Georgie Staley and her husband Dave were out in the Bodalla State Forest working on the trails near their home in Narooma, and they kept seeing a van parked in odd places out in the bush and a scruffy looking guy with long hair.
“I said I just can live with myself if this poor guy doesn’t have somewhere to live. So we approached him and asked if he needed somewhere to stay,” Staley recounts.
As it turns out, this long-haired stranger was Tom Mallet from Dirt Art, who was out exploring the trails in Narooma while staying with family on the South Coast.
As it stands, there are about 30km of trails near Narooma, thanks to the tireless work of the Staley’s, and while the pair are humble about what they have produced, the trails they’ve built made an impression on Mallet, and he shared his rave reviews of this small community build network with his co-works. Little did he know, the Narooma Mountain Bike Club was about to receive a $3.9-million grant from the Bushfire Local Economic Recovery Fund to add 65km of singletrack to their handbuilt network, which will put the town on the map as a nationally significant riding destination.
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In the woods and on the tools
Staley and her husband have spent years building up mountain biking in Narooma from the ground level. Having spent many years travelling around Colorado, Oregon and Utah, they noticed the boost small mountain towns, where tourism often ebbs and flows based on the season, were receiving after they had invested in mountain bike infrastructure.
Looking back at their own home in this idyllic little beach town, that is bumping through the summer and pretty quiet the rest of the year, the parallels were uncanny.
Beyond just being mountain bikers themselves, the pair thought trails could have a similar impact on their town. So they got to work.
“We run four retail shops, so it was working around that, mornings, nights and weekends, just chipping away and making the trails. Every kilometre that is there has been built by us and then working with Forestry (Corporation NSW), we got them formalised, and formed a partnership with them,” Staley explains.
Building 30km of singletrack on your own is a feat in itself, and the Staleys are humble about the quality of what they’ve built, but it seems they are not only pretty nifty with a shovel in hand but also with the vision to see where trails fit in among the landscape.
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“The trails that Georgie and Dave built are frankly amazing. They are the type of trails that anyone from a total beginner to someone that is quite advanced can ride, and enjoy. There aren’t any crazy features, so you can roll through them at low speed and have fun, but the faster you ride them, the more engaging and technical they become,” says Dirt Art’s Jason Lam.
“I went down for myself to have a look around at the trails, and I was taken back straight away at the site. I go on a lot of site visits every year to evaluate potential tenders, and it’s very rare to go to a site and be overwhelmed by the sheer potential,” he says.
At face value, there isn’t a giant mountain rising above the tree canopy offering 800m of vertical drop, and there aren’t massive rock slabs sprinkled throughout the forest for the trail builders to play with. But, there are no aspects that were too steep or rocky for singletrack, and because this site is on active forestry land, nothing was highly constrained due to threatened species or cultural heritage issues. It was literally a blank canvas.
“Everywhere I looked was buildable, with this really good soil — it’s that perfect mix of clay and a naturally decomposed rock,” says Lam.
According to Staley, when they started moving dirt in Bodella State Forest it was about the time that Derby kicked off, and people around the country were beginning to cotton on to what mountain bikes can bring to a community. Knowing that 30km alone wasn’t going to transform Narooma into NSW’s mountain biking mecca, she started applying for grants to fund a business case with the goal of turning this project into something bigger.
We’ll do it without you then
With the forests around Narooma, and the willingness of Forestry Corporation NSW to push forward with this project, it seems like it would be an easy win for a local government to jump on board. Much of the hard work had already been done, and it likely would have been a case of throwing some money at the project and showing up to the ribbon-cutting ceremony to take photos.
Narooma falls in the Eurobodalla Shire, which is also home to Mogo, which is in the midst of its own massive mountain bike development. Unfortunately, there are only so many resources at a given time to go around, and for Narooma, the coffers for mountain bike destinations were tapped out.
“When we went to council, they were already tied up with Mogo, so they weren’t able to provide any support. So we just said, ‘well, ok, we’re just going to do it,'” Stayley says. “It’s all been driven initially by Dave and I, but through the process, a bunch of other people have come on board to help us.”
Out of this effort spawned the Narooma Mountain Bike Club, which is up to about 40-members strong who help where they can. But also, the town folk, riders and non-riders alike, and the local Aboriginal Land Council are lending a hand and resources where possible, including the preparation of the grant application that has made the design and construction of the trail network possible — talk about a good return on investment.
And because the project falls entirely on an estate owned by forestry, they didn’t actually need the council’s help. According to Staley, and the joint project managers Craig Stonestreet from Natural Trails and Craig Meinicke from Blue Sky Trails, Forestry has been highly supportive of the project as well, even going as far as committing their own resources to help with the planning and approvals needed for the project.
“They sort of see it as a partnership between Forestry and mountain biking, and a way that people can benefit from these areas of land. They are looking for ways they can improve accessibility and improve these areas, and they see mountain bike trails as a good way of doing that,” says Stonestreet.
Stonestreet also tells us that they are working with Forestry to incorporate timber harvested in the region for signage, seating, toilet blocks and the like.
Tell me about the trails
After a last-minute revision to the design, the final concept design was released just prior to Dirt Art beginning construction. All up, Dirt Art will be constructing 65km of trails to bring the total in Narooma up to 100km.
Lam tells Flow the majority of the site is rolling hills, and the high point doesn’t jump off the map like Abbots Peak or Thredbo.
The project site has been split into four distinct riding zones that suit a particular style of trail.
“We really looked at the site and said what can we develop that suits the rolling topography of the region but is still unique. But with the rolling hills, the perfect soil type, and the stunning vegetation, it has the three ingredients for making a pretty desirable destination for mountain biking — and then being pretty close to the ocean,” he says.
“Our concept was that you have a gravity zone, which is something that you’ll be shuttling. Then you have a trail riding zone off to the north, which ties in with the trailhead in terms of amalgamating a skills zone and longer format trail riding experience and gives that progression from beginners right through to experienced riders,” he continues.
The gravity zone in the middle of the network averages 120m of vertical drop and has descents that are 1.5km to 3km in length — depending on their difficulty rating. To put that in perspective, Mount George in George Town, Tasmania, averages about 2km of trail with 120m of elevation.
“And then we have another zone to the southeast, which we’ve deemed as the wilderness adventure zone. So that area is untouched, and it gives you that backcountry feel. We have five individual loops, totalling about 30km in that zone,” continues Lam.
Since these trails are on forestry land, within the boundaries of a working forest, at some point they will be harvested. However, they have planned for this, and Staley doesn’t necessarily see that as a negative thing.
“Two fairly large coupes had been harvested not long before we got started, and so it will be something like 20 years before they come back. When we discussed our plans, it was set up that the network would be divided up into three stages, so for example, if forestry came into stage one, the other two could remain open,” says Staley.
“It also allows us to make the trails even better because once everything has been logged, it gives us an opportunity to go in and say, well, that alignment didn’t really work last time, so let’s change it. By the time they do come through, trends will have changed, and it will probably be time to update the trails anyway,” she says.
Where does Narooma fit in?
The South Coast is poised to become the mountain biking capital of New South Wales, with new networks happening in Narooma, Mogo and Eden. In addition to Tathra on the coast — which is hosting the Quad Crown stage race — and Canberra, Cooma and Thredbo just inland, there is going to be a lot going of riding in this region of the state.
“Eden will be more of a descending focus whereas Narooma is going to appeal to quite a broad market, and there are going to be plenty of trails for that e-Bike adventure riding segment. But, then having a designated gravity zone, there is going to be something for a lot of different people,” says Stonestreet.
The trails on the coast have the advantage that the climate stays desirably warm throughout the year. According to Lam, the soils drain well and can stand up to a good bit of rain, which is essential considering the whole point is to drive offseason tourism.
“I think all these destinations, Mogo, Narooma and Eden, will tie in quite closely and become a hotspot for mountain bikers travelling on the coast, whether it’s winter or summer. I think it’s going to really pull people towards those areas in a similar fashion to something like the Victorian High Country, with people travelling between each destination.
Once the South Coast is done and realised, I think it will be another circuit that you can roadtrip” says Lam.
It’s not just mountain bikers that have taken notice. Aussie billionaire Justin Hemmes is already acting as the hype man for Narooma, scooping up four pubs and counting in the small beach town.
Dirt Art has just started construction of the trails at Narooma and will be constructing stages two and three simultaneously. Lam tells us they’re aiming for a partial opening later this year, with everything ready to rock by the start of 2023.
Photos: Sunbird Photography / @sunbirdphotography, Eurobodalla Coast Tourism, Destination NSW