Wow! What an environment for product testing! Over one thousand kilometres of off-road riding through some of the most amazing country that Australia has on offer. During our visit to the Munda Biddi Test Lab, we rode on every surface condition that you could imagine and quite a few that you probably couldn’t. We were also presented with some quite challenging weather conditions.
One great thing about a trail as long as the Munda Biddi is the chance to see how other people approached the problem of hauling themselves and their gear from one place to another.
Bikes in the Test Lab
We were both very happy with our bike choices for our journey. Gayle used her carbon framed Giant Anthem Advanced 29er (AKA Pokey) and I took my alloy framed Giant Trance 29er (AKA Donquita). We met several people along our journey who were adamant that we shouldn’t be riding dual suspension bikes or taking a carbon framed bike with us. As Bill from Munda Biddi Shuttle Services said to us “You can ride pretty much anything on the trail as long as you are prepared to walk occasionally and travel at your own speed”. Taking our trusty dual suspension bikes allowed us to have a relatively comfortable ride from Perth to Albany on equipment that we were very familiar with.
We did not have any major mechanical issues along the way. We attribute our lack of bike issues on the trail to taking well maintained and serviced bikes in the first place (thanks Northern Bikes). We also took a fair bit of care to clean down the bikes as much as we could each night and keep the lube up to the running gear. The trail was wet to very wet for a fair amount of the trip. This caused the dry lube that I was using to disappear by just after lunch on most days, leading to a cacophony of squeaks and groans from the bikes. This problem was easily fixed with the purchase of a small bottle of wet lube when we got to Collie.
As part of our daily maintenance routine, we checked all the bolts to ensure that they were fastened up nice and tight. On one occasion, after a day where we lifted our bikes up and over a dozen major tree falls, one of the front skewers had become loose. I assume it had been caught in a branch of a tree during the day. It did bring on a bit of obsessional checking at the next half dozen tree crossings.
While we were on the trail we heard of an English couple who had broken a rear derailleur when a stick jumped up off the track and into their drive system. We then felt very pleased that we had been very careful to clear sticks that flicked into the wheels or running gear immediately upon hearing the dreaded clickety clack of a Spokey Doke. I also felt reassured that carrying spare hangers for our bikes could be justified.
One area that we consider requires work before future trips would be Pokey’s lower gear ratios. On a ride like the Munda Biddi, with a full load, some of the hills became very long, very steep and ultimately unrideable for both of us. The 1×11 drive train on Pokey ran out of legs strong enough to push just a bit sooner than the 2×10 setup on Donquita. We will look at changing the size of his front chain ring down to a 30 tooth option. While this will not give Pokey the climbing range of Donquita, it may keep him a bit closer on those long steep uphills. In a few years we may even consider Sram’s 1×12 offering with its serving-platter sized 50 tooth rear cog. With such an easy ratio I can see a totally vertical climb being possible. I also read with anticipation the review by Factory Jackson on the Shimano Samurai XT 1×14 drivetrain. http://factoryjackson.com/2016/04/01/shimano-14-speed-xt-samurai-unveiled/ One can only dream of such pedalling heaven.
On stripping the bikes down when we got home it is apparent that we will now need to replace our chains as they have stretched to their limits and Donquita will require a set of brake pads on the rear. Long, steep, wet and sandy descents played havoc with her resin disc pads.
Racks and Bags in the Test Lab
Our Old Man Mountain pannier racks performed to and exceeded our expectations. A pannier rack is something that you want to be able to set at the start of a journey and forget for the rest of the ride. That is exactly how the Pioneer racks performed. Gayle’s formerly front rack now rear rack was the perfect size for her gear and my rear rack handled my load with aplomb, although Donquita kept enquiring “Does my bum look big in this?” I have no idea where she got that idea from. The racks were very robust and very stable under load.
The racks carried our Altura Orkney Pannier bags with ease (Gayle 34 litre and Kim 56 litre). There were two slight issue with these pannier bags that were quite easily rectified before we left home. During one of our test rides the bags flapped about a bit when we were on gravel roads, so I made an extra set of straps to hold the bottom of the bags in to the racks. The other issue was that the little pockets on the front of the bags would gape open when the rest of the bag was stuffed to capacity. The addition of a little strip of Velcro helped keep the pocket closed.
While we were in the Munda Biddi Test Lab some wear and tear became evident on my pannier bags. The little black rubber protective bit on the bottom corner of the bag got caught when I was removing the bag from the rack and the stitching came undone. Gayle’s bags showed no signs of distress. Given the amount of heavy rain that we encountered the insides of our pannier bags stayed incredibly dry.
We also carried a Monotreme Extreme roll bag attached with straps to the top of the racks these both performed very well. Gayle’s bag was used to carry our food so it changed size as we consumed or collected food each day. Mine stayed pretty constant in size, mainly carrying our tent and my thongs. The bags showed no signs of wear and tear following our trip but could do with a little more attention to the waterproofing around the seam at the base of the bag.
Up front, mounted to the handlebars of the bikes, we carried our bedding in our Monotreme Extreme double ended roll bags. The bags had a total weight of around 2kg, which was a nice counter balance for the load on the rear. The bags strapped directly to the handlebars and crown of the forks of the bikes. The double ends allowed the load to be adjusted from side to side on the handle bars to make it relatively balanced. The only issues we encountered with the bags was a little bit of paint rubbed off the handlebars where they had been resting during travel and one bag allowing a bit of water in during a particularly wet day. The issue of rubbing paint would be easily prevented with a bit of protective tape being placed in potential rub areas prior to starting the journey. I had protected the fork crown with a bit of Electrician’s tape before leaving home and it worked fine. The water ingress issue was probably due to the bag being rolled shut with the seam facing up rather than down. Our sleeping gear was stored inside our silnylon schnozzle bag (air bed inflator) that is airtight and water proof so no major dramas were encountered with the water ingress that occurred.
During our ride we had a lot of interest in our pannier and front roll set up. Riders towing trailers were quite impressed that we could use a dual suspension bike with panniers. At the Kwokralup Beela Campsite we came across a group of ladies who were heading North on the trail. Their first comment to us as we pulled into the shelter for the night was “Wow those racks look really, really solid!” We thought it was quite a curious welcome to country only to then hear their tale of woe. They had travelled over from the East coast and hired their bikes, racks and panniers for the trip. During their trip up from Albany they’d had the misfortune to shear a top connection point on a rack and have another attachment bolt shear through. The good news for them was that the hire company promptly sent replacement racks to the next town they were passing through. To cap off their tales of woe one of their party was not able to complete the ride because they had come to grief at speed on some trail litter. The efforts of these ladies were to be admired as they were all out there riding some pretty rough country on gear that they had not seen before getting off the plane. When we came to the loose sandy section of trail that had narrow wheel tracks from a Giant Cypress hybrid, I would stop complaining about how much the loose sand was sucking at my wheels and spare a thought for the gallant effort of those ladies from the East.
Sleeping Systems in the Test Lab
Our sleeping gear comprised of Exped UL Synmat inflatable mattresses, Sea to Summit Reactor sleeping bag liners, Sea to Summit Aeros Deluxe Pillows, Monotreme Extreme Ultralight down quilts and of course our Pyjamas. During our trip the low overnight temperatures allowed us to test the thermal insulation rating of our sleeping mats and down quilts to their maximum. Unfortunately for Gayle they were not quite up to the very low temperatures we experienced. We had to buy a small throw rug and windshield screen along the way to boost the thermal efficiency of Gayle’s system. It was very hard to prepare for such low temperatures when we were sitting at home in the balmy tropics of Far North Queensland. This year we didn’t really have a winter (until we went to Western Australia).
On retruning home further research has resulted in Exped’s down filled sleeping mats are being placed on the future wish list for adventures into cold climes. And in hindsight the down quilts that I made may really have needed those few extra grams of goose down to truly reach zero degrees Celsius.
I am suspecting that we will need to review all of our cold weather gear before our next long distance journey.
Rain Gear and Clothing Choices in the Lab
Despite our meticulous consideration of weather patterns for the southwest of Australia suggesting that early September would be near perfect weather, we were shown some ordinary weather during our adventure. There is always a silver lining in every cloud. We were able to test all of our wet weather gear and most of our thermals (all at the same time on some nights). We had the temperature plunge to very low single digits on a several occasions.
Our Outdoor Research rain jackets performed better than we could have hoped for. They allowed us to open and close the various zips to regulate our body temperature as we rode along. We spent quite a while in these jackets while we were on the trail and after a gentle wash when we got home there is very little evidence that they have been used.
My homemade rain over-booties did not really make the grade. They were a bit too big and loose causing them to rub on the crank with every revolution of the pedals resulting in a very annoying squeak-grind sound. They also added a real dag factor to my outfit. They did keep my feet mostly dry. The one exception was when I stepped into a deep puddle and water just flooded in from underneath.
On the keeping warm front we had a Kathmandu Polartec fleece jacket, Mont Dumper (down filled jumper from the early nineties), merino thermals and long travel pants. This system allowed us to layer up our clothing to adjust for the various stages of cold. At the Karta Burbu Campsite we needed all our layers on including our rain jacket and a T shirt to be comfortable outside the shelter. Our Dumpers show that if you look after good quality hiking equipment it will last for many adventures (mind you choose your colour scheme carefully as that may date more than the cut of the cloth).
The gear we were going to ride in each day had been a long drawn out debate before we left home. We had trialed many combinations of nicks, undies, socks and jerseys to try and work out our ultimate wardrobe. After a few trial runs we decided on three sets of nicks and jerseys with the need to wash every second night or so. This combination worked quite well for us although it did leave our room looking like a laundry every time we stayed in a town. Our biggest challenge was getting our clothes to dry overnight. After a few days on the trail everybody has a slightly musty smell so pulling a fresh set of clothes out of your pannier does give you that air of superiority for a short while.
On review we could possibly do the ride with one less jersey, some polypropylene thermals (Gayle thought I was a bit of a princess as I found the merino quite scratchy), and a t shirt in lieu of the button up shirt for going out when we were in town. On this trip we also didn’t need shorts, swimwear or thongs.
Cooking and Eating in the Lab
Being a self confessed Foodivore (I just love to eat good food) the menu for our adventure was a much discussed topic prior to our departure. We had many things to consider such as what cooking equipment could we justify carrying in our limited pannier space and what food we could tolerate more than once in the three weeks we would be away. Gayle did put her foot down about trying to fit the Kenwood Chef into her side pockets. I guess she was right because the extension lead was going to have to be pretty long too.
We decided that a lot of our main meals could be prepared prior to leaving home and dehydrated so that they would not weigh too much and would keep better during the ride. This worked well, especially once I remembered to initially only put about 70% of the water back into the meal and then adjust it to the correct moisture content while cooking. While we were on the trail we would rehydrate our evening meals at lunchtime so that there was a shorter cooking time in the evening. Some of the stand out meals that we had on the trail were our spaghetti bolognaise and red chicken curry. The dehydrated mashed potato and cheese made fantastic potato cakes for lunch. The big winner on the journey was our daily fresh flat breads that we made. These were either a flour tortilla recipe or a naan bread equivalent. At any shelter that we shared with other travellers we were definitely the last to leave the cooking area each evening and morning.
To try and minimise the amount of food that we were carrying at any stage we arranged parcel drops at Collie and Pemberton Information Centres. These worked like a charm although we were incredibly busy at each of these towns chasing down supplies and getting our gear clean again. Next time we would probably include our powdered milk with the parcels so that we didn’t need to carry a large bag of milk for the whole journey. We would also look to have another food drop or two so that we were only ever carrying about four days of food with us at any one time.
We took a Platypus Gravity filter with us for water purification. While many of the locals said we were being over cautious we treated all of our drinking and cooking water. Each shelter had rainwater tanks with signage saying that the water should be treated prior to use. Some of the water had a distinct yellowish tinge of tannin stains from the leaf litter trapped in the gutters of the shelters and others had little wrigglers of mosquito larvae. One of our fellow travellers brought a tea strainer from home to keep these little wrigglers from his cuppa. We loved the ease of using the gravity filter and the clean taste of the water. The system works amazingly well and with the addition of an inline connection it clipped straight into the quick release on our Camelbak reservoirs.
Our pot and pan selection came down to a hard anodised frypan, a Sea to Summit xPot and a Zebra stainless steel billy. Taking dehydrated food made our cooking pot requirements quite minimal. The frypan and billy saw the bulk of our cooking needs solved. The xPot ended up mainly being used for a mixing bowl and storage unit for our breads. We are looking at the possibility of a hard anodised aluminium billy and a plastic container in lieu of the Zebra and xPot for our next journey with the goal of saving around 300g of pack weight.
Navigation, Electronics and Safety in the Lab
On a journey like the Munda Biddi the possibility of getting lost or at least geographically embarrassed is a constant concern. We used a full set of the trail maps and a Garmin Edge 1000 cycling computer to help stay on course. Even closely following the maps and Garmin we still managed three slight geographical embarrassments. A map pocket mounted to the handlebars of the bike made reference to the maps very easy. The maps are detailed enough that you can follow reasonably closely to the path that you are following and after a couple of days the nuance of the maps starts to become evident. We lost satellite coverage for Edge one afternoon when we were slogging through heavy bush. It was a little disappointing as we didn’t get to claim all the climbing that we did for that day. Having the GPS allowed us to confirm that we were on the correct road when we were scooting along. There are various diversions that are set up from time to time on the trail to keep riders safe. These are usually available on the Department of Parks and Wildlife website. We found it best to mark the diversions directly on the map so that you could see the changes.
There is pretty limited phone coverage in some parts of the trail so we took a personal locator beacon (PLB) with us. There are many options on the market, some will let you send a fixed message to your responsible adult and also notify the Search and Rescue crowd where you are. We took a KTi SA2G Safety Alert GPS PLB with us as it allowed us to nominate our responsible adults and leave an itinerary on file so if we did set it off the rescue crew would have half an idea where we were. The KTi had one of the longest standby battery lives on the market and was only 220g. Thankfully we did not need to test this bit of equipment but it did bring a real peace of mind knowing that we had it if we were out of phone range.
Having hiked for many years without any electronic gear at all it seemed strange that it should become such a major consideration for our adventure. When we decided that we wanted to post a fair bit of information about our journey we were then faced with how best to do that. Ultimately we settled on taking a Samsung Tab A 8.0 tablet for our link to the wide world’s web. This worked very well although some of our editing options were more limited than on a full blown laptop. Our main issue was that we both wanted to use the tablet at the same time. Our next adventure will see a second tablet being included in our panniers.
I took an eReader pre-loaded with library books. As it weighed in around the same weight as a small novel it was an easy choice to make. The only problem was that my loan period was not as long as our trip away, so I had to reread a novel that I had previously purchased. If the extra tablet travels with us next time I would not bother with the eReader.
I took an Olympus Tough tg4 as my camera and Gayle used the camera within her phone. The Olympus was a fantastic choice as it is pretty life-proof and took some outstanding photos. The only hassle was trying to get it in and out of my rear jersey pocket. It is possible to get a sports holder for the camera that will be able to attach to the front of our Camelbak harness keeping the camera accessible and ready to use. The camera also came with a great app that made uploading photos to the tablet very easy. Gayle’s phone took some pretty reasonable photos but was a bit of a pain to get out and use. As the journey progressed it became apparent that having another life-proof camera would be a good choice.
Having our bags bristling with electronics presented the challenge of keeping all the batteries fully charged for 21 days. We took two solar chargers and three storage batteries. As the days were often overcast or rainy we were not able to deploy the solar chargers too often. The other side of that coin was that we were regularly staying inside accommodation with power allowing us to charge equipment and batteries. We took two Cygnet 10000mAh batteries that held their charge incredibly well and had enough charge in each to keep us on the road.
The Final Wrap
One conclusion that we drew from our time in the Munda Biddi Test Lab, is that there are no right or wrong bits of equipment for a journey, just lots of options, compromises and personal choices to be made. Everyone who was out there on the trail was carrying gear that they could justify allowing space for. Usually if you enquired why something had been brought along, you heard about careful consideration of the pros and cons for allowing the item to take up space on the adventure. Even a tea strainer could be a justified on the grounds of removing mosquito wrigglers from drinking water.
Ultimately we were very happy with the choices of equipment that we made before leaving home (except maybe those over shoe thingies that I made).