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The Wielangta Road

Matt documents his five-week bikepacking trip in Tasmania, and a particular experience on the Wielangta Road...

I heard the UTE rumbling away in the distance long before I saw it; a blown exhaust and high revs the tell-tale signs of some gentlemen having a loose time on the unsealed Wielangata road. I was two-thirds of the way though my bikepacking tour of Tasmania and had been gifted a few rain free days, shimmers of sunshine, and not a soul in sight. The bush was resplendent and the sounds of cockatoos and the steady wind filtered through the canopy. It was safe to say I was having a great time. I stopped at the top of a descent, to the side of the road, to let the UTE vehicle pass expecting a toot of the horn and a cloud of dust. The cloud of dust shrouded me as the brakes slammed on and three slightly tipsy men hopped out. I was instantly on edge. They asked me where I was going, remarked (warned me) how far away it was and asked where I was staying and other normal questions. Then, out of the blue, “Are you hitting the ‘shrooms tonight mate?” I told them that it wasn’t my kind of thing and I wouldn’t even know which mushrooms would be the right ones to pick, had I wanted to. Then as quickly as they had arrived, they were off.

This moment reminded me of all the jokes I’d heard on the Australian mainland of the backwards nature of Tasmania; something I was sure was just a jovial dig at the southern island state. Yet, since arriving in Devonport on the north coast, the Tasmanian people had so far defied that – they had been extremely friendly and welcoming; I’d even been taken in by a friendly farmer during a period of nasty horizontal rain. He took me on a tour of the historic town of Evandale, bought lunch and then left me back where he’d found me. I had forgotten about the reputation – most people are by nature friendly and welcoming, especially once you find yourself outside of towns and cities.

My original plan for my five weeks was to head south from Devonport, following the off-road Tasmanian Trail, to Dover on the south coast before heading back north to the ferry via the notoriously rugged west coast – wild camping, riding some dirt tracks and hopefully seeing a Tasmanian Devil or two. My trip route ended up changing once I reached Dover on the south coast as the weather was unrelenting, and the forecast for the eastern side of the island was much drier than the western side, so I took the east coast instead…

Anyway, back to the Wielangta road. It was quickly turning to late afternoon and the three local lads’ assumption that the town of Rheban I was headed for was too far for me to ride was looking to be correct, so I started to look for somewhere to camp. My criteria for camp was a view of the sea, sheltered from the wind, relatively flat and all to myself. Then, the unmistakeable roar of the raggedy UTE brought me back from my musings. Not bothering to get out of the way this time, the guys wound the window down and beckoned me over. The youngest, scrawniest chap was squeezed into the central seat, cradling a hat full of mushrooms. Very graciously his friend offered me the whole hat load. Trying to politely decline I told them it was very kind but they should save it for themselves. They promptly told me that mushrooms were too weak for them and that seeing as it was my first time on the island, they couldn’t let me leave without sampling some of their natural fungi! I accepted the mushrooms to get rid off them, telling them I’d save them for the evening, but leaving them in a bush the instant the guys were out of sight.

I’d seen some pretty weird and wonderful things in Tasmania. Some of my favourite being the unique animals, especially along the route of the Tasmanian Trail where it was a given to see wildlife all around during the golden hours. I’d spotted mobs of wallabies and pademelons everywhere, shuffling solo wombats, spotted tiger quolls and possums, an aggressive male seal and a deadly but sluggish tiger snake. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see the famous but shy Tasmanian Devil, and I would of needed a miracle (or those mushrooms) to see a Tasmanian Tiger as they are believed to be extinct. The beauty of a marked trail meant I didn’t need to worry too much about route planning and allowed me to just enjoy the scenery – river crossings, mountains ascents/descents, single track, endless fire-roads, a huge variety of landscapes, and plenty of opportunities for camping. My bike, a Bombtrack Beyond, was perfect for the task at hand as it was comfortable for long days in the saddle and could tackle more gnarly off-road sections than I had anticipated – I was free to ride pretty much anything ahead of me…

The third time I heard the familiar rumble of the UTE I really thought that was it; my bike, camera and other valuables were about to disappear in a cloud of diesel fumes and dust.  Sure enough out they jumped again, one of them shouting, “you ever seen Wolf Creek?” For anyone who hasn’t seen this film, it is a bit of a cult classic among travellers to Australia, telling the tale of several backpackers captured in the Aussie outback by a psychopath. I was ready to trample my way through the bush to escape. They all started laughing, explaining that they were just carting firewood back and forth between two houses at either end of the road, and wanted to chat about my plans. So we had a good chat, I’d admitted that my plan to reach Rheban was too optimistic; they agreed. And, as soon as they had driven off on their last leg, I went into the nearest bit of bush on the top of a sea cliff, set up camp and tucked into the bottle of port I’d been carrying around for a few days. No mushrooms in sight.

From this incident, and all my other bike trips, I have come to understand that people in rural communities wherever you are in the world, are generally more laid back, willing to chat and share the local resources they have – really making the experiences for us travelling cyclists. So, a big thanks goes out to that guy that took me on a tour of Evandale, all the people that bought me drinks in pubs and chatted around a campfire, that pointed me in the right direction and that couple that gave me a shower and hot food on an especially cold night. And, the firewood boys in the UTE on the Wielangta Road that thought they’d sorted me out with all those mushrooms. The people you meet on a trip make the memories, however bizarre the situations might appear at the time…