Exploring the Northern Territory with Bas van Steenbergen and Vaea Verbeeck
Up Top, Down Under
While 85 per cent of Australia’s population can be found within 50 kilometres of the coastline, Australia’s rugged outback is home to the adventurous minority. The town of Alice Springs sits in the heart of the outback, almost at the continent’s geographic centre. Home to the Aboriginal Arrernte people for tens of thousands of years, the town was developed by western settlers nearly 150 years ago as part of a communication stepping stone to connect the north and south coasts.
Previously, the tourism industry in ‘Alice’ (as it is affectionately known) was largely attributed to its proximity to the famous Australian landmark, Uluru, as it is the only populated town remotely near-by which tourists can use as a jumping off point. While this still remains an excuse to bring people into the region, Alice itself has developed a more diverse community built around two-wheeled sports. The sheer amount of available land surrounding the town has enabled both mountain bike and motocross enthusiasts alike to explore and develop the terrain, subsequently opening up the outback to a new type of traveller with designs to experience the iconic landscape.
In many cases, old kangaroo tracks became the basis for new mountain bike trails that branch out from the town, traversing the hills and valleys through the desert brush. Telegraph Station, the main trailhead location in the Alice, gets its name for historical reasons. In the late 1800s, a 3200km telegraph line was built through the heart of the outback from Adelaide to Darwin, linking Australia to the rest of the world. Alice Springs, being geographically central in this route, played a crucial role in the facilitating of this telecommunications endeavour, and several relics from this era still remain.
When it comes to riding, if you’re looking for long, unbroken descents, you'll have trouble finding them here; the elevation of Alice Springs and the surrounding area are primarily undulating and cater mainly towards trail and cross-country style riding. However, the sheer expanse of land allows these type of trails to continue with seemingly unrestricted potential. A combination of vibrant red sandy soil and rugged exposed rock form the foundation of most of the trails out here, which can result in riding that ranges from technical to fast and flowy. We learned to work with the desert sun, more or less leaning on sunrise or sunset to explore the trail networks while leaving the middle of the day reserved for swimming excursions.
Water management is an essential component of sporting in the outback. Double water-bottle cages and hydration packs seemed to be the norm, and if you happen to be the proud owner of a sunscreen store here in the outback, well… business is surely booming.
To aid the existing work of the devoted local mountain bikers who have banded together to establish the riding scene, the Northern Territory Government is now encouraging the expansion of mountain biking in the region by funding trail development, including plans over the next 5 years for a 200km trail network connecting Alice Springs and nearby Glen Helen. The multi-day adventure would follow the visually stunning gorge, linking the numerous water holes together for ambitious adventurers. As the trail network and infrastructure expand over the next several years, Alice Springs hopes to attract more visitors who are ambitious to explore the outback outside of an air-conditioned tour bus. Between the current riding scene and plans for the future, the region seems keen on establishing itself as a renowned hub of the sport within Australia. Two mountain bike events to check out if you're in the Alice in the Spring include Outback Cycling Easter and The Redback.
Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park
Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park doesn’t feature any mountain biking, but some experiences transcend the need to have two wheels under you. Uluru is one of the most iconic visual icons of Australia. Just southeast of Alice Springs (by “just” I mean 5.5 hours by car or an hour by plane - but by some standards that’s a slightly inconvenient beer run), this giant monolithic rock sits in the middle of the Australian Outback.
It’s a surreal sight: one giant chunk of sandstone buried up to its neck, iceberg style. To come all the way into the heart of the Red Centre and not make the relatively quick detour to Uluru and sister-formation Kata Tjuta would be regrettable. Even if just for a day to catch the setting or rising sun cast the famous dark red glow onto the face of the sandstone, seeing this geological oddity in person is worth the effort.
Darwin / Top End
Stepping out of the airport doors in Darwin between October and April, you will be greeted by a wall of humidity—and we were. If you head to Darwin between May and September however, you'll find the conditions to be dry with an average temperature of 32 degrees. Darwin lies on Australia’s Northern coast, and stands as the country’s most northern capital city in the region aptly referred to as the ‘Top End’.
The quintessentially Australian image of salt-water crocodiles patrolling the murky waters is most alive here, with numerous signs along the water’s edge warning ill-informed swimmers or overly curious tourists to think twice before venturing into the shallows. While some of the crew psyched themselves up with Steve Irwin compilations of animal wrangling on YouTube, the promise of encountering the world’s most powerful bite more or less kept us from getting barrelled in the Australian surf. When the opportunity to level the playing field with an inch of plexiglass presented itself, however, the travellers were somewhat emboldened in their position and decided to roll the dice.
In the heart of Darwin, a cage diving experience may err on the side of touristy, but of literally going eye-to-eye with salt water crocs was unquestionably visceral. Not unlike the scene from Jurassic Park where the cow is lowered into the velociraptors enclosure (and is promptly eviscerated), you climb into a plexiglass cylinder and are carried out and over the enclosure containing a pair of the 8-foot long dinosaurs before being dropped and semi-submerged. While the crocodiles have, at this point, learned to pay less attention to you than the chicken carcasses that are being dangled overhead, the sheer power and sound of a snapping jaw with more strength than a T-Rex triggers something deep within your own lizard brain.
Litchfield and Nitmiluk National Park
A few hours south of the city (and slightly out of reach of the coastal humidity), both Litchfield and Nitmiluk National Parks offer a more mountainous setting to the Top End. Deep spring-water fuels impressive waterfalls which cascade and cut through the mountains, and we spent the hot mid-days swimming in these oasis’s while working on our Northern Hemisphere tans.
While the region has yet to establish official mountain biking trails, over the next several years, the Northern Territory Government plans to invest tens of millions of dollars in the development of trail networks. These trails will link waterholes and traverse the mountains surrounding the gorges, which are protected in these parks. The plan aims to encourage mountain biking as a viable tool for exploration in this region, especially here where the elevation supports a wide variety of riding styles.
During World War 2, Darwin was among Australia’s first line of defence for an attack by sea, and a few remaining bunkers and outposts still remain along the north-facing beaches. One of said beaches, Lee Point, stands as the exit point for a small network of trails which the locals have worked to develop and legitimize over the past several years. While the minimal elevation change might thwart the area’s ambitions for a world cup downhill race being held here, the interweaving network of hand-built corners, jumps and technical features attracts a devoted following of riders. The multiple sections of downhill trails roll seamlessly into the climbs to fuel rounds and rounds of hot laps.
An essential component of riding in the top end is weather management. During the wet season, storms can roll through off the ocean and dump considerable amounts of rain in a short amount of time, catching you off-guard and leaving you soaked for the sky to then immediately clear. Although best viewed from indoors, the shows that the lightning can put on are spectacular. Dry season will see clear skies daily, with an average temperature of 32 degrees with minimal chance of rain .
The local riding association “Darwin Off-Road Cyclists” abbreviated as “DORC" (who seem to have fully embraced the humour in their acronym) organize local rides and races throughout the Top End for skill levels ranging from beginner to advanced.
Overall, the mountain biking scene in the Northern Territory is well on its way, and over the next several years, the trail infrastructure is set to expand greatly. With devoted riding communities already in place to show travellers around, the country’s uppermost region is poised to welcome those looking for a unique Australian experience on and off two wheels.
Photographer: Jay French
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