We wake up to a drizzle. Not the best weather for horseback riding in the salt marshes of Warrnambool, but we are still excited. My daughter even more so: at seven years old she is slowly falling in love with everything horse. Today her dream of sitting on one of these graceful creatures will become reality.
We arrive at Rundell’s Mahogany Trails early in the morning. The drizzle is still continuing, the mother in me is worried that the rain and the fresh breeze that is coming from the sea might be too much for my daughter. She is not much more than skin and bones to begin with. But this cannot deter her. With borrowed boots and a helmet we join the group for today’s one-hour ride-out into the dunes of Warrnambool.
It is a special day also for the crew. One of the horses has just given birth to a new foal. A skinny black thing that stands shivering on wonky legs too long for her body on the far end of the paddock. We can spot her as we ride past.
Warrnambool and the Great Ocean Road. A dramatically beautiful stretch of land in Australia’s south. The landscape here is raw and brittle from the fresh winds that come here all the way from the Antarctic. A flat coastal scenery drenched in water. It is a shame that not many people drive the road all the way to the end to discover places like Warrnambool, let alone leave their cars to get on horseback and experience nature first-hand. It really is one of the best experiences you can have in the area.
We ride in single file with two experienced guides. I am no horse riding expert but I have done some simple things on horseback as a child. Pull the reins to make it stop, a wide pull to the side with the reins to make it go in a certain direction, a gentle kick with the heels to make it go faster. But the horses know the way anyway. It doesn’t really matter if you have ridden before. You can pretty much just sit back, relax and enjoy the windswept scenery.
From the stables we head towards the sea. The one-hour trail ride will not take us all the way to the beach but we will get there half-way with a good view of the water. And anyway, it is the journey that counts and not the destination.
The scenery is decisively coastal – flat, with stagnant bodies of water, golden reed, dark green paddocks with muddy patches. Just being here feels like a cleansing, its pureness and unpretentiousness washes away the stink and the dirt of the city. It reminds me a lot of the North Sea in Germany, of long walks where the cold wind pulls your jacket sleeves and your reward is a cup of tea by the open fire.
After a couple of minutes we arrive at a wooden bridge that crosses the salt marshes. I can sense that something is up, that my horse doesn’t like the idea of what is coming next. As it turns out we are not taking that bridge to cross the water. Instead, we will ride straight through the marshes. The salt water comes directly from the sea, it stands about a metre high. The horses plow through the water with strong strides, carefully finding their footing underwater in the brackish water, getting us very close to the reeds and croaky sounds of the wetlands.
Thankfully, the drizzle has stopped, my thighs drying from the warming rays of a hesitant spring sun.
After a short while our guides take a turn into the dunes. The path is well defined, a deep cut into the dune, formed by many horses over time. The sand is soft, it turns the clatter of the hooves into a soft comforting stomping. The horses work hard to make the ascend, we assist them by leaning forward in our saddles.
The path is so deeply cut into the dune, we are on eye level with the shrubs. If you fell off that horse now, you wouldn’t fall far; your knees can almost touch the ground. We are afforded some exciting insights from this perspective. So close to the thickness of the bush, surrounded by buzzing flies, brushing against delicate blossoms with our elbows. Tiny birds play around us, we can hear their chirping sounds.
The path meanders through the dunes, up and up we go. We are enclosed by sand and shrubs, no cold breezes can find us here. You can hear the rolling thunder of the sea in the far distance, taste the salt on your lips. Modern life as we know it, all the technical contraptions, the stress and the hectic, all your everyday worries suddenly seem so far away. For a moment it’s just me, the strong muscles of my horse underneath me, the coastal landscape that I now find myself submerged in.
After one last bend, it is our final ascend. This is the first dune to see the sea from, Hoon Hill. The views that are opening up in front of us are wide and spectacular, the air heavy with salt, the light golden from the early morning sun.
We take photos to capture this moment of pure joy, so that we can relive our sense of adventure when all other memories are long gone. Horse riding in Warrnambool – one of the most intimate nature experiences you will find along the Great Ocean Road.
Randell’s Mahogany Trail Rides. Millers Lane, Warrnambool. http://rundellshorseriding.com.au
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