I have an uncanny ability to see the word ‘mountains’ and think ‘now wouldn’t that be lovely to cycle’ without considering the ups and downs of it all. In this way I was caught out in the Rocky Mountains of Canada (steep) and now found myself, fatter and unfitter than on my Canadian jaunt, heading into Australia’s Blue Mountains. They sound majestic and rather romantic, and I am pleased to report they are.
However, as the title suggests, they are also mountainous. For the uninitiated in steep hills, puffing up them is not the most recommended way to get acquainted. A few less glasses of wine and slices of cake, and a few more practice rides beforehand, would have done me the world of good. If you are considering cycling in hilly terrain, heed this! Regardless, there is no greater way to conquer a mountain than to begin going up it. And so it was, a few weeks after messaging my Australian friend Heather – who I had met in Hawaii a few months earlier while she was cycling the Big Island and I was escaping some lunatics – reunited in Sydney to begin our adventure.
It was quite miraculous that we managed to get together for a bike ride in the first place. Heather lives 900 km away in Melbourne, and I had no bike. To top it off, Heather had lost her phone down a long drop dunny (toilet) en-route, and I had left the airport at the wrong exit.
By some pure luck, we managed to converge at the same place at a similar time, and after several car parking mishaps we eventually drove a swift 5.5km from Sydney Airport to Omiafets bike shop in Redfern, where I spent a good few hours test riding various bikes. I was looking for a bike which would be able to handle all sorts of terrain in all manner of countries. I tried out an Australian brand named the Vivente, which is a wonderful touring bike, perfect for carrying heavy loads and going on roads, but I was after something that I could go bikepacking with as well as tour on. I settled on a Surly Troll, a beast of a machine which seemed to be the best bike for the job – sturdy, steel, and able to handle any and all conditions. Heather may also have had some input in to this choice, as her mount is also a Troll, which has traversed from Beijing to Paris and many other adventures too. After some adjustments to handlebars and far too many extra extravagances (for instance, a dynamo hub and USB port to power my electrics on the go, a Quadlock to attach my phone to the bike for ease of use while riding, a kickstand, a new Abus bike lock, a new helmet with a fancy rear light, dang even new mirror!) we were ready to be off!
Our route was to take us on the train from Sydney to Lithgow, a small city on the brink of the Blue Mountains, where we would cycle to Jenolan Caves and back, a total distance of 122 km. (Originally we planned to get to a place called Mittagong, but the aforementioned excess in wine and cake put an end to that plan very quickly).
Cycling Through Caves: Day 1
After a late start, Heather, our bikes (mine recently Christened ‘Rusty Mutt’, named after an excellent Shiraz we toasted it with the night before) and I jumped on the train from Sydney to Lithgow Station, which takes just shy of 3 hours. The train was packed with people heading to the tourist hub of Katoomba who were off to see the Three Sisters and participate in the Blue Mountains hikes in the area. When we reached that station, the train emptied out and we were finally able to sit down. Arriving at Lithgow, we stocked up on important supplies (cake and wine – I never learn) hopped on the bikes et voila! We were off!
Our initial plan had been to ride a route Omiafets suggested on its website. It would give me a chance to spin my new wheels and fix any niggles back at Sydney before flying to my next destination, New Zealand. For the first few miles, this plan worked. We whizzed at 62 kmph down a glorious hill overlooking Lake Lyall, but what goes down must come up, and alas, not long after, we approached our first hill climb on the tarmacked Magpie Hollow Road and next up and up and up a dirt track known as Martins Road. This is when both I, and the plan, started to melt. I just didn’t have the same stamina I had had when we met in Hawaii, after my months spent fine tuning my fitness in the Rockies.
As Heather merrily pedalled passed me, I pushed as I huffed and puffed my way up. Curse steel bike frames! Curse baggage! Curse tents! Curse food! It was not a happy experience. And although the weather was surprisingly mild and delightful, struggling to push a fully loaded bike up a mountain is troublesome in any condition.
As I toiled up the dirt track, hoping no alarming spiders or snakes would tamper with my progress, I imagined Heather must be at the top, smugly biting in to a juicy apple, or sneaking a glass of wine. Perhaps she was enjoying a lump of cheese and enjoying an unsurpassed view of light dancing on the mountains. Maybe she could even see Sydney! When I was finally closer to the top than the bottom, I discovered she was doing none of these things. In fact, the poor woman had begun cycling back down the mountain to make sure I was alright. How embarrassing! I can tell you, going up this particular stretch once is hard enough; doing it a second time is madness. Therefore, I can only deduce that my good friend Heather is slightly mad. A compliment I’m sure she’ll appreciate.
I made great excuses (I had stopped to take a photo; I had to let a crocodile cross the road; I had to lighten the load by emptying my collection of travelling rocks from my panniers) but I’m not convinced she was convinced. (In fairness, one out of those three statements is true, though I won’t let you know which one).
Finally at the top, I remounted my mount and we pedalled off in to the sunset. Yes, it had taken that long. With the dwindling light and the danger of careering in to a curious kangaroo or a slow wombat a real possibility (the latter almost happened), we knew we had to find a place to camp – and fast.
It is never advisable to be adventuring in the dark, unless you are star gazing or in a cave. As we were doing neither of these things, it was paramount we found a place to stop for the night. A farmer stopped to ask if we needed anything and my ridiculous pride prevented me from replying ‘Yes! A bed! A shower! A steak pie smothered in gravy made by your lovely wife!’ and as he drove off I realised I should have said these things out loud.
The moon came out, the stars unfolded, the cold night sky was crisp and clear, and we were miles from anywhere sensible. Consulting maps.me, we deduced there was a campsite a few miles further down the road, and heading in that direction we pedalled on. Our progress was slow; we had to stop to fix our lights on to our bikes; then to put on jumpers, which involved removing hi vis jackets and helmets, then replacing them again. Next we stopped to add another layer (more faff) and a little further on to admire how well our reflectors were working.
We eventually found the perimeter of the campsite, but it was being patrolled by a rather dodgy looking man in a rather dodgy looking car. Thus ensued 15 minutes of debating whether he was unsavoury and if it was safe or not to camp in the area. Reaching no conclusion, he thankfully drove off and made the decision for us.
The sky was wonderful. Millions of stars winked at us from a deep dark galaxy, as we messed about with cooking pots and stoves and finding that of course the one thing you really need is in the bottom of the only pannier you haven’t yet inspected and emptied. Heather took charge of cooking (and wine, I hasten to add), while I set up our canvas house. I also had the joy of evicting potentially lethal spiders from the dunny, and pre-warned Heather that it was her favourite type – a long drop – and not to drop any more of her other possessions down it.
We settled down to a delightful meal of pasta, sauce, peppers, chillis, onion, garlic, chorizo, 6 different cheeses (yes, really) and a cup of tea. Plus, of course, a good couple of glasses of ‘Bunamagoo’, the latest red wine discovery, which quickly became the name of Heather’s Troll. Thus fulfilled, we boiled some water and made hot water bottles using our drinking bottles, and snuggled into our tent. It was rather cosy.
We had only achieved 33km, but that’s better than 32.
Cycling Through Caves: Day 2
I had always thought Australia was the land of eternal heat and sunshine. Endless images of bikini clad women and gorgeous beaches are portrayed in advertisements for Oz, but the reality is that in winter it is cold. People still wore short shorts in Sydney but out in the mountains, hats and gloves were a necessity. And so it was in the tent. Sleeping bags, silk liners, socks, hats, gloves, down jackets and pyjamas were required, with extra layers being added throughout the night. In the morning, the alarm beeped at us at 6am, which is a ridiculous time for an alarm to go off, but we had thought it best to get an early start to make up for lost time the previous day.
All great intentions were lost, however, when we spent a good hour making breakfast, then another good hour eating it. Then we had to pack and load the bikes, and then it was time for another cup of tea. So we didn’t actually leave the campsite until around 10am. Some cycle tourists would have clocked up 60km by then, but Heather and I were equally delighted to discover we were not those kind of cycle tourists.
The day started off promisingly. I was breezing along – a combination of no hills and that marvellous little oddity, Lighter Panniers. The great thing about cycle touring is that for each day you ride, your panniers get lighter. This is because you are eating the contents. I don’t mean tents and sleeping bags and socks – that would be silly. But the pannier with the food in it, the most important and delicious bag, gradually becomes lighter and lighter and frees up more and more space which you convince yourself would be perfect for nonsensical knick-knacks which you collect on your journeys. Obviously, this does not last, as at some point you have to replenish the larder. But the first few days after a supermarket shopping spree are joyous because everything is new and fresh and even if you are not becoming fitter, you think you are as you go faster because your bike is not as heavy.
And so every now and then, we stopped to consume some of the contents, all for the greater good of course. Then we would stop to take a photo or 12, then a video, then a selfie, then a timed photograph, then an action shot. We weren’t going very far very fast, but we were enjoying ourselves – and that is the key ingredient for travelling.
The road we were on decided to play mean tricks and soon enough we were going uphill – again. But due to the fact we had eaten much of one of my bags, and Heather was now carrying the tent, progress was slow but not as slow as before. We crested a summit which boldly informed us we were on the ‘Great Dividing Range – 1250m’. This I took to be a good sign, as surely that meant we had reached the top. It was lies. We continued onwards and upwards, on a never-ending slope, until we reached another sign. This one was for Six Foot Track. Heather got excited. Six Foot Track is historically significant as it was the first route to Jenolan Caves which could easily be ridden on a horse (note:not bicycle). The track went in the same direction as we were. We explored a little bit of it, but when we reached a set of steps decided against following it the rest of the way. On foot maybe, or with an unloaded bike; but fully laden it would be a nightmare.
So, on we continued, until we got to the most welcoming sign I had seen so far – one depicting a steep decline for the next 8kms. Covering my brakes and whooping with joy, at long last I was faster than Heather. The road twisted and turned and spun downhill. To the right of me were forests and cliffs, humming with kangaroos and kookaburras. To the left, the Blue Mountains opened up in a great chasm, allowing the sunlight to lazily speckle their sides with greens and blues. Far, far down in the forest, streams trickled and rivers chased, but we could not see them from our viewpoints.
As we spiralled ever downwards, the bottom of the valley came closer, and we joined one of the hidden rivers for the last km or so to Jenolan Caves. When we reached the caves, I was genuinely surprised – I had no idea they are one of the only drive thru caves in the world. After cycling through this several times for the pure joy and peculiarity of it, we investigated the pretty little village of Jenolan, which has not much in it apart from a tea shop, a tourist information point and a gift shop with not many gifts – mostly black postcards with the title ‘Jenolan Caves – lights off!’. The caves themselves though are very impressive. A vast collection of tunnels and multicoloured rocks, strange geological marvels and bus loads of tourists marvelling at them. We didn’t do a cave tour as we were short on time, but if I visit again I certainly shall – they looked very interesting.
Rewarding ourselves with more food, we contemplated our next move. To do our original route, we would need to step up the pace considerably. Heather had to get to a concert at the end of the week, so if we didn’t speed up, she would miss it (as it happened, she missed it anyway – she got the date wrong!) We would need to clock in at least 80km a day, which for most cyclists is easy, but I’m quite content meandering along at 50-65 (especially after excess in Bunamagoo and Rusty Mutt). As with all good plans, it was evident ours would have to change. We weighed up the options. The tourist information lady came out to admire our bikes and we got involved in a conversation about bicycles and touring and Trolls (the bikes, not the cretins that live under bridges and eat billy goats). After all this dilly dallying, we realised there was no way we would make it, so much to my concern, it was agreed we would return the way we had come.
Let me tell you: riding 8km up a hill is not the same as riding 8km down it. Halfway along, the skies darkened, and yet again we were nowhere near a campsite. Pulling off on the side of the road, Heather happily proclaimed she had found the perfect wild camping spot.
‘Perfect’ is perhaps too kind a term. Biblical plagues of leeches followed our every move, got in to socks, on to legs, in the tent and wriggled their blood sucking way to every exposed piece of flesh they could find. Likewise, redback spiders haunched their way towards our dinner preparation, scuttling across the makeshift wobbly wooden table and trying to upset the pasta pan. This was certainly camping at its wildest. The only thing missing was a snake, which thankfully lost its invitation.
Cycling Through Caves: Day 3
Apart from our creeping and lecherous camping companions, the site Heather found was indeed very beautiful. Early the next day (6am, to be precise), that damned alarm went off and we spent a jolly morning posing with a dustbin (this isn’t quite as odd as it sounds – please see photograph):
Another morning of breakfasting and packing ensued, the tourist information woman visited on her way to work and said we were lucky we hadn’t been eaten alive by boisterous kangaroos (or words to that effect), and yet again we set off with good intentions. Our new plan was to cycle back to Lithgow Station and spend a couple of days being tourists in Katoomba. We pedalled our merry way down lots of hills this time – though the original torture mountain of Martins Road was just as much a struggle coming down it as it was going up, due to pot holes, sand, slippery bits and that good old friend gravity. We both stayed on but there were ample opportunities for Rusty Mutt to buck me off. I was relieved when we hit the tarmac again. Not so relieved when we came to the hill we had careered 60kmph down and now had to pedal or push back up.
But such is the way with mountains. They tease you and they taunt you. They bless you with beautiful views and curse you with horrendous hills. They give you glorious switchbacks and dangerous drops, stunning formations and panoramas so epic you could cry. And, mountains give you that top-of-the-world feeling – because – well, you are.
The ride from Lithgow Station to Jenolan Caves is hard if you’re not used to cycling up mountains. But it is also amazing. The scenery is incredible, the surroundings unreal. Although you’re never too far from civilisation, it can seem like you are (especially when you run out of wine). It’s a rewarding ride with plenty of opportunities for photos and cycling through a cave is awesome!
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As there were two of us, Heather and I used my Vango Banshee 300 tent. Its a 3 man, which I purposefully bought as for one person and kit it is delightfully roomy, and for two it is still plentiful. It kept the leeches out which was an unknown but brilliant design feature, and weighs in at just under 3kg. It’s a stealthy green so good for wild camping, and has sheltered me on many trips. Well worth the incredibly cheap price, considering most tents in this range command hundreds of £/$. Vango also do (2 man, 2.14kg).
While certainly not the cheapest roll mat on the market, the Exped down mat is great as it packs down small, is lightweight and extremely comfortable. Using down feathers for insulation, this roll mat has kept me warm and cosy for camping trips over the past 5 years. Using a simple inflatable pump (included), the mat is ready to use within just a couple of minutes and packing it away is just as simple. I’ve not had a single puncture since getting it so I can confirm it’s super durable! I never go camping without it!
Even f you’re only doing an overnight trip, panniers are a must. They are essential for carrying all your gear – camping equipment, cooking kit, spare clothes, etc. I use Ortliebs as they have an easy click system to attach to the bike and are fully waterproof. I’ll admit I was dubious about buying them at first as they are expensive – but having tried and tested several other brands of panniers which are not fully waterproof I would not go back to anything else.The only downside with Ortliebs is they lack pockets. External pockets can be added, but with a handlebar bag (please see below) this isn’t necessary.
I have an Ortlieb Ultimate 6 handlebar bag which is quite possibly the best piece of kit I own. Everything is easily accessible – wallet, snacks, camera, sunscreen, lipbalm, multitool, notebook, pen, country flag (I buy a flag in each country and get people I meet to sign it – a cheap and memory filled memento) and all manner of other things are hurled in to here and brought out when required. Combined with the , which enables me to not only read maps but also store oddities such as bear spray (essential in Canada) and coupons (useful in grocery stores), this is a great little addition to my cycle touring set up. It even comes with a shoulder strap so that when stopping and shopping, my key kit is on me rather than on the bike and therefore safe from theft.
You Can Do It!
- The Blue Mountains Line train route goes from Sydney to Lithgow (and everywhere in between, including Katoomba, where you can also do the Best Blue Mountains Day Hike). We travelled on a Sunday as tickets are only $2 on Sundays.
- Bikes travel free on trains (yay!) but be warned: on Sunday’s as the tickets are so reasonable, everyone in Sydney heads out, so catching a train with your bike can be problematic.
- Cell reception is limited when you get in to the Blue Mountains. The main towns have reception, but out in the wilds you’re on your own. Make sure you have a good map and/or GPS so you know where you are and your routes.
- Apart from Martins Road, the whole ride is on sealed tarmac. Martins Road is a short but steep dirt road with potholes.
- Be aware of wildlife – not just snakes, spiders and leeches, but also the combat wombats and kangaroos who snuffle about after dark and do their best to get run over by unsuspecting cyclists.
- Pack sunscreen – the hole in the ozone layer above Australia means UV rays are harsher and burning happens fast, even on cloudy days.
- Take plenty of water. You can fill up your water supplies at Lithgow and Jenolan, but make sure you have enough for in between.
Top free attractions
Jenolan Caves Drive Thru’ – an absolute must!
Jenolan Caves (drive thru’) toilets. Not really an attraction, but a toilet – in a drive thru’ – in a cave! That’s pretty awesome!
Blue Mountains. Need I say more? These natural wonders are worth spending hours, days, weeks, months in.
Top paid attractions
Jenolan Cave Tours – if you have the cash, why not explore this network of underground delights?
We cooked for ourselves whilst camping. Lithgow and Katoomba have plenty of places to eat and buy food but there is nothing between Lithgow and Jenolan Caves. At Jenolan Caves there is a cafe but no where to buy supplies. You need to be prepared and take food for your trip so stock up in Sydney (it will be cheaper).
We stayed at Millionth Acre Recreation Area, approximately 33km from Lithgow, the first night and wild camped with the leeches the second. The former I can recommend, the latter I cannot! However, near Jenolan Caves there are plenty of places to stay, ranging from campsites to cabins to b n’ b’s.