The Mereenie Loop, reality vs reputation

The Mereenie Loop, now part of the Red Centre Way, is a fearsome back-track route from Watarrka to Alice Springs some 400 km long.

Mereenie Loop map
Mereenie Loop map

The blogs I’ve read concerning cycling the Mereenie Loop paint a dire picture of adversary. Flat tires in abundance, pannier frames shearing off, plastic water bottles wearing through from relentlessly rubbing against something hard, obscene teeth cracking bone rattling eye-ball dislocating corrugations, oceans of bike-toppling sand. And heat. And brutal loneliness and isolation suggesting Mars mission astronauts should train for their lonely isolated arduous multi-million kilometre trek through space along it. And no water for 230 km.

Matt and Anne a globe-covering cycling couple from Poland who I met in Hawker had cycled the Mereenie Loop. Matt’s eyes had a startling look of alarm when he mentioned “ … and there’s no water for 230 km!” Their website, http://gettingnowhere.net/, had not been updated by the time I am doing my final preparation and can aid me not. Bummer.

Consequently I am a tad apprehensive and nervous. The Last Great Slog. As if all the other slogs have been little more than preparation for this.

Waaay back, somewhere deep in my subconscious is a little voice trying to make itself heard. “Lemme get this straight” Little Voice seems to be saying “The Mereenie Loop is what? 140-ish kilometres of dirt. 140 km! Um, haven’t you thrashed yourself to near destruction on something like 2500 km of dirt by now? Are you sure you’re not making a mountain out of a mole hill?”

I don’t know what to make of Little Voice. I’ve not ridden the Mereenie Loop. Applying some kind of quantifiable risk assessment based on what I have ridden seemed a tad, well, risky especially if it results in a conclusion contrary to the general consensus of those who have ridden it.

My focus is water supplies. The actual Mereenie Loop all the way to Alice is like near 400 km. Most of it asphalt and the northern arm of it is pretty chokkas with renowned sites to visit supported by places where supplies can be obtained, like Glen Helen Gorge and Resort. I’ve been to Glen Helen before. I know should I make it to Glen Helen, I’ve made it.

Cycle Touring Australia, that ubiquitous website who’s aided and guided me since Hannukainen in Finland in my preparation mentions that “It’s short but a bit of a slog” and points out that I’ll be “touring with the tourists once you hit the National Park” http://www.cycletrailsaustralia.com/2_trails/mereenie-loop-nt#sthash.2MMG1f8J.dpuf

Only I’m not sure which National Park the author is referring too. Watarrka or West MacDonnell. Perhaps both.

I’m loaded, with water with food. Twenty nine litres of water for a two night three day ride. I’m assuming that with temperatures at or around 40 C, a “bit of a slog” and Matt and Anne telling me they were chewing through ten litres of water per person per day that I’ll need near ten litres of water per day. Three days, thirty litres.

Little Voice is persistent though. “Yes, I know, 230 km at 70 km per day is three full days ride for a ‘slog’.” The definition of ‘slog’ has ‘gravel’ in it, persistent headwinds, torturous terrain with lots of steep inclines and declines which require care. “But you only have 140 km of ‘slog’. The rest is asphalt and by definition cannot be ‘slog’.”

Still, I plan for ten litres per day + lots of food, ignoring Little Voice.

Long before sunrise on 18 December I head north-west into the ubiquitous relentless headwind which always seems to herald Day 1 of any ride. And Day 2, Day 3, Day 4 …

Another spectacular sunrise
Another spectacular sunrise
Oh Boy, here comes the gravel
Oh Boy, here comes the gravel
That's a fair hike before I've any chance of re-supply
That’s a fair hike before I’ve any chance of re-supply
Roads are open, no restrictions
Roads are open, no restrictions

Asphalt turns into gravel at 18 km.

What a fully loaded Dreamer-Ziflex team looks like
What a fully loaded Dreamer-Ziflex team looks like
The asphalt has ended. The gravel has begun
The asphalt has ended. The gravel has begun
Quite a number of kilometres until Alice Sprngs. On the other hand it's but 300 km until Part III is over
Quite a number of kilometres until Alice Sprngs. On the other hand it’s but 300 km until Part III is over

The Morris Pass looms in front of me. Gravel returns to asphalt. Despite the 8 % it’s hardly a challenge and not a ‘slog’ to slowly grind my way up. It’s also short, but a few hundred metres.

The view from Morris Pass overlooking the George Gill Ranges waaay over in the distance
The view from Morris Pass overlooking the George Gill Ranges waaay over in the distance
A panorama showing the sinuous asphalt climb had rode to get over Morris Pass
A panorama showing the sinuous asphalt climb had rode to get over Morris Pass

Shortly after asphalt returns to gravel. I can see a dead straight red line in the matt olive of the mulga trees. My road almost due north. Into my lovely headwind.

The way north. The thin red line is my road
The way north. The thin red line is my road
Got it. Camels
Got it. Camels
Good advice I intend to keep
Good advice I intend to keep
Red and corrugated. And straight
Red and corrugated. And straight
A permit is needed to transit the Mereenie Loop. One is not (supposed) to camp along its length
A permit is needed to transit the Mereenie Loop. One is not (supposed) to camp along its length
Looking back along the long red straight stretch
Looking back along the long red straight stretch

A Pajero comes up from behind whilst I’m taking a break, four young Chinese men. They are astounded and I enjoy perhaps Ten Minutes of Fame as they pose as a group, each taking turn to photo the others huddled around me. It is hilarious and I enjoy the moment.

I peddle on.

Late in the day a Hilux coming the other way slows right down. This is bush travel speak for “I’d like to talk to you” so I stop. A large Australian male exits the passenger door whilst the driver, a diminutive Asian woman remains behind the wheel.

Jovial and congenial, he’s making sure I’m alright and do I “need anything, water?” “Cold water would be very welcome” I say, but reassure him I have enough for my needs. It’s the ‘cold’ bit I lack.

Bottle one is from the fridge. It doesn’t touch the sides. Bottle two, however, is from a small chiller. It’s mostly ice. “Here, enjoy this when you can” with a twinkle in his eye as he throws me the bottle.

I ride 300 m until I find some shade, sit on the red wall which runs along the track, add some isotonic powder and indulge in a lovely chilly sensation. Thanks Mate.

Little Voice returns … “Sooo … a Pajero full of Chinese ‘boys’ (they could only just be in their twenties), hardly hardcore Outback specialists. A Hilux and 1.2 litres of cold. A hard-pan base, corrugations a-plenty but space to go around them, benign floodways with an asphalt trough, the only challenging incline (Morris Pass) is asphalt, few and short sections of stone. Don’t you see a pattern here? On which other ‘slog’ did you ever get anything like this?”

They've been producing oil and gas here since 1984
They’ve been producing oil and gas here since 1984
Sooo, when does one overtake? After rain, when all is mud?
Sooo, when does one overtake? After rain, when all is mud?

I’m beginning to see the picture.

I spooked an owl when I stopped for lunch
I spooked an owl when I stopped for lunch

The only thing slowing me down is the headwind. If there were no headwind I’d be sailing and living up the great scenery. This is not complying with my definition of ‘slog’. Not totally, and I begin to wonder.

Oh, right! Now I know.
Oh, right! Now I know.
A precaution to the lead-footed to ease off before a tight bend
A precaution to the lead-footed to ease off before a tight bend
The other side of the tight bends
The other side of the tight bends

Eighty one kilometres later and a good ten kilometres over my target I stop and camp. One is not allowed to stop and camp on this section of the Mereenie Loop for it is Aboriginal lands. You need a permit to travel this road (I honestly forgot to get one!). And are not allowed to camp along it. Whoever checks these things turns a blind-eye to cyclists camping for obvious reasons.

Fissure and water-course in the Gardine Range
Fissure and water-course in the Gardine Range
Gardine Range
Gardine Range
Gardine Range marching north
Gardine Range marching north
More of the Gardine
More of the Gardine
And yet more ... I was quite taken by its colours and aesthetics
And yet more … I was quite taken by its colours and aesthetics

Late evening a car load of Aborigines hurtles pass, arms raised through open windows, cheers are audible. I don’t get the impression of not being welcome.

At ten hours for eighty kilometres, it was a gruelling day. That headwind. It has to be said though that at the Camel Hump turn-off, at kilometre 66, the road turns sharply south-south-east. My north-easterly becomes a cross-headwind with occasion tail in it and the pain eases.

Red evening Gardine Range
Red evening Gardine Range

It was a six to seven litre ride day. Leaves three litres of cooking and hygiene. Plenty. And that’s with the headwind. The headwind itself serves as a cooling agent. Although the increased effort to ride into it also increases the need to be cooled. My Icebreaker wool T-shirt is stained with strange patterns of the salt I’ve lost during the day. My nipples begin to chaff against the salty-wool. I put lip-balm on them to stop them bleeding. It reached 43 C, but not for long.

A closer look of sunset and Gardine Range
A closer look of sunset and Gardine Range

The f****g headwind (now just a wind) continues remorselessly. The large tarpaulin serves as a wind-break wrapped around Dreamer and Ziflex enabling me to cook in relative comfort and to sleep without getting covered in dust. Shortly into the night the wind dies and I’m alone with a stunning sky which eventually becomes overcast.

The tarpaulin set up as a windbreak
The tarpaulin set up as a windbreak

Day 2, 19 December. Bright and early. OK, not so bright, the sun is a good hour away but certainly early.

I do not have a headwind but the track has degraded. Visions of doom assail me and I curse Little Voice for deceiving me. Here it comes, thinks I. Now the slog.

I bounce and jar my way over rocky-substratum with liberal doses of gravel and corrugations.

The Mereenie Loop looking the way I've come
The Mereenie Loop looking the way I’ve come
Yes, it's the Gardine Range. Again
Yes, it’s the Gardine Range. Again

Ziflex is making some new noises. The shock-absorber is all but spent.

I stop to take a photo of some horse-shit. There are loads of wild horses here, brumbies in Australian. They often shit at the same spot so the pile can be up to two meters in diameter and half a metre high. Awesome. And a bit pongy.

I had brumbies (wild horses) approach very close whilst having breakfast
I had brumbies (wild horses) approach very close whilst having breakfast
Beautiful they may be but the destroy fragile ecosystems too
Beautiful they may be but the destroy fragile ecosystems too
The horse-shit piles can be very impressive. No idea why the all &/or repeatedly shit in the same place, but that's what they seem to do
The horse-shit piles can be very impressive. No idea why the all &/or repeatedly shit in the same place, but that’s what they seem to do

A quick check of Ziflex reveals a dastardly story. That noise I could hear, a noise that sounded ill-of-place turns out to be the lower bushing which attaches the shock-absorber to the bracket on the trailer itself. One of the screws has vibrated itself loose. Held now, loosely, only on one side I risk collapse of the entire bushing resulting in Ziflex’s wheel no longer supporting the trailer. Oh Boy!

“See Little Voice” I murmur to myself, “It is a slog!”

I don’t have a spare screw big enough. I’ve 56 km to go before the asphalt starts. One way or another I’ve godda get Dreamer and now injured Ziflex to the relative safety of the asphalt.

I take a green twig, torn off a mulga tree, shape it into a wedge, jam it in the hole against the thread, take a M5 screw and a split (spring) washer and screw it in. It doesn’t tighten up completely and perhaps I need to repeat this exercise as I limp along but it’ll do. The same technique, except using match-sticks, holds up pictures on walls when the screw-holes enlarge. Let’s see.

Car # 1 does not have any screws or bolts but does hand me half a litre of isotonic drink.

Car # 2, a Hilux not only has a huge box of screws and nuts Shane even has one suitable for my Allen keys. Problem solved. Comprehensively.

My little Bush Doctor work, by the way, was working fine even after 20 km of bad road and corrugations.

Shane’s partner, Is… (I can’t really be sure of her name and nor how to spell it. Sorry) is Swedish. It is not something either of us expected, to be chatting in Swedish on a remote backtrack in the middle of Australia. Great couple. I get two chilled bottles of water. Bottle 1 does not hit the sides. Bottle 2 gets some isotonic powder and tastes great.

Shane and Is..., his partner, who saved Ziflex and allowed me to hammer across bad roads and corrugations again
Shane and Is…, his partner, who saved Ziflex and allowed me to hammer across bad roads and corrugations again

As for isolated, there’s near constant but not frequent traffic. The Mereenie Loop is busy, by Outback track standards.

Heading north towards the MacDonnell ranges and Tylers Pass
Heading north towards the MacDonnell ranges and Tylers Pass

Cars full of Aborigines are very enthusiastic, leaning well out of open windows smiling and waving and cheering as they drive past. One coming the other way slows right down (they all give me wide berth) and we Hi-5 as we pass. Made me laugh. He beeps his horn as he drives off. Made my day.

The West MacDonnells creeping up on me
The West MacDonnells creeping up on me

The day is not brutally hot. It is just gruelling. Lunch time in the shade of a mulga I sit in my Helinox ground chair lean against my rear-pannier and snooze for a good while. Very nice, very necessary.

The West MacDonnells
The West MacDonnells
Yes, more MacDonnells
Yes, more MacDonnells
Gravel returns to asphalt and the Areyonga turn-off, and the Tylers Pass
Gravel returns to asphalt at the Areyonga turn-off
Cutting through one arm of the MacDonnells I climb for a looong way. First on asphalt and then on gravel
Cutting through one arm of the MacDonnells I climb for a looong way. First on asphalt and then on gravel
Looking back a L O T of kilometres towards the Areyonga turn-off
Looking back a L O T of kilometres towards the Areyonga turn-off

Seventy three kilometres after I started today and 140 km since the asphalt ended I am once again on asphalt heading north, past a dying young horse, looking for a campsite.

The Sign I've been looking for ... for in 300 m I return to asphalt
The Sign I’ve been looking for … for in 300 m I return to asphalt
The Junction. Back on asphalt
The Junction. Back on asphalt
Looking for a campsite
Looking for a campsite
Incompatible road users. The young horse was dying its front legs gouging out a trough
Incompatible road users. The young horse was dying its front legs gouging out a trough

Seventy six kilometres after I started this morning I am nestled amongst sheoaks feeling pretty darned good.

Day 2 campsite under Sheoaks
Day 2 campsite under Sheoaks
View from my pillow
View from my pillow

Tomorrow I’ve a 56 km ride to Redbank Gorge and water. I have well over ten litres left and could easily do the 70 km to Glen Helen but I’d like to check out Redbank. I plan to camp there and if it’s really nice, to stay a couple of days.

Mereenie Loop Day 3, 20 December.

I’m beginning to have to acknowledge that Little Voice was or is right after all. The Mereenie Loop is easy. There were sections of the Biddi, the Mawson, the Oodnadatta and Hamilton Station track which were killers in comparison.

View before I make out of bed
View before I make out of bed

I figure that the authors of the blogs had not done a lot of nasty Outback track riding before they took on the Mereenie Loop. For them it was a slog. After 1000s of kilometres of Outback, and not quite so Outback track, it was but another rough section and certainly not the longest nor the worst.

The (asphalt) road north. With a headwind. Of course
The (asphalt) road north. With a headwind. Of course
Shadow selfie
Shadow selfie
Tnorala. The consequences of an ancient comet's impact 2 km under the impact area. Or where a turna (baby basket) fell to earth after being knocked over by dancing moms
Tnorala. The consequences of an ancient comet’s impact 2 km under the impact area. Or where a turna (baby basket) fell to earth after being knocked over by dancing moms

Now, on asphalt, I’m fine.

Tnorala from Tylers Pass lookout
Tnorala from Tylers Pass lookout
View west from Tylers Pass lookout
View west from Tylers Pass lookout
View north
View north

Fifty four kilometres later I’m under a large shelter in the Coaches’ camping area in the Woodland Campsite at Redbank Gorge. It’s actually raining, or has rained. The five kilometres from the asphalt to the gorge was a rough little bit of gravel with a number of dry sandy gravely floodways. Five Ks? Piece of piss.

Nearly there
Nearly there
A rough 5 km
A rough 5 km
What an Icebreaker 150 gr T-shirt looks like after three days sweaty ride and no rinse
What an Icebreaker 150 gr T-shirt looks like after three days sweaty ride and no rinse

The Mereenie Loop … 211 km, 25 hours total bike time including stops, 8.4 kph overall speed including stop-time, 18 litres of water. I’ve 11 litres of water left.

Done!

Max

Redbank Gorge, 20 December

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