Words and pics: Tim Robson
As we roll up behind two other riders on the winding dirt trail, my guide Tam slow down noticeably. Isn’t that nice, I think. She’s giving them some room so we can ride faster.
Suddenly she slows rapdily and veers left onto a barely marked track in the Tasmanian rainforest, motioning for me to follow. “We can’t let anyone see us,” she loud-whispers, as we ride further into the bush.
In 20 seconds we emerge into a clearing, where it looks for all the world like a benevolent alien race has beamed down a brace of small, curvaceous dwellings for its exclusive use.
We are virtually in the epicentre of a large mountain bike trail network that rivals anything currently in existence in the world… and nobody knows we’re here.
Welcome to the Blue Derby Pods Experience, the brainchild of young couple Steve and Tara Howell, who saw an opportunity to add a premium… no, scratch that, a completely unique accommodation experience in the midst of a reboot of Tasmanian tourism.
Derby is perched to the south of Launceston, which is a spirited 90-minute drive away. Once a dilapidated, fading remnant of the long-gone era of tin mining, the town has been reborn, thanks to the addition of a mountain bike trail network that’s bringing riders from all over the world to sample their truly decadent delights.
More than 250km of dedicated trails have been lovingly etched into a stunning variety of terrain around Derby and its surrounds, with trails like Blue Tier immersing rookies and pros alike in surrounds that Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson would reject for being too lush and picturesque.
In the midst of this impossible beauty lies the pods, four prefabricated structures that were virtually walked onto the site over six months in early 2016 by Steve, Tara and their family.
Their timing was fortuitous – the couple, who have a distinct environmental bent – were deep into planning their premium eco retreat when plans were announced for $4 million of state and federal funding to build the first stage of the Blue Derby trail network.
A second impetous was the impending arrival of the world’s mountain biking media for a round of the Enduro World Series in April. “We told our builders we needed to finish two weeks ahead of schedule… which they weren’t thrilled about,” laughs Steve.
The pods are complemented by a large communal space known as the hub, which houses a long dining table – recovered from a piece of timber stored at Steve’s parent’s house – a lounge area and two walls of sliding glass that brings the Tasmanian wilderness right inside the building.
The area is large and sparsely furnished, but is warm, soft and relaxing, and allows the guests – the pods have a capacity of two people each, in either a single or twin configuration – room to chat or to find their own space.
The pods themselves are quite unlike anything I’ve ever stayed in. The curved, bare pine-sheeted walls are frame a simply enormous window that makes up the facing wall of the pod, again bringing nature as close as it’s possible to be without a canvas flysheet.
“We had to really fight to get those windows,” says Steve, adding that it took months to find a glazier to work with them. “Even the opening mechanisms are custom-made.”
And there’s evidence of that attention to detail throughout the pods. They are almost confrontingly simple – there’s no air con, for example, and no power points – but the huge bed is the focus of the room, and it’s an amazing place to retreat to after a day of rough-and-tumble playing in the forest.
And play you must; this is a ride retreat, and Steve and his team know every inch of the Blue Derby network. The trails are built around a difficulty grade system of green (easiest) to black (only pros need apply), and the team can cater to both ends of the spectrum on the same trip.
As a lifelong mountain biker, I’ve simply never experienced ANYTHING like Blue Derby. In fact, riding the region’s blue riband 17km-long Blue Tier trail feels like it’s bringing my entire 30-year riding career full circle.
I’m learning new skills, bringing old ones to the fore and revelling in a hand-built ribbon of dark, impossibly grippy dirt that feels like it’s custom-made for my skill set. It’s actually quite an emotional experience.
The pods welcome riders back with showers that – again – back onto nature, before the HUB lures us in with the promise of local gourmet produce that’s prepared by some the region’s best providores.
Our baby potatoes in salsa verde come from nearby Scottsdale, while the organic greens hail from Yorktown. The confit duck is – or was – a local, and the Devil’s Corner Resolution pinot noir is a standout in a state famed for the light red.
On the surface, it’s easy to be bemused by the seeming lack of facilities within the pods… but really, that’s not the point, and that sense of bemusement about the lack of window blinds and a mini-bar rapidly disappears.
The pods offers a rare chance to step away from the world, and the ability to focus inwards for a couple of days. You’re sharing time with like-minded people in an amazing environment with incredible food and wine, and you have access to the best mountain bike trails on earth.
Riding a mountain bike around the Blue Derby trails is a money-cannot-buy experience – literally, as they are free for anyone to access. If you’ve ever ridden off road even half-seriously, this is simply a must-do experience from anywhere on the planet, and the Blue Derby Pods Ride isa truly unique way to experience them.
Cost $2150 for three days/two nights (meals, mountain bike shuttles and gear rental included) (high season)
Best time of year – Tasmania has generally mild summers but cold winters, but the trails can be ridden all year. The pods offer bookings all year
How to get there – fly direct to Launceston Airport from most Australian capitals and meet the tour in nearby Launceston.