Tasmania's "New" Ancient Walkabout
Story and photos by Bruce Northam

A journey of rediscovery on a new walking route led by the original inhabitants on the shores of Tasmania trades the wounded past for a mended future.

Tasmania Walkabout

Thirty years ago, I hitchhiked across mainland Australia. Midway, I came across an Outback man twice my age hitching in the other direction. He yelled across the road, "Measure your wealth by how much you'd be worth if you lost all your money, mate." My return to the Down Under expanded on that philosophy in a way that was previously unthinkable.

Following a sunrise, my group engaged in an ancient pre-hunting ceremony initiated by painting our hands with wet reddish clay to represent how the palawa camouflaged their entire bodies. Then we encircled the campfire's rising smoke to cleanse any bad energy or thoughts into the thin air. These rituals prepared us for "the hunt," as the group now had a singular dress code and aroma that would go unnoticed by other animals. Minus the aim to kill (we'd had a cooked breakfast), we strolled to a riverside bog to admire a swan nest and then proceeded to the beach by following Tasmanian Devil tracks. Things were beginning to heat up. Sure, we later encountered wombats, wallabies, and kangaroos, but increasingly this was a of journey of the mind.

Walkabout in Tasmania

A Long Palawa History

Roughly 150 miles south of the Australian mainland lies an Ireland-sized island paradise that doesn't honk or litter. Once considered a backwater, Tasmania leaps beyond being just a pinot-noir producing heaven. There's always way more than meets the eye here.

We've all fallen on hard times at some point in our lives. My recent visit to now trendy "Tassie" revealed how this island's natives have attempted to recover from repeatedly losing everything for centuries, including their identity and loved ones. Taking part in the wukalina walk, an aboriginal-owned and -operated four-day trek guided by Tasmanian palawa tribe descendants that stride in and celebrate the footsteps of their ancestors, I experienced one of the planet's most splendidly beautiful corners. I was the first U.S. journalist to get access to this matchless offering—the first of its kind—a deep cultural immersion with the oldest surviving culture on earth.

The Golden RockModern Australians call it the Bay of Fires. The palawa people (who don't capitalize the name) are the only humans to have evolved in isolation for more than 10,000 years. Their culture and heritage are uniquely different from mainland Australian Aboriginal cultures, both in traditional times and since the European occupation.

The palawa evolved in a vastly different climate and landscape than that found on the mainland. They did not use traditional hunting tools like boomerangs, and the melodic didgeridoo also didn't make it to Tasmania before the last ice age. In fact, none of the eventual exceptions made for mainland Aboriginals, such as land rights, applied to the palawa people. Getting a firsthand look at the ancient traditions of the palawa, I participated in cultural practices that have been passed down for hundreds of generations. They did not document their history or preserve it in museums. Their stories, melded with the Tasmanian landscape, are their museum.

Before the hike, I met with Clyde Mansell, a high-ranking palawan elder and advocate of the wukalina walk. Mansell has held a wide range of governmental and private-sector positions, and he is a leading spokesman for native land return while acting as a prominent voice for social justice and change for his people. I met him inside Launceston's (aka Launey's—every Australian-English word has a shot at shortcuts) Aboriginal Elders Council headquarters, which has a Rotary Club feel. That is, except for the walls adorned with traditional hand-sewn quilts telling stories of revered mutton birds, smoke signal communication, and tribesman serving in WWI, II, and Vietnam without recognition. Here, Clyde noted, "We are glad to show you our history, step by step." The stage was set for bonding with a community that had suffered endlessly but was keen to continue the healing process. Armed with that intro and a firm handshake, I hit the trail.

Smoke Signals and a Sacred Breast

It wasn't long before I found myself hiking up a hill with one of my two guides. Jake was in his mid-twenties, and admittedly, part of Australia's Stolen Generations. At first glance, he looked like a typical tall, handsome, white dude until, eventually, you notice his strong features and piercing eyes—the traces of palawa DNA are unmistakable. Early on, I asked our other guide, Ben, who was my age, what fraction of Aboriginal he was. He said one-sixteenth, but then corrected himself, saying "I just tell people I'm Aboriginal." Ben refers to Australia's colonization as the European invasion. Later, he showed his talent in lightening the mood.

When our group summited Mt William—called wukalina in palawa and meaning sacred breast—we learn about the smoke signals their ancestors used to alert their surrounding island neighbors about approaching ships being friend or foe using smoke colors controlled by the type of vegetation burned. Up there and for the rest of the journey, we were treated to brief seminars on "bush tucker," or Aboriginal food and drink recipes inspired by nature, including tasty tea made from the bark of a banksia tree.

Tasmania lodge

On our gradual descent toward the Tasman Sea, which enjoys several vegetation changes, including ferns on a shady forest floor, arid needle bush, and shady pines hovering over grass trees, a tiger snake crossed our path, creating a minor detour. Our first "standing camp" (as in it's movable, if Mother Nature complains) had a wooden deck supporting a half-dome bandshell with comfy chairs and mini couches that beheld a magnetizing fire pit. The living-room bandshell connected to a rectangular hardwood lodge dining room and a short boardwalk led to six earthy-but-swank domed huts. Best of all, it planted us within earshot of the nearby ocean's roar.

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