The Ways of the Bushwalker by Melissa Harper

Reviewed by Norrie Sanders

Apparently, over five million Australians go bushwalking, so we must know what a bushwalker is…. well, don’t we? As it turns out, defining a bushwalker – let alone what he or she actually does – is not trivial. For some people, it is a heated topic. Even deciding the distance of a true bushwalk might lead to red faces and clenched fists.

The Ways of the Bushwalker is a history from colonial days until the present. Due acknowledgement is made of the ancient pathways of indigenous people, but the bulk of the content is decidedly European in outlook. The first nine chapters take us to the mid-20th century, by which time much of the bushwalking fabric – clubs, tracks and equipment – was already woven. Later developments are covered in the final few chapters, including food, environmental impacts and commercialisation.

Along the way, Melissa Harper canvasses controversial themes that have been with us for a long time, including – self-reliance versus comfort; hiking versus bushwalking; track versus off track; wilderness and landscape; solo versus group, and men versus women.

From the outset of the NSW colony, a dichotomy grew between those who regarded the bush as dangerous, hostile and in need of taming and those who grew to appreciate the particular qualities and uniqueness that define Australia’s natural areas. For more than a century after colonisation, organised bushwalking did not exist. It was not even called bushwalking and was very much an individual or small group activity, with little in the way of organisation.

The early period is seen through the activities and attitudes of a small number of early walkers. Their views ran the gamut from the prosaic to the practical. For example, she compares two famous walkers from the early 20th century – the pianist/composer Percy Grainger and the poet John Le Gay Brereton.

“Brereton and Grainger both represented the bush walk as an opportunity to explore their true selves and to locate the true Australia……exploring connections between landscape and identity, national and personal” [p87].

Despite a common philosophy and love of nature, their interests and styles of bushwalking were singularly contrasting. Grainger loved to walk solo, long and fast and saw much more to admire in natural landscapes than the people who inhabited them. Brereton preferred to ramble and engage with the people that he met and walked with. His friendship with Henry Lawson reflected an affection for the pioneers of the bush.

Many of the walking clubs that we know today came into being about a century ago – and with them the notion of the bushwalker. Lack of suitable outdoor gear, marked walking trails and overnight accommodation meant that despite the advent of groups, bushwalkers had to be tough souls. In fact, one of the pioneers with tough soles (sorry) was the predominantly barefooted Dot Butler who remains one of the rare examples of a non-indigenous person who shunned shoe leather despite walking prodigious distances.

An interesting phenomenon at this time was the arrival of mass walks in the 1930s. This was the culmination (though some hardened walkers regarded it as an abomination) of early conservation efforts, track building and accommodation. Ironically, it was the railways that encouraged the walking as a way of enticing people in large numbers to take trains to ‘mystery hikes’ near Australia’s major cities. People turned up in their thousands ‘from all walks of life’ young and old, rich and (mostly) working or middle class.

It was a short-lived fad, but one which was low cost and good exercise at a time when Australia and the world were in the midst of depression. As with any fad, there were plenty of naysayers – the Church (never on Sunday), motorists (get off the roads) and seasoned bushwalkers (keep the masses away) to name a few. And while the mass hikes inevitably faded away after a few years, they did contribute to track-building and widespread interest in walking.

“The popularisation of walking among the young helped to transform an activity that had long been imbued with anti-urban, non-commercial thread into a modern, ‘up-to-the-minute’ entertainment………[which] reflected what was happening more broadly in relation to leisure in the interwar years” [p166].

Some of the photos are enlightening. Uber-walker Miles Dunphy with a swag, rifle and billy in 1915, looking like a cross between a country gentleman about to hunt grouse and a Great War digger. The carrying of rifles may strike at our modern sensibilities but, to the early 20th century walker, they were essential kit for helping self-sufficiency. Many of these early walkers slowly came to realise the paradox of marvelling at nature just before shooting it.  Ever so slowly, the walking movement realised the importance of conservation. Miles Dunphy and his son Milo, among many others, lobbied to establish many of the National Parks that we now take for granted.

The Ways of the Bushwalker first appeared in 2007 and quite a bit has happened since. The new edition has a focus “to explore why in the twenty-first century governments across Australia have become so keen to invest in bushwalking tracks, particularly in the multi-day walks” [pxii]. This leads the author to ask questions about commercial interests, corruption and reshaping the bushwalking “audience”.

Of the many debates, one of the more recent is whether a ‘luxury’ multi day hike/walk is less worthy than the same journey staying in public huts, or camping.  Melissa pondered this on the Overland Track where she stayed exclusively in a tent:

“Do it the hard way or not at all was the motto I adopted. Not only was my way superior to the dupes who forked out big dollars to stay in the private ([i.e. luxury] huts, it was also more authentic than that of the wimps who opted for the public huts.

On reflection I felt uneasy about my position, cheapening the experience of some walkers to bolster the worth of my own. It is an elitist stance. Why should I assume that my connection with nature was any more deeply felt because I carried my own pack and slept outdoors” [p259].

Of course, these arguments are unresolvable. All three ways have pros and cons and perhaps tolerance is called for – but it does not stop some people from having strong opinions. This book sensibly opts for diversity as the only form of resolution:

“In seeking to tell the ‘real’ history of bushwalking, I have aimed to show that the wilderness ideal as it developed in the 1920s does not mark the beginnings of bushwalking but needs to be seen as part of a much longer, decidedly casual history of walking” [p308].

Other countries have their tramps, hikes and rambles, but the Aussie bushwalk evokes something a little bit different. The Ways of the Bushwalker is a fascinating exploration of how this came to be.

The Ways of the Bushwalker: On foot in Australia

(October 2020)

By Melissa Harper

NewSouth Books

ISBN: 9781742236674

$34.99 (paperback); 384pp

Paperback | Oct 2020 | NewSouth | 9781742236674 | 384pp | 234x153mm | GEN | AUD$34.99, NZD$39.99

🤞 Want to get the latest book reviews in your inbox?

🤞 Want to get the latest book reviews in your inbox?