We have currently been stopped for 2 months and are both itching to get back on the trail. The rain has started and it is looking promising for a departure date early in February.
As we start to prep our gear and get organised to go again, we thought we would share some of our thoughts about what we have learned on our trip so far. It is written from the perspective of aiming to complete the whole trail, so some ‘lessons’ may not apply to those doing shorter trips!
The biggest lesson we have learnt is to accept that things are going to change. For those who have been following our blog they will have noticed that it has been a common theme in our updates thus far. It is one of the hardest things to come to grips with – the nature of the trail is such that you spend hours preparing, thinking and problem solving before you get on the trail. You try your gear, you get everything working the way you want it to and think it will work. And then you head out on the trail. The first couple of weeks seem to go to plan, and then the length of the trip starts to impact you, your horses and your gear and you are forced to rethink things. You will have gear breakages, horses will hurt themselves, weather will play havoc with you and there will be camps that lack on the food and water front. You have to be able to problem solve and find solutions out in the bush (hopefully you have planned for these issues and are prepared with the gear to fix them – or at least to get you to the next town where someone can help you!!!). It is so important to be prepared and plan every facet of your trip, but we believe that is more important to be able to problem solve, change gear if required, to think on the fly and to abandon your plans and come up with new ones. It’s also important that you don’t feel as though you have failed if you have to change your gear. It seems that everything that has happened on our trip has happened for a reason and has led to us meeting some great people and having some great opportunities that we would have otherwise missed if we weren’t resilient or flexible. Trust me; you get better at it as you get further down the trail!
Condition and ability of your horses
You have to remember that you are solely responsible for the condition of your animal. There are no vets out there to declare your horse unfit to continue…. these decisions are up to you. The length of this trail is unique, and it is up to you to recognise problems early and look after your horses. This includes knowing when your horse is tired and needs a rest, or how far you can push your horse if you have to, being able to administer medications (including injections), looking after their feet, taking care of any rubs or back issues and keeping them fed and weight on them. You will be judged on your horses and your horses’ condition will dictate how many people you meet along the way and how much help they are willing to offer you. The bush telegraph works in wondrous ways, so don’t be surprised if everyone knows who you are and every detail about your horses 5 days before you camp on their property or they just happen to drive by you as you are wandering down the road – in QLD your character is a reflection of your horses condition.
A lot of people have romantic notions of the trail and have images of stopping for smoko, lunch, afternoon smoko and then rolling into camp just before sunset while all the time their horses are packed with gear and tied to trees. Horses eat most of their fill during the daylight hours, preferring to sleep at intervals during the night. We make a conscious effort to get to camp as early as we can, (that walking allows!) So the horses can keep as much condition as they can. The more tired the horses get, the less they will eat so it is so important to give them enough time to not only eat, but sleep and recover so they are ready to go the next day. We have found that 2 days riding and 1 day rest is optimal, with 5-7days off at the end of each 4 weeks or so. Obviously this may not be possible, but we try and stick to this as much as we can to give our horses the best chance. The quicker you try and move, the more issues you will run into that will serve to slow you down. The trail has funny ways of telling you to “stop and smell the roses” – take your time to enjoy the journey otherwise you will be constantly worrying about how far you have to go and how long it will take you. One of the best decisions we made was to quit our jobs as opposed to taking long service leave. We now have the flexibility to change our plans and enjoy the journey – we originally planned to take 12 months to get from top to bottom, but Mother Nature has slowed us down with the lack of grass and water at the end of last year. We have now accepted that the trail will take the time it takes.
We have just completed the notoriously flat part of the trail and are about to enter the more hilly section of the trail. So far, we have completed a couple of hills which we have been told are just a taster of what’s to come in NSW and Victoria. Our policy is walking up on foot anything very steep and walking down anything steep. This keeps us fit, and ensures that the horses don’t have any problems with the saddles. Riding downhill pushes your saddle forward, wedging the hard tree of the saddle into the back of the shoulder blades and can cause problems over a long period of time, no matter how good and balanced a rider you are. I envisage a lot of walking on foot to comeJ
Before leaving it is essential to know what your horse is capable of. At some point along the trail they will have to deal with traffic, bridge crossings, water crossings (even swimming), long grass, deep/steep gullies, jumping logs (while you are in the saddle or on the ground), scary plastic bags, brumbies/station horses, scrubbers, cities, push bikes and wheelchairs to name a few. The way the herd dynamics works is very interesting. While one horse may struggle with a particular obstacle, we have been lucky with the variety of horses we have chosen that one of the others will step up and take the lead. When resting and eating, we have noticed that one horse is generally the lookout, and this means that this particular horse is generally the hardest to keep weight on. He is doing his job of alerting the herd, rather than eating and relaxing. We’ve also noticed that the closer the horses are camped to us, the quicker they relax and eat. Our herds’ pecking order changes constantly depending on the situation. The boss at feed time is far down the order of day to day living and riding on trail.
Packing and equipment
Research, research, research, then try, try, try. We are still trying to perfect our gear and equipment, and are planning on trailing some new products…. we are 2650km down the trail and are still looking for something that might do the job better or eliminate a problem we might be having. We have tried multiple packs and saddles and are currently using ones that we believe will do the job down to Healesville. I have compiled a list of our gear which you can check out here if you are interested. I have provided brand names where appropriate, but I want to stress that this is what we have found works for us, and others may have had different experiences to us. We have only used one pack between the two of us and have managed to keep our total weight below 65kg (including saddle), fully packed, with 2 weeks’ worth of food. Because there are two people living out of one pack, we have chosen to go ultra-lightweight with all of the gear we have chosen as you can see once again from the list above.
We have noticed that no matter how well you pack your pack (even on both sides etc.) after about 25km (or 5 hours), you start to notice issues when the pack comes off. You might not notice any problems on the first day, but after an extended period of time the niggles start to show. We are trying to limit the distance that the pack is carried to 20km or 4 hours, which means swapping the pack over if we are doing a long day. As well as this, our horses are all broken to pack and ride, so by swapping the gear over and sharing the load around, we can prolong the period of time we are out there on the road. Remember, a pack is a static load. Whilst you and your saddle might total more than the weight of the pack, you are able to move in the saddle and make your horses life easier. We have been told that the general rule is pack you horse with no more that 10-15% of his body weight. So for a 500kg horse, this means between 50-75kg. Obviously, the lighter the better.
The people along the trail
We have done our utmost to respect landowners and the people we have met along the way, and in return we have been overwhelmed by the generosity of people. We have made an effort to call ahead and ask permission to camp on private land as well as ensuring that we weren’t interrupting their days work by getting in the way of a muster etc. We also take this opportunity to ask about the quality of food and water in the area, and make sure we can avoid camping in their horse paddock. We have met amazing people and have so much gratitude for the kindness they have shown us thus far. I don’t think we will ever be able to express our thanks enough.
The BNT publishes maps for the whole trail which are a great guide to get you from the top to the bottom (or vice versa). As society grows and progresses, the trail must change, and as a result there are many parts of the trail and their corresponding maps that are being updated currently. It is imperative that you are able to navigate off paper (or electronic map) and be able to use a compass before you leave. “Bonus skills” include being able to navigate electronically with GPS markers – remember, with long period between towns and electricity points, your electronic gear might run out of battery! These skills will get you out of a lot of trouble and enable you to traverse the trail without getting hopelessly lost!
Logistics and organisation
This has been one of the biggest headaches of the trip, but you can’t leave unless you are organised. Food might not be the most exciting or palatable on trail, but you must eat out there so having a plan for acquiring food is essential. Many people buy food at towns along the way, but again because we are traveling so lightweight, we have taken the dehydrated food option and post packages to towns or places along the way (with permission of course!) . With not much time to prepare for the trail, we have bought pre-packaged dehydrated mince and bought other bits and pieces from the supermarket. I know others have dehydrated their food prior to going on trail but this is a time consuming job and requires months of cooking and dehydrating. I have included a list of food (a shopping list as such) of the types of food we take with us. You can see this here. As the weather cools down, we are looking forward to taking things like butter, cheese and chocolate…. These were luxuries up in Queensland! We also carry an emergency food ration pack, just in case we run out of food for whatever reason –touch wood, we have never had to use it.
It is also essential to be prepared for emergencies. You have to be able to
- administer first aid to yourself and your horses,
- alert someone – whether it be by phone, satellite phone, spot or PLB/epirb -if there is an emergency
- be able to check the weather and deal with what mother nature might throw at you. Knowing what to do in fires or floods is essential.
- Being fit and healthy can get you out of some sticky situations.
These are just some of the things that we have learnt whilst out on trail… I will leave it there before I bore you all, but will aim to write some more at a later date J