Craig Pearce has developed a special connection with the Long Plain region through many horse riding and camping trips. Settle in and join him as he reflects on the magic, history and sense of belonging found in the high country of Kosciuszko.
Steam jets pulsed out of the horses’ nostrils, vaporising into the morning cold. Mist was hanging, serried waves levitating above the Long Plain veldt. Cooinbil’s gentle slope sighed its way down to the ‘Murrumbidgee basin’, where the river’s headwaters thicken with momentum through a confluence of tributaries. The grass was crisp, frost-bitten.
Welcome To Summer, Christmas In The Kosciuszko
Huddled by the campfire were the old boys, hibernating deep in their jackets, farmwork-hardened knuckles gripping scalding mugs of tea, shaking off the effects of last night’s muscat (or what passed for muscat; its mysterious steel drum source a cause for consternation, and equally dubious storytelling…)
About 10m away, swaddled in a sleeping bag and blankets, under a dew-barrier tarp tied between trucks, was my four-year-old boy, kept close company by breakfast-grazing horses. He was on his first camping trip, eyes wide open but with no intention of escaping the warmth. What, I wondered, was going through his mind?
It was a mode of sleeping that didn’t last long on that first Long Plain trip, as a savage wind soon settled in. We moved inside an open-sided cattle truck for a night’s sleep you wouldn’t categorise so much as drafty as gale-afflicted; tarps along the truck’s side flapped wildly, vainly trying to keep the wind and rain at bay. We rocked like Led Zeppelin. And while my son slept the sleep of the sinless, I anxiously waited for the whole box and dice to come tumbling down.
We were at Cooinbil Hut campground, deep in northern Kosciuszko National Park, just another shard of devastating beauty in the Australian outdoors.
A Christmas Camping Tradition
Up here on the plain, it’s permitted to bring and ride horses, making camping — with the cockies (full-timers, dedicated dabblers or wannabees) and their equine obsessions — a unique outdoors experience.
Whether using small, knockabout, ‘make-do’ stock-trucks or massive (in size and cost) goose-neck horse/human hotels-on-wheels, country folk migrate here in summer to help discipline their horses and for the joy and challenge of riding them through country.
Many years have passed since that first trip to Long Plain, now an established Christmas tradition, but the area’s beauty and the pleasure of horse camping remains constant.
It’s been a long-term romance for my son and I, frequently returning to the enriching embrace not just of the bush and its tamed elements, but of our friends and of our own memories — in many ways, our own holy land. It has provided an outdoors education for us; a foundation for the many wilderness adventures we have undertaken since enrolment in the Long Plain Preparatory School For The Outdoors.
For such an extended period have my son and I been inhabiting the area, it now inhabits us; a sun pulling us inexorably towards it. When living in Perth for several years, each time flying east, as the Pacific came closer, I felt the plane being wrenched south, to head up top of Talbingo Mountain, to those Kosciuszko plains where my heart has found a fatal attraction.
Country, clearly, can get under white man’s skin too.
Heritage On Long Plain – It’s Complicated
Long Plain is an elongated saucer-shaped expanse running about 30km northwards from the Snowy Mountains Highway, not far from the ruins of Kiandra, a historic goldmining town, with Talbingo and Cabramurra being the closest sources of provisions.
All this action resides in a lesser known and less frequented section of Kosciuszko National Park than its southern sibling, which hosts its namesake mountain and the plentiful indoors accommodation options of Thredbo, Jindabyne and Perisher. The northern section’s accommodation is pretty much limited to the rustic Currango Homestead and some options at Yarrangobilly Caves.
Like the adjacent Cooleman Plain, Long Plain has links with numerous Aboriginal tribes. The area was part of a major travel route from the west to the coast. Ceremonies and trading occurred here.
The area’s sprawling grass plains were used by pastoralists from the 1830s, and for many years stock was herded up here for the summer months, before being taken back down before the snowfalls began. While grazing stopped in the area in the 1970s, its heritage is a strong presence in this part of the world, just like it is in sister-region, Victoria’s Bogong High Plains.
Similar to the Bogong, mining heritage also plays its part. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries lead, copper, zinc and silver mining took place, though the romance of gold means Kiandra still hogs the heritage limelight in this regard.
The white man-inhabited history of Long Plain is emblematic of much of Australia’s past, which is perhaps not so different to other countries such as the USA and those in Central and South America where Europeans invaded and claimed land for their own.
Arguably, white man’s presence in the Long Plain and Cooleman Plains area has been lighter than in many other parts of Australia, if only due to the snowy winter climatic challenges. And while imperialist mistakes should be recognised, and behaviours adapted so such condescending, hegemony-seeking approaches are not continued, the reality is white man’s heritage — this part of the world being a vibrant example — is now intertwined with that of preceding Indigenous cultures, deepening the complexity and resonance of the region.
The white man-influenced aspect of this wild area has somehow become subsumed into what constitutes nature — a nature hybrid; not one defined by bricks and mortar and gyprock; but one also not ‘pure’ wild; a sort of mid-range version, semi-tamed, if only by its naming.
Naming, as David Malouf has written, seems to give some sort of ownership or sense of containment to those who have bestowed the names. This ignores the fact there may already be occupants (i.e. Indigenous people) of the land and history of substance to recognise and respect. In the case of European man, this naming reflects a self-absorbed sense of entitlement.
Don Watson has written about the destruction of nature being a psychological precondition of the European colonisation of Australia. Up on the Kosciuszko plains, I’d characterise it more as a taming and controlling, though clearly the introduction of sheep, cattle and horses did destroy aspects of the environment, an error of occupation that was recognised and acted upon. The horses, however, and their impact, remain…
Horses In The High Country
Today, white man’s heritage on the plains manifests itself in two very visible and striking ways (putting aside the power lines that dissect Long Plain):
- The animate: Brumbies
- The inanimate: Graziers’ huts, homesteads and ruins, including collapsed fencelines
Whether a keen rider, or just being in the company of those whose lives are characterised by a dedication to horses, a camp with the latter is a very different, and a very memorable, experience.
It’s hard not to love horses. They are such noble, intelligent, elegant and athletic animals. Close quarters observation by itself provides a soulful sort of de-stress, enhanced by physical contact — one is never too old to affectionately rub a horse’s neck. The simple essentials of caring for them — providing feed, water, protection — constitute a quiet, calming routine; an exclusion of non-core needs.
The view from a horse is obviously more elevated than from the ground, so it offers a different perspective. When riding a horse, there are factors the rider needs to be aware of different to that of a walker, even if they are sometimes subtle. The last time I went out my horse kicked one of my friends because I was too inexperienced to see it coming.
The ‘tourist’ horses, on their summer holidays, join their permanent resident brumby brethren. Unlike with camp children, however, there isn’t much socialising between the two cohorts.
The ‘brumby question’ is a troubling one for many people. They are feral animals; an introduced species damaging the environment. Arguments (and they do tend towards being passionate, antagonistic arguments rather than ‘discussions’) have been around for years, either we should
- Cull, shoot; capture and remove them or
- Leave them to their own devices as they are part of our heritage.
There’s no accepted (from the dreaded ‘stakeholders’) approach to their management, even now.
My opinion? Allow low numbers to continue, with the priority being to minimise environmental damage. To keep those numbers under control, ideally trap and rehome them (though the horses don’t always take to this), but if not cull them as humanely as possible (yes, that probably means shooting them).
The wild horses are connected to the huts and homesteads, all of which are associated with the grazing heritage.
I camp with people who have deep family roots in this history. Sheep — and it was mainly sheep in this part of the world — were brought up here for the summer months in big mobs from Adelong, Tumut and as far afield as western Riverina — possibly a reason why Cooinbil Hut is named after Cooinbil Station from out Coleambally way.
It was a ritual and an adventure for the graziers, connecting them to the land, deepening friend and family relationships. Visiting the huts — and there are numerous only accessible by foot or by horse — adds to the sense of belonging they have to this land. Books by Matthew Higgins, such as Bold Horizon: High-country Place, People and Story provide fascinating anecdotes and insights into the development/use of this area.
The extended family and friend dimension lives on today, reaching a breathless apogee when kids from different camp set-ups congregate to create cooperative activities. When my son was about 6 he joined up with his regular camp partner-in-mischief and a group of other kids to roam beyond the ‘formal’ bounds of Cooinbil itself to go brumby stalking.
Clearly, brumby stalking for a group of 6-8 year olds is serious business. But a bit daunting for a dad who has to release the leash enough for the city boy to go wandering in the bush… the massive upside being, of course, the boy is dependent on the knowledge of his country cousins who have more bush-sense than him, and he gets to stretch his comfort zone, without even realising this is occurring. The excitement and joy they all came back with still ignites a massive smile within me.
A more immediate and closely quartered impact is that it brings — it has in my case anyway — those who share the outdoors experience closer together, creating a shared history, one free of screens, deadlines and ‘busyness’, where the priorities are breathing in the day and putting food in the belly: people and the environment are what’s important, not social status or material possessions.
Claims On Country
Only a sustained romance creates the deepest intimacies. Over many visits, the world of Long Plain has developed in my son and I a construct of serenity and refuge. As with Proust’s madeleine episode, the vicissitudes of life dissolve not only when we begin the drive down Long Plain Road to our Cooinbil camp, but when we conjure up memories of our times there.
Our reflecting on the experiences has enriched them. We have conflated moments that have constituted our journeys there — bushwalks; horse rides; cave exploration, ice cream and thermal pool escapades at Yarrangobilly Caves; all the simple and prosaic elements comprising camp life into a joyous personal dreamtime.
All this occurs in the bush, on the land. In the context of our urban lives, this is living elemental, embedded in country. These are essentials in the internal ecosystem we have created, one respectful of the heritage bestowed upon us, but that also one that includes beliefs, histories and relationships that we bring and have created — all our own — to the world of Long Plain.
That embrace: it won’t let go.
Author note: With thanks to Ted O’Kane, Peter Peel and their families for their camp coaching, and insights which have been integrated into this story.
Photos by Royston and Craig N Pearce
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