Last weekend I travelled halfway between Geelong and Ballarat to the Golden Plains Festival. A good time was had by all, but about the festival, all I’m going to say are two things:
- I arrived home yesterday, exhausted, at around 5pm and kept my regular Monday evening running appointment – I am applying the gold star to my forehead as we speak.
- What a ridiculous amount of preparation is involved in going camping for a weekend.
On this last point, I should add that every time I go bushwalking or camping, I think about how I would survive in the harsh Australian landscape, should I get lost and find myself without the Saint Agur cheese, Irrewarra bread, Lavazza coffee, bag of Snakes, tent, sleeping bag, esky…in short, everything I’ve brought from home that was made by somebody other than me. This survival pondering passes the time, focuses my mind on something other than tired legs and sore feet during a long walk and renews an appreciation for the capacity of Australia’s Indigenous people to use what is around them to survive in the bush. It also renews my awareness of how dependent I am on other people.
When my friend A. and I went for a bushwalk in Tasmania a few weeks ago, we talked about the convicts who escaped from Sarah Island prison off Tasmania’s west coast during the 1800s. The story has been made into two films, ‘The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce’ and ‘Van Diemen’s Land’. A. and I watched ‘The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce’ last night – I was glad that I hadn’t seen this film when I was bushwalking with her in Tasmania and she had mentioned that she was quite hungry. Lacking any bush survival skills, the convict men had resorted to killing and eating each other. After 50 days, there was only one man left – an Irishman called Alexander Pearce, who had been transported to Australia for stealing shoes. Talking about these men, A. and I speculated on how different Australian society could have been if early settlers had appreciated and embraced the survival capacity and culture of Indigenous Australians.
About 40 years after the Sarah Island convicts had escaped the brutality of imprisonment to meet a worse fate in the Tasmanian wilderness, Burke and Wills set off from Melbourne’s Royal Park on their expedition to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Despite taking enough food to last two years, 23 horses, 26 camels, 19 men and six wagons – altogether 20 tonnes of equipment – seven men died on the journey, including, of course, the expedition leaders Burke and Wills. Quite possibly they would have survived if Burke hadn’t shot at a group of Aboriginal people who had been giving them food, or if they had learned from the tribe how to properly prepare the seed cakes from the Nardoo plant so that it didn’t deplete their B1 levels. (By the way, The Dig Tree, by the late Sarah Murgatroyd is a well-researched and well-written rendering of the incredible story of the Burke and Wills expedition.)
While I was in Hobart, I went to the Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery and looked around the Tasmanian Aboriginal exhibition, ningenneh tunapry, (which means ‘to give knowledge and understanding’). There was a video about some Tasmanian Aboriginal men who had revived the craft of making paperbark canoes, knowledge that had been lost after the decimation of the Tasmanian Aboriginal population. There was also video about making water carriers from kelp and baskets from grasses. One reason I marvel at these skills is because they demonstrate a practical intelligence and manual dexterity that I sadly lack. I strongly suspect I would be useless at making a functioning canoe out of bark, if the idea occurred to me at all.
What else could Burke the expedition leader have learned from Australian Indigenous culture about survival in the bush? Possibly that there is safety in numbers and that each member of the expedition has something to offer the group. Now this is something I do know. I have learned from previous experience of going to festivals ill-prepared with fellow inexperienced campers. This time, I didn’t make the same mistake and camped with an extended tribe which included some camping veterans. Among the tribe, for example, was someone who had a large army canvas tent – the lounge tent – which provided a relaxing space for everyone to gather, chat and drink cocktails. How very civilised.
But at Golden Plains I discovered I do have some untapped survival skills of my own. I don’t think Bear Grylls has anything to worry about but it’s nice to know that I can be resourceful if it means the difference between a nice, cold drink and a warm, sickly one. When we needed ice for the esky and the queue for the ice was so long that it made pretty concentric circles and there was a possibility the ice supplies would run out before we reached the head of the queue, I suggested to O. that she stay in the line while I went to the front to investigate. Close to the front of the queue, I spied a young man who looked like he wouldn’t allow queue etiquette to stand in the way of saving $5. ‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘If I pay for your ice, would you get a bag for me?’ ‘Sure,’ he said. I gestured to O. to get out of the line and we were all sipping cold Pimms and ginger ale in the space of five minutes. Look, I know that some of you think it was unfair and I should have waited my turn; that I am a queue jumper, et cetera, et cetera. It’s all quite possibly true. As to whether my behaviour means I would eat my companions if push came to shove, I’ll leave that for you to decide.