IT’S A MAG­I­CAL KIND of early au­tumn day in the mag­nif­i­cent Vic­to­rian High Coun­try, when the air is still warm and sun­light fil­ters through the shad­ows of the tow­er­ing for­est of alpine ash. High up on Howqua Gap, the nar­row ridge­line be­tween the sum­mits of Mount Stir­ling and Mount Buller, Chris­tian Hayes and his staff pre­pare a bar­be­cue lunch for their group of guests who’ve spent the morn­ing rid­ing horses through this spec­tac­u­lar moun­tain ter­rain. Later that evening as ev­ery­one gath­ers around a camp­fire at Ra­zor­back Hut — one of the tra­di­tional High Coun­try refuges — Chris­tian is joined by the rest of the team, his wife Laura, and their chil­dren, one-year-old Digby and Made­line, now four. “Made­line comes on trips with us and did her first ride with us re­cently on her lit­tle brumby pony, Tin­ker,” says Laura. “She loves to help out in the kitchen, and now Digby is also com­ing on camps a bit.” Laura, 32, and Chris­tian, 34, op­er­ate Hid­den Trails by Horse­back from Tolmie, as well as their 40-hectare farm at Bridge Creek, both just out­side Mans­field some 200 kilo­me­tres north-east of Mel­bourne. Their work­place takes in some of the most rugged and iconic scenery in the coun­try. Each year from Oc­to­ber to early April they take guests on a va­ri­ety of horse treks — some last­ing an hour, oth­ers up to 10 days — vis­it­ing a num­ber of the area’s leg­endary sites, in­clud­ing Craig’s Hut, The Bluff and, ev­ery sec­ond year, the Bo­gong High Plains. “Peo­ple come here from all over Aus­tralia and the world and they’ve seen the film The Man from Snowy River and want to ride here,” says Laura. “Most nights we spend in huts or down on the river. The ter­rain out the back is big and dra­matic and for a lot of peo­ple it’s a bucket-list ex­pe­ri­ence.” When the High Coun­try sea­son ends in April, the fam­ily de­camps and trav­els more than 4000 kilo­me­tres to north­ern WA, where they run horse treks from El Que­stro Station — an out­back re­sort and wilder­ness park — and nearby Home Val­ley Station. They camp at pri­vate wa­ter­holes and spec­tac­u­lar sites be­tween the two sta­tions, which are about 100 kilo­me­tres south-west of Ku­nunurra in the re­mote and dra­matic land­scape of the East Kimberley. They stay un­til Septem­ber. “Our horses are al­ready in the Kimberley, but we take a full camp and run rides on the station or six-day treks in the Cock­burn Range,” says Chris­tian. It was through their love of horses and shared pas­sion for Vic­to­ria’s High Coun­try that Laura and Chris­tian first met, back in 2008, while he was work­ing for Mans­field cat­tle­man and trail-rid­ing op­er­a­tor, Char­lie Lovick. “I had moved here just be­fore I met Laura,” says Chris­tian, who grew up on


the out­skirts of Mel­bourne. “I al­ways loved horses and I went to the States for three years from 2003, tak­ing pack­ing and hunt­ing trips on the back of Yosemite Na­tional Park. I learnt to shoe, han­dle and break horses in.” Chris­tian was al­ready a qual­i­fi­fied chef then, and had worked in res­tau­rants in­clud­ing Caffffe Grossi with chef Guy Grossi. When he came home from the US, he did far­rier work and rode bulls in rodeos. Laura grew up on the NSW south coast and she too loved horses from a young age. “From eight years old I was in pony club. I had grand­par­ents in the Hunter Val­ley who had horses. They had Bran­gus cat­tle and the land was steep — it was all horse work there and I spent a lot of time rid­ing there,” she says. Laura was work­ing in event man­age­ment when she fi­first started bring­ing cor­po­rate groups on Lovick’s trail rides and met Chris­tian. A year later she had moved to Mans­fi­field. “I started work­ing for the Lovick fam­ily with Chris­tian,” she says. “I just fell in love with the place, the fan­tas­tic peo­ple and the ter­ri­fific town of Mans­fi­field.” In 2010 Laura and Chris­tian went out on their own and started Hid­den Trails. “We started offff with six or seven horses, a busted Toy­ota and a chain­saw,” says Chris­tian. “All the op­er­a­tors here offf­fer some­thing difff­fer­ent and we felt we could bring some­thing difff­fer­ent to the horse trekking ex­pe­ri­ence with Chris­tian’s chef train­ing,” Laura adds. “His spe­cialty on the trips is chicken and mush­room risotto, and roasts — and our cus­tomers ap­pre­ci­ate it.” To­day they have about 90 horses be­tween Tolmie, Bridge Creek and the Kimberley. “We train our own horses and we love work­ing with our young horses, it’s sat­is­fy­ing,” Laura say. “Our stal­lion Big Ben is a Cly­die, Percheron and stock­horse cross. His tem­per­a­ment is fan­tas­tic and we breed sturdy moun­tain horses from him. We both have an in­ter­est in cam­p­draft­ing and Chris­tian in rop­ing, so we oc­ca­sion­ally breed some stock­horse or quar­ter horse crosses from out­side stal­lions.” When the Kimberley sea­son draws to a close and they pack up for the long haul south, spring and sum­mer in the High Coun­try beck­ons. “We look for­ward to com­ing home,” says Laura. “Be­ing out in the moun­tains with the wild­flflow­ers among the gums at that time of year is the best time.”

For more in­for­ma­tion about Hid­den Trails by Horse­back, tele­phone (03) 5776 9867 or visit hid­den­

Rid­ing out of Tolmie to­wards Mount Buller in the Vic­to­rian High Coun­try. FAC­ING PAGE Chris­tian’s chicken and mush­room risotttto is a camp favourite.

ABOVE, FROM LEFT Chris­tian with his grey mare Maggie; Chris­tian and Laura’s daugh­ter, Made­line, en­joys camp life on a horse trek with her par­ents.

For Laura (left) and Chris­tian (mid­dle), their beloved High Coun­try is their home and work­place. Here they are with lo­cal horse­man and friend, An­drew Arms­den (right), who some­times helps them out on rides. FAC­ING PAGE The cater­ing van is an essential part of the camp set-up.

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