Some of the 100 or so bike riders who arrived in Alice Springs had visited the area before, and some were encountering the Australian outback for the very first time.
All of them, however, were about to experience it in a pretty unforgettable way.
They were about to take on Bicycle Network's Great Outback Escape, an eight-day bike adventure through the dusty, dry and dazzling red centre of the country.
Incredible natural landmarks, lifelong memories and new friendships awaited. And even demoralising headwinds, relentless blowflies and sticky-fingered dingoes wouldn’t deter the group from the finish line.
Day one was for arriving and easing into life in the outback. The contingent was welcomed in Alice Springs, on the traditional lands of the Arrernte people, by an equally excited Bicycle Network team.
A locally sourced barbecue dinner at the magnificent Earth Sanctuary offered plenty of fuel for the journey ahead. The spectacular sunset over the MacDonnell Ranges provided the perfect backdrop for meets, greets and gourmet meats.
The group was treated to a post-dinner stargazing session, taking in the night sky through a 4-metre telescope that allowed detailed views of a Victoria-sized patch of the Moon’s surface.
Our first day on the bike saw riders set out from the stunning Glen Helen Gorge within the West MacDonnell National Park, and venture across rolling hills to take in the Ochre Pits and Ormiston Gorge.
Spirits were cruelled by a shocking headwind, but for those willing, a dip at the spectacular Ellery Creek Big Hole was the perfect reward after the 60km ride.
Dinner really turned it on back at the hotel where the crew welcomed Tanya Heaslip, a local author who shared her experiences growing up in Alice Springs.
Day three began with a bus ride out to the stunning Standley Chasm, a place of deep cultural significance to the Arrernte people.
A 20-minute walk through the breathtaking gorge was a great way to warm up the legs for the 70km of riding ahead.
This included a lunch stop at awe-inspiring Simpson's Gap and a relaxing 30km stretch of riding along the paved bike path back into Alice Springs, before a visit from guest speaker Kumalie Riley, an Aboriginal leader in the local community.
With no riding scheduled for day four, folks were free to rest their legs on the bus ride to the magnificent Kings Canyon, and get them moving once again with a wander around its spellbinding sandstone cliffs on the three-hour rim walk.
Some took part in helicopter rides, others took it easy for the afternoon. Meanwhile, one unlucky rider fell victim to a cunning dingo who ran off with his helmet. Nevertheless, sunset drinks on the viewing platform were the perfect way to cap off the experience.
Day five provided another opportunity to take in the majesty of Kings Canyon with a sunrise visit to the Light-Towers installation, a colourful stand of light-filled columns rising out of the red earth, ahead of a 48km pedal to Kings Creek Station, where the riders were greeted by some furry and friendly locals.
From there, it was onto the bus for an afternoon of travel to Yulara, our new base to explore the incredible Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.
Riders were up bright and early for a self-guided meander through the magical Field of Lights installation on day six, followed by a bushman's breakfast in the dunes at sunrise.
Admiring Uluru from afar was a tantalising precursor to what would be unforgettable day on the bike.
The ride began in Yulara and took us on a winding journey towards the sacred sandstone monolith, its famed outline bobbing from one side of the road to the other as each pedal stroke pulled it that little bit closer.
After arriving at its base, riders were free to appreciate Uluru's intricate detail and astonishing features at their own pace through a self-guided loop, before beginning the return leg to Yulara.
The afternoon's activities included Segway tours, museum visits, garden walks and camel rides, with many looking to keep some fuel in the tank for the following day's riding - a 104km return trip to Kata Tjuta, the otherworldly cluster of striking domed rocks also known as The Olgas.
Having fought some tough battles with the outback winds earlier in the week, many kept a close eye on the weather forecast to see what the tour's biggest day of riding had in store. For some, a bus to the midway point of the ride, the car park at Kata Tjuta's enchanting Walpa Gorge, was the perfect compromise.
Whether they'd started here or tackled the full day of pedalling, riders rolled back into Yulara completely enamoured with their outback experience, and with a new appreciation for the red centre.
"Riding here allows you to breathe in Central Australia and see another dimension of it, while still seeing all the special places and taking in all the sights," says Marianna Pisani, from Melbourne. "Being on a bike gives you a much deeper experience."
Bound by a sense of adventure, a distaste for headwinds and a once-in-a-lifetime experience far from home, we gathered one last time for the renowned Sounds of Silence dinner on the final night, a fitting outro to an unforgettable week of riding across the outback.
"You never get sick of the red Earth, the white ghost trees and the incredible rock formations," says Deb Tovey, from Apollo Bay. "You'd think it would be quite monotonous but it is the complete opposite. Honestly, I thought Uluru might be a bit of a disappointment, you've just seen so many photos of it growing up in Australia, but instead I was flabbergasted by it. Rather than underwhelmed, I was completely overwhelmed."
Bicycle Network would like to thank the local communities, the bus drivers, the hotel and restaurant staff and everyone else who made this unforgettable, 330-km adventure possible. And huge kudos to our dependable mechanic Troy, who proved just as adept at hosting trivia as he was at fixing bikes, and our hard-working truck drivers Dwayne and Chris who were there with the precious cargo wherever it was needed.
From the Great Outback Escape Team – Caitlin, Chelsea, Dana, Jaime, Ali, Julia, Lauren, Louis, Mark, Nick, Sam and Steve – thank you to all the riders who came along for the adventure of a lifetime. Like you, it’s not one we’ll forget anytime soon.
This article was made possible by the support of Bicycle Network's members who enable us to make bike riding better in Australia.