Riding the Whitsundays
Mountain Biking at Mole Island & Arlie Beach
Think of Arlie Beach, it usually evokes images of sailing, snorkelling, scantily clad backpackers and beaches that stretch for miles with emerald islands glistening like jewels. But the Whitsundays has a little secret that’s got ten out, and word is travelling quicker than a downhill on a Strava run.
MTB trails are being developed and there’s something for everyone; from a relaxed family, pedal through to tough and challenging trail rides. Top it off with some jaw dropping scenery and this part of North Queensland really is a must-visit location. There’s no shortage of activities for any non-biking companions, so you know they’ll be happy while you shred the trails.
For Townsville locals like myself, the Whitsundays serves as a southern playground and we recently loaded the car and took the three hour drive down the Bruce Highway to explore the tracks of Airlie Beach. Luckily my other half loves mountain biking too, so a week in Airlie to ride the trails was a no brainer. I’d been itching to hit the Conway Circuit – formally known as the Great Whitsunday Walk – as I’d heard so many mixed reviews; everything from ‘it’s unrideable and you’d be mad to go there’ to ‘it’s totally awesome!’
First up we popped into the local bike shop – Ride Whitsundays – to get an update on the trail conditions and the best way to tackle the ride. From there it was on to the Big4 Airlie Cove Resort and Caravan Park; it’s relatively central, mountain bike friendly and allowed us to get a good sleep before hitting the trail first thing in the morn
The Conway Circuit is a great adventure for hikers and mountain bikers alike. It’s an epic 28km point-to-point route situated within Conway National Park; a peaceful coastal park that overlooks the Whitsunday Passage. Overall, it’s quite a difficult trail that’s best suited to experienced riders. Littered with sweet single-track and rugged fire trail, it’s listed as a black trail or grade-four under IMBA standards.
The ride should take around four to five hours to complete, although much will depend on the time spent absorbing the stunning landscape. You’ll travel through the rather remote country, so be prepared. You need a good snack or two, and three liters of water—we packed a full lunch to make the most of our stops in the forest. You’ll also need a spare tube, bike tools and a first-aid kit. Make sure you let someone know where you are going to. Water is available at campsites along the way, but it should be treated. Mobile access is limited, so don’t rely on it!
We tackled the ride from the Kara Crescent trail head at the Airlie Beach end of the ride; doing it this way gets the big climb out of the way early on when your legs are fresh. Head right to the top of the Kara Crescent—any map or smart phone will get you there. At the end you’ll see a set of steps; that is the start of the Conway Circuit. The first part of the climb is a major slog and there are alternative routes up the hill—drop in and see Chris at Ride Whitsundays for the lowdown.
There’s a lot of climbing early on, so knock it into the granny gear and keep your legs spinning. Don’t be disappointed if you’re forced to push— only an elite handful can clean this climb. Your efforts will be rewarded with some breathtaking views and fantastic single-track that flows through the pristine forest.
Ulysses Butterflies flutter around and the dense tree top canopy brings welcome shade from the North Queensland sun. Keep an eye out for bush turkeys and Proserpine rock wallabies. It’s certainly worth taking a side trip to Honey Eater lookout too. This track snakes over tree roots and leaf matter finishing with amazing views over Arlie Beach and the Whitsunday Islands.
There’s some more climbing once you rejoin the main trail after the lookout detour. Of course, what goes up must come down and it won’t be long before you hit the extremely rewarding descent. From there the trail undulates with a few creek crossings and large exposed rocks to keep things interesting. The creeks can be great for a mid-ride cool down, although be aware that flash flooding can occur with tropical downpours. Stick to the mesh areas along the track and only cross the creeks if it’s safe to do so.
At the 20km-mark the trail eases off with a gentle green trail climb. I have to admit I found this one of the hardest bits and my legs were screaming—perhaps I was paying the price for my efforts on the big opening climb. You’ll finally emerge near Brandy Creek and the loop is completed with a 10km pedal along the bitumen back into town. We finished with some fabulous food and a few beers at Mr Bones Restaurant near Airlie Lagoon.
The trail can be done in the opposite direction to; by all accounts the ride is equally awesome, but don’t burn all your candles too early, as the big climb (around 400 vertical meters) is in the latter half when you reverse the loop. If you’re not up to tackling the full circuit, you can always ride in and back out from either end.
CONWAY PICNIC TRACKS
After tackling the Conway Circuit, the Picnic Tracks are a nice way to spin the legs out, have a barbeque and just chill. Head south along Shute Harbour Road and just past the airport on the right hand side you’ll find the Conway Picnic Area. This is the starting point for the Conway Coastal Fringe Circuit and the Hayward Gully Tracks.
The newest addition to the Airlie beach trail network, these routes are relatively flat and cater to kids and novice riders. You’ll find drop toilets, electric barbeques and picnic tables at the trail head, so it’s a great place for a family day out. The Coastal Fringe Circuit is 1.2km. Linking it to the Hayward Gully Track will stretch it out to a 3km ride. There are a few little obstacles along the routes that newbies may want to walk their bikes over but overall it’s nice and tame. Take your own water and insect repellent and be aware of other riders as it’s a multi-directional trail.
SOUTH MOLLE ISLAND
After checking out of our accommodation it was time to spend a few nights on the beautiful South Molle Island. It’s 10km off the coast and accessible only by boat. The island has an array of tracks that are open for both walkers and mountain bikers.
Our backpacks were brimming with camping gear as we rolled our bikes onto the Scamper Ferry. The Sandy Bay campsite was set to be our home for the next few days and the ferry drops you right there. It’s a well set out campsite with drop toilets and picnic tables, but there’s no drinking water. The Scamper Water Taxi provides each person with 5L of water per day, but make sure you take enough to remain hydrated.
South Molle is a stunning spot with white sandy beaches, pockets of rainforest and crystal blue waters. It’s also a wildlife refuge and a scenic retreat for nature lovers. There’s approximately 14km of trail on the island which includes both fire trail and single-track.
All of the trails are rated as green under the IMBA guidelines, so the riding is pretty relaxed with no scary obstacles. The trails lead to lookouts at Spion Kop, Lamond Hill and Balancing Rock. You can even pedal up to Mt Jeffreys; the highest point on the island—it stands at 200 meters above sea level, but the climb is relatively gradual and well worth it for the views. While the trails are relatively non-technical, the undulating terrain offers a nice flow that makes for enjoyable riding.
Aside from the riding, South Mole is a great location for swimming and snorkelling with a multitude of reefs fringing the island. There’s also rainforest to explore and kayaks available to hire (www.saltydog.com.au).
With its easily accessible MTB trails, spectacular scenery and a wide range of activities on offer, South Mole is a great place for a nature based family camping getaway. Wrap it up with the challenging Conway Circuit on the mainland and there’s something to keep everyone entertained!
GENERAL INFORMATION GETTING THERE
There are direct flights to Arlie Beach from most capital cities. It’s a small place, so you can ride to all the trail heads without being an elite rider (with the exception of South Molle Island of course).
Alternatively, you can fly to Townsville or Mackay and grab a hire car. Arlie Beach is 275km (approximately 3.5 hours) south of Townsville or a two hour drive (150km) north of Mackay. Hire cars can be arranged for pick up at any of the airports so you can save your legs for the trails.
The sea taxi trip from Arlie Beach to South Molle Island costs $65 return and this includes 5L of drinking water for each day that you’re on the island. While you need a camping permit if you’re planning an overnight stay, the trails are free for anyone to use.
The campsites on South Molle are run by the National Parks and Wildlife Services. Each night costs $5.75 per person or $23 for a family group. Book via the Queensland National Parks website and once you have secured your campsite, contact the Scamper water taxi to arrange your travel and times. www.nprsr.qld.gov.au www.whitsundaycamping.com.au
You can also hire kayaks and camping gear with Scamper, so if you are flying and need to travel light they have you covered. Secure parking is available if you have a car. This is located at Shute Harbour—prices vary depending on the length of your stay.
WHEN TO VISIT
From March until the end of October is the best time to visit the tropics. It’s warm all year round and winter is a magical time to visit. Summer is best avoided; monsoonal rain can swell the rivers, making many of the tracks impassable and dangerous.
There are tonnes of accommodation options to choose from in Airlie to suit a wide range of budgets. The Big4 Airlie Cove Resort and Caravan Park is mountain bike friendly, so you don’t have to smuggle your money pit in under the cover of darkness. They are currently upgrading their facilities to cater for mountain bikers including a bike wash bay. It’s situated on Shute Harbour Road in Jubilee Pocket. It’s just outside of town, but central to all trail heads. www.Bellavistaonnara.com
Stop at Whitsunday Gold Coffee Plantation opposite the Airlie Beach/Shute Harbour Road on the Bruce Highway, just one minute north of Proserpine. This gem will allow you to stock up on locally grown coffee to keep you going after a hard day in the saddle. www.whitsundaygold.com
Dine at Mr Bones Pizza and Tapas Bar, situated by the lagoon (263 Shute Harbour Road) in Airlie Beach. It’s a favorite with the locals offering terrific meals and boutique beers. It’s best to book a table in the evenings by calling 0416 011 615.
TRAIL INFO & BIKE SUPPLIES
On arrival in Arlie, the first thing you should do – apart from checking into your accommodation – is visit Chris Labs at Ride Whitsundays. Located in the Whitsunday shopping center (226 Shute Harbour Road), Ride Whitsundays, it’s the only bike store in Airlie—the next closest shop is in Mackay.
An absolute mountain biking guru, Chris knows all the top trails. She’s not only an elite mountain biker, but also a triathlete, MTB club president and advocate for building more mountain bike tracks throughout Airlie. The shop has plenty of spares, nutrition and other bike bits in case you forget something. Check out their web site at www.ridewhitsundays.com.au
In late September each year the Whitsunday Mountain Bike Club runs a two-day event called ‘The Dirty Molle Island Escape’. It is a social overnight camping trip with rides both on the mainland as well as on South Molle Island. For more information on this and other events go to the Whitsunday Mountain Bike Club website or www.dirtymolle.com.au www.whitsundaymtbc.com.au
Have a great time
Cheers Mary Ibarra
Mob: 0466 573 617