Sunday, 29 November 2015

A taste of the Munda Biddi Trail - Western Australia

Do meat pies and cycle touring go together like ducks and water? Is there a symbiotic relationship between bakers and bike riders; a long, evolutionary unfolding of shared necessity? 

Lunch time, at Pemberton in the south-west of Western Australia. Before we set of for a taste of the Munda Biddi Trail, we are tasting the local pies at Crossings Bakery. They're not bad. Certainly they are full of the sort of fat-fueled energy we'll need for the journey ahead. The Munda Biddi Trail (MBT) is a 1,000 km off-road cycling route stretching from Mundaring (near Perth) to Albany on the south coast. Listed as one of National Geographic's top 10 cycle rides in the world, it is a combination of single-track, forest roads, old rail trails and small sections of bitumen.  

With the last pie crumbs falling from our laps we consult the map of the MBT. We are only riding a small part of Section 6. Starting in Pemberton our route takes us up a steady hill through town and into the towering karri forests of the surrounding countryside. The plan is to ride half way to the next town, Northcliff, camping overnight along the way. As we want to loop this ride, to save transport logisitics, we will veer off the MBT and find our own back-road route to Pemberton. 

It is baking hot, with a porcelain blue sky, as we ride out of town. MBT trail markers zig zag through Pemberton's back streets, avoiding some of the town's steepest gullies and laneways. Before long, we enter the cool forest and join a sealed bike path edged with moss. It looks as if someone has painted green safety lines along each edge of the bitumen. 

The Gloucester National Park (free entry to bike riders) contains the famous Gloucester Tree. The tree has served as a fire lookout and in 1947 a platform, cabin and climbing pegs were installed. It remains one of three lookout trees that people are still allowed to climb.  The metal spikes spiralling up the huge trunk don't look the sort of thing one wants to tackle wearing cleats. So we simply stare up from the base to the dizzying crown more than 61m above us. 

From the Gloucester Tree, a series of switchbacks zig zag us through the lush forest down a steep descent. Karri trees loom above. It is single-track, a little damp and plants either side encroach on the track. Caz stops and clears a couple of sticks. I put my foot out at two hairpin corners. I have never ridden single-track trails loaded with full rear panniers and it takes a lot of concentration. It is shady and cool and I have goosebumps when we reach the road at the bottom. It is close to the most fun I've had cycle touring. 

There is a great deal of information available for anyone thinking of riding the Munda Biddi. Detailed section maps have been created and there's a bloke called Bill, who has an excellent website called followmyride. He says of the section we are tasting: "Map 6 is my favourite because it contains some of the best the Munda Biddi has to offer - the trail is often old form (rail trail) and good riding. The karri and jarrah trees are simply magnificent."

At the bottom of our steep descent the MBT begins to wind through drier forest – we turn right and left and right and left along a maze of old roads, always keeping an eye out for the MBT markers tacked to tree trunks and old stumps. Before long it is single track again, and stays that way for most of the afternoon. We pop out onto large forest roads, cross them, then disappear into the forest again. It is a wonderful way to travel, slower yet more physically demanding than cycle touring on a bitumen road. Blissfully free of any traffic, it is peaceful, exploratory, secluded. Purple pea hovea flowers are splashed through the undergrowth.

I can feel a greater range of muscles getting a workout – everything is switched on. I stand on my pedals to cross a few ditches, duck low and push back in the seat to sneak around a fallen tree. Looking at the track ahead it seems to be wider and more formed than traditional single-track but, not quite a road either. When we stop for an afternoon snack, I scuff the leaf litter with my shoe and see what looks like old rotting logs.  In fact they are old railway sleepers and I realise we are now following a timber tramway. It winds through patches of white sandy soil with lots of tea trees. There is the odd swamp of tar black water.

Section 6 allows for overnight stops in the small timber-towns such as Pemberton and Northcliffs so there are none of the great, purpose built MBT bike huts that can be found on longer sections of the trail. But as we are bush nuts, we hope to camp out. It is state forest where we are and a couple of campsites are marked on our regular travelling map. The first is by the Warren River at River Rd Bridge - an informal recreation area, and the site of an old wooden trestle bridge. The bridge is 150m long, has 34 spans, is a bit of a tourist attraction in itself, and a fun rickety ride. The last logging trains travelled across the River Road bridge in 1964. The MBT also intersects with the Bibbulmun Track at this point, so it is a dual use bridge (the Bibbulum Track is Western Australia's equally famous long distance walking trail – stay tuned for a story about our experiences on the Bib). 

The Warren River is a pretty spot. Time to give the steeds a rest. We decide to camp on the grassy bank of the river. It seems handy to have water nearby until we discover it is saline and barely drinkable. A lot of Western Australia's rivers have this problem, even when many, many kilometers inland. Fortunately we expected as much and have enough water for an afternoon cuppa and to get us back into town the next day. The dark caramel creek water comes in handy for boiling our pasta and washing up.

It is nice to be able to stretch our legs and I set off to walk a few hundred metres along each direction of the Bibbulum Track. Two different groups of tourists arrive in the afternoon and wander across the bridge. Later we discover the older couple we said hello to have left behind their empty beer bottles in the stump of a tree. A reason, inevitably, eludes me. 

It is easier to understand the actions of the two ducks, as they nervously ferry glide upstream away from us. It is even easier to listen to my tired body and be thankful for the short days, so that by 7pm we are in the tent, fed and fading with the light. Deep sleep and darkness descend, in which order I cannot remember.

With the dawn comes fog. Above the river, morning sun is splintered by the trees. It arrows through the mist and slowly, slowly burns it to smithereens. Blue sky asserts itself. The road beckons. 

It is mainly good gravel roads today and some smaller old tracks wending through state forest. There are some energetic uphills and more left turns and right turns and left turns until we flop ourselves down in the leaf litter beside a large fork in the road. It is sort of hot but sort of cool. We sit in the shade but then move into the sun and then change back to the shade and then break out the food for a leisurely snack. We have left the Munda Biddi Trail behind already. Where it crossed the bitumen of the Wheatley Coast Road we have continued south before taking Crowea Road west back towards the main Pemberton-Northcliffe Road. 

Dave Evans Bicentennial Tree

Without the Munda Biddi trail markers we take a guess and decide to follow the left fork and soon we are back on the busy bitumen, heading straight for Pemberton. As a suggested aside (one we did later by car) further east of us is Warren National Park and within it the 12km Heartbreak Trail – a good gravel road that descends into the beautiful Warren River valley, the slopes either side lined with enormous karri-trees. This steep and incredibly scenic track was built by hand to clear a path down to the river for fire fighters and the name reflects the hardship of the job. The park is also home to the Dave Evans Bicentennial Tree, the tallest of the three fire lookout trees that are open to the public. It was pegged in 1988 as part of Australia’s bicentennial celebrations, with 165 pegs to the viewing platform at the top where there are 360-degree views and close encounters with purple-crowned lorikeets bickering in the canopy and feasting on blossoms. 

Speaking of feasting, we are on a cracker of a downhill back into the town of Pemberton and at the bottom lies the bakery. As much as I love pies I don’t know that they constitute a healthy daily diet so we pedal past the pastries and up to the Pemberton Visitors Centre where our car has been parked overnight. The Visitors Centre has a register system for anyone that leaves their vehicle in the car park, so we head in and sign off. Our taste of the Munda Biddi is done and has left us hungry for more. 

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1 comment:

  1. Hmm, how did I miss this post!!! Enjoyed the read over an afternoon coffee. Really look forward to each of your blog posts - appreciate the effort that it takes.