INTO THE OUTBACK : Pub Crawls on Horseback in the New South Wales Bush

I'm not sure at what point I realize, on my horseback pub crawl through Australian bushranger country, that (at the age of 40) I've inadvertently managed to go back to summer camp.

It might have been that night after dinner when our host, Steve Langley, tells our troop how he and an earlier band of pub crawlers, deeply in their cups, decided to cure a sonorous snorer among them by putting a screaming, squirming baby wild bush pig in his bed. More likely, though, it is the afternoon we seven equestrians, led by Langley, thunder up a hillside overlooking acres of rolling, eucalyptus-dotted cattle country and, struggling to pull my hat back on my head, I stifle the urge to holler, "Yee-ha!"

When I first set out on this trip, a tour officially called "Pub Crawls on Horseback," I wonder if I haven't stumbled into some weeklong equestrian saturnalia. The horses all sport such bibulous sobriquets as Southern Comfort, Bailey's and Bourbon. And Steve Langley's Bullock Mountain Homestead, near Glen Innes in northeast New South Wales--where his pub crawls on horseback begin and end--seems a shrine to partying pub crawls past. On the walls, immortalized in calligraphy, are ballads, sent to Langley by nostalgic guests, hinting at horrid hangovers and clandestine couplings, along with the expected saddle sores and stiff joints.

The ruddy-faced Langley, too, seems a veritable bushman's Bacchus, his stomach straining against his blue work shirt, his sleeves rolled up to reveal the panthers and peacocks tattooed on his arms--mementos of his days in the merchant marine. His blue eyes gazing unflinchingly out from under a classic Aussie stockman's hat, he exudes a hail-fellow-well-met camaraderie, and, an irrepressible raconteur, he has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of stories, usually outrageous, often off-color.

It soon becomes clear, however, in spite of its near-Chaucerian overtones, that temperate participants can temper a pub crawl. Indeed, we are a largely sober crew, our favored means of escapism apparently more gallop than grog. Even Langley, who says that he used to tipple on the trail until a guest complained, is sober in the saddle and merely high-spirited pub-side. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how a head-splitting hangover could be endured in this most rural of regimes, in which we pub crawlers rise early, usually feed and saddle our mounts before we sit down to breakfast ourselves, and are on horseback most of the day.

"Langley's Raiders," as he likes to call us, make up as motley a crew as any holiday camp could hope to assemble; we include a trucker, a nurse, a motelier and the manager of the corporate gym at one of Australia's big breweries. Two others are unemployed, and all are Aussies save myself, a "Yank." And all, with the exception of a former government employee whose posture in the saddle taxes Langley to the outer limits of his skills as a host, are competent, if not crackerjack, horsemen. But, as we are to discover under Langley's firm tutelage, woe be to the hapless horseman who dares take the lead on the trail or shirk his duties at feeding time later.

Our schooling begins after lunch on the first day at the Homestead--a cluster of simple but sturdy buildings and corrals--with such trail tips as how to tether our horses with frayed twine so the gear doesn't break if they're spooked, or how to pull their forelegs forward after saddling up to reduce the risk of girth gall. Assigned mounts according to our professed ability--I get a lively chestnut named Pimms, who reminds me of a ship on high seas when he canters--we take a trail ride past an old sapphire mine on Langley's property to break us in. It's raining lightly, and, having donned an Aussie Akubra and one of the long, weathered oilskin stockman's coats Langley has availed us of, I feel transformed.

If only it were that simple: I only half-listen to Langley when he warns me that I'm going to have to forget the English school of riding to which I'm accustomed, and that, if I fail to get the hang of the deep-seated, long-stirruped Australian style of riding, I'm going to come down with "knee-monia." Dropping his own stirrups and reins, he circles us in a canter, his arms extended as if he's imitating an airplane, in order to demonstrate the desired balance seat. I nod and notch up my stirrups anyway.

Our host cheerfully rousts us from our beds at 6:45 the next morning., "Are we all happy little Vegemites?" he crows, mimicking the ad campaign for that foul-looking breakfast spread that the Australians, like the English, are weaned on. Then he vanishes into the woods, and we hear only the rifle-like reports of his stockman's whip before the horses materialize in the eucalyptus trees out of the dissipating mist, heading for the corral. Stable cats slink across the paddock, and, as the sun gets hotter, we're serenaded by Australian bush bird song, the maniacal laughter of the kookaburras and the shrill warbling of the magpies.

The day's ride to our first destination, the Deepwater Inn pub, covers about 22 miles, and I'm the only one surprised when I do come down with "knee-monia" and have to let my stirrups down. The pub itself is, as I expect, not fancy; fading photos of the pub in its glory days share space with fishing trophies, football pennants and cigarette and beer ads. Langley, who's just finished telling us about the pub crawler who got the shock of his life when he relieved himself against an electric cattle fence, switches into a historical mode and tells us how the pub was built in 1865 with convict labor and used as a Cobb & Co. stagecoach stopover.

Ian, the trucker, who has forgotten if he's on his fifth or sixth pub crawl, has his mind elsewhere. "Give me beer!" he bellows. "Give me a sheila!" he adds only slightly more softly. This is the closest approximation I've seen of the stereotypical Australian male, and I begin to wonder what sort of "yobbos" and "ockers"--synonymous in Australia for louts and ruffians--we're bound to encounter pub-side.

But the group of shearers and stockmen gathered around the bar and billiard room at our destination are a docile, smiling lot.

Proprietors Paul and Maureen Hopper serve us up drinks, and pub-crawler Caroline pays for them, following the unwritten rule that whoever loses his or her hat on the trail must "shout the bar."

Soon, though, we're out again to feed the horses, scooping the allotted feed into makeshift burlap nose bags. Having watched the unsaddled horses shake themselves and roll in the dirt earlier, I fight the urge, without success, to collapse to the ground myself. Not only are my knees screaming, but my calves feel bruised, and I suspect that a rash is developing on my posterior.

Most of us turn in right after our corned-beef dinner, although Hopper assures us that he wouldn't turn us away from the bar until breakfast. Langley's promise, which I interpret as a threat, is that we're going to do 36 1/2 of the next 37 kilometers at a gallop the following day. I've already changed mounts once, to Malibu, who prefers a trot to a walk, and the next morning I change again, this time to Southern Comfort, a small Percheron mare who, Ian promises, rides like a Rolls-Royce.

Our galloping time is curtailed when poor Pimms, now on a tether as a spare horse, comes down with colic and must be kept from collapsing. The taciturn Ken, who still can't sit up straight, raises everyone's eyebrows when he suddenly assumes the role of wrangler and doggedly keeps Pimms on his feet.

The ailing beast is better by the time we stop for our sandwiches and a small snooze and "sunbake," under the scrutiny of a dozen cows, at the base of a blasted, blackened tree that gives credence to Langley's earlier assertion that this is "lightning strike country."

The Torrington pub is homely. Above the bottles behind the bar is the warning, "If you think the barmaid's beautiful, don't drive." The requisite pool table is off to one side of a crackling fire. Yet the walls of the dining room reserved for pub-crawl dinners are hung with a surprisingly good art collection, replete with Australian landscapes, and we later learn that Bev Bower, who runs the pub with her husband, Mal, not only is a collector but has a master's degree in English literature.

Bev is also a "gun" cook, as the Australians say, and we're delighted and amazed when she serves us a candlelight dinner of borscht and fish Florentine, followed by ice cream topped with pineapple and creme de menthe.

Langley, having set aside the next day for a rest--more for the horses than for us--takes us on a hike up to Thunderbolt Rocks, through a forest abloom with yellow wattle trees and wildflowers. When we're just below the granite promontory, Langley perches on a log, gathers us around him like a Scout leader and recounts the legend of Fred Ward, a.k.a. Captain Thunderbolt, a heroic local bushranger. As we listen, rapt, only the breeze ruffling the tops of the eucalyptus trees is audible when he pauses. Soon, however, he's up and off, clambering up the rocks past Thunderbolt's Cave to the summit, where he offers us a sweeping 360-degree vista and traces the diamond-shaped route we're taking through the region.

We are meant to drop in to visit an artist friend of Langley's, but Bev Bower tells us the fellow has called to say he's too hung over to receive us, so we pile into four-wheel-drive vehicles and head directly out to the site of our bush barbecue. We fan out to forage for firewood before exploring the footpaths within a stone's throw of the shelter, until the Australian bush call of "Cooee" splits the air. "Tucker time!" cries Langley. "Get the nose bags out!"

Empty bottles--"stubbies"--of Tooheys and Castlemaine beer soon pile up to one side as we munch on bangers and burgers from the "barbie." It's eminently simple fare, but, as Langley points out during a pause from pontificating about local mining history, "I'd rather have a feed like this in the bush than sit down at the table."

In the evening, a jog on foot brings me even closer to nature, to the point that a kangaroo darts across the road in front of me and I'm buzzed by a screaming, hawk-like plover, protecting its nest. Wrung out, I return at dusk to find Langley holding court again--this time by the hearth, remembering the immaculately attired British woman who came for a ride at the Homestead only to have a determined stallion mount her mare while she was astride it. The woman surprised Langley with her aplomb after the beast quickly did the deed and collapsed. "Typical man," she muttered, picking herself off the ground and brushing off her jodhpurs.

Later, Langley takes us on a "wilderness ride" and shows us the remains of a major marijuana operation in the hills that was busted a couple of years earlier. We finally even hear how Langley, in 1978, abandoned a lucrative but soul-destroying career in marketing with 3M Corp. in Sydney to move up to the wilds of New South Wales, where he turned his hobby, horses, into his profession. Pub Crawls, we learn, began as Historic Town and Hotel Treks, before an ex-girlfriend of Langley's coined the catchier current name.

I have to leave early, before the tour is over, and as I take my leave the next day, I'm saddened to watch as the others prepare to ride on to Emmaville and then back to Bullock Mountain. In the paddock, the silver-tongued Langley chats as he casually picks a horse's hooves--then, making the switch from farrier to philosopher as fast as a flick of his whip--expounds on the vital role of respect in relationships, be it with humans or horses.

He brightens suddenly. "I'll tell you a funny, true story about an uncle of mine . . . " he ventures.

"What?" interjects Tracy, the gym manager, with mock outrage. "You mean the other ones weren't true?"

GUIDEBOOK: Hitching Up a Pub Tour

Getting there: Oxley Airlines flies daily from Sydney to Glen Innes for about $110 round trip.

Pub crawls on horseback: Pub crawls are scheduled roughly every two weeks. Full tours run for six days and six nights, with three-day versions available on request. Rates are about $580 per person for six days, $265 for three days, including horses, accommodations and meals, but excluding beverages except for some wine. Tours may be booked directly through Steve Langley, P.O. Box 379, Glen Innes, NSW 2370, Australia (tel. 011-61-67-321-599). The U.S. booking representative is Peggy Hallauer, Fits Equestrian Vacations on Horseback Abroad, 685 Lateen Road, Solvang, Calif. 93463, (800) 666-3487 or (805) 688-9494.

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