For a long time Australians didn't go bushwalking. When they went for walks in the bush, they called them tramps, rambles, hikes, knapsack trips or exploring excursions. It wasn't until the 1930s that the term bushwalk took hold, and even then people meant different things by it. In her readable and copiously illustrated history The Ways of the Bushwalker: On Foot in Australia (UNSW Press), Melissa Harper shows how one style of bushwalking came to be seen as the most authentic one, and its practitioners as the bush's truest spokesmen.
Early bushwalkers included gentlemen ramblers in suits and ties; sensualists who went naked, the better to embrace the earth; hikers toting ukuleles and picnic hampers; nature tourists who gazed at the scenery, then retired to a comfortable hotel. But for zealous walkers like Myles Dunphy, who filled 72 volumes with detailed records of his treks, such people were "mere pleasure seekers." Real bushwalking was about stoicism, self-reliance, skill with map and compass. Toiling and sweating for Nature's sake made you a better person and better than other people. Watching a group of amateurs at Katoomba in 1910, Dunphy sneered: "They progress all right for about 30 steps. Then they lose their wind, especially if they are inclined to corpulency. We keep on going until we reach the top."
Real bushwalking required real bush, as wild and lonely as possible. "To meet someone along the way, even another bushwalker, would detract from the experience," writes Harper, a lecturer in Australian studies at the University of Queensland. A bushwalker was like "an explorer," one wrote, "going out into unknown regions." Of which there was a diminishing supply. By the 1920s, walkers were urging politicians (and paying out of their own pockets) to create national parks. But for Dunphy and his heirs, these were poor stuff, marred by paths and signs. They wanted places where no one (else) would ever tread. In the 1970s, they helped launch the wilderness conservation movement, which saw large tracts of land protected from "significant human interference."
The bushwalkers' success made wilderness trendy, bringing more and more people to places they'd fought to keep people-free. They had long been at pains to defend the bush against "the 'wrong' kind of walker," Harper writes. Now they found themselves competing with guided walks, eco-tours, cavers and canoeists, trailbike and horse riders, four-wheel-drivers and Aborigines.
Moves in the '90s to transfer national parks to indigenous ownership alarmed some bushwalkers. "Although Aboriginals have 'tolerated' bushwalking," one wrote, "they do not wish to encourage it and some have suggested it would be better to ban it completely." Aborigines were challenging the bushwalking lobby not just over who were the best custodians of the bush but over the idea of wilderness itself. Aborigines saw land and people as inseparable. They wanted to live in wilderness areas even run tourism ventures there. Should that be allowed? And if so, didn't it mean reassessing the rights of other Australians to use and enjoy wild places?
"Whose bush is it anyway?" asks Harper's final chapter. The question, she writes, remains open. But her book reminds us that Australians have found many ways to walk the bush. And encourages us to hope that, in 77 million hectares of protected areas, room might yet be found for all of them.