It’s become a regular thing for a few mates and I to try and find one weekend a year where we can convene to do absolutely nothing else but ride bikes and all those other cool things that come with riding bikes with mates; dodgy barbeques, abandoning dodgy barbeques after torching the steak to go to the pub, waiting for your buddy to get their respective shizzle together (that would be me, usually) to go out and ride bikes, fixing bikes and relaxing post-ride.
It all stemmed from a few years of chasing our own portly tails into smokin’ last place during marathon mountain bike races, when we realised that the most fun part of the event were the practice laps on the days leading up to the race itself. Why? We were all together, having a ride and a laugh.
“Why don’t we just go away for a weekend and not do this?” opined one of our posse. “We’re paying money to come and suck at racing… so let’s not race!” The idea’s simplicity was simply breathtaking in its audacity… and it turned out to be the best idea we’d all ever come with.
Tathra, on the NSW south coast, was our choice this year for a number of reasons; great accommodation options, roughly equidistant between Sydney and Melbourne and, of course, great trails that cater for a wide range of fitness and ability levels, and that are literally a two-minute ride out of town. We’ve been here before, of course, and we’ll always have it high on our list of spots to go.
The trip for 2018 was little different to ones that had gone before. Months of emailing cajoling and wrangling and arguing and insulting and timetable consulting had resulted in just three of us connecting sufficient dots to make the 600km trip in March, in between everything else life throws at us.
Such was the rush, I barely had time to pack enough bike kit for one ride, instead of my usual eight outfits for three days of riding
Bruce, Justin and I arrived at about the same time, and the mild autumn days were just… perfect. Long rides were punctuated by easy rides back to the Tathra Beachside Apartments, where owner Rob White would stop for a minute to chat about the trails that all the locals loved.
After a couple of bluebell perfect days sessioning more than 50km of lovingly crafted singletrack – all built with volunteer labour, too, no government money here – Sunday March 18 dawned warm and still. There was enough time for a last spin up Evil Tom’s and down Anchors Away in the early morning, and we were packed and on the road by around 12pm, the three of us plotting to come back again for the June holiday long weekend.
Just before 1pm, a small bushfire broke out in a failed power transformer at Tarraganda, about 20km inland of Tathra. Fanned by strong northerlies, it quickly grew and roared at speed towards the coast. In its way stood tiny Tathra.
“Have you heard what’s happened?” asked my worried wife as I came through the door around 5. I hadn’t – I’d been listening to music and podcasts on my drive back home, noting a weird dust storm, strengthening winds and a few fire appliances racing south, but not thinking anything of it.
As we both stood, mouths agape, at the vision unfolding in front of us on TV, I spotted Rob, green garden hose in hand, the previously blue and green backdrop of the apartments now enveloped by an apocalyptic storm of smoke and ash. Could… this even be real?
“Jesus,” is all I could manage.
It would take days and weeks before people could get back to the town, and the random nature of… well, nature played out in its terrible glory, sparing one house but not the next. The fact that no one was even injured is astonishing.
A quick message to the lads ensured they were safe, and instantly we decided. We’re going to Tathra in June. We had no idea if anything was left, but we were going down.
Making the all-too familiar journey to Tathra this time, I’m bathed in nostalgia piloting a white and yellow Multivan Kombi 70 Years. As I cruise down the main street, there were few signs of anything amiss. The caravan park at the top of town hasn’t survived, by the looks, but the golf club and sewerage works are still there. There is evidence of scorched bush, but the main drag has survived unscathed.
It’s a different story about behind the beach, though. Builder’s fencing surrounds blackened foundations on far too many streets… but the houses facing fire breaks looking onto the bush were untouched, save for melted children’s toys and ravaged plant life. I stand for a moment between the untouched and the unimaginable, unable to process the sheer power that the fire must have possessed at this point.
Our mission is to support the annual Tathra Enduro race, which is enjoying a record number of entries this year, as riders bring their families to buy coffees and meals and accommodation in this tiny coastal town.
Both Bruce and Justin have made the trip, too, which is comforting in a way.
Half the trail network had been in the path of the fires, but the locals have been out in force, using monies donated by the mountain bike community to rake, reshape and reform its beloved singletrack back into shape by hand.
In the process, those trails – bedded in and ridden hard for ten years – are now reborn. The corners, the climbs and the drops are still in roughly the same places, but it’s like riding on the surface of Mars.
The trails are wider, you can feel the wind in your face that was previously muffled by the bush, and you can see for absolutely days. Brightly attired MTBers twist and wend their way through the grey naked forest, laughing and hooting and generally showing nature who’s boss.
And, within the depths of the blackened and charred trees, new life is fighting its way into the sunshine. Ironically flame-red shoots push their way past the burnt bark, while impossibly green ferns pick their way across the grey earth. Nature’s showing us who’s boss, in fact.
The smiles on soot-streaked faces at the finish line tell the story. Tathra has come through the worst, and is still open for business. There’s still work to be done, and some have lost everything, but we’re in awe of this little town.