Australia is crossed by plenty of long-distance back roads or trails. Most are suitable for a well-equipped mountain bike if you have a week or two to spare. All these trails need a reasonable level of fitness, and some experience in bike touring self-sufficiency is useful.
Some routes were used by gold prospectors, Tanami Track, or follow the Old Ghan and Overland Telegraph Line, Oodnadatta Track. Others like the Gibb River Road or the Buntine Highway were development roads constructed to open up areas for cattle stations in the 1950s.
More recently recreational tracks have been created to promote, err, recreation and tourism: Mawson Trail, Munda Biddi Trail and Tasmanian Trail.
There are others that happen to traverse interesting country in linking destinations: Karijini National Park, Kakadu, Jutpurra (Gregory) National Park, Mereenie Loop, Finke Road and south coast of Western Australia.
The fabulous and challenging Cape York ride leads from Cairns to, well, The Tip at Cape York.
The Mawson Trail is a great introduction to the getting-off-the-main-road mountain bike expedition. It’s easy to get to, just start pedalling down outside the Festival Centre but then again getting back from Blinman is more of an issue. The Mawson is scenic, starts with plenty of services and budget accommodation nearby but then edges more remote. 2 weeks should be sufficient taster to encourage further little adventures.
The Munda Biddi Trail and Tasmanian Trail are roller coasters with plenty of huff and puff and the occasional push-a-thon and needing off-road mountain bike skills. The often rugged road surface through the Judpurra (Gregory) National Park makes this a challenging ride in places.
Mereenie Loop, NT
Part dirt road alternative touring route between Uluru and Alice Springs that takes in Kings Canyon, (well worth a look), and the West MacDonnell National Park, (ditto). Heads off through plenty of scenic territory and joins the dots between many of the Centre’s best features. It’s short but a bit of a slog. And you are touring with the tourists once you hit the National Park.
Mawson Trail, SA
The 900km long Mawson Trail has been set up as some sort of tourist adventure by the South Australian government and the level of investment in signage and the trail documentation is impressive. The route seems designed by watching the track an ant would take across a map: ie it’s all over the place. If there’s a direct road between places the trail will usually take some other more deviant route up an adjacent valley then with a hill up-and-over involved.
The Mawson is a mountain bike trail, rather than a cycle tour, over pre-existing unsealed back roads, forestry tracks, fire trails, farm roads etc that has had plenty of signage installed along the way. It’s a fantastic introduction to off-highway dirt track riding, more challenging than you might think, particularly the steep sections on the first few days when you head through the Adelaide Hills and into the Barossa Valley. The whole track is scenic but the north section through the Flinders Ranges is particularly dramatic.
Oodnadatta Track, SA
Classic outback track with settlements conveniently spaced and plenty of railway detritus, and natural history along the way. Not as remote as the Tanami or Great Central Roads but much more interesting than plodding up the Stuart Highway.
Finke road, SA/NT
A more interesting and remote track north than finishing the Oodnadatta Track via Marla and the Stuart Highway for those who are prepared. Expect few other travellers particularly on the Abminga 4WD track that forms part of the Old Ghan Track. The 14km of intermittent sand just south of New Crown homestead is a trudge but the reasonable, if slow, travelling along the rest of the route makes up for it. If you ever wondered what the world might look like after climate change has wrought its devastation this route is for you.
Tanami Track, NT/WA
Not the tough, tough Tanami Track ordeal it once was, now it’s a generally fair unsealed road. It’s just a long way between settlements, ie 580km from Yuendumu to Billiluna now the Rabbit Flat roadhouse has closed on 31 December 2010. The Northern Territory section of road is usually in much better condition than the more sandy WA side due to the combination of the road trains servicing some of Australia’s most productive gold mines along the route from Alice and Federal Government money. Be prepared for creating a major surprise for the other, four wheeled, tourers when they encounter someone travelling on a bicycle.
Buntine Highway, WA/NT
The “407 km to next services” sign at the start may be a little daunting on the outskirts of Halls Creek but generally great riding on a little used unsealed highway with shady camping sites at the waterholes. If you need company you had better take your own. And it’s rather unlikely to meet any other cyclists out here.
Judbarra/Gregory National Park, NT
Great rugged 4WD track riding through remote country in the heart of the Judbarra/Gregory National Park for those liking some solitude. A serious challenge for those who appreciate, and are prepared, for the really tough mountain bike touring experience.
Kakadu National Park, NT
Kakado, Kakadon’t is the Grey Nomad’s line when discussing the merits of the area. Yeah, it’s a sealed highway loop but most of the interesting sights in the national park are well off the Kakadu Highway on unsealed roads, you can’t see everything, or anything much, from your car seat with the window rolled down, you have to make an effort. (The Arnham Highway has less of interest.) Koolpin Gorge, Gunlom, Maguk, Twin Falls all take a bit of getting to. Caravan’s just can’t hack it and many don’t want to risk their car on the dirt.
Not so bad for those on an off-road bike, a mountain bike is handy, the essential sights, Ubirr, Nourlangie Rock, Maguk, Twin & Jim Jim Falls, Koolpin Gorge, oh, and those crocs down at Cahill’s Crossing, etc, are every bit as good as the tourist advertising proclaims.
Gibb River Road, WA
This road through the heart of the Kimberleys is flavour of the month for east coast 4WD expeditioners looking for adventure. Once a 4WD track where if fewer than half your dozen bottles of beer had blown their tops it was a good trip. Now it’s just another unsealed highway with 50+ 4WDs a day on their Dry Season tour. But great remote country to ride a bike across, particularly from Pentecost River to Mt Barnett roadhouse.
Karijini National Park, WA
Leaving the coast Karijini National Park is the key objective as you hack your way through the heart of the Pilbara. It’s a great ride on seldom used roads through generally uninhabited territory. The Hamersley Range is the largest and most rugged in Western Australia and has 18 of the highest peaks, umm, humps, in WA. A spectacular backdrop for much of the ride. Don’t expect too much company along the way. Not really on the touring path for most cycle riders but well worth the effort.
Munda Biddi Trail, WA
Wow. What a blast. The Munda Biddi is one huge, fun, ride, with plenty of sweat, toil, and hardship thrown in.
The advertising says a lot about the “world class” trail that currently stretches 609km from Mundaring, (only about 35km east of downtown Perth), to Manjimup. The eventual route will take it another 300km to Albany. This is mountain bike territory, not really a family touring bike trail like the Mawson Trail in South Australia, despite the official blurb. It’s aimed at a lightly loaded bike, with fat tyres, or semi-supported expeditions. The reason is that there’s a fair amount of difficult track surface, (pea gravel, sometimes deep and at times not rideable, further south there’s patches of sand) along the way which combined with the generally undulating terrain makes for a fairly physical adventure. She’s a full on wrestle on a roller coaster for anyone with a touring load aboard. Despite that there are long sections each day, mostly, where the riding is just sublime, long stretches, kilometres in a go, whizzing downhill on narrow single track through the forest. There’s buckets of fun on this little adventure, just don’t underestimate the amount of effort required.
Tasmanian Trail, Tas
A rockin’, rollin’ riding mountain bike trail, actually cobbled together for adventurous horse riders, through the heart of Tasmania that starts easily but soon takes you on a daily roller coaster and occasional push-a-thon. There’s pedalling on back country roads, forestry tracks and fire breaks with the surface sometimes sealed, sometimes boulder hopping, and everything between on the official marked route.
Being Tassie there is a fair probability getting wet, ie, rain, or in the numerous unbridged creek/river crossings. At least that washes off the mud. On the effort scale this is a few steps beyond your standard bike touring circuit of Tassie, better for the mountain bike.
South Coast, WA
This is the great secret in long distance riding across Australia, kind of like Victoria’s Great Ocean Road on steroids. Zip around the coast, plenty to see, not much in the way of traffic. What’s not to like?
Well, there is a bit, the first three that come immediately to mind: hills, wind and inclement weather. There’s lashings of all three. It’s a roller coaster, true, but you get to whizz down the hills and it’s mostly less than 20 minutes of up before the down. There’s a fair chance of wind behind you as you head east, that’s a plus, unless, of course, you are riding into it. The weather, basically there can be just far too much of it.
But despite these factors the countryside you traverse more than adequately makes up for it: surf beaches, (Yallingup), wineries, (Margaret River), Cape Leeuwin lighthouse, rail trails, (Cowaramup, and Denmark/Nornalup), big tree forest, (Pemberton to Walpole), beaches, (numerous but Greens Pool, Two Peoples Bay, Point Ann etc are a start), national parks, (Leeuwin Naturaliste, D’Entrecasteaux, Walpole-Nornalup, Stirling Ranges, Porongurup, Fitzgerald River.)
Great Central Road, WA/NT
A handy shortcut from Western Australia to the Northern Territory, missing out on the Nullabor and South Australia, but only for the intrepid, ie, it’s a long ride unsupported, out among the sand dunes and camels, the road is often smashed up by the roadtrains and 4WDs, and some of the gaps between permanent water points are 3 days riding.
While the road is generally well maintained it can be soft, or with chunky gravel, for long stretches. Fat tyres, ie, 2”+, are plenty useful and you may spend considerable time whirring away in the granny cog.
Mt Augustus, WA
Some excellent dirt road riding through the heart of the Gascoyne area with the major highlight Mt Augustus National Park, ie, the permanent waterhole at Cattle Pool and a climb of the world’s biggest monolith, whatever that means, Mt Augustus.
Once you leave the company of the roadtrains and caravans on the highway you have all that austere scenery to yourself and the road surface is generally magnifique. What more could you wish for on a long distance bike ride?
South Gascoyne, WA
An attractive alternative for those wishing to avoid the “boring” and busy, ie, caravan and roadtrain laden, North West Coastal Highway from Geraldton to Carnarvon and treadle down a better than average, often sublime, Outback unsealed road on your lonesome.
A few highlights along the way, mainly to do with water, Ballinyoo Bridge at the Murchison River, Bilung Pool, and Rocky Pool, with the opportunity to venture off for a couple of days detour to the dry gorges of the Kennedy Range National Park.
Murray River, SA/NSW/Vic
A humungous muddy river, dirt tracks adjacent, through extensive River Red Gum forests, riverside campsites, many free, the possibility of a cooling swim, paddle boats, wildlife, not so many hills for 80% of the way, plenty of occasional civilisation to restock supplies, proximity to population centres, there’s lots of reasons to try this trail.
Helps that there is excellent access, after all you can start, or finish, close to Adelaide, or Canberra, and that the full ride can be achieved in various stages if 3 or 4 weeks doesn’t easily fit in your schedule.
Plenty Highway, NT/Qld
Like the Great Central Road, a back country mostly dirt road shortcut, in this case between Alice Springs and Central Queensland that’s primary virtue may well be the avoidance of the Stuart, Barkly and Flinders Highways.
Another Central Australian “highway” that hardly deserves the appellation this one is only for the well prepared, it gets way remote.
Cape York, Qld
Terrific ride. One of Australia’s most challenging rides due to the terrain, plenty hilly, the heat, there’s a lot of it, roads, can be soft but usually not for long, traffic, far, far too much of it, the sheer distance, but it’s also one of the most fun.
The 4WD track components are the most memorable, Cape Melville, Frenchmans Track and most of all the Telegraph Track, often sublime riding, with plenty of opportunities for cooling off in the 26º C creeks, sometimes a few hours between meeting fellow travellers, invariably in 4WDs, great campsites usually near water, there’s a lot to like.
Birdsville Track, SA/Qld
Fortunately there’s still a few major tests for the average dirt road bike tourer left in Australia and the Birdsville is up there for those who prefer cycling with some quantity of adversity to overcome.
It might not be as rugged an adventure as it once was, say back in the 1930s but the unsealed highway still presents its challenges: a mainly chunky road surface; goodly distance between supply points, like 523 km; a general lack of facilities along the way; the requirement to plan the water situation; the need for self sufficiency out there.