“I hope you’ll survive.”
Those were her parting words to me, as she turned around and closed the door behind her. She was the only other helper in Yarramba Trail Rides, an isolated 19th-century organic horse farm run by a quirky couple in their sixties. A minute later it hit me – I was left alone, in the middle of Snowy Mountains. No fellow volunteers to clean the yard, no Internet for surfing, no phone signal for calls. Well, I could get the latter; I just had to climb 200m uphill and wave my iPhone for that one precious bar.
What have I gotten myself into?!
It all started with my childhood fascination with horses. Not to the extent of Equus, but I dreamt of escaping to the countryside, living in a horse farm and riding a white Thoroughbred through the jungle. So when I was in Australia, I jumped at the chance of doing just that.
Situated in the Monaro Plains-Snowy Mountains region, Yarramba Trail Rides was an hour’s drive from a small town called Cooma. It was built in the 1890s and today still looks like it belongs to the 1890s. It’s an image where old meets old: there was no modern stable but a sawdust toilet that composts human manure, a firewood-fueled stove which also serves as the only heater in the house, strangely comfortable dusty aged furniture… and the magazines on the table? Dated May 6, 1993. Everything in this farm was pretty much recycled – from rainwater to human waste – we’re talking about stuff that makes a green activist’s wet dreams.
“The old Harry doesn’t ring me up anymore. His son moved out, and he doesn’t know how to use a telephone.”
Mark Layton would randomly muse, as I pondered how I could ever survive living in a place where the closest neighbour could be a good 20-minute ride away – on horseback (what were you thinking, car?).
Mark bought Yarramba some 30 years ago. Now in his sixties, he would share his extensive knowledge of horsemanship with anyone, from horse owners, children to novice riders (or complete noobs like me). And just like a typical cowboy, he wore his jeans all day, often with boots and spurs. He would break wind or relieve himself anywhere he felt comfortable.
He lived with Rosemary Beeton, who came from England and once gave riding lessons to Malaysia’s Ex-Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad. Always ready with her neckerchief, plaid shirts covered with Western vest or jacket, she reminded me of Brandi Carlile’s song “The Story” with all of those lines across her face… she’s like Helen Mirren in a cowboy’s world – a superstar with horses, with many stories to tell.
Since there was no Internet, books were the only source of entertainment at night. When I asked for a book recommendation from their wide collection, this was what they gave me: The Humanure Handbook. A beginner’s guide to composting human manure. Talk about passion.
Well, while the chats with Mark and Rosemary warmed the otherwise cold nights, the day at Yarramba was no horsing around. It was tough (and dirty!). I chopped tonnes of firewood – turned out it was my hidden talent so I was asked to do it again every morning – then brushed the horses, cut prickle bushes (sometimes, beside kangaroos) and learned that the word ‘mucking’ in ‘mucking around’ didn’t mean wasting time but cleaning buckets of horse manure twice a day. Yes, they recycled both horse and human manure. Perhaps I romanticized the idea of living in a farm. And reality, as it turned out, was far less romantic.
Still, I survived.
I did things I never would have done and hey, I rode a 20-year-old white Arab horse through Dry Plains!