Munda Biddi: Adventures as a family

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At over 1000km, the Munda Biddi Trail (Noongar for ‘path through the forest’) has been a significant source of weekend or more extended off-road rides over the last few years.  It stretches from Mundaring in the hills inland from us down a mostly undeveloped bush corridor to Albany on Western Australia’s southern coast.  Over those years we’ve ridden the majority of the trail and stayed in or visited all but one of the twelve purpose-built huts that serve as accommodation, but most importantly as places to pick up rainwater.

20151208-MB Map

What was the point of using most of the year’s holiday on a route we already knew?  Weekends and even the five day ones I’m gifted every now and then don’t really allow sufficient immersion to take us back to the living and travelling day-by-day on our bicycles that we wish we could never return from.  The Munda Biddi is just about long enough to allow access to this, and now we would be doing it with a 2 and half year old – not just us and our ingrained patterns of trail-living.  Having Bryn with us is what would make riding the route an adventure – something where the conclusion wasn’t foregone, and that would push us to learn a new, more flexible bicycle-travel modus operandi.

Life’s fluxes and storms diverted our attention from much in the way of planning, though we did manage to spend a weekend trying out the set-up we thought would work, having reluctantly agreed that our son really was growing up, so relegating previous iterations to history.

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With Sarah and Bryn still in the UK, I turned home-alone evenings into vegetable dehydrating sessions.

As it was, we couldn’t start when we planned; so in an uncharacteristic recognition of our finite energies, we agreed that starting from our front door by bicycle wasn’t going to happen.  Instead we did a few sums and settled on Dwellingup (180km south of the northern terminus – Mundaring) instead.

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Our trail southwards was varied – in gradient and surface. Fatter tyres offered control, maybe at the cost of agility, but a price easily accepted.

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“I don’t need the flies” – the most repeated phrase we heard, and somewhat unfortunately this was the only time he could be persuaded to wear a head-net…

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Bedtime-storytime fell into a daylight-defined pattern for all of us. Tent-living allowed us the freedom to keep to our own pace, rather than need to make it to a given hut or town.

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It wasn’t all about riding – there was a fair amount of walking too. Sometimes this was at our request when there was a particularly precipitous drop or rise – but more often it was simply his preference when the view failed to satisfy.

Keeping up the food supplies in little bags that Bryn had access to smoothed many frazzled moments

Keeping up the food supplies in little bags that Bryn had access to smoothed many frazzled moments

Stopping for cuddles or a myriad of other things happened more frequently than our habits could conceive - acceptance was worth the re-framing

Stopping for cuddles or a myriad of other things happened more frequently than our habits could conceive – acceptance was worth the re-framing

One for each hand - small and portable. Also easily lost/mislaid/inserted in some pretty creative ways down the sides of trailer seats with insistent need for prompt parental retrieval. These were part of a carefully metered collection of 'toys with a history' - He likes to know where each of them came from :-)

One for each hand – small and portable. Also easily lost/mislaid/inserted in some pretty creative ways down the sides of trailer seats with insistent need for prompt parental retrieval. These were part of a carefully metered collection of ‘toys with a history’ – He likes to know where each of them came from :-)

In contrast to our many prior cycle-journeys, this route doesn’t have phases distinguished by vistas, marked changes in scenery  or topography.  Progress is marked by much more subtle distinctions – surface, flora and ongoing passage of time.

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4.0" tread means riding rather than walking despite the load :-)

4.0″ tread means riding rather than pushing despite the load :-)

The majority of Australia, and certainly the country through which the Munda Biddi passes, is dry to the point where there is a bush-fire season and the Department of Parks and Wildlife plans controlled burns to reduce the chance of uncontainable blazes.  The latter still happen, and for us the trail passed directly through a large area at once charred and vividly alive (in recovery – as many of the plants require).

The marks of fires past are ever-present

The marks of fires past are ever-present

As yet unmarked by fire

As yet unmarked by fire

Burnt, but other signs of life returning

Burnt, but other signs of life returning

We pass through areas in the glorious, verdant throws of recovery - though still with any colour limited to new-growth-green

We pass through areas in the glorious, verdant throes of recovery – though still with any colour limited to new-growth-green

There are salutary reminders of the ferocity and heat of the blaze

There are salutary reminders of the ferocity and heat of the blaze

The Yirra Kartta hut was rendered visible from this viewpoint atop the neighbouring granite dome.

The fire rendered the Yirra Kartta hut visible from this viewpoint atop the neighbouring granite dome.

This sign once warned of lighting fires...

with this sign next to the hut once warning against lighting fires…

The hut is remarkably intact, but pretty much all plastic is heat-blasted or gone. Unfortunately this includes the pipes from the roof to the rainwater tanks.

The hut was remarkably intact, but pretty much all plastic was heat-blasted or gone. Unfortunately that includes the pipes from the roof to the rainwater tanks.

The route has many, many opportunities for trail-side camping. Given the ability to get away from the mosquitos and march flys along with weather protection, carrying a light-weight tent makes a lot of sense. Especially if staying in (even small) towns isn't your thing

The route has many, many opportunities for trail-side camping. Given the ability to get away from the mosquitos and march flys along with weather protection, carrying a light-weight tent makes a lot of sense. Especially if staying in (even small) towns isn’t your thing

The designers of the trail have routed it such that staying in a number of the towns along the way is expected. We didn't do this, but we did have a day off at one of a number of intervening non-camping options

The designers of the trail have routed it such that staying in a number of the towns along the way is expected. We didn’t do this, but we did have a day off at one of a number of intervening non-camping options

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With a little local enquiry, some quite satisfactory places can be your home for the nights

 

The Munda Biddi was well worth doing – to the extent that those who’re yet to experience the Australian Bush should come from other countries to do so.  My only disquiet relates to who the trail is aimed at, and whether that attracts sufficient numbers to justify the (amazing) facilities and upkeep.  The Munda Biddi Foundation describe the trail as a ‘world-class nature based off-road cycling experience’ – and seem to aim it at the middle ground – not hard-core mountain bikers – and not ‘your average touring cyclist’.  I add the final point because the trail definitely does not suit narrower tyres (under 2″) without mandating much pushing (probably accompanied by much cursing – or at least as described in the hut journals by those expecting the trail to be compatible with their 1.5″ road-touring tyres).  My low-grade dissatisfaction is fuelled by the proximity of the Bibbulman Track (the walking equivalent that was developed prior the the Munda Biddi) that often takes thoughtfully routed, interesting ‘singletrack’ when the MB resorts to vehicle-accessible gravel roads.  To say I have never ‘mixed and matched’ would be telling an untruth – no matter how ‘illegal’ or frowned upon that might be.  My assumption is that the MB is expected to develop towards more singletrack and fewer ‘connector’ sections.  I presume that finite finances and the conflict between concern that access might not be possible at all and a need to actually complete the trail (for many years the southern 1/2 to 2/3 were ‘in planning’) necessitated settling for less than might be desired.

While a greater proportion of the Munda Biddi trail is off-road and away from tarmac-sealed ‘car-roads’ (as Bryn calls them) than is true of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route in Canada/USA, there are still these ‘connector’ sections that don’t feel as in keeping with the bush-immersion of the ‘meat’ of the route.

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Wide open - and with very little shade. We seemed to hit prolonged periods of this on the hottest days which didn't help our desire for dappled, more interesting riding

Wide open – and with very little shade. We seemed to hit prolonged periods of this on the hottest days which didn’t help our desire for dappled, more interesting riding

Not all are bad - the route passes through many smaller towns, often with historical interest as well as re-supply

Not all are bad – the route passes through many smaller towns, often with historical interest as well as re-supply

13km of uphill road - maybe that should have encouraged us with the prospect of an easier ascent, but mostly it depressed us.

13km of uphill road – maybe that should have encouraged us with the prospect of an easier ascent, but mostly it depressed us.

It seems petulant and ungrateful of us, but the rest of the route raises expectations that much!  We admit to bias – we’re best self-defined as an expedition mountain bikers (and serial remote campers).  We’re there for the variation of thought that the riding demands of us – that absorption in twists, turns, rocks, drops and climbs.  We feel our substance and drive/soul sucked out of us at what most others would be thankful for – tarmac climbs and direct wide gravel roads.

If this is you too – it’s still worth coming/riding; but we hope for continued development of the route’s potential over the coming years, so that (without alienating those for whom this isn’t their raison d’etre) the Munda Biddi can truly justify the ‘world class’ descriptor.

Route Notes:

Detailed planning information including distance calculator and hut information can be found at the Munda Biddi Foundation website.  Up to date trail conditions including diversions for fires, planned burns and logging can be found at the WA Department of Parks and Wildlife website.

The best time to ride the trail is in shoulder season as this avoids the rain and colder conditions of winter and the heat and deep, soft pea gravel of summer.  There are either purpose-built huts or towns every 35-70km, and the MB Foundation website describes expected services.  Based on reading hut journals/log-books, most people travel 50-60km/day on average and complete the route in around 3 weeks.  Some people travel more slowly and there are a hard-core few who go (much, much) faster.  The 12 huts all have rain-water tanks that can be used to stock-up on vital water, with intervening towns filling the gaps in supply.  No surface water sources marked on the maps can be relied upon to have water, and those that do may have quite saline water in the more southern areas.

Some parts of the trail are more difficult than others, and the trail maps give a reasonable indication of what to expect from the view-point of a proficient off-road cyclist.  The route attracts people on a wide variety of bikes from urban hybrids and cyclocross bikes to fat bikes with most people riding a mountain bike with 2-2.4″ wide tyres.  In dryer times the predominant surface (pea gravel) can get quite deep and soft, which together with more southern areas of sand combines to make the fatter tyres a better bet.

It’s possible to ride/train from central Perth to the northern terminus of the route, so for those without local support the logistical issues are mostly around getting to or from Albany (?bus with some notice to carrier).  We did meet one couple who had ridden North-South and were reversing the route to get back to Perth.

With children it requires good planning in order to be able to vary the pace to suit.  As we’ve done before, easier and shorter segments are maybe a better approach if you’re not confident of your skills and experience.

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