How mountain biking resurrected these rural Australian towns
© Tourism Tasmania
Craig Tansley drops in to two fading Australian towns that find themselves on the receiving end of an MTB boom.
Some old towns don’t look rustic, they just look old; like they’ve run right out of life and can barely catch a breath. You drive through them from time to time and wonder why it is that anyone stayed on at all. Is it some sense of loyalty that keeps them there; or memories of better times, or hope for new ones?
Forrest – in the quiet hinterland of Victoria’s always-busy Great Ocean Road – should’ve been one of those towns. For over a century the people of Forrest survived by chopping down the gigantic trees that surround town. At one time there were four sawmills in here, and there wasn’t a single soul in Forrest who didn’t work for them. Then, in 2003, the last sawmill closed its doors, and the land around Forrest became state forest. And you can’t log state forest.
Locals left for any other place with jobs; and Forrest teetered on ruin. But as I drive through town on a sunny day years after, I can barely snatch a car park outside the town’s trendy brewery.
Forrest buzzes with an energy you can feel even through wound-up car windows. I make my way down an intricate network of narrow, sun-soaked gravel lanes that dissect town, between rambling back gardens of fruit trees and native plants. Houses here don’t need a lick of paint, times seem good; lawns are trimmed and each garden’s more magnificent than the last.
It might’ve taken well over a decade, but Forrest has been resurrected: this is the Aussie town that mountain biking saved. If it wasn’t for people throwing themselves down single tracks through the bush on expensive bits of titanium or carbon, Forrest would be a ghost town by now, full of memories, but no people.
We started to notice the bikers would come back. Then they’d bring their mates, then car loads of them started coming down from Melbourne. Now I make a living renting them bikes.
When the last timber mill closed, locals who stayed worked with state government thinking of ways to save Forrest. A decision was made to use government funds to build a series of mountain bike trails that would surpass any others in the country.
“We were pretty skeptical of the mountain bike idea,” local mountain biking tour operator Bruce Jackson says. “I used to ride a lot and even I didn’t think it would work, so you might imagine how the others felt. There was no-one around anywhere, we thought ‘who the hell’s going to ride mountain bikes around Forrest’?”
At first they were right. No-one did, and Forrest slipped that little bit closer to economic oblivion; businesses closed, more and more locals up and left. “Then we started to notice the bikers would come back,” Jackson says. “Then they’d bring their mates, then car loads of them started coming down from Melbourne. Now I make a living renting them bikes.”
Over 65 kilometres of world-class single track trails were cut through the tall, eucalypt forests and dense fern gullies that border town. Jackson takes me down a twisting, turning fire trail negotiating jumps and bermed corners where one wrong turn might have me embedded in a giant gum, before I’m off the saddle and puffing and panting my way up a steep descent, ready to risk life and limb again.
But then we find a wide, smooth trail through the forest overlooking the East Barwon River, crimson rosellas fly overhead and swamp wallabies bounce into the undergrowth.
Dinner at Forrest’s focal point – the Forrest Brewery Company – is a social affair. Co-owner Sharon Bradshaw moved from Melbourne with her brother, Matt, to start this place. They completely resurrected and extended the dilapidated former general store and garage to turn it into one of the region’s most notable food stops.
I’ve never seen a place transform like Derby... We knew we had something special.
“The public investment in mountain bike trails was the catalyst for our venture,” Sharon tells me. “We thought mountain biking was just on the edge of kicking off and we figured that beer and bikes would work well together. It’s been big. It’s exactly what I came to Forrest to do, to transform a town, that has been super satisfying. The main street is now unrecognisable, on weekends there are cars, people and bikes everywhere.”
Not that Forrest is the only town to be saved by mountain bikers, mind you.
The older locals of Derby, Tasmania, mightn’t be so quick to tell you it was dead in the water without this new source of income; but that’s mining pride for you. Tin was the big earner around here, ever since it was discovered in 1874.
At one stage, by the turn of the century (19th and 20th centuries), there was over 3000 locals. But a deadly mine accident in 1929 changed that, and though the mines reopened, it was never quite the same. They closed for good in 1948 and the population dwindled to 173, mostly old miners living out their quiet retirements.
Quiet, that is, until the mountain bikers came. You wouldn’t recognise the place now – or afford the real estate. There’s mountain bike gold in the soil where the tin used to be. In 2015 a network of mountain bike trails – some of the best anywhere on Earth – were built. They're called the Blue Derby Trails.
The planet’s greatest mountain bike trail creator, Glen Jacobs (who owns the company, World Trail) was behind the concept. “I’ve never seen a place transform like Derby,” he says. “The transformation for the town and its community was incredible. Derby was the first destination that took on our model completely (where trails most work for locals, the world’s best riders and tourism all at the same time). Once we saw the amazing terrain and how proactive the government and client were, we knew we had the right ingredients for it to become a major mountain bike centre. We knew we had something special.”
Jacobs says he now gets approached by other towns around Australia, all jockeying to be 'the next Derby'.
There are over 80 kilometres of single track trails, with the trailhead conveniently located at the base of town. Businesses now ply their trade taking bikers up high on the trail so they can take the descent back down. They’ll ride through rainforest, wet myrtle forest, sub-alpine terrain, past slabs of granite and past rivers and waterfalls in some of Tasmania’s most striking landscapes.
Innovative businesses have been established along the way: like Blue Derby Pods Ride: luxurious, architecturally-designed sleeping pods have been built in the forest for riders to return to after guided rides with their hosts. Gourmet meals are served up in a central room amongst the trees.
“I remember riding the first tiny unfinished trail here with the local council’s general manager when we were starting our development,” Blue Derby Pods Ride co-owner Tara Howell says. “Steve (co-owner and partner) and I both walked away thinking... 'please, please, please... we hope the rest of the world falls in love with this place like we have'. I had spent four years guiding luxury adventure bushwalking in Tasmania and knew there was a market here, and we travelled to other large mountain bike destinations around the world and could see where Tassie could go.”
The trail hosted a round of the Enduro World Series in April 2017, the first time the event was ever hosted in Australia. The course was voted 'Trail of The Year' by the Enduro World Series and again in 2019 when the trail hosted the event for the second time.
These two Australian towns may be the best examples of how mountain biking can transform a town, but the trend has taken hold elsewhere too.
Destinations such as Atherton, west of Cairns, and Canberra’s Stromlo Forest Park have received considerable economic boost from the development of mountain bike trails. Creswick in Victoria is spending three million dollars on new trails in an effort to attract mountain bikers to town, there are new tracks set for the Gold Coast Hinterland and Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, as well as areas in Western Australia’s remote south-west.
As COVID-19 continues to stagnate tourism in regional towns all over Australia, points of difference (such as world-class mountain bike trails) might help lift some of these destinations out of hardship. Mountain bikers are a passionate bunch, and they’re all scratching at the gates to get back out and ride all over Australia, bringing their credit cards with them.
“People didn’t use to know where Forrest was,” Sharon Bradshaw says. “...within a couple of years people were coming from all over to ride the trails here. The place changed entirely. It’s amazing what mountain biking can do.”