathes of sand and gauntlets of farm gates. It was hot and occasionally hard, but there was a certain zen to it.
It’s a curious thing to observe the territory your ego can traverse on a long day riding. On a zig-zagging, reception-less stretch on day seven, I stopped to chat to a farmer on the outskirts of Hallett and didn’t see another soul ‘til I hit Burra 80km later. In the hours between, my self-talk went all sorts of places. From capable, caffeinated and strong while admiring the early views around Mount Bryan East, to cursing Douglas Mawson and his non-sensical trail a few hours later as the temperature hit 35 degrees and my chain screeched.
With no one to whinge to about the lack of shady options for lunch, I eventually rest the bike in a sandy gutter in view of the next big hill. The chain gets a lick of lube, and I get a wrap filled with three-day-ripe brie and a smatter of dust. Neither Kevin nor I are particularly soothed. A giant Wedgetail eagle circles overhead – beautiful, and eerie. I feel pride about reaching the top of the hill, then am promptly rewarded with a headwind for the final 20km into town. I yell fruitlessly about the injustice of it all to a group of emus running in the distance. Eventually I arrive having pedalled a full spectrum of feelings. All that is left is tired contentment. I buy a whole watermelon and devour it.
On my penultimate evening, I roll into Riverton with a final ‘winging-it’ choice about where to rest. The caravan park feels an inappropriate ending, but no local can tell me whether Marschall’s Hut in the hills outside town is a smart option for a solo woman either. I find a girl called Hannah packing up a café who suggests her mother-in-law’s farm stay. That’s how Kevin and I came to spend out final night of this journey in a shearing shed. Not a fancy conversion, just a functional shed with a sunset view, a large kettle, and the strong smell of lanolin. When given the option, it seemed more enticing than the paddock nearby where a freshly cool change was whipping up red dust. As the sun drops, the homestead owners text to offer their old caravan instead, but I’m content out here. I stew my final dinner and throw my mattress on the wool table, falling asleep thinking about my late grandmother’s own rural childhood. I imagine her laugh if she saw this scene now.
After a week of clear skies and dry country, it’s raining as I farewell the farm. The Mawson is famous for its chain-clogging (aka peanut butter) mud, so I’m grateful once more for the kindness of (almost) strangers – this time an old running mate Sputnik whom I met in Cambodia a decade ago – and the offer to be retrieved from the Adelaide Hills to avoid an overly muddy fate. In a forest stretch 10km before my faux finish, I cross my first other solo rider – Justin – on the trail scoffing second breakfast. We swap tips for the sections ahead and make a joint wish that the rain stays light.
Back in Adelaide a few hours later, I begin the literal and metaphorical journey home. Thirty-six hours later I’m riding Kevin to work in Sydney, with a sense of clarity and grounding I haven’t felt in a long time. Despite my brush with fear on night two, I’m revived by the overwhelming kindness of strangers. My legs feel strong, as does my heart. In my gut there’s renewed trust in my own ability to navigate – the geography, the riding, and the people – that I encounter on the road, and in life. Most of all I’m grateful for the ego-shrinking awe induced by reflecting on my place as a tiny dot pedalling across this beautiful, immemorial landscape.
Gear tips: Ali took her Kevin of Steel, and a patchwork of bags including much-loved rocket pooches, a borrowed Wahoo Element (would recommend for easily missed trail markers), and a whole bunch of bike repair gear that remained miraculously unused!
Follow Ali - @alikjones
Routes & Useful Links:
• Warm Showers: Find a warm shower and maybe a place to stay nearby.
• Genesis transport link: Bus route and times from Adelaide to Copley.
• Curve Fleurieu Flashpacking: 2-day route GPX and write up.
• Mawson Trail: GXP file for the Trail.