IN THE SADDLE
FROM TOLMIE, VICTORIA, TO THE EAST KIMBERLEY REGION OF WA, MEET THE COUPLE WHO LIVE THEIR LIFE ON HORSEBACK.
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 TERRAIN OUT THE BACK IS BIG AND DRAMATIC AND FOR A LOT OF PEOPLE IT’S A BUCKET-LIST EXPERIENCE.”
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 hiddentrails.com.au
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.