In terms of national identity, Australia is a relatively young country. It wasn’t so long ago, in 1988, that we commemorated our official bicentenary, marking 200 years since Captain Arthur Phillip arrived in Sydney Cove with the First Fleet of convict ships to found the British colony of New South Wales. The Australian Bicentenary was celebrated with much pomp and ceremony across the country and was marked by the completion of many unique development projects that emphasized the nation’s cultural heritage. One of these was the Bicentennial National Trail (BNT).
The history of the BNT is a uniquely Australian story, which began in 1972 with the formation of the Australian Trail Horse Riders Association (ATHRA) by legendary Australian bushman Reginald Murray (RM) Williams. His dream was to develop a long distance trekking route along the Great Dividing Range to provide an opportunity for people to experience the lifestyle of drovers who once frequented Australia’s outback.
Williams’ friend, Canadian-born stockman Danny Seymour, volunteered to pioneer the route and, on 6 February 1972, he departed Ferntree Gully (near Melbourne) with two saddle horses (Smokey and Dino), a pack horse and his cattle dog, Bluey. With the encouragement and support of ATHRA clubs along the way, Seymour completed his epic 21-month ride in Cooktown (Qld) in September 1973. His arduous, and at times hazardous, journey was sponsored by Williams, who regularly reported progress in his magazine, ‘Hoofs and Horns’, thereby capturing the public’s imagination and creating real enthusiasm for the concept of a National Trail.
Over the next 5 years, ATHRA clubs rode out to survey possible routes along the Divide, sometimes with the assistance of the Australian Army, and celebrated the completion of the task with a 90-day mail relay ride from Cooktown to Melbourne involving 958 riders. With $300,000 of Federal Government funding and the cooperation of some 60 state and local government authorities, the BNT was subsequently developed, marked and mapped.