Cycling the Mawson Trail is the best fun I've ever had on a bike. Put it on your bucket list.
Words - James Raison
How do you begin to describe the Mawson Trail? Imagine a toddler threw spaghetti at a map of South Australia and you’re half-way there. It’s a 900-ish km cycling adventure trail starting in the Adelaide outskirts and running to Blinman, South Australia’s highest town. The State Government has invested in some comprehensive signage to lead the way through some mind-boggling terrain. I suspect the route designers also invested in several cartons of cheap piss because the trail feels like it was drawn up by drunkards with rigid moutainbikes. It’s absolutely brilliant. Cycling the Mawson Trail is a guaranteed good time.
The Mawson Trail’s diversity is hard to wrap your mind around. It changes constantly. Almost every 30 km throws something totally unique at you. There’s paddock bashing, forest trails, immense open desserts, gnarled single-track, grassy fields, the astonishing Flinders Ranges, and the occasional highway when they realised you’ve had too much fun and need to get to town. The surprise and delight is constant, as awesome terrain dissolves into differently awesome terrain. It's impressive they've managed to make a 900 km trail so consistently fun.
Choosing a bike setup is about choosing your compromise. Our setups were 2 Specialized Sequoias, and my $700 Specialized Rockhopper hardtail MTB. My intentionally cheap bike got the job done and plenty of people do the Mawson on similar low end hardtails. I was very jealous of those Sequoias with their more roadie setups, and big 45 mm tubeless tyres. They out-rolled me constantly. Don't worry about speed too much though. Our ride was about the experience and making it to the end.
Forget weight weenie-ism, ceramic anything, and aerodynamics. We managed to be zero carbon as well. Here’s broadly what you need:
- Compliance. You’re spending the vast majority of the trail on rough, bumpy, vibrate-y surfaces. There’s some looooong sections of horrid corrugations, and plenty of rocks to smash into. Compliance will protect you from the daily Mawson battering. This trail will take it out of you. Big time. Bring a bike with a good amount of damping that won’t turn your skeleton to sherbert.
- Grippy tyres. You gotta go knobbly here people. Things get pretty loosey-goosey in spots with deep slushy gravel and sand. If it rains, the mud can get totally overwhelming. Be prepared. I rolled on some fat 2.1 inch MTB tyres and my comrades on some 45mm WTB Riddlers. All performed exceptionally well. Ideally 40mm or bigger, tubeless, with some grippy tread.
- Clearance. Fit the biggest tyres you can while leaving plenty of space for potential mud buildup. Muddy red clay nearly ended our trip on day one (pictures below). It was shocking how fast the mud accumulates and sticks like paste. Make sure you have enough grip to ride through the mud with enough room left over to carry some of it with you.
- Gears. You'll be hitting 20% in the first 5 km of the Mawson. Twice. There's plenty of double-digit grades on loose surfaces all the way through. I had a 3x8 drivetrain and loved it. Bring teeth. Lots of teeth.
It’s possible but not recommended to navigate by the signs alone. They are frequent, easily visible and make the trail very clear but we did miss some on our way. The biggest risk is being distracted by the scenery and missing one. We used Open Maps files on a Garmin eTrex to path find in tandem with the signs. We only got lost when we were chatting. It worked pretty well with a couple of glitches leading us a few metres off the trail.
Great news people, there’s plenty of towns along the way. There’s some longer 80 km-ish stretches without supplies so you’ll need to watch your water levels. How you space out the trail is up to you. Some people do it over 2 weeks, some nutbags named Carlsson and Hammond have done it in under 3 days. Just be ready for the dryness, heat, and the mega headwinds you’ll find in this part of the world. Some section can be long slogs in hot, and dry weather so always err on the side of caution with water. The opening hours can get limited the further from Adelaide you go, be sure to do some research.
Here’s a hot tip: ride with an ex-travel agent who will sort everything out for you. Dave Edwards (With All I Have bloggist) did a killer job sorting our timing and accomodation and he deserves 100% credit for this itinerary. It was the perfect mix of 5-7 hours of riding per day with a decent lunch stop and plenty of time to relax and recover at the end. Sure, you can go faster along the Mawson but we didn’t want to. This was a ride for fun. We chose indoor accomodation too. Rugged campers are spoilt for amazing opportunities to sleep under the stars but we opted for pubs and cabins. Be sure to book ahead, some of these places don't have many options.
DAY 1 - Adelaide to Tanunda - 117 km, 1,396 climbing
We started in Victoria Square, the dead centre of Adelaide before winding our way out of the CBD on the Linear Bike Path that runs by the River Torrens. A couple of tarmac kms on Gorge Road delivers you to the start of the Mawson and the hardest climb for the whole trip - Stone Hut Road. It's a total bastard and you will most likely be walking up some of it. Fight your way through and you’ll be delivered to the rolling gravel roads of the Adelaide Hills. Gravel-bashing gives way to Forrest-flogging through Mt Crawford. Eventually you’ll turn onto Steingarten Road before a confusingly Welsh-looking vista leads into a banger descent off the range of hills. We had diabolical weather on day 1 which was a timely reminder of how much respect you need to give a soggy Mawson trail. A few more gravel and dirt roads and you’re in the wine hotspot of Tanunda.
Day 2 - Tanunda to Clare - 118 km, 1,265 climbing
This stretch is all about agriculture. Smash down some delectables in Tanunda’s cafe strip before rolling out into the countryside. You’ll be spoilt with expansive views of massive yellow fields of canola broken up by other crops of the green variety (I don’t know crops).
There’s a long gradual climbing section from about 35-50 km. You’ll be treated to a banger descent as you fly down into Riverton at the 80 km mark. The rest of the day is pretty cruisy with a well-cured gravel road. The lowlight is the absolute snoozer of the Rielsing Trail that gets you into Clare. It’s a boring false flat drag of about 20 km aimed at novice cyclists who want to get liquored up while riding around wine country. It’s about the only time the Mawson is boring. Eventually you’ll roll into Clare with its multiple pubs, and one barista who didn't know what an espresso was. We rested our weary heads in a spiffy cabin in the Clare caravan park.
DAY 3 - Clare to Hallett - 133 km, 1,756 climbing
The morning is all about vitamin G as you grind out of the stunning Clare Valley. It was unexpectedly climb heavy as you roll through more and more farm land. Dirt backroads give way to an amazing paddock stretch and one of our favourite descents of the trip - a flyer down some thick, grassy hillside. The next 50 km is a gradual rolling up-hill broken up by the beautiful town of Burra for lunch before heading into windfarm country. It’s more crops until you suddenly hook a right turn and hit White Hill Road and enter a conservation park.
The views are utterly insane as you climb up and crest for a total bomber descent down into some eye-popping mallee scrub. The day ends with constant dry rollers around Mt Bryan and into the sleepy town of Hallett. We crashed at the Wildongleechee “Wild Dog” Hotel. From what we could see, it was the only place to stay in Hallett.
Day 4 - Hallett to Laura - 126 km, 1,241m climbing
The already amazing Mawson will really start blowing minds on this stretch. The day’s entre sees you climbing through majestic hills, winding your way around the massive windmills. You’ll hit the flat lands again and then it’s all about the “rural fence tour of the Mawson Trail”. Your companion for most of the day is a concrete canal, the perfect place to jump into for some symmetrical photography.
The highlight of this section is the world’s most aggressive magpie. This feathered jerk is known to all Mawson riders as a year-round swooper. He’ll attack you at least 5 different times as you circle its nest of evil. A bit over 70 km in, and you’ll face up to a tough climb out of windmill country. Crest the top and you’ve got one of the funnest sections of the trail ahead. There’s a few kms of verdant green paddock bashing that you’ll fly down, dodging sheep before bursting into Bundaleer Forrest. We had a total blast flogging it through the undulating trees, dodging sheep poo and branches all over the trails. Eventually you’ll leave the forest for a windy 20 km run into Laura. We eagerly set about eating our own bodyweight in icecream (Laura is the home of Golden North) and cleaning the filth off in a seriously deluxe cabin at the Laura caravan park. Heaven!
Day 5 - Laura to Quorn - 134 km, 1,334m climbing
The morning stint out of Laura is properly fantastic with a lengthy climb up some punchy, narrow trails. There’s ruts ‘n rocks to keep you entertained on the steep grades. Eventually you’ll get to the top and punch it downhill through the verdant green Wirrabarra Forest. It feels like rolling through the Adelaide Hills which is bizarre considering how far away this is. The forest bashing is a total hoot but the fun has to end eventually and you’ll drop out to some rolling gravel roads and plenty of verts to chip away at your weary legs. The astonishingly beautiful Mt Remarkable is your destination and the mountainbiking town of Melrose nestled at its base. Drop into Over the Edge bike store for any of your bikeables and be absolutely sure to get a coffee. It’s the best of the Mawson Trail, do not miss this chance. Leaving Melrose you’ve got one of the less interesting Mawson Trail segments with 30 kms of uninspiring flat gravel roads to Wilmington. It’s another undulating backend of the day with a tough climb up Richman Gap Road throwing yourself down a rocky descent and roll into Quorn.
Day 6 - Quorn to Hawker - 111 km, 616m climbing
The magic of the Flinders Ranges will slap you right in your awestruck, slackened jaw today. A short roll out of Quorn drops you at the foot of Yarrah Vale Gorge Road climb. This tough customer makes you work hard up its double-digit gradients before rewarding you with one of the best views in the Flinders.
Drop down and hit the tarmac for a few kms before heading between Mt Arden and Mt Ragless, then into Warren Gorge. We thundered through this section with a westerly wind eagerly shoving our backs. Most of the day is rocky, rolling, red, and sparse landscapes. We rolled into Cradock for some grub and met South Australia’s sweariest publican. It was a hilarious lunch. The last 25 km roll into Hawker was a gradual downhill to a well-deserved rest at the Hawker Hotel.
Day 7 - Hawker to Rawnsley Park Station - 91 km, 736m climbing
The short way from Hawker to Rawnsley Park Station is only 37 km, but then the Mawson Trail insists you hold its beer while it puts together a 91km of dirt adventuring. The morning is all red dirt with some prime outback paddock smashing. The trail winds its way around some of the iconic Flinders rock formations but don’t ogle them too much because there’s plenty of loose livestock to dodge. We ruined the serenity for many-a-cow this day. It’s a brief bite of tarmac around the 50 km mark before you swing onto an outrageously picturesque gravel road winding through native pines. The only annoyance here is the heavily corrugated road. Did you remember to bring that compliance? You’ll love it through here. It’s a decent 10 km gradual climb and some lovely rolling climbs getting you into the gob-smacking Rawnsley Park Station and the excellent restaurant where you can refuel. Surely it can’t get any better than today, right?
Day 8 - Rawnsley Park Station to Blinman - 95 km, 1,142m climbing
It can, and does get better. For us it started with the otherworldly sunrise pictured above. There’s some rocky trails through the Station to warm you up. We had a disastrous mechanical when Sam’s rear derailleur made friends with a rock. Several bodges later he was single-speeding his way through the rest of the trail, out onto the highway, and into the fancy pants Wilpena Pound visitors centre. The following stretch is mostly single track and slushy gravel access roads across 15 km of banger descending.
At this point we said goodby to Sam whose bike was jettisoning chainring bolts out of protest. He turned and limped back to the Wilpena Visitor’s Centre. Eventually you’ll hit the dust creek bed before the Mawson Trail reaches its grandiose crescendo at Razorback Lookout. It’s impossible not to stop and take 700,000 photos here. Drink in the views. It’s magical.
The day’s riding isn’t over yet, and it’s more native pine forest bashing along some exposed and gorgeous ridges. It’s 25 km of undulating, pine-forested trails that we took at almost full gas. It was the last day to enjoy and we celebrated by flogging it. The trail delivered us to the last stretch of highway to roll into Blinman. We wanted an easy roll on knackered legs but Blinman is SA’s highest town so those wishes fell on deaf ears. The final Mawson signs pointed exactly where they should: the Blinman Hotel front bar.
Back to Adelaide
After sinking a cuppla beers in Blinman we still had to get to accomodation in Parachilna, a 32 km roll away. We organised a bus from Parachilna to Adelaide the following morning with Genesis Transport. We were totally surprised by the stretch between Blinman and Parachilna - one of the most amazing roads I've ever ridden on. It was a surprising bonus atop an amazing trip. The bus ride back from Parachilna was easy, and comfortable. We highly recommend getting in touch with Genesis if you want to replicate our trip.
The Mawson Trail is the most fun I've ever had on a bike. I felt like a kid again, just riding for pure fun. Each days' ambition was simple: ride to where we'd sleep. Traffic was minimal if there was any at all, the people we met along the way were lovely, and the weather was perfect after day one. The route is set and all you have to do is choose your adventure through it. Any camping enthusiasts will be spoilt for amazing places to sleep. Grab your bike, grab some mates, and just have some fun. What could possibly be better? (Better coffee along the route actually...)