David Whitley becomes a temporary part of the family at Bullock Mountain Homestead near Glen Innes in New South Wales.
Containing the sort of energy usually associated with a nuclear reactor, Cruiser bounds down the bank, ploughs through the water and digs his paws in to climb up my chest. My new friend indulges in a frenetic bout of face-licking; a sure sign that he’s not planning to leave me alone for the rest of the stay.
I’ve been out in the bush for less than a day, and I’m evidently part of the family already. Cruiser is the younger of the two dogs at the Bullock Mountain Homestead, and the boisterous Labrador-cross comes everywhere, be it on a scramble down the river, a drive through the forest or pre-dinner kangaroo hunt. He’s after rabbits rather than roos, however.
His weary cohort Tooheys – all the homestead’s animals are named after alcoholic beverages – normally follows with a little less enthusiasm. He’s happy enough to humour Cruiser, but is clearly glad to see his young protégé lavish attention on some other poor mug for a few days.
Bullock Mountain is one of those glorious places that can be all-action or ridiculously lazy, depending on whether you’re more in the Cruiser or Tooheys mindset.
Fishing, yabbying, birdwatching and bushwalking are amongst the options on offer, but it’s clear that the heart is with the horses. Twenty-or-so roam freely around the property’s 12,000 acres, but are rounded up and saddled when guests wish to go for a ride.
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The horses are cared for with an almost maternal verve by co-owner Alison Wood, and they’re clearly in good condition. I’m presented with an absolute beauty – a giant grey called Belle (as in Bell’s whisky) with film star looks.
Unfortunately, she blatantly has T-Rex blood on one side of her family, and getting up without an ice axe and crampons should be something of a challenge. Alison points at a tree stump. “We’ve thought of that,” she says, ushering Belle towards nature’s pedestal.
Once up and plodding through the trees, it’s pretty obvious to see why the Woods use the property for horses and tourists rather than agriculture. It’s rocky, rugged and rather overgrown. Some of the trails disappear beneath a sea of wispy green scrub, while the paths are crossed by fallen trees and other obstacles.
We break into the occasional canter, but for the most part, it’s a tentative walk through land that doesn’t seem all that close to habitation.
But suddenly we emerge at Beardy Waters, and a beautiful blue pool flanked by two thick rows of gum trees. Pelicans debate whether to scatter or stand their ground as we approach. It’s exactly what the Australian bush should look like, and it’s warm enough for a swim. Cruiser agrees whole-heartedly.
Once we’ve made our way back to base, it’s time for an altogether different water activity. This part of NSW’s Newarea is notoriously rich in minerals – particularly sapphires.
Most of them are mined these days, but fossickers still try their luck in the rivers and creeks. Unfortunately, doing it the traditional way is rather hard work. Scrabbling around at the rock to get enough to sift through is not much fun, so the Woods have come up with a better plan. They get bags of cast-off material from the mine, and take their guests through how to find the jewels amongst the junk.
Part of the bag is emptied out into two large trays, which act as sieves. They’re lowered into a water vat, and the cleaning process begins. The trays are dunked, shimmied, swivelled and shaken in the water in order to clean the dirt off and separate the bigger stones from the little ones. There’s a clear technique to it, with the aim being to get the heavier stones – and hopefully the sapphires – to the bottom. Alas, that technique isn’t immediately obvious to a rank amateur.
The trays are then flipped over onto old barrels and the rubble is picked through with tweezers. I strike lucky immediately – a small blue speck glimmers amongst the black stones. I hold it up to the light to check, and then pouch it.
The hunt is surprisingly fascinating. A second pair of eyes can spot potential sapphires that the first pair misses, and after a while everything starts to look bluer than it is. I end up with a film canister half full of potential gems, although the elation wears off when they’re surveyed by an expert in town. Apparently only one is really gem quality.
But for all the activities, it’s the family atmosphere that makes Bullock Mountain special. The highlight of the day is a lamb roast in the evening, then beers, tall tales and dirty jokes around the campfire. And, of course, making sure that Cruiser has his tummy suitably tickled.