Australia Day, 2014. While the rest of the country heads to the beach, we are snug in our tents in the Upper Howqua valley in Victoria's High Country. The early morning sun is just catching the tops of the slender mountain ash trees but down in the valley there is heavy dew and you can see your breath.
It's day seven, the last of a horse-riding trek that has taken us 140km from the slopes of Mt Buller to this lush, peaceful place. Suddenly we are jolted wide awake by the raucous sound of a chainsaw. No, not earlymorning loggers - it's Bruce McCormack's way of telling us it's time to get up. Goodness knows how the campers at the other end of the valley are coping.
With his twinkling blue eyes, broad grin, tanned face and regulation Akubra, Bruce could easily be the man from Snowy River himself. When he points out his picture in a much-thumbed copy of The Man from Snowy River movie brochure, we are not surprised.
Along with several of his fellow cattlemen, Bruce was an extra in the movie, which came out more than 30 years ago and helped put the Victorian Alpine National Park on the map. Bruce comes from a long line of cattlemen. The McCormack family was one of the first to settle the Merrijig area, 210km north-east of Melbourne, in 1866 and ran cattle in the King Valley from 1900 until grazing in the Alpine National Park was banned in 2005.
In March this year, the Mountain Cattleman's Association of Victoria won the right for a trial of 300 cattle in the Wonnangatta Valley, which will determine whether cattle can return on a more permanent basis. The cattlemen claim that since cattle were banned in the valley the blackberries have thrived and four-wheel-drive vehicles have created muddy tracks.
While they can no longer run their cattle in the High Country, Bruce and wife Debra delight in showing visitors their unique backyard. They graze Aberdeen Angus on lower pastures, along with 56 horses, each capable of long treks in rugged terrain. They established McCormack's Mountain Valley Trail Rides in 1992 and run rides from the beginning of November until the middle of May.
"We can't get into the High Country in the winter," Bruce said. "A lot of the rides we do are above the snowline. Mind you, we have had snow in the middle of January, so we tell people to expect anything."
The McCormacks run rides from two hours to seven days and anything in between. They do a couple of seven-day rides each season.
Our ride is to the historic Wonnangatta Valley, which was used for summer grazing from the mid- 1800s to the early 20th century, when it was abandoned because of the difficulty in getting stock in and out. There are remains of an old homestead and a small graveyard which silently tells the story of tiny children dying at just a few days old after their mothers died in childbirth.
It takes us three days to ride to Wonnangatta on the McCormack's amazing fit horses, which climb steep rocky mountains and sure-footedly negotiate their way down again. It might be January - temperatures are in the
high 30s in Melbourne - but at our first camp at Lovick's Hut on Mt Howitt, it is all thermals, scarves, beanies and gloves, and well below 10C.
We average about 25km a day, riding up to eight hours most days. You need to be riding fit but it is not a fast ride. All horse gear is provided (although you can bring your own saddle), plus swags, tents and all food. Roast lamb and apple crumble in a camp oven are particular highlights.
Bathers on the gear list had seemed a bit ambitious but they get an outing. On our rest day at Wonnangatta, the temperature climbs to the mid-20s and we brave the crisp alpine waters of Conglomerate Creek for an afternoon swim and, incidentally, our only chance to have a decent wash. A complicated bush shower is available on other nights but the water-heating battery dies so there is little interest.
Although a seven-day ride means six days in the saddle, the weather forces us to concertina two days into one as we head out from Wonnangatta in the rain on day five. As the temperature drops, the wind picks up and the clouds close in. It brings home how dangerous the mountains can be and how quickly things can change from pleasant to scary.
Our support vehicles, carrying tents and food for us and the horses, are unable to get up the steep muddy tracks to Mt Howitt, our next camp site. We ride for more than six hours, wet to the skin and freezing, until we reach the Vallejo Gantner Hut at Macalister Springs near Mt Howitt. Never has a building been such a welcome sight. We light a fire then strip off and dry our sodden clothes.
The hut was built as a refuge for skiers and bushwalkers in 1971 in honour of Vallejo Gantner, who was killed at 19 when his shotgun accidently discharged while he was hunting rabbits. His mother was a member of the Melbourne Myer family.
Alongside the hut is a new toilet with one of the best views in the world, looking down the Macalister River Valley. (Although this is the only one with a view, all the naturally composting pit toilets in the Alpine National Park are amazingly clean and well maintained.)
By the time we leave the hut the rain has stopped and we head to one of the more daunting sections of the ride - the Devil's Staircase. The name says it all.
The track descends about 800m from Mt Howitt (1726m). It is so steep we get off our horses and clamber down the rocks and wait for our steeds at the bottom.
By the time we reach camp at the Upper Howqua, we have been riding for close to 10 hours and covered more than 34km of rugged mountain bush.
The sense of achievement is palpable as we chatter excitedly about an unforgettable ride.
The final day is spent wending our way alongside and across - more than 30 times - the Howqua River, a peaceful finish to an amazing ride. Before we know it, we reach Tunnel Bend where the trucks are waiting to take our weary horses back to Merrijig and us, sadly, back to reality.