Words: Alex Stevens
Photography: Cameron Mackenzie

On site at Crankworx Cairns, back in May, photographer and writer Cam Mackenzie was keen to snatch a few hours away from work and enjoy riding one of his favourite mountain biking destinations. With good mate and pro rider, Sam Blenkinsop, also in Cairns to compete, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to introduce him to another good friend – local and pro rider, Berend Boer – to showcase what Cairns had to offer. Cam tells the story:

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to Cairns, for work, almost yearly since the Downhill World Champs was hosted there in 2017. Off the back of that trip, I fell in love with the area, its diverse trails, red dirt and grandeur, but was also fortunate to meet my now-close friend, Berend Boer. In the years since, I’ve been back and forth for various different tourism projects, showcasing mountain biking in the far north in what I hope has been an engaging and relatable kind of way.

With Crankworx and major events coming back to Tropical North Queensland, and Cairns in par- ticular, it dawned on me that we come and go so quickly within these regions, and often we just don’t get the time to ride and enjoy all the fun trails I’ve come to know through the local riders over the years. So, this year, going back to Cairns for Crankworx, I saw a really cool opportunity to introduce two great mates and go for a really awesome explore through the rainforest, show- casing Cairns to Blenki. Although he was fizzing to compete – and had a hectic race schedule, as he pointed out – what’s the point of coming to these places if you don’t get to see them for what they are?

Blenki and I were both travelling from New Zealand and knew we would have quite a limited amount of time on the ground. With an already busy event schedule subject to inevitable changes due to the weather in the tropics, we had quite a small window of opportunity to get off site and into the jungle. Luckily, Blenki had his new Bosch- powered Crestline, which he was able to bring with him, and Berend and I were able to pinch a couple of Mondraker Crafty Rs, also sporting the latest smart system kit from Bosch, from the guys at Mondraker Australia. Without the eBikes, we wouldn’t have been able to check out even half the spots we did, nor would we have been able to maximise our short windows of opportunity.

Mountain biking in Cairns goes back several decades, when influential and pioneering locals like Glen Jacobs first recognised its potential, in the 1980s. You can tie back points in time to key developments of mountain biking in the region, with the Cairns Mountain Bike Club hosting its first nationals in the early 1990s, and World Cup events following soon afterwards in 1994 and 1995, then the UCI World Champs in 1996. A fuse had been lit and, since then, mountain biking has continued to grow in the region.

Whether it was dedicated locals looking to build more trails for themselves to ride, or trying to bolster the region’s offerings, these different trails and parks have combined to create a strong, diverse network that stretches all the way along the coast and deep into the tablelands.

Hidden in the hills behind the James Cook University campus, 20 minutes north of the city, Smithfield Mountain Bike Park was where the first international race was held and has now become the epicentre for mountain biking in Cairns. With Smithfield also being the venue for Crankworx Cairns, this seemed like the perfect place to begin our exploration.

The terrain in Smithfield is really steep in spots. You’ve got lower undulating grassland trails but also stuff that rises high and steep into the jungle canopy, which the eBikes were perfect for. The Nationals downhill track, for example, is so steep that the ride up is almost inaccessible on a traditional bike. On an eBike though, you can just blast up there like you would in a shuttle vehicle – but self-propelled. The trail is one of the steeper, longer, rocky trails in the park, which was exactly the kind of thing we were looking to ride and showcase. It’s a real staple of Cairns, and feeds into other parts of the park really well, linking a brake-burner descent into fast, flowy turns and lofty jumps like those found on the newly built trail, Bowhunters.

With a few laps under our belts, that soon wrapped up a quick taster for what Cairns had to offer on the first day. Had time allowed, we would also have ventured out to the Atherton Tablelands. Only an hour or so drive from Cairns and sitting around 1000m above sea level, Atherton is a beautiful, quaint country town, full of small-town pubs and really quiet, with a less humid climate. With Atherton sitting much higher than Cairns – and to some degree, sitting in the clouds – the bush cover is made up more of eucalyptus and gum than the dense tropical rainforest found lower down. The dirt is similar, a bit more rocky and gravelly, but the trails are built in such a way that they are quite different to those down on the coast in Cairns.

If you’re visiting the area and have a bit of time, I’d definitely recommend checking it out, especially on an eBike. The bike trails are all on one face, out the back of the township, with some big grunty climbs and lots of short descents running off everywhere – perfect for repeating cool little loops on an eBike. On the way home, be sure to stop off at Lake Tinaroo for a cool down before heading back into the hustle and bustle of Cairns.

The next evening, we decided to boost out after the event finished and make the most of the hour and a half of daylight we had remaining. Berend really wanted to show us some of the lesser-known trails in an area up near Copperlode Dam, to the west of the city. Just 15km away from Smithfield, this area offers a distinctly different riding experience, as well as climate. Sitting higher up into the bigger mountains, there are reservoirs and dams, and the terrain is quite raw and rugged. It’s definitely somewhere you need to go with a local, and we were stoked to have Berend guiding us in this unique area, particularly with the weather turning stormy and the light all but non-existent. It was definitely too dark to shoot any photos, so this one will just have to stay etched in our memories!

It turned into a pretty hilarious scene: the three of us all of varying skill level from pro (Blenki and Berend) to not-pro (me), trying to keep up with each other riding some of the steepest trails in Cairns, in near on dark. Add in the fact that we were also in one of the most dangerous parts of Australia, where if you fall you’ll not only rip your clothes to shreds, you’ll also be waiting a while for a rescue, or a snake could come across the trail at any moment. Somehow, this all just added to the hilarity of the situation.

Cairns is really unique in its topography; you have these crazy, steep, rugged hills clad in UNESCO World Heritage rainforest rising out from the sea. It’s an insane juxtaposition between one natural wonder of the world, the Great Barrier Reef, sitting right next to the Daintree rainforest which extends across the coastline as far as the eye can see. Our mission for the next morning was to head out early to experience the stunning views across the city, and the reef at sunrise, before blasting some fun trails back down to a great coffee, whilst beating the heat and getting a run in before another day of events.

We opted to head up to Kuranda, one of the original tracks in Cairns, which runs off the side of the Kuranda Range Road and through to the famous Kuranda village and railway, sitting deep in the ranges behind the city. We had the option of either riding up on the eBikes quickly, or shuttling up like you would on a traditional bike, opting for the latter due to the early start. The main start point for the Kuranda trails is a beautiful lookout and, from there, we had the pick of some of Cairns’ oldest trails or the option to ride the newer community-built trails that Berend himself works on, rides and loves. We opted for the tried and true option that morning, showing Blenki what Cairns is so well known for in the downhill space: the Kuranda Downhill Trail.

No matter where you go and explore in Cairns, you can find the most incredibly diverse ecosystems within the forest, changing from one location to the next. That morning, up on Kuranda, we got super lucky: we were ripping along and, on our way out at the bottom, we stumbled upon a grove of butterflies which Berend, who was leading us out, disturbed. As Blenki and I arrived, Berend was screaming in excitement at the scene that lay before us. It was like riding into a butterfly sanctuary.

There were thousands of butterflies floating in the air underneath the canopy. You just don’t get stuff like that anywhere else in the world. By the time we’d gotten to the bottom, we were giddy. We’d just ridden this super fun trail with beautiful, big, flowing berms into steep rooty goodness – whatever you wanted it was there; flow, steep stuff – then, all of a sudden, you come across these butterflies. All before eight in the morning.

The wildlife is definitely one of the highlights of riding in this beautiful, unique area. As well as the butterflies on our early morning ride we saw plenty of other little critters out on the trails. It’s nice to know that there are also safe swimming spots where you can cool down without the fear of crocodiles, jellyfish, snakes, spiders or whatever else might be lurking. Luckily, Cairns has lots of these little hidden gems. Wherever you ride, you’re never more than ten minutes from neat little waterfalls, beautiful running streams or watering holes right in the middle of nowhere, amidst the incredible ancient rainforest.

It’s also easy to use your time in Cairns to unwind. For every hill you climb, the descent nearly always drops you straight back at the beach so you can ride to coffee – or a beer. Although we were there for work, stealing moments in the early mornings – or in the very limited windows after events had finished for the day – and fitting it all in around Blenki’s schedule for competing and resting, it still felt like we were on holiday.

Finishing up our last ride of the trip with a caffeine fix at Palm Cove’s infamous NuNu’s I, set underneath the palm trees, I asked Blenki what he thought about experiencing Cairns by eBike.

“It was a good way to see a lot of trails a lot quicker than you could do on a normal bike, without all the pushing around or climbing, and spending a lot more time getting up and down,” he said. “I felt like we did a lot of stuff in only a few hours and that’s the good part about it, you can get so much more ground in less time.”

And when it comes to exploring tropical paradise, that’s exactly what you want, right?

With that said, it was time for us to farewell the Tropical North and catch a plane back to Aotearoa.

Until next time…

This article is taken from:NZ Mountain Biker, Issue #111

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