The Bicentennial National Trail, also known as the BNT, is Australia’s longest trail. It stretches from Healesville in Victoria and passes through the ACT and New South Wales before finally finishing up in Cooktown, Far North Queensland. The trail takes in some of Australia’s most scenic and varied terrain—from remote wilderness areas to snowy mountains—along the way. Whether you decide to horse trek the whole of the BNT or enjoy its beauty in sections, here is everything you need to know to prepare for this life-list wilderness adventure.
What Is the Length of the Bicentennial National Trail and Where Does It Begin and End?
The Bicentennial National Trail (BNT), originally known as the National Horse Trail stretches 5330 kilometres from Cooktown, Queensland, through New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory to Healesville, 60 km north-east of Melbourne. This trail runs the length of the rugged Great Dividing Range through national parks, private property and alongside wilderness areas. The BNT follows old coach roads, stock routes, brumby tracks, rivers and fire trails. It was originally intended for horses, but is these days promoted also for cycling and walking, though it is not yet entirely suited to these two activities.
The trail is divided into 12 sections; each with its own guidebook. 6 of these sections are in Queensland, with the remaining sections running through New South Wales, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory. The sections are as follows:
- Cooktown to Gunnawarra, QLD: The Trail passes through rain forest, gold fields and historical tin mining towns.
- Gunnawarra to Collinsville, QLD: Through the grazing country of far north Queensland.
- Collinsville to Kabra: section follows old wagon roads and stock routes leading down to Rockhampton’s Fitzroy River.
- Kabra to Biggenden: This Mountainous section takes trekkers through the rugged Kroombit tops and down to Biggenden’s Burnett River.
- Biggenden to Blackbutt: Following forested trails through the coastal ranges, this section is a mecca for gold-fossickers.
- Blackbutt to Killarney: Following forest and farmland down to the NSW border, Section 6 offers magnificent views from atop the Great Dividing Range
- Killarney to Ebor: this is a rugged remote section that follows the Demon Fault Line through Guy Fawkes River National Park and across Waterfall Way.
- Ebor to Aberdeen: This section once again follows remote river systems and gorges along the Demon fault line.
- Aberdeen to Jenolan Caves: This section takes trekkers out of the forests and onto the rich plains of the Hunter Valley. Although the Blue mountains and other national parks in this section certainly have rugged grandeur, this is not as remote as other sections of the BNT
- Jenolan Caves to Yaouk: This section travels through open, wool-growing country. It is not as forested as other sections and thus sun exposure can be a risk.
- Yaouk to Omeo: This is the section of mountain horsemen, brumbies and snow gums, taking trekkers through the glorious Australian Alps.
- Omeo to Healesville: An extremely mountainous section of the trail with challenging terrain. This section runs almost entirely through forests and National parks.
What to Expect When Thru-Trekking the BNT
- Trekkers aiming to complete the length of the BNT will generally carry between 1-3 weeks’ worth of food. Before leaving, some choose to pack fortnightly resupply boxes (of food for humans) and arrange for a friend to forward it on to post offices in towns along the way.
- Given the length of the trail and the huge variation in climate along the way, expect to spend some nights battling with the cold, and some days battling with dehydration or heat exhaustion. Many trekkers aim to reach Queensland, Australia’s sunshine state in time for the winter, however, the southern Queensland sections of the Bicentennial National Trail are high in altitude and can experience freezing conditions. Trekkers need to come prepared for all types of weather.
- The BNT is not a purpose built trail, but rather a network of existing trails and routes. As such, expect to share it at times with vehicles, cyclists, walkers or travelling stock.
- Most of the BNT campsites are fairly basic- think a shaded grassy spot next to a river on some public land. Occasionally, the BNT passes through rural towns where you may be able to camp in a caravan park or treat yourself to more comfortable accommodation. In the southern sections of the BNT, mountain huts or shelters are sometimes available, but do not rely on these.
- Of all the things of which to be scared on the BNT, wildlife is the least of your worries. Trekkers on sections 1-4 of the BNT need to be wary of saltwater crocodiles around waterways, while brumbies can disturb your trekking animals and make themselves a nuisance at camp in the southern sections of the trail. Snakes, bull ants, spiders and wild dogs are all part and parcel of outdoor life and pose an insignificant threat when treated with caution and respect. The possibility of health risks such as dehydration, blisters, chafing, sunburn or hypothermia all need to be taken into account.
- Once in a while, you’ll travel long stretches (35km) before encountering a water source and thus suitable campsite. This is particularly true when trekking the Queensland sections of the trail late in the season, or on a few days of the remote and rugged BNT section 12 in Victoria.
How Long Does It Take to Trek the Bicentennial National Trail?
Belinda Ritchie, recipient of the 2014 Australian Geographic Young Adventurer of the year, once humorously remarked that the time it takes to complete the Bicentennial National Trail is inversely proportionate to the number of legs.
To illustrate her point, many horse trekkers take around a year to complete the trail. Walkers and cyclists, however, seem to get the job faster, with one hiker (Ben Dyer) traversing the entire length of the Bicentennial National Trail in just three-and-a-half months. Other folks are happy to turn their BNT trek into more of a long-term lifestyle project, with one horse trekker reportedly spending 8 years along the trail, working and wintering with friends along the way. Rumour has it that is still on the BNT now!
It is nearly always the case that trekkers always take longer to finish the trail than they assume they will. National Park closures, gear failures and waiting for subsequent replacements, animal health issues or injuries and unsuitable seasonal conditions are all factors that can hold up a BNT thru-trek. Bear in mind that when storms or heat waves are predicted, many long-distance trekkers choose to bunker down for a few days and take the opportunity to rest up rather than trek through adverse conditions and thus jeopardise their animals’ health and safety.
In addition to the above factors that are generally out of your control, the amount of time spent completing the BNT will be largely down to two factors: The amount of kilometres you and your animals are able to complete in a day, and the number of ‘rest days’ you think you will require.
Trekking anywhere from 15km-30km a day is the norm, but this also depends on the terrain and weather. Although you would rather not choose at trek 35km in a day, sometimes there are no suitable campsites in between and thus you are left with no other option. Other days you may choose to camp at the 8km mark to shorten the following day’s trek.
Rest days are an important part of a long-distance trek. Not only do they allow you and your trekking animals to fill up on food, rest, recuperate and recover from the ardours of the trail, they are also a necessity for preparation and planning. Many sections of the trail require trekkers to ring landowners for access, contact authorities for gate codes or call ahead to order stock feed or request permission to camp. Many trekkers remark that so-called ‘rest days’ are in fact their busiest on the trail, as they are filled with repairing gear, planning logistics, washing clothes, trimming hooves or tending to their animals’ needs. Most trekkers choose to take around one or two ‘rest’ days each week, usually timing these to coincide with a town stop or a particularly good campsite.
Which Direction Should I Travel on the BNT?
Going northbound or southbound is an important choice, because the weather and seasonal conditions will be starkly different depending on whether you start in Healesville or Cooktown. The BNT guidebooks were predominantly written for North to South travel and many early trekkers claim that the climate works best for starting in Cooktown and heading southwards. However, an increasing number of successful thru-trekkers seem to be starting at the southern end; perhaps because it is closer to the majority of Australia’s population and thus easier to get to.
Whichever direction you decide to go in, it is best to start in around April from the north (Cooktown), or around December from the south (Healesville).
Do I Need Permits for the BNT and How Do I Apply for Them?
All Bicentennial National Trail users are required to be financial members of the BNT at a cost of $40 per year for individual membership. The trail receives no government funding and thus relies entirely on profits from memberships, guidebook sales and the efforts of volunteers to keep it functional and running.
Guidebooks are only available for sale to members of the BNT and are priced at approximately $30 each. These are essential tools for any thru-trekker, as navigation can be challenging along the trail and BNT markers are often few and far between. The BNT guidebooks contain topographic maps as well as detailed trail notes as well as campground information and important contact details.
After becoming a BNT member and purchasing a set of guidebooks, Bicentennial National Trail thru-trekkers are expected to make contact with the BNT organisation and register their trek. Besides being for safety purposes, this allows trekkers to obtain any relevant updated information on trail conditions.
Much of the route of the BNT through New South Wales follows designated Travelling Stock Reserves. Use of Travelling Stock Reserves and their campsites is controlled by NSW Local Land Service (LLS). All trekkers intending to use a TSR campsite must obtain a Permit from the relevant LLS. In addition, all trekkers must make contact with the relevant NSW Local Land Service at least 48 hours before use. The NSW Local Land Service may refuse approval if all conditions relating to the use of a TSR are not met.
However, BNT members who are embarking on a thru-trek have access to a streamlined TSR permit approval process. Contact the BNT for further information.
What Is the Ideal Bicentennial National Trail Timeline?
If you are departing from Healesville, in December, you should plan to reach Cooktown by the following November or early December at the latest, which is when the high-humidity cyclone season in the north.
If you are departing from Cooktown in early April, you have a little more room for movement in terms of seasonal windows. Ideally, you should reach Healesville by February the following year. However, if you plan on taking your time, there is no harm in ambling your way down through Queensland for the winter and early spring, contend with a fairly hot summer in NSW, then spend Autumn crossing Victoria’s mountains. Although this timeframe works in terms of weather and climate, it is not however ideal for feed/ grazing conditions.
When planning a BNT trek, create a rough plan of where you’ll be each week and month, and consider the weather and trail conditions when planning. Keep in mind that once you’re on the trail, your rigid plans will likely derail, although it is helpful to have these on hand for some guidance at the beginning.
How to Prepare for Thru-Trekking the Bicentennial National Trail
Besides getting both yourself and your horse physically prepared for an epic thru-trek, BNT aspirants need to prepare mentally as well. Write down all the reasons you’re doing this, and really question whether you want it badly enough. There will be plenty of times, at least in the beginning, when you will want to quit, and it is this determination and purpose that will pull you through the tough times. Read blogs and books written by people who have done thru-treks on the BNT before. This can help you become familiar with issues or challenges unique to the BNT, as well as offer up some inspiration and give you something to look forward to when your own trek seems a fair way off.
The Tracks magazine is the official publication of the BNT and is sent out to members quarterly. It contains tips and tricks for successful BNT trekking, as well as interesting and informative write-ups on various BNT adventures.
What Essentials Should I Pack for a BNT Thru-Trek?
Each trekker inevitably has their own preferences and requirement; however, the following is a fairly generic packing list appropriate for long-distance horse trekkers on the Bicentennial National Trail.
- Horse equipment
- Pack saddle/ saddle
- Halter (include one extra)
- Saddle blanket
- Lead rope
- Saddle Bags for riding horse
- General Items
- Hoof pick and grooming supplies (keep it basic)
- Portable water bucket
- Hoof boots or shoeing supplies
- First aid kit for animals (large-sized gauze, tape, elastic bandages, salve, antibiotic ointment, etc.)
- Ropes for highlines, portable electric fencing equipment
- Other containment items as necessary (i.e. tether hobble, horse bells etc)
- Small wire cutters & extra fence wire (For emergency purposes if necessary, to cut through a fence)
- Small amount of hard feed for horses (i.e. Copra, muesli)
- Feed bags
- Down or synthetic fill jackets
- Lightweight Merino shirts (x2)
- Lightweight fleece jumpers (x2)
- Riding Pants
- Sleeping/ camp clothes
- Wool socks (3 pairs)
- Beanie/ Buff Underwear as required
- Rain gear (i.e. long Gore-Tex jacket/ Drizabone coat)
- Sun hat/ helmet Boots (comfortable for walking)
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad
- Camp Stove
- Matches/ lighter
- Fuel bottle
- Pocket knife
- Lightweight Pots
- Water container(s) & water
- Water purification system (filter & accessories, purification tablets)
- Repair Kit
- Leather and laces
- Speedy Stitcher/awl
- Sewing needle
- Nylon thread or dental floss
- Duct tape
- Bailing twine
- Navigation/ Emergency
- Compass Map
- Spot Device/ Satellite phone
- BNT guidebooks
- Waterproof map holder
- First Aid Kit
- Two gauze bandages
- Blister band-aids
- Chap Stick
- Triangular bandage
- Various gauzes and pads
- 2x compression snake-bite bandages
- Band Aids-assorted sizes
- Safety pins
- first aid tape
- First aid manual
- Chafing cream
- Folding saw (for removing deadfall/ obstacles along the trail)
- Toilet paper
- Small bar soap
- Mobile Phone
How Do I Resupply on the Trail?
You may choose to have someone post pre-packaged food boxes to you whilst on the BNT, but it is easier to resupply with what is available in the towns and areas you travel through.
Resupply towns that are easily accessible from the Bicentennial National Trail include:
- Cooktown, QLD
- Atherton, QLD
- Herberton, QLD
- Collinsville, QLD
- Nebo, QLD
- Marlborough, QLD
- Rockhampton, QLD
- Biloela, QLD
- Monto, QLD
- Mt Perry, QLD
- Biggenden, QLD
- Kilkivan, QLD
- Blackbutt, QLD
- Toowoomba, QLD
- Killarney, QLD
- Stanthorpe, QLD
- Tenterfield, NSW
- Glenn Innes, NSW
- Ebor, NSW
- Walcha, NSW
- Nundle, NSW
- Scone, NSW
- Muswellbrook, NSW
- Sandy Hollow, NSW
- Wallerawang, NSW
- Rydal, NSW
- Hampton, NSW
- Oberon, NSW
- Taralga, NSW
- Crookwell, NSW
- Gundaroo. NSW
- Hall, NSW
- Canberra, ACT
- Yaouk, NSW
- Adaminaby, NSW
- Khancoban, NSW
- Omeo, VIC
- Dargo, VIC
- Licola, VIC
- Marysville, VIC
- Healesville, VIC
How Can I Feed my Horses on the Trail?
Given the length of the Bicentennial National Trail and the amount of time you will be on it, it is important to keep your horses well fed. Make the most of campsites with good grazing and pass quickly through those that offer little feeding opportunity. When possible, buy a bale of hay or two in town and call a rest day or two to allow your horses to fill up while they can. If you see a particularly good patch of grass in an otherwise dry area, perhaps consider taking a lunch break there and letting your horses have a pick. You may be able to negotiate to purchase a bale or two of hay from farmers along the way, although this should not be relied upon.
Most small towns along the BNT stock horse feed. Many trekkers tend to buy a bag of feed while in town, feed half of it to their horses while they are there, then pack the rest to ration out on the trail. Copra and horse muesli are popular choices for long-distance horse trekkers.
What Foods Do BNT Trekkers Eat?
While many weekend horse trekkers love to pack goodies such as camp ovens, vacuum packed meat and tinned goods, long-distance thru- trekkers need to think more like hikers: weight is everything. When it comes to trail horses, it is the kilograms, not the kilometres that lead to problems. As trekkers need to pack food for up to 2-3 weeks at a time, standard hiking- type food is what most people go with. This may include:
- Trail mix
- Nuts, seeds, nut-based bars or nut butter packs
- Dried or freeze-dried fruits and veggies
- Energy/ muesli bars
- Tuna/chicken pouches
- Wrap bread/ tortillas
- Shelf-stable, dried jerky, such as poultry, salmon or meat jerky
- Powdered milk
- Individual packets of mayo, mustard, taco sauce and/or soy sauce
- Whole-grain pasta, couscous, rice mix, pancake mix, hot cereal, dried soups and dehydrated foods (if you have the ability to boil drinkable water)
- Cheese (wrap in brown paper bags to prolong shelf life)
- Instant noodles/instant rice/instant potatoes
Pros and Cons of Traveling Northbound on the BNT (Healesville- Cooktown)
|Healesville is a relatively close, accessible starting point for most trekkers and thus an easy exit if things don’t work out on the trail. |
Provided you reach Queensland by Winter, travel through there will be pleasant and not overly hot.
Flooding shouldn’t be much of an issue anywhere
|Given that Queensland receives most of its rain over the summer, much of the grass will have dried up and water will be scarce when you reach Queensland mid-year. |
The sun will be in your face for a lot of the time.
It will generally be more difficult and expensive to get home when you finish the trail.
The seasonal window (you really need to reach Queensland by Winter at the latest) does not leave a lot of time for error or unforeseen circumstances. If you don’t make it by then, you will almost definitely need to throw in the towel or wait for the cyclone season to pass.
You will need to start in the summer when it is hot (even in the Victorian high-country), when both humans and animals are not well-conditioned.
It will be very cold when you reach the tablelands of Northern NSW/ Queensland in late Autumn/ Winter.
You will be doing the most challenging part of the trail first instead of building up to it.
Pros and Cons of Traveling Southbound on the BNT (Cooktown- Healesville)
|The BNT guidebooks (written from north-south) are easier to read!|
Trekkers can take advantage of surface water and fresh green pick in the north, as they will be leaving just as the rains have cleared up.
You will be in New South Wales for the Spring, so there should be plenty of feed here also.
You are saving the ‘hardest’ part till last, when you are all well-conditioned and accustomed to the rigours of the trail.
|Cooktown is a long way away for most people and horse transport to the trail head is expensive.|
An inconvenient and pricey return if you decide to pull out.
If you start early in the season (i.e. March/ April), flooding and high rivers may be an issue.
Can You Trek the BNT With a Dog?
No, dogs are not permitted on the Bicentennial National Trail.
How Much Does It Cost to Trek the Bicentennial National Trail?
When it comes to horse-trekkers, by and large the biggest expense of a thru-trek is gear. It is important not to scrimp on quality for such an ambitious expedition, and the cost of gearing up (i.e. packsaddle, saddle, horse containment tools, etc) can come to around $10,000. If you need to purchase some steeds, factor in the cost of that too. You’ll also need a fair amount of specialised light weight equipment- big ticket items such as sleeping bags, tent, water filtration devices can quickly add up.
Although it’s a bit of a ‘how long is a piece of string’ question, the average cost of purchasing quality horse and human equipment and being ready to hit the trail is probably somewhere around the AUS$20,000 mark.
Once you are on the trail, living is relatively cheap. Most campsites are either free or come at the price of a few dollars, and since you aren’t paying rent or bills, nor have the option of buying coffees or eating out at restaurants, you may find that your money lasts longer than it does at home! Many trekkers find the biggest budget dents out on the trail are shoeing/ veterinary costs and time spent in towns. After all, it’s hard to resist a big pub meal and a few pints after you’ve been in the bush for weeks!
All in all, a year on the trail might cost somewhere around $20 000. Factor in another $20 000 on gear costs, and you’ll likely be looking at around $40 000 for gear and a year on the Bicentennial National Trail.
More Bicentennial National Trail Resources
Books About Trekking the Bicentennial National Trail
A Standard Journey: 5 horses, 2 people, and 1 tent, by Jackie Parry