Monday musings on Australian literature: Selected early high country history

As some of you know, I am currently having a little summer break in Australia’s high country, based in Thredbo in Kosciuszko National Park. This is an annual trek for Mr Gums and me, and I have written about it occasionally before. I thought I’d do so again for this week’s Monday Musings, from an historical angle. It’s just a soupçon, because I’m too busy holidaying to do more!

Bundian Way

The Bundian Way is, says its website, “an ancient pathway for Aboriginal people from Yuin, Ngarigo, Jaitmathang, Bidawal Country that provided safe passage between the coast and the high country”. 

The project to document and develop it as a community resource is an ambitious one that, say the organisers, is not about native title, but about acknowledging “Aboriginal cultural heritage values in the historic landscape” and that “these are symbolised by the old pathways”. Surveying the Way commenced in 2010, and was conducted, says Wikipedia, by the Eden Aboriginal Land Council and naturalist John Blay (who has subsequently written On track: Searching out the Bundian Way, 2015). They identified the 265-kilometre route (though the length varies a bit according to the source) using, for example, historical records like 19th century survey reports and journals. The website notes early interactions with Europeans, and the role played by journals:

The old Aboriginal people showed the European ‘explorers’ the pathways (e.g. Ryrie 1840 journals and maps; Robinson 1844-5) and permitted use of the country in the earliest days by highland Scots shepherds, and the horsemen and cattlemen who followed (Watson 1984).

I came across the Bundian Way in an article in the December 2020 issue of the free The Snowpost magazine. It describes the Way as “a shared history pathway” “that was the easiest path from the Monaro to the coastal plains”. It includes places associated with Aboriginal whaling and springtime ceremonies in Twofold Bay on the south coast, and Aboriginal bogong moth hunting and ceremonies in the high country in summer. The article notes that there is still evidence along the route of “old land management … in its Aboriginal landscapes”, which presumably was also used in the survey.

The Snowpost (possibly using Wikipedia) also notes the role played by the controversial Chief Protector of Aborigines GA Robinson in all this. Wikipedia cites John Blay as saying that Robinson recorded the story of who walked from Omeo to present his new corroboree to his kin at Bilgalera on Twofold Bay on 14 August 1844. The important thing is not who provides the information, but that we have the information, eh? The Snowpost also records that geologist WB Clarke, who explored around here in 1852, recorded Indigenous people’s description of the Bundian Pass. Unfortunately, his writings and Robinson’s don’t appear to be available on Project Gutenberg Australia.

Finally, the Snowy-Monaro Regional Council makes the point that:

This walking track is older than the silk roads and was used the Aboriginal people for trading, ceremonies, family gatherings and caring for country for thousands of years.

Georg von Neumayer

Also active in Australia around the middle of the nineteenth century, like Robinson and Clarke, was the German polar explorer and scientist Georg Neumayer or Georg Balthasar von Neumayer. Tim Flannery writes in his book, The explorers, that “the exploration of the Australian Alps seems inextricably linked with Germans and Poles: Lhotsky, Strzelecki, Neumayer and von Guérard”. Neumayer, who was interested in “terrestrial magnetism, hydrography and meteorology”, conducted a magnetic survey of “the colony of Victoria”. In doing so, he visited the summit of Mt Kosciuszko in November-December, 1862, with his assistant Edward Brinkmann and the artist Eugène von Guérard. Flannery writes that Neumayer’s account of this trip “provides a terrifying example of Australia’s fickle alpine weather”. Flannery also says that the Von Guérard painted “one of his most memorable works [of Mt Kosciuszko] from the view he obtained on that dramatic November day”. You can see a version on the Art Gallery of New South Wales website.

Flannery quotes Neumayer as saying that

The vegetation near the camping place [which overlooked the Manroo Plains and Thredbo River] reminds one very much of that of the Alps except that the strange look of the dwarf gum trees introduces rather a new feature.

I suspect it’s true that alpine regions can look very similar – except for vegetation! Neumayer also notes that

M. de Guérard, meanwhile, had seated himself on the summit, which affords a beautiful view of the mountainous country of New South Wales and Victoria, as well as the plains of the Murray River, and was taking a sketch of the scenery when, just as I was completing my observations, he called out that it appeared to him a heavy storm was approaching from the New South Wales side.

What follows is a rather terrifying description of coping with this storm, during which Edward Brinkmann (who was looking after some of Neumayer’s instruments) got lost. This was around 18 November 1962, I think. Despite looking hard for him, they could not find him.

Neumayer writes on 3 December 1862

The day very hot, and a haze, caused by bushfires, over the whole sky, so that nothing of the fine mountain scenery was visible.

Such is the alpine environment – blizzard one day, bushfire the next. Anyhow, Neumayer and von Guérard

Thredbo River, Kosciuszko National Park
Thredbo River (on a nice day), Kosciuszko National Park)

Went to the police court, but could hear nothing of him, so that the last hope of his safety was now quite destroyed. Sat down to dinner, and had hardly done so when the lost man made his appearance in a most deplorable condition, having been without food and clothes for some time. My conjectures as to the route he had taken proved to be correct. Soon after leaving us on Mt Kosciusko, he endeavoured to return but missed the track to the camp and descended into the valley of the Thredbo River. For two days he wandered on, with scarcely anything to eat, until he fell in with some diggers in a lonely valley, who behaved most kindly to him and assisted him in making his way to Kiandra. … I cannot quit this most annoying affair without expressing my appreciation of Edward’s courageous behaviour, after separating from our party, and of the skill and care he bestowed upon the instruments entrusted to his charge; for the fine mountain barometer Fortin II did not receive the least injury during the whole of this rough and perilous journey.

I love that Neumayer seems to have cared both about Brinkmann AND his instruments!

Matt McClelland, Best river and alpine walks around Mt Kosciuszko

Best river and alpine walks around Mt Kosciuszko book cover

Book cover (Courtesy: Matt McClelland, Wildwalks)

For many years now, Mr Gums and I have been going to Thredbo in Kosciuszko National Park for a few days in early January. In other words, instead of heading east to the coast, like many of our city’s residents, we head south to the mountains for a bit of R&R involving bushwalking, dining and reading. Over the years I have picked up various guides to help us – field guides to flora and fauna, general activity guides, and so on. But, until recently, I had not found a good comprehensive book on walks in the Park.

This has not totally deterred us. The Park brochures and the various guides I did find provided us with enough information for us to find and undertake walks. However, I’ve always wanted more and, when I was preparing for last year’s trip, I discovered – via Google – a wonderful website called Wildwalks. They had information on some of our favourite walks, but by no means all. However, I was in luck. Late in 2010, as well us updating and expanding their Southern Kosciuszko walks on their website, they published a book, Best river and alpine walks around Mt Kosciuszko, which details over 40 walks in the very area we like to walk, and so, of course, we bought it.

Along the Rennix Track, Kosciuszko National Park

Mr Gums walking through Derwent Speedwell on the Rennix Trail

The Wildwalks people are a generous bunch though: thorough descriptions, with maps, of each of the walks can be downloaded as pdfs from their website. Of course, unless you travel with a printer*, that means you must decide in advance which walks you plan to do. If you have the book, on the other hand, you can select a walk on a whim – or, on the basis of the weather, on how you feel after the previous day’s walk, on whether you are willing to drive to the starting point (as it is a very large national park), on how much of an appetite you want to work up …

But, enough of that, let’s get to the book. It is nicely produced on quality semi-gloss paper. It includes useful material about the park in general (including weather conditions), and about bushwalking (including safety tips) in particular. It has a map at the front with the walks marked on it, and an excellent table listing the walks so that you can see them all at a glance and check length, difficulty level etc. It has a small but useful index. And it is packed with enticing photographs. The bulk of the book is of course devoted to the walks and is organised (and colour-coded) by region, such as the Alpine Way, Guthega, and so on. There is a section, too, on Snowshoe Walks for those hardy people who go to the mountains in the winter.

For each walk the following information is provided:

  • At a glance inset box providing the Grade (difficulty level); Time; Distance and type of walk (one-way, return, etc); Ascent/descent (in metres); Conditions (amount of shade, water crossings etc); and GPS for beginning and end.
  • Brief description of the walk.
  • Finding the track. In other words, how to find the start!
  • Walk directions. Written directions for the walk, with numbered points which are shown on that walk’s map.
  • Map and relief diagram, on both of which are marked the numbers from the Walk directions.
  • Other information as appropriate, such as, for some walks, variations that can be taken.

Last week, we did four of the walks in the book – three we’d done before and one we hadn’t. We found the guide easy to understand and accurate – right down to timing and assessment of “grade”. We particularly valued the climb information provided – both textually and pictorially – for the ascents and descents involved in each walk. We did find the odd discrepancy – mostly a marker mentioned in the guide that we didn’t see on the ground. Perhaps we missed them or, more likely, they have disappeared (faded, fallen over, whatever!). We also noticed that the pdf descriptions of the walks provided a little more detail – such as distance/time information for each point on a walk – and a contour style map rather than the more schematic one in the book. This difference in maps is due, I presume, to space and page size factors – and is not a critical issue: the walks in general are easy to follow and, anyhow, you can print out the pdf in advance (at no charge) if you wish.

A good quality spiral binding, with an inbuilt book/page marker, would probably make the guide more user-friendly when you are on a walk, but spiral bindings (even good ones) are not as sturdy so the glue (perfect) binding style is probably best.

Overall then, a big thumbs up. This is a well-thought out guide prepared by people who clearly know bushwalking and what bushwalkers (particularly casual, recreational ones like us) want (and need). My sense is that the people at Wildwalks are doing this more for the love than the money – and for that I wave my hiking stick at them. If you walk – or plan to walk – in Australia (specifically, at present, in NSW and the ACT), check them out because they currently have over 900 walks documented on their site.

Matt McClelland and the Wildwalks team
Best river and alpine walks about Mt Kosciuszko
Warriewood: Woodslane Press, 2010
ISBN: 9781921606045

* or have downloaded them onto some smartphone device in advance (as you can’t rely on reception once you are out on a walk).

Monday musings on Australian literature: Mountain murmurings

Mountain? Because this week’s Monday musings was inspired by my recent sojourn in the mountains. Murmurings? Because it will be more pictorial than textual. And what does all this to have with Australian literature? Two things, primarily:

  • My definition of “Australian literature” for this blog series is a broad one – it is intended to not only be about Australian literature but also about the things that our literature draws on, such as culture and landscape. This post is about a very specific part of Australian landscape.
  • In my last post, on Barbara Hanrahan, I referred to her looking in vain for “the sunburned land” she learned was her home. My aim in this post is to support her, to show that in fact much* of Australia, albeit a dry continent, is not sunburned.

Here’s a little context. The second – and most well-known – verse of Dorothea McKellar‘s famous (in Australia) poem “My country” starts with “I love a sunburnt country“. This is the image which Hanrahan rails against in her novel, and it is probably still the prevailing image Australians have (or like to have) of our country. And yet, there are other images – real ones as you’ll see in this post, and poetic ones, like the following:

By channels of coolness the echoes are calling,
And down the dim gorges I hear the creek falling
(The opening lines of  “Bell-birds”, by Henry Kendall)

There are, in other words, many ways of seeing Australia: not all of them are “sunburnt”, and neither are they all romantic or nostalgic, but those are not for today’s just-back-from-holiday mood.

So, to cut to the chase, here is a small selection of images from the Snowy Mountains (in Kosciuszko National Park). Enjoy, because next week we’ll be back to more serious stuff!

Through the stringy barks and saplings, on the rough and broken ground,
Down the hillside at a racing pace he went
(From “The man from Snowy River“, by Banjo Paterson)

Snowy Mountains, near Thredbo
In the Snowy Mountains, taken from the Thredbo riverside walk

Near the top of Dead Horse Gap walk, on the Main Range

It's mid-summer, but not so sunburnt here

Eucalyptus Stellulata or Black Sallee

Weird but wonderful, a gum just at the tree-line

Snow Daisy close-up

Snow Daisy and friends

Gunn's Willow-herb

Gunn's Willow-herb may not be on the tip of every Australian writer's tongue but how pretty it is

Short-beaked echidna

You never know who you might meet on a bushwalk - such as a Short-beaked echidna nosing around for food

And finally, one bit of Australiana that all Aussies know: (Eastern grey) kangaroos, in the bush.

* Defined as the parts of Australia where the majority live. Much of the Australian continent is indeed pretty sunburnt!

Hedonistic hiking

Dead Horse Gap, Kosciuszko National Park

Above the treeline, Dead Horse Gap, Kosciuszko National Park

“Hedonistic hiking” is the title of an article in a glossy little (“free at selected tourist outlets in Australia” but otherwise  $24.95pa) magazine I picked up in Melbourne a couple of months ago. The mag is called essentials magazine: culture, culinary, adventure. Can you tell me how the word “culinary” fits in there syntactically? The issue I picked up (free at some selected outlet obviously) was its – and I quote – “issue 15 mid-spring ‘Chrissy issue’ 2009” edition. What is that? Who is this magazine geared to? Anyhow, the article is essentially (ha!) a promo for gourmet hiking tours in Europe. It caught my eye though because it’s a term that could apply to our annual Thredbo sojourn. We are not campers – and we don’t eat gourmet food on our walks. Rather, we love to bushwalk and then go out and eat (well). Thredbo caters for this predilection of ours in a setting that is both beautiful and compact. We arrive, park our car, check into our lovely studio apartment with its view of the mountains, and then walk and eat to our heart’s delight.

But of course, there is more to this area than hedonism and hiking. Thredbo is in the Snowy Mountains of Australia, the mountains famous for AB Paterson’s “The Man from Snowy River” and Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby series of books to name just two cultural icons from the region. Nearby is the town of Jindabyne, the setting for the rather gut-wrenching Australian film of the same name. It was loosely adapted from a Raymond Carver story titled “So much water so close to home”. As lovely as the mountains are, wireless connection here is iffy so I shall sign off, sit back and sip my Chardonnay while I enjoy the sun setting on Crackenback.

POSTSCRIPT: And there are nods to the cultural heritage here, such as Banjo Drive and the Silver Brumby Lodge in Thredbo, and the Man from Snowy River Hotel in Perisher. It’s rather subtle though – the hints are there but it’s not overdone. And there’s nothing wrong with that in a place that wears its commercial side rather lightly too.