Learning on the Line

Phillip Hall

 

(Walking Katoomba to Mittagong)

for Alan Wearne

 

Their parents gone, we start

gathering around, the line

of a fortnight’s challenge-by-choice measured

in meals and scroggin, socks, blister-packs, fuel.

We allocate the group gear – bivvy sheets, billy can

and tarp – adjust our packs, compare

their weight. Studying maps one

more time and, measuring the route

(touch wood) set out.

Cliff Drive to Glen Raphael’s and Narrow Neck Plateau

where morning mist is spilling over

swampy heaths and packed pygmy-

eucalypts bottlenecking our postcard scenes.

Like marauding gang gang cockatoos

the kids start frivolous: Let’s napalm

these trees and snatch a view. We walk

into sclerophyll, the odd face

of sandstone and shale too sheer

for growth; the richer green

of watercourses and east-facing walls.

I look at maps, orientating my high spirits, teaching

navigation basics and joking: Into this measured beauty

as we soar … and it’s Chrissy cutting in:

C’mon ‘Corridor’, while rescue choppers circle

we’ll just bush-bash lost all day.

 

At last the end of Narrow Neck

and we climb the cliff line, down

to Medlow Gap and two hours more

to the Mob’s Swamp cave, our camp.

What bastard promised this would be our ‘easy’ day?

With sugar levels low, the careless

push for camp fractures certain tempers

so amidst some cranky laughter I readdress the rules,

motivating our final effort when freed of packs,

a coffee and a freeze-dried meal will make

the relief of conversation around

the fire at night, before the luxury

of an overhang’s dirt floor,

the Milky Way and the full moon lighting

its veneer outside.

 

We wake at dawn, or thereabouts,

a cold fog in the casuarinas

outside. Breaking camp a little later

than I might have liked we look

at maps, measuring the angles

of our route and set to climb

Warrigal Gap; contouring round

the western edge of Merrimerrigal

we traverse Mt Dingo to the Bushwalkers’

War Memorial – Splendour Rock.

Lunching with views of the days

ahead – the Cox’s Gorge, the Gangerang Ranges

to Kanangra Walls – a grasstree – Xanthorrhoea australis

high on conglomerate rock collects

our attention like regimental colours

and provokes Smithy: Come off it Phil, it’s a blackboy,

a spear throwing blackfella, quick, let’s souvenir the shaft.

I sweet-talk the group with the adventure

of bush tucker and craft, a one plant supermarket:

spears, fire sticks, sugar, grubs and glue –

You think this is wilderness. It’s ‘Country’.

 

Readying for a long afternoon’s

steep descent past fruiting geebungs,

gums and sarsaparilla, turpentine, stringybark

and angophora, I keep the strugglers

near the front, sharing the navigating;

the distraction and group momentum carrying them.

On chocolate breaks the sugar gliders crash

in wonder; I look to trees, withdrawing, while drinking water.

Our way soon brings us to stands of blue gum,

with that aromatic eucalyptus trait and towering

marble columns peeling rough dark bark

at their bases: Ah, the stockinged pillars of Rivendell.

But, Shut-up ‘Corridor’, it’s Boaty chipping in, forget

the view, we’re scratched and tired. Yet as packs hit

the ground their grins shut tight –

one perfect snapshot view.

 

On dark we make the river flat and two ks

more to camp, in knee-high stinging

nettle and wet boots, to trudge

an hour more – a canvas castle

and our pit-fire star-vaulted hall.

 

That night we lay below the mountain,

creek side, like trout facing upstream, still,

against the flow and waiting.

At dawn we crossed Kanangra Creek

for two days climbing, then another with burning

aching knees, gingerly down. Our transit over

these Gangerang Ranges – Mt Strongleg,

Mt Cloudmaker, Stormbreaker, High and Mighty,

the Rip, Roar and Rumble Knolls – we debriefed

each night, grim if elated. Our camps were eyries

along the Gandangarra’s ochred line,

and as I spotlighted their middens

the kids mimicked me, hooting open-eyed;

at the campfire Denash (in parody) stoked the embers:

This is journey as metaphor,

the summits lighting with tolerance and testing

with fire. At last we climbed the Bullhead Ridge

and Cambage Spire down to the bushwalkers’ grail –

water running cool and clear over

river sandstones, cream and pink, the breeze singing

down kurrajongs and myrtles, casuarinas and figs –

our prize, the Kowmung Gorge. Setting a base camp, we swam

and explored: the Chiddy Obelisk and Red

Hands Caves. Climbing Mt Armour’s columnar basalt cap:

This perfection was valued

as limestone slurry I preached. The kids broke into

‘Love Is All Around’ whilst Boaty chimed:

C’mon ‘Corridor’, aren’t you finished

with yourself up there?

 

We stand about the fire tonight

and talk, in drizzle, joyful for

three days rest, the balm

of being wild. It ends

tomorrow, breaking camp, weighing down

our packs as muscles tighten.

 

Next day climbing, in rain, the Bolga Cone

and Axehead Mountain to Yerranderie, a silver city

ghost town built on lucky claims and bitter

strikes; a sanctuary with arsenic pools.

Late that afternoon, we find the lodge and resupply,

closing the door against the cold outside

as the kids collect each other with food and games,

drying around the hearth and cheering:

Tonight we sleep in beds!

 

Early next morning we leave Yerranderie

for King Billy’s Tree and a rock grinding site

where basalt was scraped to axeheads

and chert flaked by percussion into edges and points;

a scarring in Country sloughing (yet again) the terra nullius lie

as the kids sit foot-sore in quiet, learning from the land.

After, to savour their redolence,

we crush sassafras leaves by the handful

and walk on.

 

Fording the Wollondilly we seek sustenance

in scroggin, tuna and flat bread before climbing

the Wanganderries and down to the Nattai on dusk;

a casuarina-and-wattle-bloom gorge, so sandy poor,

yet teeming with scribbly gum, coachwood and silver-top ash.

We camp in a grove of ancient

paperbarks, stinging nettle cramping

us in. For five more days we make-and-break camps,

hiking on. Often we wade in the Nattai’s nourishing

brown flow, secure in water-proofed packs and maps;

as well (we joke) a resiliency born in blister-packs.

 

Our final campsite: tonight

the kids string their bivvies together

and celebrate tall stories: a thunder-and-blood

Black Panther and Cannibal Kev, the near misses,

their rolls and rolls of strapping tape. They prepare

each other meals, a billy of tea

and amidst rounds of song forecast

the luxury of their next fast-food.

 

Phillip Hall works in remote Indigenous education in the Northern Territory; he has also worked extensively as a wilderness expedition leader. He has recently completed a Doctor of Creative Arts externally through Wollongong University, under the supervision of Alan Wearne and Peter Minter. In his outdoor education programs, and in his poetry, Phillip hopes to explore a sense of place informed by the orientations of postcolonialism and ecocriticism.

26 replies

  1. Brings back the best memories!!! What an amazing poem 🙂

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  2. I like the way this poem crackles like the bush

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  3. Thanks for the poem, Phillip. I feel as though i’ve been on a wonderful bushwalk without the blisters and aches – such rich descriptions of the country and vegetation.

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    • Thanks ‘fortyspot’. I’ve never published in an e-journal before and I must admit, I am really enjoying the interactive capacity of reader feedback like yours. It is really fun, and encouraging, ‘tracking’ some of my reader responses. Yes, I did want this poem to be a celebration of a challenging positive group experience in a glorious location. I hope the poem also explores some of the values/educational reasons for doing outdoor education in the first place. In a crowded school curriculum, outdoor education often feels under siege to justify its existence.

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  4. Mate you’ve written a lyrical and insightful account of your walk which forces me to stop a moment and re-think times I’ve gone for a couple of days in the Mountains, and cherish again the quiet and unique fellowship of a small band of city-walkers gone bush.Something we do all too rarely and I appreciate your taking me back! Beautifully written.

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    • Ah, to be alive to have such friends. Thanks Ian; your generosity, enthusiasm and personal response to my poem is much appreciated. Walking in Country – not wilderness – is such a humbling and ecologically/culturally rich experience. I love being immersed in Indigenous Culture/custodianship of Country while being ‘free in wild places’…

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  5. Makes me feel like getting out from behind the computer and going for a walk.

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  6. Ah, to be alive to wade waist deep in the mountain river’s ‘nourishing brown flow’ – walking in Country (what bliss…).

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  7. Pictures, feelings, memories, loyalties described with such vividness to stir the urge to “head for the hills” in my own luxurious solitude once more. The challenges thrown up by our glorious bush make the experience so thought provoking. To have a small part of the understandings of country that the original owners have enhances; opens minds. My own intense loyalty to our bush is ignited as I read your poem.

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    • Yes, Elizabeth, I agree – to walk in Country is an astounding experience. Indigenous Custodianship of Country is the richest sense of place that I have ever experienced. I am very lucky. I have been adopted into the Gudanji people of the Gulf of Carpentaria where I have been made a Jungkai (custodian) for Jayipa (or Catfish Hole). This privilege – and richness – comes with considerable responsibility to both Country and kin. And it has greatly enriched the way that I experience – and acknowledge – the bush (as Country not wilderness). We need a postcolonial ecocriticism/environmentalism. Judith Wright and Oodgeroo (among, of course, others) have highlighted this urgent need for so long…

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  8. Hi Cuz

    Done well meant a lot to me it’s good to see poems about the nature the land and our culture.
    Yalu
    Barry Rainman Boland

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  9. Lovely journey, you did not miss out a thing. Like the precision with which you describe the wilderness.

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    • Thanks Roya! As a poet who lives in very remote Northern Territory I often feel isolated from conventional literary/artistic scenes. Publishing in an e-journal, like ‘Plumwood Mountain’, which is so welcoming of reader feedback and peer observations, has been glorious. Thank you for your generous and thoughtful insights into my poem. I am so appreciative of all the people who have taken the time to respond to my poem. ‘Plumwood Mountain’ is a superb example of just how exciting e-publications can be.

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  10. The views and country were always special, out there telling stories and spotting flora and fauna, but I could never recover from the cuts and bruises and the anxiety of getting lost. A lovely poem and I’m thrilled to now have a copy of your book ‘sweetened in coals’!

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  11. Thanks Rhiannon; my gorgeous teacher/poet daughter; to witness in such a glorious person ‘the sum of us’, I am forever so lucky – I’m glad you like my poem/book too. Poetry amidst the family – too deadly!

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  12. The place names, the botanical name, the jargon–all are poetry in and of themselves. As well, an education. How fortunate those children. How fortunate you are to have found your passion, and to use it for the good of many.

    Your own also took me back to my younger days when I lived and worked in what was called then Navajo Indian Country, now called Dinétah. Despite sixty and seventy hour work weeks, my husband and I found time to backpack all through Northern New Mexico, Northern Arizona, Southern Colorado, and Southern Utah–lands of mountains and canyons. That was a peak time of my life, and your writing bright that back to me. Thank you.

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    • Thank you Donna. That is such a lovely thing to say. I am very glad that my poem triggered such memories for you. I have done a lot of great hiking through such glorious country, and yes, it has been nice to often share this with good company. I have kept in contact with many kids who I have hiked with which has been very life-enriching.

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  13. This was great. So absorbing. Thank you.

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  14. Lovely. The pace, wording and feel reflecting the beauty and challenge of the land.

    Reminds me of taking my own recalcitrant city teens hiking, who complain, but all the while the land weaves its songline into their hearts through paces and memory, each step a re-stiching of child back to earth.

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