Get ready, globetrotters, you’re in for a real treat! The wonderfully talented Erica Neumann kept a journal of her horse riding holiday in the Victorian High Country of Australia and very kindly allowed us to share it with you all! Honestly, Erica’s in-depth account of this trip is perfect – I couldn’t have written it better myself. If you’ve ever wanted to know what’s in store for you on the ever-popular Craig’s Hut & High Country Ride, keep reading!
Day 1: Friday, November 11th
Well, here we are. We’ve all met at the Merrijig Hotel, where 16 of us riders are about to be trucked out to Stockyard Creek Campground, where we will be staying for the next three nights. The campground is owned by Graeme and Wendy Stoney, who are a fourth generation High Country beef cattle family. After a half hour or so meandering on the rough road through some hilly, scrubby countryside, we arrive at our destination for the next three nights. A number of horses are munching away on their dinner in the paddock as we go down a beautiful driveway, crossing a small creek lined with huge big trees. On the other side we see a lovely timber hut with lots of character and a large pond with water streaming in at one end and out the other.
After making the introductions with our fellow riders, we discover our dormitory style sleeping arrangements. Some rooms are for couples and/or anyone who wishes to be on their own, and some have two or three single beds. At the end of the building is the room for the rowdy mob! I’m not sure how many beds there are in there but there are also loft beds up some ladders. I am in the loft! I almost feel like the mother hen watching over her chickens. The rest of the hut is divided with a breezeway, as many years ago the only way to cook was with wood stoves, which consequently heated up the whole house, and Lordy Lordy, who wants that in the middle of summer? Then we come into a large welcoming lounge area with a huge open fireplace. The kitchen has a gas oven, stovetop and grill. There are hot showers and outside toilets with loads of interesting memorabilia for our hungry eyes to suss out. Plenty of rustic bench seats and tables outside on the decking, where I am sure many a tale has been told.
Our riding group consists of 14 girls/ladies and 2 fellows. I met Leanne, who lives only 20-odd kilometres from me, and discovered that we have a few mutual friends and that she also rides her horses in the Mount Crawford forest! Talk about a small world. We are introduced to our crew: Christian and Laura, Swampy, Micko, Gwenanne, Libby and Murray, who will be our cooks/guides/entertainers/strappers/stable hands etc for the following six days. With beverages in hand, we all have a natter to each other, finding out where we’re all from and discussing our riding activities at our own homes. Christian and his great team whip up some tasty mini spring rolls with sweet chilli and soy sauce for nibbles, followed by a delicious mushroom and chicken risotto for dinner. Micko and Swampy have also busily prepared a ragging bonfire for us to sit around as the evening comes to an end. With dishes washed, dried and packed away, we sit in the warmth, watching the flames flickering about as Christian discusses the events for the following day. I seem to have forgotten what we had for desert but know that whatever it was it was tasty.
Day 2: Saturday
I had my own million star accommodation last night watching the stars and moon from my bed, as the window was right next to my head. The chickens below drifted off to sleep with not much trouble, good little chickens. I woke up to a beautiful morning, with the sun shining and only a few non-threatening clouds. The crew had an early breakfast of cereals, fruits, yogurts, bacon and eggs with all the trimmings, hot brewed coffee and tea ready for us. I know already that I am going to struggle to fit into my wardrobe at home!
After the morning duties, we ventured down to the holding/saddling area and picked out a suitable mount for ourselves. Each horse was busily munching on some tasty breakfast from his or her nose bag, after being called down from the paddock by one of the team. They certainly know the drill! I picked out a beautiful girl called Audrey, who is a Percheron cross of some sorts. She is a big bay girl who will hopefully make my bum look small! The saddles and tack are all in top condition, which from past experience for me is an absolute godsend. Everyone is shown how things work and given a brief talk on their mounts’ temperaments. We saddle up and go for a ride, passing by some Hereford cows with black Baldy calves at foot, and the new bull just about to be dropped off to check out his harem, which we will be rounding up after lunch. Onwards we ride up through some scrub-lined tracks towards some very old Chinese graves and gold digging sites. Amazing to see how people lived in the days of the Gold Rush – too bad if you needed something from the shop!! We’re acquainted with our mounts now and able to decide if they are going to be okay for us.
Back to the hut we go for lunch, leaving our horses saddled and tied ready for our afternoon ride. Sangas and wraps, yummy. Now we’re back in the saddle and we are split into three groups, some to block tracks that the cows might decide to escape along, and some to follow up behind the cattle. I have gone ahead with Swampy and a few others, and we’ve called our group ‘Swampy’s Sweeties. Slowly the cattle are meandering down the Howqua track, running along the river. I’m taking in the stunning views, crossing untold creeks and waiting for those red and white mummas to bring their babies down. What a pleasant ride, eventually opening up to some flat areas where we let the cattle graze at their own pace. No hurry here, just enjoying this wonderful, almost magical experience.
On our way back to camp, I had a minor mishap with Audrey. Not to worry, life wasn’t meant to be easy all the time, and I should have been a Girl Scout and learnt to ‘be prepared’! Leanne and Chrissy accommodated me to their room, as there was no way I was going to be able to climb my ladder to my bed. Christian and co had a lovely stir-fry ready for dinner followed by apple crumble! Mmmm, yummalicious! Everyone drifted down to the campfire to enjoy each other’s company. Swampy broke out his guitar and sang us some ballads – what a legend.
Day 3: Sunday
Rain, rain, go away, come back another day!
Reasonably quiet day for me today! Bacon and egg breakfast, then I watched everyone saddle up early and wander off into the distance to muster the cattle up into the yards. The bull calves were ringed, and all were marked and had their ears snipped out so they could be identified at the sale yards. Heaps of rain. I was going to walk up to those yards and be the photographer for everyone, but I piked out as the rain was coming down with a vengeance. Everyone came in to the hut for lunch. They said it was a good morning to be sitting in around the fire in the lounge room! Thanks Audrey for getting me out of that job today, we must have secretly planned it together.
Christian’s friend Cody, his wife Sarah and daughter Dakota came for the afternoon to give us some training clinics, which were very interesting. Cody and Sarah have their own business training numerous animals of all shapes and sizes to be used in movies. Cody showed us how to deal with horses that are nervous or head shy, and how to get them to join up to you in the round yard. Pressure and release seems to be the go. I remember at puppy school, it was all about rewarding the good and ignoring the bad. Christian and his team cooked a delicious roast for dinner with all the trimmings again. Can’t beat a roast on a Sunday night, especially when it’s cold and wet outside. Wendy Stoney joined us after dinner to give us some history about the area and how it came to be the way it is now. She was a lovely lady and her stories were enjoyed by all. Quite a few drinks were had by many. Overall, it was a good day for me to be sitting inside by the fire and playing Uno with Dakota.
Day 4: Monday
Wow, what a day. Up early for breakfast, then we packed all our gear and made our own lunch to carry in our saddlebags, as we are bugging out of camp by 9. My horse today is Pokey, a lovely large bay Percheron cross with a great nature. Happy to sit back and plod along, but also happy to have a trot and canter when asked to. We followed the Howqua River for 32 kilometres, crossing it around thirty times with those cleverly-placed hooves over rocks and boulders under the fast flowing water, which on some occasions was up to the horses’ tummies. We stopped at numerous historical sites. First of all, Fry’s Hut. Here Swampy gave us a great talk on how Mr Fry had built it with the help of his horses. He had used whole logs cut from the nearby trees for the roof beams, which were pulled up and over the top, manoeuvred steadily with the horses until they were in the correct position and then secured in place. This building was used for many years as a hotel, watering hole, and a meeting place for companionship and festivities for the cattlemen and the miners. It’s now just a lovely building for us and many travellers to look at with admiration and awe, trying to imagine the strength and capabilities of our forefathers. No cranes or power tools used here!
After Fry’s, we trek on to Richie’s Hut, another beautiful timber dwelling that I am sure if it could talk would have some great tales to tell. We’ve stopped to rest our horses whilst having our picnic lunch under the huge welcoming gumtrees, the Howqua River merrily singing her song as she flows by. I search around to find a suitable log to stand on to be able to mount my tall girl, and then we all continue on to a beautiful campsite called Pikes Flat, where we will be spending the night. The horses are let into the holding paddock after being given a good rub down. They have their pyjamas put on and are left to eat their dinner in peace. The sounds of laughter and joking abound as we try to put our tents up! The camp is bustling with activity as we have all had a great day, and are now in this beautiful spot dotted with massive gumtrees and the river flowing past right next to out tents. She will be putting me to sleep tonight for sure!
I had such a good day that whatever we had for dinner has slipped my mind, but once again there were no complaints! This is truly a magical, wonderful experience with so much beautiful scenery along the river and through the gullies. The horses are doing a fantastic job, being so surefooted along narrow tracks, some precariously steep climbs and then the opposite, slipping and sliding down over rocks and tree roots to get to where we can cross the river once more. Another lovely evening sitting around the campfire listening to stories, lots of laughter and Swampy strumming and singing some more of those famous ballads. The warmth from the coals and the mystical flicker of the flames are readying us for our swags. I can see the full moon peeking, sneaking her way up over the range. Now she’s in full view, and I’m sure she is smiling down at us as she knows that it’s going to be a chilly morning – there is not a cloud in sight! What a great bunch of people, I’m having so much fun.
Day 5: Tuesday
Yep, I was right! Such a fresh morning! No frost, but a very heavy dew. That cheeky moon…
Everyone is up early for another delicious breakfast of bacon and eggs, spaghetti, tomatoes and toast with freshly brewed coffee and billy tea. More fun and games as we pack up the tents and all the gear that was needed for our incredible night. The horses are saddled and we’ve set off at 9:30 under a clear, bright blue sky.
Today has consisted of extremely steep climbing, zigzagging up the side of the mountain range heading for Mount Stirling, trotting and cantering where possible, and just having a great time. We stopped at Howqua Gap hut for a BBQ lunch and a well-earned rest for our trusty steeds. After lunch we continued to zigzag and crisscross our way to the top. Awesome scenery, as the flora changed many times during the ascent. The trees became smaller and more twisted, probably from fighting fierce winds, snow storms and hot summers over many years. When we had almost reached the top, the land changed once again. Not as many trees, but quite good areas of flat ground covered with palatable grass where the cattlemen had been bringing their cattle to graze. What a feat that must have been for both man and beast. Swampy told us how a salt lick was placed in a certain area for the cattle so that they would congregate there around mustering time. The higher we climbed, the cooler the air was. The fog was wisping across our trail, threatening to block our view of the surrounding ranges. We reached Mount Stirling with the fog lingering around us, but still it was an awesome feeling. We came across a patch of snow that the horses were not too keen on stepping onto. It was quite funny watching them tiptoe and snort aloud at this strange white stuff!
From here we begin the descent to Razorback campsite (Purcell’s Hut) where we will be staying for the next two nights. We can choose to either sleep in the bunk beds or put a tent up. I’m going to bunk in with Theresa, Petra and Leanne. The tent scenario was funny the night before, but we are higher up the mountain and I know it’s going to be even colder tonight! It was great riding today, chit-chatting with different people along the way and arriving at our destination at 5pm after approximately 22 kilometres of spectacular countryside. The horses have been unsaddled, given a well-earned tidy-up, rugged, patted and given a yummy nosebag full of goodies. In the hut there is a large room with a huge fireplace, already fired up for our undercover dining. Christian and the team are working busily, erecting the screen for our outside shower, heating the water in the homemade donkey boiler, and getting dinner under way. I’m really enjoying this! Fettuccine bolognese and garlic bread, followed with a yummy desert that Laura made for us. Another joyful evening packed with sharing the day’s events, a few beverages around the campfire, and a wonderful display of whip cracking and poetry from Christian’s friend Stewart. Thanks Pokey, I hope you had fun today – I know I did.
Day 6 Wednesday
Ahhh, a lovely, toasty warm sleep in the bunk house. Those who chose to sleep in tents were all pleased with their night outside, too. Breakfast was just as good as every other day. We mounted up early again and started our climb up to Craig’s Hut, the horses picking their way carefully along the sometimes narrow tracks through the scrub and stones. We came past Mount Stirling for another look, and this time it was a clear as clear can be! Heaps of photos were taken because there we were, the Kings and Queens of the mountain! The scenery was spectacular – we could see for miles. Swampy pointed out the mountains, naming them all. Mount Buller was in full view across the valley, but no snow or snow skiers there today. They should have come over to our mountain – mind you, we didn’t really want to share our patch of snow!
Onwards we ride to Craig’s Hut where some scenes from the movie ‘The Man from Snowy River’ were filmed. What an awesome place. Our horses are parked under some trees and given some yummy treats while we have lunch under the bright blue, sun drenched sky. Everyone is in awe once again at this fabulous setting. We all wander around, taking untold photos, some mounted and many unmounted, as we explore Craig’s Hut and the surrounding area. The neighbouring mountains are in full breathtaking view – just wonderful. After taking in the serenity of this magical place we remount and start our descent back towards Razorback Hut. We have stopped once more on Mount Stirling for some more amazing happy snaps. The sky is as blue as blue can be, and not chilly at all, unlike yesterday. Overall, we rode for around seven hours and covered approximately 25 kilometres, with numerous bouts of cantering and trotting along the way.
Once again, the team back at camp had everything ready for our comfort. Horses unsaddled, fed, patted and tucked into bed for the night. I was third in line for a shower tonight, YAY! Got that out of the way and into the night’s festivities. Christian and the team cooked up a storm, presenting the yummiest Porterhouse steak cooked to perfection with a mixture of delicious salads and breads, followed by caramel cream tarts topped with strawberries. More singing and laughing around the fire with quite a few jokes being told, as usual! What a wonderful day and evening. Possibly a few too many drinks and a really late night had, but that’s what holidays are for. Thanks Pokey for looking after me today, you’re a gem.
Day 7 Thursday
OH NO! This can’t be happening!! It’s our last day…
Well I guess it did have to happen eventually, I just don’t want it to stop, and I’m sure we’re all feeling the same. What’s that lovely aroma that I can sense? My head is feeling just a little worse for wear. Ahh, Laura is busily cooking bacon and French toast for breakfast! What a champ. The campfire is still ticking over from last night and bringing the billies up to boil. Freshly brewed coffee going down well with me this morning… Must check through my camera to see what photos were taken! We’ve had so much fun! We pack up all our swags, tents, luggage etc and prepare for our final ride. The horses have been fed and brushed by Gwennan and Libby in readiness for us to saddle up.
We mount up and have our group photos taken down on the grass by the hut, then take off in our smaller groups for the final descent, Swampy and his Sweeties bringing up the rear. A few miles down the track, we venture along an old trail that obviously has not been used for many years. Christian and Murray chainsaw their way through ahead to clear the path for us. As we ride lower down the valley the flora has completely changed again, with huge tree ferns, river crossings and lots of blackberry bushes. Finally, after crossing the last river, we emerge at our dismounting area. I’m feeling a bit melancholy now. It seems like the time has flown.
Mum was there waiting with Leanne’s husband, Jeff – how cute. Our horses were unsaddled, given a wash and smooch, then parked under the trees to wait for the trucks to come and take them home for a well-earned rest. We had our lunch under a huge tree on the lawns. Then we said our goodbyes to all the wonderful people we met, grabbed our luggage, hopped into the cars and headed back to reality.
I wish to thank Christian and Laura, Micko, Gwennan, Swampy, Libby and Murray for the best experience I have ever had on a horse ride. You are an amazing crew: your eye for detail was terrific, customer service exceptional, and you were all caring and funny. I cannot fault any aspect of the last week. Thank you – I will be back.
Erica Neumann xx
P.S. Thanks Pokey, I love you to the moon and back! xx