Crikey!!! After completing one and a half stories on average a week on our European adventure I figured a few Aussie tales would be a snap. But not only was power and internet access difficult to obtain ……. the real problem was I rarely had time to think!!
And now we are home! 6 weeks, just on 900 km on horseback and 40 different camp sights later, we feel fitter, stronger and maybe even a little wiser, with new friends along the BNT and lots of wonderful memories!!!
The Bicentennial National Trail is an adventure like no other. Incredibly, managed and maintained by a linked chain of volunteers it is 5330 kms of a little known, unique Australian asset. It’s easy to follow the trail once you have the books, set out like an orienteering program in meter x meter details with each days travel ending at a camping site with water. All of this section we traveled, able to be supported by 4 wd vehicle back up.
We never felt in danger or at risk in the natural elements like falling off precipitous edges of cliffs or crossing torrential rivers. We saw only one dead snake and I cannot remember a spider. Out of crocodile country there is not one predator we had to be afraid of. The main danger only presented itself in man made areas. The roads!!! On occasions having to manage 5 horses around blind corners with no kerb is something one would hope may be changed one day.
We began our section of the BNT 6 days ride south of Canberra through the Kosciuszko & Namadgi National Parks……. a horse riders playground with amazing sandy trails and tracks through stands of snowy white gums, camping areas, often with yards for the horses (much to our chief horse yard builders (Antonio) delight.)
The next section north of Canberra was completely different. We wove our way through historical and rural New South Wales riding through and often camping in the showgrounds of small, friendly, seemingly thriving townships linked by wide open farmland. We were often welcomed with a “Gyday – where you blokes headed?”
Historically, this countryside, quite close to Sydney, offered “good soil in a relatively safe climate” and attracted pioneering Australians. Stories of early pastoralists like John Macarthur (known as the founder of Australias wool industry) and his sons; the burgeoning growth of their estates in the 1820’s, built the hard way, with an axe and the backs of convict labour.
Surprisingly around Jenolan Caves, and almost all the way to Wallerawang, the landscape was dominated by pine plantations. National parks, government owned, turned over to Pine Plantations. Mile after mile of pine trees! Quite beautiful to ride through on a hot day when the trees are tall and scented and the ground underfoot soft for the horses. But an eyesore and blight on the horizon when freshly razed, as were many of the kilometers we rode around.
But the best was still to come. By far the most beautiful scenery we experienced was past the pines into the Wollomi and Gardens of Stone National Parks, as well as the Capertee Valley. This valley forms a canyon that is second in size only to the Grand Canyon and of course, provides some stunning scenery and incredible properties we had the privilege (as bonified BNTers) to ride through. We reveled in the consistency of soft trails, breath taking scenery and views. Natures growth often looked like “God” had employed a landscape gardener; bunches of “black boys”, stands of native conifers, hedges of maiden hair and fish bone fern.
And even more “townships,” like Glen Alice. Marked on the map, the center of the community boasts a CFA shed, a community hall (complete with stage, piano and kitchen), a “pressed metal” clad church, an ancient cemetery and brand spanking new Telstra phone box. In our 3 day stop over we met numerous locals, found a home for our lovely “River” who was finding the long days riding two difficult on his old joints, a horse to replace him (take him with you, try him out, if he does not work out – send him back!!!) – the lovely Wally, and new “best” friends – Julie and Warren, who not only provided a green paddock and dam for our four legged friends but kept visiting us with bountiful armfuls of produce from their garden and subsequent kitchen, baby tomotoes, silverbeet, quince paste, pasta sauce. Julie, clearly the “Maggie Beer” of the district!
Just one week later Julie and Warren were meeting us in Aberdeen to camp and catch up before we headed too far north. It so happened that Wally must have known. A six year old injury raised its head and we suggested they bring their float to take him home.
Fortunately we were in horse lovers country. Nearby Scone is the Headquaters for the Australian Stock Horse association. The King of the Ranges is an annual horse event for the district and the area continues the string of Thoroughbred studs we encountered since Widden. No longer were we camping in Showgrounds, they were now the Rodeo Grounds!
Serendipitously, no sooner had Wally left our little herd than Gavin, asking around the local pony clubbers, found us another horse – Darcy. Myff Hall had found Darcy a bit of a handful and her husband Ollie felt his ears prick up when he heard we needed a horse. Darcy would fit our bill perfectly. A horse that has a calm temperament but LOVES to work! In fact needs to work his “V8” engine, preferably daily. The terms were set. Again, “Take him with you, try him out, if he suits you can buy him, if not bring him back!” Nothing could be fairer than that and Antonio has since bonded with Darcy, and whilst River remains in the lush green paddocks to be ridden and loved by Julie, we now have a gorgeous new bay in our little horse family with Mix and Beauty.
The final stage of our trip was via the Hunter and Upper Hunter valley. I expected to see acres of vineyards and whilst they must exist in the Hunter, we instead, rode through and past Thoroughbred stud after Thoroughbred stud. Clearly a money making venture for some, these studs ooze money and we felt very privileged to trot along beside their valuable stallions and over their manicured roadsides.
Through much of our ride, we could also notice “the boom” and “the bust” times of this part of Australia. Remains of towns that existed, now either slowly falling apart or turned into something else. Wool and farming influencing early life before the Gold Rush bought thousands more prospectors. The now slower burning Coal Rush, one of the biggest employers through these districts and controversially not only taking farmers off the land to work in them, but taking farmers land. A company can pay the government to “prospect” on anybodies land! 18 inches below ground, belongs to the government and the rights to mine it can be sold by them! No matter who owns the top, lives on it, or has had it passed down in their family for generations.
Travel on a horse is not unlike travel on a Camino. It’s a very upclose and personal view of the natural and human life on the trail in all its diversity. A wonderful indepth experience of a part of rural Australia we had never known. Scrolling through the previous destinations in the GPS on our way home, reads like a foreign novel: Tomalla, Manobalai, Rylstone, Gingkin, Mutmutbilly, just to name a few!
At times the journey was tough. Packing up camp almost every day, riding in the heat, concentrating on keeping horses calm on the side of busy trafficked roads. Still both Antonio and I feel stronger as a result and rested! The real credit of course, goes to our trusty steeds who carried us proudly by whatever obstacle we presented them with. Day to day riding and close contact with the horses is a joy that gets under your skin! The part of the journey we most enjoyed and the part that will be most missed. Something was gained that is hard to put a finger on, yet is felt and appreciated.
As Ollie Hall & Winston S Churchill quipped,
“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man!”
It was a dark Ballarat morning and even the Rooster had not yet stirred as a white 4 WD with a 4 WD campervan attached, followed by a big white 5 horse truck, (carrying 5 horses!) called “Suzie” pulled out of the Stabeuz driveway!
5.10 am – right on schedule!
And so, the adventure began! Antonio has had a dream for many years of traveling the Bicentennial National Trail on horseback. We first discussed it with Karen and Gavin Stabeuz over 3 years ago, and a plan was hatched. They were able to take leave from their employment although Gav (our wonder backup man) still oversees his business from WiFi and phones! The joys of modern living.
From modern living to pioneering and camping rough! Not that rough mind you, but camping every night none the less.
The BNT is known to be the longest marked, non-motorised, self reliant trekking route in the world and was officially opened by RM Williams in 1988.
Spanning 5,330 kilometres from Healseville, Victoria to Cooktown in Far North Queensland it is a combination on old coach, stock and pony express routes, old pack horse trials, country roads and country towns with a focus on highlighting the lives of Australias’ early settlers and pioneers. The trail is as diverse as it is interesting.
Largely bush the track traverses farmland, 18 of Australias’ National Parks, wilderness and mountain areas and encompasses a wonderful sample of Australias’ most spectacular scenery from lush tropical rainforests, rugged mountains, valleys, gorges and rivers, remote dry plains, alpine meadows and snowfields.
As of today we have spent 2 weeks on the trial and looking back it seems to have evaporated in a moment but on further reflection could provide the material for 30 books.
To be interested in a journey like this, of course, you have to love 4WDing and horseriding . That is being on a horses back for 5-6 hours a day. A practice that can become quite meditative – the melodic sound of 20 hooves walking along and hitting the gravel, even the faster paced click or lope of the trot and canter! There is something awesome and comforting about spending so much time in the company of our horses. Mostly sensible, our 4 legged friends carry us without complaint to the best of their ability. Trusting us as we trust in them. There is a union.
Our 5 horses need to become a “family” and joining our 3 with Karens 2 has ensured there is some sorting amongst themselves to determine their respective positions in the herd.
We two legged creatures have also gone about a bit of jostling !! I always expected our first week to be full of teething problems; our first month a matter of settling in and the remainder of the journey sitting back and enjoying the scenery. The early stages certainly require some patience and goodwill. Blending together 4 different ways of doing things around camp, what to pack, what to bring, what to keep and where to pack it. How best to cater to the horses needs; groom, rest, water, feed. Bit by bit systems are falling into place and bit by bit we all get to know and appreciate each other.
Antonio has ridden all the Victorian section of the BNT and in 2009 we rode the last 10 days of it together with all we needed on the back of our pack horse, Rocky! I fell in love with the adventure, the planning, the challenge. Packing and unpacking, traveling so light as to have nothing excessive but ensuring we had everything we need. Combining the use of navigation, maps, GPS and BNT guide books information to ensure we rarely got lost or went any further out of our way than we had to .
The dynamic of a longer trip is similar but more complicated. Having a car and Gavin, prepared to drive each day to meet us at the end of ride is amazing, but of course we have and need more “stuff!!” 5 horses require more gear and more food.
Its not a trip for the feint hearted and is truly a “working” holiday. Jobs around camp just never seem to end and no sooner have we unpacked we seem to be packing up again. As Antonio says, the holiday begins when we get on the horse and just have to sit there.
As the focus is so much on the practicality of each days needs, the landscape and day to day incidents of the previous day and week fade quickly and remain to be savored at the end via photos, blogs and diaries.
What is etched in our minds as we go though, is the kindness of people we meet. Australia is a wonderful country full of wonderful open hearted people. It’s a little surprising to me re the old cliche about country people. It’s true. They do seem happier, have more time, more willing to help.
The BNT is a linked chain of official volunteers and stems out to locals who sometimes don’t even know of the BNT but are willing and able to help. Our official co-ordinators for the sections we have rode have been more than generous with their time and advice. Jenny (& Hilary) even rode with us the first few camps, Leanne left her Artists trail day (she sculpts from farm refuse!) to visit us with maps advice and tomatoes and potatoes.
A friend of Karens welcomed us into her home and entertained us with jaw dropping stories of her work in a senior government position and introduced us to the “pet” kangaroo that visits most night to sit by her fire before going out and spending the day with her kangaroo mob friends!! Others volunteer places to leave our truck which leaps frogs along with us as we go.
The trail is littered with characters. We met a bunch of guys camping from Sydney with their horses. One of them riding in a saddle made in 1897!!
I do love the orienteering aspect of the journey. Following maps, books and GPS, often calling on all resources to find the clues to know which direction to take. Its very satisfying to make it accurately to camp even though I have made a couple of blunders so far, (without major consequences), I am getting better at it.
It’s journey to be in love with ……………. and such an active journey. That dog tired feeling at the end of the day, hitting at the sack almost with the sun and rising again as it rises. The fulfilling of each days plan is, well, very fulfilling!