Finding Flow In Derby

Finding Flow In Derby

Words - Alice Rose King (@alice_rose_king)
Photos - Ben Cirulis (@bencirulis)

Picture a mountain biker carving down a forest trail, an artist absorbed in painting, a race car driver drifting around a corner, or a writer scribbling words onto the page. What do they have in common? They’re all searching for flow.

But what, exactly, is ‘flow’? Different people describe it in different ways (such as ‘being in the zone’) but typically the flow state is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, losing the sense of space and time.

Photo by:  Ben Cirulis

Photo by: Ben Cirulis

Author and psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi states, “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times…The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

Back to our mountain biker. That’s me. (Sadly not the race car driver though – at least, not yet!) And the forest trail? That’s in Derby, a small town in the north-west of Tasmania. Although I’m barely aware of any of that right now. Instead, my world consists only of the next corner, and then the one after that. Wind and sunlight on my skin. Heartbeat pulsing through my veins. No thoughts, just existing in this perfect, immediate moment. Flow. 

And it seems I’m not the only one flow-seeking in Derby. Four years ago, the first 20 km of the ‘Blue Derby’ trail network opened in this tiny ex-tin mining town, a joint tourism initiative between local councils and the federal government. Now there are over 100 km of tracks to explore, with mountain biking visitors booming to 30,000 during 2017 when Derby hosted a round of the World Enduro series – well and truly putting it on the mountain biking map.

Photo by:  Ben Cirulis

Photo by: Ben Cirulis

Which begs the question: why travel all the way to Tasmania? Can’t I find flow on my local loop? Of course I can. But as I found out, what makes Derby special goes beyond flow, and it doesn’t finish at the end of the trail.

I fall halfway in love the moment I drive into the township. Historic weatherboard houses perch on a granite studded hillside, overlooking the Ringarooma river. All around are hillsides covered in stringybark gums and yellow flowering wattle, with hidden pockets of lush, shaded rainforest.

And the moment I start pedalling? That’s when I fall the rest of the way. I was expecting good riding. What I wasn’t expecting is to be immersed in such incredible landscape. The trails hug the land like a lover, curving around treeferns, whispering with waterfalls, flirting with glimpses of the view below. Sure, there are downhill runs made for maximum shredding. But there are also sunlit streams with conveniently placed logs, inviting you to stop, and rest, and just be for a while.

Finally, the siren call of coffee lures me out of the bush and back to civilization. As I pedal along the cozy main street, I notice a common theme. Bike hire, bike workshop, bike shuttles. Cafes with cycling puns in their names. Showers for mountain bikers (have your gold coins ready). Bike parking outside every business. Houses with bike sculptures out front. People riding their bikes rather than driving cars. I sit down at the café to a mountain biking themed menu, and my waitress is a mountain biker (of course!)

It dawns on me: this is what a mountain biking town looks like. Derby’s main business, its lifeblood, is bicycles. Most of the people who work, live or visit here now do so because they love riding. The net effect is a sense of instant community and genuine shared passion, as if everyone I bump into is just a riding buddy waiting to happen.

To understand why this feels so unique, you only need to look at how, despite the boom of mountain bike tourism in New Zealand (which brings in 25 million dollars annually to Queenstown alone), Australia has trailed behind in realizing the potential benefits. Mountain bikers are often relegated to the land nobody else needs, or wants, trails taking us on tours of sewage treatment plants, rubbish tips, shooting ranges and even nuclear reactors. If this is the alternative, no wonder riders are flocking to ‘#getdownandderby’.

But Derby is more than just a mountain biking mecca. In a state which has a long history of warring views on whether to consume or protect its natural resources (mining, forestry and agriculture supporters clashing with conservationist ‘greenies’), the Blue Derby Mountain Bike Project is an incredibly successful case study for eco-tourism. 

Like many Tassie towns, Derby sprung up around tin mining in 1870, reaching a population of 3000 in its heyday. Disaster struck when the Briseis Dam burst in 1929, flooding the mine, devastating the town and killing 14 people. While the dam eventually reopened, it never reached the same level of output and closed in 1948, seeing the population dwindle to 173. Derby nearly became a ghost town, receiving a final blow in 2011 with the collapse of the forestry industry.

But since the first mountain bike tyres hit dirt in 2015, it’s gone from ‘region in decline’ to ‘must-visit destination’. From the original $3.1 million investment of Council and Federal Government grant money, the influx of trail tourists generates an estimated $30 million-a-year return.

Results like this show clearly that eco-tourism is not just a feel-good or ethical approach, but a profitable approach. With 360,000 hectares of native forest around the state soon to be made available for logging in 2020 (some of it bordering the Blue Derby trails), hopefully seeing Derby’s success will help forge another path forward for Tasmania.

In fact, ‘Derbyfication’ is spreading already. Just an hour down the road at St Helens, the council is planning for a $4.7 million network of mountain bike trails to boost tourism in the area. And in the south end of the state, bikers are flocking to the newly opened Maydena, an ex-forestry town turned gravity-focused mountain bike park near Hobart.

Standing stand high up on Atlas trail overlooking the valley, I can see a long streak of yellow wattle trees blazing their way towards the town below. The first trees to regrow along the flood-gouged hillside. Now, every Spring, they bloom in memorial to the lives and livelihoods lost all those years ago. But I like to think that now they bloom in celebration of Derby’s future too – a little town which has finally found its flow.

Photo by:  Ben Cirulis

Photo by: Ben Cirulis

Alice King is an ex-athlete turned adventurer, Alice has a passion for all things outdoors, saying “When we grow up, we don’t outgrow the playground, the playground just gets bigger.” She shares her explorations through storytelling, helping ignite a spark of adventure in others.

Alice and Ben explored Derby with the Blue Derby Pods Ride Experience.

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