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WILD ONE: The last brumby of Brooms Head

  • THIS article is featured in the third edition of Clarence+ a free 32-page biannual magazine produced by The Daily Examiner that covers a range of topics including sport, art and history, with a distinct Clarence Valley flavour. It is now available to pick up from the front desk at The Daily Examiner at 55 Fitzroy St, Grafton, and selected cafes, business houses and key centres throughout the Clarence Valley.

BANJO Paterson immortalised Australia's wild brumbies in his classic poem The Man from Snowy River, but here in the Clarence we have our own legendary tale, one of freedom and defiance, in the form of a piebald stallion called Brumby.

For this story we'll call him Brumby, anyhow. It's what some of the locals know him as. He's also been called Curious George, Brumbles, Brums and simply 'horse' - some names hardly original but endearing and do the job when he's the only one.

It also demonstrates how people feel about Brumby, the familiar friend and muse to artists, whose recurring presence is as recognisable in this landscape as that of the kangaroos and birdlife.

 

Brumby at home in Yuraygir National Park's landscape.
Brumby at home in Yuraygir National Park's landscape. Steve Otton

But perhaps the stallion's most telling name is that of Wildfire, a romanticised moniker bestowed upon the spirited beast that has called the sands and shrubbery of Yuraygir National Park home for the past 17 years. It hints that there's more to the story of this motley figure, whose ancestors had been both loved and controversial fixtures on the Brooms Head landscape for decades.

Much like Cyclone Tracy did to Darwin in 1974, in 2000 it was a raging bushfire at The Broom that turned thoughts of Christmas presents and festive gatherings to chaos and confusion.

While the village was compromised, it escaped the devastation the park that encased it endured, the unforgiving orange blanket incinerating everything in its path.

Wildlife cruelly trapped between the ridge and the sea either perished or were mortally wounded, among them the remaining herd of brumbies, wiped out completely.

Or so it seemed.

In the aftermath of this ecological war zone, a youngster stood defiant on this blackest of days. His family, his tribe, had vanished and a lonely fate stared down this unsuspecting face.

It was the stuff of storybooks and big-screen adaptations that revel in such gallant survival.

Here he was, the little miracle, a mere child now left to his own devices.

 

When Steve Otton arrived in Brooms Head a decade ago, Brumby was a sprightly, young stallion of about seven (his age is an ongoing debate), one of the first 'locals' he met.

"Of course you never really meet him, you just observe from a distance," the freelance photographer said.

"But he's the reason I took to wildlife photography. He was the first animal I started shooting. I wasn't much into that kind of photography before I came here."

 

ABOVE: Cooling off at Lake Cakora.
ABOVE: Cooling off at Lake Cakora.

Given the nature of their relationship, Otton is understandably protective of his good mate, a distant keeper of sorts, along with a handful of others who slot comfortably into Brumby's world.

Otton knows the intricacies of his routine - as much as you can know about a wild animal's, his thousands of images testament to Brumby's habits, a colourful catalogue of activities and encounters across the coastal plains his ancestors once traversed.

He's also been known to make village appearances, but these are more likely to occur under the cover of darkness.

"He'll come into town at night for his greens," Otton said. "He likes fresh lawn. You can see where he's been by the piles of droppings around. I remember coming out the back door one night and he was just standing there."

 

Helen Commerford took a photo on way home from holidays at Brooms Head of the lone brumby which lives in the National Park surrounding Brooms Head.At night he ventures into town and leaves plenty of evidence that he has been there - this is him heading back
Helen Commerford took a photo on way home from holidays at Brooms Head of the lone brumby which lives in the National Park surrounding Brooms Head.At night he ventures into town and leaves plenty of evidence that he has been there - this is him heading back "home" in the early morning.

He said Brumby liked to hang around the lake and the sports ground sometimes.

"He has developed his own system. I'm kind of glad he doesn't hang around too obviously though."

Despite the long friendship, Otton is yet to steal a tactile moment with Brumby. The closest he's come, a couple of metres away.

"He will just back off and then stop. That's if he likes you. He seems to be fascinated by people. He kind of looks at you as if to say, 'What do you want now?'"

Otton said children seemed drawn to Brumby. "They're pretty good mostly. They have a ball watching him go about his business. He's always on the lookout for baddies though."

 

Roadside.
Roadside.

Otton said Brumby generally wasn't approached much, but if he was and didn't trust you, he just "bolts off".

"He's curious but he's also been traumatised, so it's understandable he's a bit wary of people."

Otton said despite the passage of time, there were plenty of reminders from Brumby's past that still showed in his behaviour.

"If there's ever any smoke, he heads back down to Red Cliff. He must have sought refuge in the lily pond and used sand dunes for shelter during the fires, so you'll find him back there whenever there's smoke about."

 

Brumby gets around the coastal expanse he calls home.
Brumby gets around the coastal expanse he calls home. Steve Otton

Despite the lonely figure Brumby cuts on this vast landscape, Otton feels he makes the most of what life has dealt him.

"You often see him with about 20 kangaroos hanging around. They're all mates, they eat together and rest around one another. He's also struck up a friendship with one of the long-time holiday dogs that visit."

He said it wasn't unusual to see lots of birds around Brumby. The constant supply of willie wagtails part of his grooming process, the sight of a white-bellied sea eagle perched on a post next to him while he grazed, a memorable one for Otton.

"The pelicans at the lake also seemed to have adopted him."

 

Brumby having dinner with friends.
Brumby having dinner with friends.

He said Brumby had become "a bit of celebrity around town", but for others not so much.

"The brumbies have always been a bit divisive but he does have a lot of supporters.

"The bowling club have adopted him as a mascot. They have a huge mural there now, and there's the Brumby beer coasters. Even their bowls team is called The Brumbies.

"He's definitely becoming more prolific, but he still has a mysteriousness about him."

 

MASCOT: Brooms Head Bowling Club have adopted the brumby as their mascot, which now adorns a mural on their work shed.
MASCOT: Brooms Head Bowling Club have adopted the brumby as their mascot, which now adorns a mural on their work shed. Steve Otton

Depending on the time of year, Otton said you can often catch a glimpse of him from the clubhouse.

"The panorama there means you can see him when he's way out the back. We call him the white speck. He always heads out there during the holiday season."

Otton said Brumby adjusted his behaviour according to the seasons. "You see him backing into the bushes and looking out from there when it gets colder or really windy. It's beautiful the way he does that."

Despite his feral classification, Brumby can sometimes be a bit of show pony.

"He's funny to watch at the lake. He stomps through the water rather than swims. He does like a roll in the dirt, but after it rains he comes out of the bush all clean and fresh, his coat glistening."

 

Washing off in Lake Cakora.
Washing off in Lake Cakora.

Otton said Brumby had become pretty adept at maintaining his well-being. A master of bush medicine like the indigenous people before him, he relies on nature to tackle the occasional health issue.

A recent limp seems to be sorting itself out under the watchful eye of those vested in his health and happiness, social media chatter expressing concern and keeping fans up to speed with his progress.

"He had an infected foot a while ago too and was limping around badly. I wanted to get a vet to look at it but was advised to let it go.

"Brumby seems to know what to eat and where to go to heal himself. There's plenty of clay and salt water around. Trying to intervene and treat him would only traumatise an animal like him."

 

ABOVE: Brumby with the mystery mare in 2012, and right, one of his progeny. His family was captured and returned to domestic life, leaving Brumby alone once again.
ABOVE: Brumby with the mystery mare in 2012, and right, one of his progeny. His family was captured and returned to domestic life, leaving Brumby alone once again. Debrah Novak

As history has already attested, well-meaning people can be more of a hindrance than a help for wild animals like Brumby.

A thoughtful gesture of companionship a few years ago ended in heartbreak for the bachelor stallion, who'd spent more than a decade on his own.

"That wasn't a good idea," Otton said about the domestic mare that mysteriously arrived on the scene a few years ago. "I understand the intention but it didn't end well."

It wasn't long before the happy couple welcomed a foal into the mix and were expecting again when the decision was made to remove them.

Despite the romantic notion, packs of hard-hoofed animals don't belong in national parks.

While Brumby's young family returned to domestic life not too far away, his second but brief taste of companionship left him reeling and pining in the weeks that followed, his erratic behaviour and vocal protests met with little response nor effect before resignation set in. Brooms Head was a one-horse town again.

And while the future of Brumby is now a matter of letting nature take its course, his presence will continue so long as his health allows, supported by his native mates and championed by his human friends. Wild horses are known to thrive into their 20s, if Brumby's shrewdness and determination are any indication, this white speck could be a feature of our landscape for some time yet.

 

BELOW: Brumby gets vocal.
BELOW: Brumby gets vocal. steve otton

On Brumby's trail

Kenny Parker spends a lot of his early mornings following Brumby's trail. Armed with a wheelbarrow and trusty dog Digger, he spends close to an hour walking his well worn path collecting the nuggets of fertilizer that 'horse', as Kenny refers to him, leaves behind.

It goes onto his vege patch at home, the secret to the abundant crops that spring forth year-round. It also ensures the town is relieved of Brumby's strategically placed piles, the familiar pattern of a stallion doing the rounds.

"He is a creature of habit but he can change things up a bit if he's out of sorts. He doesn't worry about my dog. Sometimes he might follow us to see what we're up to."

Kenny and his wife Kay haved called The Broom home for the past 20 years, there through the fires that devastated the brumby herd.

"He's always been a wild animal but he's certainly not a spiteful one. He lost everything when he was about one but has done well considering he didn't know anything."

Kenny is another of Brumby's keepers as such, the network of locals who keep a casual eye out for him as they go about their daily business.

"I see him most days. He enjoys a gallop and a roll and will get up on his back legs sometimes and whinny. He gets a bit vocal at times. It's like he's telling everyone 'I'm here'."

  • THIS article is featured in the third edition of Clarence+ a free 32-page biannual magazine produced by The Daily Examiner that covers a range of topics including sport, art and history, with a distinct Clarence Valley flavour. It is now available to pick up from the front desk at The Daily Examiner at 55 Fitzroy St, Grafton, and selected cafes, business houses and key centres throughout the Clarence Valley.