Colin Dangaard: Malibu’s Crocodile Dundee

Colin Dangaard & horseThe adventures of this restless Aussie horseman, journalist and entrepreneur expanded into travel when he decided to show off his home territory to American riders

Journalism and entrepreneurial restlessness had carried Colin Dangaard all the long way from Australia – via New Zealand, Fiji, Asia and Africa – to Malibu. At 42, he owned a successful business, the Australian Stock Saddle Company, and was living the good life, California style, in a beachfront home complete with an outdoor Jacuzzi. In it he sat, staring at the Pacific, thinking about his Australian home and family beyond the horizon.

Colin’s brother John was lounging in the Jacuzzi with him that night, four years ago, when the two of them dreamed up the latest scheme of this insatiable deal-maker: the Never Never Outback Ride. It is a 10-day equestrian tour of Australia in which the Dangaard brothers, collaborating with their mother and sister, introduce American guests to the bush and to their boyhood stomping grounds of North Queensland. “Ride like the man from Snowy River,” promises Colin’s brochure.

To this transplanted Aussie who greets visitors with “G’day” and dresses in riding attire straight from the Outback, the timing seemed right to take Americans home for an intimate peek at his country. Why this time frame? “People had finally stopped asking where Australia was,” says Colin with a laugh.

His brother thought so, too, and it was he who returned home to pull all the pieces together. On tour, John serves as the camp supervisor and has devised such sophisticated amenities as a warm shower, an unquestionable treat for adventurers roaming 100 miles from civilization. “He can do anything with his hands, but if the oil can’t be changed, forget it,” says Colin of his sibling. So John takes care of the mechanics while Colin tends to their flesh-and-blood equipment, the horses.

The Dangaards’ “mum” entertains the entire tour group at her house on their way out of the bush. She plays the piano and sings Irish songs, after serving the travelers their first real dessert in five days. “The way of the bush,” Colin explains, “does not allow for the preparation of anything fancy, just wholesome food.” And all the cleaning and laundry is handled by their sister, Camelia.

This adventure is always run during Australia’s winter when everything hibernates because, as Colin explains in his broad Australian accent, “In the summer flies would pick you up and carry you away.” The trip, as explained in its brochure, “is not an endurance ride or a survival course; it’s an experience you’ll Never Never forget.” The itinerary covers 20 miles a day. Participants must ride horses regularly, be active and in good health and most importantly, says Colin, be “good fun.”

There is no age limit — the oldest riders were a couple in their 70s — and the trip is most definitely not an exercise in machismo. In fact, Colin prefers female riders. “Women are tougher than men. And they don’t complain. Men do,” he explains. “If a woman rides well, she doesn’t have to talk about it. She’s not concerned with her image. But guys try to look like John Wayne. If a guy gets off the plane wearing all this new cowboy gear,” adds Colin with a sly grin, “m’heart sinks.”

The one problem Colin has encountered with female clients is a tendency to understate their vital statistics. He telephones each tour member before the trip to determine their height, weight and dress or pants size so that pre-fit saddles can be ready and waiting when they arrive in Cairns. “I’ve had a woman say she weighs 150 pounds and then get off the plane with an additional 20 pounds,” he recalls.

The good-natured Aussie handles the situation very simply. “Excuse me, dear,” he says, “I have to make a phone call.” Then he casually strolls off to put in a frantic call to Brisbane for a saddle two sizes bigger. “Fortunately,” he laughs as he recounts the story, “this has only happened on two occasions.”

Once in the Outback, the same rules are followed by everyone, and the first is to keep up with the group. In vast North Queensland, it is all too easy to get lost and become disoriented; Colin himself is reluctant to go through it without a guide, although he grew up riding in the area. It is equally easy to get “dumped” by the horses, he says, so riders are never allowed to mount sidesaddle. And they are urged to beware of logs, which may hide snakes even in winter.

This potentially dangerous wilderness rewards the prudent visitor with such peace and tranquility in its immenseness that at night there is absolutely not a sound, except the crackling of the campfire. In contrast, the morning sounds of the kookaburras and cockatoos immediately remind the waking riders that they are it the Australian bush.

When asked what impresses riders the most about Australia, Colin immediately replies, “The friendly people.” But what impresses them most about their Australian experience, he adds, is a newfound recognition of their own abilities.

Without exception, the ride also changes the riders’ attitudes about horses. “They can’t believe a horse can do what it does during five days in the Outback,” exclaims Colin. “And the horses’ endurance is certainly tested when we’re chasing beasties (cattle), brumbies (wild horses) and anything else we can chase.”

The entrepreneurial instincts behind Colin’s midlife travel venture surfaced at an early age. His first money-making activity was catching wild horses, taming them and then selling them to North Queensland tobacco farmers. “I was the richest kid I knew,” he says of those days.

By the age of 15, he wasn’t spending much time in school. But he always loved to write, and he put that skill to use when he left Australia for New Zealand and, later, Fiji. For a while he returned to Australia as a crime reporter in Sydney and then worked throughout Asia and Africa.

After sailing from Africa to the States in a 34-foot boat, Colin worked as a feature writer for the Miami Herald. There, publisher Rupert Murdoch noticed him, and as a result he became chief of a West Coast news bureau in Los Angeles. From that platform Colin moved into the entertainment business, hosting a “David Frost-type” interview program and plunging into the Beverly Hills scene.

Colin had gambled his way to a lucrative and exciting life, and now he would make another parlay to finance his greatest passion — riding horses.

Once again, it was while sitting in a Jacuzzi that an idea was born. For years, he had been extolling the virtues of Australian riding as opposed to the more traditional English or Western riding styles. The celebrities he interviewed, in fact, were his first unofficial clients, purchasing Australian gear from him. Colin decided to leap head-first into the horse business and introduce Australian riding gear to America. Thus, eight years ago, the Australian Stock Saddle Company was launched.

The business has since mushroomed and with its success, Colin’s Malibu beachfront home, serving as both residence and saddle warehouse, was quickly outgrown. “Saddles were everywhere,” he says, “even in the bathtub.” A year ago the inevitable move was made, and now his inventory of more than 600 saddles is housed in a 1,200-square-foot warehouse on his residential property, nestled, along with several horse corrals, high above Malibu.

Today, Colin’s life is a combination of everything he loves best. He writes a weekly celebrity interview and shares his saddle-sales enterprise with partner, vice president and close companion Linda Fox. He lives happily surrounded by six horses, 14 cats and two dogs.

Evidence of Colin’s many talents is readily apparent with a mere glimpse of his office. Scattered about in organized disarray are numerous equestrian ribbons, a manual typewriter and a picture of tuxedo-clad Colin at the Academy Awards (he attends every year) next to a can of WD-40. And sitting on the shelf next to his horse magazines is a sample of his latest travel promotion, using his current headline, “Ride Like the Man from Malibu.”

The perfect day for Colin is to “wake up, have a big breakfast, sell a bunch of saddles, write something I like (even it it’s only a paragraph), get on a horse and go for a good hard ride,” he says, adding the confession that his idea of a “good hard ride” has earned him a “terrible reputation.” He has trouble finding fellow daredevils to ride Malibu’s steep, rocky hills with him. Currently, he is nursing his favorite horse, Polly, whose leg was hurt late one evening when they came off a cliff in driving rain.

And yet, instances such as this don’t stop the determined, deal-making, horse-loving Australian. As the final “G’Days” are said, one gets the feeling that Colin Dangaard, former newspaper feature writer, will continue to make his own headlines.