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INTO THE OUTBACK : Pub Crawls on Horseback in the New South Wales Bush

September 26, 1993|DEBBIE SEAMAN | Seaman, a free-lance journalist who recently moved from Paris to Sydney, describes herself as a "lapsed horsewoman." and

GLEN INNES, Australia — I'm not sure at what point I realize, on my horseback pub crawl through Australian bushranger country, that (at the age of 40) I've inadvertently managed to go back to summer camp.

It might have been that night after dinner when our host, Steve Langley, tells our troop how he and an earlier band of pub crawlers, deeply in their cups, decided to cure a sonorous snorer among them by putting a screaming, squirming baby wild bush pig in his bed. More likely, though, it is the afternoon we seven equestrians, led by Langley, thunder up a hillside overlooking acres of rolling, eucalyptus-dotted cattle country and, struggling to pull my hat back on my head, I stifle the urge to holler, "Yee-ha!"

When I first set out on this trip, a tour officially called "Pub Crawls on Horseback," I wonder if I haven't stumbled into some weeklong equestrian saturnalia. The horses all sport such bibulous sobriquets as Southern Comfort, Bailey's and Bourbon. And Steve Langley's Bullock Mountain Homestead, near Glen Innes in northeast New South Wales--where his pub crawls on horseback begin and end--seems a shrine to partying pub crawls past. On the walls, immortalized in calligraphy, are ballads, sent to Langley by nostalgic guests, hinting at horrid hangovers and clandestine couplings, along with the expected saddle sores and stiff joints.

The ruddy-faced Langley, too, seems a veritable bushman's Bacchus, his stomach straining against his blue work shirt, his sleeves rolled up to reveal the panthers and peacocks tattooed on his arms--mementos of his days in the merchant marine. His blue eyes gazing unflinchingly out from under a classic Aussie stockman's hat, he exudes a hail-fellow-well-met camaraderie, and, an irrepressible raconteur, he has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of stories, usually outrageous, often off-color.

It soon becomes clear, however, in spite of its near-Chaucerian overtones, that temperate participants can temper a pub crawl. Indeed, we are a largely sober crew, our favored means of escapism apparently more gallop than grog. Even Langley, who says that he used to tipple on the trail until a guest complained, is sober in the saddle and merely high-spirited pub-side. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how a head-splitting hangover could be endured in this most rural of regimes, in which we pub crawlers rise early, usually feed and saddle our mounts before we sit down to breakfast ourselves, and are on horseback most of the day.

"Langley's Raiders," as he likes to call us, make up as motley a crew as any holiday camp could hope to assemble; we include a trucker, a nurse, a motelier and the manager of the corporate gym at one of Australia's big breweries. Two others are unemployed, and all are Aussies save myself, a "Yank." And all, with the exception of a former government employee whose posture in the saddle taxes Langley to the outer limits of his skills as a host, are competent, if not crackerjack, horsemen. But, as we are to discover under Langley's firm tutelage, woe be to the hapless horseman who dares take the lead on the trail or shirk his duties at feeding time later.

Our schooling begins after lunch on the first day at the Homestead--a cluster of simple but sturdy buildings and corrals--with such trail tips as how to tether our horses with frayed twine so the gear doesn't break if they're spooked, or how to pull their forelegs forward after saddling up to reduce the risk of girth gall. Assigned mounts according to our professed ability--I get a lively chestnut named Pimms, who reminds me of a ship on high seas when he canters--we take a trail ride past an old sapphire mine on Langley's property to break us in. It's raining lightly, and, having donned an Aussie Akubra and one of the long, weathered oilskin stockman's coats Langley has availed us of, I feel transformed.

If only it were that simple: I only half-listen to Langley when he warns me that I'm going to have to forget the English school of riding to which I'm accustomed, and that, if I fail to get the hang of the deep-seated, long-stirruped Australian style of riding, I'm going to come down with "knee-monia." Dropping his own stirrups and reins, he circles us in a canter, his arms extended as if he's imitating an airplane, in order to demonstrate the desired balance seat. I nod and notch up my stirrups anyway.

Our host cheerfully rousts us from our beds at 6:45 the next morning., "Are we all happy little Vegemites?" he crows, mimicking the ad campaign for that foul-looking breakfast spread that the Australians, like the English, are weaned on. Then he vanishes into the woods, and we hear only the rifle-like reports of his stockman's whip before the horses materialize in the eucalyptus trees out of the dissipating mist, heading for the corral. Stable cats slink across the paddock, and, as the sun gets hotter, we're serenaded by Australian bush bird song, the maniacal laughter of the kookaburras and the shrill warbling of the magpies.

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