GREG BEARUP The Weekend Australian Magazine
June 18, 2021
11 MINUTE READ
Cyclists tackle Derby’s mountain bike trails.
When the eggheads at the Australian Bureau of Statistics hunch over their Casios and crunch the Census figures this year they’ll surely reckon there’s been some sort of data blunder as they tap in the stats for the tiny town of Derby, in the mountains of northeast Tasmania. Last time they looked, six years ago, Derby was a two-pub-one-banjo town of 173 people where you’d be lucky to stumble across a decent pie. Nothing much had happened there since the tin mine closed in 1948. With an unemployment rate north of 20 per cent, when the national figure was south of seven, it was a dirt-poor town in Australia’s least affluent state. The median weekly household income was just $556 – $882 below the national average. With a median age of 58, its residents were, on average, two decades older than the rest of the country.
Tim Watson, general manager of the local Dorset Council, says Derby had “two feet in the grave”. Things were bleak; when its last remaining store closed, the council began subsidising staples and selling them at the town’s mining museum as many of the residents couldn’t afford to travel to the next town for milk and bread and other daily essentials. And then came the resurrection – a godsend for the whole of northeast Tasmania.
In 2015, just before the last Census, the first in a series of high-quality mountain bike trails was quietly opened by the council in the stunning rainforested hills above Derby. Word spread that they’d created something special and cyclists began arriving from the mainland. Things started to snowball. More trails were built. In 2017 Derby hosted a leg of the Enduro World Series, a premier mountain bike event in which the world’s 50 best riders were competing. These elite riders voted Derby the best trail in the world. Cyclists started flying in from around the globe.
I first visited in 2017, early in this metamorphosis, and it was as though the place was awakening from a long slumber. Four years later it has blossomed and it now has the zing and the vigour of a bustling alpine ski village. It’s a frontier town and the air is fresh with the sweet scent of opportunity. Down on Lake Derby, on the edge of town, Australia’s first floating sauna was recently opened and weary cyclists and hikers now pay $45 an hour to relax in the steaming-hot cabins before plunging into the icy waters of the lake. It’s been a raging success. Derby is now the sort of place where young folk happily spend their gap year, working as guides or bike mechanics.
Watson says the council recently did a rough survey, counting all the jobs that had been created just in Derby’s town centre. They came up with 120. Hundreds more people have been employed throughout the district. Every available house in and around Derby has been tarted up and turned into a holiday rental. It’s gone from basket case to boom town and now there’s plenty of work for anyone who wants it. The council has never had to do a detailed survey to measure the trails’ economic impact because, says Watson, “it’s so bloody obvious, we’ve never had to justify it to anyone”.
The local property boom leaves even Sydney in its dust. Andrew Bennett, an agent in the nearby service town of Scottsdale, says prior to the trails opening he had a house in Derby on his books that was impossible to sell. It had been on the market for three years for the bargain price of $125,000. As soon as the trails opened he had three people elbowing each other to buy it. “The owners were just happy to sell… it’d be worth somewhere between $400,000 and $500,000 now,” he says. All across Derby, ramshackle miners’ cottages have been transformed into upscale accommodation. A makeshift caravan park has popped up by the river and the town now has more than 300 accommodation beds. At the last Census it had only 10, and they were rarely slept in.
Tens of thousands of mountain bikers now travel to Tasmania each year to cycle the trails, spending many tens of millions of dollars, and the effects are being felt right across the northeast of the state, particularly in Launceston, which is the main entry point for those flying in. Chris McNally is a co-owner of the boutique hotel Stillwater Seven and its adjoining restaurant Stillwater, which sit at the mouth of Cataract Gorge on the Tamar River at Launceston. McNally says each week a couple of groups of mountain bikers stay in the seven-suite hotel. “The cycling has really showcased the entire area,” he says. “It’s incredible what they have done up there.” The constant stream of tourists flying in to go cycling has been a boon for Stillwater and its sister restaurant, Black Cow Bistro, which had two sittings fully booked on the midweek nights we visited.
Late in 2019 another 110km of tracks, costing about $4 million, were opened in the neighbouring Break O’Day Council, linking the mountain trails of Derby to the coast around St Helens. One of those newly opened tracks, Bay of Fires, runs 42km from the mountains through some of Tasmania’s most spectacular rainforest and ends on the beaches and those famous orange-glowing granite rocks. It is surely a front runner for The World’s Most Magnificent Mountain Bike Trail.
The Derby trails.
Mountain biking has overtaken golf in popularity in Tasmania, according to Chris Griffin, CEO of Visit Northern Tasmania. “It is almost as strong as multi-day walking in terms of things people do when they come to Tassie,” he says. “It’s been an amazing success story… both Derby and St Helens have just had record visitations.”
Griffin says one of the unexpected consequences of the trails has been a cycling renaissance among locals. Tasmania is now producing some of the world’s best young mountain bikers and there’s been an explosion of people taking up the sport. “The most common sight in Launceston now is cars with racks full of bikes,” he says. “The uptake of mountain biking by local kids has meant many parents have been back in the saddle for the first time since their school days, riding with their kids.”
In 2019 – the last consistent statistical year before Covid – 69,314 people travelled from the mainland to go mountain biking in Derby, Griffin says. They spent on average $250 a day and stayed in Tasmania an average of seven days. Those cyclists spent more than $120 million in the state. Since then, the tracks at St Helens have opened and the numbers have grown.
The Museum of Old and New Art completely changed the fortunes of Hobart and the image of Tasmania when it opened in 2011. The trails of Derby and St Helens are Tassie’s other MONA.
Launceston woman Tara Howell and her husband Steve quit their jobs when they were 23 and 25 respectively to pursue their crazy-brave dream of starting a luxury mountain bike venture in Tasmania. Tara was working in a corporate marketing job, having paid her way through university by working as a guide for luxury adventure tourism companies, taking hikers on the Overland Track and Bay of Fires walk. Steve was a mechanic who’d grown up with a love for the Tasmanian bush and was a keen mountain biker. Early in their relationship they promised each other they’d lead an adventurous life together.
A couple of years before the opening of the Derby trails they met with Dorset Council’s GM, Tim Watson, who outlined his grand plans for mountain biking to revive the fortunes of the district. They were impressed with Watson’s drive and vision. “Having been a walking guide, I had what I thought was a good understanding of the market for luxury adventure tourism,” says Tara. “There was no one doing luxury adventure mountain biking. We believed that the same people doing the luxury walking tours would also be into mountain biking. We thought it would be big… all around the world the popularity of mountain biking was just exploding.” They rolled the dice and bet everything they had on a hunch. Everyone told them they were crazy, or damned them with fake enthusiasm. They pressed on. They put in a detailed proposal and were awarded a $500,000 federal government business development grant; unable to lure investors, they then managed to convince a bank to lend them $1 million. In 2017, after four years of hard slog – including getting the necessary approvals to build accommodation in the middle of a forest in a regional reserve – they opened Blue Derby Pods Ride, luxury accommodation for a maximum of eight cyclists, hidden away in the trees above Derby.
“We were completely naive,” Tara says now of their youthful exuberance. She’s just turned 31 and has a 16-month-old son, Winton. “I probably wouldn’t do it now. You really need to do it when you are young and you haven’t got debt, you haven’t got kids, you haven’t got any baggage – you just do it. You’ve got nothing to lose.”
In the how-to book for successful rural and regional development, the golden rule must be to make your town an attractive place for young people like Steve and Tara Howell to live. They are the fire in the belly of regional revival. Tara says that had it not been for the Derby trails she and Steve would probably have left Tasmania to look for opportunities on the mainland or abroad. Instead they stayed and built a successful business that now employs 20 full-time and part-time cooks, guides and cleaners – the equivalent of eight to 10 full-time staff. A huge consumer of gourmet Tasmanian produce, it is a business built on giving its guests the best of everything Tasmania has to offer – beers, pastries, wine, cheese, rainforests, guides, pickles, beaches, mountain bike trails, oysters, bikes, views… “Basically, at every touchpoint we are trying to blow people’s minds,” says Steve.
One morning we rise early and, towing a trailer full of bikes, we are driven to the summit of Blue Tier, a range of hills halfway between Derby and St Helens that rises to a summit of 859m. It’s a beautiful sunny day with a nip in the air and we set off for the first kilometre or so along a rocky ridge line with our destination, the coast, far on the horizon. The trail is tricky and rocky but immaculately maintained. We drop off the mountain into a forest of ferns that feels prehistoric. The track is what mountain bikers refer to as “flowy” – like a smooth rollercoaster. In parts it’s also challenging – at one point I lose control and end up over the handlebars in the dirt, as does almost everyone in our group at some point.
We enter a stand of Eucalyptus regnans, the world’s tallest flowering plant, and stop to admire these whales of the forest. The riding is mainly downhill but there is still a fair amount of up and I’m glad to be riding a new, state-of-the-art electric mountain bike – it’s like I’ve swallowed a schooner of Lance Armstrong Lager before setting off. We pop out of the rainforests and into the coastal hinterland of granite, sandy soils and open eucalypt forests – an incredible cross section of the Tasmanian landscape. Even with electrical assistance 42km is a long mountain bike ride so it’s a welcome relief when we smell the ocean, cruise down to a secluded beach on the Bay of Fires and plunge into the crisp, clear water.
After we towel off, a picnic meal prepared by chef Tom Dicker is laid out on those famous firey granite rocks – local oysters, freshly caught octopus cooked with chorizo and spuds, scallops in lemon and dill butter, all washed down with local Pirie sparkling wine and pale ale from Little Rivers Brewing Co. If I was to tally up the best days of my life, this one would make the finals.
Accommodation in Derby.
When Steve and Tara were setting up their business they thought it would appeal to people in their 30s and 40s riding “analogue bikes” – without electric motors. Surprisingly, the average age has been 53 and about half the clients are on electric bikes. Husbands ride with their wives, mothers cycle with their sons. “There’s so much desire for people to challenge themselves, especially when they are in their 40s and 50s,” Steve says. “They want to be free and jump on the bike and roar down a mountain like they used to when they were a kid.”
It is also a deeply personal experience. There’s something about being out in nature, at the edge of your comfort zone, that triggers intense emotions. Our 19-year-old guide Charlie Edis, who is spending part of his gap year at Derby, says he’s had middle-aged businessmen sobbing on his shoulder, dissatisfied with the direction of their lives.
It’s been a game-changer for St Helens, too. Brendan Watmore, from tourism analytics company Tourist Tracka, says an analysis of mobile phone data shows there was a 50 per cent increase in the number of Victorians visiting St Helens in the year to January. “Not only are more Victorians travelling, but we saw an increase of 200 per cent from higher socio-economic groups,” he says. “These higher-value travellers are the most attractive to destination marketers because they spend more money on their experiences and tend to stay for longer and see more places.”
Jayne Richardson, from Break O’Day Council, says businesses in the St Helens area report takings are up 50 per cent compared with previous years. She says it’s usual for staff to be laid off during winter but “the businesses we surveyed last winter had put on staff – it was incredible”. And when it was announced the new trails would be built, $15 million worth of new investment in tourism ventures were lodged with the council – new cabins at the caravan parks, motels being renovated, two new bike shops, pubs dolled up…
Richardson says there’s been an influx of young people into the shire and a quarter of new residents nominated the opening of the mountain bike trails as one of the major factors influencing their decision to move. St Helens, it seems, is about to do a Derby.
Jim Hepple is an Assistant Professor at the University of Aruba and is Managing Director of Tourism Analytics.