On the 30th anniversary of Bruce Chatwin’s inspiring travelogue, Songlines, we delve into Australia’s Aboriginal heartlands to explore its ancient trails
The red hot dust blew around us. I’d been driving for two hours in the company of Sammy Wilson, an Aboriginal man whose clan name was Uluru. This made him one of the traditional owners of the rock of the same name, Australia’s best-known landmark, which is where we were heading.
Along the way we had stopped to admire the desert blooms that had burst through following the unseasonable rains – cartoonish poached-egg flowers, vividly pink pigface and orange-coloured desert grevillea, from which Sammy showed me how to suck sweet nectar. Another time, he had picked up a bizarre thorny devil lizard that he had spied crossing the road, presenting it to me in his hands, and we had spent some time at a waterhole where budgerigars, zebra finch and pink-faced cockatoos came to quench their thirst.
Sitting in the shade while eating some tucker, Sammy showed me a book about his ancestors, which contained, among other things, a map of old walking routes. I decided it was a perfect time to ask him the question I’d been holding back. “So, do you still use the songlines?” He paused, chewed on his sandwich, and then spoke. “We still do. But I prefer to use my truck. It’s better to go by road.”
My masterplan was faltering. I’d come to the Northern Territory with the mission of learning about the enigmatic trails l had read of in Bruce Chatwin’s celebrated book, Songlines, published 30 years ago. These invisible routes were said to have been created during Dreamtime – the age in Aboriginal myth when ‘ancestor spirits’ walked and named the Earth – and are recalled in native Australian chants. Chatwin posed the idea that human language might have begun with nomadic people, including the Australian Aborigines, singing the world into life.
“I have a vision of the songlines stretching across the continents and ages,” wrote Chatwin. “Wherever men have trodden they have left a song, and [these] trails must reach back [to] where the First Man shouted the opening stanza of the World Song, ‘I am!’”
But here was Sammy – whose second name was no less than the native word for the most famous Aboriginal landmark in Australia – telling me that a songline was a drive in his air-conditioned pick-up. It wouldn’t be my last surprise, as I set about following in Chatwin’s footsteps three decades on.