It’s not all swing votes and roundabouts – the Australian capital is also becoming a go-to for two-wheeled adventures. Angus Fontaine hits the trail… and then the massage table.
Don’t worry, they said. It’s like riding a bike or falling off a horse. Or both, I discover, as I’m unceremoniously unhorsed over the handlebars of my bike and sent tumbling down the type of rutted scrub that inspired the ride of Banjo Paterson’s Man From Snowy River, their words rattling through my mind.
Skidding to a humiliated halt, in a cloud of dust and into a thicket of wild blackberries by the mighty Murrumbidgee, I have to laugh. This is fun. I’m mountain biking in Cotter Pines, Ngunnawal country, about 25 minutes west of Canberra’s CBD. Far from the traditional institutions that have trickled life into the nation’s capital, this epic 480-square-kilometre wilderness is now a national hotspot for biking, hiking, trail running and rafting. Most visitors bring their own wheels but Stromlo Forest Park offers bike hire and maps, while MTN Bike has coaching and guided tours.
My guide, the cackling man helping me to my feet, is Alan Vogt, a trailblazer in the truest sense. With his own sweat (and a few government grants), Vogt and his dirt surfer mates, the Kowalski Brothers, a volunteer trail building group, have spent the past couple of years carving out 16 of an intended 50 kilometres of trails through native bush and pine plantations.
Our ride today is a choose-your-ownadventure tangle of trails perfect for rookies who have re-embraced biking in the pandemic – often via lithium-enhanced e-bikes. It undulates through the red-capmushroom-strewn Brindabella Range via Kowalski-coded tracks The Spine, Sugar Sugar, Eagle Rock and Sneaky Pete before gently climbing into Start Me Up. Stringybarks and wombat holes flash by but the iconic Telstra tower on the horizon keeps me on track.
“Canberra is becoming a true biking mecca,” says Vogt. “In the city you can ride fantastic flat trails around Lake Burley Griffin, Majura Pines, the zoo and the Arboretum, while out of town, places like the Cotter will take you off-road.” Way off-road in my case.
Falling off a bike is fun but it pales before a king-sized bed and a massage. I’m scratched up and saddle-sore by the time I get back to a sunny, buzzing Canberra. With its black halls and soundless design, the Burbury in Barton is the soft place to fall after a hard morning eating trail dust.
Following a bento box of Wagyu beef and sashimi at the onsite Lilotang and a restorative schooner of Capital Brewing’s Trail Pale Ale, I know what I need – a complete stranger to play me whale songs, get me slick as a salamander and knuckle my buttocks into sweet oblivion.
But here’s the rub. You have to relax in order to be relaxed by a massage. I’ve been clay-baked in Vietnam, stomped on in Korea, hot-stoned in Bali and electrified by Ayurvedic shamans in India and left each more stressed. The trick is to let go and breathe. Hale Spa’s deep-tissue massage is performed by petite therapists with hands like heavyweight boxers and starts with oiling of the feet before rhythmic glides up the legs and hips and kneading of the back and shoulders.
It doesn’t replace the skin (or, alas, dignity) I’ve left on Canberra’s mountain-biking trails but it does restore some of the balance I lacked in the saddle.