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Traversing the Anne Beadell

10 August 2021

Words and Photos: Jimmy Ashby

On paper it doesn’t really make sense to ride your bike across the Australian Outback. It’s hot, often windy, the roads corrugated, sandy and unmaintained - and to cap it all off there are days between resupply points, or in our case over a week.

Anne Beadell Highway, this way...

So why go right? While these sound like reasons not to ride, to me they are why I keep returning year after year. The solitude, challenge and vast emptiness create beauty for those willing to open their eyes to it.

Chad feeling small

This year was different though. Close friend Chad Freak and I decided to attempt a trip that we were't entirely sure we could pull off... cycling the Anne Beadell Highway. It certainly took us to our limits. 

Chad Freak and Jimmy Ashby, Anne Beadell Highway-ready

The Anne Beadell Highway is a road that very few people know about. But if you know, then you know how big this undertaking is. It’s not a main route across Australia, not even for 4 wheel drives. To travel across it by motor vehicle is uncommon. Taking it on with bicycles confined Chad and I to be 'uncommon amongst the uncommon'. It had only been cycled once in its 60-year life.

The AB HWY stretches between Laverton, WA and Coober Pedy, SA - covering 1350km across Australia and crossing the Great Victorian Desert. Originally surveyed by the great Len Beadell in 1962, this road is a work of art. So proud of it was he that he took pride in naming it after his wife Anne who joined him for a large part of the surveying expedition.

The Anne Beadell Highway route with desert-like elevations!

However this is regarded as one of Australia’s most remote roads and there isn’t much out there besides camels and dingos. On the first 700km to the SA border there was a water tank roughly every 250km and then at 550km we passed Australia’s most remote roadhouse. From the SA border onwards there was nothing, 620km of sand dunes, corrugations and the Great Victorian desert.

Our mentality was to tackle it like a race - big days in the saddle and just keep moving; ride into the night and cover long distances to let us get across with minimal gear. If we didn’t do the big days then the food and water we would have to carry would become unmanageable. These stretches were BIG and we had to go bigger to cover them.

Desert scenes

Our expedition didn’t start in Laverton; we had to warm up right? It actually began a week earlier in Perth. Laverton itself is in the middle of nowhere so we had an 1100km commute to even make it to the start of the AB HWY. The commute out of Perth took us along the northern section of the Munda Biddi Track and then directly east across the wheat belt to another 4WD 'road' – the Holland Track.

Shade and water are a scarce resource

In true adventure fashion, the Holland Track kicked our ass. Neither of us had ever seen so much mud before... mud mud MUD! We began by riding past wave rock just out of Hyden and from there it was a few hours till the start of the HT. Just as we took the turn onto the HT the rain started. Although it wasn’t heavy enough to drench you, it was sufficient to make it unpleasant and turn the topsoil into glue.

The muddy Holland Track

It rained steadily until the sun went away and what came next was hours of slipping, sliding and sinking through peanut butter until we eventually hit a bigger mining road. You can bet we were beyond stoked to have our full Ground Effect rain gear on. With our bikes covered in a thick coating we slept the night on the roadside before riding away from that track as fast as we could with our tails between our legs.

From the Holland Track we connected up with the Kalgoorlie - Perth pipeline. That was incredible, and just the change we needed. It’s definitely a hidden gem in WA’s dirt road network. We followed the pipeline’s service road for the final few hundred kilometres to Kalgoorlie and then it was another couple days through station country to where the real adventure began.

The 'easy bit' along the Kalgoorlie - Perth Pipeline

After completing the Anne Beadell I was a bit lost for words on how to share this journey. To say it straight, shit got real out there. I’ve put myself in a lot of crazy places on a bike over the years but this was the most remote and out there that I’ve ever been. It asked a huge amount of Chad and I and then asked some more. We’re proud, bloody proud, to have just achieved the crossing. I put it up there as one of the most badass things I’ve done on a bike.

Chad still smiling

The 1350km was essentially split into two halves, the WA side and the SA side - both unique in their own way. WA was all spinifex country and the road was last maintained three-ish years ago. The SA side was sand dunes, over grown and the road never once graded or serviced in its 60-year life. Was the road bad? You bet.

The scenery we encountered throughout the 8 days was uniquely beautiful - nothing like the typical SA Outback we’ve both experienced and enjoyed before, but special in its own way. From corridors of Mulga trees to sand dunes scattered with camels, the landscape captured our awe and love. Seriously, these dudes were just rad. Chad and I were completely in love with these goofy looking creatures. They were everywhere, there must be thousands of them roaming the dunes.

In the company of camels

A camel highlight for me was riding at the night under a slow turning dynamo light, working hard to pick a line and completely distracted by the road. I looked up and had the life scared out of me as a huge camel stood on the road only meters away, eye balling me. The camels would also just run along in front of us, plodding along the track at 15-20 kph for kilometres at a time.

Covering all bases

It took us 3 days to ride most of the WA side and arrive at the Ilkurlka Roadhouse - Australia’s most remote. Those first 550km were rather straightforward and while the roads were far from smooth, they were manageable. Fortunate to benefit from a tailwind, we punched out 200km+ a day for the first couple of days and thought “Huh, how hard can this be?” Oh boy were we wrong...

Ilkurlka Roadhouse providing a final supply top up

From Ilkurlka it got worse, and even worse, and just before the SA border with 620km to go we reached our final water point. Our bikes gained around 50kg with 4 days of food and water on board. From then on the game changed. Deep into our mental caves we dove.

If the devil had stood at the SA border laughing I wouldn’t have been surprised because the roads that followed felt hellish at times. Deep sand dunes went on for days and when respite came from the dunes, we encountered wheel-swallowing corrugations. I cannot imagine a rougher or tougher road. It makes other desert roads I’ve ridden look like bike paths. Our average speed dropped very low. Even putting in 14-16 hr days we seemed to be only crawling, slowly - but still moving forward.

Corrugations for miles

Early mornings with sub zero temperatures and nights lit up by the shining moon created a whole range of emotions each day. But as we edged closer and closer our supplies became emptier and emptier.

Chad has the most incredible parents. We organised to have them lurking around Coober Pedy, ready in a 4WD should things go wrong out there. Fortunately they didn’t but we did get mighty hungry. On the final night, a day's ride from Coober Pedy, Cheryl and Tim joined us with fresh fruit, warm tea, a big hug and the perfect way to end this immense experience before rolling into town the next day.

The last day riding towards Coober Pedy

To say we abused our bikes would be an understatement. We worked them hard. Chad rode his Fargo and I was on my beloved GMX+. At one point our bikes weighed in at over 50kg, the majority of which was water and food.

A fully loaded (Curve) Kevin

But oh boy did my GMX+ embrace the challenge; it went into battle and came out a champion. It took every bump, dune and pedal stroke to the max, proving to be gutsy and unbreakable. We HAMMERED these bikes. Chad’s pedal exploded at one point, every one of our cages bounced off and after a particularly nasty stretch of corrugations I looked down to see my front axle had vibrated loose. Anne Beadell took a toll on our bikes, and us, and by the time we rolled into Coober Pedy we were two broken, but proud men.

Tired, but happy, at the 'finish line'

We chatted quite a bit while out there about where from here. How do you top a ride like this? How can you keep upping the adventure each year? What’s the point at which you become content with not going higher and harder?

Chad and my minds and bodies are pretty worn out right now. I think we’ll answer those questions another time. Until then, cheers to our next adventure.