Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Book Review - On track by John Blay

On track : searching out the Bundian Way by John Blay

Sydney: New South Publishing, 2015                                         ISBN 9781742234441

What a fascinating and important book. John Blay has written, as much as it can be written, the history of both Aboriginal and White movements from Australia's High Country around Kosciuszko (or Targangal in the local language) and Twofold Bay (Bilgalera) on the South East coast.

Searching for the mysterious Bundian Way, Blay gives us not only an account of what it is like to walk from Kosciuszko to the sea, but a history of both the Aboriginal way of life, and that of the early White settlers in the area of the Monaro Plains down to the sea.

Many people today would wonder why Aboriginals made the trek all the way to the highest point in Australia. It was for food - each year countless million Bogong Moths migrate to the High Country in summer to escape the heat, and the local Aboriginals would ascend the peaks to feast on the high-fat, high-calorie insects. When the weather cooled off, they would descend towards the coast, tending the country on the way with traditional methods of burning, to allow clearings to develop for wildlife to browse in, and for yams to grow in, to give a food source for any people who found themselves passing through. Back down on the coast, in the Winter, whales would often beach themselves in Twofold Bay, and in fact it seems that Aboriginals could occasionally spear one from the shore. This fantastic source of food led to Twofold Bay becoming a tribal gathering area, where tribes from as far afield as Omeo would gather to feast, trade, marry, and dance.

Blay has spent a lot of time in Libraries and Archives, but has also spent a lot of time walking the ground, and talking to old bushies and Aboriginals. While he does recount a telephone conversation with someone in Delegate (about the Aboriginal Reserve that was once there) in which the local claimed that there had never been any Aboriginals there, he does find a wealth of written and oral knowledge about the tribes that lived in the area and the activities they undertook. What Blay has done very cleverly is mine the diaries and journals of the early explorers, surveyors and churchmen to gain an insight into the movements and activities of the Aboriginal inhabitants, and has looked closely at old maps and plans, many of which list the ancient pathways.

The other little known fact that Blay illustrates is how in the early days both White and Black actually got along in a reasonable fashion - the Aboriginals seemed happy to share the land with the first settlers, and those settlers used both the Aboriginal's knowledge of the land and labour to help them manage their runs. The Aboriginals seemed to think that their due for assistance was food, either flour, or the occasional beast, and also a blanket each year, which became an icon for the Aboriginals, a token from the White men, a kind of rent. This "economy" worked well initially, but when the new selection laws came into force, the fencing of runs, and the economic downturn in the late 1800s meant that the Whites were less inclined to "share", and that's when the first reports of shootings enter the historical record.

While Blay doesn't shy away from the horrors of these altercations, he prefers to emphasise the times that White and Black lived together in a more cooperative way. He clearly shows that the Aboriginal history of the area is an ongoing one - he discovers possible Bogong Moth feasting sites that must have existed over 10,000 years ago, as well as countless numbers of tool factories, middens, and artifacts.

This book in many ways is groundbreaking, and in some ways charts a new way of looking at our shared history, to use all and any means to reconstruct Aboriginal life, and to reconstruct for modern Australia a new connexion to the old ways. Blay, along with others, after reconstructing the Bundian Way, is now involved in a process to use this knowledge to create a walking track and cultural information that can be shared with all.

Often when walking in the Australian bush, a sense of the ancient times can be close - Blay shows just how close it can actually be.

I can't recommend this book enough.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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