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Riding the Gib’

©Nicki Rehn

Going all out stay just ahead of the Back of the Pack! ©Nicki Rehn

It just so happened that my holiday to the Kimberleys coincided with the Gibb River Road Mountain Bike Challenge. The ‘Gibb”, as it is known locally, is a 700 km dusty, hot, corrugated, uninspiring 4WD road that creates a shortcut from the west coast to the east through the un-tamed desert of northern Australia. My only problem was that I didn’t have a team, or a support vehicle, or a bike, so I gave my name to the organizer and he hooked me up with a couple of local blokes looking for a 3rd rider. Two days before the event as I watched teams pour into town with their highly organized plans, ultra-engineered bike trailers, expensive bikes, team jerseys, and mounting enthusiasm, I started to wonder whether throwing my name into the ‘stray cats’ basket to be added to some unknown, random team was a good way to tackle this tough 700 km event. In the end, I met Robbo and Jay, Jo (our dedicated driver), the beasty land cruiser, and my bike just hours before the start.

My bike was a heavy clunker, but the wheels went around and it was the correct size so I accepted the fact that I’d just be working hard the whole time. In the end, everyone still has to pedal…….even those $6000 lightweight, full suspension bikes don’t roll uphill…..right?
The Gibb River Road itself is not exactly thrilling mountain biking terrain. It’s a straight dirt road, wide and non-technical, boring, and pretty flat. However, the land through which it slices is indescribable. I have no inspiring prose, just words…..and in the end, even they ran out: untouched, limitless, dizzyingly spectacular, empty, unimaginable, and almost too much. For five days, we rode along in a cloud of dust, stirred up by about 80 vehicles following 51 teams and filling every orifice of the body, every corner of the car and every alveoli in the lungs. But when the dust settled at the end of a long hot day, and the temperature and harsh light disappeared with the setting sun, I was reminded of the privilege it was to pass through the belly of this ancient and magical land. For me, this ride was about just being somewhere special.

My team was not competitive. We spent the entire event hovering around in 35th position. I admit, at first it was hard to be at the back of the pack and I spent the first two days looking longingly at the speedy teams up the front. But amazingly, I learned to get over myself and put envy aside and to find enjoyment with my unlikely group of rookie riders.

Our team quickly settled into a routine of rotating turns on the bike. Despite coming into the event fairly fit, I struggled with the relay format. My body didn’t quite know how to cope with 20-30 minute all-out efforts, followed by squishing in the back of a hot car for an hour, shoving water and food into my system, and then going from being completely motionless to all-out effort again… and again… and again. I only rode between 50 and 90 km each day but I was shattered. The northerners will tell you that the weather was quite cool….after all, it was winter….but each day reached a scorching 35-ish degrees and the sun was unforgiving, as was the temperature in the car. You could have brewed tea in my water bottle. I loved it.

Each day culminated at a bush camp with primitive facilities. There were showers available but the water-hole nearby was always a better bathing alternative. It also culminated with a cold beer. With cooling facilities being scare, fridge space became a commodity. We had a small Engel but it drained the battery of the car, so morning jumps-starts were paid for with allotted space in our fridge. Bartering was common: “You can take my picture if I can put a beer in your fridge”, was often heard from the young medical students who wore purple tutus the entire trip. The entire event was catered, so a mess area was set-up each night and all 315 of us pitched our campsites around it. Most people slept in swags and mozzie-domes under the magnificent desert night sky and each morning we awoke to sunrise from bed.

It was the final day, however, that greeted us with a feast of awesomeness. We left the Gibb River Road shortly after crossing the salt-water crocodile infested waters of the Pentecost River. It was a mandatory 4WD portage as the river, still high from the wet season, engulfed the road for about 100 m. Unfortunately, the only crocodile I spotted was the plastic inflatable pool croc (along with his friend, the plastic inflatable shark) that had been placed in the river to remind us of the dangers. The Karungie Track does a big 80 km looping detour around an impressive mountain range called the Cockburns. The track is a disused and remote passage into what can only be described as the never-never. It provided some exciting mountain biking terrain across an incredibly harsh landscape, but it also pushed our technical 4WD-ing skills to the max. On bike, I was able to maintain an average of 20 km/hr, but the cars could only do about 12 km/hr. It was almost like the bikes became the support for the vehicle.

The ride culminated at the infamous El Questro Station – 1 million acres of private wilderness. We were treated to a piece of lawn by the beautiful river, a barramundi BBQ, and live music under the stars on warm Kimberley evening. We were also granted access to the park for free for the weekend, and boy, did we make use of that opportunity by exploring gorges, waterfalls, lookouts and water-holes. I have never been somewhere so captivating – a place of guaranteed serenity that will fill your soul.

It’s not the actual bike riding that I’m going to remember about this particular event – it was the land, the people and the peace. It was a reminder that sometimes my search for epic physical adventures sometimes leads elsewhere and that’s OK.

Check out a few photos of the race here, and the rest of my trip here.

One Response to “Riding the Gib’”

  1. ann thakkar says:

    absolutely “nicki” in every way i imagine!!! awesome story and breathtaking photos!! you are living!! go nicki go!

    much love!

    p.s. can i join that team too?