On a recent visit to the NSW Hunter Valley, Flora King tires of wine tasting, takes to the saddle and meets the unlikeliest cowgirl in town.
The beauty of the Hunter Valley is that there’s bugger all to do there except slope from cellar door to cellar door getting slowly (but surely) sloshed. Let’s be honest – it’s the lack of tourist attractions that really pulls the tourists in; no museums to feign an interest in, no historical sites to bore the kids, in fact no amusement parks or playgrounds to even justify bringing them at all. There’s nothing but you, the cloudless, listless blue sky, the green, snaking vines, the empty sun-baked roads, and more than enough wineries to while away an aimless, booze-soaked afternoon or two.
But in the unlikely event that you tire of wine tasting, get pulled over for drink driving or lose your car keys and can’t make the mile to the next cellar door, what’s the fallback plan? Every weekend away needs one, and in our case – after indulging in so many tasting sessions we could barely tell the red from the white, let alone distinguish between a Shiraz we liked and a Shiraz we didn’t – it was a toss up between a visit to the cheese shop or a spot of good, wholesome, Little-House-on-the-Prairie-style horseback riding. After seeing the queue at the cheese shop (yes, there really is nothing to do), we swiftly opted for the latter.
We find our horsey destination on Talga Road in Rothbury, Lower Hunter, signposted as Hill Top horse riding, and discover immediately that this joint exudes a rare kind of charm. Forget riding timetables, having your pick of a guide or rides catering to differing levels of experience; it’s a one-man gig for a start. The whole operation is run single-handedly by Peg, a pint-sized, white-haired woman knocking on 90, but every bit a force to be reckoned with. Just ask the horses.
The whole operation is run single-handedly by Peg, a pint-sized, white-haired woman knocking on 90, but every bit a force to be reckoned with. Just ask the horses.
When Peg enquires as to your riding know-how DO NOT pretend you can gallop before you’ve even mastered a trot. She’ll sniff you out as a liar before you can say “giddy up” and have you trailing at the back on the puniest pony in the paddock. Peg, on the other hand, will be astride the wild, wilful stallion, indifferently tugging the reigns with one hand while batting away flies with the other. “Put ya flamin’ helmet on properly!” she hollers at me as she thunders out the gate in her luminous pink t-shirt. “It’s a safety device, not a bloody fashion statement!”
The horses are a little sulky and ill behaved, lagging behind when they know Peg isn’t looking. I give mine – a scrawny, puny mare called Dusty – a nudge in the ribs to hurry her up, but she’s having none of it. She stops to chew at the grass and flicks her russet mane petulantly. Peg is way up ahead, but I see her narrow shoulders swivel round. She looks back disapprovingly. “Give her a kick for God’s sake! Show her who’s BOSS!”
Peg’s booming voice is uncannily loud in comparison to her tiny frame. My horse yanks her head back up from the patch of thistles she’s been chewing on and stands to attention. Dusty evidently knows who the boss is, and it certainly isn’t me.
Apart from the territorial nesting magpies and their aggressive helmet swoops, as well as an encounter with a snorting, fuming bull – both of which alarm me, but of course little Peg is completely unfazed by – the ride itself is hugely enjoyable. The horses, under Peg’s sharp and watchful eye, finally begin to do as they’re told, and we meander across the sprawling 300-acre Hill Top estate as the bright morning light filters through the Eucalypts and red and green Rosellas swoop in arcs above.
When Peg shouts that we’re about to break in to a trot, I gather the reigns and do my best to emulate her alert, pert and authoritative style, but end up being hopelessly slung around in the saddle. Her head swivels round once more and I wither as she shoots me that disapproving look. Amateurs; I can read her thoughts, and we are back to a slow-paced idle across the scrub.
This, as it turns out, suits me just fine. It’s approaching midday and the sun is kicking out a sluggish, seductive heat. The low hum of crickets vibrates in the air, two foxes slink between patches of undergrowth in the distance, and a lone kangaroo is perched, motionless, at the edge of a glassy lake. As we lope across the Molly Morgan range, with views out across the green valley floor to the lazy, hazy mountains beyond, I feel increasingly drowsy, and utterly relaxed.
The low hum of crickets vibrates in the air, two foxes slink between patches of undergrowth in the distance, and a lone kangaroo is perched, motionless, at the edge of a glassy lake.
Two hours slip by. I barely notice. Soon we’re back at the stables and Peg’s boom snaps me back to reality. She’s hollering at me to dismount. Panicking, I half jump, half fall of the horse. Dusty whinnies in annoyance. Peg looks at me like I’m the most preposterous person she has ever met. Then she hands me an apple to feed to Dusty. “Go on. Give her this. She’s a fickle old thing. She’ll be your best friend for life.”
But Dusty is completely disinterested in being my best friend. She sniffs snootily at my apple and it rolls on to the cracked mud at her hoofs. Peg picks it up – “Bloody stupid animal,” she mutters – and shoves it back under the horse’s velvety nose. Dusty eats obediently this time.
After my poor trotting performance and Peg’s disapproval, Dusty snubbing me like this is the last straw. I slope back to the car feeling stung, and resolve to journey on to another cellar door. There’s nothing like a few more glasses of plonk to restore one’s confidence, after all.