With his left hand holding the reins and his right casually directing a packhorse by lead-rope, Lin Baird leans back in the saddle and glances over his shoulder. Stretched out behind him follow 18 horses saddled with packs and riders inching their way towards an exposed rocky pass known as Hell’s Gap.
Cast against Mount Bogong’s sheer south-eastern flank and a deep gully of impenetrable forest far below, it’s easy to see why the southern Great Dividing Range has long held theatre in Australian national mythology. Bushrangers, brumbies, cattle rustlers, drovers and legendary horsemen all played out their epics amplified by the same dramatic backdrop.
Today most visitors experience the Australian Alps in a queue at the base of a chairlift in winter. But from December to April it’s still possible to ride out amid the mountain plains and twisted snow gums where Australia’s icons have been immortalised.
Operating out of a hand-built home stead in the shadow of Mt Bogong at Tawonga, Steve and Kath Baird (and sons Lin and Clay) have run Bogong Horseback Adventures, a unique, multi- award winning horse expeditions business, for just shy of 30 years. I begin a five-day expedition into the High Country by arriving at their stables a nervous novice. With a sense of comedy, Lin and Clay immediately set to demystifying safety around horses and introduce me to the basics of “natural horsemanship”. As hominid and equine acquaint, Lin winks in my direction and labels me a predator – apparently because I have eyes in the front of my head. “Horses on the other hand are prey animals,” he says, and the likes of Spur (the grey standard bred gelding I’m paired with) are care fully trained to put up with the likes of me.
As I settle into my saddle up valley on the old East Kiewa River stock route, it crystallises that a ride into the Victorian Alps is also a journey into its multi- layered history. Steve points out that Ned Kelly and Bogong Jack, the Gentlemen Bushranger, both made hideouts here among the high ridges and heavy timber, but over the coming days the plains also reveal brumby traps, cattlemen’s huts, Chinese goldmines and sites of incalculable Aboriginal significance.
An essential part of ascending these mountains at a hoof ’s pace is also an intimate appreciation of the different climates and vegetation. After our first camp in a tree-fern gully on Bogong Creek, Clay leads us higher into the mountain folds via Timms Spur, and as the temperate rainforest gives way to leathery snow gums, the air becomes crisp. Finally, we ride above the tree line onto alpine meadows presided over by Mount Spion Kopje, Mount Nelse and Cemetery Spur. Although the highlight is yet to come: under clear March skies we practise a canter and watch wind swept peaks that will soon be hidden by snow glide effortlessly by.
Each day the journey demands three to six hours in the saddle and an active persistence to transition from passenger to rider. But fortunately the struggles of travel by horseback are no preclusion against gourmet dining or a comfortable sleep. Lin and Clay serve wine in the evenings and prepare meals built consciously from locally sourced, homegrown and organic produce. Smoked pork sausage and puy lentil cassoulade, Moroccan lemon chicken on couscous, marinated pork loin and stir-fried Chinese greens all feature on the menu and work as a general prescription against saddle-induced bowleggedness. Post-dinner our swags make private observatories to the stars before a blink of sleep brings frost and breakfasts of fruit, muesli, wood-smoked bacon and eggs on toast with billy-boiled tea and coffee.
Before our final evening, Lin again proves the salt of his surname, clearing fallen trees with an axe on Long Spur as we climb onto the Bogong High Plains proper. It’s our final assault on the mountains, and as we approach Hell’s Gap on day five I suddenly recall how a Victorian Aboriginal elder, Uncle Albert Mullett, once summed up the Australian Alps to me as the “Kakadu of the South.”
Looking over an immensity of forests, ridges and valleys, I finally begin to understand what Uncle Albert meant. This is the heart of more than three million hectares of adjoining national parks, state parks and state forests stretching from Victoria to the Australian Capital Territory. It’s an ample theatre to host the mythologies of a nation, and so far – thankfully – the play continues.