What happens when a rural town becomes the mountain bike capital of Australia?
A few years ago, Derby was a typical Tasmanian town — few job opportunities, a falling head count and bargain basement real estate. But then the Blue Derby mountain bike trails were built into the hinterland. Almost overnight, everything about Derby changed. How the locals responded could be a lesson for the rest of the state.
Farmer Derek Hayes stands with slumped shoulders gazing down on the town of Derby, his home of 60 years. He has ridden his quad bike up past his steers to the top of a paddock which ends at a cliff. Quaint old weatherboard mining homes and shops are nestled between the distant ridges, and what looks to be a lake is sitting way below his feet.
The large body of water is actually the flooded remains of the open-cut tin mine Derby was built around in the 1800s. The town went bust when the mine closed but now a radical transformation is taking place, driven by a recent addition to the surrounding bushland: mountain bike trails.
“I grew up there,” says Derek, slowly lifting a large calloused hand to point at the hills.
At age nine, Derek’s family relocated across the valley to his current home, which is said to be the grandest in Derby. Double brick and commanding its own hill, the vast property has an intricate wrought iron veranda, an orderly garden and tonnes of neatly stacked firewood for the winter. A visiting mountain biker offered to buy it recently but Derek isn’t ready to sell his home just yet.
The land he’s standing on is a different story. The knee-deep grass and the rich soil that has left red stains on his jeans isn’t his anymore. The council wanted the land to build more mountain bike trails.
“I didn’t want to sell,” he says. “But the council put a bit of pressure on me and I said in the end, ‘Well, this is the price. If youse [sic] want it, you have to pay it.’ Which they did. So I let it go.”
The sale included the “mine hole” — as the locals call the pool of water below — so mountain bikers will soon be riding around the old mine on new tracks.
“Sometimes you’ve got to change with the times,” Derek says.
I thought it would be better for Derby to have the land than me. That is why I did let it go in the end. I suppose I’ve got the money, but money is not everything is it?”
He pauses for a long time before speaking again, with a quiver in his voice.
“I don’t know what to make of it. Just let it go and hope the mountain bikers make a good show of it,” he says.
Since 2015, when about 30 kilometres of trails were opened to rave reviews — the first stage of a planned 80km network costing $3.1 million — mountain bikers have been leaving their mark everywhere around Derby.
Down the road in Branxholm, the local pub is beautiful, but old and worn. A pair of faded flowery armchairs sits at the top of the stairs. In between is a coffee table covered with a doily and a pile of brightly coloured mountain biking magazines.
The riders have brought mobile phone charging stations, Lycra and menu items such as woodfired pizza and smashed avocado to town. Some locals go to the new restaurants and enjoy the change. For others it’s bewildering.
Have you seen there’s a block of land for sale in the main street?” asks one local in the bar. “You wouldn’t have been able to give that away a few years ago. Now they want something like $120,000 for it.”
The men sit quietly in their hi-vis jumpers taking in what that means. Tasmanians don’t like change and Derby is changing fast.
The last time a quick change hit Derby was in 1929 when a dam burst, flooding the mine and killing 14 people. The mine closed and the town faded away. From 3,000 people in its heyday it dwindled down to 173 with farming and forestry being the biggest employers.
In his neat office at the Dorset Council Chambers in nearby Scottsdale, Mayor Greg Howard confirms beginner trails are being built around the mine hole. Mr Howard’s relaxed demeaner sharpens as he talks about plans to build a zipline down from the cliff to the town and have water sports on the lake. There is even a plan to sell the council depot, an area of prime real estate across the road from the start of the mountain bike trails, to developers.
“I would imagine it would be a motel-like complex but with a reasonable amount of stars,” the Mayor says.
Talking about the figures being driven by the mountain biking gets the Mayor sitting up straight in his chair; 30,000 visitors on the trails every year, tourists are staying four to five nights in Derby then another five days elsewhere in Tasmania.
It adds up to an estimated $30 million-a-year return on that $3.1 million investment.
He is proud of the transformation but can see some locals struggling to adapt, having to deal with “people they simply have never met before in their lives, and having to deal with them on a daily basis and but not for long enough to get to know them very well”.
‘We come to see the nature’
The eyes of the mountain biking world were on Derby in April 2017 when for the first time a stage of the Enduro World Series was held in Australia. The professional mountain bikers who also competed in places such as Canada, New Zealand and France voted Derby as having the best trail in the competition.
Detonate — the name of one of the stages — is as terrifying as it sounds. The trail runs through a gap in huge granite rocks barely wide enough to let handlebars through. But it’s not just the quality of the trails that has made Derby one of the best places in the world to go mountain biking, it’s the scenery.
The trails cross granite boulders, run next to pristine streams and wind though dark rainforests with tree ferns and trees with trunks so big that there’s no way you could fit your arms around them.
That doesn’t stop Canadian couple Uwe Homm and Anja Braun from trying. The self-described “tree huggers” are downing a beer and steak sandwich at the Weldborough Hotel after finishing a 20km ride through the rainforest. Anja laughs as she explains how she felt she had to stop ridding so she could hug a tree. The pair have ridden mountain bike trails around the world but are particularly impressed by Derby.
I definitely think this is one of the most beautiful places I’ve biked so far,” Uwe says. “It’s so different, there’s so many different, like, little micro climates and it’s absolutely pristine. It’s beautiful.
“It’s, like, heaps of ferns — like, massive ferns — and very thick bush, and then you just get to ride through it. It was pretty awesome; really flowy and fun.
“Then sometimes it opens up and you see, like, an amazing view from up there and you can even see the ocean from the trail.”
The pair is horrified to learn the Tasmanian Government has a plan to allow some of the forest which the trails go through to be made available for logging.
“I think it will impact the tourism and biking community hugely and hence the town and people in Derby,” Anja says. “I think biking tourism is just about to take off here and, I mean, we come to see the nature and if that’s not there anymore then the bike tourism will just stop.”
The mountain bike shop sits in the main street of town. Inside are bikes many locals would never be able to afford to ride.
What was the home of one of the richest tin mines in the world is now home to people living on an average household income of $556 a week. That’s welfare kind of money, but Derby used to be a place where you could live on the dole or a pension and own a house.
The shop’s owner Buck Gibson is so busy his eyes are circled in red. He arrives at work by 7:00am and is still there 12 hours later. His mobile phone doesn’t stop ringing from bikers who want to book his shuttle bus which will take them to the best spots on the mountain.
To him, the success in Derby is about more than money. He hires a few teenagers who come around after school to wash the bikes. He sees their pride and confidence in witnessing the transformation of their hometown.
Miles Smith, a lively 14-year-old with shoulder length dreadlocks, moves with confidence and quick cheer as he runs a cloth over a bike.
It’s exceptional just to know I live in what once felt like a ghost town to me, now is a booming [town] where people come from NZ, Canada, all around the world just to ride our tracks,” he says.
A lot of teenagers in regional Australia may want to get out of small towns as quickly as possible but Miles loves riding the world-class trails in his backyard. The only reason he wants to leave Derby is to see other mountain biking trails around the world “to see what we’re up against”.
Farmer Derek drives through town in his ute and Buck yells out a hello. Derek sometimes works as Buck’s shuttle bus driver.
“I don’t need to do it full-time because other people here need jobs, so I let them have the jobs,” Derek says. He enjoys talking to the tourists.
To him, the changes in Derby are for the better and he feels confident his little town is “going to be the mountain bike capital of the world”.
But he won’t stay. “I’ll sell the farm and move on, I reckon,” he says. “Maybe a mountain biker will buy it off me.”
Ditching tourism for forestry
The Blue Derby Mountain Bike Project is backed by a $2.5 million Federal Government grant aimed at developing a new industry to help the region recover from the collapse of the forestry industry and the timber giant Gunns. Most of the investment in Derby itself is coming from outsiders. Launceston is about as local as the investors get — the bulk are from interstate.
One Queensland rider who came down and saw there was nowhere to eat dinner bought the old butchers shop. It’s now a woodfire pizza place called the Hub and, true to its name, its the social centre of Derby. Several cafes have opened and about a quarter of the houses in town have been bought by investors and turned into accommodation.
An exception to the investor profile is a family of logging contractors from nearby Scottsdale. The Hall family runs a logging business, own the local newspaper and recently bought a Derby house to convert into accommodation.
The idea to invest came when daughter Candice Wood was working at the local pub in Scottsdale. One of the men building the mountain bike trails encouraged her to invest because “in another couple of years this place is going to be huge.”
There have about three real estate booms in the town since then. Candice estimates house prices have gone up by 95 per cent in some cases. A lot of older locals took the money and moved away.
Candice’s mother Karen Hall helps upkeep the investment property and says the mountain biking boom built up quickly.
Firstly, there was only one or two trails so people would ride from Launceston and only ride one or two trails and go home,” she says. “Now the accommodation is booked out for three to four nights because there are too many trails to ride in just one day so you have to stay overnight and ride more.”
Candice walks into the kitchen of her Derby house wearing a hi-vis shirt, shorts and bright pink work boots. Karen points to the polished floorboards saying they are a family that likes timber.
But Candice has decided to sell their tourism business in Derby. She says she won’t have time to manage it because she is joining other members of her family working in a pine tree plantation. She will be driving a logging machine.
“Being in the bush is amazing for me,” she says. “My husband, two kids and I live in Scottsdale, which for some people is living in the bush but for me I need an outlet. I need to be able to get out to the bush and experience the clean air and we’re in a softwood plantation at the moment, so as soon as you get out of the car and the harvester is at work you can smell the pine trees and it’s very soothing.”
The 36-year-old is as bright and cheery as her pink work boots, but she says working in the logging industry has brought conflict. Tasmania has been embroiled in a forest war for Candice’s entire lifetime and she her pro-forestry stance can make that war personal. At her high school reunion someone who opposed the planned Gunns pulp mill screamed in her face. She was pregnant at the time.
Those who are labelled as greenies have traditionally been the major employers and are still too scared to put their names to their stories of being bullied. They talk about being excluded from social activities and friendship groups.
The conflict around forestry and the radical change tourism is bringing to Derby is a microcosm of what is happening across Tasmania. Tasmania is a small state with a population that is mostly poor and highly reliant on industries like agriculture and forestry. And while the State Liberal Government is doing all it can to revive the native forestry industry, it also wants to see Tasmania become the eco-tourism capital of the world.
Can Derby show the rest of Tasmania how to navigate the notoriously tricky territory to reach a peaceful co-existence between the forest industry and eco-tourism?
‘No-one will be cutting down trees on the trails’
The political situation being played out about forestry in the corridors of power in Hobart might as well have the same name as Derby’s world class mountain bike trail — Detonate.
In 2013, 360,000 hectares of forest around Tasmania was originally set aside under the Labor State and Federal governments as future potential reserve land. It was designed to end the forest wars and stood as the culmination of a so-called “forest peace deal” negotiated by the forest industry, conservation groups and the unions.
The State Liberal Government came to power in 2014 with a promise to rip up the deal. The quarantined land is now known as Future Potential Production Forest and will be available for logging from 2020. Tasmania’s Minister for Resources Guy Barnett calls it a wood bank.
“We want to make it clear that we support jobs in regional areas,” he says while stating that hundreds of new forestry jobs have been created under his government. The Minister is also a keen cyclist and has ridden some of the Blue Derby mountain bike trails.
He makes clear no-one is suggesting there should be “harvesting right on top of the trails”. What can happen is logging near the mountain bike trails with consideration given to proximity to the trails and the visual impact on those using them.
As he goes into the details about the dispute about opening the forests for logging, Mr Barnett puts his elbow on his desk and lets his face slump down into his hand. He looks bored but maybe he’s tired. Many Tasmanian’s are weary of the forest wars. But Mr Barnett insists he isn’t reigniting a forest war but giving the forest industry jobs while being adamant that logging and tourism can coexist.
But buffer zones where forest near the trails is logged will never satisfy the Tasmanian campaigner for the Wilderness Society Vica Bayley. He wants the forest turned into a national park.
Mr Bayley says the disputed forests were the focus of conservation campaigns “before the mountain biking craze even came to Tasmania, so they’re protected predominantly for their nature conservation benefits”.
Mr Barnett confirms no-one has asked to go into the areas near the mountain bike trails yet. But the person most likely to is a man who describes himself as a true environmentalist.
The environmentalist logger
It’s quiet in the cold dark rainforest that surrounds a clear creek within the Blue Derby trail area. Little waterfalls cascade down granite rocks ending in a deep pool of water at the top of the Dam Busters trail.
Tony Stonjek points out the little ferns he sometimes sees people stealing from the forest. He chastises them gently, suggesting the ferns look better by the creek than in their gardens.
If more native forests around the mountain bike trails become available for logging it will be private operators such as Tony who will have the opportunity to go in.
Tony sees no reason to go logging in highly contentious areas now, but one day he says there may be logging there. He’s willing to negotiate about having large buffer zones between the trails and logging areas. He has already been selectively logging native forest regrowth close to this trail and he says mountain bikers who have ridden past the machinery in the coupe tell him “it’s great to see a working forest”.
In the divisive forestry debate people such as Tony are often said to be set on destroying the environment. But Tony worries that if he doesn’t thin the trees near the mountain bike trails the whole thing could go up in flames during a bushfire.
It can get very emotional,” he says. “Forty years of working in the forests — I’m very, very proud of being a forester.”
Tony is a talkative man who can’t seem to stand or sit still for long. But as soon as he hears the rainforest birds he stops moving and falls silent, listening. Then he starts naming the birds one by one, starting with the ones that live at the top of the canopy and working his way down to the mossy forest floor.
A model of balance in the forestry rift
Just a few kilometres away Christine Booth is also getting excited about the native birds. She quietly moves towards a nest and proudly points out a Grey Shrike-thrush. She walks through a bush trail, explaining the mining history of the area before standing under a large green tree fern breathing in the fresh Tasmanian air.
It’s been almost two years since the owner of an Eco Spa retreat near Derby was part of a campaign to try to stop native forest logging near one of the mountain bike trails. It ended with the state-owned logging company Forestry Tasmania hiking up the trail with mountain bikers and standing in the mud negotiating a compromise that got the buffer zone extended so riders wouldn’t see the cut down trees.
The light is a bit brighter there but no-one is likely to notice the nearby forest had been cut down unless they knew where to walk 50 metres from the track. The forest industry is planning its operations around the mountain biking and people in Derby seem satisfied.
Christine Booth says as far as the locals are concerned the forestry fight is over.
“I didn’t know there was a fight to be honest.” she laughs. “I think it’s something fabricated. I don’t know. Perhaps there’s a state government election in the wind, and perhaps certain parties on different sides of the spectrum think this is a good idea to rev up a bit of a fight.
Christine Booth says most Derby locals believe the decades-long forestry war is over. (ABC News: Felicity Ogilvie)
I think you’ll find that most locals here are not really interested in that particular fight, and we are feeling a lot more trustful that whatever government we have they will be wanting to preserve and look after this beautiful area.”
Christine believes there will be no logging anywhere near the trails and that the informal reserves will be left untouched.
“It does appear the Government is trying to have their cake and eat it too,” says Opposition tourism spokesman Scott Bacon. “They’re threatening to log these areas but saying they’re not going to impact the tourism industry.”
The Tasmanian Greens want to ensure the forests are never logged but the local member, Andrea Dawkins, says the locals she recently met at a public forum were more concerned about the price of pizza in Derby’s new restaurant than talking about the old forest wars.
The woodfire pizza at Hub is delicious, but it’s so hot that if you try to eat it too fast it will burn the roof of your mouth. It seems that amid the quick changes in town that there are still some things in Derby best taken slow.
Inside, locals who work in the logging industry sit beneath photos of mountain bikers riding through fern filled forests. Tourism operators come in for dinner and to sip craft beers that some locals describe as “newfangled grog”. People who are known as the local greenies also come in. No-one is screaming in anyone’s face about forestry.
This is the new Derby. The people living here have discovered a new way of negotiating the forest debate in Tasmania. They seem to have found the peaceful solution decades of political fighting couldn’t bring.