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Damian Does Darwin

29 June 2015

by Damian Stones

As operations manager/landscape architect for Dirt Art trail builders - the NZ arm, I was stoked when Director Simon French invited me to join him building a trail in the Northern Territory. It’s a part of the world I hadn't visited before. 

Australia is vastly different from New Zealand - culturally, environmentally and in sheer scale. I was really looking forward to the trip and getting stuck into building some tropical tracks.

I travelled Nelson-Sydney-Darwin. Flying over central Australia was a highlight - stunning scenery and enormous landscape. NSW and inland Queensland were spectacular, with vastly different landscapes and textures. This arid, dry landscape contrasted to the lush, green tropics we arrived in. 

Inland Australia epic dry river beds.

Darwin borders on the Beagle Gulf. Port Darwin is a big tidal inlet. Arriving in April, as they transitioned from the rainy season to the dry, I was hit by an all-encompassing gigantic wall of heat. The city has a colourful history. Under siege from the Japanese during WWII, it’s dotted with military relics including a number of air raid bunkers. Cycleways up and down the coast link these together.

Charles Darwin National Park air raid bunkers.

Downtown Darwin has enjoyed substantial redevelopment recently. Restaurants, bars, cafes, and cycle trails abound. The esplanade sports a cordoned-off wave pool and beach. For a Kiwi this is perplexing… a manmade beach surrounded by the sea. Strange. But I learned at least two life-or-death reasons for this insanity. Box jellyfish alone are a compelling reason to stay out of the water, but saltwater crocodiles add weight to the argument. The locals just shrug “Don't go in”.

Darwin Downtown Esplanade.

The wavepool.

It was an adventure to travel overseas for trail building. Actually, I'd never taken my bike offshore before this, so that in itself was pretty darn exciting. I also had some new Ground Effect kit I was amped to thrash in the hot weather.

Setting off from Nelson Airport with the Tardis.

We stayed in the centre of the town and were happy to spend that first couple of days acclimatising. Darwin’s a bit of a transit zone. Tourists swoop in and then connect with an organised national park tour or set off as free independent travellers. We saw a lot of families and groups in big 4WD convoys, carrying two sets of tyres, water, fuel and tents - all strapped on kitchen-sink style. Seeing them arriving back in town, rugged and dusty, was a sign the outback isn't too far away. Fortunately our job site for the next two weeks was just 25 minutes out of town.

I pretty much threw myself in this pool at the end of every day.

We were in Charles Darwin National Park constructing a Grade 2 flow trail - 2 km long, rideable both ways, with a good progression from beginner through to advanced. There are berms, rollers, pump features and minimal pedalling. It’s a lot of fun and a nice balance to the existing XC trails that are tight and technical.

Wirraway Flow Trail.

The Darwin Off Road Cyclists club - DORCs! - have named the new trail Wirraway. It's the Aboriginal word for 'challenge' and also the name of a WWII Australian-built military aircraft. The local riders have been mountain biking in Charles Darwin National Park for 25 years. The trails wind through eucalyptus woodland, grasses and small shrubs. But this is the first legally-built trail in the park. The DORCs were stoked.

Lots of berms.

We thought a lot about water. The hard graft kept us in a state of constant near-dehydration.  Drink management was important. We had 5 litre Eskies full of chilled water. We’d freeze about half that volume the night before then top up with water and maybe some electrolyte powder. If I hadn't drunk 5 litres by the end of the day I was in trouble. But that’s nothing. A mate told me that while working in the mines, he was laying out black plastic for a dam, and was downing 48 litres each day.

5-litre Esky, which I visited every half hour.

In the Aussie bush, if it moves, it bites. We marked out the trail on our first morning. This involved a bit of bush-bashing. I thought we were prepared with long trousers and industrial-strength Deet on our boots to stop the crawlies wandering up our legs. Each morning we’d spray ourselves with repellent, but the minuscule midges bit regardless. We scored a nice set of infected spots up and down our legs and back of neck - nice. At least the midges clock off duty about an hour in to the morning, more or less.

We’d search the bush and scrub for the ‘flagging tape’ marking the trail. Every time I picked up some vegetation or move a tree it was wise to check for local inhabitants. The native green ants (weaver ants) are vicious little bastards. If you prod a spider it will jump… and disappear which is doubly disconcerting. I didn’t get bitten as much as Simon on the digger. Once when he bashed a small shrub and about 20 ants attacked - down his neck, on his face, down his backside. My job was to follow the digger and shape the track, clearing the vegetation from the side and buff the trail smooth. Safe by comparison to Simon's role.

Vicious little bastards.

So different from a day in the NZ bush. At home we pull up a log or stump for smoko or lunch. Not a chance in Oz. Sitting down to eat is unwise as the ground is alive with ants and all manner of other biting creatures

Early morning starts in Darwin, amazing sunrise.

I was pumped to travel to Darwin. In spite of the bugs and the extreme heat, I loved the track building and riding with the locals. Dirt Art are currently back in Darwin building a beginner jump trail. I'd leap at the chance to head back there again if the opportunity arose.

Lichfield National Park - definitely worth putting on your hit list to visit. Amazing waterfalls and pools.

Thanks to the local mountain bikers for introducing us to the Darwin Canoe Club.