It’s around four hours’ drive to Adelaide from the south-east rural township of Penola.

One hundred years ago it was a journey that took five days by horse-drawn carriage.

Mail travels today by air and truck, but in the 19th century the post came by stagecoach with a five-horse team, prevailing over rough country, beaten tracks, and bushrangers.

It’s been a century since the last Cobb & Co mail coaches ran in Australia, but this week a commemorative stagecoach journey marked the milestone by recreating one of the company’s famed journeys.

A 1890s Cobb & Co coach crossing the Flinders River at Gillespie Crossing, one of the main crossings in the region at the time.(Supplied: Flinders Shire Historical Photograph Project)

Rob Fairchild and his team of five heavy horses along with his family, volunteers, and fellow carriage drivers journeyed from Mount Gambier’s Mil-Lel to Penola, home of an historic Cobb & Co Booking Office, notching up 100 kilometres and sharing the adventure with locals and hundreds of delighted school children.

“Planning for the adventure began in October last year,” Mr Fairchild said.

“I knew it was the centenary of the last mail run this year and wanted to do something locally to celebrate it because Cobb & Co was integral to the Melbourne-Adelaide mail service and this part of south-eastern South Australia.

“Even today, there’s still a number of historic Cobb & Co sites around the region. We wanted to bring that history to life again.”

On the trail of Cobb & Co

School students at Mary MacKillop Memorial School listen to stories of Cobb & Co from Rob Fairchild of Mil-Lel.(ABC South East SA: Liz Rymill)

The commemorative journey began in Mil-Lel on Monday, visiting schools and historic sites at Wandilo, Glencoe, Kalangadoo, and Penola over its four days.

The procession, which included local harness and carriage-driving enthusiasts in their pony carts, also visited the historic Yallum Park Homestead outside Penola for a tour and overnight camp.

Mr Fairchild said sharing the history of the mail run and its importance to the region has been a highlight for his crew and local school children along the way.

Mil-Lel Primary School students Ayla, Ruban, and Sophie look at postcards they sent on the Cobb & Co re-enactment mail run.(ABC South East SA: Eugene Boisvert)

“We’ve been to five schools, and the children and teachers have really enjoyed being part of our journey,” he said.

“We had the idea of getting the children to write postcards and mail them on the ‘Rob & Co’ Cobb & Co coach, which they just loved.

“These days a lot of young people use FaceTime and mobile phones to connect with relatives and even grandparents, so sending and receiving a letter in the mail is quite special.

“It takes them back to the way things were done.”

Students from Mil-Lel Primary School have a look at the horses and stagecoach for the mail run.(ABC South East SA: Eugene Boisvert)

The Mount Gambier philatelic society even came up with a design that featured an old Cobb & Co coach on the face of a postcard, with a map of the journey and a special, legal stamp depicting Mr Fairchild’s stagecoach and horses.

Journey of a lifetime for locals

Running a carriage driving business from his Kentucky Downs property at Mil-Lel, Mr Fairchild and his horses are a familiar and beloved sight around the south-east, regularly attending festivals, events, and offering carriage rides at weddings and private functions.

But he said the memories of this particular journey will stay with him for a long time.

“We’ve camped along the way, sat around the fire and shared stories, recited poetry and songs,” he said.

“My wife Judith has been instrumental, and my daughters have helped. To harness up five horses each morning takes a considerable amount of time and effort.

“We’ve had a lot of volunteers along the way and it’s just been a wonderful week.”

The commemorative mail run drew history buffs from as far as Mansfield in Victoria.(ABC South East SA: Liz Rymill)

Mr Fairchild chose five horses — “the traditional Cobb & Co hitch” — to pull his replica stagecoach, which was built in the 1980s and is an all steel model compared to the wooden coaches of Cobb & Co.

“Our team is a little heavier than they used, but we have two Percheron crosses, two Clydesdale crosses, and a purebred Clydesdale who’ve jogged along at about 13 kilometres an hour over the 100km in the four-day journey.”

Mr Fairchild said although he had “a pretty good knowledge of Cobb & Co”, researching more about the historic company has been eye opening.

“I knew a fair bit about the history of it from my own interest, but because I’ve been doing talks to school children I wanted to share some more stories with them — and I’ve learned a lot that’s amazed me,” he said.

“The sheer size of the operation is quite astounding. Cobb & Co harnessed up 6,000 horses a day in its heyday.”

He said the company — “which was a bit like a franchise in a lot of ways” — spread into New Zealand, South Africa, and Japan, where the name Cobb & Co was used in a number of different businesses.

“In Western Australia, Cobb & Co was owned by Sir Sidney Kidman and his brother. Sidney supplied the horses and his brother ran the operation,” Mr Fairchild said.

100km journey through Cobb & Co country

The commemorative mail run culminated in Penola on Thursday afternoon, with visits to the town’s two schools, the heritage-listed Cobb & Co booking office, and Pinchunga Aged Care home.

“It’s been wonderful to hear from some of the senior members of our region talk about their memories and family connections to Cobb & Co,” Mr Fairchild said.

“I get a kick out of their reminiscences and the stories they like to tell when they see the horses and when they smell the horses. It’s amazing what triggers their memories.”

“And for the school children, when they ride their bikes past Cobb & Co in Penola, I think it may just make this part of our history more meaningful and tangible to them.”

Mil-Lel Primary School student Sophie Paltridge said it was good to see the horses up close.

But she said she preferred the transport systems of today.

“It would be bad for the driver because on a rainy day they would get really wet and the horses would get tired. They would probably need to stop or something to have food,” she said.

“I don’t think it would be good to go back then because now all cars drive a lot faster and you can get to Adelaide a lot quicker. And they’ve got a roof.”

Phoebe, 12, Dean, 7, and Arya, 10, from Nairne dressed up for the mail run.(ABC South East SA: Eugene Boisvert)

Phoebe Woods dressed up for a carriage ride with her siblings Dean and Arya, who all do homeschooling in the Adelaide Hills.

“We thought it would be really fun to come here and go on the carriage,” Ms Woods said.

Cobb & Co centenary celebrations continue on August 16-25, with the Cobb & Co Festival held between Surat and Yuleba in Queensland.

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