Riders to Snowy River

... and the Snowy River riders on the mountains make

their home,

where the river runs those

giant hills between; I have seen full many horsemen since I first commenced to roam,

But nowhere yet such horsemen

have I seen.

WE kept this quote from Banjo Paterson in mind as we stood in the heat of the Tarmac at ``Flight Facilities'' in the Sydney airport. An hour and a half later our six-passenger Aerocommander landed us safely in Tumut on a tiny airstrip with a small, tidy waiting lounge. Tumut is a mysterious, intriguing name for this rather ordinary town that was spread out in the broad valley at the base of Australia's Snowy River Mountain range.

Tumut was to be our meeting point for the Talbingo Rides, and we joined the seven Australians who were to become our riding family for the next five days.

The ride would begin the next morning after a 5,000-foot ascent by bus to the upper plains of Kosciusko National Park. This is one of the largest and most important of Australia's national parks containing the continent's only alpine region. The snow-scattered meadows on these plains act like a giant sponge absorbing and releasing water from the melting snows of the high country. Our horses were waiting for us at Witz's Hut, a nondescript building in an open field.

Our hostess, Jeanette Miner, greeted us with tea, coffee, cold drinks, and homemade cookies - a preview to the special cooking that was to come.

``Snow,'' Jeanette's husband, and one of the best-known stockmen of the Snowy River country, was to be our trek guide. A bona fide bushman, Snow was a contained, soft-spoken man, uniformed in green work shirt, blue jeans, and an Acubra hat. His piercing blue eyes sparkled with humor indicating he didn't take himself too seriously. He faded in and out like the invisible man who was always there in one form or another, valuable qualities we thought, for a bushman and expert tracker.

Australian stock horses are a thoroughbred and pony cross averaging 15 to 16 hands. Crystal and Star, our mounts, were exceedingly comfortable, willing, and spunky but manageable.

It would be our job to take care of these responsive equines and to saddle up our own horse each day using the hefty Australian stock saddle. Small slanted wings on the saddle just above the knees help prevent a rider's untimely forward motion. The cantle is high, allowing a rider to sit back with legs extended and slanting forward (the position most often used by the Aussie stockmen). Bridles were put on over halters and attached lead lines were given a hangman's knots to keep them easily available.

About midmorning, we loaded cameras and sun cream into our saddle bags. Our unchristened Dryzabones, the classic rainwear of the drover and bushman, were tied securely to the fronts of our saddles, where their comforting presence gave us a real feeling of place and history.

We headed off across Wild Horse Plain, a meadow of snow grass, occasional scrub growth, and meandering brooks. Ranges of hills covered with eucalyptus trees, more often called gums, shimmered blue in the distance, a more intense blue we were told, because of the eucalyptus oil breathed into the atmosphere by these bewitching trees.

A feeling of enormous space encompassed us as we rode along this high tabletop of Australia. At 5,000 feet the air was cool and clear. Even the ever-present flies were awed into tranquility, polka-dotting any clear-colored shirt, and hitching a free ride to their next nuisance station. Their unceasing buzzing would initiate the infamous ``Australian salute'' - a constant slow-motion wave of the hand in front of the face.

About 14 miles out we stopped for lunch and heated water for coffee and ``Billy'' tea while we munched cold chicken legs, sandwiches, and fruit. The horses had been tied in a nearby eucalyptus glade, where we discovered two horse skulls among the tall grasses. Brumbies - wild horses - had perished during a winter storm, attesting to the severe weather found on these plains.

Four miles later we ended up at Long Plain, an early stockman's camp, now part of the National Trust. Fireplaces with crumbling mortar were at each end of the corrugated-metal roofed building. A passageway ran from front to back with rooms off each side. Here several of our group decided to spread their bed rolls later rather than pitch a tent outside. Our horses were set to graze after they were untacked.

Waking to a wonderful scenic day right out of ``The Man from Snowy River,'' we caught our horses, brushed and saddled them up to ride off across the plain through snow grass and bush to the headwaters of the Murrinbigee River. The sky went from sun to clouds to sun as Snow picked a narrow spot to cross the swiftly flowing water, avoiding stagnant pools of water called billabongs.

A hill rose before us, rounded domelike with sloping shoulders, and at the top a tuft of trees that could have been green curly hair. Craters filled with large boulders looked like misplaced eyes. Patches of flowers were scattered like bits of cloth across the hillside. A belt-like path moved around the rise, trailing into the distance. Along this narrow pathway the group proceeded single file. Far below a river curled with the look of a stunning snakeskin, rippled in places and sparkling in others from the frothy broil of stone and water.

We rode up the ridge, crossing the plains toward a distant saddle of bluish hills beyond. The rolling plains were wide here and the wild hop scrub grew thickly hiding a ground full of wombat holes. Yet the horses maneuvered expertly over the hidden ground. We stopped abruptly as we neared a stand of stringybarks and saplings. Not far from us near a fallen log was an enormous black eagle. Snow thought it had been injured as we were able to ride quite close before it took off in a thrilling ascent.

So off to scout the mountainside

with eager eyes aglow

To strongholds where the

wild mobs

hide the gullyrakers go.

A slow gradual climb to O'Rourke's Peak began. Snow raised his arm for silence as we entered the meadow whose trails had been marked with pile after pile of stallion droppings.

He had told us earlier, ``If a Brumbie sees or hears you, he'll let out a snort, wheel and go.'' Like good children, our hands went to our mouths and our eyes widened in anticipation. A glade of closely cropped clover imprinted with hoof marks gave hopes of a glimpse of these elusive wild horses. Were we near the stronghold ``where the wild mobs hide''?

The track wound around the hill through groves of silver and green eucalyptus rising among the strewn gray skeletons of dead trees. Puffs of wind found their way through the uneven gallery of gums where the silence, with only the hooves beating softly on the brush and turf, gave a feeling of enchantment. We had entered this hidden territory treading over strands of white strawflowers on into small openings golden with tall dandelions, blue bells, and lichen-covered brush with the look of hairy limbs.

We came upon a fresh earthy spot pressed flat by the rolling of many horses. Were we riding on ``Brumbies Run,'' in this magical wood? Our path dropped suddenly 500 feet into a warm and sheltered hollow and up went Snow's arm. He pointed. ``Six or seven,'' he said, and in a flash they were gone.

The traveler by the mountain

track May hear their hoofbeats pass, And catch a glimpse of brown

and black,

Dim shadows on the grass.

We found it difficult to understand why the wild horses were hunted and shot by park rangers, for it was the romantic vision of these wild horses and the bushmen as set forth in the film, ``The Man From Snowy River,'' derived from the Paterson poem of the same name, that had brought us 10,000 miles.

We had been forewarned about Australian flies and had decided to come armed for battle. At home our local feed-store agent had come up with two elegant army-green head nets. During lunch our Australian friends were flicking their noses and eyes with expertise beyond our skill so we chose that moment to quietly don our exotic head nets.

Looks of complete amazement and hoots of laughter followed. They decided that the Americans had indeed come well prepared. Sheepskin seat savers, leather half- and full-length chaps, rubbers and L.L. Bean boots to keep the heavy summer dew from soaking footwear, and wonder of wonders - bug bonnets!

The capricious moods of the range weather were revealed as storm clouds and distant thunder rolled ominously toward us, putting all to work trenching the uphill side of the tents. A trap was extended over the supper cooking area and tent pegs were tightened against the gusting wind. Our Dryzbones were unrolled ready to be christened for what promised to be a wet night.

Thunder crashed above our heads. The cascading water sealed us under the canvas as we savored our steaks, mashed potatoes with peppercorn sauce, carrots, turnip, and fresh zucchini.

Morning bird calls from the bush just before dawn woke us. The rain had gone and a valley of mist lay below in the plain. Everything was dripping with moisture. We were thankful we had decided to pack rubber-coated footwear. Breakfast as usual was hearty choices of hot porridge, muesli, sausage or bacon and eggs, toast, jams, vegemite, and coffee or tea.

Each day the horse trails took us over diverse terrain. The Peppercorn Plain was no exception. Here we moved toward yet another variety of eucalyptus, Black Sally. These picturesque trees reminded us of fresh broccoli with reddish highlights. A darkly dramatic sky made those trees edging the plain even more vivid.

And then we saw them in the far distance, at least 70 kangaroos jumping toward a copse of stringybark and sheoak. We followed Snow into the wooded area where we began bushwacking, following no apparent pathway, down into a hollow and up again. Snow's hand rose and pointed, half a dozen kangaroos, perhaps 200 feet away, were loping through the undergrowth.

All of the legends, myths, and dreams of one born in the Northern Hemisphere came together in that moment. It was incredible, we really were down under!

Later, our group decided to visit the Yarrangobilly Caves. These fascinating caves had been carved from a belt of limestone by the river of the same name. The path to the caves led down a deep gorge with an even steeper drop to an emerald stream far below. Our path faded into the mountain where an enormous, cavernous chamber with a hole, the Glory Hole, opened to the skyline like a direct route to heaven.

A green fertile mound within the cave invited the fantasies of a rock gardener or perhaps the placement of a chamber group to weave melodious sounds in the acoustical perfection of the space. Descending into the next chamber was like heaven into hell. Here smooth white forms like partially melted marble urged themselves up from the cave bottom, stalagmites, yet more like frozen souls caught in a time warp.

The next cavern was also unique. On its ceiling were tiny stalactites like miniature fir trees on a snow-covered mountain - an upside-down version of the American Rockies in the winter, down under.

That evening the clouds in the east were rimmed with orange, changing to shades of pink, creating an alpine glow. Shades of blue and purple washed over the sub-alpine meadows and distant hills as the sun sank behind the tall eucalyptus grove west of the campsite. Locusts, bush wrens, and crickets from the wood thickets bordering the camp summoned the evening and the dusting of stars to come.

After exchanging hilarious stories, the group, which had firmly bonded by this time, fell into a reverential silence and Snow began a reading of his favorite Banjo Paterson poems. A small shower of sparks lit up the night as a burned out log fell, as our Snowy River dream came became reality.

He hails from Snowy River, up by

Kosciusko's side, Where the hills are twice as steep

and twice as rough,

Where a horse's hoofs strike

firelight from the flint stone

every stride,

The man that holds his own is

good enough.

This was the man and his Kosciusko. We felt privileged to have had him share with us some of the secrets and wonder of his bush. A faint glow remained at the heart of the campfire's dying embers as we moved reluctantly to our tents.

This final night had been glorious with its pale congregation of stars and the cool unblinking eye of the moon sailing above the silent gray ghosts of the gum trees. The sad two-toned cadence of the Australian owl echoed our feelings as it warned us, like a distant foghorn, that our time was up. The bush was inscrutable, ageless, and self-contained. It was we who were wholly irrelevant.

Fog lay in the plain as we rose the next morning to a crackling fire and the smell of bacon. We finally agreed to sample the foul-smelling vegemite, a yeasty concentrate which is spread on toast, and thoroughly enjoyed the looks of repulsion on each other's faces. Tents were packed up and luggage stowed aboard the Land Rover. We left camp in the morning, pushing our horses into a fast 4-mile per hour walk.

Dark shadows of brown, green, and gray glided over the rolling plains like the shapes of gigantic prehistoric birds. In Colorado, they would call it a sundance. Where it grew longer, the grass moved as does the sea when the wind is passing by.

The track took us up to Mt. Tantangara, 6,200 feet. We rode through a forest of gnarled gums turned into agonized forms as if by some ancient Merlin. One tree in a tortured, twisted pose, long fingers extended to the ceaseless wind, was a Martha Graham from another world. Others, collapsed and fallen, like undiscovered ivory and ancestral bones in an old elephant burial ground, reminded those passing that not all days were as kind and lovely as this.

At the top, a shower of golden wattle appeared at the base of some of these bleached edifices. Suddenly the whole world seemed to spread out before us in a spectacular 360-degree view of Australia's rooftop. Snow had saved this piece de resistance as his closing gift to us. We were grateful.

A sensation of fertility and rebirth marked our descent where the green grasses and golden wattle spilled down the warmer side of Tantangara's olive green bush. Sharp, flinty stones made it slow going as the horses picked their way down toward Wild Horse Plain.

It was the fine line of the state highway and the sight of the placewhere the ride had begun that inspired a last burn - hard ride. Dirt, small stones, and mouthfuls of dust flew as our posse headed for home and the final goodbyes.

As the bus took us along the Park Highway back to Tumut, we gazed at the wild scenery of the hills, valleys, and plains. We knew now what it was like. We could hear the gurgle of those streams, the squishing of muddy wet grasses and the language of birds, see the variety of tiny wild blossoms, mottled backs of gum trees, and textures of wild grasses.

Too soon our adventure was over, yet we needed to evolve a little more slowly out of our completed dream. A six-hour train ride back to Sydney seemed a less abrupt way to allow the shimmering bush and the rolling plains in those folded hills of the Snowy River Mountain Range to become a memory.

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