On the 30th anniversary of Bruce Chatwin’s inspiring travelogue, Songlines, we delve into Australia’s Aboriginal heartlands to explore its ancient trails
The red hot dust blew around us. I’d been driving for two hours in the company of Sammy Wilson, an Aboriginal man whose clan name was Uluru. This made him one of the traditional owners of the rock of the same name, Australia’s best-known landmark, which is where we were heading.
Along the way we had stopped to admire the desert blooms that had burst through following the unseasonable rains – cartoonish poached-egg flowers, vividly pink pigface and orangecoloured desert grevillea, from which Sammy showed me how to suck sweet nectar.
Another time, he had picked up an bizarre thorny devil lizard that he had spied crossing the road, presenting it to me in his hands, and we had spent some time at a waterhole where budgerigars, zebra finch and pink-faced cockatoos came to quench their thirst.
Sitting in the shade while eating some tucker, Sammy showed me a book about his ancestors, which contained, among other things, a map of old walking routes. I decided it was a perfect time to ask him the question I’d been holding back.
“So, do you still use the songlines?”
He paused, chewed on his sandwich, and then spoke. “We still do. But I prefer to use my truck. It’s better to go by road.”
Poached-egg flowers (Chris Moss)
My masterplan was faltering. I’d come to the Northern Territory with the mission of learning about the enigmatic trails I had read of in Bruce Chatwin’s celebrated book, Songlines, published 30 years ago. These invisible routes were said to have been created during Dreamtime – the age in Aboriginal myth when ‘ancestor spirits’ walked and named the Earth – and are recalled in native Australian chants.
Chatwin posed the idea that human language might have begun with nomadic peoples, including the Australian Aborigines, singing the world into life.
“I have a vision of the songlines stretching across the continents and ages,” wrote Chatwin. “Wherever men have trodden they have left a song, and [these] trails must reach back [to] where the First Man shouted the opening stanza of the World Song, ‘I am!’.”
But here was Sammy – whose second name was no less than the native word for the most famous Aboriginal landmark in Australia – telling me that a songline was a drive in his air-conditioned pick-up. It wouldn’t be my last surprise, as I set about following in Chatwin’s footsteps three decades on.
The Red Centre remains one of the heartlands of Aboriginal Australia. But today, Uluru is as much an epicentre of global tourism as it is of native culture.
Uluru at sunset (Chris Moss)
While my first experiences of the iconic red rock were memorable, they were also profoundly Western in character. I had a delicious meal of kangaroo pies and fine wines seated on the upper deck of a bus parked close enough to Uluru to nab great sunset photos.
I had another, even posher meal in an al fresco restaurant at the top of a sand dune – a more distant view, but with the bonus of a fantastic panorama of the night sky.
While perched on my dune, a native Australian man pointed to where the Great Emu spread out in the Milky Way, punctuating his story with didgeridoo blasts. He even mentioned songlines while recounting an Aboriginal story about the Seven Sisters – represented in the heavens by the pleiades star cluster – but the late hour and the mellow ambience meant it wasn’t the moment for quizzing him.
On a series of short mid-morning walks around the base of Uluru, Lachlan, a non-native guide, took me to see rock art and to visit a waterhole. The former, he said, was used “by the elders to pass on knowledge to later generations”. The native Anangu “had survived in the semi-arid landscape thanks to an intrinsic connection with the land”.
The small waterhole would have been sacred, he added, because water was essential but also because it attracted animals the Anangu could hunt. While the aborigines have a profoundly spiritual tie with the land they’re also very utilitarian when it comes to exploiting its resources.
One of the most common motifs of the rock art, amid the animal forms and boomerangs, was a circle representing a watering hole. These, said Lachlan, would have been important pit-stops on desert hikes. Uluru, possessing few waterholes, was likely a pilgrimage site, like Mecca or Santiago de Compostela, visited once or twice in a lifetime.
It was all very well having a non-native Australian – ‘a whitefella’ – telling me what Australian Aborigines believed. But at the tiny hamlet of Karrke in Kings Canyon, I was eager to hear the other side of the story.
Sammy Wilson (Chris Moss)
Peter and Christine, an Aboriginal couple, run a small al fresco workshop to show visitors how their tiny Wanmarra community (population: 10) traditionally made music using clapping sticks, threw a spear, clubbed enemies and cooked witchetty grubs.
Peter told me and a group how men and women had different jobs, different ceremonies and different stories – “men’s business” and “women’s business” – which they must never divulge to the other gender.
I asked why.
He smiled and said, “Tjukurpa”.
When I asked him to explain, he said, “Tjukurpa is the land, the law and the culture. It’s the dreaming, the creation.”
In short, tjukurpa is everything. While it can be loosely translated as a kind of ‘worldvision’ or ‘philosophy’, it is all of these things and more besides – it can also mean “No comment” or “Stop being nosey”.
Christine showed us how she made natural ochres using plants and soil, how to winnow grains with the breeze, and how she grinds seeds. She said flavours were never mixed in meals, as if blandness was the main goal of cooking. The reason? Tjukurpa. She said men went after wallabies and emus while women gathered and never, ever hunted. You can guess why.
Though males and females kept their ceremonial walks strictly gendered, the sexes did travel together in the past as small tribal groups.
“When they set off for a new place, they would leave a grinding stone at each site they used,” said Peter, pointing to a small stone implement at his feet. “This would show other people that they had been there. It was like a map.”
I asked him if the tribes had songlines to help them get from place to place.
“The songlines are the title deeds,” he said. “We used to walk up to 1,500 kilometres. You would cross into other tribal territories and the people there may or may not share their knowledge with you. That’s the tjukurpa!”
After 4WD explorations, several Aborigine encounters and a few discussions in broken English about songlines, I felt I needed to set aside the theory and do what the locals used to do: head out into the bush, use my feet and go walkabout.
The Kings Canyon rim trail (Chris Moss)
The Kings Canyon rim trail is only around seven kilometres long, but in the blazing afternoon heat, with a few stunted ghost gums and small blue mallee trees for shade, it’s still quite a hike. The trail began with a steep stone staircase that deposited me on a clifftop with breathtaking views over the desert and the Watarrka National Park.
Kings Canyon, which dates back some 400 million years, was shaped by huge inland lakes. When I took a short diversion to visit the so-called ‘Garden of Eden’, I was plunged into a shady hollow of prehistoric palms, and a short track that led to a tempting pool. I say tempting because a sign advised this was a sacred site.
I didn’t mind the restriction, and spent the time imagining ancestral Australians coming here, like me, to escape the heat, rest on a ledge, eat a berry (in my case, an Anzac biscuit). They may have caught a wallaby unawares and returned to camp with a feast. Perhaps they communed with their gods awhile – after all, their gods inhabited the very rocks on which they were resting.
The journey to Kings Canyon afforded me a few glimpses into the complexity of the white and indigenous-Australian covenant. While the native peoples theoretically “own” their ancient lands, most of the Red Centre is occupied by vast cattle stations.
Around Mount Conner, a monolithic table mountain often mistaken by tourists for Uluru, the dry, dusty landscape studded with bushes and quandong trees reminded me of cowboy films, with exotic extras in the shape of wild camels.
I saw a few of the 4,000-odd head of cattle that roam freely this 4,150 sq km station, as well as a couple of shy kangaroos and a fleet-footed dingo mother with three cubs.
Wild kangaroos (Dreamstime)
All roads in the Red Centre eventually lead to Alice Springs. Here I saw how the rock art inspired many of the mesmerising modern works hanging in the dozen or so local galleries, as well as a laser installation projected on to the MacDonnell Ranges that told the Aboriginal story of a caterpillar who – through the storm of metamorphosis – became a butterfly.
Alice gave me the opportunity to ride on a camel – less bumpy than I expected – and to explore the hilly banks of the Todd River on some excellent mountain biking routes.
Towards the end of a sweaty, breathless three-hour pedal up and down steep, rock-strewn paths, I had to slam on the brakes to avoid riding over the tail of a giant perentie lizard – which features prominently in Aboriginal legend, and diet.
But the most exhilarating way to explore the Red Centre is, paradoxically, to swim it. Australia sits on – but is not riven by – a tectonic plate, and consequently has some of the most ancient landscapes on Earth. Time and weather has smoothed and flattened the peaks and sent rivers meandering in to deserts or even beneath the ground.
But they have left behind a few dramatic clefts in the range. At Simpson Gap, Standley Chasm, Ormiston Gorge and Ellery Creek Big Hole, I walked or, where possible, swam in waterholes beneath cliffs and buttes of crumbling sandstone. The water was cool, the searing sun lost behind looming cliffs, and the air above my head almost silent.
My visit to the Northern Territory ended at the Top End. After a week in the empty spaces of the desert, Kakadu National Park seems especially full of life – tall jabirus and fleet-footed jacanas wading in wetlands, black cockatoos and emerald-winged kookaburras raucous in the tropical forests.
Crocodile in Wellow Water at sunset (Chris Moss)
I went out on to the Yellow Water to observe estuarial crocodiles, fabled as malign man-eaters; but to my eyes, they were proud and peaceful, unspooked by visitors and their clicking cameras. I camped in a corner of the bush with bandicoots and possums scuttling past my tent at night, and snake trails visible in the sand every morning.
In Arnhem Land, the Aboriginal-governed region east of Kakadu NP, I clambered over boulders on a sandstone outcrop above the village of Gunbalanya. For all my moving around and meeting people, it was the first time in two weeks that I found myself alone with a native Australian.
Michael was a friendly, nimble 49 year-old, who escorted visitors to see the rock art left by his ancestors – representations of barramundi fish, lizards, turtles, a rainbow serpent that can give or take life depending on its mood, and fairy-like stickmen called Mimi.
Most were painted beneath deep overhangs where, shielded from the fierce afternoon sun, they have endured fifty years, five hundred years, even 20,000 years. Some of these daubings might be among the oldest creative expressions on the planet.
When we’d passed through a narrow cleft, the land levelled out. I decided it was time to hit Michael with my now standard big question.
“So, mate, what do you know about songlines?”
He looked back at me. No response.
“You know, songlines,” I repeated. “The songs you sing as you name the land around you, and remember your tracks.”
“I don’t know anything about them,” he said.
His smile was not of the ironic sort. We walked on. Before long, though, he decided to share a little more information.
“We sing and dance during the ceremony.”
“Can you show me?”
“No,” he laughed. “I cannot let the story out. If I let the story out, they’ll kill me.”
Nonetheless, he did a little jig, smiling to let me know: this is as much as I’m telling. His smile was his tjukurpa. It was his way of saying: a white fella can only know so much.
Driving past Uluru (Dreamstime)
Back at Yellow Water, after a glorious sunset, I met a part-native Australian guide called Ruben Jones, who gave me a tidy, tourist-friendly definition of the songlines.
“They’re a heap of things,” he said. “But essentially they’re how we get from A to B without a map. We sing so that we remember. Everyone remembers things better when they sing. You just have to sing as you go!”
He’d love to talk more, he said, but he had a bus to drive. Getting from A to B wasn’t exactly “World Song”. But it was true, songlines were a heap of things. They could be a practical route map. They could be a journey in a pick-up. They could be title deeds. They could be a travel-writer’s flight of fancy.
Implicit in Ruben’s answer was the notion that every journey is a kind of songline. What about the one that tells of a white fella who soars on a jet-winged jabiru across the ocean, lands at a big red rock, swims in the pools where the rainbow serpent lives, crosses the desert in cheeky machines, and, finally, reaches the land of the boisterous black cockatoo, the cocky kookaburra and the serene crocodile. Thirty years after Chatwin’s inspiring travelogue, it’s a story well worth repeating, should you get the opportunity.
The author flew with Singapore Airlines, which flies four times daily from London Heathrow and five times weekly from Manchester to Singapore, with onward connections to Darwin through its regional airline, Silk Air. Flight times to Darwin take from around 20 hours. Malaysia Airlines and Philippine Airlines also fly from London Heathrow to Darwin.
Main image: Uluru at sunset (Dreamstime)