Is mountain biking the new skiing?
Epiphany. Religious experience. Transcendent ‘high’. Call it what you will. If you’re looking for ecstatic mindfulness at mind-blowing levels – the kind yoga takes a lifetime to crack – try mountain biking in Tropical North Queensland.
You’re guaranteed full throttle, white-knuckle meditation; blissfully unburdened of any conscious thought, bar the unadulterated thrill of living in the moment and staying on said bike.
First-timer’s tip: pack padded bike shorts.
Hit the (green) slopes
If mountain biking is the new skiing, Tropical North Queensland rivals Aspen, the French Alps, Whistler and St. Moritz rolled into one, but with an idyllic climate and ‘no worries’ laid-back lifestyle of the tropics.
Boasting a network of more than 700km of documented MTB trails, catering to all levels (from first-timers to pro riders) and traversing some of the most spectacular scenery on earth, the biggest question, understandably, is where to start.
Here, there’s no right or wrong. Visit Ride Cairns to browse all options (from Cairns to Kuranda, the Atherton Tablelands, Cassowary Coast, Port Douglas and Daintree) or, for the ride of your life, consider this winning trifecta:
Stop #1 – CAIRNS: MTB CAPITAL OF THE WORLD
First stop: Cairns. Hands-down, this city has earned its reputation as a global MTB capital.
Just 20 minutes’ drive from Cairns Airport lies Smithfield Mountain Bike Park, hailed by mountain bikers as the highest profile rainforest trail system in the world and previously hosted the 2017 UCI Mountain Bike World Championships.
Don’t have a mountain bike or want to travel light? No fear. Saddle up with Tropic Rides, a bespoke mountain bike hire, shuttle and tour specialist, owned by the affable, can-do Craig Nissen.
Best described as a rad perfectionist, Craig simply loves what he does. A die-hard mountain biker, he’s in the business of pairing clients with top-quality rides (bikes akin to a BMW 7-Series, sans heated seats) and, in his spare time, juggles responsibilities as Cairns Mountain Bike Club president.
As a result, he knows the region’s trail networks like the back of his hand, not to mention the best photo vantage points (pack a Go-Pro and selfie stick).
MEET THE KING OF THE MOUNTAIN (BIKERS)
Riding with Craig, you’re also likely to cross paths with a man renowned globally as the Maker of Mountain Bike Heaven, Glen Jacobs. This guy is like Yoda!
Through his company, World Trails, Glen’s handiwork has shaped every world cup, world championship and Olympic course in Australia and hundreds of recreational trails in more than 20 countries. His resume even includes a stint as the first official track designer for the International Cycling Union (UCI) as well as being the only Australian inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame in California.
Glen’s love affair with mountain biking and trail building began when he was a child, raking trails in the bush. Today, his biggest dream is the creation of the jewel in the world’s MTB crown. A shared-use walking/mountain bike trail, stretching 76km from Palm Cove to Port Douglas.
At Smithfield MTB Park, check out Jacobs Ladder, a feature named in Glen’s honour. Or, better still, ride it with him. You only have to ask! As he explains, a true mountain biker will “never say no”! It’s an unwritten code.
APRÈS-MTB in CAIRNS: WHERE WONDERS NEVER CEASE
Cairns (and Port Douglas) offers the perfect launch pad for après-MTB activities to write home about. An epic heli (or skydiving) adventure over the Great Barrier Reef and Wet Tropics area, including the Daintree Rainforest is, without question, the best way to fully appreciate the true majesty of the only corner of the planet where two World Heritage-listed wonders meet.
Keen to dive or snorkel the outer reaches of the reef, but short on time? Channel your inner rock star and follow the lead of Aerosmith frontman, Steven Tyler, by chartering a heli to Agincourt Reef. For those with more time, hop on a day trip or liveaboard boat.
Either way, keep your eyes peeled for the reef’s Great 8: Nemo-like clownfish, 120-year-old giant clams, Maori wrasse, turtles, sharks, manta rays, whales and 110kg potato cod.
Worked up a thirst? Hot chocolate, brandy and glögg (mulled wine) might be de rigueur après-ski, but après-MTB is all about kickass energy and celebration. Enter magic brews – coffee and beer.
If you’re heading out to Smithfield MTB Park from Cairns Airport, make tracks to Sipping Duck, arguably Cairns’ worst-kept local secret. Tucked away in a light industrial zone a few hundred metres from the Arrivals hall, it’s famed for serving high altitude beans (roasted daily) and barista art that’s almost too good to drink. Discover more of Cairns’ coffee trail here.
Then, go off track and on tap! Minutes from Smithfield MTB Park awaits a hidden treasure (best reserved for après -MTB celebrations) – namely, Queensland craft brewery, Macalister Brewing Company, overlooking sugar cane fields at the base of Macalister Range.
Stop #2 – ATHERTON TABLELANDS: COOL RUNNINGS
Itching to get back on your bike? No sweat. At least not up on the Atherton Tablelands, perched 800m above sea level (an hour’s drive from Cairns), surrounded by lush, rolling MTB terrain and welcome cooler climes.
From Smithfield MTB Park, break the road trip at Kuranda (approx. 30 minutes’ drive), where experienced mountain bikers can hit Kuranda DH (Downhill), a Double Black Diamond trail, boasting drop, jump, roller coaster, skinny, teeter totter and wallride features.
For the uninitiated, mountain biking, like skiing, colour codes trails according to difficulty: Green Circle means ‘Easy’; Blue Square, ‘Intermediate’; Black Diamond, ‘Advanced’; and Double Black Diamond, ‘Expert’.
That said, if the thought of a Double Black Diamond line makes your tummy jump and teeth teeter totter, don’t bypass Kuranda. Situated 25km northwest of Cairns, this quaint rainforest village – notably, home to the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway – is packed with cafes and restaurants, artisan shops and galleries, the largest butterfly aviary in the southern hemisphere and bustling Kuranda Heritage Market (guaranteed to make you smile – after all, who can resist a fur bikini!).
For those not driving from Cairns, journey instead via Kuranda Scenic Railway; a tropical version of Hogwarts Express passing scenery just as magical.
Returning to the important business of mountain biking, if you listen to Glen Jacobs, a Tropical North Queensland MTB adventure doesn’t cut it until you’ve experienced Atherton Forest Mountain Bike Park – a 55km network of purpose-built, single-track trails through Herberton Range State Forest, easily accessed from the centre of Atherton (population 7000).
Atherton Forest Mountain Bike Park promises the perfect confidence booster for absolute beginners thanks to roughly 20% of the park being graded Green (easy) and 80% Blue (intermediate), with optional Black lines. Best of all, it features a pump track and skills area to master MTB basics, from ‘attack’ (or standing) position to ‘staying loose’.
Tropic Rides’ Craig Nissen, as it turns out, is the best teacher. Mountain biking, he says, is a balance of opposites, to relax and ‘stay loose’, while remaining focused. From personal experience, once mastered, it’s arguably the closest encounter to a ‘religious experience’!
No time to pray, let alone think of anything but the task at hand, until you’re lost ‘in the zone’ or, to use MTB terminology, going with ‘the flow’. A concept enhanced by well-built ‘flow trails’ so named for their awesome flowing descents – perhaps best described as a terrain-induced roller coaster through banked turns requiring little pedalling or braking.
“It’s addictive, right?” says Craig. You betcha!
For trivia buffs: Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the concept of ‘flow’ as a highly focused mental state and means of seeking ecstasy by becoming so absorbed in an activity that we forget ourselves and lose track of time. He should definitely try mountain biking!
APRÈS-MTB in ATHERTON TABLELANDS: WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
In most places, you need to venture out just a tad (at least leaving your hotel room) to encounter Mother Nature’s wild things. Up in the Atherton Tablelands, however, the wild things come to you.
Check in to the Canopy Treehouses, in Tarzali, a luxury retreat that doubles as a wildlife sanctuary, set in 100 acres of ancient rainforest reserved for the private use of guests and a bevvy of resident critters.
Expect to be greeted by red-legged pademelon wallabies (in particular, the adorable ‘Rex’, who has become something of a guide, bounding along walking trails with guests); cheeky possums (adept at opening tree house doors, if left unlocked) and even inquisitive cassowary chicks.
To accommodate these welcome ‘visitors’, a supply of bananas are left inside to feed possums and a tub of seeds for the kaleidoscope of birds – Victoria’s riflebirds, spotted catbirds and scarlet king parrots, so tame they’ll eat right out of your hands.
In the rainforest, however, live rare Lumholtz tree kangaroos, endangered green possums, northern bandicoots and other marsupials. It’s also the ‘nursery forest’ for a resident male cassowary, nicknamed ‘Tui’, who has brought about a dozen chicks into the protected rainforest to raise. The latest being ‘Dino’ and ‘Sinatra’, now just over 18 months old, who walk right up to guests.
Aside from visiting wildlife, guests are guaranteed absolute privacy in the retreat’s glass and wood treehouses, kitted out with spa baths, a gourmand’s kitchen, fire place and balconies, complete with BBQ and hammock.
The Canopy Treehouses are also ideally situated minutes from Millaa Millaa Falls (a heritage-listed plunge waterfall, famous for XXXX Gold Beer and Herbal Essence shampoo adverts, Peter Andre’s ‘Mysterious Girl’ music video) – part of a 17km Waterfall Circuit also including equally breathtaking Ellinjaa Falls – and a short (30 minute) drive from Atherton Forest Mountain Bike Park and hip and happening Yungaburra.
After a hard day’s ride, pull up a seat at heritage-listed Whistle Stop Café in Yungaburra, which started out life in 1914 as the Bank of New South Wales. The café’s owner, Sue, was the last teller when the bank closed in 1967 and has a million and one stories to tell. Hot tip: order the corn fritters!
Foodies seriously want for nothing on the Atherton Tablelands. In Millaa Milla, Mungalli Creek Biodynamic Dairy, run by the Watson family, is committed to working ‘within the laws of nature’ raising the happiest of dairy cows on lush, organic grass-legume pastures. The win-win, they say: ‘Everything tastes better!’ Their award-winning dairy offers cheese and yoghurt tasting at a delectable ‘Out of the Whey’ cheesery and tea house, also serving High Tea, and stocked with local art and crafts and other gourmet treats produced locally.
Check out a full listing of the region’s farmers and producers via the Taste Paradise website and be sure to visit neighbouring Rainforest Heart – Australian Tropical Bush Food Orchard specialising in Davidson’s plum, Lemon aspen, Rainforest cherry and lychee. Take home a range of spices, dukkahs and jams.
Crank it up a notch with a visit to Australia’s northernmost distillery, plonked in the middle of a banana plantation. Welcome to Mt Uncle Distillery, famed for its quintessentially Australian, Botanic Australis Gin, an Aussie version of the 300-year-old London Dry recipe, swapping all ingredients with native botanicals (14 in fact, including bunya nut). A gin so good that head distiller Mark Watkins exports 20,000 bottles a year to London.
Stop #3 – PORT DOUGLAS: GOLD-CLASS ACTION
Don’t leave Tropical North Queensland without pulling into ‘Port’ (as the locals call Port Douglas). Mountain biking in this resort town is steeped in history. Namely, Australia’s longest running point-to-point race, the RRR (Rural, Rainforest and Reef) Mountain Bike Challenge – launched in 1991 and, since 2010, forming part of the annual multi-sport Cairns Airport Adventure Festival.
On historic worthiness scale, the RRR – mapped out by Glen Jacobs and a mate in 1990 – takes in the ‘Bump Track’; a trail originally carved out by gold miners, in turn leading to the establishment of Port Douglas back in 1877.
The Bump Track remained the only road out of Port Douglas until the Captain Cook Highway was opened in 1933. Amid fears of potential invasion during World War II, land mines were laid along a half-mile section of the track, only to be detonated after the war. It was not until the 1970s that local motorcycle enthusiasts re-opened the trail, before Glen expanded it to create the RRR race.
The race, according to Glen, who rides it every year as a ‘social activity’, takes pole position as one of the world’s most awe-inspiring on pure scenery alone, starting from Weatherby Station (a 140-year-old property at Mount Molloy), hurtling down the western edge of the Great Dividing Range, through rainforest, cane fields and finishing on Port Douglas’ famed Four Mile Beach.
Not quite ready to enter the RRR (run as a 35km Classic or 70km Endurance) but want to experience the Bump Track on a mountain bike? ‘Port’ local, Steven Rankine, of Bike n Hike Adventure Tours, guides day and night rides that include the historic trail! Top pick, however, is his half-day tour that takes in Hartley’s Falls and swimming hole. A truly magical spot that on any given day you’re virtually guaranteed not to come across another living soul.
APRÈS-MTB in PORT DOUGLAS: PLAYGROUND TO THE STARS
While on French ski slopes, celebrities and royals are mobbed by paparazzi, in laid-back Port, no one makes a fuss. Although, if you ask, everyone has a celebrity story!
Iron Bar hotel joint owner, Steve Hull, for one, is no stranger to stars. His most memorable encounters occurred during the filming of The Thin Red Line (1998), when a who’s who of Hollywood descended on the town, including George Clooney, Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson, John Cusack and Jim Caviezel… to name a few. And during the filming of the 2008 film, Fool’s Gold, Matthew McConaughey became an Iron Bar Hotel regular, buying the whole bar of 600 people a drink on his 37th birthday.
Want to live it up like a star? Check in to one of Executive Retreats’ holiday homes – the epitome of luxury and discretion across 70 properties from Mission Beach to Cape Tribulation. Among them is Bali Hai, near Mossman (just north of Port Douglas) – the location for Australian actress Rebecca Gibney’s wedding.
Port Douglas is also a springboard to Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest and Mossman Gorge – and the biggest superstars of all… the wildlife. Sign up for a mind-blowing expedition with Daintree Wonder Tours, taking in Daintree National Park, Cape Tribulation, the mighty Daintree River (and even mightier crocs) and Mossman Gorge.
In the World Heritage-listed Daintree rainforest, keep your eyes peeled for the elusive musky rat-kangaroo, which, according to naturalist guide Dean Nulty, tops the line-up of unusual Daintree rainforest animals (many of which are found nowhere else!).
Still got energy to burn? Tuck into a black sapote or roasted wattleseed ice-cream at the Daintree Ice Cream Company (where cassowaries commonly roam); or dive into the Great Barrier Reef on a half-day Ocean Safari tour from Cape Tribulation beach (where two World Heritage-listed wonders meet).
And finally, if you mastered the Bump Track on a mountain bike, there’s no better place to raise a glass than at Hemingway’s Brewery, a hip microbrewery that uses pure water from Mossman Gorge and named one of its brews – Hard Yards American dark lager – after the historic track. Cheers to that!
Cheers to that!