For the last few years, autumn has meant a bike trip to the Northern Flinders Ranges in South Australia for Robyn and me. It’s a rugged, ancient landscape created 540 million years ago, when it was folded and faulted into a large mountain range. Since this time the area has undergone erosion resulting in the relatively low ranges today.
This time we decided to try a 4WD track that we had heard of which led down a series of valleys from the old mining town (now ruins) of Sliding Rock to the town of Blinman, approximately 77km, starting at Waraweena station.
In 1996 Warraweena (355² km) ceased being a sheep station and the lease was bought by Wetlands and Wildlife, and is now a private conservation park whose main goal is the recovery and conservation of native flora and fauna. The property is run now by Gina and Stony Steiner who are only too happy to have you stay on their property.
Yep, a 4WD track in the rugged Flinders Ranges and a couple of mountain bikes towing BOB trailers. This shouldn’t be too much of a challenge for a couple of kayak paddlers.
This track connects 3 historic copper mines, Sliding Rock, Nuccaleena and Blinman mine. It follows the old road that once connected the town of Sliding Rock with Blinman in the 1870’s. Starting at Sliding Rock and passing into Moorillah Station, the track then roughly follows the boundary fence through Glasses Gate with panoramic views over Lake Torrens to Mount Samuel, the ABC Range and Wilpena Pound.
The mining boom was short lived and the town of Sliding Rock fell into ruin and the town of Beltana 20km away gradually followed a similar fate. Now only a handful of people live in Beltana with most being employed at the Leigh Creek coal mine nearby.
Robyn has a connection to Beltana, as her great grandfather had operated the Overland Telegraph office there around 1872. The Adelaide to Darwin morse code line had been the only link between south and north Australia.
The Copper trail was rated as easy-moderate on the station 4WD scale and we thought it would be reasonable by bike and enlisted our friend Gavin Lodge to come along on the ride.
Autumn temperatures can easily soar into the high 30°’s C in this area, a far cry from the “45- 50° in the shade” of summer, but enough to make carrying lots of water mandatory. I have long ago learned not to rely on getting water from bores marked on the map or getting supplies from many of the “towns” listed. Sometimes, they simply don’t exist.
We had everything planned. Drive to Warraweena Station, camp the night, ride the Copper Trail to Glasses Gate – over 40km down the track the first day, and make Blinman via Glasses Gorge on day 2. Continue onto Parachilna and the Prairie Hotel on day 3 and then return to the car via bitumen and dirt roads on day 4 and 5.
And then the rain came, and it kept coming. The far north of South Australia was flooded. Lake Eyre salt lake was filling rapidly, the Cooper Creek was again flowing inland and water was everywhere.
After a 2 week delay we headed north knowing that most main roads were open and the road into Waraweena was passable. After a 540km drive and some rough roads we arrived at our campsite and duly paid Stony at the homestead for our stay, although he was a little perplexed as he had interpreted our passage through his land by bike as MOTOR BIKE, not a PUSHBIKE with a trailer full of water, food and tent.
The rain and flash flood had also taken out most of the track markers and washed away many of the small creek crossings and Stony decided that he would drive the track the next day to “lay down” some wheel marks for us to follow.
This gave us the opportunity to do a little exploring on the station tracks without the trailers. A great day of riding on some interesting mountain bike tracks that lead to fantastic views of the country we would be traversing. We decided that we would certainly be coming back to explore more of these tracks in the future.
An early start the next day to get the car stashed at the old shearers quarters and we were on our way to Sliding Rock ruins and the track start, much to the amazement of asmall convoy of 4WD vehicles.
The first problem was the red sticky mud in the drying creek beds. You simply broke through the crust and down into the red sticky mud. Not only did it clog up the pedal cleats on your shoes but it caked both the bike and trailer wheels.
Progress was painfully slow along the first few kilometres as we encountered the next problem. The floods had poured down from the hills gouging out deep channels across the track that were just big enough to fit the front bike wheel. Riding through each small wash-away just wasn’t possible so every 50-100m it was off the bike and push through. Some were quite large channels which required the 3 of us to get each bike and trailer through.
As soon as we moved into the range of hills the track followed along in sandy creek beds, again slowing our progress, however the shade from the overhanging gums trees provided welcome shade as the temperature climbed well into the 30’s.
Of course, we weren’t the only ones enjoying the landscape as we came across deadly, venomous brown snakes sunning themselves in the creek bed and flocks of galahs and other birds in the gum trees.
We lost the track several times in rocky creek beds and spent some time wandering off in different directions until we could pick up the tyre tracks left by Stony the day before. On more than one occasion the track climbed out of the gorge and up onto the ridges to a great view of the country and then plunged back down again into the same creek bed. Well I don’t suppose they were thinking of us on bikes when they made the track.
A hard day with lots of pushing of bikes , sandy creek beds and wash-aways and we had made just 14km of the 40km we planned for the first day. Camp was made on the side of a shale slope and we all retired early.
Day 2 dawned with Gavin up early and making tea for us all as we planned the next section of the trip. At this pace we would certainly be a few days behind schedule by the time we reached Parachilna.
At first the track followed creek beds then swung out into more open area where it was more defined and not so eroded by the recent rains. We made good progress during the morning, resting for the mid-day hours as the temperature was well into the high 30’s and riding again in the late afternoon.
The going was still quite tough, especially with a trailer on tow. Fortunately the load was decreasing with our consumption of water but still quite an effort was required to gain every kilometre.
Robyn had an unplanned dismount at speed when she lost control on a fast rocky section. Luckily there were no injuries, just a little bruised pride.
We camped trackside after travelling 26km for the day, quite a reasonable effort, considering the conditions and the heat.
Day 3 and we were away early to avoid the heat. The track was much better now and progress was good, although there were still many unrideable uphills and creek beds to negotiate. By mid-morning we were at Glasses gate, the boundary of Waraweena Station and Moorillah Station over 40km from our start.
The track entered Glasses Gorge and became a well-defined dirt road although still quite tricky riding through the sand drifts and avoiding tree branches swept down during the floods. We noticed that there were no tyre tracks and it seemed we were the first ones down this road since the rains.
Some kilometres down the road we came across the road junction of the Blinman to Parachilna road. Parked under the shady gums was an English couple who were being shown around the area by some friends from Adelaide. “Where the hell did you come from?” was their first greeting. We showed them our route on the map and they looked suitably impressed.
Being a day behind schedule, we decided to head straight for the Prairie Hotel at Parachilna instead of visiting Blinman so that we could catch up a bit on time. Blinman is the northern end of the Mawson trail, a 900 km cross country bike trail starting in Adelaide, and we had visited there several times on our trips along the full length of the Mawson Trail.
The Prairie Hotel is an iconic pub stop on the road north to the Birdsville and Oodnadatta Tracks. It boasts a permanent population of 2 people, a pub, a couple of houses, great cold beer and a carnivores menu of camel mettwurst and sausage, goat and feral pork. Kangaroo and emu, although not feral, are also on the menu, with smoked roo, roo fillet and emu pâté on offer.
We cycled out of the ranges onto the flat plains and wide open dirt roads arriving at the Prairie Hotel in time for a late lunch.
Our English tourist friends arrived in the pub bar telling the barman about these crazy bike riders they had met. Yeah, said the barman, they’re in the next bar chomping on lunch and quaffing their second bottle of red wine.
We enjoyed dinner and the sunset from the veranda, looking over the vast flat plain and decided on the comfort of a pub room that night.
Next morning it was 20 km. on the bitumen highway to the Beltana turnoff. Although we only saw a hand full of cars that morning it was great to get onto the dirt road again. The only traffic hazard we encountered was some camels that bolted when we rode near them.
We rode through the town of Beltana, not seeing any sign of human movement and followed the track back to Waraweena.
Flat and open are the best words to describe this section which is occasionally cut by dry creek beds. We camped the night on the flat plain above a gum lined river bed giving us only a few kilometres back to the car next morning.
Arriving back at Warraweena we retrieved the car, found a nice shower, had a chat with Stony and then started the drive back to Adelaide.
Our planned easy bike ride in this ancient land had been a little harder than expected and travel by bike down this track was both exhausting and thrilling but the scenery made it all worthwhile. Not bad for a trio of older kayak paddlers.