According to Glen Jacobs from World Trail, “growing up in Northern Queensland, every second uncle and cousin always use to say, ‘ah, Cardwell is going to explode, it’s gonna go off — it’s an amazing place, this beautiful little town on the beach.’ But it never has, and I don’t know why.”
Located about equidistant between Cairns and Townsville, Cardwell is right off the Bruce Highway and home to the Giant Crab. It’s long been the jumping-off point for the infamous Thorsborne Trail on Hinchinbrook Island, but the fuse has been lit with the town hoping to attract mountain bikers from the world over with a proposed 96km trail network.
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A community-led project
Cardwell is a town of about 1,400 people. In the shadow of the Cardwell Range, peaks over 800m tall rise above the main strip, which follows the coastline. It doesn’t have a bike shop or sanction trails, but there is a riding community there.
Kathy Sheahan and her husband run the Cardwell Pool and Gym and have been pivotal in getting this project off the ground.
“A mountain bike tragic came to the pool to do some work, and he just mentioned to my husband in passing, ‘has anybody ever talked about putting mountain bike trails in here — this place is made for it,’” she says.
Little did this mountain biking tradie know that the pair, along with another fellow from Mission Beach, had been working on a proposal for a trail network for several years.
However, this interaction was the spark in the tinderbox and Sheahan put together a community meeting to lay out what they were hoping for with a trail network in Cardwell, and to explain what it could do for the community.
“We basically asked community members if they were supportive of what we were doing, and asked if they would be willing to donate money to assist with (funding) the feasibility study,” she says.
“We had pledges in excess of $10,000 after that meeting,” Sheahan continues.
When it comes to community support for big projects, folks will generally get behind a plan right up until it comes time to open their wallet or jump on the business end of a shovel. So when you have folks lining up to cut sizable cheques, that provides a decent litmus test that you’re onto something.
We asked Sheahan if any voices in the community were vehemently opposed to what they had proposed, and she told Flow if there are, she hasn’t come across them yet.
The Traditional Owners of Cardwell and the surrounds are the Girramay People, and according to Sheahan, play an essential part in the small coastal town. Before this community meeting, they had been working with the Traditional Owners to involve them in the project. The Girramay are on board and have even given the project a slogan, “ride where our ancestors once walked.”
“Our greatest asset is the Traditional Owners,” says Cardwell Deputy Mayor Barry Barnes. “They have been with us from the beginning, and are highly motivated with the potential to showcase (their) culture as part of the project.”
By this point, Sheahan and the Community Bike Trails Action Group had made enough noise to catch the attention of the Cassowary Coast Regional Council and the Queensland State Government, who, after all this, both threw $50,000 towards conducting the feasibility study.
World Trail comes to Cardwell
In 2011, Cardwell was walloped by Cyclone Yasi. The town has largely bounced back, but according to reporting by 7News in February 2021, a decade on, not everything has fully recovered.
The Cassowary Council engaged World Trail to conduct the feasibility study, and the proposed 96km network has been projected to generate nearly 100-jobs in the community, and annual revenue approaching a cool $20-million.
“It’s going to ignite the town into something really cool,” says Jacobs.
The 96km trail network will be divided into three main riding zones; Seven Sisters, Lookout Hill, and Attie Creek Falls.
“Right in town, there are two trail areas, Seven Sisters and Lookout Hill. The trailhead is going to be maybe 400m from the main strip,” says Jacobs. “There will be beginner trail, wilderness rides and a few shuttle runs. Then there is this little mountain range right beside Cardwell, and that’s going to be where there are some proper gravity trails, and a few adventure trails.”
“Right in town, there are big rock slabs — huge rock slabs — and it’s a granitic sort of soil, so when it’s raining, it’s going to be beautiful to ride there. And then out the back, in the rainforest, it’s this dark black/grey, loamy organic soil, it’s bloody beautiful,” Jacobs continues.
These foothills rise ~200m above the town, and offer open views of the coastline and Hinchinbrook Island. But just on the other side, everything gets bigger.
“Then, there’s another trailhead about 3km away at a place called Attie (Creek) Falls. There are these nice big swimming holes, and a big set of waterfalls — the trailhead will be at the bottom of those falls,” says Jacobs.
“There will be another set of shuttle runs going up way higher into the rainforest mountains, and the trails will come down right beside the waterfalls — you’re always coming out next to a swimming hole,” he says.
This end of the network will house Cardwell’s signature trail, a 9.6km gravity descent, which takes in 480m of vertical drop.
All three riding areas will be linked, so you’ll be able to ride from town on singletrack out to Attie Creek Falls, which is already a spot tourists flock to from Cardwell. But, beyond shuttles into the mountains, there is another reason for a secondary trailhead here.
“The beautiful thing about this, and the reason we needed a fairly good sized car park and services there, is that (side of the network) is where you could hold a World Cup Downhill or a major gravity event,” says Jacobs. “ The cross country could actually happen in town, where the mountains aren’t as big — the foothills have like 200m of vertical while the back range have something like 500m.”
First comes the pump track
With the feasibility report out and having received the support of the Council and the State Government, the next stage of the project is to develop the business case. Deputy Mayor Barnes tells Flow they are awaiting funding.
However, as part of the Covid-19 Relief and Recovery fund, Cardwell has received $500,000 towards early works on the Cardwell Mountain Bike Destination.
“The plan was to invest that money to start on some trails. But, to build even a small amount of trail, you still have to go through the same approvals and ecological studies. With all of that, in the end, we would probably only get about 10km of trail with that money,” Sheahan says.
The community stakeholders and government decided this money would be better spent on trail head facilities and a pump track. Most riding destinations leave these projects until last, almost as an insurance policy — if everything goes belly up and the budget gets blown out on some unforeseen issue, at least the trails are complete.
Sheahan tells Flow the hope is the pump track will create more interest locally and will serve as an introduction to mountain biking for the wider community. Omeo is another destination that went this route and had folks driving in from hours away just to a rip a few laps — that destination at the base of the Victorian Alps has just received VCAT approval and is rumbling ahead on its over 120km network.
Complementing Cairns, Atherton and Townsville
Of course, Cardwell is a slightly different situation to Omeo given there are riding destinations about 2-hours away on either side, but everyone involved sees this proximity as being an asset.
“I’m really happy that we are placed between Cairns, Atherton and Townsville, and I think Cardwell will complement what we have in North Queensland,” say Deputy Mayor Barnes. “When you go to the local show, if they only had one merry go round, you get bored quickly and go home. But if they’ve got three merry go rounds and a slippery slope, there is more to keep you entertained. It will be great (once the trails are open) and will all complement each other.”
This proximity also puts Cardwell within a 2-hour drive of an international airport, and the town is serviced by regular train and bus routes from as far away as Brisbane.
Sheahan, who rides herself, has been at the forefront of this project for years and is most excited about what the trails will do for her local community.
“I can’t wait to sit down on the foreshore, with a glass of wine, and watch the whole town abuzz, with mountain bikers zooming past to get up to the trails. But (I’m) also (excited) for the kids to get on their bikes after school, or local community members saying ‘let’s go over to the trails for a ride this arvo’ — just to see our community abuzz with excited, happy smiling faces,” she says.
There is still work to be done before the trails in Cardwell will be open; for the latest information, check out the Cassowary Coast Regional Council’s website.
Photos: Tourism Tropical North Queensland