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DESTINATION: AUSTRALIA

No Dudes on This Ranch, Mate

Taking a break in the 'Alps' north of Melbourne, where horses are boss and a three-day ride with barbed-wit Aussies requires a tough hide

September 24, 2000|MICHAEL D. MOSETTIG | Michael D. Mosettig is a writer in Washington, D.C

MANSFIELD, Australia — There's only one thing that could get a city slicker like me--one whose idea of a perfect vacation is sitting in a cafe--to sleep on the ground in some rural wilds. That one thing is a horse. I've been riding and loving it since age 6, spending summers as a kid on a New Mexico ranch. I never imagined that I could repeat the thrill of 20 years ago, when I raced across the Egyptian desert on a magnificent Arabian horse with the Pyramids as my backdrop.

I managed to come close to, and in some ways surpass, that experience last year on a three-day horse trek in the Alps of southeast Australia's state of Victoria.

A newspaper article I clipped years ago drew me to this ride at a ranch called Stoneys' for a long weekend out of a mostly urban vacation in Australia. But for many of my 19 Aussie counterparts, a ride at Stoneys' is a trip back to their country's relatively recent rural past and its frontier mythology. This is the Australia captured in the 1981 movie "The Man From Snowy River." On Stoneys' ride you can, like Kirk Douglas and the other film characters, ascend and descend mountains on sure-footed range horses and dash through rugged woodlands, jumping fallen eucalyptus trees along the way.

Stoneys' is a combined cattle and horse operation now in its third generation of family management. The ride's organizers make sure you get the frontier experience with only a few concessions to modernity. My idea might have been to end each day's seven hours of riding with a stop at a three- or four-star hotel with a hot tub and a bar, but this place gives no quarter to Americans wanting to be pampered.

Stoneys' is about three hours' drive northeast of Melbourne, and the best place to start getting in the spirit of the place is the Hunt Club Hotel ("established in 1873") in the town of Merrijig.

Someone from Stoneys' meets the Melbourne bus in Mansfield and drops off weekenders at the Hunt Club so they can stock up on beer and wine for the ride. Australia is a BYO country, even in the best restaurants, and evening libations (hard or soft) are one thing Stoneys' does not provide.

The three-room pub was humming the Friday evening we arrived. Monday was a national holiday, and locals and visitors alike were well into a long weekend of singing and dancing. The area east of Mansfield is Australian ski country and popular with hikers and boaters the rest of the year.

We spent Friday night in the bunkhouse at Stoneys' base camp, and after the last of such creature comforts as showers and indoor plumbing as we would see for a couple of days, we tucked into a full cholesterol breakfast of eggs and bacon. We were meeting our horses by 8 a.m.

Here you are reminded that this is a country trying to hold on to its egalitarian traditions. In other words, you take care of the horse that's assigned to you, based on your level of riding experience. (Stoneys' accommodates all levels of riding competence; our youngest rider was a spunky 8-year-old, the oldest 56.) You groom and brush your horse each morning and then saddle it (the Aussie model of our western saddle but without the pommel). Then each afternoon when the ride is over, you give it a good wash.

My horse, Gun Smoke, was temperamental, and his dislikes included the brush and any contact with water, so these chores took a bit of time plus continued vigilance for ears laid back, the warning that he wanted to take a nip or a kick at his tormentor.

Day 1 of the ride was through the Howqua Valley, which provided the lasting, redolent memory of gum trees, which smell much more pleasant than air freshener. The ride was in two seven-mile stretches, crossing the low Howqua River several times, and giving the experienced riders some running and jumping.

Midway, a hearty lunch was provided by the four-wheel-drive equivalent of a chuck wagon, which carried all of the riders' personal gear and tents as well.

Then it was 1,500 feet up to the high plains, and that's where the off-horse fun began.

After seven hours on a horse, you are covered in dust. You have only one option to get clean: the river. Yes, it's cold. The faint of heart can put a towel in the water and use it as a washcloth. That is somewhat less chilly than plunging in for a swim. Also, in an environmentally hypersensitive area--they don't even feed the horses oats so as not to introduce foreign elements--soap is forbidden.

Now, sort of clean and changed, and hungry and thirsty, we gathered for dinner round a roaring outdoor fire. Here you meet the real Australia.

This is a country of prodigious eaters and drinkers. As the wine, beer and whiskey flowed--and when the kids were abed in their tents--so did the ribald and wicked humor, indulged in with equal zest by the women and the men. If you are thin-skinned, blue-nosed or politically correct, you won't be happy in this crowd.

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