A while ago someone mentioned the documentary ‘The Man From Cox’s River’ to me, and suggested I see it, given my particular interest in the horse in Australia. The film gets overwhelmingly positive reviews from viewers, and to be honest I was expecting something a bit parochial, trading off the whole Man From Snowy River thing, which most punters are quite happy to swallow hook, line, and sinker.
To my surprise, the documentary is much more nuanced, and focuses largely on the relationship between two of the human protagonists, Luke Carlon and Chris Banffy, rather than attempting to sell yet more brumby mythology. Luke Carlon is depicted as the quintessential Aussie bushman, having grown up in the heart of the Blue Mountains wilderness, and as comfortable on the back of a horse as he is on the ground. Chris Banffy has also grown up in the area, but his love of the country has taken him into a different profession, working for the NSW Parks and Wildlife Service.
The documentary begins with members of the Carlon family discussing their ousting from the Burragorang wilderness, which was once Crown Land used by graziers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and from the 1960s by the Carlon family for their trail riding business, until its value as a wilderness site and significant catchment area finally ended public access. This was during the 1990s, and at the time, ‘Matriarch’ Norma Carlon tells us, there was a high degree of animosity between the Carlon family and the Parks and Wildlife Service, but by the time of the documentary, “feelings had cooled down a fair bit.”
The documentary centres on Banffy contracting Carlon, and several of his family and friends, to remove a mob of brumbies from the Lake Burragorang wilderness, in a project being funded by the Sydney Catchment Authority. Lake Burragorang is actually the flooded Burragorang Valley, which was dammed in the 1950s as part of the Warragamba Dam project. It provides Sydney with around 70% of its drinking water, and the brumbies present a problem, as there is evidence that they carry the cryptosporidium parasite.
Interestingly, the environmental issues presented here are not the same as those facing the Snowy Mountains region, for example. This is both the documentary’s strength, and its weakness. Its strength, because it then becomes an engaging local story. Its weakness, because it conveniently sidesteps a highly topical issue, essentially absolving itself of addressing the bigger picture of environmental degredation posed by brumbies throughout Australia’s wilderness.
I worry that many people might miss the point, made by Carlon himself, that “in some areas where there’s thousands of horses, you gotta do something about it”, and instead see this film as evidence that trapping and removal is a viable solution to shooting brumbies. Never mind that the cost of removing these horses is revealed in the film as being between $11,000 and $13,000 per horse! The fact that the real danger to environments posed by brumbies elsewhere is not addressed at all is evident in a Q&A with the documentary’s producers, where the interviewer, having seen the film already, asks exactly why brumbies are such an issue?
For me, it is NPWS Ranger Chris Banffy who proves the most engaging and insightful subject. I think his assessment that “People have very strong cultural connections to horses, and I actually don’t. You know, I’m very wary of those attachments that people have to horses, and how that alters their thinking” is spot-on. He also very openly and honestly reveals his reservations about the documentary itself, wondering how the events will later be edited, and what sort of story they will be used to tell. Kudos to the producers for including it!
The sheer remoteness of the location means that removing the brumbies is a challenging process, and even trapping them is preceded by months of free-feeding, to lure them to the yards. All the hay and infrastructure must be brought in by helicopter, an expensive process. Once the brumbies are trapped they must be broken to lead, and led the 4km out of the valley, to a second set of yards where they are loaded onto trucks and shipped out. What happens after this we are not shown, which was disappointing, as I think the next stage of the brumbies’ journey is potentially even more interesting. But again, this documentary is less about the horses, and more about the men, and their approach to the land and its management.
As a self-confessed horse lover I found the roping and breaking part quite confronting. When Luke says “The way we’re handling the horses here might seem a bit brutal and a bit rough” he’s not wrong. For Luke, the need is “to get them quiet enough quickly so that we can get them out of the valley here, and go to a safer home, because the alternative, if we didn’t, they’ll be shot.” But the brumbies will not go quietly, and seeing the fear in their responses, listening to them gasping as the ropes bite into their windpipes, restricting their breathing, their legs tied together, makes me wonder if maybe being shot while still free might not be a better alternative. However, when this appears to be a very real possibility for one recalcitrant mare, I am deeply grateful for the lengths the men go to to ensure this does not happen.
I did enjoy this documentary. I think it was reasonably even-handed in its portrayal of both sides of the arguments regarding conservation and land management, but I was also frustrated by the fact that it doesn’t add anything to the broader brumby debate, which extends far beyond the boundaries of the Blue Mountains National Park. However, for its representation of a local story, it does very well indeed.