Horse Camping Meets Bikepacking in the ACT
Words & Photos by Stephanie Skinner
My best friend Katey and I both like camping but have very different approaches; my method of packing only what I’m willing to lug up a hill on two wheels, her with the view that if it fits in the 4wd its worth bringing.
We’ve also got totally different choices of rides: I ride a Liv Devote gravel bike and she rides Tanami, a nice little brown horse. As a result we don’t really go riding or camping together much. Katey was telling me of her plans to go camping at the Mount Clear campground paddocks with her horse and ride out to Horse Gully Hut.
This finally presented us with an opportunity to combine forces for a delightful couple of days horse camping and bikepacking together! The plan was for Katey and a few other horse riders to drive the horses out to the campground where I’d ride to meet them, spend a day riding together in the middle, before parting ways and riding back into Canberra the next day.
Riding Out to Namadgi from Canberra
I set out from the city and zig zagged through the suburbs down to Tharwa, where you eventually ride out into the hills of Namadgi National Park.
I rode up Boboyan road which packed a couple of long challenging climbs, eventually maxing out at a top elevation of 1400 metres. Luckily the long climbs were punctuated by some short and sweet downhill sections that were just long enough to catch my breath and enjoy the views of the beautiful mountains racing past.
A few kms from the very top of the climb, the tarmac finally gives way to gravel and the gradient slackens which made for some really enjoyable riding. The reward at the top point was some pretty spectacular views from the Hospital Hill Lookout, an awesome vantage point to take in a near-panoramic view of Namadgi.
Even more rewarding was the knowledge that the campground was all downhill from there! The final high speed blast downhill to camp made the last few hours of climbing totally worth it. I rolled into Mt Clear Campground to meet Katey and the horses just as the sun was setting.
Horse + Bike = Fun times
The next day I hopped on my bike and Katey jumped on Tanami and we set off towards the aptly named Horse Gully Hut.
After all the climbing the day before, it was a pleasant change to spin along at a trotting pace and the horses seemed more than happy to let me lead on the bike. Horse pace is a much gentler pace than I would ever set for myself, and it made for the perfect opportunity to relax and enjoy the scenery.
After all the spring rain the bush was alive with long grasses, weeds and wildflowers, and the trees were displaying lots of regrowth after the black summer fires. The Naas creek that zig zags alongside and across the trail was full to the brim leading to a bunch of river crossings deep enough to justify pulling off the shoes and throwing the bike over a shoulder.
I’m convinced that whoever designed the trail either enjoyed the sensation of wet socks or else designed it in the middle of an intense drought, since the frequency of creek crossings was irrationally high. The horses on the other hand didn’t have to worry about wet socks or submerged bottom brackets and had a blast splashing across each one, with a firm hand on the reins to prevent them from having a bit too much fun and deciding to roll around in the middle of the water.
Riding To Horse Gully Hut
Between the river crossings there were lots of short punchy climbs that definitely got the heart and legs pumping. Turns out horses, for whatever reason, LOVE galloping up steep hills and nothing gets you quite as motivated to do hill sprints on the bike as hearing impending hoof beats behind you!
Eventually after a bunch of creek crossings and a few more hills I bombed down the valley to Horse Gully Hut, which is definitely more fun on a bike than it would be on a horse.
The hut is located in a beautiful flat clearing that would make for fantastic camping, and the hut itself is beautifully maintained, with a big fireplace, large interior, and big water tank that was completely full. We couldn’t have picked a more perfect lunch spot. I think the horses agreed, and they relished the opportunity to take a break by rolling around on the ground like oversized puppies and gorging themselves on fresh grass.
I helped Katey fill a bucket of water for the horses to drink and thought about how glad I was that I didn’t have to factor in how much water my bike would need to drink every time I set off on an adventure. After a lovely ride out, we headed back to the campground for the night.
The next day I waved goodbye to Katey and the horses and set off past Horse Gully Hut back to Canberra along the Naas Valley Fire Trail. The ride was just as beautiful as the day before and at my more usual speedy pace it felt like a whole new ride.
The last few days had made me reflect on the differences between adventuring on horseback and on bike and I came to the conclusion that both have their own appeal. For me I love the simplicity of steering a bike without needing to push a signal through a sentient brain first, and as hard as hills can be, it is intensely satisfying propelling yourself across long distances using your own two legs.
On the other hand, there is something really poetic and beautiful about being in sync with an animal and soaking up the scenery at a more leisurely pace. Ultimately, I think there is something uniquely enjoyable whichever way we choose to move, whether it’s via foot, horseback, or bike.
This may have been my first experience camping with horses but it certainly won’t be the last!