I must be a world away, I’ve never seen such deep green or lucid blue. Such is the impression many get when travelling to Far North Queensland.
From a blanket of cloud we descend into Cairns, arriving amidst intermittent rain and rain forests nestled by the sea. It’s the end of the wet season, the World Cup is on the weekend and there is a buzz in the air. Our taxi driver has heard a little about it and has certainly noticed the extra influx of oversize baggage amongst his passengers. Whilst mountain biking is by no means new to this part of the world, as mountain biking helped put Tropical North Queensland on the map in the early 1990s, we are by no means the big fish in the area. That right belonging to the humble tourist. What this does mean is there is plenty to do here, not just riding bikes. Although we wouldn’t be much of a mountain bike magazine if we didn’t clue you in on a few places here and there. So we thought we would point you in the right direction if you head north, or consider heading up to watch the World Championships next year.
Cairns city is bigger than your average coastal township, brimming with tourists, it’s sometimes hard to spot an Aussie accent in the aural blur of a crowd. There’s plenty of fun on offer, just visit the pier or local night markets along the Esplanade. For the night crawlers there is no shortage of party hotspots, from Gilligans to Rattle and Hum and The Woolshed. The latter are also good for a feed.
Into The Jungle
Smithfield MTB park is at the heart of mountain biking in Cairns, at about 15-20 minutes from the city centre it’s easily accessible. There is a nice little trail hub to get your bearings and an equally nice green trail link to get you warmed up.
For all-mountain and cross-country users the park can easily be split into two sides, the right section of trails is better known as the World Cup XCO lap whilst the left is full of less known trails. There is about 65km of trail here all said and done, but most people will link sections to make a much shorter loop, and you will want to repeat it. The climbing is hard, not by the trail nature but by Mother Nature, so just be thankful you aren’t here to race. The descents are challenging and the flow exhilarating, particularly down through ‘Croc Slide’ and ‘Jacobs Ladder’, if only to step into the shoes of some of the fastest racers on the planet.
If your thrill seeker tendencies haven’t been satisfied there is plenty of excess action around Cairns. Adjacent to the Smithfield MTB Park lies A.J Hackett, a bungee place that may even let you ride a bike off the roof… Anything goes in Tropical North Queensland. If water is your vibe just up the road is an enviable rafting experience through Raging Thunder down the Barron River. There are crocs in there… so stay onboard.
Take me to the highest height
The Douglas Track is a fire road journey with attitude and you will definitely need a shuttle for this one. Beginning from the Barron Falls lookout, check out the magnificent falls before descending to Surprise Creek. Take in the setting before the track ascends rapidly and then undulates across the ridgeline before dropping into a killer descent. Cairns views, railway crossings, wet roots and rock formations will have you on your toes before a cool off at Stoney Creek. A little bit of classic adventure outside of a mountain bike park.
Kuranda Scenic Railway
To accompany your trip alongside Barron Gorge it is well worth doubling back with this train adventure. Leaving from Cairns railway station, the train stops just twice more before Kuranda, taking in the flat lands below before ascending the range. Sights to see are the historic Stoney Creek bridge, the Barron Gorge Falls and endless views out across Cairns.
Over the Range
The steep climb from coastal Cairns to the Atherton Tablelands is picturesque with plenty of opportunity to take in the view along the way. Passing through Kuranda, from there the road quickly turns flat and the regular muted yellows return on the hour long trip to Atherton.
Atherton is a small town with a long main street, ironically – or historically - called ‘Main Street’, a hospital and an amazing mountain bike park. Maybe there is some correlation there. Built originally by World Trail with additions from Dirt Art, Atherton Forest Park is purpose built for a rad day on the trails. A new inclusion of a trail hub in the heart of town allows access to a pump track and a link trail out to the forest. Situated around three main hill sides and two valleys there is more than an a 100kms of useable singletrack and in our brief time we merely had a taster.
The climbs are well graded with the easier ascents long but flowy and the medium grades punctuated by reinforcing stones and punchy pinches. With almost free reign in the building process the descents are sublime, fast and littered with hidden lines. It’s a place I’m still fully yet to get my head around, with the feeling that more trail is just around the corner will have to remain until I return. I’ll leave you with the basic must do trail guide.
Sample the stunning fall lines of Waterfall (trail 11), the hidden rainforest of (trail 12) and without a doubt the epic descent of Ricochet (trail 9). Locals shuttle here and if you can snare a ride, do so but the adjacent fire road is a reasonable climb to earn that descent, or climb up Top Deck if you like a long singletrack climb. Just watch out down Ricochet if it’s been raining., the top few hundred metres get ultra slick.
The roll back into town is chilled and with the hub so close to the main street, it’s easy enough to stumble up the road. For the classic pub experience visit the Barron Valley Hotel or for a tip top cafe, Gallery 5. Chances are your ride won’t go all day and it’s worth heading out to Lake Eacham for an afternoon swim before retiring. Twenty minutes away this swimming hole is in the shell of an extinct volcano and has a perfect diving platform. Plus a chance to see turtles.
The Crocodile under the bridge
For our day in Port Douglas we teamed up with Steve from Bike’n’Hike tours to lead us down the Bump Track. The Bump track is an old inland highway used during the gold mining boom in the 1800s that stretches from Port Douglas to the gold fields. We were fortunate enough to start from Wertherby Station about 10 km out from the start of the National Parks Bump Track official trail start. A beautiful federation era, tin roofed, weatherboard home, a little oasis in the sticks.
With views out to Mount Molloy it is a relaxed ride to the Bump Track punctuated by a river crossing or the odd farmhouse. From the signed entry that all changes, the fire road width trail switches between wide-open and forced singletrack. The rainforest envelops you and the descent down to the stunning river crossing Spring Creek comes up fast. There are signs of the established routes’ colonial beginnings along the way and plenty of ‘Wait-a while’ (a clinging fern) to stop you in your tracks and help you along in observing it.
The final descent is hair raising and exceptionally steep. We sail over water bar after water bar down to the valley floor, our hearts in our mouths forcing our bodies back over the rear of the bike. At the bottom our brakes are cooked, easily picked up by our nostrils. The adventure doesn’t end there though.
Our guide Steve takes us from the cane field farmland to the sea. Through sneaky back routes, over and under highways, he tells us of the time he came across a 3 metre crocodile under a drainage bridge… or maybe one was spotted. Tales grow taller in the Tropics. The croc would have been eagerly waiting to pick up a local pet or rider for a snack. Our final kilometres are spent riding on hard pack sand, the Coral Sea licking our tyres, driving ourselves all the way to the surf club for fish and chips and beer. Our host Steve also runs night laps of this famed route, something I will definitely have to come back and try.
We take the coast road back to Cairns along the Captain Cook Highway, I guarantee you have never seen such a beautiful stretch of road. The sea to your left and the monstrous mountain range to your right. If time allows drop by for a few Croc scares at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures. If not, definitely one of the various eateries that line the roadside and beach dining areas.
On the Doorstep
Riding isn’t everything and by this stage if you’re ready to join the tourist hordes, unpack your beach towel and layout on the beach. You can swim at Trinity beach, if you’re happy to avoid the stingers Cairns is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and there is more than one way to get access to the more than 2000 kilometres of reef. So check your options and look around for the best offer for you.
Ourselves, we went out to Fitzroy Island. Raging Thunder run a shuttle service to the island as well beach equipment hire and a chance to trundle around in the glass bottom boat. There is a turtle conservation post on the island and there is every chance to sight one as you snorkel over the reef just metres from the beach. It is a decent sized island and there’s plenty of hidden beaches to discover, it all just depends on your motivation to explore.
With World Champs just a year away, it’s time to put that idea you’ve been floating into gear. Tropical North Queensland is something you don’t want to miss out on, not just for the riding but the experience. It was sad to say goodbye to this place, we truly understand why the locals love it and we only scratched the surface, we hope you dig even deeper.
Scenic cable car
Hartleys Crocodile Adventure
You can’t go past the Big 4s up here for affordability and comfort. Every Big4 around seems to have a bike wash as well, complete with a borrowable tool kit. We stayed at the Big4 Atherton and Placid Lake. Look them up.
In the centre of town you can’t go past the Hides Hotel for accessibility. The federation era hotel is modern on the inside, with bike storage if you wish it and underground parking for that hire car. All you need.
We travelled with assistance from Tropical North Queensland Tourism