THERE was an urgent note to the driver's voice, even though it was barely above a whisper.
"Look, there they are, the beauties."
We'd reached our goal after more than four hours of searching and rough buffeting along rutted tracks in the Barmah National Park.
Even our optimistic guide later admitted he had almost given up hope.
A family group of three was right where our expert said they weren't supposed to be.
An old mare and her young foal with an arrogant stallion standing guard, yawning hugely at his unwelcome admirers.
The Barmah brumbies.
Wild horses have retreated not only to the remote north of Australia or the inaccessible high country along the Great Divide for their survival.
For the past 150 years they have also been hiding out in the world's largest red gum forest.
The Barmah forest, straddling the Murray River upstream of Echuca, is not just home. If some people have their way, it will also be their cemetery.
About 140 brumbies and a dozen or so foals live in 300 sq km of national park.
The Victorian Government has ordered their removal and they already are supposed to be long gone.
But, facing a possible hot potato, the politicians adopted the safe course by sending it to a committee to take the heat.
A community committee not romantically mired to any Man from Snowy River-type emotion but those charged with enacting a "feral horse removal program".
Shooting has been considered and rejected while "capture and removal" has moved to the top of the list.
In a statement, Parks Victoria river red gum district chief ranger Craig Stubbings said the horses were affecting sensitive environmental and cultural sites through grazing pressure, trampling and pugging.
He said the Barmah Horse Advisory Committee has been established to provide specialist advice on horse management and consultation with the broader community.
"The committee supports the objective of protecting the river red gum floodplain ecosystems and cultural heritage sites, while recognising the social and heritage values of the Barmah horses," Mr Stubbings said.
"Management strategies may include removal and rehoming of the horses."
He said there were "no plans" to cull them.
"These brumbies are one of the state's best-kept secrets," according to Ian Whitty, who claims to be Victoria's most experienced horseman.
The 60-year-old from Bearii has made it his personal crusade to save the brumbies.
"Not many people know about them. They know there are brumbies in the mountains but hardly anyone knows there are brumbies, the best brumbies, right here in the forest."
He and his supporters say the brumbies are best served today by making them famous.
"They're harder to shoot if more people know about them," Mr Whitty said.
He has spent most of his life in a saddle, working as a stockman and a drover, sometimes riding 160km in a single day, first foot in the stirrup at 8am and last one out as the sun went down.
"I would like to meet the person alive today who has ridden more miles," he said.
Unlike most of his generation, he is familiar with the language of the cyber-world and talks up the value of "likes" and "threads" and his hope for more supporters to join the Barmah Heritage Brumby Awareness Group on Facebook.
"It was nice when the brumbies were a secret only a few of us knew about," Mr Whitty said.
"We were worried about idiots coming in to pinch the foals or shoot them for fun.
"Now we are forced to risk that to save them."
Farmers such as Mr Whitty once grazed cattle in the forest, although he says he is no longer interested in doing so again.
Timber cutters used to mill hardwood logs from the forest.
Local people once agisted their horses in the forest, in a common area.
Only the brumbies were left behind when the national park was declared in 2007. At its height, there were 5000 cattle and 700 horses in Barmah.
First documented from 1863, draught horses, ponies and even trotters escaped or were abandoned to the forest.
Expert eyes like Mr Whitty's can still see various traits in today's brumbies, such as the large Clydesdale legs and cheekbone.
The brumbies keep to particular areas under a stallion in herds of about 10 to 13, with bachelor groups kept on the fringe.
Locals have given their favourite brumbies names like Barmah Caviar and Thunderbolt.
Legend already surrounds the mighty stallion called Big Red, who dominates the Barmah brumbies with his over-muscled frame and wild mane.
"They are very fit and healthy and the Barmah brumbies all have this in common. They are very big," Mr Whitty says.
Surprisingly for wild animals, they seem clear of worms and other health problems that Mr Whitty says is due to their nomadic habits.
Mr Whitty says the advancing age of many of the animals will see the population dwindle to about 100 and then stabilise again.
Far from being a problem to the park, he says that the horses perform a valuable service in fire prevention.
Two years of wet weather, plus environmental watering, have left the park an overgrown and tangled mess in many areas.
"It is a bomb ready to explode. There's been no fuel reduction in here at all," Andrew Hughes of Tallygaroopna said.
Mr Hughes is a fellow brumby lover and is deeply worried at the state of the park on the cusp of a fire season.
"If it gets going in here this summer, we're not going to have a forest left to worry about."
Mr Whitty said rather than remove the Barmah brumbies, others from the north or the Snowy Mountains should be relocated to Barmah to help keep the shoulder-high growth under control.
"They should burn it, slash it, hell they can use Agent Orange on it, I don't care, but they have to do something," he said.
"If a fire gets going in here, it's not going to stay in here. And there are a lot of people living just outside the park.
"My first priority is to look after the safety of people and my second priority is to look after the bush."
Our brumby expert blamed the recent cold for pushing the brumbies into unfamiliar areas during our tour.
Travelling east to west we'd almost left the park before we saw the family group.
Skittish, the animals kept their distance, with the stallion making sure he kept between our vehicle and the mare and foal.
"Horses built this country and in my mind they are sacred," Mr Whitty said, with tears forming in his eyes.
"This forest has evolved with them. It's not about what's native any more.
"They have adapted to the forest and the forest to them.
"Who are we to deprive future generations of this beautiful sight?"