Escaping Sydney | EPIC RIDES

Exploring the Outskirts of Australia’s Largest City

By Zack Courts, Photography by Brook Braunschweig, Geoff Ballard, Zack Courts
Latitude: 33° 51’ 19” S
Longitude: 151° 12’ 37’’ E

Let's be clear. Sydney isn't a place that needs to be escaped. That is, provided you like beautiful beaches, friendly people, and near-perfect weather. Depending on exchange rates, Australia can be an expensive place to visit, but in my case, other than high prices on everything from pastries to hotel rooms, Australia's most populous city was paradise.

The motorcycling in Sydney, though, is all the same. It's the same traffic, stop signs, and cell-phoning drivers as any other major city. As I encourage any motorcyclist to do, I searched desperately for a way to explore on two wheels—Australia's a big place, after all. In my case, I was on a personal vacation for a friend's birthday, with only a couple of days to kill. I convinced her to tag along, but I knew full well that sitting on a motorbike is my idea of good time and not hers.

What a bike it was, though! Procycles, a dealership just south of the city, was kind enough to lend me a 2012 BMW R1200GS Adventure in order to escape to the hills and try to impress a non-motorcyclist. (Plan B, by the way, was to rent a bike, as there are a handful of agencies in Sydney that will part with a GS for a fraction of the price of the plane ticket. Google it and see.)

Sporadic rain showers greeted us the morning we departed Sydney, making the sell to my friend more difficult and shaking my confidence with the whole idea. We saddled up regardless and pointed the GS-A toward Blue Mountains National Park, due west. Aftermarket knobby dual-sport tires, wet pavement, low visibility, being lost, and riding on the left (wrong!) side of the road was daunting, but at least the road signs were in English.

The kilometers passed slowly early on, due in part to nerves but mostly because Aussie speed limits are insanely low on freeways. Signs dictated limits as low as 50 mph on multi-lane highways, and people followed them religiously. Signs pointed out, somewhat passive-aggressively, "Speed cameras. Anywhere. Anytime." Suburbs eventually gave way to foothills, fewer lanes, and more curves in the road. Mercifully, 100 kph (62 mph) speed limits became more prevalent, and soon we were well on our way to the quaint town of Katoomba, where a quick stop to make sure we were still on the right track yielded the first of many nearly identical conversations.

"How d'ya foind the boike?" came the question through a thick accent, and after a brief back and forth regarding the joys of motorcycling, we were back on the road. Again and again we were approached at a gas station or café and greeted by an ultra-friendly attitude, a wide smile, and typically a story about having a GS, getting a GS, or wanting a GS. One guy was fueling up his truck to go pick up a used R1150GS that afternoon. "Today's the day!" he beamed.

We continued to follow the Main Western railway line (which appeared wonderfully scenic) until it peeled north at the town of Mount Victoria. A friend in Australia had put me in touch with former AMA and Australian National off-road champion Geoff Ballard, who has built a beautiful off-road playground in the wooded western foothills of the Blue Mountains. Geoff founded a parts and accessories distribution shop 25 years ago just west of Sydney, but when he's not pushing papers or running a race team (which he did until 2013), he prefers to spend his time in the country, thundering through the woods on his private track.

As we came to learn, Aussie hospitality is a cut above the rest. Seconds after arriving, Geoff quickly promised he would fire up one of his R1200GS Adventures and take us for a ride in the afternoon. Admitting we were eager to see a kangaroo or wallaby was more than a little embarrassing, but he greeted the notion with a smile and a short walk around his property where, sure enough, we saw a handful of wallabies bouncing through the trees.

We soon suited up and headed for the town of Bathurst, known most famously to wheel-heads for the legendary Mount Panorama Circuit. Not more than a few miles from Geoff's camp we dived off the bitumen (Aussie for "asphalt" and pronounced bit-chuh-men), following a vague trail through the woods and along the edges of pastures. He explained later that we had taken advantage of a short section of the Bicentennial National Trail, a route originally designed for equine travel but now used mostly for hiking and mountain biking (or sightseeing on a GS).

Seeing signs for a raceway entering Bathurst I got excited. As an American I was content with the idea of peering onto the track from outside the chain-link fence, but as we arrived at the track Geoff rode straight in through the gates and on to the racing surface. Much to my surprise, anyone is welcome to drive or ride around, within posted speed limits, so we ambled up the mountain, down through the famous Esses, Conrod Straight, and out the gate at the end of the lap. Surreal and terrific.

Eventually we looped back toward home base, making sure to pass through the Jenolan Caves, which the salesman at Procycles in Sydney had mentioned but didn't seemed excited about. "They're just big holes in the ground," he had shrugged. If everything's bigger in Texas, consider Australia a larger Texas. Superb pathways through a network of stunning caverns made me want to stay and explore, but Geoff's bored look moved us along.

After crashing for a night at Geoff's camp, we headed south with no particular goal but to turn left when we hit the sea and head back to Sydney. Following signs for the town of Goulburn, about 100 miles south, we rolled gently over bright green hills sprinkled with sheep and just enough car traffic to remind me to stay on the left side of the double line. As bountiful and agricultural as the landscape was, signs of civilization were sparse, but every time I checked the GS-A's range it chuckled confidently and showed me a three-digit number. Nothin' like an 8-gallon tank.

At Goulburn we met the freeway but limited our jump to about 15 miles, peeling off and following two-lane, railway-adjacent roads through storybook-named towns such as Penrose, Bundanoon, and Moss Vale. Eventually we found what we were looking for in the town of Fitzroy Falls, where the Yarrunga Creek dives unsuspectingly off a 260-foot rock face and into a severe, lush canyon carved into the landscape. The waterfall is as spectacular as it is unexpected, considering the flat, mundane landscape leading to the parking lot.

Only a few miles from the Tasman Sea by then, the road drops more than 2,000 feet of elevation in about 5 miles, landing near Wollongong. We hugged the picturesque coast as best we could, winding through Royal National Park for a final taste of nature before battling through Sydney suburbs and one last scenic hurrah, crossing the Sydney Harbor Bridge en route to the hotel just north of the city.

Overall the mini-adventure was about 550 miles in two days, and we had only utilized the knobby tires for a short time, so we certainly didn't set any records. Sniffing around outside Sydney yielded some amazing sights, though: caves, waterfalls, and coastlines that would be on every postcard for most states in the US, all within a day's ride. I only jumped briefly out of the tourist zone to scratch the surface of what the land Down Under has to offer, but if you can take a chance to do the same you won't regret it.


Also Epic...

Latitude: 37° 51’ 20’’ N Longitude: 111° 0’ 46’’ W

Utah National Parks: Arches to Zion ADVENTURE Route

Utah has plenty of great riding, but think rural to really blow your mind. A mid- to full-size ADV bike (and satellite communica-tion for safety) is perfect for this one; Exit I-70 on Route 24 south and look for Notom Bullfrog Basin Road, between Hanksville and Torrey. After about 10 miles of pavement and 20 miles of dirt, follow signs for Boulder and Escalante (Burr Trail) then get ready for a few miles of technical dirt! At the intersection with Route 12, stop in on Hell’s Backbone Grill before sailing on to 89 south and finally Route 9 through the jaw-dropping Zion National Park. —Zack Courts

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