I’ll never forget my first glimpse of a mob of wild brumbies. It was 2006 and I was on a job in Far North Queensland, heading back to camp late in the day with my mate Matty Wright in the pilot’s seat of the chopper. The doors were off, the wind was in my hair, and I was tired, dirty and happy to be where my job had taken me that day. In front of me, nature was rolling out a quintessentially Australian desert sunset; a flaming orange ball, sinking beneath the horizon and streaking the huge sky with reddening light.
In the distance, I suddenly saw the silhouettes of about eight wild brumbies racing across the earth, a cloud of dust swirling behind them. Matty banked left and we swooped down for a closer look. The herd of wild horses thundered forward into the golden, fading light. Hanging out of the chopper, mesmerised, I watched as their hooves flew over the cracked and rocky earth, their manes and tails streaking behind them like standards. They were powerful creatures, their muscles rippling with each stride. And yet they moved with such grace, such utterly wild freedom, they seemed almost ethereal. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
“They were powerful creatures, their muscles rippling with each stride. And yet they moved with such grace, such utterly wild freedom, they seemed almost ethereal.”
One day, I told myself as we choppered on into the dusk, I would return to photograph these beautiful animals. There was just something about them that seemed to tap into so much of what I felt about Australia itself: their apparent fragility, which belies their enormous strength and resilience, their untamed beauty, which can endure and thrive in one of the harshest landscapes on earth, the fact that they have adapted themselves from somewhere else, like so many of us in this country, to make this place their own.
They’ve roamed the Australian bush for as long as Europeans have lived on this land, from the first day they slipped the traces of the fences and farms and stables that held their ancestors in the early days of the colonies.
They forgot how it felt to be ‘broken’, and lived wild instead, beyond the reach of white society.
No one is sure how the term ‘brumby’ came about. It may have developed from the Aboriginal word baroomby, meaning ‘wild’, or it may have been a nod to the early settler and horse owner Sergeant James Brumby. Either way, it was in common use by 1917, when Australian poet Banjo Paterson – that great chronicler of the bush and its horses – wrote his wonderful poem Brumby’s Run.
I have used Paterson’s hauntingly beautiful words as a prelude to my pictures, and throughout the book itself, to enrich the photographs with poetic imagery that resonates and puts into words for me just what is so special about these magnificent untamed animals.
Today, brumby numbers have swelled to around 400,000 and in their bloodlines they carry as eclectic a DNA as Australia itself – Arabians and Clydesdales, draft horses and show ponies, thoroughbreds and stockhorses.
Today, brumby numbers have swelled to around 400,000 and in their bloodlines they carry as eclectic a DNA as Australia itself – Arabians and Clydesdales, draft horses and show ponies, thoroughbreds and stockhorses. There’s got to be a touch of Timor Pony in there, the tough, agile breed brought to Australia to work stock in the early days. Then there’s the bloodline of the hardy, resilient Walers, the backbone of the Australian Light Horse divisions in warfare, famed for their powers of endurance and widely admired as ‘the finest cavalry mounts in the world’.
Here the breakaway wild herds roam, thriving and surviving in a land of timeless beauty and stunning contrasts. My Australia. Ours. A land that can break your heart, then heal it, then make it swell with a pride and sense of wonder you hardly have words for.
It’s been nine years between seeing that first mob break into a gallop in Far North Queensland and completing the collection of photographs that make up The Wild Brumbies of Australia. This is the first book in the series I am planning entitled ‘Celebrate Australia’. This project is an ongoing labour of love for me. It’s my passion, and also my way of paying homage to the magical country of my birth. Over the next several years I hope to create a library of art that captures and evokes all of Australia’s fierce natural beauty, its unique attributes and its contradictions. It’s not a cheap exercise, chartering choppers to sweep across the vast outback of Australia, looking for wild horses to photograph. And yes, its dangerous flying backwards hanging out of a chopper two-feet off the ground, with cameras in both hands, missing trees and bushes by inches and moving close alongside unpredictable wild brumbies swerving in front of you, just for a photograph.
But, when you’re trying to capture something fleeting and fierce and wild through your lens, you are searching, always, for ways to look it square in the eye, to see it and smell it and hear it and try to transmute some of that mysterious jolt into a single elemental image. I’ve been lucky, since first falling in love that day. I’ve seen brumbies of all shapes and colours, and met different personalities looking back into my eyes – some brave, some inquisitive, some unsure, some as amazed, it seemed, as I was at our chance encounter.
As a photographer, it’s made me realise, again, that what I set out to capture through the lens is so often a synergy of attraction, something that mirrors some characteristic of my own I only seem to recognize when the perfect moment and its rhythm suddenly presents itself to me. I see myself, suddenly, a young boy tearing around the suburban Sydney streets on my BMX, feeling the wind in my hair and lost in the exhilaration of the bigness of the world, its wildness, its adventure. I feel exactly the same thing now, when I take the doors off the chopper and tie the fishing rods to the struts, throw the bags in the back and head out in search of…what? Beauty. Magic. The thing that will take my breath away and make me feel alive. I’ll know it when I see it. I’m never quite sure what I’ll end up finding through my lens, or how my photographs might do it justice, but I know what I’ve learned – to feel that wild exhilaration, keep my camera hand steady and give my instinct its head, trusting that nature – as it always does – will take care of the details.
Extract from the book – Brumby by Nick Leary (Thames and Hudson)