Alienor Le Gouvello and her beloved brumbies and dog on the trail. Picture: Cat Vinton
Alienor Le Gouvello and her beloved brumbies and dog on the trail. Picture: Cat Vinton

Big love on a solo marathon trek

IT'S a marathon, an epic trek and a romance all rolled into one.

It stars 5300km of the Australian outback, 15 months, three wild horses, a dog, a Frenchwoman with wanderlust and a barefooted, bushy-bearded bloke on a blue tractor.

But at its core, it's a love story.

It begins with Alienor Le Gouvello, a Frenchwoman who arrived in Australia on a three-week holiday more than decade ago, and never caught the flight home.

A lifelong love of horses and adventure quickly bound her to the bush - and to Australia's wild horses, the tough, sure-footed brumbies which inhabit it.

Alienor's record-breaking journey to become only the second woman to ride on horseback Australia's 5300km Bicentennial National Trail solo is headline-grabbing enough.

But, as she shares with broadcaster Andrew Denton on Interview on Tuesday night, that epic journey along Australia's longest trekking route became a stunning background to a labour of love - which ended in an even deeper love.

 

‘Working with a brumby is a unique experience,’ says Alienor, on the trail with her team. Picture: Cat Vinton
‘Working with a brumby is a unique experience,’ says Alienor, on the trail with her team. Picture: Cat Vinton

 

Denton teases out a ripping yarn that begins with a lust for adventure amid the isolation of the Australian bush.

The Bicentennial National Trail - formerly known as the National Horse Trail - is a gruelling route, which stretches from Cooktown in Queensland to Healesville in Victoria.

It runs the length of the Great Dividing Range, through old stock routes, national parks, private property, rivers, fire trails and brumby tracks.

Its route is outlined in a series of guidebooks, written for those making the journey from north to south. You'll need a compass, a map, and a fair bit of bush savvy to negotiate it.

Seemingly not content with that degree of difficulty, Alienor decided to do it in reverse, from south to north. And alone, with only her horses and her dog, Fox - when he was allowed on the trek - for company.

First, she had to find the horses tough enough to make it.

LOVE ON FOUR LEGS

She chose three wild brumbies, she tells Denton, and then spent a year training them and earning their trust.

On the trek, they became a team - but not before the young male brumbies - geldings Cooper and River - tested her skills and patience in the Victorian High Country.

"I'd been working with horses all my life, but working with a brumby is a unique experience," she tells Denton.

She had to lean to speak their "language".

 

Language of love: Alienor with her three brumbies. Roxanne, on the left, was her ‘rock’. Picture: Cat Vinton
Language of love: Alienor with her three brumbies. Roxanne, on the left, was her ‘rock’. Picture: Cat Vinton

 

After a month of "sweating and swearing", eventually, fighting tears and frustration built up over several weeks, turned to her trusty mare, Roxanne for help, she reveals.

Suddenly they were a team, travelling anywhere between 10-40km a day, their destination mainly dictated by where she could find water for her horses.

At night, she'd tend first to her horses, ensure they were fed, groomed and watered, prepare herself the barest of meals (two-minute noodles, she reveals, were a standard), then fall into an exhausted, contented sleep.

Her brumby mare would stand by the fire most nights, warming her belly - a silent four-legged sentry against a big-sky background of stars - watching over Alienor as she slept.

As the weeks stretched into months, the brumbies would prove not only her much-loved companions, but also her protectors.

When fear came knocking, she tells Denton, it was the one of the horses which alerted her to danger.

It came at 2am one night, when camped atop a mountain, one of the horses snorted "as brumbies do, when they sense danger, to alert the rest of the herd".

The fear came on two legs, not from the bush.

"In the bush there is nothing that is scary to me," she tells Denton.

"Sadly it is around human beings that as a single woman you feel a bit vulnerable when you are travelling."

LOVE ON TWO LEGS … AND A TRACTOR

Eight months into days of solitude with her horses, punctuated by the occasional pub meal and human contact, Alienor had made Queensland.

She crossed paths - literally - with Mitch Ballentine in the most random of meetings.

He, bushy beard cascading down towards his chest, barefoot, in shorts and shirt and driving a blue tractor, "looked a bit weird", but the pair chatted easily enough when they crossed paths on a road.

He was on his way to a section of his family's farm, opened a gate for her, and she moved on.

"If I was two minutes either side, I would never have met her," he says.

As she rode off, he realised "you don't see a beautiful blond woman on three horses every day" and cranked up the tractor, catching up, overtaking, asking if she needed anything - maybe a beer at the end of the day?

She told him she'd be camped at a river crossing. Then realised as she rode on, there were a few crossings.

 

He broke the ice with an offer of beer: Mitch and Alienor. Picture: Supplied
He broke the ice with an offer of beer: Mitch and Alienor. Picture: Supplied

 

 

Love takes off: Alienor and Mitch. Picture: Supplied
Love takes off: Alienor and Mitch. Picture: Supplied

 

"I put a sign … not this one … the girl with the horse … the next one," Alienor tells Denton.

"I really wanted that beer."

Mitch duly turned up. With beer.

They chatted for hours. Counted 24 shooting stars.

Next day, she rode on for Cooktown.

The pair kept in touch. Mitch would detour to catch up with her if she was anywhere near when he did his five-hour drive for work.

For date number two, he borrowed a helicopter and took her to the beach. He was falling for her, but knew she needed to complete her trek.

Still, she rode on.

Alienor's final months on the trail were spent in a haze of pain, illness and exhaustion. Hospitalised with ross river fever, she worried only about her horses.

Amid fever, joint pain, and blinding tiredness, the French adventurer was spent.

Then came Mitch, disarming her with the most heartfelt of gestures.

It was then, Alienor reveals: "I fell completely in love with him."

Interview with Andrew Denton airs on Tuesday at 9pm on Channel 7

Denton with Alienor and Mitch. Picture: Belinda Pratten
Denton with Alienor and Mitch. Picture: Belinda Pratten

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