Melrose is one of Australia’s oldest riding destinations. Constructed in 2005, the trails sit at the foot of Mount Remarkable on private land owned by the McCallum family. Restricted by property lines, there hasn’t been room to expand in the nearly two decades these trails have been around — until now.
“We always have people rolling into town saying ‘oh, what’s new,’ people always want to ride that next new thing — that’s why we travel with our bikes,” says Richie Bruce, Owner of Over the Edge Sports in Melrose. “We can finally say, this is what’s new.”
The new trails that Bruce can tell folks about are small networks at Willowie and Wirrabara and a brand new IMBA Epic on Mount Remarkable.
This trio of trail projects comes as part of The Remarkable Southern Flinders Project, which has been kicking around in various master plans since about 2010. And, after a successful bid to the Building Better Regions Fund, it can finally go ahead.
“We currently have $500,000 going into a series of family-friendly and intermediate trails at Willowie Forest — which is on the side of Mount Remarkable — about five kilometres from Melrose and connected by rail trail,” says Matthew Ackland, a Project Manager with the National Parks and Wildlife Service South Australia. “There will be a bit over 20km of new trail going in there, along with a new day visitor spot, a better car park, toilet blocks, and a nice picnic area.
“Down the road about 20km, there is a place called Wirrabara. We’re doing a similar day visitor site with a seven-kilometre family loop, which ties in with an existing picnic area, and a new lookout the council is building in an area called ‘The Bluff,’ which is a really cool spot,” he says.
Also, part of this project is developing a new multi-day walk and upgrading the campsite at Mambray Creek.
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Mount Remarkable Epic
Of course, the biggest news here is the Mount Remarkable Epic Trail, a 38km backcountry IMBA Epic — with more than 80-per cent singletrack — that starts and finishes in Melrose.
“To be able to leave your accommodation, ride the Epic, and loop straight back to your accommodation, with no shuttle bus or transport, is fairly unique. I think it’s going to be one hell of a package,” says Melrose Deputy Mayor Don Norton.
Ackland says that Parks SA has identified a few points of interest not included in the current concept design, and the total distance might grow beyond the current ~38km figure. SA-based Trailscapes was awarded the tender for the detailed design and build, and Managing Director Garry Patterson tells Flow he thinks that figure could grow to between 40-44km.
As it stands, the trail will climb from town, up the eastern face of Mount Remarkable, contouring along the summit ridge, before descending back into an area called ‘The Link Lands,’ a parcel acquired by Parks SA about a decade ago, that previously split the National Park in two.
“One of the most exciting parts will be descending off Mount Remarkable down into ‘The Link Lands’ — that’s going to be about a six-and-a-half kilometre descent. Another one we have planned will drop into the newly built trails at Willowie; I think we’re going to get around eight kilometres (of descending out of that one),” Patterson says.
Ackland continues, “It’s really nice country — rocky, populated by large gum (trees) and quite scenic. We’ll do a bit more backcountry trail, adventure stuff through here, and then return on some historic trail through a private tenure.”
The Epic will descend on an old stock route running through this property back into the Melrose Township, with a link to the Bartagunyah Winery, which also has a set of trails which are open to the public.
Norton says he campaigned hard to have this link included.
“That section (through The Link Lands) is only a few kilometres long, but it’s just so spectacular. We’ve walked through there a number of times, scoping out alignments — it’s such a pretty area. I just can’t wait to ride that section and showcase it to the people that come up,” he says.
According to Patterson, the terrain around Mount Remarkable is pretty darn rocky, and a jackhammer will be an essential piece of kit. Patterson also tells us he doesn’t plan to fight against the mountain’s geology in order to build a manicured flow trail.
“Our target will be for ‘downcountry’ bikes. It will be a trail for strong, fit riders who still want to ride technical terrain,” he says.
Shuttles to the summit
Mount Remarkable has a bit of a blind summit and the geographic prominence doesn’t offer the best views, with primo unobstructed outlooks on the saddle below. Ackland also notes this area is of important cultural significance to the Nukunu Traditional Owners, who Parks SA are working with to ensure the trails don’t disturb anything.
We really do rely on the people that live in our surrounding districts to come in and ride these trails.
“The Epic is designed to start and finish in Melrose, but there is an option that a commercial operation could shuttle you to the summit — at which point it wouldn’t actually be a full backcountry ‘Epic’ because it would be mostly descending, and about 20km shorter. But, it would still give the option for a more gravity oriented rider who doesn’t want to climb,” he tells Flow.
He also notes that the existing infrastructure creates a potential issue. From Melrose, you have to drive to the backside of the range and up a one-vehicle wide road that runs the length of the mountains. For a commercial operation to come in, it would likely require a new (ed’s note: safer) route. Ackland says it’s not out of the question, but likely won’t come as part of the initial project.
According to Patterson, they are also looking to include a bailout option before you climb Mount Remarkable that will shortcut into Willowie forest and reconnect with the tail end of the Epic, making about a 20km loop.
Plans of management and land tenures
Essentially all the mountain bike trails in and around Melrose are built on private land in the foothills surrounding the National Park, and bikes have not technically been allowed on Mount Remarkable itself, except for Willowie Forest. At the time of writing, this is still the case.
“We’re currently out to consult on a plan to change the management plan of Mount Remarkable National Park,” says Ackland. “It’s very much looking like, in one form or another, the current allowable footprint will expand. What that new footprint will look like is still to be decided.”
Ackland tells Flow that the feedback he has seen is overwhelmingly positive, and Parks SA is moving ahead with the trail project — hence why the design and build tender was awarded.
I’m most excited that all the hard work has finally been realised, and the people that put in all that work for so many years can finally feel vindicated.
The other issue that the Epic trail has come up against is that some of the proposed alignment will cross private land. This is not the first time Parks SA has worked with privately tenured land, completing a similar process with the Kangaroo Island multi-day walk.
“We have in-principle approval from two private landowners as well to include their land into the trail, and we’re working through the legal documentation with those guys for permission to construct,” he says. “These landowners are both supportive of what we’re doing — very welcoming (of bringing) in the community. I think that’s worked very much in our favour in Melrose, in that most of the community is on board.”
Making Melrose Epic and family-friendly
Melrose is one of Australia’s old guard riding destinations, but it’s three hours from Adelaide and not exactly on the beaten path. And calling the local riding community ‘tight-knit’ would be an understatement.
“We really do rely on the people that live in our surrounding districts to come in and ride these trails. There’s probably five or so riders that actually live in town, and another 12 or so folks from Adelaide who have bought houses in Melrose that ride mountain bikes,” says Deputy Mayor Norton, who also owns the Under the Mount accommodation.
With riders being the minority in Melrose, the non-riding community didn’t always see mountain bikers in a positive light; but, this perception has evolved as riding tourism ramped up. Not all that long ago, Melrose, like many rural communities in the region, was facing the prospect of losing its post office and general store.
“The community is turning a corner. The IGA-friendly grocer in town is now fully stocked, and the two pubs are fully open all the time, with plenty of options for meals and beer. The bike shop has expanded, and so has the cafe attached to it, and people travel from right around the council district to come in for a coffee, cake and lunch — and that’s in large part to do with people coming to Melrose to ride,” Norton says.
Bruce continues, “The general populace understands that you need tourism to support the businesses. We get a lot of locals coming into our cafe, but if it was just local business, it wouldn’t be sustainable, and we wouldn’t be able to afford to continue.”
Because the Mount Remarkable Epic has been rattling around in various master plans for over a decade, the locals are cautiously optimistic about what is to come.
“I’m most excited that all the hard work has finally been realised, and the people that put in all that work, for so many years can finally feel vindicated,” says Bruce.
When Melrose was built nearly two decades ago, the focus was attracting what Bruce calls the ‘enthusiast market,’ which is why there is a noticeable lack of green and family-friendly trails. With the Epic and everything coming with it, that is changing.
“To have rail-trails going in, and to have more green and blue trails going in, it’s super positive. Then to be able to get something for the enthusiast, with the Epic trail, we’re really excited for it,” he says.
“It’s truly going to cement it as a trail town,” says Patterson. “Melrose has been teetering on the edge of that (title) its whole life, but I think these projects will push it over the edge.”
Melrose for everyone
Bruce, Norton and Ackland mentioned that this project isn’t just about attracting mountain bikers. With the Mawson Trail running through Melrose and endless gravel adventures and road routes in the area, there is something for every rider, regardless of wheel size or whether your tyres are slick or knobby.
“If this is a successful project, there is plenty of scope for future development in the region. It’s a big park, and there is heaps of cool terrain,” says Ackland.
Patterson couldn’t provide an exact timeframe as to when the Epic will be ready to ride, as Trailscapes only got word they had won the tender at the beginning of December. However, he did say they are working with a pretty tight timeframe to make it happen.
For the latest information on the Mount Remarkable Epic and the trail projects around Melrose, check out the Parks SA website.
Photos: Bike Melrose, Matt Ackland, Trailscapes, Flow MTB