Scenic trek into the distant past
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