Although they are at least 400 metres away and on the far side of the river, just as I reach for my camera the three wild horses gallop away and into the cover of the tree line. Wild (feral) horses, or as they are often referred to, brumbies, are skittish at the best of times and being downwind this nervous trio must have sensed us t seconds after we spotted them.
"Don't worry, there's a good chance we'll see more," says Matthew Higgins, my bushwalking companion for today's adventure. A renowned high country historian and all-round outdoorsman, Higgins knows this country like the back of his hand.
In anticipation of the Brumbies' first game of the season last night, earlier in the week I thought what better way to get into the spirit of the Canberra-based team's quest to be 2015 champions than to get up close l with (or at least spot) some of their namesakes in the wild. With rangers estimating numbers in Kosciuszko National Park at about 5000, there are many hot spots where you are almost guaranteed a sighting, and along the Cascade Trail, where Matthew is leading me, is one of these.
A reasonably arduous (includes about 800 metres of cumulative climbing) full-day trek which starts from the aptly named Dead Horse Gap and snakes through some spectacular alpine wilderness to Cascade Hut, this trail has previously never been on my radar when exploring the snowies. Usually, enticed by the glacial lakes and higher peaks, I stick to hiking the main range, where brumby sightings are less common.
However, despite my shorter than hoped for first encounter, this fire trail has already won me over. There's nothing more relaxing than walking alongside a babbling brook, and the Thredbo River at this point is exactly that. I challenge you to find clearer, more pure water anywhere, and the soothing sound of it tumbling downstream towards the fabled Snowy is the perfect antidote to a sunny summer's day with extreme UV.
As we leave the exposed river flats behind us and start the scramble up Bobs Ridge, the shade of the snow gums is more than welcome. What's also noticeable is that the higher we climb, the fewer stallion piles (droppings used by dominant horses to mark their territory) we step over.
Topped with a maze of granite tors, the views from Bobs Ridge are more than worth my sweat-laden shirt and parched mouth. It's a vista so expansive, it's if we can see into the future; OK, well at least into the Victorian Alps. While taking another swig of water, Matthew pulls out the topographic map, and points out why the Murray Valley is hidden between us and the near horizon – even the The Man from Snowy River would baulk at tackling country with such close contours.
We negotiate the less extreme, although still knee-jarring descent to Cascade Creek passing a grand stand of alpine ash which somehow survived the 2003 firestorms which ravaged this area. Just like the Thredbo River, the Cascade is a virile stream which bounds joyfully down from its birthplace up in the Pilot Wilderness Area and beyond. Occasionally we stop to splash water on our faces and to scan for signs of brumbies.
While we don't spot another horse, we do notice several brumby trap yards – small metal-fenced pens baited with a salt lick. The pens are used by park authorities to capture brumbies. The two we inspect are empty but the compacted soil inside them indicates they are in use. If there's one issue that divides folk of the high country, it's whether the brumbies belong here or not. Some want them left to roam free, others want them shot dead from the air. Somewhere in the middle are the park's authorities trying to control their population from a land management perspective.
Somewhat weary (or at least I am), we reach Cascade Hut. Set among a meadow of blooming wildflowers and surrounded by twisting snow gums, it's a camper's delight. Built in 1935 for the Nankervis family grazing lease, and restored by the Illawarra Alpine Club in the early 1970s, although basic, during a blizzard the authentic alpine hut would provide welcome respite from the elements. It features a raised sleeping platform, fireplace with rock hearth (complete with supply of emergency wood) and a rudimentary skylight (a recent addition). A clean looking tea towel hangs from a line.
I'm not sure if I've become too obsessed about my beloved Brumbies but, when I look out from the hut and into the valley below, I see splashes of blue, white and gold (for the unwashed, these are the official colours of the Brumbies) everywhere - a bright golden sun highlights fields of similarly coloured wildflowers while the sky is a vivid blue punctuated by white clouds.
Just in case my blue, white and gold moment is a dehydration-inspired hallucination, I venture inside for a drink. I also flick through the visitors' book in which almost every entry refers to wild horses. It's clear that regardless of your stance on whether brumbies belong here or not, it's one of the main reasons many campers hike into this part of the park.
In fact, the hut and the Cascades region even inspired author Elyne Mitchell, of Silver Brumby (first published in 1958 and then published in 40 countries) fame. In 1941, with two friends, she skied to the hut from Charlottes Pass to see if they could catch some brumbies.
Suddenly Matthew returns, camera in hand, big smile on his face. While I was rehydrating and daydreaming about what it must have been like here in 1941, Matthew had wandered down to the creek and crept to within about 60 metres of a family of four brumbies.
Of course, when I rush, camera in hand down to see them, they have bolted.
On the long slog back to Dead Horse Gap, I'm so preoccupied with catching one more glimpse of a dashing brumby that I almost step on to a highland copperhead sunning itself on the fire trail – they clearly aren't as panicky as wild horses.
No matter your stance on the brumby debate, a trek along the Cascade Trail will take you into rugged backcountry that you wouldn't otherwise discover if you stick to the standard (and much busier) walks of the main range.
Postscript: I'll get over the disappointment that the brumbies proved so elusive for me, just so long as their namesakes wearing the blue, white and gold this season display a similar ability to gallop away as fast. Oh, and a memo to Stephen Larkham and other coaching staff at the Brumbies, that's with the ball in hand, not in defence.
Cascade Trail: 19km (return) walk or ride from Dead Horse Gap trailhead, just south of Thredbo. Allow 7-9 hours depending on fitness. If you don't want to traipse all the way to Cascade Hut, Bobs Ridge is 10km return and provides stunning views into the Victorian Alps.
Brumby spotting: Best bets are on the river flats - that's the first 2km of the walk upstream along the Thredbo River and also the section along Cascade Creek, near Cascade Hut.
Love is all around
As today is February 14, love is definitely in the air. However, according to some of this column's more intrepid correspondents, love is also in our landscape. On a recent trek above the Geehi River south of Mt Jagungal in Kosciuszko National Park, Peter Muesburger was enamoured with the sight of a row of pretty pink painted hearts on the window awning of Valentine Hut. The hut, built by the Snowy Mountains Authority in the 1950s for surveying purposes, and named after the nearby river of the same name, apparently also has an outhouse with a large white love heart painted on the toilet seat. Oh, how sweet.
Closer to home, avid geocachers Thomas Schulze of Kambah and Jeremy Hagan of Fadden both recently hiked (separately) to 'Kissing Rock' (S35° 35.537 E148° 52.946), north of Cotter Hut in Namadgi National Park. However, only Thomas had the courage to submit a photo of himself puckering up to the giant set of lips.
Happy Valentine's Day!
Where in Canberra?
Cryptic clue: There's treasure in them hills …
Degree of difficulty: Medium
Last week: Congratulations to Julie Creagh of Narooma who correctly identified last week's photo (inset) as the Canberra Croquet Clubhouse and Court, on the corner of Coronation Drive and Commonwealth Avenue, adjacent to the Hyatt Hotel Canberra. Julie beat a deluge of correct entrants, including Judith Klomp of Banks who reckons "it's one of the few places in Canberra that hasn't changed" since she was born in the early '40s.
The clue related to the fact that it wasn't until 1976 that men were admitted to the club, prompting Brigitte Tabuteau of Bruce to comment, "It must have been one of the few places in town where it wasn't the other way around ie. men only. Oh, except for the Country Women's Association."
The photo even made Cathie Trotter of Ainslie who "like many, drives past it nearly every day", instantly thirsty. "When I lived in the UK we would have a lovely big jug of Pimms to sip on as we played croquet on summer weekends," recalls Cathie.
Meanwhile, many readers including Liam Wilde of O'Connor remarked that they have never seen anyone wield a mallet on the court. "I've driven past the club 100s of times and never once seen anyone playing croquet," bemoans Liam, who appears to be eyeing off the court for a late afternoon nap, adding "the grass looks very nice to lie down on".
If you want to check it out, the club holds regular Come 'n Try Days. See: www.canberracroquet.org.au for more details.
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to email@example.com. The first email sent after 10am on Saturday, February 14, with the correct answer wins a double pass to Dendy cinemas.