Brumbies have a complicated place in Australian culture and history. Introduced by English settlers and convicts to help toil rugged land for farming, these majestic warm-blooded animals were integral in the Light Horse Brigade in the First World War. But with increased industrialisation, they became obsolete and were set free to roam the Australian outback. Brumbies have been romanticised in poems, books and films like The Man from Snowy River and The Silver Brumby. Considered a scourge by many, the political issue of aerial culling evokes fierce opinions from all sides of the debate.

One of the brumbies’ biggest advocates is a French expatriate who calls the Bundaberg Region home. In 2019, Aliénor le Gouvello traversed Australia’s Bicentennial National Trail, from southern Victoria to Far North Queensland, with her three brumbies and dog. She’d spent 18 months training her horses and preparing for the journey. 

Fewer than 50 people have travelled the full length of the Trail since it opened in 1988. Initiated by the Australian Trail Horse Riders Association committee, led by world-famous stockman RM Williams, the Trail runs alongside the Great Dividing Range through National Parks, private properties and wilderness areas; following old coach roads, stock routes, brumby tracks and fire trails.

Aliénor’s gruelling solo journey was punctuated with life-changing moments, which she shares in her memoir, Wild At Heart.  Battling loneliness, she found company in the trees and landscape. “I had moments of grief on the Trail where I really had to manage my mind and these kind strangers who I call my ‘trail angels’ would just appear when I needed them most. People’s generosity in the rural places of Australia is really amazing,” Aliénor said. 

In a fateful turn of events, one such stranger would become her future husband. Mitch Ballantyne, a bare-footed grazier and helicopter pilot who emanated something ‘different’, greeted Aliénor from his blue tractor, just outside Gin Gin. The pair bonded over beers under the Southern Cross. They’ve since had a son, and will welcome a daughter this Summer.

Published in 2021, Wild At Heart is a quintessentially Australian story of perseverance, determination and indomitable spirit, told through both Alienor’s own inspiring words and breathtaking pictures captured by award-winning adventure photographer and ethnographer, Cat Vinton.

Cat lives with nomadic families, documenting their extraordinary resilience and self-sufficiency in their relentlessly challenged existence. This intimacy has allowed her to capture the human spirit, survival stories and the fragile connection between people and land. Since 2007, Cat has completed five solo expeditions to the nomadic Sámi, Mongolian, Dolpo, Moken and Tibetan people. 

Previously employed as a youth worker in remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, Aliénor is studying counselling and working towards becoming an equine-assisted therapist with the intention of starting her own practice. She owns nine horses and is also a motivational speaker. “I want to inspire people to follow their dreams and not be afraid to take an unconventional route,” Aliénor said. “Young people need to understand that it’s chip by chip, when there’s a will there’s a way. Being open-minded, coping and adapting to change; they’re all life skills that are very important.”


“I travelled Australia from South to North, from Healesville to Cooktown spilling my fair share of blood along the way. Crippling pain and tropical fevers dogged my footsteps. Sometimes my joints and hands still feel as though they are being torpedoed. 

Twice, staphylococci took residence in my foot and in my leg. I came just shy of contracting sepsis. During my two stays in hospital, the doctors tried to forbid me from returning to the Trail – but it didn’t stop me. 

My only truth was in sticking with it, for 13 months, in all weather, through mountains and every other type of terrain. My one mission, for myself and my horses, was to find our way, to find water, food and to organise the logistics for contacting the people whose territories we were crossing. 

Every day, after assembling my bivouac the night before, I’d dismantle it and get myself going again: this was my routine. But my most important task was centred around my three companions. As we travelled deeper into the land, the connection between me and my horses grew exponentially. Keeping them in good physical condition, as we travelled across 5330 kilometres of land, became my strongest motivation, my underlying challenge. I did not know it at the time, but caring for them, focusing on them, is what kept me together.”

Buy the book direct from Aliénor, or find it at local businesses like Nature’s Emporium, The Book Boutique, The Journey Cafe, Boylans Produce and Family Chiropractic Bundaberg.  [email protected]

View more of Cat Vinton’s expedition photography: www.maptia.com/catvinton www.illuminate.org.uk @wild_at_heart_australia @catvinton