When you think of mountain biking, you think of – well – mountains.
Mountains in famous locations with big ranges like Whistler and the Alps, where the disciples of the sport congregate in search of the holy grail of trails.
In Australia, what we lack in jagged ice-crowned pointy parts we make up for with deep gorges, seemingly bottomless ravines and escarpments dating back to at time when the continent was attached to Antarctica.
If someone asked me to name the holy grail of Australian mountain bike destinations, it would have to be Far North Queensland: A wet tropical paradise of lush rainforest, fantastical creatures, free-wheeling characters and kangaroo-fur nipple warmers. It’s true. You can get bikinis too. The Far North is far out in every possible way. There quite simply is nowhere else in the world like it.
Far North Queensland is only place on this planet where two World Heritage sites – The Wet Tropics and Great Barrier Reef – sit side-by-side. Together, they add up to scenery of exceptional beauty. Where else can you ride through rare rainforest and pop out on white sandy beaches which fringe offshore coral reefs?
As UNESCO puts it: “Stretching 450km along Australia’s northeast coast, The Wet Tropics presents an unparalleled record of the ecological and evolutionary processes that shaped the flora and fauna of Australia.”
Imagine riding in a rainforest ten times older than the Amazon chock-a-block with giant figs trees and carpeted with clusters of basket ferns. Among flora that dinosaurs once munched on, you might catch a glimpse of the other-worldly Southern Cassowary – the largest, flightless bird in the southern hemisphere. At the end of a sweaty stoke-filled day, picture yourself cooling off under waterfalls tumbling into pristine pools…
After a worldwide search, Avatar designer Dylan Cole got that picture too. When he created Pandora, he credited Queensland’s rainforest mountains as the inspiration.
Mind blowing and unique environment aside, when you hit the volcanic clay dirt of Far North Queensland you’ll be riding the trails that put Australian mountain biking on the world map.
Back in the 90s, a local rider built a network of trails from his backdoor – trails to cope with the thrashings from storms, cyclones and the half-metre wallops of rain that are synonymous with the Wet Tropics. The International Cycling Union (UCI ) were so impressed with the Queensland trails, they employed the trail builder to create hundreds of trails around the world.
Smithfield mountain bike park- as it’s now known – is just 20-minutes drive north of Cairns Airport. It’s grown into a 60-kilometre network of trails with a history of hosting multiple World cups and Championships. If big jumps are your thing, you can test yourself out there on some of Australia’s most thrilling descents.
Seven hundred-kilometres of mountain bike trails for every level of rider stretch throughout the Cairns region all the way to The Cassowary Coast. Between them, trails at Atherton, Mareeba, Mission Beach, The Misty Mountains and Port Douglas cater for beginners and families while still keeping the experts jumping with joy.
All are mapped and well marked, but if you want to find the best gnarly tracks, croc-free natural pools and beauty spots, it’s best to hire a local who knows the routes. Tropic Rides can help you with guidance, bike hire, shuttles and skills.
Of course you wouldn’t come all the way to Australia without experiencing some iconic adventures on the side
There are hundreds of trips to consider when you’re giving those quads a break.
If you still feel the need to feed the adrenaline junkie, it doesn’t come better than a 14,000-foot leap from a plane over the Great Barrier Reef. Or for an Avatar’s view, try Canopy surfing on a zip line.
You can wrap up a bucket-list of other must-dos by joining a trip from Daintree Wonder Tours, which includes a crocodile cruise on the Daintree River to observe the five-metre man-eaters that “could live up to 12 months on one belly full of human” according to Skipper Glen.
It’s not all roughty-toughty Aussie larrikin though. This film-location favourite is stuffed with enough swanky accommodation, chic boutiques and award-winning gastronomy to keep Hollywood’s hottest happy. Matthew McConaughey and George Clooney have happily propped up the balmy bars of Port Douglas. Singer Pink preferred to sip cocktails while racing cane toads.
It sums up a region which prides itself on its being welcoming, down-to-earth and so refreshingly different. One minute it’s wild and wonderful; the next boutique and fabulously chic. Either way, you’re in for a thrilling ride.
For info on trail destinations and maps: ridecairns.com
Mountain Bike Tours: tropicrides.com and bikenhiketours.com.au
Mountain Bike Clubs: ridecairns.com/community
Things to see and do: queensland.com
Indigenous experience: bamaway.com.au
Croc cruise: daintreewondertours.com.au
Tracey Croke is a travel journalist addicted to offtrack adventure and exploring on her bike. Her quest for a good story has involved venturing into post-conflict Afghanistan to join an expedition across the Pamir Mountains, being rescued by nomads in Kyrgyzstan’s Talas Range and having her smalls rummaged through with the muzzle of a Kalashnikov.
More at: www.traceycroke.com