A gloriously subtropical landscape and engaging horses await near the charm-filled Mid-North Coast village of Bellingen in New South Wales.
Promised Land. Never Never Creek. Crystal Shower Falls…. When you see names so suggestive of utopia sprinkled upon a map, there’s good reason to expect a special kind of Eden.
And indeed, the exuberantly lush scenescape that unfurls around the arty-chic heritage village of Bellingen sates on so many levels. Think long, empty beaches backdropped by dramatic mountains; the opportunity to swim with whales; lagoons that are perfect for relaxed swims or paddle boarding; sigh-inducing country drives made magical by waterfalls and swimming holes, along with the impressive music, arts and cultural scene of Bellingen.
Best of all for horse lovers, visitors are welcome to visit the Save The Brumbies sanctuary by appointment or at one of its regular events. It’s on the incandescent green riverside pastures of the sanctuary – secreted into the hills south of Bellingen – that I meet Adam, a roguishly handsome, appealingly solid buckskin brumby.
Quite the charmer, Adam is not shy about planting a kiss on your cheek – on request, of course. He also knows how to shake hands, take a bow and answer yes or no to questions. Personable Adam is a most engaging chatterbox and the cheeky glint in his eye suggests there’s no telling what he’ll do next.
Palomino brumbies at the sanctuary
Affable, super-clever and akin to an oversized house pet, Adam is a far cry from what many people associate with brumbies. However, he is just one fine example of the exceptional potential of Australia’s heritage horse. All around me are plump, strikingly good-looking and contented horses. There are arrestingly pretty bays, chunky and nicely proportioned chestnuts, a few pale palomino heart-throbs, as well as “paints” and piebalds.
Adam and his friends are a testament to the commitment and horsemanship skills of Jan Carter, founder of Save the Brumbies, a registered charity born in response to the horrific aerial shooting of hundreds of brumbies in the Guy Fawkes National Park in 2000. It was a scene of carnage and cruelty that drew international condemnation. Jan – who moved to the area after adopting the slaughter-bound ex-racehorse she was riding at a commercial establishment – was spurred into action. Next thing she knew, the keen musician was bottle-feeding brumby foals on her front veranda. She was bitten by the brumby bug.
“Brumbies are highly intelligent, tough and sturdy horses that have proved themselves to be superior in many ways to domestic breeds,” Jan enthuses of the oft-maligned breed. “They’re low maintenance and with gentle handling they’re ideal for endurance, cattle mustering, pony club – just about anything.”
“Adam is not shy about planting a kiss on your cheek.”
Save the Brumbies takes in horses from the Guy Fawkes and Oxley Wild Rivers National Parks. These are horses related to Australia’s wartime equine heroes that served in the Boer War, World War I and World War II. The strong boned, sure-footed and solid Guy Fawkes brumbies are acclaimed for their creamy, pale palomino colours, along with pale buckskins and paints. These substantial, Galloway types echo the legendary wartime Waler.
Brumbies from the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park are generally more refined in conformation and can be a little taller, suggesting thoroughbred lines, with paints, greys and blacks being common.
“Brumbies respond well to non-threatening, gentle training and for the most part teach the handler more than the handler teaches them,” Jan says. “This is due to their sharp wits and willingness to trust and be at one with their human. Every horse responds but it can vary depending on personality. Some can be haltered and leading in a few days, others may take more time. Usually it is the smarter horses that take longer to adjust to domesticity, but given time and correct management they can become superb riding and companion horses.”
Both the Bellingen and Armidale Save The Brumbies sanctuaries welcome visitors and supporters to events such as open days and handling demonstrations and have horses competing in local shows. Not surprisingly, mascot Adam is a big hit on the show circuit – the atmospheric Bellingen Show being a natural favourite – and at sanctuary events.
At any time, Save The Brumbies can be caring for between 30 to 40 horses at their main New England sanctuary situated near Armidale. The smaller Bellingen sanctuary specialises in horses requiring a higher level of care, many of whom due to either injury or embedded trauma, are not suitable for rehoming and will live their lives out in comfort by the banks of the sparkling Bellinger River. The overriding ethos, Jan says, is that no horse will die because they are a less than ideal rehoming prospect.
These special horses are supported by a sponsorship program in which horse lovers are invited to become a part of the horses’ rehabilitation and ongoing care. Some sponsorship packages include overnight accommodation at the stunningly located Bellingen sanctuary.
Potential adoptees are carefully assessed for an optimal human-horse pairing. All sanctuary horses available for adoption are well handled, float trained (self-loading!), gelded and primed for further education. They’re also registered with the Australian Brumby Horse Register and are eligible to compete in shows Australia-wide, with the Save The Brumbies welfare crew happy to give follow-up advice. Arrangements can also be made for adopted brumbies to be saddle-started.
Along with caring for rescued brumbies, Save the Brumbies is also involved in the wider, often turbulent discourse around the management of Australia’s wild horses. Jan explains that the group initiated and monitored what she considered to be largely successful fertility control trails aimed at controlling brumby numbers in national parks. Jan notes with understandable frustration that “this is something the government should be doing”. The Australian heritage horse, Jan adds, is lumped together with wild dogs and wild pigs in terms of management.
Whilst there have been incremental improvements in protection for brumbies, Jan laments that there is little follow up in terms of rehoming strategies and “they continually try and restart shooting”. Not surprising, given the contentious arguments about brumbies in national parks and the nature of the beast itself, Jan names red tape and dealing with conflicting agendas of government agencies as the major challenges the charity faces, along with pressure from green groups which disparage the image of brumbies and claim they damage the national parks.
As an animal rescue charity, Save The Brumbies is not privy to the sort of government assistance and grants that can be accessed by farming businesses. Jan recalls the recent drought as an extremely testing time, as water and pasture needing to be purchased for both sanctuaries pretty much vanished.
But the smiles are back. Recent rain has reinvigorated the emerald hills and the happy “brums”, as Jan calls them, are wallowing peacefully and with visible glee in knee-high grass. When travel is back to normal post-corona virus, they should still be looking their bohemian best and eagerly awaiting visitors.
JAN’S TRICK TRAINING TIPS
Have a food motivated horse? Chances are they will take to trick training, suggests Jan. Here are some of her tips based on her experience of teaching Adam.
Read the book Trickonometry by Carole Fletcher.
Start with head tricks, kissing, whispering etc, with some carrot on hand for rewards.
Progress to legs and feet – bowing, hand-shaking etc.
Conversations come next. Try saying “yes” whilst nodding head up and down and “no” while touching the horse very gently on the wither with the dressage whip, which should get them shaking their head from side to side.
Always reward as soon as you get the right response and don’t overdo the tricks in one session.
Flanking the Bellinger River and wrapped by glowingly green pastures and rainforested mountains, Bellingen retains the feel of a working country town, even though untrammelled beaches and estuaries are just a short drive away.
Like so many beaches that stretch south of laid-back Coffs Harbour town, nearby Hungry Head Beach is likely to be blissfully empty; a boundless unfurling of golden sand and sparkling water. Tuckers Rocks, reached by delving through rainforest, soon become another favourite on my many visits to the region.
This section of coast is distinctive for the fringe ribbons of aquamarine inlets. Just behind the dunes of Sawtell Beach is a lagoon where deep swimming holes form at high tide. Fish, cormorants and rays congregate here, so a snorkel mask is likely to bring on smiles.
A little further south, a drive through rustic rural scenes reveals the sleepy settlement of Mylestom, where the mountains-meets-ocean vistas that characterise the Coffs Coast are especially impressive. It’s the sort of place I’d imagined had long vanished from the east coast and it’s perfect for a picnic.
Boasting numerous waterfalls that spill into tempting pools, the road that twists up towards the misted ranges of the World Heritage-listed Gondwana forests of Dorrigo National Park is aptly called the Waterfall Way. Keep following this road higher still and you’ll reach the fetchingly time-frozen town of Dorrigo, with handsome Armidale about another hour’s drive along the big sky, sheep-country plateau. In autumn, this drive rewards with cinematic visuals.
Other exceptional abodes I’ve discovered include Shellies on the Beach at Sawtell – where a private path through rainforest leads straight onto the soft white sand – and Hungry Head House at Urunga, near the acclaimed wetlands boardwalk. Both boltholes are available on stayz.com.au.
Horse riding options include beaches and journeys into networks of crystalline rivers and rainforests.