Alpine air ... the trail winds below Jacob's Ladder, south-east of Launceston. Photo: Tourism Tasmania
Louise Southerden takes a long, fast and winding bike ride down Ben Lomond.
It's not often that Australia's mountains upstage those in other countries. But Ben Lomond, at 1572 metres, is almost twice as high as its 974-metre namesake in the highlands of Scotland. That's a good thing: more mountain means more downhill biking and not just on roads. "It's not just 'drive up a road and ride down it'," says Ian Ferrier, who created the Ben Lomond Descent five years ago. "There are off-road bits and you still have to work [that is, pedal] in some spots. And up the top with those cliffs, it's pretty speccy."
He's talking about the dolerite columns atop Ben Lomond, where we start the ride. But first we have to get there in the support van run by his company, Mountain Bike Tasmania. The island's second-highest mountain is 50 scenic kilometres south-east of Launceston. You could come just for the drive, it's so pretty - we cross the North Esk River, meander through farmland and pass the quaintly named Upper Blessington before entering Ben Lomond National Park and climbing to its steep-sided plateau, which lords it over the rest of north-east Tasmania.
Craning our necks to look out the van windows at rock walls to rival the "organ pipes" on Mount Wellington in Hobart, we twist and turn our way up Jacob's Ladder, a dirt road that ends at Tasmania's only downhill ski area, Legges Tor, at 1450 metres.
It's a bluebird day, as the skiers would say, and cool enough even in midsummer for gloves. All the better to protect my hands should I skid off while riding down Jacob's Ladder, I think. To me, this unsealed snake looks like gravel rash waiting to happen.
I'm not a born mountain biker. I own a bike but my first love is the sea and, although Ferrier says you can sometimes see Bass Strait, even Flinders Island, from Ben Lomond, that's small comfort, particularly when my fellow riders are three Lycra-clad locals (and trekking guides), John, James and Kate, who know this mountain intimately. Also along for the ride are Ian's two daredevil sons, Innes and Ewan, who at 11 and 13 have been competing in mountain-bike races for a couple of years. I've never been on a single track before. But adventure starts where comfort ends, right?
No sooner have we unloaded the bikes from the trailer and filled our lungs with alpine air than James, Kate and the two boys are careening down the mountain. My heart beats a little faster. "Are you ready?" asks John, my guide for the day. "I'm not sure," I reply. My mouth goes dry. But John is unfazed and leads the way down a gentle warm-up section to a rocky lookout. So far, so good; those chunky tyres really do grip gravel.
We look down on Jacob's Ladder, whose loops look like an intestine, and see four miniature figures, our companions, descending. I'm sure it didn't look this steep on the drive up. Then we set off, dropping into the wide open landscape, zig-zagging past those dolerite columns with Ferrier following in the van, and it's as spectacular as he'd promised.
Several hairpin bends and 300 vertical metres later, we reach our first rest stop - a picnic area and lookout on top of a glacial moraine. It's a relief to get off the bike and stand still in this landscape. I read the information sign: this mound of rock and rubble was dumped here by a melting glacier about 40,000 years ago. There was once a small ice cap on Ben Lomond, in fact it's the only plateau in north-east Tasmania to have been glaciated, which makes its vegetation and landforms different to that of the surrounding countryside.
Jacob's Ladder, it turns out, is just an entree. The main course of this cross-country ride (it's not true "downhill" requiring full-suspension bikes or body armour) and what makes it different to most other mountain descents becomes apparent when we leave the road and ride on alternating sections of single track and fire trail through forests of gum-topped stringybarks. There are gurgling streams to cross, but there's no time to smell the wildflowers - today is all about the riding, the scenery just window-dressing for the trails.
I learn to ride with my pedals level so my feet clear the rocks, to flex and anticipate, to keep my speed up; those knobbly tyres are like rubber baby buggy bumpers - hit a bump slowly and you can bounce backwards and get thrown off. The more we ride, the more my confidence grows; I've never had so much fun on two wheels.
The others veer off now and then to tackle more challenging single trails - this is a ride of many tracks of varying difficulty, allowing it to be tailored to any skill level. Some sections also form part of the annual Ben Lomond Descent adventure race, which is held every August and involves a 16-kilometre ride, an 11-kilometre paddle and a nine-kilometre run.
You can ride the race course independently at other times but riding with Mountain Bike Tasmania allows you to start higher, at the ski village, and gives you access to purpose-built single tracks that Ferrier has created; the new tracks actually end on private land, another reason they're out of bounds to other riders.
My favourite part of the day is when we're all riding single file on a beautifully smooth and narrow trail that winds through the eucalypts and feels like a portal into secret biking business: so this is what mountain biking is really about.
Before we know it we're on our last fire trail, looking back at Ben Lomond, which seems far and high and is still cloud-free, even at 2pm. Is that the time? We've ridden 26 kilometres and dropped 1000 vertical metres in less than three sweaty, mud-splattered hours.
The home stretch is 100 metres of tarmac, smooth as caramel after the mountain's rocky road. Then we're parking our bikes beside a small grandstand on the Blessington Road, where we take advantage of its shade and the view of its wood-chopping arena to enjoy a packed lunch before the drive back to Launceston. Technically, anybody who can ride a bike can do the Ben Lomond Descent but you'll enjoy it more if you're reasonably fit, happy to get grubby and up for a bit of adventure. Though only an hour's drive from the second-largest city in Tasmania, on this descent you're unlikely to see anybody else all day. That's one of the best things about this island state. It doesn't take much to get off the beaten track or to follow some classic single path down a big, old mountain.
Louise Southerden travelled courtesy of Tourism Tasmania and Mountain Bike Tasmania.
Ben Lomond Descent trips start and finish in Launceston. Qantas has a return fare to Launceston from Melbourne (1hr) for about $220; see qantas.com.au. Virgin Australia flies non-stop from Sydney (1hr 45min) for about $303 return; see virginaustralia.com.au.
The Sebel Launceston, close to the city's newly developed Seaport dining precinct, has 51 suites, from $189 a night. See mirvachotels.com/sebel-launceston.
Mountain Bike Tasmania has several tours around Launceston. The Ben Lomond Descent can be tailored to skill levels and preferences. It costs $195 and includes use of a hardtail bike, helmet, daypack, support vehicle, transfers from Launceston, lunch and snacks. There's also a new Mount Wellington Descent off-road ride in Hobart, for $225. See mountainbiketasmania.com.au.