Gone walkabout

Robyn Davidson (right) with the Australian actress who portrays her in the movie Tracks, Mia Wasikowska. Photo Contributed
Robyn Davidson (right) with the Australian actress who portrays her in the movie Tracks, Mia Wasikowska. Photo Contributed Contributed

IN her book, Tracks, the young Robyn Davidson recounts a 1700km walk across the Australian desert from Alice Springs to Carnarvon with four camels and a dog named Diggity.

Popular internationally when published in 1980, the book was made into a major film starring Mia Wasikowska as Davidson, and released in 2013.

During the course of her epic walk, the reader comes to know Davidson the woman and the landscape she traverses.

Perhaps it will come as no surprise then that many of the European journeys recounted in Central Australian literature are on foot, even across such vast and rugged terrain.

Together, such stories help to assemble a picture of who we are as Australians.

Indeed, Australians have a unique vocabulary of walking.

Think of the "swagman", enshrined in the nation's alternative national anthem Waltzing Matilda.

In days gone by such a man (for they were mostly men) was commonly seen by roadsides "humping his bluey" (carrying a swag or bedroll).

Whereas the English once referred to walking as riding "Shank's Pony", Aussies might take the "Foot Falcon".

Such language, and indeed Davidson's narrative, reflect a tradition of walking and writing that goes back at least as far as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

In Australia, walking and storytelling go back even further, in an oral storytelling tradition of the journeys of the Dreamtime Ancestors, stories at the heart of Aboriginal culture.

While we never really learn why Davidson decided to undertake her mammoth trek, she does allude to Aboriginal Australians having walked the landscape long before Europeans.

However, few of our commonly-used words reflect this longer tradition.

European settlers believed Aboriginal journeys to be aimless wanderings and called them by the derisory term "walkabout", which has found widespread use.

The expression first appeared in print in the Sydney Gazette in 1828; it implies unreliability, a mysterious lack of purpose and is commonly applied to the lay-off season in the northern cattle industry.

In his own controversial walking "novel" The Songlines, British journalist and author Bruce Chatwin captures the term's meaning, whereby one moment "those tame blackfellows … would be working happily on a cattle station: the next, without a word of warning and for no good reason, would up sticks and vanish into the blue".

Chatwin goes on to explain how walkabout is in fact much more than this, and refers to the routes Aboriginal people walked as a "labyrinth of invisible pathways which meander all over Australia … known to Europeans as 'Dreaming-tracks' or 'Songlines'."

In fact, walking the "songlines" was central to Chatwin's grand theme, that humans are born to walk and will apparently be better off once they return to their nomadic roots.

Chatwin's philosophical musings aside, anthropologists widely note that Aboriginal people undertook journeys along these pathways for a variety of reasons, including for ceremony, survival and kin.

Importantly, the routes were highways of trade along which goods were exchanged and distributed, including ochre, spinifex gum, myths and stories, corroborees, song and dance.

Last week I spoke to Shaun Angeles, a northern Arrernte man from Ayampe who is working at the Strehlow Research Centre in Alice Springs.

Shaun is a researcher with the Indigenous Repatriation Program and elaborated on the walking tradition in Central Australia.

"Families will always walk within their tribal boundaries; it was their obligation and responsibility," he said.

"We were always surrounded by Ancestral spirits, whether it be the spirits that first created the country, or the irrernte-arenye (from the cold) spirits of our human kin that had passed.

"We would never walk without a purpose: We walked with our songs, always teaching our young and always in a state of worship and respect of spirits imbued in the landscape.

"To walk softly with intent, was always our obligation to the law and land."

Shaun's description of purposeful, almost ritual walking , has little in common with the slang walkabout.

The routes of the Dreaming tracks were set down by the Ancestors as they created the landscape, and link waterholes (usually finding the shortest distance between) and sacred sites along hundreds and even thousands of kilometres across Australia.

The Native Cat Dreaming, to cite but one example, follows the tracks of spirits from the Port Augusta region in South Australia across the Centre to the Gulf of Carpentaria and is associated with a once-thriving trade in the narcotic pituri.

In a fascinating 2004 collection of essays on the subject, Making Connections: A journey along Central Australian Aboriginal trading routes, editors Valerie Donovan and Colleen Wall note Aborigines travelled these pathways to undertake ceremonies that "reaffirmed and committed them to the faith of that Dreaming story".

Some researchers, myself included, are beginning to think of these journeys as more akin to pilgrimage, a walking practice common to many cultures.

The Chinese characters for pilgrim, for instance, imply stops for paying one's respects to a mountain.

The Taoists visit five holy mountains they regard as the pillars of China, the cardinal points of the compass as well as the centre of heaven and earth

Reconsidered as a form of pilgrimage, the slang term walkabout appears profoundly misleading, especially since journeys of the songlines still take place.

And even though research shows these routes are now more often driven than walked, the journeys remain pivotal to Aboriginal culture.

Nonetheless, the need for Aboriginal workers to attend ceremony poses logistical challenges for twenty-first century Australian employers.

Some make allowances, such as in the Kimberleys, where the off-season in the yearly routine of station work can be adjusted so as to fit in with the need for ceremony.

What remains clear, is that walking on two legs defines us as human, different from earth's other creatures, and is fundamental to telling stories about the world.

Moreover, it provides a framework within which to think about what unites rather than divides us.

Aboriginal ceremonial journeys, whether on foot or by car, can be the cultural flash point implied by the slang term walkabout, or a pilgrimage that maps a route to common ground based on our shared humanity.

The first is a stumbling block for Aboriginal people trying to participate in the economy, the second, an avenue for change.

As Territorians we have not only an opportunity, but a responsibility, to find our way together on this issue.

Note: Recently, Glenn published a doctoral thesis on this topic through Macquarie University, under the title Songlines and Fault Lines: Six Walks that Shaped a Nation, which he is working at turning into a book. Glenn and other writers will elaborate on walking and writing at Eye of the Storm, the Northern Territory Writers Festival to be held at Alice Springs from September 17-20.

Topics:  glenn morrison northern territory

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