The Bourke and Wheels Story

Cycling Expeditions around Australia



The first ‘Ride to the Rock’ was a one-off project that Ed developed in 1995. To drum up some participants he did the rounds of cycling groups, bike shops and cycling events, eventually catching the eye of cycling legend John Trevorrow. John’s newspaper write-up on the event generated enough interest to ensure a full crew of 50 riders turned up on the start line.

The first group reaches the milestone of Coober Pedy, September 1995
Destination – Uluru, September 1995

The event proved strangely addictive for many of the original participants and Ed responded to the repeated badgering for ‘more please’ by indulging his dream of cycling from Cairns to Cape York. The first ‘Ride to the Cape’ was a sobering experience for those heading off the sealed road for the first time, but there was no going back to the office for Ed. His 26 year career with Telstra ended in favour of life on a bike.

Typically the business name emerged from the depths of a stubby, and ‘Bourke and Wheels Cycling Expeditions’ was born. Variations of the name have been seen, with a few locals in far flung parts of the country suggesting that ‘Berks on Wheels’ might be more appropriate.

‘Bourke and Wheels’ is officially born

The Rides & The Riders

The original ‘Ride to the Rock’ eventually became something of a cult classic, with some of the riders acquiring a degree of notoriety. Features that were to become Bourke and Wheels traditions were established – the Lions Club fruit cake at morning tea, the famed Handicap Race, the post-ride Award ceremony. After finishing at Uluru in 1995, talk was in favour of a second ride to continue ‘up the track’ to Darwin. Ed, however, was keen to use the momentum generated to lead an adventure off the bitumen to explore Cape York, something he’d read about in Freewheeling magazine.

The limit bunch are waved off – Top End Ride Handicap Race, 1998
Added intrigue during the 1997 Cape Ride Handicap – the cycling version of the ‘Fine Cotton Affair’
Standard lunch stop – not many fancy restaurant lunches, 1999 Cape Ride II

Fast forward nine months and a group of mostly pseudo mountain bike riders were becoming accustomed to pushing their motley array of hybrids, touring bikes and the occasional actual mountain bike through the deep sand and endless river crossings of the track north to Cape York. The stories that emerged from the trip were featured in Australian Mountain Bike magazine when a journalist flew north to join the crew. Characters such as Lethal Leigh, Dick from Darwin and Mongrel Mel were immortalised in print and the demand for more rides grew.

‘Mongrel’ Mel – the legend grows, 1996 Cape Ride
The dummy was sometimes spat well down the track, 1996 Cape Ride

After devastating headwinds plagued the second ‘Rock Ride’ in 1996 the decision was made to reschedule the next years ride to late April. This slotted in nicely with a full northern Australia ride schedule – starting with the ‘Rock Ride’, linking into the ‘Top End Ride’ and finishing off with the second edition of the ‘Cape Ride’. A short break in between allowed Ed to duck off to survey a new route planned in the Kimberley region. By this point Gaye had turned up (1996 Rock Ride) and had such a life-changing experience that she refused to go home. After a stint working at Alice Springs Hospital she joined Ed in running cycling adventures, totally gobsmacked at the idea of bikes, cycling gear and random items of outdoor equipment being legitimate tax-deductible expenses in this new line of work.

Gaye joins the crew, 1997 Rock Ride

Meanwhile, the opportunity to design and lead a ride for a group of American college students led to the ‘Ocean Road Ride’ being added to Ed’s repertoire. This was quickly followed by the ‘Flinders Ranges Ride’ along the Mawson Trail in South Australia. Introduced for the first time in 1997, riders battled high temperatures and the reluctance to move on from air conditioned pubs serving cold beer, to reach their destination of Wilpena Pound.

Cooling off on the 1997 Flinders Ride
Cooling off 2 – Flinders Ranges, 1997
Hot, damn hot, heading for camp, Flinders Ride 1997

1998 saw repeat editions of both Rock and Top End rides, followed by the inaugural ‘Kimberley Ride’. Spirits were high as the crew, including many original ‘Ride to the Rock’ veterans, set off across the Gibb River Road from Kununurra to Broome in Western Australia. Some indelible memories resulted. Some we’d prefer to forget, like Mongrel Mel returning from a ‘wash’ wearing only a strategically placed bum bag. The year ended with the second ‘Flinders Ride’ which featured cool and wet conditions, markedly different from the previous years’ heatwave.

This year also saw the introduction of the famed ‘Z’ cycling top – a jersey of dubious ‘style’ picked up from the Port Augusta bike shop. Three enterprising Rock riders had decided that what the ride needed was a sort of ‘yellow jersey’ – to be presented to a deserving victim and worn for a few days before they nominated their successor and handed it on. From such humble beginnings the ‘Z top’ became highly coveted and the initial handover ceremony evolved into a full production with lighting, sound effects and dramatic scenes.

The final year kicked off with another rendition of the ‘Rock Ride’. Then it was off to Cairns for a double episode of the ‘Cape Ride’. With the Wenlock River initially still too high to ford, it was a tense end to the traditional ‘Race to the Wenlock’ for Ed and Gaye. With assurances that the punt comprised of oil drums, some boards and a few pieces of rope was ‘fine’ to cope with the load of our 4 tonne fully loaded truck, Ed inched the vehicle on. Hungry riders hauled on the pulley system, chanting ‘lunch, lunch’ as the punt sagged under the load but moved slowly across to the safety of the far bank. Fortunately, the river had dropped by July so the second ride could finish their race with the usual plunge in the Wenlock River to reach the finish line.

What could possibly go wrong? 1999 Cape Ride I
Sand riding before fat bikes were a thing, 1997 Cape Ride

The Rock Ride

Each ride in the Bourke and Wheels repertoire had it’s own moments and highlights. The Rock Ride held a special place as the spiritual home of the rides. For many riders (including myself) it was their introduction to the Australian outback, and sometimes also their first bush camping experience. Basic though they were, the nights in the bush were a hugely popular part of the journey north. Although one or two riders went to some effort to avoid the need for a tent, eventually the roadhouse cabin options run out. This made for some memorable tent construction efforts, generally hampered by those keen to ‘help’ after consuming the contents of the post-ride beer esky.

Despite the fact that most of the route followed the only sealed road north, over the years a couple of riders actually managed to get lost. Others somehow rode past the only turn they needed to make that day – into the roadhouse (the only building within 200 km). Yes, the Australian outback is a truely captivating place, and needs the kind of slow, contemplative appreciation that is best achieved from the seat of a bicycle …

Desert lunching, 1998 Rock Ride
Who needs a tent – desert bush camp, 1996 Rock Ride
Rain on the Rock, 1998 Rock Ride
Hours spent watching spinifex pigeons
Approaching the finish, 1999 Rock Ride

The Top End Ride

The Top End Ride was born from many, many comments from riders who just didn’t particularly want to go home after arriving at Uluru. The route north took riders on a transition from the arid heart of the outback into the monsoonal tropics of northern Australia. Swimming and bushwalking were added as we pushed north, detouring to take in Edith Falls, Nitmiluk National Park, Douglas Hot Springs and Litchfield National Park before reaching our destination at Darwin’s Mindel Beach.

Nitmiluk National Park hiking, 1997 Top End Ride
Litchfield National Park, 1997 Top End Ride
Flying foxes at Mataranka Hot Springs, 1997 Top End Ride

The Kimberley Ride

The Gibb River Road was another outback Australia route that caught Ed’s eye. Interest was high for the inaugural event and we were at capacity riding out from Kununurra in June 1998. Logistics were sketchy, with one of our campsite bookings being dropped without notice. Most riders took the bumps in the track without fuss, and creativity rose to an all-time high with the revered ‘Z’ cycling jersey award ceremonies. The final award was handed over by Les, carried in on a ‘throne’ with a flaming ‘Z’ torch and a chorus of jungle drums. The closing ceremony of the Kimberley Ride saw the ‘Z’ top reverently carried around the room by all the previous awardees (like the Olympic flag). Finally it was folded carefully and handed to Ed for safekeeping until it would once again be unfurled and displayed proudly on the backs of other intrepid adventurers.

Scenic bush camp by the Cockburn Range, 1998 Kimberley Ride
Pentecost River crossing, 1998 Kimberley Ride
Corrugated sandy tracks of the Gibb River Road, 1998 Kimberley Ride
Lennard Gorge, 1998 Kimberley Ride
One of the more unusual bikes to tackle the Gibb River Road, Paul & Charlie’s Moulton tandem MTB, 1998 Kimberley Ride
Another day, another scenic bush camp, 1998 Kimberley Ride

The Flinders Ride

The Flinders Ride followed the then new Mawson trail route north from Adelaide to finish at Wilpena Pound in the northern Flinders Ranges. After scorching temperatures on the November 1997 ride, we rescheduled to depart earlier in 1999, thus ensuring wet and cold conditions. The Flinders Ride route is widely celebrated for passing a record number of pubs, most notably the Prairie Hotel at Parachilna. This is where Gordon (The Messiah) and his disciples settled in for the afternoon during the 1997 ride. A rescue crew was dispatched when they failed to arrive in camp 20 km further down the track. However, Gordon and friends impolitely indicated that they didn’t require assistance and rode away with knicks at half-mast and into the annals of Bourke and Wheels legend. Rumour has it that the injury caused to MegLegs’ eye that afternoon was not in fact road grit, but the blinding flash of light she witnessed as Gordon dove bare-arsed into a trailside waterhole. True story.

Trouble brewing at the Prairie Hotel, 1997 Flinders Ride
Enjoying the undulating trails of the northern Flinders, 1999 Flinders Ride
Evening amusement, 1999 Flinders Ride

The Cape Ride

The Cape Ride was, and remains, our personal favourite of all the Bourke and Wheels expeditions. The combination of some daunting days in the saddle, abundant mud, sand and dust, regular technical and technique failures, refreshing river crossings and idyllic bush camps made for hilarious and memorable trips. The long-standing offer of a slab of beer to anyone who could ride both the Donovan and Cowie Ranges without putting a foot down, had to be withdrawn after local authorities paved the steepest section of the Cowie, sadly rendering it rideable for the thirstiest.

Off and pushing up the notorious Cowie Range, 1997 Cape Ride
Therese receiving first aid after arguing with a tree (broken finger), 1999 Cape Ride I
What mud? Beer o’clock at the Lion’s Den Hotel, 1997 Cape Ride
Failure of river crossing technique, 1997 Cape Ride
Taking one’s bike for a swim, 1997 Cape Ride
Taking one’s bike for another swim, 1997 Cape Ride
Necessary maintenance after excessive swimming with bike, 1997 Cape Ride
Right to the Tip, 1997 Cape Ride
Made it! 1997 Cape Ride

Bourke and Wheels had several outcomes that we didn’t really anticipate. In hindsight it’s obvious that couples are likely to hook up amongst groups of likeminded people. Some enduring relationships formed, surviving even the longest of distances. The fruits of some of these relationships are now young adults. Happily, more than a few riders responded to the shutdown of Bourke and Wheels by jumping on their bikes and heading off on their own cycling adventures, the best possible outcome. And avowed non-cycling support crew extraordinaire Norm and Gail decided that there might be something in this cycling caper after all and delighted their followers by taking to bikes and heading off across the country.

Many friendships sprouted from four years of running cycling expeditions, some have endured over subsequent decades and have added immensely to our lives. We’d like to thank all those who rode, supported, and contributed to the general silliness of Bourke and Wheels adventures over the years – the photo galleries are dedicated to all we met and whose company we enjoyed, some of whom are no longer with us.

Enjoy the memories, ride on.

Ed and Gaye Bourke

The best support crew
Having friends over for dinner
R & R
Morning tea stops
Cleaning out Bamaga Bakery
The End

2 comments on “The Bourke and Wheels Story

  1. hey Ed and Gaye hope all is well you’ve been busy lol, I did 1997 ride with “Bourke n wheels’ from Gawler to Wilpena, (very hot couple of weeks) you aren’t planning a re-run at all?? David Crutchfield (no longer with us) & myself have caught up with Daryl Petch (Portland) over the years who we met on the ride. It was an amazing experience & love to do again with wife and kids.

    1. Hi Darren
      Great to hear from you again and that you now have a family. I think it was Crutchy who had that kmart mountain bike that somehow made it to the end.
      No plans to run any bike tours but it was a special time back then. I’m getting a bit nostalgic in my old age. The Mawson trail is still there whenever you want to do it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *