Motivated to get fit and indulge his need for adrenaline, one middle-aged writer sets out on an adventure to try surfing and mountain biking, accompanied by a Mazda CX-8
Story by Stephen Corby, Photography by Chris Sisarich
Aren’t you getting too old for this?” came the wisecrack question from my too-snarky-by-half teenager. After working out that I didn’t need to soap his tongue again, I realised he was referring to my nascent shift to a less-sedentary lifestyle. Apparently, the idea of your old man taking up genuinely active activities like surfing and mountain biking is a source of bemusement and embarrassment.
Partly, I think this is down to the prospect of a middle-aged adult showing off his rubbery figure in a wetsuit or, equally frightening, becoming a MAMIL (Middle Aged Man In Lycra). My argument, of course, is that it might be a good thing if either of these prospects was made less visually unappealing by me being more physically suitable.
I must admit I was driven to act not just by the fact that I find running around the streets, or sweating in a gym, about as exciting as counting grey hairs, but by some sobering facts in a New Scientist article on exercise. It quoted a US study that followed 5,000 adults to gauge whether physical activity reduced their risk of dying over the following five to eight years.
Those who managed 25 minutes of ‘moderate and vigorous’ activity a day reduced their risk of dying by 25 per cent, compared with the less-motivated participants. But those who were active for 100 minutes or more every day were 80 per cent less likely to die than the lazy ones. (There was also some interesting stuff about how exercise wards off cognitive decline by increasing blood flow to the brain, but it was the idea of staying alive that really grabbed me.)
“THERE’S AN ABSOLUTE CAVERN OF ROOM IN THE BACK OF THE MAZDA CX-8. IF I WERE A SERIOUS SURFER, I COULD FIT A WHOLE QUIVER OF BOARDS IN THERE”
My decision to be more active made, I wanted to come up with new challenges and, if possible, some that required travelling a reasonable distance so that I could weave my love of driving into this whole exercise thing.
Surfing on the beaches south of Sydney, which puts the Royal National Park and its winding, wondrous roads between my house and the physical activity, seemed an easy choice. Who doesn’t want to be good at surfing? From a distance it looks magical: dolphin-esque, wild and untamed. And you see so few portly surfers. Chris Hemsworth surfs a lot, apparently...
Then when you’re in the water and a wave lifts you and your board with a mix of surprising pace and effortless grace, and you somehow coordinate your movements and find yourself standing, the experience is revelatory.
Surfing is hard work – especially paddling out – but catching a wave just right is a magical feeling
The Mazda CX-8 feels lithe and alive here, its clever combination of dimensions – it’s got the long wheelbase of the CX-9 and the narrower width of a CX-5 – making perfect sense as it shrinks around you. It feels eager to corner and both light and talkative through the sporty steering wheel, a bit like a morning show host on wheels. Its voice is deeper, of course, with the reassuring rumble of that 2.2-litre diesel in front of you always providing plenty of torque to launch you up any climb.
Soon the landscape changes again as you dip down into more typical, tall-timbered eucalyptus forests, before you reach the turnoff to the suburb of Waterfall, at McKell Avenue; a short stretch of road that has just about every kind of corner an enthusiast could desire. And it’s here that the landscape changes again, becoming almost rainforest-like and wonderfully ancient.
After another 10 minutes of enjoyable steering through rain-fresh air, you burst out onto the staggering southern view of Stanwell Tops, where the brave enjoy hang-gliding off the steep cliffs. The highlight of the vista is the engineering marvel of Sea Cliff Bridge, jutting out into the ocean in mesmerising fashion. We zoom across it, open-mouthed, and find ourselves at a fabulously empty bay near Coledale, the sky the same bullet-grey as the sea, but the water still surprisingly warm (at least compared to the air temperature).
The next invigorating and hugely heart-pumping hour is spent feeling the kind of alive you only feel when danger is nipping at your frozen toes. Rocks, rips and raw exhaustion all threaten to engulf me before I collapse on the beach, bellowing – and looking – like a sea lion.
But what of the thrill, in those few magic moments when I got it right? It simply leaves other forms of exercise looking sweaty, silly and sad. I can really see why surfers are so fit – the paddling out alone is a proper workout – but it occurs to me that you might need to be quite fit before you can get good at it. Or just younger than me…
“THE HIGHLIGHT OF THE VISTA IS THE ENGINEERING MARVEL OF SEA CLIFF BRIDGE, JUTTING OUT INTO THE OCEAN IN MESMERISING FASHION. WE ZOOM ACROSS IT, OPEN-MOUTHED, AND FIND OURSELVES AT A FABULOUSLY EMPTY BAY NEAR COLEDALE”
The next morning I find myself shoulder-pressing a borrowed and slightly baffling bicycle onto the clever Mazda cycle rack I’ve fitted to the CX-8. It turns out that mountain bikes are quite vast, and complex, and expensive, and while you can get it in the boot, it makes life easier when you don’t have to. The racks also safely lock the machine in place, which is a relief, as I’m still getting over the fact that a bicycle can be worth $5,000.
We’re headed to Glenbrook, the closest entry point to the Blue Mountains National Park, just an hour from Sydney, and filled with more mountain-bike tracks than you can shake a MAMIL at. I’ve eschewed the Lycra, but I’m sporting a snazzy helmet, goggles and gloves. I thought these were an affectation, but it turns out you need them to protect your knuckles from school-cane-like punishment from the branches you hit, at speed.
The bike easily fits inside the CX-8, but the roof rack keeps dirt out of the cabin
Our destination is the Mount Portal Trail, and getting there requires us to do some light off-roading over what may have been a hard-packed clay surface a few days ago, but now resembles a combination of dirt and that weird pasty glue they used to give us at school. Even up the steepest and most rock-rutted climbs, the CX-8 makes this kind of back-country-road battling look easy, and it’s so quiet in the cabin that it’s almost eerie, so I drop the window to take in the rich scents of the forest.
We finally arrive at the track at a spectacular lookout over the Nepean River. It’s a view that, as a Sydneysider, I had not known and would never have found were I not exploring the world of off-road riding.
The mountain biking itself is, surprisingly, not just like riding a bike. On the one hand, everything is familiar, and there’s something instantly joyful about the happy childhood memories that operating a bicycle brings back for someone who hasn’t really done it for years.
But I don’t recall, as a child, attempting the kind of rugged riding, down steep tracks, over boulders, through incredibly narrow trails, along cliff edges, that we are going for here, although my inner 10-year-old loves it.
The helpful blokes at Blue Mountains Biking Adventures in Katoomba have given me some directions about where to go for spectacular scenery combined with a solid physical workout, and their advice is excellent. My breath is taken away alternately by physical effort and moments of at-one-with-nature awe. I’m also pretty much blown away by what a modern mountain bike can do. With their trick suspension, chunky tyres and incredible brakes, you feel like you can achieve anything and go anywhere.
It’s exciting in a whole different way to surfing, partly because I feel far less likely to drown. But in terms of a workout, it’s equally draining and satisfying.
We end the day with a serious slog along an unsealed, all-wheel-drive-only track called Mount Hay Road, which heads deep into the bush to a place called Butterbox Point. It’s another jaw-rearranging spot, with sunlight doing some of its best work on the cliffs and canyons, all covered in that magic blue tinge you get up here of an evening. But the real highlights are the trails that lead from here, which see me confident enough now to balance the bike delicately on a knife edge of rock, scree and scratching undergrowth, as I feel like I’m riding into the purpling sky.
I feel instantly at one with this whole mountain-biking thing; it’s as if I’ve done it before, like it’s an experience already within me somehow, and I love it.
Much like surfing, I think it’s something I’m going to do more of, and enjoy a lot more when it’s summer. By which time my beach body should be ready…
In the past, the choice between two excellent cars – the mid-sized CX-5 and the full-sized seven-seat CX-9 SUV – was tough, but Mazda has now combined the two to make the CX-8. Rear legroom is excellent, because of that CX-9-equalling 2,930mm wheelbase, while it’s still easy to manoeuvre, thanks to its 1,840mm width (the same as the smaller CX-5).
The inside is both beautiful and practical, with plenty of room, 12-volt and USB points, and tri-zone air conditioning. Under the bonnet is a powerful 2.2-litre twin-turbo diesel engine, driving all four wheels for extra grip in slippery conditions. The CX-8 also features Mazda’s ingenious i-Activ All-Wheel-Drive, which uses sensors to predict changes in road surface before your tyres even hit them – and to react accordingly.
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