TOUGH RIDE, TOUGHER RIDER – Donald Mackay and his Dux bike

Donald Mackay's Dux bike - no gears, no brakes, no suspension.

So you thought your morning ride was hard? Did your bike have gears? Did you carry 25kg of baggage? Did you have to fire your revolver to ward off marauding Aborigines? Ha! You got nothing on Donald Mackay!

I confess I’d never heard of Donald Mackay until I saw his bike on show in Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. It’s a nineteenth century Dux ‘safety bicycle’. Safety is a relative term in cycling. This bike had no gears, and no suspension.

Penny farthing, Powerhouse museum, Sydney

The ‘fixie’ as displayed had no tyres either, but the Dunlop pneumatic tyres invented in 1896 would have been fitted originally.

It was safer than the penny farthing that preceded it – stability matters when you don’t have roads to ride on, and it’s a long way to fall off a penny farthing.

In 1899 Donald Mackay set the record time for cycling around the Australian coastline, riding 17,703km (11,000 miles) in 240 days, 7 hours and 30 minutes.

He wasn’t the first to do it; Arthur Richardson completed his circuit a month ahead of Mackay, but Mackay was faster.

Interviewed about his feat, Mackay told tales of near-death experiences from hunger and thirst, and encounters with hostile Aborigines.

‘Suddenly a spear came whizzing over our heads, and we at once opened fire on the dusky gents. We took pot shots wherever we saw a head appear above the boulders. For a while things looked rather dicey, but the revolvers had a good effect, and the blacks decamped.’

Er, not quite politically correct, but those were different times.

Mackay also had some advice for those tempted to emulate him:

‘The privations endured are worse than the trip from Earth to Hell. The first thing to contend with is ordinary sickness; next malarial fever or dysentery; last, but not least, your bicycle smashing up, plus the awful perishes for want of food and water. Mosquitos, ants, flies, heat, dirt, and other ‘entrees’ are included without charge. No: there are plenty of other places where the cyclist can enjoy life, without regretting every day that he was ever born to be such a fool as to tempt his Creator.’

Thanks, Powerhouse Museum for displaying the bike and bringing the story to my attention, and thanks for the information.

Are there any comparable bike feats, ancient or modern, in Australia or elsewhere in the world, that we should know about?


Filed under Cycle touring, Travel-Australia

16 responses to “TOUGH RIDE, TOUGHER RIDER – Donald Mackay and his Dux bike

  1. John Holstein

    Here is a starting point for endurance rides
    There is also the Silver City Bush Treadler’s Dare Rides
    Some photos here of a 2008 trip from Broken Hill to Darwin

  2. Thanks, John. It’s good to know the spirit of adventure cycling lives on.

    The photos look great, but did I see some wussy riders there on bikes with shock absorbing forks?

    • John Holstein

      Yeah, there were a few of them, myself included. Some of the early riders (around 1989 to1992) rode rigid frame bikes. Some of them are riding again these days & some still write to me in crayon. Probably harder psychological ride than physicaly hard.

      • Damn you, John! It looks like a brilliant event I’m going to have to do some time.

      • John Holstein

        Is that the Simpson Desert ride Richard?

      • Anything involving racing is out of my league, John. But Broken Hill to Darwin sounds terrific if I can take my time. PS I’ve downloaded Jim Fitzpatrick’s book and am well into reading it. Great stuff, so thanks for the tip!

      • John Holstein

        Richard, the Broken Hill to Alice Springs ride was a one off & would be almost impossible to repeat as a lone rider, or even a small group. The ride involved several private properties that don’t usually give access to the public. However, June is thinking about an epic ride for 2012, from Broken Hill to Birdsville via White Cliffs, Coongie Lakes & returning to Innaminka. It would be a 7 week ride with options to do sections.

  3. Wow what an amazing feat of endurance and bravery. Puts our 2010 trip around the “Big Track” into perspective…. Thanks for the story.

    • Given the available equipment and the state of the roads, where they even existed then, it was an incredible feat, Pommepal. My correspondent John tells me such endurance cycling efforts were common at that time.

      His recommended reading: The Bicycle and the Bush by Jim Fitzpatrick.

      It’s on my ‘to-read’ list now.

      • Darryl Chrisp

        More information about Donald Mackay is at:

        I can highly recommend the book by F. P. Clune, “Last of the Australian Explorers” (Syd, 1942), which documents the ride but also describes Mackay’s exploration efforts in New Guinea. He really was a tough fellow. I managed to borrow the book through the library system (assisted by the folks at Woollahra Library).

  4. Thanks Darryl. I’ll look for it.

    Mackay does sound super tough, and apparently he was covered in tattoos to make him look super tough too. (though these days any soft wuss can get a tatt.)

    I’m enjoying reading The Bicycle and the Bush at the moment. Good to see what a lot of interest this post on early cycling has generated, and my correspondents are leading me into a whole new area of research.

  5. Hi Richard,
    when are we going to ride up Megalong Valley? Surely a feat only marginally easier than Mr Mackay’s.

  6. Bob Moore

    Jerome Murif was the first cyclist to ride across Australia from S to N, in 1897. He followed the Overland Telegraph line. No roads and only isolated stations.He shot rabbits for food and went without water for days. He wrote a book called “From ocean to silver sea” or similar. I saw a copy in the Darwin library. With a friend, Trevor Briggs, I rode from Adelaide to Darwin in 1997 to commemorate his feat, but on sealed roads. Trevor had done several other rides in honor of the early adventure cyclists. He set off to commemorate Richardson’s ride around Australia in 1999.
    He almost made it back to Albury but sadly he died when hit by a truck near Ballarat

    • I’ve been reading about Murif too, Bob. Excellent effort to recreate his trip but shocking to hear about Trevor. The dangers faced by pioneer ‘wheelers’ have been replaced with new ones, I’m afraid.

  7. Pingback: THE BICYCLE AND THE BUSH – and a puzzle… | Richard Tulloch's LIFE ON THE ROAD

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