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  • Writer's pictureFran Cleland

Sunset country has captured the hearts of riders for 40 years

ABOVE: The ride has been going since the 1970s.

WHILE many people make their lives busy, working hard, going to shows and other big events, there are some that simply enjoy the company of their horses and spend time riding through beautiful country.

There are many organisations formed just to do that all over Australia and one of the oldest in Victoria is the Melbourne Trail Horse Riders Club (MTHRC).

Up until 1980, the club focused their trail rides in the hills and mountains on the outskirts of Melbourne with the occasional longer ride a little further afield in the Victorian High Country.

Great as those rides were, there was one committee member, Bill Kemp, who having grown up in the Mallee near Ouyen understood the unique appeal of riding horses in the living desert of Victoria’s Sunset Country.

The club committee at the time struggled to be convinced that anyone would be interested to travel so far to ride where there were no mountains.

Undeterred, Bill borrowed a four-wheel drive for a long weekend and with his three sons onboard headed into the Sunset Country (now known as the Murray Sunset National Park) to map out a week-long trail horse ride.

Bill still had many family friends and connections in the area and with the support of the McArthurs of Glencoe Station at Hattah, the Locketts of Underbool and the Ouyen Trotting Club, the basis of the “Mallee Ride” was established.

ABOVE: Mitch Kemp, son of Bill, was a guest speaker at the clubs “Galah” dinner this year. He is pictured with Linda Fencaros and Susan Helliwell.

The inaugural ride took place in September 1981. Only eight riders and one backup driver were brave enough to take part. Bill led the ride, as well as cooked and catered for the participants and their horses (just as he did for many years to come). For the first few days, ground conditions were very wet and Malcolm Marks’ backup Landcruiser ute towing Bill’s horse float struggled through the slippery conditions so much so that the float had to be rebuilt after the ride due to encountering dozens of stumps and mallee roots at the sides of what were then very narrow tracks.

Of the eight initial riders only four had completed every day of the 240km week-long ride. Back then the ride required very big days in the saddle. Some riders were just too sore to ride every day and some horses suffered minor strains or developed sores from ill-fitting gear. However, when the ride finished at the trotting club stables in Ouyen after that last (and biggest) day of 61km, all involved knew they’d been part of a great equine adventure.

From those humble beginnings the ride has been a regular annual event on the MTHRC calendar with only a few years along the way when the ride hasn’t been possible due to things such as Equine Influenza and Covid 19. At times as many as 38 participants took part, which was a massive undertaking by the ride organisers of the day.

Over the 40-odd years riders have witnessed droughts, mouse plagues, the great kangaroo migration from NSW and the subsequent kangaroo blindness virus, the transition of grazing lease land to National Park and even on the odd occasion, extreme wet. But most of all they experienced the Mallee, the generosity and friendliness of its people and its extreme remoteness, which enables a rider to truly connect with their horse.

Over time, the ride has been gradually modified to make it a little easier on horse and rider, but this was only possible through the great generosity and hospitality of local landowners such as the Wandels, the Eichlers and the Menglers.

These are long, ongoing relationships. Over two generations now the McArthur family continues to allow the club to use their property as the ride’s starting point. And it was in 1982 that Ray Wandel came across a group of slightly lost riders and offered his nearby property as an overnight camp, which has continued to be part of the ride’s itinerary ever since.

Special thanks to the organisers of this significant annual event such as the late Bill Kemp, the late Beth Jackman and the man who attended, led and organised more Mallee rides than anyone else, MTHRC life member, Bruce McClean.

Bruce continues to run the ride to this day.

More than 40 years is a great achievement so well done to Bruce, all the backup crew and the MTHRC for the ride’s ongoing support.

The real thanks though, needs to go to the many locals and friends who have assisted and enabled the club to maintain this unique Mallee tradition.


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