Winter is here and you can feel it. The days are not quite as long now as they were just a couple of months ago and your excitement at 3pm, knowing you’d be heading for a post-work ride and maybe a swim while the sun is still up, has started to wane. The chill that has started to creep into the air, while perfect for daytime riding right now, reminds you of last winter and the lack of motivation to get out of your nice warm bed. You need an escape. 

But not just a ‘regular’ mountain bike holiday. Maybe you need a break from groomed, flowing trail and riding in circles. Maybe you’re looking for an adventure, for challenging and exhilarating riding but also the chance to see an amazing part of the country. You want to experience some history, and maybe a little hardship, between icy beers and good meals in the company of friends and interesting strangers alike. And so you rally the troops. 

It’s no surprise to find your friends experiencing similar post-summer riding depression and together, with a few quiet ales, a map and your good friend Google, you hatch a plan. Head north. Head to Tropical North Queensland. The name itself is almost enough to have you booking tickets, but once you delve a little deeper and look slightly outside the familiar world-renowned trail parks, your curiosity is truly sparked. Game on. It is time to go bikepacking.

The great escape

Between the months of April and October, the average daytime temperatures in the Tropical North hover around the high twenties, and early thirties. A far cry from the chill that embraces much of the lower half of our country and you step off the plane at Cairns International airport into warmth and humidity, but with the gentlest of ocean breezes. It definitely feels like a holiday. Thanks mostly to the lure of the Great Barrier Reef, there is no shortage of accommodation options in Cairns - from bunk bed budget to full service with a view and everywhere has a pool. You take the middle ground and stay at the very comfortable but no-frills Cairns Queenslander Apartments, a short walk from dining and nightlife, but far enough out to appreciate the quiet and prepare for some exploring.

Local knowledge

A little bit of local knowledge goes a long way, and while Cairns has a number of very good bike shops, the team at CycleFNQ have really been amazing. Their main man Wil, apart from being pretty much the friendliest guy on earth, seems to know just about every trail, track, railroad and irrigation channel in the region and has pointed you all in the right directions - helping you create your own four-day route that takes in the best that Cairns and its surrounds have to offer. 

For weeks you’ve been talking about riding the roads of our forefathers, now fallen into disrepair and closed to motorised traffic. You have talked about spotting cassowaries and sipping cold beers under ceiling fans on the balconies of old pubs. Analysing the gradients of what seem like some epic climbs, and descents, and looking forward to the unknown. Time to get this show on the road. 

The adventure begins

After a great, early breakfast at Cairns Queenslander, you all roll out at 7am. It’s a gorgeous 24 degrees. The wintery feel of the south is already a memory and spirits are high. From anywhere in Cairns if you turn and face west you’re looking at some decent mountains and this is as intimidating as it is exciting. And that’s where you’re headed. Around 400m above Cairns lies Lake Morris, the city’s main water supply since 1976 and your destination for a morning break. Views of the imposing mountains slowly change to views overlooking the city as you climb the smooth tarmac road, firstly through sparse eucalypts, but as you get higher the foliage becomes more dense and you’re immersed in the rainforest. You’re not short of people to chat to on the way to the lake as the road is one of Cairns’ most popular routes for the training and recreational cyclists alike. “Where are you all headed?” seems to be the conversation starter of choice, the route being an out and back for those (unfortunately) restricted to riding on paved surfaces. But that’s not you. 

A quick top up of water and a bite to eat on the banks of the beautiful lake, and it’s time to push beyond to the trails made famous by the long-running endurance stage race, the Crocodile Trophy. There’s silence now as your group skirts the northern edge of the lake, remembering the Croc race reports you’d read in planning, before crossing the spilllway and a locked gate. You look up, almost straight up, at the trail ahead of you. The silence continues for some time as you all climb another 400m on loose, steep fire road, some of which is concreted to give what little traffic it does receive some hope of getting traction. Some of you walk, others ride when you can and in an hour you reach the summit, deep inside Barron Gorge National Park. Everyone’s glad for the dry season as the clay soil would have been a nightmare in the wet. 

“Where are you all headed?” seems to be the conversation starter of choice, the route being an out and back for those (unfortunately) restricted to riding on paved surfaces. But that’s not you.

Heart rates lowered, and jelly snakes consumed, the map has good news. From the humid peak you now descend over 300 metres down the other side of the range. The trail, though covered in leaf litter from disuse, has a firm base in the dry and while everyone is getting a little loose there’s no extreme danger of having a serious crash a long way from help. The environment changes as you start to leave the welcoming confines of the jungle and as the gradient begins to level out you enter the drier, almost semi-arid country that makes up much of the Atherton Tablelands. Everyone is smiling and chatting again, such is the effect of an awesome descent, and by the time you reach the crocodile-free oasis that is Davies Creek a short swim is definitely in order. 

You had let the friendly team at Tinaroo Holiday Park know you’d be in by five o’clock and so you sample a small amount of what the very dry but very fun Davies Creek MTB Park has to offer, and make your way towards Lake Tinaroo via a gravel road that hugs Danbulla National Park. Tinaroo Holiday Park has comfortable cabins, hot showers and a small shop to stock up the next day. A 10 minute ride up the road to the Kairi pub for a feed and a brew and everyone is comatose, recollecting a great first day and looking very forward to the next. 

Onwards and upwards

The climb out of Lake Tinaroo has everyone feeling a little sore over breakfast, but nobody’s excitement is dampened in the slightest and after a breaky roll and a chocolate milk it’s time to make for Atherton. It’s a little cooler by the lake early in the morning and it’s a welcome start to the day. 

Lake Tinaroo was created in the 1950s when Tinaroo Falls Dam was built and is the main reason much of the irrigated farming in the Mareeba area is possible. The first 10 kilometres of the day takes in views of the lake from a tarmac road that follows its edge, but it wouldn’t be an adventure without a little improvisation. 

The lake shore, at least when the water level is not at 100 per cent, is an experienced trail rider’s paradise of boulders, washed up logs, roots and water-eroded cambers that make for a solid hour of laugh-out-loud way-finding and low consequence crashes in deep, soft gravel. The ghostly remains of pre-lake trees and the early morning stillness offer you a surreal ride experience, unlike anywhere you’ve been and a sudden realisation of the variety of unique riding on this trip so far grabs you. You rejoin the road and pass numerous campsites with everyone from fellow cycle-tourers to full-blown motorhome grandparents enjoying the serenity and as your group pushes further east you once again enter the rainforest. The surface changes, firstly from tarmac to loose gravel, and then to the fast, tacky clay that accompanies the lush greenness.

What to take Bikepacking

Everyone will find levels of comfort they either do or don’t require, but here is a list of essentials that can either be chucked in a backpack or divided up nicely in some proper bikepacking luggage. Keeping weight off your back on long, multi-day rides is a good thing. 

Water - The ability to carry at least three litres is a good place to start

Food - There is no such thing as too many snacks, and I like to carry a little more ‘lunch’ than I know is required in case a mechanical or crash sees me staying out late, or even overnight.

Kit - Usually I get away with one pair of overshorts and two pairs of knicks and then I handwash along the way. Depending on conditions two jerseys and maybe a merino undershirt.

Play it Safe - Regardless of the forecast always take something warm and something waterproof, in all seriousness it might actually save your life.

Clean and Alive - Basic toiletries and a first aid kit are a must, including some compression bandages for snake bites - especially in the summer.

Come Find Me - Any time you’re outside mobile reception, or may not see humans too often, a personal locator beacon or GPS tracker makes a lot of sense.   

The sounds of birds are all around you, at times requiring you to ride at close proximity to have a conversation - but that’s not a bad problem to have - and on almost every turn you encounter some kind of feathered friend scooting out of your way. 
There’s something about being in the presence of a 500-year-old tree that makes you feel small, insignificant and leaves you speechless. But, there’s something about having arrived at that tree unsupported, by bicycle, that seems to offset the smallness in some way. The speechlessness not so much and you all gaze in awe - Clif bars hanging out of your mouths - at the Curtain Fig tree and its massive canopy shading hundreds of square metres. You’re now approaching Crater Lakes National Park and have earmarked the volcanic crater of Lake Barine as a likely spot for some lunch. It does not disappoint. The Lake Barine Teahouse sits on the lake’s edge and your group takes a well earned seat, absorbs the calming view of the lake and makes a solid effort to get through the Works burgers and milkshakes you purchase in lieu of tea and scones. 

After lunch you stop just up the road for a quick splash in the more popular (but also volcanic) Lake Eacham and fill up on water for the afternoon. The Tropical North is literally a criss-cross of old farming, mining and supply road and rail lines both past and present. It seemed like a pain at the time, but thankfully you all went to a lot of trouble to plot your route into Atherton for this afternoon, especially to avoid crossing private land, and it paid off. A beautiful country lane, with views into Atherton brings you most of the way to your home for the night, the Big4 Holiday Park. 

At home in Atherton

There were pizzas from up the road in town, and there was a whole lot of sleeping, but you and the gang are up bright and early for a bit of a roll through some Atherton singletrack before getting into the day’s journey. The Atherton Forest MTB Park features 50-ish kilometres of man-made trails that wind their way through forests both natural, and experimentally planted. You roll around for an hour, talking and laughing like you’re out for an afternoon spin at your local before heading back to the Big4, grabbing your gear and getting into the day’s journey. It’s a longer day, around 90 kilometres, but you’re up pretty high and your destination, the Speewah Tavern, is a fair bit lower so it ought to make for an easy day. 

If you’re from any state but New South Wales you’ll likely already know how great rail trails are for covering decent distances on your bike - enjoying the scenery and the company. The Atherton Tablelands Rail Trail proves to be no exception to the rule, and you find yourselves absolutely killing it and making the Tolga pub in time for a late morning break. A little more rail trail goodness and you’re on the roll into Mareeba for lunch. 
Now, when Wil from CycleFNQ said: “Take the irrigation channel”, you all looked at each other with a raised eyebrow, and rightly so. An irrigation ditch sounds like rubbish, like the least scenic place to ever ride your bike, but the reality proves to be quite the opposite. Just like the rail trail, you’re all chewing some miles with very little effort - except now you ride beside a wide, barely flowing stream covered in water lillies. All backdropped by the mountain range you crossed together two days previous, the foreground is filled with the produce for which the Tropical North is known. Vast fields of mango and avocado, coffee and black sapote stretch almost as far as you can see, and before you know it you’re in Mareeba. And hungry. 

Starting as a tiny market stall in Cairns, Coffee Works turns out to be pretty much the go-to place in Mareeba for visitors to grab a feed. You’re not sure if it’s three days of solid riding talking, but this might just be the best cheesecake and iced coffee you ever had. And you realise there’s something about ceiling fans in humid outdoor areas that makes it very hard to get up and leave. But leave you do, onto a gem of a trail, again recommended by Wil. Firstly on a gravel road following the train line, then actually utilising a mix of moto singletrack and the train line itself, your afternoon gets pretty Indiana Jones as you ride the raw and loose trail, past cycad ferns and black-boys. Some take the trail, climbing up and over the cuttings then descending back down to join others who chose the flatter but much bumpier train tracks. Everybody has an awesome time, and you’re all soon lounging by the pool, thinking about a great pub meal at the Speewah Tavern. 

Truly good route planning is about finishing on a high note, and you believe you’ve saved the best day til last. You roll out of Speewah before the locals are awake and make the short journey to Kuranda for coffee, some breakfast and supplies for the exciting day ahead. 

From Kuranda you turn onto Black Mountain Road, a well formed and fast gravel road that makes up part of a well know 4WD loop. Google said this alone would take you to the legendary Bump Track, your route into Port Douglas for the afternoon, but what Google couldn’t tell you much about was East Black Mountain road, a loop that on your map leaves and rejoins its namesake a bit further along. Surely it must be worth a look. From the moment you follow your friend’s wheel onto East Black Mountain road you know you made the right decision. Quickly narrowing to an overgrown doubletrack, then a loose, fast singletrack it turns out to be the most challenging and enjoyable riding of the trip so far. Usually with technical trail you only need to look down, but not in here. Around every turn the sharp thorns of the wait-a-while vine dangle in your path and, after a member of your party cuts his arm and hand up pretty good, you all quickly realise that dodging them is essential. “Sure,” you think, “we could all slow down a little and make life easier.” But you all know that’s never going to happen and in an hour-and-a-half you reemerge on Black Mountain road having been through a war. Most are bleeding and little flaps of fabric from torn jerseys dangle as reminders of the task just undertaken. But wow, what an experience. 

The historic home stretch

After a few kilometres to rest and recuperate on the smooth gravel you reach the turn onto the Bump Track. Starting its life as a trail for the local Aboriginal people to travel from the coast to the hinterland, then later as a supply route all the way to Mareeba for the colonisation of the area, the Bump Track is legendary. You’d all heard about it before the trip planning had ever begun, and now you’re here. Apart from the steep chutes in and out of Spring Creek, you all stay mostly off the brakes and do not need to pedal at all as the insane natural flow of the Bump winds its way down. With leaf litter over clay perfectly sculpted by enormous amounts of rainfall the ride is almost waterslide-like in the upper sections and you find yourselves letting the bike slide and drift around a little more than you’d usually be comfortable with. 

You reach a lookout and realise you’re almost home, the view from the forest over farmland and rivers all the way to the ocean reminds you of the insane amount of variety that just four days has offered. The last section of the Bump is steep and rocky and when you finally reach the bottom there are fist bumps, and even hugs such has been the experience of the trip. But it’s not quite over. 

You make your way toward the coast, with a final servo stop for a Powerade and a Gaytime and roll out onto the very southern end of Four Mile Beach. What a way to finish. Super firm sand glides effortlessly under your tyres as palm trees pass you by on the left and you look out into the Pacific on the right. For 15 minutes you roll in together, four abreast, the sound of waves lapping at the shore, of tyres on the hard sand and you park up at the Port Douglas Surf Club. You’ve got a couple of hours till your shuttle bus back to Cairns. ‘Four beers please.’

Choose your own adventure

But this was only one possible scenario, and this was only four days. If you have longer you could camp out, be a bit more flexible with your route. You could venture further north into the Daintree and explore hidden beaches above Cape Tribulation and the Bloomfield Track. You could go full-gnar and take on the Creb track or spend a few days riding the better-known trails around Cairns. The possibilities are, literally, endless. 

If it’s adventure you seek, and a departure from your own definitions of mountain biking, then the Tropical North has more to offer than you will believe. 

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