Weekend Australian Magazine

Story by Kate Legge

A five-day ride through Victoria’s alpine country reinvigorates the soul

I barely slept the night before we left Spring Spur homestead for five days’ trail riding deep inside Victoria’s Alpine National Park. Not because of discomfort, since the new accommodation wing is a five-star addition. Nor was I kept awake with feverish excitement. It was the waiver I’d signed acknowledging an alarming array of risks in remote country with sporadic phone coverage – astride “unpredictable” beasts quick to smell fear and incompetence before feet even find the stirrups – that disturbed my dreams.

What the fine print didn’t mention was how the soul and spirit can be reinvigorated in “unpredictable” ways as guests flourish in a free-range environment without beeping gadgets or traffic snarls, spellbound by the beauty around them, satisfied by the simplest of pleasures, relaxing into the slow, rocking rhythms of a horse’s gait.

An hour in the saddle of a tall, caramel-coloured Clydesdale crossbreed called Omeo and it’s obvious why this gentle steed is trusted with young kids and novices like me. Anxiety drains from my knees as I loosen the “death grip” on the reins, listening up to tips from fellow riders led by Lin Baird, a strong, lithe horseman who looks as if he was born in a pair of cowboy boots with a weather- beaten Akubra shading his crown.

We start out climbing the Big River Fire Trail, past green tree ferns growing
thick in the lower reaches of wilderness most Australians only glimpse as they fly overhead. Apart from occasional hikers we are alone with our thoughts, the horses, the grandeur of gnarled trunks, and native fauna such as the black snake sunbaking on a rock, which slithers into the bush to escape our curious stares.

Six sturdy packhorses, including George the mule, are loaded to the hilt with everything including the kitchen sink: food, first aid, an axe, a small wooden table, cutlery, a barbecue grill plate. These equine couriers give us wings to travel beyond the reach of four-wheel- drives into the remotest corners of a landscape that sings with reminders of Banjo Paterson’s verse. Our 125km trip traces a large loop through the Bogong High Plains around Quartz Ridge, Timms Spur, Mount Nelse, Hollands Knob, along a trail to Wallaces Hut, skirting Falls Creek and across into Pretty Valley, before climbing up Mount Fainter, then back down into the Kiewa Valley. Towards the end of the first day I’m wishing I’d brought a cushion.
At dusk we ford a rapidly flowing stream and let the horses loose. Everyone pitches in to set up camp taking cues from Lin, who’s a stickler for jobs done properly. A young man who wants to conquer the Bicentennial National Trail is briefed on the rulebook for digging a dunny. “Depth, stability, access, privacy, and view,” Lin laughs, underscoring the imperative of a panoramic vista. Our bush thrones get better every night, the higher we rise above the tree line. Once the fire catches, icy water is collected from the creek, swags are unrolled under a tarp, cold beers appear, a bottle of red is opened, and spare hands take it in turns to stir the chicken and mushroom risotto in flame-blackened pans.

My excruciating saddle soreness disappears with the warmth of food and drink. Nothing rivals the tiredness of physical exertion to sharpen the appetite. Without screens to entertain us we swap stories in darkness lit by a full moon. Stars blink brighter than I’ve ever seen them. Lin proves a master of campfire blarney, telling jokes and tales of past trips. He and his brother Clay grew up on these trails, learning bush wisdom from parents Steve and Kath Baird, who pioneered their award-winning tourism venture Bogong Horseback Adventures in 1987. They offer a unique experience because of the region, the pack horses and a self-sufficiency that taps into the stuff of Australian legend. Now in the hands of sons with Instagram accounts, the business has a second entrepreneurial wind. Their knowledge and skills are home-grown, hard-won and can’t be gleaned from a hospitality degree.

Horses run in the clan’s blood. They breed and school them at the Spring Spur homestead. Kath grandfather served in the Light Horse Brigade, and her farther ran trail rides in the La Trobe Valley until he died after his horse fell in unlikely circumstances more than 20 years ago.
Watching his grandson handle the reins is a beautiful sight. He speaks of the horses as if they are close friends with foibles and idiosyncratic habits. We ride in single file as if tails are tied to manes. Every now and then he shouts “Pull up” and we pause while he hops off to secure a load. Omeo never wastes these opportunities, yanking me forward to snatch a mouthful of fuel. He’s tall and solid and sure of foot, whether stepping across a stony creek or ploughing up a steep incline.

His younger brother Stringer has come along minus a rider to learn the route. The morning Lin decides to bridle and saddle this feisty apprentice he prepares with a rope and halter, guiding Stringer back and forth in the stick and carrot technique of “pressure then release”. A familiar ritual to forebears who relied on horses, it’s a rare insight into the forgotten arts of our bush history.

Another in the group who hails from Queensland is just as confident on horseback, with roughened hands that can shoe a hoof as easily as chop wood or drive a stake into hard ground. Easy to typecast outdoor savvy as a bloke thing until a teenager called Hannah, who first rode these trails during a freezing cold snap when she was barely 10, reveals her spunk. She likes a “forward” horse, happy out front navigating terrain toothpicked with the dead boughs of silvery snow gums. She rides beside me when a number of us peel away from the group to crest the peak of Hollands Knob. Omeo hankers for the comfort of the herd and neighs his angst at separation. “You big girl,” Hannah ribs him. The night before she’d raced bareback through the bush to chase a runaway mare.
Every day brings a fresh adventure, which is half the thrill of a journey where the weather or the bush or a horse can foul the best-laid plans. Accidents happen. One guest cops a kick from a cranky horse; her foot is injured but she soldiers on thin-lipped with pain as we swing into the flat basin of Pretty Valley.

We bed down beside the Tawonga Huts where drovers took refuge for most of last century. The remains of hitching posts are protected by a heritage order. Lightning and rain force us inside the corrugated tin shelter, but Lin perseveres until a roaring fire roasts potatoes and steak. When morning dawns he decides we’ll delay our departure so the hurt rider can be escorted out to an access road for medical attention. The first evacuation in 25 years is handled impeccably.
Calculated risk is part of the reward. Exhilaration and excitement require the stretch of effort. A shivery cold night makes the warmth of a morning fire so much sweeter. Senses are sharpened in the shadow of danger. But for the most part we plod along enraptured by spectacles that can be savoured all the more at our clip-clop pace. A contemplative trance descends as we surrender to the drama of mountains folded like giants slumbering under mohair blankets, or the close-up brilliance of yellow billy buttons and waxy bluebells on the carpeted earth, broken only by the excitement of spotting a hawk or a wild brumby.

The experience of shoulder-rubbing intimacy around the campfire and along the trail binds strangers together. We haven’t showered for a week and my jeans stiffen with sweat and grit. Living rough, even softened by luxury provisions, is strangely cleansing. Swag-making, fire- building, knotting rope, breaking camp encourages a co-operative mindset often missing from urban life. “Any fusspots?” Lin asked before our first dinner. Who would dare raise a hand?
By the final day of our trip I’ve grown accustomed to Omeo beneath me. I’ll miss him. I’ll miss the rhythm of these days. The bush has breathed vigour and joy into my heart and I head for home with a delicious lift from this life-giving breath of renewal.