Two Trips to Burra

Burra is around 160km from Adelaide by car. The bike friendly routes are a scenic delight and cover some of my favourite South Australian country. This is the story of two round trips, and what can happen when it rains. The plan was for a 'non-stop' loop up and back, which I managed both times, but only the second trip was able to stay on the planned course. The course was designed to maximise the distance spent off the bitumen.

Bike: For commuting / touring purposes I use Schwalbe Marathon Tour (35mm) tyres, which rarely puncture, and which can run around 40psi on the front, and 45 rear, which helps a lot on rough gravel roads and tracks. These are still a good bit narrower than mountain bike tyres, so there is a limit to what can be traversed before I have to walk the bike.  The bike is an all steel Scot Sub 30 which I have modified with smaller front chain rings so that I can crawl up some fairly steep stuff if the surface has enough traction.

Rider: I'm 66 years old, and have a dodgy back. If you can forget about holding to a set average speed and modify your mindset from 'go-fast' to pedalling at a rate that feels like 'I can do this all day,' then you can. And still ride some significant distances in arduous circumstances.

Gear: 24 hour rides in my part of the world need to be more or less self-supported. Between Burra and Kapunda there are no shops, and on my second trip up everything but the pub was closed by the time I arrived at Burra. If you have a fall, or simply run out of steam, it's dangerous country for travelling light at night. Despite what telco maps may say, there is not full phone coverage.  The weight is a nuisance, but the setup of the bike in the photo below has proven its worth.

My bike with touring kit

The frame bag carries a small toolkit, two spare lights, 2nd spare tube, and still had room for some chocolate.  My touring lights both run in excess of 24 hours, but this counts for nothing if the electronics die, hence the spares.

The front bag holds a couple of batteries for phone and GPS, a roll of shock cord (the cyclist's equivalent of bungee straps) two lunches and a meal pot, nuts and barley sugar, etc. On a single day trip I leave with a mix of cous cous and dehydrated vegies, plus nuts, currants, and Moroccan spices in the pot, and an hour before tea add water. After tea, when the pot's washed out it's ready for muesli, powdered milk, and water, in the morning.

The rear trunk bag holds a padded gilet, rain jacket, night puttees and facemask, full finger gloves, the aforesaid muesli, booties, emergency medical kit, sunscreen and extra water. It also held a container of Staminade powder, and shortly after taking this photo, I found the lid had come loose, which meant I had sticky green and white powder through everything!

The two dry bags hold a blanket, and bivvie and sleeping mat, respectively. The forecast was for 9 degree minimum, but it got down to 6 degrees on the second trip. I've been overnight in that country where the 9 degree forecast was so far out there was frost on the panniers.  Cycling gear—even the jackets— is meant to shed heat, and not to keep a stationary person warm, so it is foolishness not to have a camping backup.  I find that a trunk bag and dry bags 'bungeed' to the side is much more convenient than panniers, and also lighter.

Trip One: October 28 2020

It had not rained in Adelaide for some time, so I thought roads would be in good condition.  Using RideWithGPS I plotted a course from Nuriootpa which went gravel all the way to Burra, the exception being a few kilometres which enabled me to ride through Hampden, where my family originally settled in Australia. Getting to Nuri was as simple as following the Barossa Bike Path from Gawler. I used this bike path on the last leg home when, really tired, the lack of traffic was a blessing.

There are two main varieties of unsealed roads: metal and soil formed. Soil formed roads can be formed or unformed; that is graded and maintained, or simply a track. The big thing about soil formed roads is that they are not all-weather roads; some have signs saying "Dry Weather Road Only," but all of them can pose problems after rain.  It was clear from my first stretch on such roads north of Nuriootpa that they were barely dry, which had me cloud watching with some anxiety.

pattersonroadFine when it's dry! Patterson Road, west of Hampden.

The fun began north of Hampden on Scenic Road.  This is a stunning 15km ridgetop ride (including part of the Lavender Trail) with views to the east and west. But the last half is barely formed track and was full of ruts and mud. I managed to ride through these (just) apart from one spot where I wondered if I needed to put the bike over a fence and hope the paddock was a bit drier!

mudAnother walk around!

Once past this, I was on good quality metal road for the rest of the trip to Burra.  I'd left at 7am so I was in time to treat myself to a very good yiros at a local café, using the waiting time to put on puttees and other night gear. The local BP was still open, so I bought a couple of iced coffees as I left town. No longer a coffee drinker, I find the caffeine keeps me alert through the 2am period where I now tend to doze off on the bike. 

The coffee was probably unnecessary. I had a fast trip out to World's End, and then, off the bitumen, began the climb through the Hallelujah Hills. This led me almost to the base of the Tothill Range, where I planned to follow Range Road (which is followed by the Heysen Trail at this point) south to Webb Gap. The last 2km of this route, Niblet Road, is barely formed dirt. In the headlight it looked like uncooked chocolate cake.  I took a deep breath, chose a low gear, and ploughed on in.  The joy of full booties that come some way up the calf is that it keeps the mud out of your socks: Thirty metres in I was bogged and with both wheels totally clogged and unable to turn.

nibletgap roadOh joy!

After clambering out, I eventually managed to bump out enough of the mud to make the bike rideable.  I now faced a choice. I could take a 6km detour south to another road into the range, but I had never been on Range Road, so I did not know if it would be any more passable, let alone what condition the Webb Gap road might be in given that this area had clearly had a lot of recent rain. Or, I could head north on the Black Springs road and cut through the range at Tothill Gap and then head south through Tothill Belt. I knew this metal road from previous rides. Now that I have been on Range Road, I'm pretty sure I made the right decision, although later in the night I was not so sure.

A few kilometres towards Apoinga I finally found a roadside tree which supplied sticks I could use to scrape out my mudguards and ride without constantly rubbing tyres. I began the southward journey down Tothill Belt Road and discovered a new issue. Tothill Belt Road is a fast metal road, usually in good condition, built with a mix of white and blue metal. But when it's wet, the top inch or two turns to slush which rapidly sets like concrete. The road was often awash, which meant the gloop would drop out if I rode through enough puddles, but elsewhere mud slowly built up under the mudguards up and stopped me. I had several stops over ten kilometres to clear muck out. Eventually I reached Steelton Road, which was much drier, and which I knew would get me over the Waterloo Range and then across to the bitumen leading down to Marrabel. Even so, for the remainder of the trip to Marrabel I had to pedal even downhill or I would just stop! Marrabel has a small park with a tap. At around 2am it took me 45 minutes and probably in excess of 40 bidons of water to flush stuff out enough to ride home. Every so often another lump of mud would work loose and drag against the tyres, especially once I re-joined the rougher metal roads south of Marrabel. By the time I left Marrabel I was shaking like a leaf from the cold.


Amazingly, the derailleurs barely missed a beat!

mudatkapundaThis is the post-Marrabel-clean bike in the lights at Kapunda. Not for the first time, I was glad of my habit of carrying chain oil!

The entire trip took 25:51 hours for 345km, of which 18:55 was moving time. This amounts to about 26% stationary time, which is pretty good given the amount of time I spent clearing mudguards! (Average moving speed:18.2kmh)

Trip Two: April 10 2021

Stationary time on the second trip was down to 19%, which is very good over this distance. I took 27:35 hours to cover 375km with a moving average of 16.9kmh. We now live 30km further south, so the trip is significantly longer. I also left a couple of hours later in the day, which meant I could buy nothing past Kapunda. I bought the late night coffee fix there, as well as topping up the extra water bottle.

I varied my route by leaving the Barossa Bike path just past Sandy Creek and heading up through Rosedale to Greenock, a mixture of sealed and metal roads, and a bit of dirt track. North of Kapunda I took the Old Anlaby Road, which is heavily corrugated and often rocky, eventually joining the route of the last trip about 100km in. I think I saw three farm utes for the entire trip past Kapunda.

Hills Road comes down on the east side of the ranges not far from Robertstown. The photo does no justice to the steepness of this climb; the top is sign posted  warning against taking caravans or trucks down. I reckon a big van might just push a car into the side of the hill— if you were lucky. The fence side is too steep to contemplate the results of going off that side!


 At Burra I put on my night riding gear. It had been dark for nearly three hours, but with the wind behind me I had been warm enough. Now, riding home in a headwind during the small hours, I needed all the windchill protection I could get. The wind began to drop a little until I approached the Tothills, when it became obvious why they have a windfarm in the area! Fortunately, in under the range, I was in the wind shadow, which helped a lot. And there was no mud. In fact, the region is bone dry after summer.

Trip One, Burra. The bizarre thing about this photo, given what was to come, is that I picked up quite a lot of speed on the way home!

2BurrraScreenshotTrip Two, Burra. This trip was a bit faster on the way up due to the tailwind, but the hill climbing on the way home took the average down.

 At Webb Gap the track up is guttered, and full of slushy gravel and fist sized rocks. When it got to 18% I bailed out for lack of traction, and walked. It clearly gets to well over 20% and I struggled both to push the bike and to keep my footing in places. And it began to rain quite heavily!  The west  side of the gap is an impeccably maintained metal surface, although common sense meant riding on the brakes in case of roos or other surprises. (For non-riders, 18% means 18 metres gain in altitude for each 100 metres forwards. It's steep. Stairs are about 60%, but don't have gutters, and do have perfect traction!)

Tothill Belt road was hard, fast, and smooth, with barely a corrugation. There was no sign of the horrors it holds when wet! 20km later and the Gerke Gap road was not so steep, but was a serious 4WD challenge. So I walked again. At top, the road was closed with a locked gate, open only to Heysen Trail walkers. I picked my way down the foot pad at walking pace, needing to lift the bike over a few fallen trees. At the bottom, Bates Road was so overgrown I'd have missed it except for the road sign!  I took a slightly longer route.

I avoided the Old Anlaby Road on the return to Kapunda, and then headed south through Lyndoch and Williamstown and came back into Adelaide on the Gorge Road. It avoided 40km of suburbia but added almost exactly two hours to the time the GPS reported that I spent climbing on this second trip, which might account for the slower average speed overall.

map1October 27 2020

April 10, 2021

One of my friends asked me, quite reasonably, why I put myself at risk doing this stuff at night. The answer is that it's fun!  And it is also sobering. There is enough can go wrong to put me in my place in the world, and remember I am a very small being. And stopping in the dark, and turning out the lights to stand in sheer silence is a gift.

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