A Healing Walk
Notes on walking home.
By Neil Murray
For more than a decade I’d nursed the idea of walking with aboriginal people back into country they’d been removed from. As a small boy my grandfather had shown me axe heads and grindstones he’d picked up in the paddocks of his farm. He’d explained to me that they were stone tools that belonged to people who’d lived there before. I’d asked him where those people were. He said they’d all gone, but he thought they’d gone down Framlingham way, to the aboriginal reserve established in 1865 near Warrnambool.
Even as a boy I sensed something important was missing.
In later years I confirmed that I had been born and raised in the lands of Tjapwurrung-speaking peoples, and that any remnant survivors of the frontier wars and dispossessions that occurred most likely did end up at Framlingham. But when I was growing up there were no conspicuous aboriginals in my district. An aboriginal dance group visited our school when I was a boy and I was the first to jump up and volunteer to join a crane dance with them; only in hindsight did I realize there were a handful of kids in my high school who were probably of indigenous descent. But no one was owning up to it back then, and little did I know there was an entire aboriginal community an hour south.
Years later, on a quest to be with Aboriginal people, I made my first trip to the Northern Territory, and soon after I took a job in the western desert settlement of Papunya, driving a truck for the growing outstation movement. It was an exciting time. Self-determination was in, and the Anangu people were actively engaged in returning to their homelands from whence they’d been removed during the assimilation era. What were once remote camps became the new communities of Mount Leibig, Kintore, and Kiwikurra. And there I met Sammy Tjapanangka Butcher, a gifted natural musician, and together we formed the nucleus of what would become the Warumpi Band, the first popular rock band in Australia to have white and aboriginal members. With the late Kumantjayi Burarrawanga on lead vocals, we earned national recognition, though a combination of family pressures, cultural commitments, and alcohol abuse kept us from mainstream success.
Living in the desert, touring with the band, learning the extraordinary depth of meaning by which people here were connected to their land, only served to beg more questions. Where you from? Where’s your family? I was asked repeatedly. I was from Lake Bolac in western Victoria, I would reply. Sammy was the first to say to me, That’s your country, you should sit down there. I was grateful to hear them confirm what I’d always felt was true: your spirit comes from where you were born.
I tried to explain southern Australian colonial history to my northern bandmates — how, in contrast to the desert, traditional language and culture had been decimated in Victoria because the squatters were greedy for rich, well-watered country. We talked about this a lot, and one effect of being with Anangu people in their country,I discovered, was to increase my comprehension of the enormity of the loss of indigenous knowledge from my own area — so much so that I doubted there would be any point in me ever returning.
That’s still your country, insisted Sammy quietly, you might pick that language up — as if it was as easy as finding a stone. But I knew what he meant. If you sit down in your own country, you will be recognised as belonging to it. You will come to know it. It is all in the land and the stars. Eventually the land teaches you.
Years later I came to know the late Uncle Banjo Clarke and his family at Framlingham. Banjo, a wise and gentle elder, became a source of guidance for me and was one of the influences that led me to return to the country of my youth. So it was to his family that I went with the idea of a walk from the mouth of the Hopkins River upstream and inland to Lake Bolac in Tjapwurrung country where I was born. Effectively we would follow the route young eels would take to reach the lake from the sea.
So we walked.
At dawn we were at the mouth of the Hopkins River. There was a brief ceremony of exchanging water from Lake Bolac into the river, and filling the same jar with water from the estuary to be carried back to the lake, and then we began walking upstream.
There were a dozen of us, those first couple of days, and by the second sunny afternoon we were picking our way across lush green river flats dotted with sleek cud-chewing cattle presided over by grand farm homesteads built on high ground above the flood line. Uncle Banjo’s son Lenny pointed out how the best, most accessible positions had been taken up by settlers, leaving the aboriginal mission at Framlingham on rough high ground with a steep descent to the river.
“They stole all the best country, mate, and give us blacks the scraps,” he said as we came up to an electric fence. We used sticks to prop or hold it down as we stepped over, making jokes about getting zapped. I glanced again at the imposing homestead lording over the river vista. You couldn’t look at it without feeling you were being watched. Suddenly I felt very exposed and vulnerable on the open field of the river flat.
“Hope we don’t get shot,” said Lenny, reading my mind like a bullet. It was delivered with his customary rueful chuckle, but could not disguise an inherited, latent fear that you could almost taste. How dangerous must it have been for native people trying to move about in the 1840s? Where even on a serene sunny day like this a single shot might ring out from the shutters of a homestead or shepherd’s hut and a tribesman might drop, surprised at the sudden pain shooting through his body and his crimson blood spilling into the green grass.
The next afternoon I was walking through the forest with a song in my head and light rain falling. The only reason there is a forest there now is because it was part of the aboriginal reserve — the surrounding country had long been cleared and cut up into dairy farms. We all paid our respects to Uncle Banjo’s grave on the way through the forest and offered up silent prayers for the old people to give us safe passage.
We followed the Hopkins River for five days before diverging up Salt Creek. Seven of us were from the indigenous community of Framlingham. For the first time in 140 years they were walking country that their ancestors knew intimately and following the same pathways as if they were travelling to the annual eel harvest at Lake Bolac. In pre-settlement times, when the autumn rains overflowed the lake and the eels were induced to migrate to the sea, intertribal gatherings of up to a thousand people would occur at buloke.
When you walk in country, things come to you. Your senses sharpen. Your perception of time and distance adapts to walking pace and you see everything within that parameter. You are alert to detail. It’s not just that you notice particular rocks, soil, tracks, grasses, plants, trees, insects, lizards, birds and animals, but you begin to discern why you see them, what caused them and what relationship they have with something else. In short, everything speaks. Everything has a story. We began to see that scar trees, for example — trees from which pieces were taken by the old people — are more than just the evidence of utilitarian objects garnered; they are powerful and resonant icons of grace and beauty, meant to be seen, like a signpost, a boundary marker, a warning. Or like a poem that can be contemplated for a hundred years.
I noticed that without anyone saying anything, we began to practice appropriate protocol for entering someone’s camp; on David Allen’s farm, we halted 400 meters from his homestead and waited for someone to come out and meet us.
Two days later we stood on the southern shore of Lake Bolac. Photos were taken, hugs were had. We’d been fed something unique by the land we’d come through and by the dreams we’d had in the places we’d camped. It was like we’d walked through a book. There was a sense that the past wasn’t distant at all and that nothing good is ever lost. It’s all just residing in the shade. If only the old scar trees could talk.
That was the first Healing Walk.
A year later we traced the route of Fiery Creek from where it rises on Mount Buangor before snaking across the plains to empty into Lake Bolac. An indigenous elder named Ted Lovett had sent us off with a smoking ceremony and an ochre blessing daubed on our faces so that we would have safe passage. He’d instructed us to be observant for anything unusual, odd or out of the ordinary. In the shadow of the Challicum Hills wind farm we searched in vain for a trace of the outline of a bunyip [a legendary monster] reportedly carved into the turf by a local clan who’d speared it in a waterhole after it devoured one of their countrymen. The clan had periodically maintained the ground marking until it was interfered with by settlers and the clan no longer returned.
In 2007 we walked the Hopkins River between the Salt Creek junction near Hexham and Wickliffe, before walking overland to Lake Bolac. The condition of the once pristine freshwater lake that year was grim. The lake dried up for the first time in living memory, and thousands of eels died. It was a jolt to my senses to witness irrefutable evidence in my own backyard that climate change was here.
And this year we were to complete the remaining section of the Hopkins River we hadn’t covered. High in the dividing range of Western Victoria we gathered, men and women, farmers, educators, architects, musicians, nurses, watershed managers, students, retirees, and the unemployed. Some of us were of indigenous descent. Most of us were of other descent. We all shared a desire for intimate engagement with the land. The only way to do that was to walk it. We were going to descend the hills and pick up the emerging Hopkins River and follow it downstream for six days.
Walking through farmland meant climbing over fences (many electrified), stumbling through tussocks, thistles, and stubbles, avoiding or assisting stock and wildlife if they happened to be caught in fences or trapped in muddy dams or creeks. But we would enter places that had been seldom visited since the establishment of private holdings a century or more ago. We were out to witness the condition of the land, to consider if we were doing everything we could to arrest increasing salinization, declining stream flows, degradation, and weed proliferation. To see if there were ways we might contribute to flora and fauna regeneration and ecological repair. We felt our presence, coupled with a deep sense of care and respect for the land and for signs of previous indigenous occupation, would help. We felt that the land would let us know. As would farmers we met along the way who were trying to balance sustainable rural practice with the need to turn a profit.
From the hills we split into groups to follow separate watersheds that fed into two main tributaries. My group walked out along a bare ridge to the north of Langi Ghiran. Descending the slope we struck upon a small dam, perhaps the highest in the catchment. Fifty meters below that was a dead red gum tree. There were some remnant box trees nearby but no other red gums grew higher. Brett Clarke, a Kirraewurrung man and grandson of Uncle Banjo, was with me as we drew nearer to the dead tree. Then we saw it: a large elongated scar on the northern flank of its trunk. On its southern flank was another of similar size and bearing. A marked river red gum this high up, a scar tree? This was the headwater of the Hopkins River.
On the third morning out, I left the river well ahead of the others and set out across a barren flood plain to investigate a hill that had curious standing stones and boulders on its summit. Bent double, I made the summit and rested against a bare stone monolith and gazed north. Langi Ghiran, where we’d started from three days ago, loomed close on the horizon. The river looped neatly around its eastern base. Secret pools glistened between the red gums and reeds. I wondered what story there would have been to explain this place. Was this rock I leant against a dreamtime ancestor? It was far too prominent and unusual not to have an explanation. This was where district clans had met with George Augustus Robinson, their protector, in 1841. They’d stamped the ground and declared passionately that the country was theirs. And they’d made their complaints clear to him. Tell the white men to stop shooting at us.
An eagle soared above me. A fox slunk through bracken then trotted off the brow of the hill, its tail floating behind its body like a stiff flame before slipping below the riverbank. Three roos were bounding slowly across the plain, lifting effortlessly one by one to clear a fence. They propped and looked back in the direction they’d come. Then I saw what they saw. Hominids, walking upright, emerging from the treeline and starting across the plain towards the hill where I waited. From this distance I couldn’t tell whether they wore clothes or animal skins. I was struck with a primordial recognition of what we were and are: human animals sharing the landscape with other creatures, utterly dependent, like them, on water, food, and air.
This is who we are. We do well to step from our cocoons and admit it and embrace it. It is the intimate dialogue with outer landscape that opens the inner one, that restores and heals us. Just as wildlife needs corridors to roam, so do people. Entering a landscape, we can walk into meaning, into what is sacred. We are connected to all living things, and recognition of this is the key to preserving and celebrating human life itself; and as we walk we feel the lineage of our ancestors, back to the first peoples who ever emerged to walk this earth.
For most of our human history we have lived close to nature and our footprint has been minimal. Not so now. Rampant industrialisation and overpopulation is extracting an enormous toll on the planet. Any keen observer of nature will know what happens when a single species becomes too dominant.
Twenty years ago, when I wrote in a song You may have to get out of your car and start walking, you may have to find yourself all over again, I never thought I would realize my own advice so literally. But the healing walks have done that for me, and moreover I’ve glimpsed a step we might all take in reconciling with our mother, before she gives up on us.
Neil Murray is one of Australia’s finest songwriters and author of the novel Sing for Me Countryman. His newest record is Overnighter. See neilmurray.com.au. The University sends some forty students a year to Australia through our program at Notre Dame University in Fremantle, part of which brings the students to Broome, deep in the aboriginal lands of the Northern Territory.