This latter party included, at my ill-advised initiative, one of the most incompetent riders in the history of horsemanship — a former barrister and parliamentarian named John Bennett. In fact, I don’t think he had ever been on a horse before, at least not a live one, such was his ineptitude in the saddle. He was allocated a passive, amiable animal that quickly realised the awesome task he had been allotted. Indeed, as we rode single-file down a track into a remote hamlet John’s horse chose to deliberately veer under the overhanging trees in an effort to dismount him. I have no doubt of that. On the way back, within sight of the campsite, the horse stopped. It was statue-still. It refused to move. I learned of this from Bennett’s plaintive cry of “The xxxxing thing won’t move, mate.” Horseman Bennett was in the saddle in the middle of the road thrusting his hips forward in an obscene manner with tribal clicking noises coming through clenched teeth.
SOME TIMES we forget — or perhaps take for granted — what marvellous physical assets we have in this state.
Depending on where we live, most of us are reminded of some aspect of the island’s natural beauty every day whether it be the Derwent or Mt. Wellington or the seascapes and hinterland of the north west or the wild beauty of the west coast or the panoramic tranquillity of the east coast on an autumn morning or the rocky grandeur of the Tasman Peninsula or the serenity of the Tamar in a spring evening. All of that and more and all of it, too, juxtaposed with old stone in old houses and old timber in sleek yachts and much older tarns and rocky terraces in the high country.
In recent years my wife and I — along with various friends who may be local or from interstate or overseas — have spent a good deal of time visiting various parts of the state, usually for two or three days. The menu has included the Tasman Peninsula, the east coast, the far south down to Cockle Creek, the west coast, the Arthur River area, Launceston and the Tamar Valley, the Derwent Valley, Bridport and the north-eastern corner, Penguin and the hinterland of the north west and there is a full book for the next few years.
These travels never cease to enchant because there is always something new, something different, even if we are returning to a destination we have visited before — a newly discovered bush track, a ruin we had missed many times because it is off the track and unmarked, a restaurant that is new or in new hands, a pair of eagles soaring from a nearby peak, a few juicy abalone on a rock in knee-deep water, a picnic in the stillest of still glades, a pasta dish to die for in an old pub in an old village. All of that with good company with whom the problems of the world are readily and amiably solved subject, of course, to a glass or three of good red wine. And what makes this kind of travel especially enjoyable in Tasmania is the accessibility of wherever one wishes to go. Nowhere in the state, including the two principal Bass Strait islands, is beyond a day’s travel.
I have also been fortunate to experience recreational travel in Tasmania on horseback and a marvellous experience it has been too. Back in the late 1980s during my brief flirtation with parliament I had cause to meet with a deputation of mountain cattlemen who were concerned not to lose their access to the high country of the Central Plateau in those relatively infrequent years when they required agistment of their cattle due to drought conditions on their properties. So as to properly immerse me in the issue they invited me to join them for a three-day ride across the plateau.
I had been exposed to a modest dose of horse riding as a child but that had been four or five decades previously but I nevertheless accepted the invitation and, in the few weeks available, sought to brush up my rudimentary equestrian skills — with sufficient success as to not make a total idiot of myself. In all of this preparatory activity I was indebted to the guidance provided by Simon Cubit, a public servant in Hobart at the time but a lad from Mole Creek who is a fine horseman and a member of the fraternity of mountain cattlemen. I had a few practice rides and was much the better for it although not without a certain tenderness around the knees and backside.
The horse was called Narelle
The riders got together off the Marlborough Highway near Circular Marsh. Apart from Simon and myself the others were the late Reg Dixon and his son Bobby, Neil (Chummy) Johnston and George Rance. Reg Dixon was a farmer in the Mole Creek area and a man familiar with the high country over decades of riding in the area and agisting stock there from time to time. Indeed, at various times over the years he had stayed for some months on the plateau when trapping possum was remunerative until the price withered from competition due to synthetic options. His son Bobby operated a stock transport business in the Deloraine area. Chummy was a dairy farmer south of Mole Creek in the lee of the plateau.
George Rance had recently arrived in Tasmania to take up the position of chief executive of the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association. As I best recall, Reg Dixon was in his late seventies at the time and the horse he rode — one of a number he and Bobby owned — was called Narelle. Reg and Narelle moved as one, as a single unit. There seemed no physical division between the man and the horse, so seamless was the cohesion of movement, so sculpted the unity of man and beast and the setting in which they moved. And every time we moved out, whether at the start of the day or after a rest, Narelle took Reg — or Reg took Narelle — and, as if by some kind of osmosis, they led the way. Up steep inclines, over the wet country of tarns and trickling water courses and the rougher stuff of craggy banks of Nolanesque rocks and gaunt gums.
The horse they brought for me to ride was Darky from the Dixon stable. Like the other horses, Darky was a horse of medium proportions bred for riding in the high country but a tad bigger than the other horses on the trip. He was prone to nip and bump the other horses whenever the opportunity arose but, obviously aware of the inept horseman he was required to carry, he was an absolute angel with me. Never a nip or a kick or even a crabby look. The terrain was such that, thankfully, there was rarely an opportunity to canter or trot, let alone gallop. However, speed was occasionally required to climb steep slopes. When we reached the first slope of any significance Bobby turned in his saddle and said “Hang on to his mane, Nick, and give him a good boot. And enjoy the ride.” I did as instructed and it was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. Countless childhood stories came flooding back as we came over the top and I gave Darky a big cuddle and a pat on the shoulder.
No weapons of any kind
We spent our first night at Lake Antimony in a hut that had seen better days. A couple of us slept outside next to the camp fire. However, before we ate a meal, Bobby and Chummy wandered off in the early evening gloom and returned about half and hour later with a handsome brown trout. They had a torch but no fishing line, no weapons of any kind, no gelignite. Apparently trout in such remote areas are prone to throw themselves on to the bank when they see human beings in the vicinity. Spooky isn’t it? The only other drama that night was the black snake under the hut. That too suffered a surprising and terminal demise by falling under a heavy stick that Bobby was using to chase off the mosquitoes.
The next day we headed off across flat, but still wet and rocky, country to Dixon’s Hut, within sight of Lake Augusta — named after Reg Dixon and his family — where we spent the night. Reg and Bobby were not at all impressed with the extent to which some walkers had mistreated a place that, although by then managed by the parks service, had been part of Dixon family life for two or three generations. It was in this area too that we were able to observe that it is not horses like Darky and Narelle that have despoiled the high country — as asserted by some — but four-wheel drive vehicles which had intruded into the area from time to time, mostly illegally. (Our ride had all the necessary government approvals.)
The next morning we rode the two or three hours to the northern rim of the plateau and walked the horses single file down the narrow and precipitous pathway to the point at which the road up the cliff face ended. Awaiting us were the Dixon and Johnston families and pre-arranged transport for George and myself. We unsaddled the horses and tied their halters to a truck and then, after a cup of tea and a piece of cake, came one of the most delightful moments of the trip. One of the Dixons then said “Righto. Let ‘em go’, with which we took the halters off and, with a clap from Bobby and a roar of “On ya way …” the horses galloped off. They galloped down the twisting road to the bottom of the tier, across the flat — passing two or three properties — and waited at the gates to be let into their respective farms. It was a lovely, soft day with muted light, rich green and chocolate brown paddocks and superb horses galloping freely to their home gates. The end of a quite memorable few days.
The horse stopped, statue-still
Subsequently, after I resigned from parliament, I did a couple more rides, both over two days and, while the groups were larger, they still included Bobby Dixon and, importantly, Darky. One of the rides was into Lee’s Paddocks and the other in the Cethana area. This latter party included, at my ill-advised initiative, one of the most incompetent riders in the history of horsemanship — a former barrister and parliamentarian named John Bennett. In fact, I don’t think he had ever been on a horse before, at least not a live one, such was his ineptitude in the saddle. He was allocated a passive, amiable animal that quickly realised the awesome task he had been allotted. Indeed, as we rode single-file down a track into a remote hamlet John’s horse chose to deliberately veer under the overhanging trees in an effort to dismount him. I have no doubt of that. On the way back, within sight of the campsite, the horse stopped. It was statue-still. It refused to move.
I learned of this from Bennett’s plaintive cry of “The xxxxing thing won’t move, mate.” Horseman Bennett was in the saddle in the middle of the road thrusting his hips forward in an obscene manner with tribal clicking noises coming through clenched teeth. Eventually, the horse was relieved of Bennett’s presence and transported back to camp in a horse float with the horse suffering the further indignity of having to travel in the back of the truck while Bennett sat in the front. For all that, Bennett was no Napoleon at Trafalgar — noble in defeat — but more like Fatty Arbuckle when the dunny fell down around him. I still have flushes of shame when I recall that unfortunate saga.
I recall, too, that when we rode into that little hamlet, we saw only one human being outside any of the eight or so houses, all of the homes seemingly in good condition and well cared for. One of my colleague riders commented “You know, Nick, this is one of the few places in the state where you’ll find people on the dole driving new 4-wheel drives.” I still wonder what he was getting at.