A house in the Mountains
You could be forgiven for thinking that this is the famous station of The Man from Snowy River, or perhaps the long- lost family farm of bushranger Ned Kelly. But no, this is Spring Spur, home of the Baird family and their horses.
It is late afternoon when I drive up the gentle hill towards the homestead. A beautiful chestnut is grazing peacefully in a paddock on my left, just casting a curious glance towards my car. As I later learn, it is the young ASH stallion Moroka. More horses are scattered across the slopes on the right. I park and stretch my legs as I get out and take in the spectacular scenery.
There is the peak of Mount Feathertop, and the imposing bulk of Mount Bogong, Victoria’s highest mountain, looming over the Kiewa Valley to the east. This lone massif is separated from the Bogong High Plains by the deep cut of the Big River and basks in the autumn sun’s warmth.
The colours seem to be changing with every hour of the day and the view never ceases to amaze. I have arrived at the heart of Victoria’s High Country, in the north-east corner of the state.
It is an area famous for its national parks, mountains, lakes, ski resorts, vineyards, and a colourful history including gold diggers, cattlemen, and bushrangers.
The early cattlemen identified Staircase Spur, Eskdale Spur, Long Spur and T Spur as the most practical stock routes to the summer pastures up high. Bringing up the herds from the Kiewa and Mitta Mitta valleys, and across from the High Plains via Duane Spur, the going was always a bit challenging, but rewarding at the same time.
Tourists from all over Australia, who have come to taste locally produced cheeses and small goods and enjoy outdoor activities like bushwalking, cycling, scenic driving, fishing or skiing, have now replaced the cattle.
The High Country is a year-round destination and continues to change with the seasons, from deep snow cover and icy ridges in mid-winter to a blanket of spectacular wild flowers in early summer or deciduous trees in their autumnal splendour.
The homestead looks deserted so I decide to walk up to the imposing yet airy stable barn, and there I bump into Steve and Lin Baird, father and son, and half of Bogong Horseback Adventures, the family business (which is of course named after Mount Bogong) and is renowned for packhorse expeditions into remote areas of the Alpine National Park. The other half is Lin’s brother, Clay and Steve’s wife, Kath.
A warm welcome is exchanged, followed by Steve looking at his watch and deciding it’s ‘beer o’clock.’ While Lin and his team of helpers take over the feeding of the horses, dogs and chooks, I follow Steve to the new riders’ lounge and Spring Spur Stay accommodation, which was added to the property about two years ago.
The riders’ lounge project was born out of the idea to create an inviting place that riders and families visiting Bogong Horseback Adventures could relax before and after a ride – a place to enjoy a home- cooked meal and re-live the fun and excitement of a recent ride over a drink with new and old friends.
The lounge is adorned with vintage furniture collected by Kath, beautiful black and white photographs of the old days, a library filled to the brim with a collection of antique books, and a chandelier made of horseshoes.
The pride of place under a huge panoramic window belongs to the impressive ‘long table’, which was made by Kath’s father, Bill Viney, in 1970.
The church pews on either side are alpine ash from St Pat’s in Albury. When visitors step into the riders’ lounge for the first time, the initial reaction is usually the same, Lin tells me later: “A lot of people go ‘Wow, this is great,’ as they see the big window and the view towards Mt Feathertop and are surprised.”
Attention to detail and love for the place is evident everywhere, for example the floor of the guest accommodation. It is made up of leftover bits and pieces from granite kitchen bench tops; there are many different textures and colours, but put together they form the most amazing patchwork floor tiles.
Every building has been designed and built to minimize the environmental impact; every stone tells a story.
Spring Spur was built on the strong backs of energetic and hard-working country folk and with the help of many friends and dedicated workers. The property sits on just over 100 acres; another 160 acres are leased for pasture.
When Kath and Steve acquired the land about 30 years ago, it was just a cow paddock, or “one hundred acres with a fence around the outside” as Steve recalls. The young couple developed everything from scratch, from the roadways to the water supply, from the yards to the trees and gardens, and the stable and residential buildings.
They stumbled across the property somewhat by accident. “When we first arrived here, we had customers already booked, a truckload of horses and saddles, a couple of snotty-nosed kids, but nowhere to live.”
“So we were introduced to a bloke who rented us a little flat next to the pine plantation. We were very lucky to have met Clive, as he owned the farm next door that we eventually bought from him. It was a coincidence, but I couldn’t have chosen a better place,” Steve says proudly.
His family has been around the High Country since the gold rushes of the 1860s, and Steve has always felt a special connection to the alpine landscape and its rugged terrain, wild rivers and snow gum forests.
“I’ve lived in different parts of Australia, but I’ve always come back to north-east Victoria because it’s beautiful; there are four distinct seasons which I enjoy and which are reflected in our business because we do different things at different times.”
“My parents were great adventurers and never missed an opportunity to take their kids away to the mountains, to the beach or to the desert. That instilled an appreciation of the natural world and fond memories of the landscape of the northeast in me.”
“It’s funny, you drive up the Hume Highway and then you turn into a valley, whether it’s the Ovens Valley, the King Valley or the Kiewa Valley, and you feel this great sense of adventure, the mountain environment just has that effect with the special light about it, the mountains, the valleys, the rivers – there’s drama in the landscape.”
Steve spent a couple of years studying architecture before he eventually became a builder. He met Kath when her parent’s farm in Gippsland was changing from a dairy farm to a trail riding business and growing its horse numbers from the initial group of kids’ ponies.
Kath had grown up around horses, but Steve felt comfortable to be involved as well and proved to be a quick learner, soon exploring the trails around Tonimbuk and the Great Dividing Range.
He remembers, “After we made a few trips into the mountains with other people in the 1970s I became particularly interested in the business of pack horses.”
“There was a risk that the techniques and traditions were being forgotten about and lost. So that was part of the reason we decided to take on this business up here. We would focus on packhorses to give us a sense of differentiation from other tour and horse riding operators. It started to genuinely protect the packhorse heritage and share the experience. And that’s the way it turned out!”
They left Tonimbuk in 1986 and purchased the goodwill and license of a High Country riding business and, along the way, collected a mixture of tried and new horses and equipment.
“We decided to get out of the building business and start this new venture on our own, rather than continuing with Kath’s parents’ place in Gippsland. Because of my background and love of the northeast, we knew it was beautiful countryside to ride in. With the plains, and the stock camps and great terrain for mountain riding, it is just a terrific place to set up a riding business. For me it was a little bit like coming home,” Steve continues
“When we were in Gippsland, Melbourne was growing and encroaching closer and closer, so we were looking for a strong little community, a place for the kids to grow up but not too isolated. Down here we have all the things you need to make a healthy community.”
Nonetheless, it was a huge decision for the young couple and their two little boys aged four and two to leave Kath’s family, their support network and an established business behind.
But they had plenty of passion and a big sense of adventure, throwing themselves into learning the ways of the mountains, navigating, finding good camps and practising the art of pack-saddling.
Over the past three decades Steve’s and Kath’s dream has become a reality, the buildings have morphed into the landscape, the gardens have matured and their team of horses has carried an edgling trail riding business, run from the back of a truck, into the well-run and award-winning operation that Bogong Horseback Adventures is today.
Spring Spur has developed into a unique place with its vast views across the valley and the forest backdrop that has an abundance of birds and wildlife.
There’s a sense of remoteness and peace and quiet that comes from isolation, yet the property is neither too far from the township of Tawonga nor too remote for visitors to access.
All the buildings are designed in the same style of heritage architecture that can be seen on the big stations, with lots of iron and raw timber.
Where did the inspiration come from for the property? Steve explains, “When I was younger I visited different stations in various parts of Australia, and I always liked the properties that had been developed like a little village, with a station store, a homestead, the workers’ quarters and sheds – like a collection or cluster of buildings that created a real village atmosphere. That idea always appealed to me.”
“We always had a rough master plan in the back of our minds and as we have added things we have made sure that they still complement the whole idea. I like the fact that it is a working property.”
“People come here and can immerse themselves in a horse experience; there is always something going on. And they are staying with a family. We do not separate staff and guests; we enjoy meals together and talk about horses and life. All that makes it very rewarding for our visitors.”
It was also a rewarding and exciting upbringing for Lin and his younger brother Clay, who remember a childhood filled with adventures, riding horses and exploring in the forest. They went to the local school in Tawonga, but at home they would mingle with guests and staff from all corners of the globe.
Later, Lin studied Multimedia and Design in Melbourne, skills that come in handy when it comes to managing the Bogong Horseback website and other marketing platforms. Clay did a Diploma in Film and Television and worked on a few productions, including the acclaimed Van Diemen’s Land, a 2009 Australian thriller set in 1822 colonial Tasmania.
Of course, it was not long before the brothers wanted to fly the nest and see the world. They spent almost a decade away as cooks and expedition leaders on horse outfits in the Californian Sierra Nevada Mountains, Central and South America and the UK.
Lin reflects, “We spent some time in California at Rock Creek pack station and worked with a bunch of cowboys from all over the States, old cowboys from Montana, Arizona and Oregon, and Texan cowboys, who are a breed of their own.”
“We had a lot of packing experience from the family business at home, but we learned a lot about the American way of packing, how to pack mules and do multi-day expeditions into the High Sierras.”
George and Mildred, the two mules on the property, are a testament to Lin’s and Clay’s time in the USA.
Lin clarifies, “We pack the mules in the traditional American style, but all of our pack horses are packed in the Australian way. There are some differences, but the fundamentals are the same, even weights and no overloading.”
The brothers have taken over the day-to-day operations from their parents. They are a versatile pair, both cook, manage the marketing and booking side of the business, shoe and pack the horses and lead pack trips among the many other tasks required.
“Mum and dad have put in the miles in the past. However, their roles are still very important, and dad is helping every day, including in the office.”
Working closely with the family does, of course, have its challenges as Lin admits, albeit not before giving his dad, who is sitting next to him, a smug smile.
“We work pretty well together. The biggest challenge for all of us would be separating family life from business. I think we have achieved that by building the riders’ lounge building here. We now have an office instead of working from our living room table, mum’s and dad’s house has become more of a home for them and dad can find the time to retreat to his studio more often.”
“I think the key to a well-functioning family business is good relationships, planning your week and getting things organised, and having that time out from the business. The latter can be hard, especially when you live on the property. For example, I try and only ever answer emails when I’m in the office or the riders’ lounge. If you follow those rules, you can make it work.”
Lin’s favourite part of the property is the vegetable garden, “Though it does need a fair bit of work at the moment… I also love the top of the back hill.” In the winter time, many little springs pop up on that back hill, and they have given the property its name, Spring Spur.
Steve’s favoured place of late is a big old tree by the spring that feeds the dam. “Because we had quite a dry autumn I was down there the other day, looking at the dam, and thinking to myself that this is a really important place, this spring and this tree, it is what keeps everything alive on this property.”
“I like to remind myself that there is good water coming out of the ground there, and that is essential to everything else here.”
Aside from a few finishing touches, the property as it is now is the finished vision of the Baird family. Those finishing touches may include a little pergola beer garden, a new garden shed and hothouse and perhaps a cellar shortly.
“And I would like to build a bigger studio,” Steve throws in. He is an accomplished artist, and many of his creations can be admired in the guest accommodation. One of his topics is infamous horses that have been in famous narratives and are brought to life in his art series called Horse Myths.
The first Horse Myths project traced a narrative about one the favourite horses of Australian explorer Ernest Giles – a mare named “The Fair Maid of Perth”, which disappeared mysteriously into the Gibson Desert.
Another subject is Ned Kelly’s favourite horse, Music. Steve immerses himself in Australia’s rich history and landscape to find ideas and inspiration for his art and his passion becomes evident when he recites the story of the Fair Maid, Billy at the dance or legendary explorer Ferdinand von Mueller.
An exhibition of his artwork in Melbourne’s Bright Space gallery is planned for later this year.
As long established and responsible operators, the Baird family are entrusted with horse access to some special areas such as the stony refuge of Cleve Cole Hut or Eskdale Spur at the head of Mountain Creek.
But there’s always a bit of red tape to negotiate when you are working in a national park, and Bogong Horseback had its fair share of it.
Steve notes, “Over the 30 years we’ve been here, I suppose our biggest hurdle would have been access into the Park. We’ve always had access, but there was always the risk of losing it. Thankfully, we now have a good relationship with Parks Victoria, but it took me to get there. We also had ten years of drought in the 90s, some serious bush fires and Equine Influenza. During that time, we had to keep our horses on the property and could only ride within the property boundaries.”
They have also had their fair share of family tragedies, particularly when Kath’s dad was killed in a horse accident on his property.
“Aside from dealing with the trauma and the loss, it made us re-assess how we manage risks around horses. In the end, that became quite a positive, we changed lots and lots of practices to make it a safe and enjoyable experience. It also marked the start of our way to natural horsemanship,” Steve recalls.
“These are the milestones, but the buildings – we just enjoyed doing that! Breeding horses, starting and educating them is also great fun. We have been here long enough now that we are into the third or fourth generation of horses, so we know their parents and their grandparents. The original horses are no longer with us, but their descendants are in a lot of cases.”
“Our horses are not a collection of individuals, they are a herd, and they have a lot of heritage that relates to this property and their work in the mountains. The young horses learn from the old horses; they learn the camp routines very quickly, where the camps are, what they should and shouldn’t eat – that’s something you can’t buy or create, it takes time, intelligence and knowledge.”
“It doesn’t often happen because most horses are bred here, but when a new horse arrives on the property, they are usually a month behind our horses when they start to grow their winter coats. For our horses, it is part of their cycle, and it is right now,” Steve adds laughing.
The current Bogong mob comprises 60 horses, of which 40 are working horses and the remaining 20 are made up of youngsters, broodmares, retirees and two stallions. While there’s a brumby mare in the herd, the majority of the Baird’s horses are stock horses.
The stallions, Ashlar Stud Simply Red and Moroka, both descend from Australian Stock Horse heritage lines. Red is registered with the ASH stud book as a breeding stallion. Steve explains, “Stock horses have a history of all sorts of horses in them anyway. Some of our mares have Quarter horse in them, some a bit of heavy horse to accommodate larger people. It’s good to have those two different types of stallions; we can match them to the mares and hopefully get the sort of result that we are after.”
Looking over the property, he says, “I reckon we are sort of past where our vision was originally. With any business, but particularly with a family business, it’s important to take a breath every five years and take a good look at what you’re doing and where you’re going. Give yourself new goals, some new vitality, and things to strive for, but also discard things that maybe aren’t working instead of struggling on with it. You have to keep re-inventing yourself.”
In many ways, the High Country has also re- invented itself since the Baird family first settled at Spring Spur. The biggest impact can be attributed to bushfires; some areas may take up to 100 years to recover. Lin adds that the fires sparked a cultural change as well.
“First, they took the cattle off the high plains, which was a bit of a shame regarding the heritage. The ecology has recovered from the cattle, which has been replaced by the deer in the lower areas. Secondly, how the humans visit the Park has changed, there’s a huge increase in cycle tourism and a lot of mountain bikes frequent the High Country these days.”
“They are supposed to stick to the tracks, and most of them do. Also, people are going for smaller hikes and are looking for a bit of glamping to go with it.”
“They are testing some eco-lodge accommodation projects in the old stockyards, and that is great, but I don’t want them to forget the heritage either, and that is horses in the High Country.”
While horses and the High Country go together like bread and butter, you don’t need to be a rider to enjoy the hospitality, stories of the past, good food and great atmosphere of Spring Spur.
Musicians, actors, captains of industry and artists have visited the property in the past. But as Lin grins, “Johnny Depp hasn’t been here yet. He’d probably want to bring his own horse, but we need to respect Australian biosecurity laws…”