Riding the Mawson Trail in Summer

Words & Photos by Dave Nairn

12 minutes

Early in 2020 I’d booked two weeks of leave over the end of November and early December in the hope that the Hunt 1000, an event I’d experienced some type 2 fun on in 2017, would occur. Well, things definitely changed over the course of the year (thanks Covid), and with two weeks off work and no Hunt 1000 to go to, I turned my sights to a different challenge. 

Riding the Mawson Trail was something that had been percolating in the back of my mind, having sampled a small part of the Northern section a few years prior. Now was as good a time as ever to cross it off the bucket list.

Seven Days to Ride the Mawson Trail

With a COVID scare the week prior to my leaving Sydney, the whole trip was on the rocks until around two days before leaving. The borders reopened, and South Australia greeted me with open arms and an intense heatwave. I knew I was heading out on the Mawson’s off-season into sparsely populated areas where tourism plays a big part in the opening hours of a number of pubs and stop-off locations, but that didn’t deter me.

I had given myself seven days to complete the trail, near 900km from Adelaide to Blinman, then down Parachilna Gorge on the final morning to meet (and absolutely not miss) the bus back to Adelaide, of which there were only two per week. I knew that seven days was at the quicker end of the general spectrum of completing cyclists, but as I was on my own, I could ride on my own timetable – or, as it turned out – by the weather.

There wasn’t much chance of the notorious ‘Mawson Mud’ (where the clay soil makes things gluey and unrideable) at the time of year I was riding, which was obviously a cue for the weather gods to slap me with some dry heat instead.

Day 1 – Starting Early to Beat the Heat

Day 1 came around and my original plan had me staying at Marschall’s hut for the night, after around 160km of trail. Instead, with a somewhat daunting 42deg forecast in Nuriootpa, which was on the route for the day, I made the decision to leave early from my friend’s house in Adelaide and just see how far I could go.

The 3.00am alarm went off and I was on the go by 3:15am. The sun was still a few hours away, but it did make for a serene commute out of the city complete with a nutritious servo breakfast of a donut and iced coffee on the way. The nasty climb out of Gorge Rd that greets you as you hit the Mawson proper was done in the dark (the way I like it as you can’t see the top!), with the glow of the city behind.

Rolling through the Fox Creek MTB area at daybreak, what followed was quiet backroads and perfectly crunchy limestone gravel through wooded greenbelts, finally popping me out on the day’s highlight of Steingarten Rd above the Barossa Valley. Once dropping into the Barossa though, the sun started well and truly baking and after ‘Nuri’ pitstop I found myself shade-hopping through farming country to get to Kapunda. I reached Kapunda around lunch and called it for the day, getting a nice cabin in the caravan park so I could sit out the heat in air conditioned minimalist luxury. Shame about COVID – the town pool was shut!

Day 2 – Riding Through Clare Valley

After coming up about 30km short on day one, my day two plans were also abandoned as another day of 40+deg temps was forecast. Another 3.00am alarm had me on my way at 3:30am. It was a shame to miss some of the scenery in the darkness, but entering the day, on two wheels in the glorious, golden Australian sunrise made me forget my woes.

No disappointment this day as sunrise greeted me from near Riverton all the way through to Clare. The riding was nice and chill on rail trails and the grades that accompany them. This gave me the chance to sit up and take in the beauty of the Clare Valley, with crop fields and vineyards abounding – sad to say there were no wine stops.

After a quick breakfast in Clare, I moved on to the more exposed country heading east, hitting the historic town of Burra around 11.00am. My Garmin was telling me it was more than 43deg so it was time to retreat to the air conditioning once again.

No wet Mawson Trail mud in Summer

Day 3 – Entering Australiana

Day three dawned with the promise of welcome milder temperatures, but as I was now a fair way behind my intended schedule, I decided to have a bit of a sleep-in and head off at a more reasonable time of 6.00am and see if I could use the long daylight hours to catch back up.

Leaving Burra you really start to get a taste of proper Australiana. You leave the intensive farming behind, with Mt Razorback and Mt Bryan as company on your left, and drop down out of the hills into an expansive vista of nothingness to the east. This is Big Sky country. A large loop through some dry creeks and Mallee woodland takes you to the north of the aforementioned peaks and drops you into Hallett. Tasty sandwiches awaited me at the General Store (it definitely would’ve been the pub if I had arrived a tad later) and I was soon amply fueled and on my way again. The next section was beautiful, open country all the way to Laura, with the Spalding aqueduct and Bundaleer forest to break up the farming country littered with wind farms.

With relief from the blazing heat of the previous two days, I managed to leapfrog over my intended destination, Curnow’s Hut. My legs and body were getting used to the routine now, after a couple of days of touring, so I decided to push on until the sun ran out. I dropped into Curnow’s anyway to have a stickybeak at the basic facilities. Getting to Laura was a possibility now, being about 50km away and with about 3 hours of sun left, I went for it.

Rolling into Laura at 6:30pm after a 6:00am start, I was very much done for the day. I contemplated pitching my tent at the caravan park, but the draw of the ease of another night of cabin life won again.

Day 4 – More Air-con and a Night in Quorn

I had good reasons behind choosing the cabin again, and while about 20% of it was for ease and comfort, the remaining 80% was due to the forecasted high 30 degree temps for the next day. My 4.00am alarm had me traversing above Laura and Stone Hut in the wee hours with single digit temperatures accompanying me. I was finally reaching the Southern Flinders Ranges and was looking forward to the scenery closing in. Glorious gravel roads took me all the way to Melrose by the early morning – unfortunately too early to grab a coffee at Over The Edge… next time. I left on the rail trail to Wilmington with memories of the fun MTB trails from previous visits. 

After missing breakfast at Melrose, I was thankful for Rustikate’s Feedlot in Wilmington to save me from the lows of another service station donut-breakfast. A hearty BnE had me on my way towards Quorn after a lap of the somewhat kitschy town that had it all: a Puppet Museum, a Toy Museum AND a Land Rover collection. Vibrant red dirt roads with next to no cars and vast skies were to feature all the way to Quorn, with just one little nasty hump to get over into town.

Hitting town around midday, with the temperature climbing up to and past 35 – quite the change from the sub-arctic temperatures at 4.00am – I was grateful to call it a day and grab a room with aircon to hibernate from the heat…again. Quorn is a beaut little town with expansive pubs, nice cafes and the (now tourist-heavy) Pichi Richi Railway, where the train station is also a museum. After lunch I ventured off with high hopes to the town pool on foot, only to be disappointed again. Shut. Covid. Still, I was grateful to be having a beautiful adventure throughout a pandemic riddled with lockdowns.

Dry track riding the Mawson Trail in Summer

Day 5 – No Mawson Mud

Overnight showers were a somewhat welcome surprise – but left me with a hint of trepidation. As mentioned earlier, the Mawson Trail is synonymous with sticky, clay mud after rain. After leaving town and hitting the dirt, my nerves lifted. There had been just enough rain to quell the dust, and give me a nice tailwind north. This day was truly sublime – tailwind, mild temps, a little bit of rain, and perfect roads with beautiful surroundings.

Extremely quiet roads took me through Arden Vale with some crisp dry river crossings framed by enormous River Gums, all the way through to Cradock (too early for the pub, but not too early to take a selfie with the town landmark ‘The Big Hat’) and onto Hawker for lunch. Feeling great with the agreeable winds, I decided I’d push on to Rawnsley Park Station, giving me a relatively lazy last day up to Blinman toward the end of the Mawson the following day.

North of Hawker got a little rough as the trail crossed through Mount Little Station, but the ever-encompassing Flinders kept me company. I followed the station tracks to the Outback Hwy for a stretch, where I counted two cars in total during my time on it. Turning right into the Moralana Scenic Drive, corrugations started to shake my fillings loose on the gradual climb, but the scenery didn’t let up as the road traversed from the western side of the Ranges to the East.

I reached Rawnsley Park Station after a bit over 200km for the day – I was ready for a relaxing swim in the caravan park pool. I should have known it would be closed, but I tried my luck. Sadly, it was not meant to be. A spectacular sunset with Rawnsley Bluff overlooking camp was a very welcome alternative.

Day 6 – Finishing With Beer at The Pub in the Scrub

My last day on the trail was the definite highlight. Starting off bumping and bumbling through the Station tracks, the Mawson Trail led me north alongside Wilpena Pound, under Rawnsley Bluff and up to the tourist resort of Wilpena Pound itself. Morning tea supplied by IGA got me on my way, with a nice southerly breeze to help push me along. From here the trail was familiar from a previous visit and after some small stretches of fun singletrack and the Wilcolo Track I was heading north towards Bunyeroo Gorge. The latter track slowly descends over its length with epic views all around. It’s hard to stop to take it all in, as the forward progress is so easy and rewarding in itself.

What goes down must come up though and after I reached Bunyeroo Gorge, a steep climb lay ahead to get me to the famous Razorback Lookout. Just before the ascent starts though, the gorge road delivers the goods as it meanders its way between some awesome rock walls. Razorback Lookout did not disappoint, providing me with amazing, quiet views of the trail rolling through the picturesque Flinders Ranges.

Standing here, it was easy to forget any aches and pains from the previous days. I had the whole place to myself too. There were a couple of huts to poke around in on the way out to Blinman; Yanyanna, Middlesight and Dedmans were all interesting to go through. The last 15 or so kilometres to Blinman are a little anticlimactic in that it is some prime bitumen, but it didn’t stop the beer tasting very good at the ‘Pub in the Scrub’.

Days 7 & 8 – A Rest Day Then Back to the Bus

After a couple of big days with favourable weather, I found myself with a spare day in Blinman, having arrived Wednesday, and with the bus picking me up from Parachilna on the Friday morning. I decided to fill in my rest day in the ‘town of few’ by doing the local mine tour and also ride a local loop from town, using a ‘PAR’ – public access route.

The loop from town took me out into more remote country past Moolooloo Station, crossing through Hannigan Gap, and gave me more views of this great part of Australia. The mine tour was great, and gets my recommendation –  I learned there is a deep history of the mining of copper. The town is still actually privately held and residents run it – no councils here. That night I camped behind the pub with the town genset to keep me company, I at least had the camp kitchen to myself.

Another highlight – although not part of the Mawson Trail itself – was the early morning sunrise ride to Parachilna to the bus through Parachilna Gorge. The colours remain extremely vivid in my mind, with deep reds of the earth and rock contrasting with green leaves and white bark of the river gums in creek beds and the deep blue sky. All the while soft-pedalling the descent at a fair clip all the way down to Parachilna.