'What fun it would be if one didn't have to think about happiness!'
[Brave New World – Aldous Huxley]
A religious experience, quite frankly, is the last thing expected on a first-timer's mountain bike (MTB) adventure in Tropical North Queensland. Mid-life crisis, possibly. But not a full throttle, white-knuckle 'Hallelujah' encounter! The kind of mind-blowing mindfulness that normally takes a lifetime of yoga to crack.
Novelist, Aldous Huxley, who penned Brave New World – which mountain biking is… at least for the uninitiated – would no doubt applaud the experience as an example of an individual's 'deep-seated urge to self-transcendence'. In layman's terms, a yearning to escape our own chattering minds and live in the moment.
On a mountain bike, however, living in the moment means every nanosecond; blissfully unburdened of any conscious thought, bar the unadulterated thrill of being alive and staying on said bike. You betcha! Happiness without even thinking about it.
“It's addictive, right?” says Craig Nissen, the brains behind Tropic Rides, a Cairns-based venture specialising in mountain bike hire, shuttle, coaching and tours across Tropical North Queensland's 7000km-network of documented MTB trails.
“Yeah, totally a religious experience… I hear that all the time!” Craig says, laughing at my response. Not in jest. It's the reason most die-hard mountain bikers – Craig included – are hooked. Their church is nature, 'dialled in' on rad bikes, living in the moment without another care in the world.
“It's true, the rest of the world really does stop when you're out on the trails,” Craig shouts over one shoulder as we set off on his favourite trails at Smithfield Mountain Bike Park, just 20 minutes' drive from Cairns Airport, snaking through vine-wrapped jungle and eucalypt forest.
“If you've had a rough week at work or something or someone's upset you, you can't take that with you on a mountain bike,” he continues. “You've got to let it go… because if you don't, you're on the ground.”
Luckily, beginners are in good hands with Craig. Tropic Rides is IMBA (International Mountain Bicycling Association) Level 2 coach certified and Craig's blessed with that rare mix of calm and charisma, encouraging newcomers to grasp the basics, then reach their full potential in a safe environment on purpose-built trails.
For Craig, there's also no such thing as a bad day at work. After starting Tropic Rides in 2016 – on top of responsibilities as Cairns Mountain Bike Club president – he's proof that if you love what you do, you'll never work another day in your life.
A mountain biker through and through, he's the go-to for riders of all experience levels seeking an out-of-this-world adventure on awe-inspiring trails. Trails he knows like the back of his hand, featuring flowy descents, rainforest creek crossings and waterfall encounters (don't forget to pack a Go-Pro and selfie stick!).
His bikes are also the best in the business, boasting full suspension and dropper seatposts (handy up-and-down telescoping at the push of a button, meaning you can 'drop' your centre of gravity on the fly; seat up for climbs and down for descents).
Dope machines (dope meaning 'good' in MTB jargon) that inspire confidence for newcomers wanting to understand just why mountain biking is the fastest-growing adventure recreation sport on the planet.
A sport that has its global capital in Tropical North Queensland; the only destination on Earth where two World Heritage-listed wonders meet – the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest. And, importantly, a destination where MTB newcomers are always welcome, almost evangelically so.
Unlike other high-profile adventure activities — say, skiing, for example — mountain bike trails are designed pretty much so that beginners have the chance to 'shred it' with (and learn from) the best, including pro riders who can often be found on Tropical North Queensland's trail network.
Smithfield Mountain Bike Park is a prime example. Renowned as the highest-profile rainforest trail system on the planet (winding through a 278ha conservation park that rises 350m, bordering Kuranda National Park and framing the picturesque coastal town of Trinity Beach), its singletrack trails are suitable for beginner-to-intermediate riders, complete with optional lines and features for more experienced MTB-ers.
Think rock gardens, log jumps (perfect for 'bunny hops'), drops, gaps and rollers (if you're lost on lingo, check out MTB jargon for first-timers). As a result, the trails are ideal for groups of mixed abilities, including families, and long enough for half or full-day rides.
Riding with Craig, you're also likely to cross paths with his good mate, Glen Jacobs, who lives backing on to Smithfield Mountain Bike Park. This guy's like Yoda in MTB circles; a seventh-generation Cairns local, who through his company, World Trail, has created every world cup, world championship and Olympic course in Australia – including Smithfield Mountain Bike Park – and hundreds of recreational trails in more than 20 countries.
Indeed, the International Cycling Union (UCI), which only recognised mountain biking as a sport in 1990, was so impressed with Glen's work that it not only opted to base early world cup and world championship events at Smithfield Mountain Bike Park (1994 and 1996 respectively), but to employ him as the UCI's first official track designer.
This month Smithfield Mountain Bike Park steps up to host the 2017 UCI Mountain Bike World Championships (5-10 September). When we visit, a couple of months before the event, Glen's team is busy finalising upgrades, including a 25 metre jump to the downhill course; the only section of the park closed to recreational riding… and for good reason.
Here, ask any mountain biker about the term 'Lock Jaw Flipper'! For the same reason (namely, self-preservation), never ever utter the phrase 'One more time?' on a MTB trail. It's like saying 'Good Luck' in theatre circles – the worst kind of mojo. And, on a mountain bike, you're more likely to actually break a leg.
'Flow' is another term you'll hear a lot in MTB circles, where 'going with the flow' takes on a whole new meaning. A concept enhanced by well-built 'flow trails', so named for their awesome flowing descents, akin to a terrain-induced roller coaster, through banked turns, requiring little pedalling or braking.
While the trails look like they're part of nature, precision planning behind the scenes is what creates the perfect flow, from jumps with exact spacing between take-off and landing to carefully plotted berms (corners with banked outer edges).
“Flow is a bit like trail nirvana,” says Craig. “It's when you find your rhythm or groove – when one obstacle flows perfectly into another. It's hard to explain the feeling, but you'll know it when it happens.”
As a beginner, finding your groove on a mountain bike is largely a case of mind over matter (and well-padded bike shorts)! What's particularly tricky is mastering what Craig refers to as the balance of opposites, relaxing while staying focused.
In short, forget everything you learned riding a road bike. From personal experience, the biggest technical challenge, is nailing the 'attack' or standing position – an out of saddle pose, a bit like riding a horse cross-country style, standing in stirrups – allowing greater control of the bike by 'staying loose' and being able to shift your body in all directions.
With so much to learn, it's sometimes hard to take in the beauty around you – which is why plenty of rest stops are welcome. For nature lovers, Smithfield Mountain Bike Park is home to 50 resident and migratory bird species, including modern-day dinosaur, the flightless southern cassowary, the third tallest and second heaviest bird in the world.
While it's rare to spot this Aussie 'Big Bird' at Smithfield, roughly an hour's drive north – either following the coast to Port Douglas (the springboard to Mossman Gorge and Daintree Rainforest) or inland to the Atherton Tablelands – will place you in Cassowary Central.
What's more, if you listen to Glen Jacobs, a mountain bike adventure simply doesn't cut it until you've experienced Atherton Forest Mountain Bike Park, a 55km network of singletrack trails through Herberton Range State Forest.
Perched 800m above sea level, this region is blessed with cooler climes, perfect for mountain biking.
For beginners, Atherton Forest Mountain Bike Park also promises the ultimate confidence booster thanks to roughly 20 per cent of the park being graded Green (easy) and 80 per cent Blue (intermediate), with optional Black lines. Best of all, it features a pump track and skills area to master MTB basics.
Hailed as one of the best trails in the park, the 6km 'Ridgey Didge' (Trail 6) is not to be missed. It features an undulating climb to the 'Roundabout', then epic flowing descent with berms, jumps, rock armoured creek crossings and waterfalls. The climb is also rewarded at 'Leasies Lookout' with rock recliner chairs that take in breathtaking views over the northern tablelands. The handiwork of Glen and World Trails.
From Smithfield, it's a great idea to break the journey to the Atherton Tablelands with a stop at Kuranda – a quaint rainforest village packed with cafes, artisan shops and galleries, not to mention the largest butterfly aviary in the southern hemisphere.
Ideally, plan to hire a car and stay up on the Tablelands for at least a night or two. For an experience that marries Dr Doolittle with Tarzan, check in to the Canopy Treehouses, in Tarzali (30 minutes' drive from Atherton Forest Mountain Bike Park). This luxury retreat doubles as a wildlife sanctuary, set in 100 acres of ancient rainforest. 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.
As for two wheels: you can either hire bikes from Tropic Rides or, better still, organise to meet Craig (and the bikes) at Atherton Forest Mountain Bike Park, easily accessed from the centre of Atherton township.
If you're short on time, Craig can pick you up from Cairns Airport and take you to any of Tropical North Queensland's epic trails. His service is made to order. Hallelujah!
Listen up! If mountain biking is the new skiing, après-ski has nothing on après-MTB in the tropics!
Must do's: skydive over the Great Barrier Reef and land on Mission Beach or hit the sand on a 'blokarting' adventure; sail to snorkelling idylls of Low Isles or Fitzroy Island; take a walk on the wild side (without getting your hair wet) helmet diving on Moore Reef and Green Island; learn spear fishing from Kuku Yalanji people; charter a private helicopter (following the lead of Aerosmith's Steven Tyler, fast-tracking a dive trip to the outer Agincourt Reef); marvel at crocs and 'green dinosaurs' (the only surviving plants once eaten by dinos) on a boat cruise down the Daintree River surrounded by the world's oldest rainforest; visit Australia's northernmost distillery that exports gin back to London; bathe in heritage-listed waterfalls at Millaa Millaa; and stay in treehouse luxury.
For more inspo on adventures in Tropical North Queensland visit www.queensland.co,
MTB jargon for first-timers
Bunny hop: a riding technique to clear obstacles without stopping
Bonk: run out of energy
Dialled in: everything on your bike is running smoothly
Granny gear: lowest gear on a bike, designed for steep uphill climbing
Grunt: a very difficult climb, requiring the granny gear
Gap: a jump with a hole in the middle
LBS: Local Bike Shop.
Clean: to ride a trail without crashing
Mud-ectomy: shower after a muddy ride
On your bike! Tropical North Queensland is home to 7000km of documented mountain bike trails, catering to all levels (from first-timers to pro-riders) and traversing some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet. The only conundrum is where to start! Here, there's no right or wrong. Check out Ride Cairns to browse all options, from Cairns to Kuranda, the Atherton Tablelands, Cassowary Coast, Port Douglas and Daintree.
Name: Shelley Thomas
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