Jenolan Caves

Who Was the First to Ride a Motorcycle Up the Jenolan Zig Zag?

February 10, 2021

Motor cycles in front of the Grand Arch in 1911

Usually every February, Bathurst hosts the Bathurst Street and Custom Motorcycle Show.  Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, the show has been cancelled this year.  But February is still a great time of year for bikers to tour the regions of NSW, including Jenolan - a popular destination for bikers since motor-cycles first came to Australia.

In the late 1800s, bicycle manufacturers in Europe and in the US, started experimenting with motorised bicycles and tricycles. Time and reliability trials were being held.  Reporting on English cycling in January 1898, Perth’s Enquirer and Commercial News mentioned that English cycle racer, John William Stocks had become an “ardent user of the motor tricycle” and predicted that motor tricycles will be the next big thing[i].

Mademoiselle Serpolette

Motorised Bicycles and Tricycles

The first motorised cycle to appear in Australia was a tricycle, built by the French Gladiator Cycle Company. For an exhibition in Sydney, the motor-tricycle was ridden by a young woman, named Madamoiselle Anthelmina Serpolette.  Wearing a well-cut Parisian outfit, with a divided skirt, she rode the motor-tricycle around the Sydney Cricket Ground. Afterwards, in Centennial Park, she rode around on a 2-wheeled motor-cycle, followed by an enthusiastic crowd of cyclists, until one fan accidently collided with her, sending her to hospital.[ii]

15 Miles per Hour

In November 1900, the Lieutenant-Governor of Victoria had a dispatch delivered by a very early motorcycle to Lord Beauchamp, Governor of NSW. It was part experiment, and part publicity by an Australian bicycle manufacturer who was just starting to build motor-cycles. After a couple of very discouraging breakdowns, and getting chased by a bull, the 2 riders, a journalist and W. J. Elliott of the Austral Cycle Agency, got as far as Wagga, before they gave up and took a train the rest of the way to Sydney.  But they proudly reported that their motor-cycles ran at the astonishing speed of 15 miles per hour, on good roads.[iii]

Less expensive than motorcars, motor-cycles quickly became popular in Australia. Back then, anyone could drive a motor vehicle on public roads without a license. Unfortunately, a motor-cycle fatality was reported in November 1903, after a 14-year-old boy drove into a fence – one of the very earliest motorcycle fatality in Australia.[iv]

Competitions and Clubs

In October 1905, the Daily Telegraph announced a contest.  The article says, “Only Victorians have nominated in this instance, although there is a large number of motorcycles in this state.” The contest featured motorcycle brands that few would recognise today – the 2hp Minerva, the 3.5hp Griffon and the 3.5hp Brown. [v]

Motorcycle clubs were springing up all over Australia, such as the Pioneer Motor Cycle Club [vi], established in 1905, the Peel Motorcycle Club (Tamworth) and the Sydney Motorcycle Club – each club holding competitions and events.

By 1906, both cars and motor-cycles were growing in popularity. But it was early days, and there were still plenty of horses and horse-drawn vehicles on the roads – especially on the way to Jenolan Caves.[vii]

By 1907, Jenolan was recognised as a fun and challenging destination for motorcyclists. For example, in Sept 1907 the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the Amateur Motor Cycle Club was organising a tour to Jenolan Caves on the 8-Hour Day (now called Labour Day) holiday.[viii]  By 1911, there were 1,805 registered motor-cycle riders in Australia.[ix]

Conquering the Jenolan Zig Zag

Edith Road - the steep, winding road out of the Jenolan Valley in the direction of Oberon - posed a serious challenge to the riders of the day. Then in December, the Sydney Morning Herald announced the momentous news that one determined motor cyclist had at last conquered the hill, “L. J. Astley, who is well-known as a westerntraveller for Bennett and Barkell, Ltd., reports thathe has succeeded in climbing the notorious Caves Hill on the Oberon side with a touring model F. E.Rudge...The hill referred to is reported to be about 2½ miles long,with grades of 1 in 6 and 1 in 8. There area number of zigzag turns or hairpin bends. It was reported that this is the first motorcycle that hassuccessfully ridden up this hill.”[x]

Motorcycles Amazingly Popular

When WW1 broke out, motor-cycle clubs raised money to support the war effort, such as this motor reliability trial, organised by the Bathurst Motor Cycle Club, which took riders over 122 miles, including Jenolan Caves.[xi]

When WW1 ended, motor cyclist clubs joined in the general celebration. In July 1919, the Arrow reported, “To-morrow the Motor Cycle Club of N.S.W. will hold its Peace Day reliability trial to Jenolan Caves, leaving the new rooms at 9 a.m. The club invites the members of all clubs to participate. The conditions in the trial are fair to all. In the evening at the Caves House it is proposed to hold a bumper concert and dance.”[xii]

Jenolan was doing well in 1920. After Easter, the Daily Telegraph reported record visitation and “Last Saturday over eight motor-cars and scores of motor-cycles with sidecars brought 700 visitors. The high cost of living does not seem to exercise any adverse influence on sightseers and pleasure-seekers.”[xiii]

The following year, Table Talk, printed this lovely review by a motor cycling couple, “One of the most glorious trips was from Katoomba to the Jenolan Caves, a fine run of fifty miles, which our machines did before 9.30am. Those wonderful cave really require a four or five days’ stay to see their beauties, and the surroundings, and I would advise all tourists to spend that time there.”[xiv]

Throughout the 20s, motorcycle clubs continued to organise rides that included Jenolan. But different brands were gaining favour.  A 1923 Sydney Morning Herald article announced an upcoming reliability trial from Sydney to Bathurst, Jenolan Caves, Goulburn and back to Sydney. But instead of Browns, Griffons, Minervas and Rudges, entrants were riding mostly Harleys, many with sidecars. Riders also rode motorcycles made by Ace, Indian and Sunbeam.[xv]

We know that motor cyclists went other places too – not just Jenolan Caves.  But in those days, other tourist destinations were much fewer and farther between, and Jenolan was (and still is) a spectacular attraction, with accommodation and food at the end of an exciting, challenging and picturesque ride. Motorcycles have come a long way in the last 100 years, and we still see lots of motorbike riders coming through the Grand Arch, including some members of Jenolan’s staff.

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4655 Jenolan Caves Road, Jenolan Caves, Blue Mountains NSW. Ph: 1300 76 33 11 or +61 2 6359 3911

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