Sugar and spice and everything nice — is Mackay QLD’s next MTB destination?

Iain Masters, Vice President of the MAD (Mackay and District) Mountain Bike Club, was racing around town preparing for the National XC Cup, which came through Rowallan Park over the weekend.

“I have a few guys out flagging the course right now, and I’m running around picking up generators, a lighting tower and a digital screen to set up this afternoon, which we’re putting in for our live stream,” he says.

Rowallan Park is in the heart of Mackay, and the XC loops provide the perfect venue for national events, but the topography and short loops mean it’s probably not somewhere you’d go for a riding vacation. However, about 45-minutes up the road in Finch Hatton and Eungulla, there is something brewing that will put Mackay on the travelling mountain bikers map.

Welcome to Finch Hatton.

Need to Know

“We’re going to have (about) a 40km trail from Eungella to Finch Hatton through the rainforest, which will have something like 1500m of descending and 500m climbing — so on the whole, it’s a descending trail over (about) 40km,” Masters tells Flow. “The rest of the network in Finch Hatton will be a series of stacked loops that can be used for cross country or gravity enduros, and there will be a couple of purpose-built downhill tracks will be built to World Cup standard. There will be a full set of sealed access roads right to the top for shuttling, and there will be a jump line in the lower part of the gravity tracks for a Crankworx style jump park, leading down into a big trailhead in the centre of town.”

All up, the Pioneer Valey is slated for 100km of singletrack, including the adventure trail in the hills south of Finch Hatton and Eungella. Once complete, the Pioneer Valley network will be will one of the biggest mountain bike destinations in Queensland.

Pour some sugar on me

Sugar cane is what the Pioneer Valley was built upon.

Mackay and the surrounding region are in the sugar business, producing a third of the sweet stuff sold in Australia.

“Finch Hatton was one of the towns up the valley which grew up around a sugar mill, as did most of the towns dotted all the way up the (Pioneer) Valley,” says Mackay Regional Council Mayor Greg Williamson. “It’s an absolutely glorious valley to drive; it’s lush and green, and there is a good flowing river after the wet season.”

“Finch Hatton is a great example of a regional country town that was based entirely around a single industry structure, and that industry was sugar,” he continues.

The old Finch Hatton Train Station doesn’t get much traffic at the moment.

In its heyday, the small town, which is believed to be named after Harold Heneage Finch-Hatton, an English aristocrat who lived in the area in the mid-1800s, was also home to the Cattle Creek Sugar Mill. Went into opperation in 1906, the mill produced the sweet stuff until 1990, when it was decommissioned and dismantled.

All that remains of the Cattle Creek Sugar Mill is an administration building constructed by a few mill workers, which Project Manager Adam Pearce tells us will be incorporated into the trailhead.

“It jumped out at us straight away because there was this big slab of land right in the middle of town. Just behind it are these huge undulations, some big white gum trees and this open scrub,” says World Trail Founder Glen Jacobs, whose team conducted the feasibility study for this project. “Once it’s slashed and cut back, it’s going to look a bit like a golf course, but with five or six airflow trails, with all these funky movements following the gullies and natural rolling hills.”

Check out the proposed trailhead at Finch Hatton.

The open area, which was once cane paddocks, heads towards the foothills where the gradient increases.

“Once you move up past the open spaces, you get into open eucalyptus forest, and in some of the gullies up in the hills, you come across this super dense rainforest vegetation. As you move higher and move towards the edge of the National Park, you’re going through a range of rainforest, eucalypt forests, and there are even some random groves of palm trees,” Pearce says.

“It’s almost like a big European valley,” continues Jacobs. “There is a tonne of little eco-zones as you go; you get views of the Finch Hatton gorge on one side and views of a big lake on the other,” says Jacobs. “There is some really good red volcanic soil, a bit of organic, big rock slabs —not huge like Derby, but still pretty big — and there are some sections of the mountain, north-facing stuff which has a lot of rock and big boulders, waterfalls, creeks, and rivers, it’s just beautiful.”

City in the clouds

Eungella is a town built on a cliff and surrounded by a national park.

Situated about 17km up the valley from Finch Hatton, at an elevation of 690m, is Eungella, a small rainforest township built on a cliff’s edge.

“The town is surrounded by the national park, and they actually call it a cloud rainforest; because of the altitude and the way the terrain is organized, it captures a lot of cloud, and you are in a mist for a good portion of the year,” says Pearce. “It was actually a really popular spot for hang gliding when that was big.”

The hero trail will start at the front door of the Eungella Chalet and follows a ridgeline down to Broken River, a town with a population of 22-people. From there, the trail quickly ducks back into Eungella National Park, contouring its way across the range to meet the top of the trails above Finch Hatton.

Peter Lister says you’re almost guaranteed to see a Platypus up around Eungella.

“Riding down from the land of the clouds in the rain forest towards Finch Hatton, that drop in elevation is going to be amazing. You’ll get peeks of the Whitsundays and the islands and views of the cane fields; it’s going to be a spectacular ride,” Peter Lister,  who was previously involved with the MAD MTB Club and former XCC National Champ, tells Flow.

Lister also says it’s the place to go if you’ve never seen a platypus in the wild.

“When I took Glen Jacobs up there, I said, ‘ah we’ll see platypus’ and bang, on cue we spotted one,” he laughs.

Filling the gap in QLD destinations

There are plenty of great places to ride in Queensland, but there isn’t quite a Derby or a Mount Buller.

“We’ve already got a tourist destination up here in Mackay; there just aren’t very many trails, and it’s not somewhere you would come to ride. There are a few (bike) parks up and down the coast, but they are quite a ways from here,” says Lister.

“You know you go up to Cairns, you’ve got the pump track and the rain forest, and Smithfield and Atherton are pretty cool, but you’re talking about 1000km from Mackay and 2000km driving from Brisbane to go to a decent mountain bike destination — and that’s what people are looking for,” Lister says.

Some of the Mackay locals head out for bit adventure rides on fire roads and double track like this in Eungella National Park.

Currently, there are 11km of trails in Mackay, at Rowallan Park, and some marathon type fire road/double track rides up in Eungella National Park. The trails at Pioneer Valley will fill the geographic void and satisfy the gravity hungry locals.

“If you’ve got an enduro bike in town, it doesn’t get used all that much. We have the XC trails; techy, rocky, rooty rain forest, awesome trails for XC riders, and you’ve got the marathon stuff, but you have to travel a long way for that, and you’re up against the four-wheel drives and motorbikes. It’s great for XC, but there’s really not all that much gravity,” Lister says.

Beyond satisfying those gravity hungry locals who have been hanging out for a DH trail to sink their teeth into, as with all of these trail projects, the end goal is to benefit the community and create economic opportunities. These towns built their economic foundations on industry, but for the Pioneer Valley, that industry moved on in the 90s and 2000s.

“People were moving out of the joint, schools were on the verge of closing, and just about all the shops closed up. So, it’s not really about the trails; the ultimate goal is to keep these towns alive. We want to be able to use mountain biking to attract investment in these places and get things going again. But, having a world-class facility 45-minutes from my front door is definitely a bonus,” Masters says.

How’s the serenity?

According to modelling that World Trail and the Mackay Council conducted, their conservative estimates say trail the network will attract 31,000 or more new domestic visitors and 5,000 international visitors annually. This same modelling shows the trail network will create at least 110 full-time equivalent jobs.

“It’ll definitely be the best facility of its kind in Queensland. Our riding season, which runs from April or May to October, puts us in perfect step for southern winters and the winter market in New Zealand. We’re not really going to be in competition with Maydena or Thredbo or any of those sorts of places because when it’s our on season, it’s their off-season — so we will complement each other,” says Masters.

That said, even when it is peak season at destinations down south, the lush green valley and moderate temps you find in central Queensland will still be alluring.

New trails, new jobs

The fact that there is already a degree of mountain biking culture in Mackay means the sport is not a totally foreign concept to the local community. While some have their concerns about safety and access to the more remote parts of the network, the town-folk can see the effect the trails will have on their sleepy little village.

“The people who have moved there and established families really want to have a part-time job for their kids, rather than having to drive them back into town to work at McDonald’s. They want an avenue to keep their kids around them, and they can all see the benefit,” says Mayor Williamson. “They can all see the flow-on jobs for casualised positions for kids as they are growing up, and potential for full-time jobs to keep people in the community.”

There is no shortage of pretty things to look at around Finch Hatton and Eungella.

As it stands now, Eungulla and Finch Hatton each have a pub and a general store, and that’s about it. Pearce tells Flow even at this early juncture, there have been parties interested in setting up bike shops, cafes, and some houses are being purchased and renovated to become AirBNBs.

The project is still in the preliminary stages, and the council has just embarked on its environmental fieldwork to see if there are any red flags. However, should that all go to plan and the required approvals go through in a timely fashion, Pearce says his team will present the Master Plan by July, and the first trails would be ready to ride by mid to late 2023.

The local beta

Once the trail network is up and running, be sure to bring your hiking boots too.

Finch Hatton is about 65km from Mackay, and Eungella is just over 80km.

While the trail towns themselves are quiet in terms of places to eat and stay, all of that will come once the trails get up and running. The trailhead in Finch Hatton will be literally across the street from the Criterion Hotel, which has your standard pub meals, in addition to more adventurous options like crocodile and emu.

Up the hill, the place to eat and stay is the Eungella Chalet. Constructed in 1933, it’s a classic Queenslander, and from the deck, you can literally have a beer and a burger above the clouds.

While the options for food in the trail towns are limited, Pearce, Masters, and Mayor Williamson said the Pinnacle Hotel is a must stop, and the hand-made pies are remarkable. For a post-ride meal, the Mayor suggested a crumbed steak — he tells Flow that are so large the pub had to have special plates made just to serve them.

Mr Turtle wants you to go jungle scuba-diving.

Mackay is the window to the Whitsundays, and there is plenty of tourist infrastructure and things to do nearby, including the infamous Airlie Beach. There is also no shortage of rainforest walks and swimming holes in Eungella and Finch Hatton Gorge.

Pearce tells us a company called Rainforest Scuba will take you diving in the gorge, where you will see multiple species of eels, Gordian rainbow worms, and a platypus up close if you’re lucky. There is a place called the Sugar Shack for the history buffs, which has a museum and a functional tabletop sized sugar cane mill, where you can make your own sugar cane juice.

For updates on the Pioneer Valley Mountain Bike Destination, head over to the Mackay Regional Council website.

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