Is justice a precursor to healing, or can a connection to the land be used to overcome trauma?
Back in 2000, the millennium full of promise and prophecies, heralded by the likes of the artist formerly known as Prince partying like it was 1999, I decided to leave my rented room in a Melbourne share house, get on a train and head for the desert where I’d heard there was a walk going on.
Since I was seven years old my mother and I used to ‘go bush’. When I was a child, the desert was a place of adventure. Speeding down the Silver City Highway the twang of Slim Dusty would sound from the tape deck.
As a young woman I was moved as much by that sense of adventure as a troubled spirit. I lived with a certain rootless feverishness. I remember a character of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet commenting on the city of Alexandria. He said, ‘those who emerged from it were the sick men, the solitaries, the prophets…all those who have been deeply wounded in their sex.’ This last sentence always held a particular resonance for me. Though I hadn’t emerged from Alexandria but from my childhood.
I began to visit the desert by myself as it became a counterpoint of stillness, a soul-remedy that I self-medicated. So The Walk was as good an excuse as any to head for the peace of the horizon.
I convinced a housemate to come with me and before we knew it my mum was seeing us off at Spencer Street station, pressing bags of dried fruit and nuts into our laps that she had bought from the former Ayoubi Brothers Nut Shop in Brunswick.
Only if you have taken the Melbourne to Adelaide train can you really appreciate that fairly depressing Tom Waits song. It describes an excruciatingly slow train, with poor bar service, passing through equally excruciatingly boring towns in the dead of night. We edged through the dark, better prepared than the unfortunate Tom Waits, glugging furtively at our whisky bottle, which was an essential ingredient for a 20-year-old on a long train journey.
When we finally made it to Lake Eyre in central South Australia, where Arabunna elder Uncle Kevin Buzzacott and 30 or so others had started The Walk, we were running late and had to make up for lost time by catching lifts to their next resting point. We met up with them just over the border.
Only by walking could we come to know the land as the ancestors did.
Rocking up, bleary eyed and with the last of the whisky still aching in our muscles, the desert was a magnificent spectacle of blue, sage and ochre horizons. The walkers were all up preparing breakfast or huddling around the Sacred Fire.
The aim of The Walk, as Uncle Kevin told us that morning and many after, was for the peace and healing of the land and its original people. Only by walking could we come to know the land as the ancestors did.
We would walk for some three months, covering three thousand kilometres, and terminate at Sydney where the Olympic Games were being held. There we would camp at the temporary tent embassy and draw the attention of the world to the issues facing Aboriginal Australia.
It was organised as a relay where one would walk as little or as much as one wanted, averaging twenty kilometres a day. If you didn’t walk you were helping to set up or pack down camp, giving supplies to the walkers and checking up on them on the road, or cooking, or scouting for the next spot.
The first day I walked, still hungover, I felt in no shape to do so, but my housemate and I, being new arrivals, felt it was upon us to prove our mettle. I told the group I would try five kilometres to start.
I remember the way my legs took on the rhythm of the land, the way my gait and stride lengthened, the way my joints oiled and rolled with the vast sweeping plains that bore me along.
I walked 20 kilometres that day. Utterly transfixed, I watched as various flowers and vegetation slowly appeared then disappeared, the way the plains rolled into small hills and rises before undulating back again to flatness. The way the colours shifted and changed, almost imperceptibly. I felt the land begin to work its medicine as I walked. Its spaciousness came to inhabit me.
Our walk that day culminated at the Tilpa pub, which seemed to be built entirely of corrugated iron and stickers. The song ‘Great Southern Land’ was pouring from the jukebox as the other walkers played pool with a dented white ball and cues with no chalk tips.