What’s Up With The Wangetti Trail – Palm Cove to Port Douglas, QLD

Glen Jacobs has been thinking about the Wangetti Trail since he was a kid. He recounts going on fishing trips out the reef with his parents, and on the drive from Cairns towards Port Douglas, as most kids do, he would imagine flowing through the hills on his bike.

“You look at this beautiful coastline, and it’s quite spectacular with these escarpments, jungles and forests and beautiful beaches, and I’d be looking out the window pretending I was riding beside the road, or riding through the bush at that speed. It was a sort of a childish thing, but it always really resonated with me through that countryside,” he says.

Looking back along the coast towards Palm Cove, Double Island.

And wouldn’t ya know it, the grown-up Glen Jacobs became one of the world’s foremost mountain bike trail builders, earning accolades for designing and building everything from World Cup and Olympic courses around the globe to Blue Derby, one of the crown jewels of mountain biking in Australia.

So, the master trail builder set his sights on making this dream of the Wangetti Trail a reality. In 2017, his trail building company World Trail put together a concept plan and presented it to the Cairns Regional Council and Douglas Shire council. As things worked their way through government bureaucracy and working groups, the project evolved into a 94km wilderness trail between Palm Cove, just north of Cairns, all the way to Port Douglas. Designed as a multi-use trail for hikers and mountain bikers to recreate in harmony, the Wangetti trail plan is complete with hiker camps so that riders and trampers alike could break the journey up into a multi-day adventure.

I could see the Wangetti Trail being as significant as the Sydney Opera House, is to opera houses around the world. This trail would resonate with mountain bikers around the world

“I could see it as a beautiful product showcasing North Queensland that was unique; different to the ‘let’s go to the reef,’ or ‘let’s go to the waterfalls.’ It would be this huge international product unlike anything else,” Jacobs says with growing excitement. “I could see the Wangetti Trail being as significant as the Sydney Opera House, is to opera houses around the world. This trail would resonate with mountain bikers around the world.”

If most other people had said something like this, it would elicit audible eye rolls, however, coming from Australia’s only Mountain Bike Hall of Fame inductee, whose trail building company dreamt up the trail network that not only brought the Enduro World Series to Australia but garnered two EWS Trail of the Year awards; Smithfield just outside Carins, which played host to a 2016 DH World Cup, and the 2017 UCI XC and DH World Championship; along with the new Bay of Fires trails and St Helens stacked loops, Mt Buller, Falls Creek, Mt Stromlo — you get the idea.

Beyond the trail itself, Jacobs saw this trail project as a way to showcase the cultural significance of the area. Wangetti served as a trading post for Traditional Owners ranging from coastal tribes to those that would trek in from the outback. Jacobs and his family have a close personal connection with the Traditional Owners — though they are not — and wanted the trail to preserve this significance.

Cultural Heritage induction with the Yirrganydji traditional owners and discussing cultural significant areas in the area.

“That’s why we chose to name it the Wangetti Trail. Wangetti is a name that probably really doesn’t mean a whole lot to people who aren’t from around here, and many people made the point to us that it would be a lot easier to market if it were called the Great Barrier Reef trail, but that wasn’t the point. Wangetti is steeped in history,” he continued.

“It was my way of delivering something for the Traditional Owners; showcasing what they grew up with, how they saw the land, and employing as many as we could in the construction phase, who would go on to be the maintenance crews and the managers of the trail,” Jacobs says.

The Wangetti Trail will rival anything that Tasmania has when it comes to ecotourism

But it wasn’t just Glen Jacobs and World Trail that had high hopes for what the Wangetti Trail had to offer. Now retired Queensland Tourism Minister Kate Jones said in a news release, “The Wangetti Trail will rival anything that Tasmania has when it comes to ecotourism.”

“We think that the Wangetti trail will rival anything in Australia.”

Yirrganydji Traditional Owners showing their support.

Subject to State’s probity and confidentiality conditions of tender

In late September 2020, the Queensland Department of State Development, Tourism, and Innovation announced the Wagners Composite Fibre Technologies had been selected as the preferred contractor to build the first 32km of the multi-use, hiking and mountain biking trail.

If you’re not familiar with Wagners, they are based in Wellcamp, QLD near Towoomba, and have offices in Australia, New Zealand, the USA, UK and the Middle East. According to its website, the outfit specialises in boardwalks, bridges, producing and delivering premixed concrete, precast concrete, and steel reinforcing. Wagners also pioneered a nifty eco-friendly concrete that is made from industrial waste products and requires fewer emissions to produce.

They didn’t go into the tender process expecting to win the contract, but he was surprised by the outcome.

A notable hole in their past work portfolio is the design and construction of a mountain bike or hiking trail.

Even though World Trail compiled the initial concept plan just as with any other project, Jacobs is clear they didn’t go into the tender process expecting to win the contract, but he was surprised by the outcome.

“A mountain bike trail is more than just a strip of dirt through the forest,” he says.

It’s clear it’s not just Jacobs and World Trail who are upset by this decision, based on the non-endemic media coverage, and the replies to Queensland EcoToursim Trails announcement on social media, Tropical North Queensland locals and mountain bikers alike don’t understand the calculus here.

Flow reached out to the Queensland Department of State Development, Tourism and Innovation, and asked if the government could shed some light as to why a civil engineering company was chosen as the preferred contractor to design and build a cornerstone mountain biking and hiking tourism project when they have no experience in mountain biking or hiking trails.

“The Queensland Government undertook an open competitive procurement process for the D&C tender (the first of three design and construct tenders for trail works on the Wangetti Trail). When the tenders closed in August 2020, the Queensland Government along with specialist advisors assessed each of the submissions individually,” a Government Spokesperson told Flow in an email.

“Wagners CFT was announced as the preferred contractor from the process on 29 September 2020. Final contract negotiations for the Wangetti South Design and Construct contract is still underway. As such, the procurement process undertaken by the Department of State Development, Tourism and Innovation and participants remains subject to State’s probity and confidentiality conditions of tender,” they continued.

A walking trail in Port Douglas built in 2017.

Flow then asked if the Queensland Government could share the tender package, or detail the selection criteria and how they were weighted. The same government spokesperson said, “As per government policy, the design and construction tender for Palm Cove to Wangetti was made available to bonafide bidders only and subject to probity and confidentiality conditions of tender.”

“As per government policy, the selection criteria is subject to probity and confidentiality conditions of tender,” they continued.

It’s strange to see a government organisation release a tender for such a project, build it up with a high gloss launch video and ministers and local members touting the benefit it will have for the community, while also attempting to keep the details away from public scrutiny.

Flow also reached out to the Queensland Auditor-General, they declined the opportunity to comment.

When a tender is submitted, and an outfit isn’t awarded the contract, they are entitled to government feedback. Jacobs says World Trail has submitted such a request, and has had the chance to discuss the outcome with the state, but did not expand on the details.

Flow also reached out to the Queensland Auditor-General to determine if any reviews were being carried out surrounding the tender process; they declined the opportunity to comment.

We also reached out to Matt Harrington, Executive Project Manager for the Warburton Mountain Bike Destination who knows the tender and selection process well, after coming to the project following 20 years with Parks Victoria, to see if he could make heads or tails of the decision.

“It’s a bit of a mystery,” he says. “But with big projects like this and all the additional funding that is being put into mountain bike trail projects, it’s going to prick the ears of other industry players.”

The Queensland Government has committed a total of 41.4-million dollars to the Wangetti Trail project. Based on all public facing documentation, the government is banking this investment will be a success, saying it will provide positive financial, ecological and cultural outcomes to Tropical North Queensland, including long term job and business opportunities.

Given the size, scale and cost of this project, it’s not unreasonable to expect that the government would have engaged individuals with mountain biking or trail building experience to sit on the selection committee or at a minimum provide advice.

Flow asked the Queensland Department of State Development, Tourism and Innovation if they could share who sat on the tender selection committee, or at the very least if any of them were mountain bikers.

A Government spokesperson said, “As per government policy, the members of the selection committee is subject to probity and confidentiality conditions of the tender.”

Again Flow asked Harrington, who came to the Warburton Trail project after working for Parks Victoria for 20-years and is well versed in tender evaluation committees.

“I have no knowledge of who was sitting on the tender evaluation panel. But from my past experience in State Government; agencies would have few people, if any, that actually have a depth of mountain biking knowledge or experience that would enable them to distinguish between the competing tenders when it comes to the quality of the trail product,” says Harrington. “What you can then end up with is government bureaucrats running a project that they don’t really understand.”

We can only speculate as to which officials sat on the committee if they were mountain bikers or consulted any mountain bikers or trail builders during the process because the Queensland government has made it very clear all of this is,” subject to probity and confidentiality conditions of tender.”

Quality is king

Mountain bike trails are a bit like coffee. You may not be able to make a good one or understand the nuance involved in producing a quality brew. But, we’d bet you can tell the difference between a petrol station coffee, and one made by a moustached inner Melbourne hipster.

In the same vein, we’ve all ridden that section of trail that just doesn’t feel right. It could be the benching is off by a few degrees, a berm that is too square and not adequately supported, or a grade reversal that bottoms out your suspension and sucks up all your speed. You may not be able to articulate precisely what doesn’t feel right, but you can definitely feel something is a little bit off.

The view of Ellis Beach.

“There are three strong things here; safety, drainage and predictability. You can’t lay predictability out in a CAD drawing,” says Jacobs. “The alignment that we put in on that hill was a difficult corridor, offering up huge reveals the entire way. This was even going to be a challenge for us. ”

“There is so much that comes into it, but as a professional trail builder, we know what you need to do and the way that things are supposed to feel for the users. You can’t draw kinetic energy or compartmentalised predictability on a document; this can only be communicated by professionals on the ground in real-time construction,” he continued.

“Trails like this are never going to be a high-speed enduro trail, or a World Cup or Olympic race track; it’s a sensitive contoured trail with minimal impact and width that is stitched into the hill, and flows for all riders. It also has to work correctly in both directions, plus another complete overlay including hikers, which adds a whole other dimension and a design layer of difficulty.”

In the best-case scenario, a janky bit of singletrack will lead to a hand full of brake lever and a cloud of dust. Still, it can also lead to riders careening off the trail at high speed — the perfect this video that went viral some years back, showing riders literally flying off the side of a poorly designed trail element.

To be clear, we really want the Wangetti trail to be a smashing success the likes of which Australia has never seen.

Keeping in mind that this is not only a dual directional trail but also a dual-use trail; so hikers and mountain bikers will be going both ways, understanding how each user group will flow through the trail is vital and brings predictability and safety further into the forefront. If you have a blind corner in an area where riders are carrying a lot of speed, you can bet you will have problems.

Mountain bikes are also an opinionated bunch in that we know what we like; we know the specific tread pattern, rubber compound and casing we want to run a particular air pressure, how wide bars should be and what type of grips we think should be on the ends, among many other things. The same goes for trails.

Exploring Spring Creek, just above the Falls.

“For the experienced mountain biker, they are brand savvy, says Harrington. You know they ride a YT and wear their Fox gear, and they follow the trail builders who build the trails they like to ride. Some people are die-hard World Trail fans, some people are die-hard Dirt Art fans, some people are die-hard Trail Scapes fans, and they follow the networks each one builds.”

“There is a certain kudos attached to those trail builders. So if you have a trail network that’s built by a complete unknown with no track record, they lose that marketing kudos straight away.”

We also wanted to ask Wagners what they thought the defining feature of this trail would be.

We wanted to find out more about Wagners plans for the Wangetti Trail if any mountain bikers were going to be involved in the project, how they were going to involve the traditional owners. We were curious how they planned to address aspects of a mountain bike trail that can’t be communicated through a CAD drawing or trail alignment.

We also wanted to ask Wagners what they thought the defining feature of this trail would be, how the planned to create the Instagram worth reveals and what they hoped to do with the hiker and bike camps to make the experience truly memorable. We even wanted to find out if Wagners had plans to incorporate its eco-concrete in areas of the trail that required armouring.

Flow reached out to Wagners with multiple emails and phone calls over a period of more than a month, and the company did not respond to the opportunity to have its voice heard. So we are left to speculate.

The bigger picture

To be clear, we really want the Wangetti trail to be a smashing success the likes of which Australia has never seen. We are well aware of what a high quality and sustainably built mountain bike infrastructure can inject into the community at large (including the non-mountain bikers) has been proven repeatedly — if you don’t believe just ask any small town in Tasmania vying to be the next Derby. With the amount of money being poured into this project and the hype surrounding it, there is quite a lot of pressure to deliver, but the question remains whether Wagners is up to the task. Unfortunately, it seems we won’t know until the ribbon is cut on the first section of the Wangetti trail.

My concern would be if it failed to deliver on its promise that governments will see a potential failure of an investment like this, and decided not to invest at all in the future.

The trouble is, after 41-million dollars, if the Wangetti trail doesn’t deliver, the aftershock will reverberate through the mountain bike industry for years to come.

“We all know how important the experience itself is going to be. Regardless of what happens, when they initially open it, the Wangetti trail will draw people, because it’s a big exciting project.” Harrington says. “That will die off pretty quickly if the experience isn’t what people anticipated it was going to be.”

“My concern would be if it failed to deliver on its promise (on the experience and the economic outcomes), that governments will see a potential failure of an investment like this, and decided not to invest at all in the future,” Harrington says.

On top of a pinnacle high above Wangetti Beach.

Suppose governments are unwilling to spend on mountain bike infrastructure, in that case, projects like Wild Mersey, Bare Creek, George Town, St Helens, Queenstown and the new trails near Collie in Western Australia will not happen. When mountain bikers go on riding trips, they spend money on flights, rental cars and transfers, accommodation, food and drinks, but the trails need to be standard that warrants the effort and cost to get there. If the trail and the experience are lacking, most riders will happily book tickets to Launceston or Hobart instead.

We don’t know what this trail will look like, the first shovel full of dirt hasn’t even been turned yet. There is every possibility that Wagner’s may deliver the crown jewel in Australia’s mountain biking tourism apparatus — and to be crystal clear we are rooting for them. At this point in time, they are an unknown quantity; their body of work doesn’t include any mountain biking or hiking trails, and a $41-million tourism project doesn’t leave much wiggle room for learning on the job.

Words – Colin Levitch

Images – World Trail

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