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Journey to Horseshoe Bend by T. G. H. Strehlow
Giramondo, 2015.
ISBN 9781922146779
Lucas Smith reviews

Journey to Horseshoe Bend

by T. G. H. Strehlow

According to one of Australia's first professional anthropologists, professor A. P. Elkin (via Les Murray's essay on Indigenous poetry “The Human-Hair Thread”), Ted Strehlow, the author of the monumental Songs of Central Australia, was the only white person ever to learn an Aboriginal language with the fluency of a native speaker. The work of Ted and his father, the missionary Carl Strehlow, on the Arrernte people of the Northern Territory's Macdonnell Ranges, still informs much of what passes for knowledge of Indigenous Australia in the popular imagination, both in Australia and around the world. Journey to Horseshoe Bend, first published in 1969, is Ted's loving account of Carl Strehlow's final illness and death in 1922.

Carl Strehlow was a giant of the early settlement of Central Australia, a man of Mosaic proportions. Under his twenty-eight year tenure, the Lutheran mission at Hermannsburg was among the most functional and productive (from a colonial Christian perspective) of the various Central Australian missions and under Carl's firm guidance, the local Indigenous people were converted and made "productive". Initially, Strehlow attempted to suppress the "paganism" of the Arrernte, but after several years he grew to appreciate Indigenous customs and protected sacred sites from white outsiders. Eventually, he visited several sacred sites and though he longed to, he refused to witness any ceremonies, as it would have been tacit approval of "paganism". He began collecting Arrernte songs and myths and translating them into German. By the time of his death, Carl was revered as an honorary elder and the mission congregation practised a relatively comfortable synthesis of Lutheranism and Indigenous custom and culture.

According to Ted:

[Carl] Strehlow was too much of a man to stoop to spying tactics in order to keep himself informed on the living habits and morals of his dark congregation. He spoke with scathing contempt about one of his fellow missionaries on a different settlement, who had walked around in the aboriginal camp on dark nights, ineffectually trying to hide his lantern behind his overcoat, while snooping around in the hope of catching offenders against the church's moral code. In Strehlow's opinion, a minister might well have to be a stern disciplinarian, since he was a responsible servant of the Almighty. But God was no friend of spies and snoopers: these were men on the pay-roll of Satan. (87)

Even the hardened white men of the interior respected Carl, as they did few other religious leaders. He put in hard hours of physical labour, was a generous host and didn't skulk back to Adelaide for the excruciating summers. He wasn't, “one of them low bastards what shakes hands with you only to get close enough so's he can smell if you've taken a nip from the old brandy bottle”, as one stockman puts it.

In 1922, after ten years in Hermannsburg without a break, the Strehlows were planning a holiday to Germany when Carl fell sick with dropsy and pleurisy. The closest medical treatment was in Oodnadatta, a month away by horse and buggy. The Mission Board refused to send a car to collect him, citing cost and difficulty, though at least three vehicles had previously made the trip to Hermannsburg. Appeals for help were made to John Flynn, the South Australian premier and the Federal Works committee, with no result. A car-owning member of the Lutheran congregation at Appila, south of Port Augusta, offered to meet Strehlow as far north from Oodnadatta as he could go.

The family set out from Hermannsburg on October 10, 1922.  With every turn of the wheel Strehlow's pain grew. Along with the pain he pondered his desertion by the church hierarchy in his hour of need. Most painful of all, he pondered the silence of God. To say that Carl dies at the end will not spoil the read. His death hangs like a prophecy over the story from the opening pages. For fourteen year-old Ted, his father's last trip was the first time he had travelled south of the MacDonnell Ranges and the experience was clearly seminal. After his father's death came schooling, Adelaide, Germany and the polite society in which he never felt at home.

Journey to Horseshoe Bend is something of a catch-all book, part memoir, part hagiography, part history of the colonisation of the Macdonnell Ranges. There are fascinating digressions on mission politics, the fate of the Central Australian horse-breeding industry after the Great War and of course, Aboriginal culture and customs. Stories of totemic sites pepper the narrative as the party pass them by and Strehlow reports these stories with the same tone he reports the stories of his fourteen year-old's Christian faith, as if they are simple facts.

Children of missionaries rarely belong fully either their parent's or their host nation's culture. Journey to Horseshoe Bend feels like the book that Ted Strehlow had to write in order to create his own identity, not German nor Australian, nor Arrernte, but a strange blend of all three. It is interesting that Strehlow eschews the vertical pronoun, and instead refers to himself in the third person as Theo.

The prose of Journey to Horseshoe Bend is unspectacular, yet charged with necessity. The effortless movement between hard historical fact, Aboriginal myth, the hardship of buggy travel, the  gorgeous landscapes and questions of God, give the book a mythical veneer. Strehlow achieves the grand spiritual effect that Gerald Murnane, another poet of the interior, always seems to just miss in his novels. The difference is that Strehlow draws on facts, whereas Murnane thinks he has created them. The final paragraph of each of Horseshoe Bend's thirteen sections contains a reference to the stars, as do the final lines of each section of Dante's Divine Comedy.

Hypocrisy is a constant theme. Of the Arrernte (Strehlow uses the outdated appellation “Aranda”), Strehlow writes, “they never failed to comment on the brutal manner in which the white men so frequently maltreated their own animals. These dark folk had not yet fully grasped the fact that, generally speaking, civilised man normally associates dignity only with power and money.” (111) The hypocrisy and stubbornness of the Lutheran hierarchy is contrasted throughout with the practical compassion of the desert people, both Indigenous and European. Strehlow, the unbending Lutheran, in his final hours decides to leave a sizeable portion of his tiny estate to cover grog for a night for every white man in Horseshoe Bend.

Strehlow's final hours are the inverse of Tolstoy's Ivan Illich. Strehlow loved and obeyed his God all his life, yet finds his faith wavering at the final moment. He struggles with the most humble and hardest of all prayers, "thy will be done". Faith, disbelief and the quivering in between is still the greatest drama in human life, for from decisions about faith all other things flow. The final hours of Strehlow's life in forty degree heat under a groaning tin roof, misunderstood by his family, abandoned by his church and perhaps even God, are riveting.

Ted Strehlow provides spectacular insight into the nature of faith and reason for the desperate to hope:

If Christ himself ... had been forced to cry out, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?", then it was clear that there were dark moments in human suffering that could crush the faith of even the strongest of men. Not that these men would, even in such moments, doubt the existence of God. Far from it. Paradoxical though it might sound, their overwhelming despair would spring from their belief in the existence of God. Their anguish would stem from their conviction, that although God existed beyond any doubt, He was deliberately refusing to listen to their prayers and that He had deliberately broken off all links between Himself and them. (234)

The afterword by Dr. Philip Jones, the Senior Curator in Anthropology at the South Australian Museum, provides a startling dose of realism that complicates the allegorical neatness of Horseshoe Bend. Yet the sheer emotion of the book shines through. No father could hope for a better commemoration.

T. G. H. Strehlow, Journey to Horseshoe Bend. Giramondo Classic Reprints. Artamon, NSW: Giramondo, 2015. ISBN 9781922146779

Published: December 2023
Lucas Smith

is a writer from Orange County, California and Gippsland, Victoria. He has published poems in Cordite, and fiction and non-fiction in Voiceworks and The Lifted Brow, among others.

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