Apr 1 2019

Alicia Norton

Take a drive through many country towns across South Australia and you’ll find that sadly, most have one thing in common; a high street lined with closed business and boarded up store fronts. These once bustling towns, that were a hive of activity bringing together members of surrounding communities have become ghost towns; places of hardship and often times of despair.

Melrose, the oldest town in the Flinders Ranges, is located 240km north of Adelaide, South Australia. Nestled beneath Mount Remarkable, the stunning mountain ranges provide the perfect setting for what has now grown to be one of the state’s top mountain biking destinations. This has allowed businesses to thrive, and local and new comers alike to follow a passion that also pays the bills.

Melrose has faced many of the same challenges common to regional destinations, but a majority of locals agree with the sentiment that in order to stay viable, their small town must be able to provide employment opportunities – and travelling down the tourism path has been a generally wise choice.

It hasn’t been a completely smooth ride though. Despite the 2018 tourist season being one of the busiest so far for this small town of 400 locals, bikes haven’t always been so openly welcomed around the community. Fourth generation local, Phil Nottle explained “some people have moved away because they didn’t like the changes but more have purchased and built houses because of the vibrancy of the town.” Phil, who is a member of Bike Melrose, a local not for profit group who work on building a sustainable future for bike tourism in the region continues, “the extra people bikes have brought to Melrose means we still have two hotels open. The town has a good vibe and is going ahead unlike many other small towns.” Phil enjoys the laid-back Rail Trail ride on a Sunday, a shift from his day to day work as an earth moving contractor. Bike Melrose president and member for the District Council of Mount Remarkable, Don Norton agrees, explaining that “there’s a lot of potential for growth in a town like Melrose”. The people of Melrose hope that their small town can take some inspiration from the success of Derby in Tasmania, where it is estimated that a $3.1million investment in the mountain biking infrastructure has resulted in an annual economic impact of more than $30 million and a guest count of around 30,000 visitors each year.

An economic impact report is expected to be completed in mid-2019 which will help to provide an insight into how the work of the local mountain biking community is already benefiting the town. Don Norton is confident that the investment in additional infrastructure could have countless flow-on benefits; “it’s been demonstrated in a number of locations in Australia already, mountain biking attracts visitors who have money to spend. The impact of this spend could open up job opportunities for young people who may otherwise leave the area to pursue employment”.

But just what is it about Melrose that makes it a promising destination, ripe with opportunity? With a colourful history and an industry built predominantly around

agriculture, the town is filled with families who have been there for generations. Chances are that most people you’ll meet can point you in the direction of a street named after one of their relatives – and you won’t have to walk far to find it. The main township can all be easily accessed by foot, with two pubs to choose from and a view of the incredible Mount Remarkable wherever you go. It’s this view – and the spirit of the people that truly make the town special. Mount Remarkable is simply that; remarkable. Many of the bike trails snake along its base, providing a picturesque and unique environment to ride amongst – offering yet another point of difference from other mountain biking tourism destinations around Australia.

Darren McCallum is a fourth generation local with family ties throughout the district and relatives scattered through the region’s history.

Despite having spent his life living in the states mid-north, Darren also recognises that living in remote locations can deliver its residents with challenges, one of which is a limitation in the sporting activities that are on offer.

In many remote locations, opportunities for exercising as a part of a group are often limited to traditional team sports; football for the blokes and netball for the women. Those members of the community who aren’t interested in these sports can end up not engaging with physical activity or becoming isolated due to a lack of opportunity to connect. Phil Nottle agrees, explaining that bike riding has provided an alternative; “For me not being interested in traditional sports like football it has allowed me to get some exercise which is enjoyable”

When it comes to social connection, rural communities can surprisingly be very isolating– especially when you take into account that so much small-town socialising occurs in the front bar of the local pub.

It’s recently been highlighted that loneliness and social isolation are causing health concerns across all age groups at an increasing rate – it’s clear that providing communities with opportunities to socialise is key to sustaining mental and physical health. Proving members of rural communities to meet like-minded people without loading them up with booze can seem like a challenge – but for the town of Melrose, bikes were the solution, as Darren explains, “it has given me an outlet to unwind from work and I have met a great group of people”.

John Potts and his wife Christine owned a licensed café in Melrose before the town was widely known for its bike riding. For a long time watching from the sidelines as the activity began to take hold of the community. After past negative experiences with visiting bike riders and a pre-existing back problem, which, according to doctors meant he should not ride a bike, John spent five long years listening to the riders, watching them enjoy themselves and quietly wishing he could join the fun. One sunny day, being totally fed up, he asked Richard Bruce, owner of the local bike shop if he could borrow a bike. The initial ride didn’t do any harm to his back so a year ago he bought one for himself and now, a year later, with no additional back problems, his health has improved significantly. His is a common story; bike riding is a surprisingly accessible physical activity at all ages and the benefits that it can provide to the aging population – especially those who gave up traditional competitive sport some years ago, are huge.

John explains that within the town there is “a general acceptance of the bikes” however this is due to those passionate members of the community having “dogged determination in the face of a mountain of negativity” in addition to the “large investments in infrastructure” that the developments have brought to the town.

Not only has the activity provided a healthy and accessible opportunity for the community to connect, it has also provided jobs in a region that has found itself struggling in recent years. Tourism is steadily growing for the town, with regular annual events bringing in funds that have kept the towns businesses afloat. Over the last three years bike riding has increased significantly to the point that you can always find a bike rider visiting Melrose.

Darren, who calls neighbouring town Booleroo home, explains that the hive of activity created by this has made the town a central meeting place for the district, “we now spend most weekends in Melrose. Booleroo is off the main road and therefore lacking tourism” he stated. Phil Nottle also shares this view; “Look at how lively the town is, especially on weekends compared to other towns around us.”

Regular Saturday morning rides are now filled with a cross section of the community. You’ll find farmers whose relatives were some of the first European settlers to farm the land here, mixed with new comers, drawn to Melrose by a love to riding.

Phil sums it up well, with his experience living in Melrose for many years providing him great insight; “Change can be scary, and resistance is inevitable, but in my view the positives have far outweighed the negatives”

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