The Condamine Bell

Packing the mails in flood time 1889

Steve and I left Tonimbuk in November 1986, after purchasing the ‘goodwill and license of a High Country riding business. It was the beginning of our big adventure to North East Victoria, into a new community, to settle and operate our tourism business in the Bogong National Park, now known as the Alpine National Park. It was a huge decision for us and our little boys Lin 4 yo and Clay 2 yo, leaving our own families and the communities we had started our early family life in. As a young mum of two adventurous active little boys I was so busy and possibly very naive, but we had plenty of passion and lots of love between us and a big sense of adventure.

In the earlier months of 1986 we began to prepare for our big mountain ‘tree change’, purchasing our plant and equipment, and collecting a mixture of good horses tried and new. When Steve arrived back from a road trip to Queensland with a Toyota full of saddles, bridles and pack saddles, the excitement and anticipation of our future was palpable. As we sifted through the tack I inquired as to why we needed bells and collars? We thought our horsemanship skills were ok, but our education in horsemanship and pack saddling was basically self taught other than the early training by Clive Hodge whom we rode with in the early 1980′s teaching us the ways of the mountains, navigating, finding good camps and the first practice in the art of pack-saddling. The Toyota’s loads were the first time I had ever seen a stockman’s bridal, a traditional extended head bridal that were regarded as a safer alternative to the single ring bridal, or hobbles to allow the stock to feed out at night and keep the horses from traveling too far on their own! Well, in principle anyway.

Steve also picked up three bells with neck straps, one large, one medium and one small, all with different tones and levels of volume, all rang very loudly, especially when the boys discovered them and started running riot around the house. “They are used to keep track of your stock when camping” Steve said. “Won’t the bells scare the horses?” I asked, secretly hoping we could return them with a full refund.”They’ll get used to them” he said “They are called Condamine bells, used traditionally for the bell mare, in the old days to keep track of your horses when you camped” he added. I worried about our decision and how we would manage to camp with 20 horses. We had camped with six before and that was hard enough, but twenty?

Captain was a strong horse, heavy boned, quarter horse type, big chest and a solid rump, a kind eye and a wide head, Grandpa (Frank Viney) used to say a good width between the eyes makes for a smart horse. He was all business, a very fast walker and was our first gift from my dad (Bill Viney) to our riding team. Captain had been a staff horse at Tonimbuk trails but my dad had decided he would be best in the mountains as he had ‘no mouth’ meaning he was hard to stop, probably a lifetime hangover from negligent riders in his youth. Dad had already saved Captain from the sale yards and the doggers, I suspect, but because we were not sure of his reliability as a riding horse we felt he would be well suited as the lead packhorse, calm, strong and reliable with stamina by the bucket load. So after a short introduction to a pack load, his future career path was born. Captain became Bogong Horseback Adventures’ star lead pack horse. He was a dream to lead, tie up and load, he never spooked, bucked or bolted, although he never free travelled either as he was such an independent horse he would go straight home alone or lead the others if the opportunity arose.

One summer, maybe early 1990′s we arrived at the old stock yards opposite Cleve Cole hut on Mount Bogong, we unpacked all five pack loads (we now have seven) and set up our camp under a canopy of twisted snow gums, surrounded by the horses hobbled out, grazing peacefully with the rattle of the chains around their fetlocks. It was a warm and unusually balmy night. After a yummy dinner and some campfire banter we all retired to our welcome beds of either swags or tents.

Some of the feedback in the early days was that the bells on the night horses would keep guests awake, but Steve said he always slept better when he knew the horses were near and not off at a hobbled tramp – homeward bound. Our horse camps previously on that trip, had been further away so the bells were a distant gentle jingle through the trees. My goodness as I lay looking skyward the moon had risen and a glow and radiance had filled the air, I felt like I was the luckiest woman alive, tucked into the swag next to Steve, anticipating some well deserved sleep, and wondering what adventures lay ahead tomorrow.

Around 3 am I was still awake with my mountain man snoring gentle beside me and the BLOODY BELL ding~a~ling~ing it’s ding~a~ling song all night long. I knew exactly what was happening in the yard, Captain was grazing gently until a mare took a lunge at him and the bell clattered as he fled her bared teeth. I could hear the groans of our patient guests every time the alarm rang out! Finally after a long night of grumbling from me, drifting deeply only to be woken again to the noise of the bloody bell, it was time to become pro-active. Camp was finally quiet, so I chose my moment. All the horses were resting peacefully with only the occasional gentle jingle of Captains bell. Desperately needing a couple of hours sleep before light, I squeezed out of my swag and was surprised at the temperature. Seeing Captain close by in the snow gums, I crept over to him ducking under the slip rails. I put my hand on his strong neck, “whoa, boy” I soothed as I slid my hand up to the leather collar to undo the buckle and silence the bell for good. “Whoa, Captain”. BANG with a sudden pull back he was off, the bell on full volume at a hobbled gallop across to the other side of the moonlit yard!

There I was, as the tent zippers unzipped and the grumbling guests poked out their sleepy heads….. a stark naked tour guide, looking rather silly. I had no where to run, nowhere to hide, so I stretched out my tired arms and called out “good morning!”