It started out being about me and my trek through the High Country. But the canvas just kept expanding and expanding. Pretty soon, I was writing about nothing less than the way that we, as Australians, see Australia.
In late 2019, after nearly 20 years in mainstream media balanced with parenting, partnering and the rest of it, I was disillusioned and burnt out at work and in desperate need of a recharge. So I walked. Literally. With something vaguely approaching the blessing of my wife and family, I quit my job at a TV network and took to the Australian Alps Walking Track, a tough, often unmarked 670-km route from southern Victoria to the ACT. Australia’s High Country had long been my passion. As I wrote in the first chapter of From Snow to Ash, ‘I wanted to immerse myself in the landscape of my dreams rather than just touch it. To know it, not just observe it. To cross it in its entirety, not just visit the photogenic sections.’
Walking the AAWT was quite the adventure to say the least. It was also quite the eye-opener, in terms of exploring the limits of my physical resilience, and also with regard to the physical and human geography of the mountains I thought I knew so well. While at times I walked alone for days, I also met many fascinating characters along the way – from a vagabond with a violent past at a riverside campsite, to adventurers, hunters, historians, farmers, ecologists and more. They’re all in the book. And while my meandering, occasionally half-crazed internal monologue serves as the narrative spine of From Snow to Ash, it’s a multi-layered tale which ultimately is more about the mountains and its people than me.
The take-home message about the mountains is that they’re in trouble. We think of mountains as these big, tough, hulking things – impervious to harm. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our precious Australian Alps, which comprise a mere sixth of one per cent of the entire Australian landmass, contain delicate plant and animal communities as fragile as the coral of the Great Barrier Reef, and they’re being attacked on numerous fronts.
Fire is the main threat. The snow gums and alpine ash of the High Country were not designed to burn as frequently as they do. Unlike lowland forests, they don’t endlessly regenerate. Burn them too often and they’re gone forever. And that’s what’s happening. I saw evidence of fire-altered landscapes in many places along the way. And then those damn fires almost got me. Thankfully, the Australian Alps had been mercifully fire-free in the first half of the Black Summer while coastal Australia burned. I had no reason not to continue onwards, even as skies in Sydney filled with choking smoke. But everything changed on New Year’s Eve, when a fire ran almost 100 kilometres in a day, leaping up from the lowlands near the Hume Highway all the way into Kosciuszko National Park.
I was the very last person evacuated from Kosciuszko on December 31, 2019, before smoke and fire closed the park. Fortunately, I’d logged my trip with National Parks so they knew where to find me. As I sat in that rescue chopper, the hiker in me was relieved and upset in equal parts. But the journalist inside was already several steps ahead. I knew I had a story. My trek had started in a summer blizzard and ended in a blaze. That felt like the sort of line you could pitch to a publisher.
From Snow to Ash came out nine months after my rescue and was well-received by most. There were a few negative reviews from women who felt I hadn’t worn enough of my heart on my sleeve. Meanwhile a few men said they were disappointed I hadn’t covered every single kilometre of trail because they were after more of a track-guide than a read. You can definitely, definitely never please everyone. All you can do is write the most interesting and accurate thing you can, and bugger those who don't like it. This was an important principle which I took into my new book, The Brumby Wars. Each night, after writing with frigid fingers through autumn and winter 2021 in my unheated garden shed, I knew that this book would displease many people. Yet the words came easily. There was so much to say, so many voices to include.
The Brumby Wars is in many ways a follow-up to From Snow to Ash, and not just in the temporal sense. This book continues the theme of the mountains in peril. I actually wrote a quick overview of the brumby issue in chapter 11 of From Snow to Ash, centred around NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro’s 2018 Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Act – the first legislation in Australian history prioritising an introduced species over native fauna and flora in a national park.
With the state of Kosciuszko National Park in mind, in chapter 11 of From Snow to Ash, I wrote, ‘The brumbies are pests’, and more or less left my editorialising there. And strictly speaking, brumbies are exactly that in terms of their effect on the fragile alpine environment. In the numbers they’re in now, their effect is like elephants in a flower bed. The High Country’s once pristine wetlands – the source of the Murray, Murrumbidgee, Snowy and other great rivers – are particularly susceptible to trampling by non-native hooved animals. But there’s so much more to this issue than ecological concerns. As I came to understand in the research for this book, a lot of people love these wild mountain horses for a lot of different reasons – historical, cultural, spiritual, you name it. As I’ve written in The Brumby Wars, ‘There’s a reason people write songs about wild horses. And who cares about swamps? Donald Trump said he’d make America great by draining one.’
In essence, what we have here is a classic battle of head versus heart. Science versus emotion. Reality versus mythology. The brumby supporters are legion, both in the mountains and beyond. They are especially prevalent and noisy on social media, where they love the idea of wild mountain horses even if they’ve never been anywhere near the High Country and have no idea about its ecology. But the emotion and mythology of the horses trump all, excuse the pun. And the mythology goes all the way back through Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby books to Banjo Paterson himself, who wrote often about brumbies, or the ‘wild bush horses’, as he called them in ‘The Man from Snowy River’.
Bag the brumbies and you’re bagging Banjo, thereby undermining Australia’s most celebrated storyteller. In doing that, you’re basically bagging Australia. That, in simple terms, is how the argument works. It’s like the Australia Day/Change the Date debate through the prism of wild horses. This fight is all about people championing symbols of post-colonial Australia versus those who fight to leave as much as possible intact, the way it was before white folk came and messed everything up.
I feel like I did one really important thing in The Brumby Wars. In a word, listen. I interviewed around 60 people for this book on both sides of the debate. Everyone from John Barilaro to brumby rehomers to ecologists and everyone in between. And I gave them their say. I put it all out there. I had a guiding motto which I’ve shared in the book: Everyone is heroic, even if they’re not. With only one or two exceptions, I held true to that.
I won’t claim in this book to have stood back in what you might term the classic neutral journalistic fashion and let the argument play out without holding a firm editorial rein. I believe the High Country should be protected and this comes through clearly, especially towards the end of the book. But I believe the brumby advocates should be respected, listened to, and that we must find compromise. Such an unfashionable thing these days, compromise. But I’ve tried in this book to navigate a path towards it.
So while The Brumby Wars is a book about mobs of wild horses, in essence it’s about a lot more than that. I like to think of it as a blueprint for how we might solve other divisive issues in our increasingly polarised society. That’s aiming high, and only you, the reader, can tell me if I’ve coming within the faintest coo-ee of pulling it off. But I promise you, I tried. And if nothing else, I’ve profiled some unbelievably colourful characters and shared some rip-roaring bush yarns along the way. Wherever you sit on this issue, I hope you enjoy the ride.
Anthony Sharwood is a Walkley Award-winning journalist. In 2020 he released the acclaimed From Snow to Ash, a love letter to the Australian High Country written while walking the Australian Alps Walking Track. The Brumby Wars is his third book.
Acclaimed journalists and husband and wife, Sarah Ferguson and Tony Jones, team up for the first time in their multi-award-winning careers to write Revelation, the book behind the groundbreaking ABC TV series.