Angry Bull Trails | Northern NSW set for one of the biggest trail networks in Australia

At the start of March, the calm and quiet of Tenterfield in Northern NSW was upended when more than 800 riders headed for the small town for the second running of the Gravel n Granite. With seemingly endless empty country roads and fire trails, the event is run by the local mountain bike club, and has been a springboard for announcing a 174km trail development.

On completion, this will be the largest trail development on the mainland — to our knowledge — but there is so much more to it. Angry Bull Trails isn’t a council-run operation. It’s being spearheaded by a not-for-profit focused on reinvigorating Tenterfield through adventure tourism.

“What we’re trying to do is stimulate the economy to provide job training and education opportunities for Tenterfield youth, put them into those new jobs and new ventures created by a trail town, bringing tourists to share it with the rest of the world,” says Joseph Smith, Director at Angry Bull Trails.

A quiet town surrounded by Granite

Tenterfield is a quiet little town in Northern NSW. With an ageing population and a declining workforce. the town is slowing down, and the area has been battered with fires and floods over the past few years.

“Economically, the town’s really struggling, but what it is gifted with is a lot of natural assets. When we take a 30k ring around town we’ve got a dozen national parks and state forests,” he says.

What Tenterfield also has in spades is granite. From Bald Rock National Park, to Girraween National Park and Torrington State Conservation Area, Tenterfield is surrounded by geological national attractions.

There is so much granite in this area, with ‘UGE rock features, like these behemoths in Girraween National Park. The decaying granite in the soil also means that it should hold up well in the wet.

The list of towns that have been rejuvenated by mountain bike tourism continues to grow. That said, Angry Bull Trails is taking a unique three-pronged approach to its development — social enterprise, the business collective, and riders and supporters.

“We don’t want to be another Derby. We don’t want to be another regional town with some trails. We want to build the best adventure tourism destination in the country,” says Smith.

While Smith is adamant about this point, the village in Northeast Tassie is tangentially related to Tenterfield.

With ABT being run by a not-for-profit, the development has actually leapfrogged Derby in putting the management of the trails in the hands of a non-council organisation. The Dorset Council is in the process of making this move as we speak, however, the choice to advance ABT separate from the council from day dot was always part of the plan.

Angry Bull Trails is coming at this mountain bike development from a slightly different approach not involving the council.

“In Derby, there is a bit of angst about the (Derby) Foundation and trying to wrestle control to a new group, and that’s where we’re already at — it’s not a council thing,” says Smith, who works as a construction project manager for his day job.

Knowing that Councils around the country are dealing with resource and financial challenges, the ABT crew has hustled and won $4.1 million from the Department of Regional NSW through the Regional Tourism Activation Fund to finance the build. According to Smith, they have principle support from the land managers, so now it’s just a matter of getting the project out to tender for the design and construct, and ticking off the final environmental and cultural heritage approvals.

But then the real challenge begins.

“We’re going to deliver it and maintain it, so as we go forward, not only do we have to staff up the social enterprise side, who’s going to be the business manager, who’s going to promote this thing and who is going to do the trail maintenance. We’re setting up this company with all of these responsibilities, which means we’re going to need to generate revenue,” says Smith.

This is something that trail networks across the country contend with, and ABT are weighing up solutions ranging from corporate sponsorship from the local business community to voluntary donations or a pay-to-play model.

Social enterprise and community good

While the revenue will go towards keeping the network running, more importantly, it will fund the social enterprise aspect of the project. Angry Bull Trails has partnered with BackTrack Youthworks, an organisation devoted to elevating troubled youth.

As Marcus Watson the Social Enterprise Manager at BackTrack explains, they have three jobs, to keep kids alive, keep them out of jail, and help them chase their hopes and dreams.

So often, with mountain bike developments, there is talk of what it will do for the local community. Angry Bull Trails is making the social enterprise a pillar of the project.

“The young people that we work with are not at risk of falling through the gaps, they’re in the gaps. They’ve been booted out of home, out of school, and probably out of the local shopping centre. They’re not in a football team, and they’ve likely had contact with the police or the criminal justice system,” he says. “It’s kinda the last resort.”

BackTrack takes these kids in and seeks to create a space where they can feel safe and belong — sometimes for the first time in their lives. Then they sit down with them and ask, “what do you want to do with your life?”

“At the beginning, they will often say things like I want to come here more, or I just want to find somewhere to sleep or to see my sister more,” says Watson. “We build on that, and we want to work towards what I would call lifelong independence. That’s a safe home, a job, income, education, all those kinds of things, that’s where we want to end up, but we always start with smaller goals.”

One of the ways that BackTracks helps to reintegrate these kids with their community is through disaster recovery, having them work alongside and help their neighbours in their time of need. BackTracks has a long history in Tenterfield, and the kids have built their own youth centre out of shipping containers in the CBD.

As that project hit its stride, Angry Bull Trails was beginning to gain steam, and Smith and Watson connected by chance, realising there was an opportunity for collaboration.

There is no shortage of natural assets in the region, and they do already generate some tourism. As you can see there is so much untapped potential.

“Because we’re doing things like Bushfire recovery work, and we teach our kids to use Bobcats and excavators and to put up fencing and welding. Some of the skills we are training people in are transferable to trail building,” says Watson.

BackTracks is focused on partnering with projects and community initiatives with a long lifespan, because getting these kids back on their feet is a slow process. The plan will integrate the BackTracks program not only into the build and ongoing maintenance but will also give them the skills to work in the other industries that spring up and benefit from the trails.

“We’re working with TAFE and other secondary and tertiary education providers to give them technical skills. And that’s in everything from hospitality to trail building. We’re going to put together a trail building class using the IMBA framework through TAFE and Nick Bowman (of Destination Trails), who is one of the only IMBA-certified instructors in the country,” says Smith.

Angry Bull Trails will also lean on members of the business collective to help gain additional employment opportunities for the BackTracks youth to offer opportunities beyond just trail building.

Angry Bull Trails and BackTrack are going to utilise the trail network as a means to help kids in the community who have already fallen into the cracks.

“We’re talking about third-generation unemployed kids there — kids that have never seen their dad go to work. So they don’t know what opportunities are out there,” says Watson.

“Not all these kids are going to want to be Bobcat drivers or trail builders. But we see this as a way of getting them connected to something meaningful, something that they can see building in the community, and be a part of building. But the tailing out of this is that mountain biking creates a broad range of opportunities in a region for young people,” he says.

Once the trails are built, it also provides an opportunity to get these kids involved in something fun that they wouldn’t have otherwise been plugged into.

“You don’t need a $10,000 bike to go out and have fun on the trails. For young fellas like ours, we’ll be able to get them involved in the sport relatively cheaply so that they can enjoy something they’ve never heard of or engaged with before,” says Watson.

A singletrack infusion in Northern NSW

As it stands, Tenterfield doesn’t actually have any mountain bike trails, despite having a mountain bike club. But what they do have is a community of folks chomping at the bit.

“We have probably put the cart before the horse a little bit, given that we have a gravel, fire trail and bitumen riding but no purpose-built tracks at the moment. Some of it is quite fun, but we’re super keen to see the development kick-off,” says Michael Lieberman, President of The Saddlers Mountain Bike Club.

Lieberman has lived in Tenterfield for 20 years and says there is excitement building. He tells Flow it’s not just club members that are jazzed about the project.

While there are places to ride in Northern NSW and Southeast Queensland, Tenterfield would be the only network large enough to be considered a nationally significant destination.

“People are making the connection that mountain bikers will be coming to town, and it’s coming from people that you wouldn’t expect. For instance, some of the long-term farmers in town are talking about it, and you know, sometimes you may have the assumption that they might not be into an idea like this, but they come and speak very favourably about it,” says Lieberman.

What is causing all of the hubbub is about 174km of trail to be split across five zones.

“There are certain areas, especially in the North East (Boonoo State Forest and Basket Swamp National Park) there are giant granite boulders everywhere. There are some enormous waterfalls, and there are going to be some really cool little destination trails where you can ride out to these spots and have a swim,” says Patterson.

Each of the four zones takes in different terrain. Just outside town is Currys Gap, which will see about 20km of trails. Smack dab in the middle of town, there will be the formal trailhead, complete with bike washes, BBQs, a cafe, a visitor centre, pump track and more.

While Tenterfield already has a mountain bike club, locals are riding gravel roads and fire trails.

North of town will be a 32km adventure ride which roughly follows an old stock route from the Carrolls Creek Trailhead in Bald Rock National Park all the way back to Tenterfield. Just on the other side of the highway is the 46km Basket Swamp Adventure Trail that heads out to Basket Swamp Falls, and Patterson tells us you actually go past Captain Thunderbolt’s Hideout.

The fourth zone, about 12km south of town, is pegged for 34km of backcountry adventure style of riding with two main loops, complete with a 10km descent.

“The stuff down in the southern part of the forest, there is pretty much all subtropical or temperate rainforest, so towering ferns and eucalyptus, sort of that absolute rich, dark chocolate dirt that you dream about as a trail builder and a rider,” says Patterson

The fifth and final zone is a compact gravity park with a road right up the guts, making it an excellent option for shuttles. Here the concept design lays out a little over 14km of trail, with two descents, a climbing trail and a scenic loop.

There is soooo much big rock in this area, we can’t wait to see what the trail builders find.

Among all that, Angry Bull Trails has also focused on creating opportunities for adaptive riders with as much as 60% of the network designed to be adaptive-friendly.

“When the final design goes in, they are looking to ensure it’s nice and inclusive for adaptive cyclists. It won’t be every trail in the network, but they will be pockets where it’s easily accessible,” says Patterson.

To our knowledge, this will be the biggest trail network of professionally built singletrack in the country, and it’s in an area where there won’t be a whole lot of competition.

“If you think about it, there really isn’t much like this on the mainland, especially in Northern NSW and Southern Queensland, it’s really just little pockets. So this has a lot more going for it in one small space, and it’s not that far from Brisbane or the Gold Coast,” says Patterson.

“It’s also a place where you can take along your family or your partner that may not be too keen on bikes, and there is still plenty to do,” he continues.

The hope is that the Angry Bull Trails project will attract not just tourists, but provide opportunities that bring a younger demographic to town permanently.

For the town itself, it will be a boon. Everyone we spoke to noted that there just aren’t many opportunities for young people, and most kids who grow up in Tenterfield have to leave to find work. According to the latest census data, the median age in Tenterfield is 53, and people 65 and up make up 30.2% of the population.

“It’s going to improve the economy massively, but it’s also going to improve the quality of life for locals. It’s a reason for more people to move here, not just retirees. It’s a reason for people to bring their families here,” says Caitlin Reid, who has joined Angry Bull Trails after working for Tenterfield Council for nine years.

Smith tells us according to their forecasting, the trails will create opportunities and bring about new business investment in 15 industries across town, ranging from hospitality to retail and real estate.

While Bald Rock is probably the most famous piece of geology in the area. While there likely won’t be trails on it, it’s not the only giant slab of granite around. Your mouth should be watering at the potential.

When can you ride here?

As we speak, Angry Bull Trails are drafting the documents to send the project out to tender. From there, they expect to start construction later this year, with the first stage of about 20km ready to ride in April 2024 with the remainder finished by December 2024.

With the grant money that Angry Bull Trails has received limited to only going towards infrastructure, the not-for-profit is fundraising for the social enterprise, trail maintenance, and to put towards environmental rehabilitation for the areas affected by the 2019 bushfires.

For more information on the development or to get involved, head over to the Angry Bull Trails website.

If all goes according to plan, there should be something to ride in Tenterfield in a little over a year.

Photos: Tales & Tones / Angry Bull Trails, RC Pix Photography/Gravel n Granite, Destination NSW, Flow MTB

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