Riding Bikes With The Wanta Aboriginal Corporation
Bikes aren’t just for good times, they also have the power to do good things. The Wanta Aboriginal Corporation are sharing the stoke of mountain biking with the people of a remote Australian community, with the help of Simon Blake.
Let’s start at the beginning, who are you and what's your background?
I'm Simon Blake and I'm currently working with the Wanta Aboriginal Corporation, with the support of Marin Bikes.
I was born in Sydney, Australia and have spent time working all over the world. After leaving school I traveled to Kenya to train and compete as a long-distance runner and then went on to work as an outdoor instructor in Alberta, Canada and later in Victoria, Australia. During my time in Victoria I developed the mountain bike Level 4 and diploma qualifications with the help of the team at Outdoor Education Group.
After my time in Victoria, I was offered a role with the Kenyan Riders Cycling Team, via my old coach Rob Higley. They were based in Iten, "The Home of Champions", 2300m above sea level. The Kenyan Riders team is still in operation and has now linked up with Team Amani to create opportunities for East African cyclists in a number of ways, including putting on the Migration Gravel Race and Evolution Gravel Race in Kenya and Tanzania.
And how did you end up back in Australia?
When COVID started I was reluctant to leave Kenya and nine years of developmental work. But I had some good conversations with my sisters back in Australia, and ended up on a flight with a bag of cycling kit and a gravel bike. I was unable to get back to my house in Iten in time, so I left my stuff behind.
At the time in Australia, all the Outdoor Education jobs had been put on hold and many of my friends lost their jobs. My brother sent me a job vacancy which involved working in the Northern Territory in an indigenous community. I felt living somewhere remote and not in a city could be a good idea while coronavirus was around.
After a few interviews over the phone, and a job interview in a noisy bus shelter in country Victoria, I flew up to Darwin, and did another two weeks of isolation in a small hotel room. I did try a few times to “go for a ride” in the 2.8m square area beside the bed. I fell off lots as it’s a pretty tight circle. Unfortunately it didn’t show up on Strava as the ride area was too small!
Next I moved to Lajamanu community at the top of the Tanami Desert in Central Australia and slowly figured out my role with Wanta Aboriginal Corporation. In November 2021 I was approached by Jaru Jinta (a local Lajamanu community group) to get a bicycle program started for the youth there. This involved getting hold of bikes, leading bike rides, teaching bicycle mechanics and building a multi-use trail for the community to use on bikes or for walking and running.
So what’s it like out there?
Lajamanu community is a long way from anywhere. Katherine, the nearest town, is a six hours drive away. The population is around 700 Warlpiri people that were moved here years ago when mines were set up on Warlpiri land.
The community sits at the northern end of the Tanami desert. It’s flat but still has trees and scrub around, it’s not just sand. The wet season transforms the landscape, and there can be a lot of water around, sometimes cutting off access.
School attendance is quite low, and creating activities to excite the youth to keep them out of trouble and encourage them to learn is one of the roles of Wanta in Lajamanu.
Tell us more about the Wanta Aboriginal Corporation.
Matt Smith set up Wanta around 10 years ago to address issues with students in remote indigenous communities, including low school attendance. It aims to enable a brighter future for indigenous youth.
It works with upper primary and secondary students and offers a range of sport activities, reward trips, bush trips, cooking classes, driving license training, classroom support, drum beat lessons, student pickups and access to an Academy Room.
Initially, Wanta used sports to encourage kids to attend school. The program has grown a lot over the years, adapting to what needs we and the communities see. People's health can suffer here in Lajamanu due to a lack of exercise and diet choices. Another aim is having the students do physical activities that they enjoy and making them aware of the benefits of taking care of your own health.
Wanta is the Warlpiri word for the 'Sun'. The name of the organization was agreed to after consultation with the community members of Yuendumu.
So how did the bike program happen?
Back in 2018 I met Matt VanEnkevort at Eurobike in Germany. I was there with the Bike Aid Continental Cycling team and the Kenyan Riders had four cyclists racing for Bike Aid at the time. Matt and I discussed what the Kenyan Riders were doing and the state of cycling in East Africa.
When I was asked to set up the bike program in Lajamanu I reached out to Matt to see if Marin Bikes would be keen to support the program in any way. Matt put me in touch with Bicycles Online, who distribute Marin Bikes in Australia.
Marin Bikes and Bicycles Online have been fantastic to work with, and thanks to them we have better bikes that will allow the program to grow in the future. We can ride more technical trails and know the bikes will be able to handle the challenge.
How has the bike program been received by the community?
The students are VERY excited about having the bikes at Lajamanu school. I get asked every day by students, in the shop or around the community if it's bike ride day today. We have had some fun races out on the trails and open plains. Even going head-to-head in races to see who's the strongest, racing for a bag of grapes from the store!
It's been great to get the youth out to the country doing physical activity which is making them stronger and healthier. The students also have the motivation to listen and learn how to use the bikes.
A lot of the adults who have seen the bikes are impressed by them too. The bike program has been a great opportunity for the school teachers to join the after-school rides, and allows the teachers and students to relate to each other in other ways than just the classroom environment.
You’ve said that you’re building a trail in the area - can you tell us a bit about that process?
Yes, we finally received the Sacred Site Clearance Certificate.
The aim of the trail is to encourage anyone in the community to exercise - an "If you build it, they will come" sort of idea. We are linking existing wild donkey and horse trails together to create a 10km loop that will have a number of exit points on the way and can be ridden in either direction. The trail will be singletrack, but will be marked well so people don't have to be concerned about getting lost.
We're looking into ways of clearing the scrub to link the existing trails together by employing local community members, working with the council and the local depot to use some of their machines if need be. As the area is pretty flat we will be taking advantage of any change in elevation and make the trail as engaging and interesting as possible.
You’re planning some trips to more technical trails - how is that going?
There are some great trails in Katherine, Darwin and Alice Springs, and some good communities riding and taking care of them.
I plan to take students to ride some of those as part of a Wanta trip and show them trails with more obstacles, elevation and gravity in some beautiful places.
There are still some hurdles to work around with the Department of Education’s COVID rules and excursions, but we will find a way.
Can you tell us a bit about some of the people you’ve worked with?
Walter is the school engagement officer at Lajamanu School, and Liam works with me at Wanta Aboriginal Corporation. Both Walter and Liam have been joining me on rides with the students to make sure the group is safe.
It’s been great having their energy and an extra set of eyes on the rides. Walter has a mean wheelie and Liam’s time playing first-grade Aussie rules football means he is still pretty quick on a bike! We’re looking to have more of the young adults from the community join us on rides as ride leaders and get them trained up with Aus Cycling to gain their ride leader qualifications.
How can people learn more, get involved and help?
We’re always looking for new experiences to expose the youth to show them a different way of life. Setting up trips to different trails around Australia would be great. Having some local knowledge in that area, where to stay, and where to ride to make the most of our time there!