Meet Rochelle Nicholls from Talbingo, NSW, who’s turned her stable career as a librarian into inspiration for a horse-trekking adventure recreating the journeys of Australia’s pioneering women. Brooke Nolan caught up with her to find out what made her say yay – not neigh – to such an endeavor.
Making Friends From Afar
Last year, I got stuck in the UK for months, trying to get a flight home during the height of COVID-19. One of the things that kept me sane during lockdown was immersing myself in outdoor adventure groups on Facebook and living vicariously through others. And, of course, dreaming of the adventures I could have once I got home.
It was in one of those groups that I stumbled across a kickass Aussie woman called Rochelle Nicholls. When we first started chatting, Rochelle was on the hunt for women to join a descent down the Murray River from source to sea. I didn’t need much arm twisting – I was in!
Sadly, the trip wasn’t to happen (well, not yet anyway) due to COVID-19 restrictions scuppering our plans not once, but twice.
No long faces here though. Rochelle isn’t someone who is short of ideas for big adventures and with the Murray trip on hold, she turned to the true love of her life….her horses! I couldn’t wait to find out more about her latest adventure, Ride like a Girl.
BN: I understand you’re on a bit of an adventure right now – what exactly is it that you’re doing?
RN: I’m re-enacting the journeys of six pioneer women in Australia, with my pack horses and dog.
The journeys will take place over the next two years and I’ve just completed the first one; a 150km ride from Thuddungra to Yass in southern NSW, in the hoofprints of Sarah Musgrave, the first European child born in that region in 1830.
When Sarah married in 1853, she had to ride for eight days from her home at Burrangong Station to the church in Yass through bushranger-infested scrubland, risking getting lost, running out of water, or being held up by bandits, and then ride back afterwards to tend to her uncle’s sheep.
She was the daughter of pardoned convicts, and was an incredibly brave and resilient woman who lived to the age of 107.
Gosh, you don’t horse around do you. How on earth did you come up with that idea?
Professionally, I’m a librarian with an interest in Australian history, and personally, I have a passion for long-distance horse trekking. So, this is the perfect way for me to combine my two interests.
What’s the ultimate aim of the expedition?
I want to provide recognition for the pioneering women of Australia – they were brave, they were resilient, they overcame incredible hardships, but their achievements have been much overshadowed in the Australian historical record.
By taking on these expeditions, I hope to revive the stories of Australia’s colonial women and uphold them as role models for girls and women today. I’m also fundraising for Girl Guides Australia during my rides.
The mission of Girl Guides – to empower girls and young women to become confident, self-respecting, responsible community members – is a great match for the stories of the women I’m re-enacting.
Introduce us to your four-legged crew. Who’s on the team?
My three horses are:
Zee – a 16 year old chestnut Quarter Horse. Zee is the lead horse in the packhorse string. He reserves judgment about most people, but if you can connect with him, he’ll literally take you anywhere!
Frodo – a ten year old grey Australian Stock Horse, super gentle and kind, a true ladies’ horse.
Scooby – a four year old palomino Arabian. Scooby is learning the ropes of trekking. He’s a clever, enthusiastic young horse bred for long-distance travelling.
How did you discover the stories of the pioneering women that you’re recreating?
My interest in Australian women’s history began in 2008 when I became the town librarian in Talbingo, in the NSW Snowy Mountains. Talbingo is the birthplace of Australian author Miles Franklin, who was a renowned feminist and came from a family of extraordinarily strong women.
It was learning the story of Miles’ mother, Susannah Franklin, which sparked the idea for these expeditions. She was also born in Talbingo, and when she married in the late 1870s, she moved with her new husband to Brindabella Station, an isolated outpost in the mountains west of modern-day Canberra.
Susannah fell pregnant and, as the birth of her first child neared, wanted to return to her own mother in Talbingo for the birth. In 1879 – at seven months pregnant! – she trekked alone through some of Australia’s roughest and most dangerous mountain country, riding side-saddle and with the horse floundering through snow more than four feet deep.
As if that wasn’t enough, when the baby (Miles) was born, she then rode home, with the three month old infant perched on a pillow on the front of the saddle.
I remember being captivated by her story. It’s just such an incredible feat of endurance and courage. This set me on a path to gather other similar stories of the bravery and resilience of Australian pioneer women. They deserve to be celebrated.
What journey are you most excited to recreate and why?
Some of the women whose journeys I’ll be recreating are very famous in the Australian lexicon, such as women’s rights activist Caroline Chisholm (now immortalised on the $5 note) and Miles Franklin, after whom Australia’s most prestigious writing award is now named.
But others are much less known – they were housewives and immigrants, often following their husbands from their familiar environment in the UK to a harsh new land full of dangerous creatures, brutal climatic conditions, and unmapped wilderness.
The fact they were able to adapt and survive makes them absolute heroines.
What’s the biggest challenge when planning a horse-trekking adventure?
Trekking with horses in a vast, dry country like Australia involves a lot of logistics, particularly securing water along the route.
Water is too heavy for a packhorse to carry and towns are often great distances apart, so you have to take water wherever you can get it – puddles, roadside ditches, anywhere.
Very often, kind people along the route will offer water from garden taps or tanks, but you can’t rely on that, so you have to plan ahead with maps and apps to identify streams, rivers, and other water sources.
Is there anything you’re a bit nervous about?
I get asked a lot about being scared as a woman travelling alone, but I like travelling alone and being with my horses and dog – we’re a great team.
In terms of personal security, my philosophy is not to put myself in risky situations and to always maintain a line of communication to the outside world (usually through my Garmin Inreach).
Travelling alone means I’ve had to learn practical skills for camping, cooking, and horse care, but it has also taught me a lot about myself: how I face challenges, how I handle my own thoughts and memories, how I cope without the comforts of everyday life.
Tell us a bit about your past adventures. Have you always had a thirst for the unknown?
I grew up on an isolated rural property and as children, we were free to roam the hills, climb trees, swim in the creek, and generally live outdoors. Every day brought a different adventure.
My spirit of adventure was further reinforced by my grandmother, who took me out of school when I was 15 to go backpacking with her in Asia. She was a super cool lady.
My passion is for adventures that push me both physically and emotionally. In 2020, I took on a virtual challenge to run the length of the UK from south to north, which I did by running 10-40 km a day for 10 weeks.
In 2021, I’ll be running seven marathons in seven days in June, and I’m also running my first 100km ultra race later in the year. Being an ultra runner is great training for long days in the saddle.
Well, it’s clear you’re no one trick pony (sorry, not sorry).
What does this journey mean to you?
Australia has a wonderful history of punching above its own weight – population-wise, we’re a small country, but we consistently make amazing achievements in academia, the arts and on the sporting field beyond what such a small nation should be expected to achieve.
I believe this comes from our history of struggle against the harsh elements – of both men and women braving the extremes to break new ground. Many of these women from our pioneer past have never had the recognition they deserve.
I hope my journey will bring them some of that, and uphold their resilience and courage as worthy role models for women and girls today.