Explore the mythical heart of the Australian wilderness on horseback with the real life Man from Snowy River, writes Julie Miller.
Deep in the Kosciuszko wilderness, a handsome grey brumby emerges from the shadows, his shrill whinny echoing across the valley as he challenges a group of riders who have dared venture into his territory.
Beneath me, my little bay mare tenses, ears pricked, momentarily contemplating the stallion's bold invitation of freedom; but with a quick pat and reassuring word, I return her focus to the job at hand, carrying me on this exhilarating adventure through the Australian bushland.
This spellbinding moment - seemingly plucked from the pages of literature - occurred about 20 years ago now, but it left an indelible mark, helping me understand that this was my happy place: on the back of a horse, riding through an unfenced wilderness.
I have since returned to ride in the Snowy Mountains High Country with Reynella Rides on several occasions, once with my then 14-year-old daughter; and I have plans to return soon with my pony-mad granddaughter, the third generation to be seduced by this mythological landscape and its silver brumbies.
At the helm of Reynella Rides, leading trails through the Kosciuszko National Park for nearly 50 years, is John Rudd - a real life 'Man From Snowy River' with a gruff exterior, twinkling eyes and an infectious sense of humour.
Now aged 85 and with just an inkling of retirement, Rudd has had a lifetime affiliation with the High Country, continuing a family tradition of guided trekking through Australia's most picturesque and evocative countryside.
"My uncle used to take out parties into the park after World War II - I went with him as a boy aged about 10," says Rudd.
"I started my own business in 1971; grazing was pretty tough back in those days, and I had some horses, so the trekking started out just as a way of making an income. The big thing is having horses that are good enough and fit enough to do this kind of work."
Reynella Rides is truly as legendary as the terrain it explores, with an exemplary reputation for hospitality, horsemanship and safety. This, of course, is the countryside that inspired the 19th-century bush poet Banjo Paterson, entrenched in the Australian psyche as a place of romance and adventure.
Who can forget the image of a young Tom Burlinson riding headlong down a vertical slope on a fearless buckskin pony in the 1982 movie, The Man From Snowy River?That spirit of reckless determination is at the heart of every rider's dreams as they embark on a Reynella trek, hoping to capture that spirit-stirring bravado.
While the pace may not be as frenetic as the movie chase through the snow gums, there's no doubt that a multi-day horse trek through the Snowies transports guests to another world.
From joyous canters across wide open plains to silent climbs through eucalypt trails; from bracing dips in the frigid Snowy river to roaring campfires under a tapestry of twinkling stars... it's every wonderful cliché of the Australian bush, wrapped in an oilskin coat and presented with an ice-cold beer.
Days in the saddle can be long and gruelling; dismounting at sunset becomes quite the art as your knees give way, screaming enough is enough.
By day three, John Rudd tells me, the pain goes away; and it's true that your body adjusts as your riding ability improves. While beginners are catered for, it certainly helps to have several riding hours under your belt prior to a Reynella trek; and with each day covering up to 40 kilometres in distance, there's no turning back once you hit the trail.
"The horse is a great leveller," says Rudd.
"We've had everyone ride with us, from high court judges to sitting prime ministers - even a US senator. But whether you have $10 or $10 million, you're on your own when you're riding, and that's what people like - it's a down-to-earth situation.
"There's nothing better than riding a good horse on a good day; out in the mountains, you're living in the present, there's limited mobile phone reception - it's a different world."
The terrain covered presents a different kaleidoscope each day. After a cosy introductory night at the Rudd's homestead near Adaminaby, the ride sets off from Providence Flat, the trail sharply ascending as it winds into the northern realms of the 6900-square-kilometre Kosciuszko National Park - a mesmerising landscape of rugged mountain peaks, stark snow gum forests and vast grasslands dotted with wildflowers, mobs of kangaroos and waddling wombats.
Occasionally, you'll catch a thrilling glimpse of the controversial wild brumbies grazing on the High Plains; while pioneering dreams are encapsulated in rustic alpine cattlemen huts, some dating back as far as the 1860s. Lunch stops are made in picturesque glades to stretch legs, catch some rays and defrost with a mug of billy tea; while evenings at a campsite begin with a welcome beer and a hearty meal cooked over an open fire.
It's here around the glowing embers, engulfed by the dazzling Milky Way and soothed by the strum of a guitar and relaxed snorts of grazing horses, that you experience true tranquillity - the ultimate release from the stress of modern life and a journey of body and soul into one of the most remote, ancient wildernesses in the world.
Drive: A Reynella trek begins at the Rudd homestead at Adaminaby. From Sydney, it's a five-hour drive via Canberra, following the M31. From Canberra, take the highway to Cooma (not the route via Bobeyan Road, as often advised by the GPS) before continuing onto the Snowy Mountains Highway towards Tumut.
When: Reynella's riding season is from late September to April, with the 50th anniversary trek on 14-20 February 2021.
* Please note that the NSW/Victoria border is currently closed due to COVID-19 restrictions.
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