Scenic trek into the dis­tant past

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Ali Jane Smith On Track: Search­ing out the Bun­dian Way By John Blay New South, 328pp, $39.99

Pedes­trian shouldn’t mean dull, it should mean en­livened. Heart and lungs do­ing their work, blood flow­ing, spine un­furled, the walker looks about, takes in sounds and smells with a mind at lib­erty to float from one thought to an­other, or to find a new way to tackle some per­sis­tent enigma that grew thorns while the body re­mained seden­tary.

Bush walk­ers, early morn­ing walk­ers in gym clothes, dog walk­ers, kids walk­ing to school, saun­ter­ers, fla­neurs, evening prom­e­naders, walk­ers headed out for cof­fee, or to buy the news­pa­per. A walk can be taken alone or in com­pany, shared in near-si­lence or filled with in­tense dis­cus­sion. Walk­ing of­fers plea­sure, but the qual­ity of a walker’s jour­ney de­pends on the sea­son, the weather, and the skills and knowl­edge of your­self and your trav­el­ling com­pan­ions. You can’t try and bully or charm your way into an up­grade when you’re walk­ing.

For writer and nat­u­ral­ist John Blay, set­ting out to re­dis­cover the Bun­dian Way, an an­cient path that links the high coun­try and the coast of south­east­ern NSW, walk­ing was part of his re­search. In be­tween walks, he bur­rowed into doc­u­ments — jour­nals, par­ish maps, sur­veyor’s field books — and he talked to politi­cians, po­ets, nov­el­ists, li­brar­i­ans, old bush­men, con­ser­va­tion­ists, Na­tional Parks and Wildlife Ser­vice staff, sci­en­tists, the de­scen­dants of settlers and, most im­por­tantly, to Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties still liv­ing in the south­east of the state. The re­sult in On Track is a unique and de­tailed pic­ture of a re­gion too of­ten over­looked, by­passed as it is by the traf­fic zip­ping be­tween Mel­bourne, Can­berra and Syd­ney on the Hume High­way.

Blay doesn’t avoid the ugli­est, most dis­turb­ing his­tory of the places he walks. He writes about the mas­sacres of Abo­rig­ines car­ried out by settlers, the some­times vi­o­lent con­flict be­tween groups of Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple that was of­ten the re­sult of dis­pos­ses­sion, and the more sub­tle forms of cul­tural pres­sure, per­haps wellinten­tioned — such as the hand­ing out of woollen blan­kets that were an in­ad­e­quate re­place­ment, prac­ti­cally and cul­tur­ally, for the fur cloaks that had kept peo­ple warm and dry.

Blay is equally di­rect about the dif­fi­cul­ties ex­pe­ri­enced by the settlers, and he makes it clear that oc­cu­pa­tion of the Abo­rig­i­nal land did not al­ways re­sult in wealth, suc­cess and con­tent­ment.

While set­tler cul­ture pre­vailed in the re­gion, for many fam­i­lies their op­ti­mistic be­gin­nings ended in bit­ter­ness and un­timely death.

For all the com­pelling, de­tailed his­tory Blay re­counts, it is the ex­pe­ri­ence of walk­ing that is at the heart of On Track. Blay uses the ge­og­ra­phy of the re­gion to struc­ture his book, with three sec­tions — The Higher Coun­try, The Monaro and The Coast — be­com­ing holdalls for the many trips he made, the years of doc­u­men­tary and oral re­search. Within this broad struc­ture, he writes as­so­cia­tively, touch­ing on the his­tory of whal­ing, cat­tle and sheep farm­ing, but re­turn­ing al­ways to the walk.

Blay’s de­scrip­tions of walk­ing made me want to get out of my chair and put my boots on. He de­scribes how walk­ing af­fects him phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally, and the day-to-day ne­ces­si­ties of look­ing for wa­ter, mak­ing camp, forc­ing his way through scrub. Slowly, some­times painfully, some­times in near-ec­stasy, he traces and re­traces the trails he has found on old maps, heard about in con­ver­sa­tion, or re­dis­cov­ered by read­ing the land it­self to search out the near­for­got­ten route.

Each chap­ter is headed with a small dec­o­ra­tion, a line draw­ing of some of the veg­e­ta­tion of the re­gion. Th­ese are Blay’s own draw­ings, an invit­ing way to bring the reader into each new sec­tion. He writes fa­mil­iarly of the plants, the an­i­mals, even the ge­o­log­i­cal fea­tures of the coun­try he walks, tak­ing note of what is there now and imag­in­ing past abun­dance. He also touches on arche­o­log­i­cal finds from the re­gion, and how they might fit into the ev­i­dence of trade routes used by Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple that ran all over Aus­tralia.

The places Blay walks be­come char­ac­ters in the book, some wel­com­ing, de­light­ful, like a charm­ing, glam­orous host­ess, oth­ers oc­cluded, harsh and ret­i­cent. He has his own way of cut­ting through pop cul­ture myths, re­gret­ting the pres­ence of brumbies in the high coun­try, for ex­am­ple, be­cause of the dam­age that they do, and also be­cause the boom-and-bust cy­cles of the land leave them suf­fer­ing in poor con­di­tion dur­ing hard years.

He writes of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a glow, a lu­mi­nes­cence, in cer­tain places as he walks. It’s open to the reader to in­ter­pret this as be­ing to do with power of the bush, or the men­tal and phys­i­o­log­i­cal ef­fect of walk­ing. For all its rhap­sodies, the lan­guage is al­ways easy to fol­low, and the

book feels more like a long con­ver­sa­tion on a ve­randa than a for­mal his­tory.

One way of try­ing to un­der­stand some­thing new is to think of an anal­ogy from one’s own ex­pe­ri­ence. As I read, I thought of me­dieval pil­grim­ages, and the re­cent re­vival of the old Euro­pean pil­grim­age routes as tourist at­trac­tions. Then with a shock I re­alised how re­cent is the road from Can­ter­bury to Rome, say, in com­par­i­son with the thou­sands of years — per­haps tens of thou­sands — that the Bun­dian Way has been trav­elled.

Blay avoids at­tempt­ing to ex­plain or es­sen­tialise the com­plex­ity of the cul­tures of the peo­ple who used the Bun­dian Way. He an­tic­i­pates that there are other books to be writ­ten by the own­ers of those sto­ries, and quotes the widely known and re­spected elder, pas­tor Ossie Cruse. “What means most to us is the kin­ship. It’s what con­nects us Kooris. The Way’s a sym­bol. And for the white­fel­las, we should do our best to get it recog­nised.”

The idea that the recog­ni­tion of Abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture is also im­por­tant for non-Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple doesn’t get much of an air­ing in main­stream de­bate. Per­haps un­der­stand­ing more about the power and sig­nif­i­cance of the cul­tures that have con­tin­ued in Aus­tralia for tens of thou­sands of years might not just be good for tra­di­tional own­ers, but bring ben­e­fits to the de­scen­dants of those tena­cious, some­times ruth­less, settlers who took and held on to the land. We could go for a walk and think about it.

Ali Jane Smith is a poet and critic.

BLAY DOESN’T AVOID THE UGLI­EST, MOST DIS­TURB­ING HIS­TORY OF THE PLACES HE WALKS

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