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HORSE RIDING THE
BICENTENNIAL NATIONAL TRAIL
By Donna Clayton-Smith of Triffid Park
For myself, the day had started off with unwanted drama at dawn, when I was leading my horse Geronimo from the paddock, and my skittish young filly kicked Geronimo in the leg, grazing it and causing him to limp. For the next half hour, I was on tenterhooks, unsure if Geronimo's injury was serious enough to make us non-starters, but fortunately he recovered quickly, and my place in the ride was assured. So a little after 9am, as the mounted group stood by the National Trail Commemorative Plaque, Gordon Lyttle, rider organiser made a short farewell speech. With sunlight shafting through the magnificent towering Mountain Ash gums, we disappeared from our well wishers around the first bend on a ride that would test us all over the coming weeks.
Riding along the Marysville firebreak, it was a very picturesque trail lined with Woolly Butt gums, so we took the time to stretch the horses' legs with a canter after the steep climb out of Healesville. Stopping at 'The Birches' picnic area on Lady Talbot Drive, we were spoilt with a picnic table and drop toilet. Most days, our lunch breaks are spent on the ground amongst ant nests! The March flies and small bush flies at Keppel Hut were totally unbearable. They were in our eyes and ears, and as soon as we opened our mouths, they buzzed in ahead of our food. Frank, who had to don a pair of stockings under his moleskins because of chafing, put his spare pantyhose over his head to keep out the flies. The 4WD track out of Keppel Hut is now a major highway for logging trucks. A bobcat, water truck and six gravel trucks passed us on what was once a quiet 4WD track along the Bicentennial National Trail. Gordon and Frank's horses stepped straight over a snake sunning itself. My horse was about to step on it when Brian alerted me. Turning, Gordon and Frank were astounded they had not seen the snake and my heart missed a beat or two at my lucky escape.
We have washed and showered in some unusual places. Our solar shower bag hanging off the back wall of a drop toilet was a rare luxury. It was better than crouching on the side of a dirt road in all our glory, washing in a bucket filled from a cold spring gushing from the embankment. The four guys sitting in a river, razors in one hand and mirrors in the other also made a memorable picture. But a wash by any name will make you smell sweeter on the hot and dusty trail!
The back up driver for Brian and I, Jenny Cooper, celebrated her 41st birthday on February 3rd. She is driving a Toyota Troop Carrier the entire distance, meeting the two of us each afternoon with gourmet food, horse feed and bedding. Gordon, Frank and Gary have had four back up drivers in succession for the trip. On our way from Big River to Knockwood we took a wrong turn, but a kilometer later we chanced upon a disused mine. Weren't we excited to discover the old railway line still intact, and the mine shaft entrance still open!
The trek up Lazarini Spur was so steep we had to dismount, hold the horses' tails and allow them to drag us up the hills. We figured it is easier to pull something than carry it. This system was then used up many mountains. We have dismounted and walked our horses for countless weary kilometers to give their backs a break. Most of the going is tough, with rocks underfoot and the hot summer sun beating down on us. I dropped my sunglasses in Snake Creek, beyond the Goulburn River. I immediately took off my boots and socks, climbed off Geronimo midstream, retrieved the sunnies, then climbed back into the saddle to replace my socks and boots. By Macalister River, Jenny, Brian and I were almost out of fresh drinking water, so decided to boil river water for the following day's supply. It was boiled in a tin bucket and left to cool overnight. Next morning, water bottles filled, we set off to ride up the dreaded Butcher Country Track, a total distance that day of 37 kilometers. When thirsty, we took a welcome swig at the bottles, only to spit it straight out again. We were now faced with a long hard, hot day with rusty drinking water! Half way along and very thirsty, we came across a dam with clear water, so refilled with dam water and somehow made it to Howitt Hut, a nine and a half hour day in the saddle.
My husband Jason and three friends from the Melbourne Trail Horse Riders Club drove to Howitt Hut for a visit. Jason was there to celebrate our sixth wedding anniversary on February 11, before I headed into Wonnangatta with the other riders. Half way down Dry River Track into Wonnangatta, Frank had to dismount Playboy, as his saddle nearly slipped over the horse's head - he had no more holes left in the girth!
Gordon's brother David, who was driving backup for the guys on the third week, had been trying to no avail to catch a fish at every opportunity. Jenny showed him up when she went to the river at Pioneer Racecourse for water for the horses, and unbeknown to her, brought back an inch long fish in the bucket. Riding into Talbotville, an old abandoned goldfields township past Crooked River, we found that little remains. A big grassy flat beside the river, with large old fig, apple, plum and pear trees. All the lower branches had been stripped of fruit by tourists on foot, but we were lucky on horseback to be able to ride straight up to a delicious fresh fruit smorgasbord! At the old ghost town of Grant, we explored the start of the Jewellers Shop Mine, one of many old mine adits cut into the side of the mountain.
In the township of Dargo, we were asked by the school teacher if a couple of us would go and talk to the class of eight children, ranging from prep to year seven. Gordon, Frank and I spent 45 minutes telling the teacher and children, who were most interested, who we were and what we were doing. In Dargo we were joined by two more riders, Jean and Cathy who travelled with us through to Canberra.
Sitting beside the campfire at Livingstone Creek, I looked up to see a brilliant shooting star moving across the night sky, with a beautiful tail flowing back behind it. Out here in the bush with your horse, on the Bicentennial National Trail, is definitely the most wonderful place to be!
Back in the saddle after a rest day in Omeo our first nights stop was Bindi Station on the Tambo River, one of Victoria' oldest properties, dating back to the middle of last century. After days and days of bush riding, the open pastures looked spectacular with the warm afternoon sun shining down on them. The present owners have restored many of the old buildings and planted garden beds full of roses. Coming out of the bush to look down over the sheep paddocks at the homestead site, was like finding an oasis in the desert.
The following day we headed to Hells Gates. A very steep climb down a mountain side on a rocky old 4WD track to the Tambo River and then a very steep and hard going climb out the other side for the horses. From whichever side you traveled into it, it must be what going down into hell is like. Riding over the snow plains out of Brumby hill, the horse's hooves left a hollow sound below them. The trails lined with snow gums made a very pretty and spectacular sight. We were on the lookout for brumbies, and knew they were around by the large mounds of manure on the ground, piled high to mark their territory. Up ahead in the clearing four brumbies were spotted, and the chase was on. Of course, it was to the brumbies advantage that they lived there, and could trail blaze through the bush. We had to stick to the main tracks, so the chase was short lived. Something to talk about for some time afterwards was a dead horse lying beside the track. It looked like it had only been there about a week and had horse shoes on it, which meant it wasn't a brumby, but whose was it? We were never to find out. Wild dogs had had a feast on it and the stench was unbearable. Unfortunately all a part of trail riding.
Limestone Creek was a very interesting place to camp with caves in the rock face, all numbered by markers for cave adventurers. We weren't that game, and only went in a short way to enjoy the cool air offered by the caves. It was here that our back up driver Jenny Cooper found Trigger, a brumby's skull which she tied to her bullbar. Trigger was then a part of the team and traveled all the way to Canberra with us. We were awakened one morning to the sound of a wild dog howling not too far away. Crawling deeper into my swag, I enjoyed his cries, but prayed he didn't come closer. At Connley's hut on the Buckwong Creek we met Rusty Connley, an old cattleman of the high country. He was out mustering his cattle and had some very interesting stories to tell us. The funniest was when he came back from moving some cattle that very evening, and told us that he had just fallen off his stead. Upon reaching the Murray River and our campsite one afternoon, the sun was shining down on us warmly as it did so many times along our journey. We donned our bathers for a swim, but the water was icy cold. However it was a relief from the heat and our long riding pants, so we braved the chilly water to cool off.
We rode through Tom Groggin Station the following morning, on the banks of the Murray River, and crossed the bridge into New South Wales at their front gate. Later that day on the banks of the Swamp Plain River near Geehi Hut, kangaroos were awoken by our noise, and leapt up out of the long grass. Gordon's horse Gil turned sharply. He knocked into Gary horse Skye as he also swung quickly around, causing Gary to come off and hit his head on his horse's bridle, leaving a big cut and black eye to his face. Our first view of the Khancoban pondage was a magnificent site. The blue shimmering of the water against the greeny grey landscape of the surrounding mountains. The next day, Brian, Jenny and I swum in the pondage which is used to cool the turbines for the electricity plant in Khancoban. This takes the chill off the water and was just glorious to paddle around in. A trip into Corryong by car, back in Victoria, to the supermarket stocked us up on food and at the grain store we replenished our horse feed. A must for us in Corryong was to visit the gravesite of Jack Riley, the original "Man from Snowy River".
Riding out of Khancoban at 9am, with Bruce on his horse Billy and Debbie on her horse Smokey now in tow we once again gained beautiful views of the pondage. The day was hot and by lunchtime beside the Yellow Bog Creek, some of us decided it was time for a swim. The water was very cold, as the creek ran beneath the shade of overhanging trees and never saw sunlight, but it helped to cool us off. We arrived at camp that night at 7pm, our longest day in the saddle for the whole trip, amongst the thunder and lightening and rain which was falling. Kathy, Jean and Frank hadn't packed their drizabones that day, as the temperature had started off very hot. But everyday for the whole trip, Brian and I packed bathers incase we got the opportunity to swim at lunch time, as well as a drizabone and water proof pants incase it rained. As quoted by Frank "Up there, you just never knew what was going to happen". Crossing the Tumut River we rode passed Happy Jacks Pondage and the surge shaft for the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electricity Scheme. From here we went into an area where only horses, bush walkers, and the Electricity Scheme workers vehicles are allowed to go. What a shame the rest of the world cannot see the magnificent snow plains with creeks running through them and large rocks adding to the scenery. I have never seen this sort of countryside before, but it reminded me of the desert in Arizona, except for snow grass instead of red desert sand. The tree life in this area was few and far between with a variety of grasses giving the landscape a very unusual look.
Saturday 3rd March was my birthday, and what better way to spend it than riding from our camp spot on the Eucumbene River to Yaouk. One of the best days of riding we had, with glorious bridal trails winding their way through the trees. The ground under foot was soft, not like the days and days we spent on hard rocky tracks, and it gave us a chance to stretch the horses legs in a canter. We were met at Wears Camp Horse Yards by 74 year old John from Tasmania who had hired a horse to ride the rest of the way into Canberra with us. John is on the committee of the Tasmanian Trail - 480km long - so guess where our next trip might be to! That night in Yaouk, a get together was put on for us by Peter Cochrane the mayor of Cooma, and his family, with a spit roast dinner and music. Many other people riding the National Trail had organised to meet up at his property that night. They included a group from Batemans Bay and another N.S.W. group who were pack horsing through from Omeo to Canberra a week ahead of us. A guy who packed horse through from Healesville to Canberra two weeks in front of us, had reached Canberra, and then got a lift back for the night. A group from Queensland who had come down and hired horses from Yaouk to ride through to Canberra. And a couple on their way down from Cooktown, the start of the Bicentennial National Trail, with two riding horses and three packhorses heading to Healesville. They had been on the trail for two years so far. What a great bush birthday I had.
Another early morning wake up call, was to the sound of kookaburras in the tree, directly above our swags. Snakes were a plenty along the trails. Many cattlemen's huts were come across over the whole trip, and it was really interesting to have a look inside them. Parks Victoria are now looking after most of these and they are well maintained, some even with new drop loos outside. A group of wild pigs had the horses snorting in disgust at these unusual creatures. What a sight to see them trot off across the plains. Apart from the couple heading down the trail, the rest of the riders, were all on the same mission. To reach Canberra by Saturday the 10th March to take part in a street parade to celebrate the Centenary of Federation. So each night at camp we would meet up with some, or all of the other riders, depending on their schedule, when they were having rest days, or when we were, or if they rode the National Trail or took shortcuts. When we reached a place called Cuppacumalong, just 38km south of Canberra, it was decided to truck the horses into the show grounds on the northern side of Canberra. The trail which was mapped out over 12 years ago, now travels across bitumen roads and through housing estates. Hopefully in the near future someone will remap it. But for now, we took the safe option. Arriving at the show grounds in Canberra by truck, the horses were settled into their very fancy stables for the night, to be ready for our big parade the following morning.
We were suppose to take part in the Centenary of Federation parade in the afternoon, but the organisers decided that they only wanted 10 horses. We said it is all or nothing, so we organised our own parade with police escorts in the morning. At 9.30am the police cars arrived and 43 riders, 55 horses and 1 mule set off down the main street of Canberra to do a loop around the roundabout and then head back to the show grounds. The procession took just on two hours, and it was magical to look back on all those horses marching the streets of our Nations Capital. We were proud to have our own parade, and support horses in their endeavour to still be recognised as a means of transport in Australia after so many years.
My trip was absolutely amazing. The best ride I have ever done, although it was hard. The tracks weren't nice bridal trails like I expected, most were old 4WD tracks. Most were stony and rocky and hard on the horses feet. And hills like I have never ridden before. From here to Canberra it is all uphill. We just climbed up and up, and then an occasional down, and then up again. And so very steep. At many times we got off to lead the horses to give their backs a break, and also we didn't know what was ahead of us, so we wanted to spare them to make the journey. At other times we were walking behind the horses hanging on to their tails and letting them pull us up the very steep hills. We figured it is easier to pull something than carry it, so pull us they did. I don't know whether I would ever do it again, although if the circumstances were right, I probably would, but I would be better prepared. Like being fitter myself. Although I consider myself fairly fit, put me up a few hills and things change, so you really need to practice hill climbing. Also we got our horses fit trotting and cantering them. We spent most of the trip walking, due to the horrible surfaces under the horses feet. So we really needed to go out and train them for 8 hours of walking, not 4 hours of trotting. We spent sometimes up to 10 hours a day travelling to our next nights camp, which is a long time in the saddle. Averaging 5km an hour, which really is slow. Once we reached the NSW border, the tracks improved and became nicer bridal trails or country lanes. I have read quite a few books and watched a couple of videos on the National Trail and they all say the same thing: that the Victorian section is the hardest. So if I have done that then the rest of the way should be easier. If I am ever allowed to go and do more of it.
I wouldn't have swapped doing the trip for anything, it was such an experience. We slept in our swags every night except for two, when we stayed in a back packers. However when I unrolled my swag to get my sleeping bag out, I just climbed into my swag, instead of putting the sleeping bag on the bed, so I actually spent every night in my swag for 41 nights. There were so many wonderful things that we saw and did. The views were spectacular, the river crossings exciting, just the feeling of being out there, riding that distance was amazing. When we finally arrived in Canberra it was very depressing and I really didn't want to come home. I could of just kept riding all the way to Cooktown. Maybe one day I will get my wish. I kept a diary, but some days, I was so tired I couldn't be bothered writing, and then I had to try and catch up. I also took 3 hours of video and eight rolls of film.
So we made it after 40 days, 950km and 180 hours in the saddle. I would like to keep riding the other 4380 km to Cooktown in northern Queensland, but I will have to leave that for another trip.
This page was last updated on Tuesday, 12 February 2013