The history of the Bicentennial National Trail is a uniquely Australian story – one where people who dared to dream of a long distance trail to rival America’s Appalachian Trail worked tirelessly to achieve that dream. With dedication and persistence, they made that dream a reality.
RM Williams, Dan Seymour, Mike Allen and Brian Taylor are names synonymous with the early days of the Trail. We thank them! We thank them and everyone involved in the establishment of the Bicentennial National Trail.
1972 Formation of ATHRA
At a meeting of the Australian All Breeds Congress at Gatton in January of 1972, a new group, the Australian Trail Horse Riders Association (ATHRA) was formed. ATHRA came up with a plan to develop a trail linking stock routes, bush tracks, fire trails and surveyed roads along the Great Dividing Range to provide a continuous trekking route along Australia’s eastern seaboard. The dream was to create the opportunity to experience the lifestyle of drovers who had once frequented Australia’s stock routes.
1972-73 Dan Seymour
A committee, led by legendary Australian bushman, RM Williams, developed the concept of a National Horse Trail. RM Williams sponsored Danny Seymour to find a route along the Divide, and to engender enthusiasm for the concept. Readers of RM Williams’ magazine, Hoofs and Horns, were kept up to date on Dan’s progress. Dan set off from Ferntree Gully near Melbourne on 6 February 1972 with his horses, Smokey and Dino, and cattle dog, Bluedog. He writes:
Mrs. Long flew down to Melbourne to see me off from Ferntree Gully on the 6th February. Also present was Mr. Auty of Ivanhoe, a veterinary surgeon, whose son Peter and daughter Cathy have ridden from Darwin to Melbourne. After they had wished me god-speed, I set off at about 11.30 on a beautiful day, heading towards Mt. Donna Buang in the Dandenongs. The sun was shining and the temperature was about 80 degrees, but once I left the mountain and was in the gully it was very cool and pleasant – beautiful scenery, very green trees and plenty of grass.
He arrived in Cooktown over eighteen months later on 22 September 1973. Along the way he took time out to complete a Quilty endurance ride!
Read a special tribute to Danny Seymour below.
1973-1978 ATHRA Clubs Survey Horse Trails
Between 1973 and 1978 ATHRA Clubs rode out to survey possible routes for a National Horse Trail. In some instances the Army was roped in to assist with the survey.
1978 Mail Ride
ATHRA clubs along the east coast celebrated the completion of a route for the National Horse Trail with a mail relay ride from Cooktown to Melbourne. This event took 90 days and used 958 riders. Participants received a commemorative medallion.
1981 National Trail Committee
Within ATHRA a committee consisting of RM Williams (Chairman), Mike Allen (Secretary) and Brian Taylor (ATHRA Councilor) took responsibility for the continued development of the Trail.
1984 Community Employment Program
A grant under the Community Employment program allowed the committee to employ a full time coordinator for twelve months.
1985 Bicentennial Project Proposal
A proposal to the Australian Bicentennial Authority to create a National Trail for hikers and horse riders was approved as a Bicentennial project. Funding of $100,000 was approved to research, mark a route and develop guidebooks.
1986-1988 Development of the Bicentennial National Trail
Mike Allen, his wife Carol, Brian Taylor and a fleet of volunteers set about the task of developing and mapping the Trail.
Some sixty local government authorities and fifty state government officials are consulted to ensure the route is acceptable in terms of present and future management plans. The Australian Bicentennial Authority increases the grant to $200,000, making the creation of the Bicentennial National Trail the major funded project under the Authority’s National Sport and Recreation Program.
The Queensland Government establishes an interdepartmental committee to support the project.
The Commonwealth Department of Sport, Recreation and Tourism commissions an environment consultant, Dr David Hogg, to prepare a report on the Trail. Support is obtained from the New South Wales and Victorian governments and the Department of Territories.
The plan for the Bicentennial National Trail is endorsed by the Sport and Recreation Ministers Council.
Guidebooks are prepared (with mapping assistance from the Queensland Government) and final approval of the route is obtained from all governments. Bicentennial funding ceased in June 1988.
1988 Bicentennial National Trail Opens
In just three years, and in time for the official opening in 1988, the project established and marked the route and produced the first guidebooks. The organising committee became incorporated as The Bicentennial National Trail Ltd. The concept becomes a reality not only for horse riders but also for bush walkers and mountain bike riders. As a multi- use trail, it is officially launched as the Bicentennial National Trail. Two official bicentennial events are held to mark the opening, one at Healesville, on 16 October 1988, where RM Williams, then aged 80, lead the procession and one at Kilkivan a week later on 22 October where Queensland Premier, Mike Ahern, opens the Queensland section.
1989 First end to end trekkers
Sharon Muir Watson and Ken Roberts become the first to complete the Bicentennial National Trail, riding from Cooktown to Healesville.
A second edition of the guidebooks is produced in 1992 with funding from the Commonwealth Department of Sport and Recreation.
The late eighties and nineties saw long distance trekkers on the Trail in a variety of travel modes. Many more are enjoying the Trail in short sections where demand on time is not so great.
In 1999 the NSW government recognised the significance of the Trail, and established a Coordinator to work with the government agencies and the community in NSW to develop and incorporate access agreements.
3rd edition Guidebooks for NSW produced, incorporating topographic maps.
The emphasis now is about securing the route of the Trail and ensuring the Trail remains open and available to trekkers.
The Trail’s enormous potential is being tapped by people involved in all sorts of activities. In addition to the horse riding and bush walking for which it was initially established the Trail sees people involved in camping and fishing, fossicking, canoeing, bird watching, orienteering, survival training, mountain bike riding, and travelling in horse drawn vehicles.
A brief history of the National Trail is not complete without a tribute to Dan Seymour – the man RM Williams got to find a route up the Great Divide, and engender amongst the community an enthusiasm for the concept of a National Trail.After leaving Ferntree Gully on 6 February 1972, his epic 21 month ride finished in Cooktown in September 1973. Clubs associated with The Australian Trail Horse Riders Association (another of R. M.’s initiatives) provided encouragement during this arduous and sometimes dangerous journey. His journey, which was regularly reported in the RM Williams magazine Hoofs and Horns, captured the imagination of many and created a real impetus for the formation of the Trail.
Dan was born in Alberta, Canada on 4th July 1923, and left home at the age of 11. He travelled across the USA and at 16 was working as a ‘slush boy’ on oil tankers out of Galveston, Texas. He arrived in England the day war broke out and, by lying about his age joined the Merchant Navy, where he survived being torpedoed three times. He married an English girl during the war but it is believed she died giving birth to twins. In 1950 Dan came to Australia broke, and for 20 years worked his way around the outback as a drover, ringer, dogger and fencer.
It was around the rodeos that he met RM Williams and a great friendship developed. When RM proposed the National Trail, Dan volunteered to ride it. He left Ferntree Gully near Melbourne in February 1972 with two saddle horses, a pack horse and Bluey, his cattle dog. After riding from Melbourne to Cooktown he returned to live in Dorrigo in northern NSW. Brian Darby, a local stock and station agent in Dorrigo describes Dan as a man who loved people, “generous to the extreme, full of energy, full of pranks. He loved nothing more than catching you out”
He died in Dorrigo in July 2001 aged 78. At Ebor on the route of the National Trail and in the Pioneer Park in Dorrigo there are plaques erected by the BNT and the Dorrigo community in Dan’s honour.
One name synonymous with the establishment of the Bicentennial National Trail is that of legendary Australian bushman, Reginald Murray (RM) Williams.
In the 1970’s, after a successful business career that saw the name ‘RM Williams’ become synonymous with quality Australian bush gear, Reg Williams turned his attention to three major projects
- a national horse industry association
- the development of a hall of fame to recognise Australia’s rural heritage
- and a national trail to rival the mighty Appalachian Trail in the USA
His legacy remains in each of these endeavours with the establishment of
- The Stockman’s Hall of Fame in Longreach
- The Bicentennial National Trail