On your high horse
Steady, boys ... there's no finer way to see the high country than from the back of a horse.
Annie Stevens dons her riding boots and saddles up for a gentle trot around town and country.
There is a wholesomeness to be found in exploring Mansfield and the high country on a mild-mannered horse. It also gives you a mighty sore bum.
My horse is called Mouse. Which is comforting. Despite being decked in jodhpurs and riding boots, my only experience of horse riding is a trot around the pony pen at a country show.
Horses, as the owner of High Country Horses trail rides, Chris Dunlop, explains, wouldn't intentionally try to hurt you but they can be unpredictable and skittish. They're also huge up close.
Dunlop, who has been running trail rides for 20 years, looks like he has lived his life happily in the elements. Sun-scorched and softly spoken, he can recognise each of his 55 horses on sight by their markings, or "by who their mates are".
After giving safety instructions - no sudden movements, which way to roll if you come a cropper - he demonstrates how to mount our horses. "I hope you're a good girl, Mouse," I whisper. Mouse ignores me and continues to eat grass.
It's a crisp and blue day. The tight knots of trees of the Dead Wood Forest stretch for kilometres but the peace seems infinite.
Along the way, Dunlop points out wombat holes and timid deer that peek at us before dashing off.
Splashing through a creek is reminiscent of the dramatic final scene in the Man from Snowy River film, shot nearby. I'm squealing with delight and covered in muddy water as Mouse splashes about.
After bumping along in the saddle for a while, our confidence building, Dunlop shows us how to canter. Sticks crackle underfoot and Mouse even leaps over a log in the dignified manner of a horse competing in a dressage competition. By the time we return to Dunlop's farm, we're saddle-sore and hungry.
We explore the main strip of shops in Mansfield, mostly dedicated to its two chief interests - skiing and horse riding. But the the town has plenty of eating options.
The Mansfield Regional Produce Store is bustling with everything from organic chocolate-covered blueberries to local cheese and wine and sourdough bread.
The rich, meaty lamb shank soup with a half baguette (smothered in real butter) is comforting. The Mansfield Hotel has a good selection of local wines, while the Delatite Winery also has tasting rooms in town and does a hearty ploughman's.
On a gentle walk the next morning, fortified by the homemade muffins of Willowlake Cottages, the grass is sodden with dew, the mist has settled in over the mountains and mobs of kangaroos hop right past. The only sound is the intermittent cackling of a pair of rowdy kookaburras.
Annie Stevens was a guest of Tourism Victoria.
Willowlake costs from $180 a couple (including breakfast hamper) Sunday-Thursday; from $210 a couple weekends and holidays. See willowlake.com.au.
High Country Horses has trail rides from September to June. Two-hour ride, $80 a person. See www.highcountryhorses.com.au.