If you drive past my place, which is on one of the busiest roads in Sydney, you wouldn’t imagine that there are two gateways to the bush within walking distance of that river of traffic. These are the Lane Cove National Park and the Berowra Valley Regional Park, each with intricate networks of bush tracks that open up in all directions. Some head hundreds of kilometres north, to Newcastle, others 30 kilometres south, to the city. Others wind through the creeks, gullies, valleys and heights of the local bushland, with its giant gum trees, lush ferns, makeshift bridges, rocky staircases and sandstone overhangs.
I have been living in the area for seventeen years and over time I have explored many of these tracks, sometimes alone, and sometimes with company. I have taken the wrong tracks a few times; I have started on one track and ended up on another, or lost the path altogether and emerged in the streets. Notwithstanding my lack of sense of direction, as soon as I enter the bush, I am overcome by a sense of tranquility. Smelling the eucalyptus trees, hearing the frogs and the birds chirping, the wind rustling the leaves and the water flowing in the creeks. Feeling the branches breaking and the pebbles crunching under my feet, and occasionally catching the sight of a lizard or brush turkey.
Recently, I was on holidays for two weeks and it ended up being a walking holiday in my own neighbourhood. I had booked a short trip away with my partner, and planned to have several catch ups with friends and family, which I always do around my birthday. However, Greater Sydney went into lockdown due to an outbreak of the Delta strain of Covid-19 just before I was due to take my leave, and all plans had to be cancelled.
So I made a long list of things to do during my break, from tasks such as wiping out the hard drive of my old computer to preparing my tax papers; projects that ranged from writing a blog post to reading at least two books; treats such as sleeping in every day and having a long relaxing bath; and a challenge: to do 14 different walks in the 14 days of my break, of five to seven kilometres each.
Every morning during those two weeks, I set off after a late breakfast, feet clad in hiking shoes and walking pole in hand, and walked for up to two hours. In my travels, I discovered tracks and fire trails I didn’t know existed; revisited paths I haven’t walked for over a decade; completed walks I have been wanting to do for years, and hiked familiar, well-trodden paths I have done many times before. I saw the city from the lookout near Lorna’s Pass, caught a glimpse of a Wallaby hopping down one of the nearby hills, and snapped a photo of the Whale Rock in Devlin’s creek. Amazingly, I did not get lost once.
I also walked the steep streets of my neighbourhood, finding a public garden, hidden passageways and brief corridors of bush behind the houses. I was blessed with great weather for walking. It was windy but sunny, and in 14 days I only wore my rain gear once, though the grey skies never opened. I couldn’t go very far – we could not travel beyond 10 kilometres from home – but having a walking holiday for two weeks, even if it was in my own backyard, qualified as a “dream holiday” for me.
Since the start of the pandemic, walking has been my salvation. When we had to start working from home last year, during the nation-wide lockdown, I didn’t take to it immediately. I missed the interaction with my colleagues, and the five kilometres I covered every day, walking to and from train stations, and sometimes walking all the way home from our Hornsby office, which is six kilometres away. The walk was not as spectacular as crossing the Harbour Bridge, which I used to do every day after work when my office was based in the city, but it had seven steep hills that used to increase my heart rate and make the endorphins flow.
On my very first day of working from home in March 2020, I only walked a few hundred metres, and mostly in the corridors of my apartment building because it was raining outside. I promised myself I would not let that happen again, and every day, no matter how busy I was, how low my mood or how bad the weather, I got out of my home office and walked. Sometimes I did it in three bursts – mid morning, lunch time and after work, which meant that in winter I had to walk in the dark. Walking got me out of my head, and helped dissipate the worries and uncertainty caused by the pandemic.
I have never been very adventurous or sporty, but have always been an avid walker. Growing up in the city of La Paz, Bolivia, with its congested streets and haphazard public transport system, I used to walk everywhere. The CBD was only five kilometres from my house (as opposed to 30 kilometres in Sydney) and it was quicker to walk there than to wait for a bus that arrived packed to the brim, with a few people hanging on for their lives on the outside steps. This was decades before they installed a sophisticated cable car system which has improved transportation enormously – something I am keen to try the next time I visit, when the world opens up and we can travel again. Back in the 1980s, I would walk to university, in the southern suburbs, and to the conservatorium of music in the heart of the city. But all these walks were strictly urban.
Bushwalking is something I started doing more seriously only about thirteen years ago, when I had been living in Sydney for nearly two decades. I bought a book called “Sydney’s best bush, park, and city walks”, which took me to all corners of my adopted city, as I explored all the walks with my partner and friends, methodically ticking them off as I went. I then moved into the “Sydney’s best coastal walks” book, and soon after attempted my first multi-day walk, the Milford Track in New Zealand. I have since done the Inca Trail in Peru, the Three Capes Track in Tasmania, parts of the Great Ocean Walk in Victoria, and the last 120 kilometres of the Camino a Santiago in Spain.
I probably wouldn’t have done any of this without my walking pole. The pole allowed me to find a sense of adventure I didn’t know I had, stopping me from falling when I ventured out on to harder, uneven tracks, and from slipping when I crossed creeks. Ironically, the two occasions on which I fractured bones, were as a result of tripping and falling on the flat street.
At the end of my walking holiday in lockdown, I thank my lucky stars for living where I live, where I don’t even have to drive to enter another world altogether. I’m also thankful for having two feet that take me places, far and nearby, my footsteps often falling in line with those of the walking companions with whom I share these experiences.
Today is probably the furthest I have travelled in 11 weeks – a whole 35 minutes away from home. The global COVID-19 pandemic has brought international and even domestic travel to a halt, and I can only dream of my next overseas trip, or I can reminisce about past journeys, such as the Ghan adventure I was fortunate to be able to do with my mother in 2015.
Five years ago, I was at the top end of Australia, embarking on the Ghan expedition, a four-day, three-night train journey from Darwin to Adelaide, spanning the length of the country from north to south – 2,979 kilometres in total. This was the second memorable train journey I did with mum, after we travelled aboard the iconic Indian Pacific in 2013, which crosses Australia from East to West. Each trip was extravagantly expensive, costing us almost as much as two weeks overseas, but they were worth every cent: the service, the views, the excursions, the food, the drinks, the cosy but comfortable sleeper cabins … everything was first-class.
The Ghan is traditionally a three-day, two-night journey, but in 2015 The Great Southern Railway (now called Journey Beyond Rail Expeditions) started the Ghan expedition, adding the extra day with an overnight stay in Alice Springs, and we were fortunate to be among the first passengers to do the extended adventure which only runs for a limited season each year.
I still remember the delicious, regionally inspired three-course meals at the Queen Adelaide Restaurant, and going back to our cabins after eating to find that our seats had been magically converted into comfortable beds. I remember the rocking and swaying of my bunker bed through the night, and the feeling, so unusual for me, that time didn’t matter, as we had entered the train’s own time zone, where all the schedules were taken care of and we didn’t have to rush anywhere for three glorious days. This feeling was particularly strong in the Indian Pacific, where we spent a less time in off-train excursions and more time relaxing on board, lulled by the sound of the engine, awed by the sights of the changing Australian landscape and mesmerised by the enormity of the Nullarbor desert.
We were planning to do the Ghan trip in 2016, to celebrate mum’s 70th birthday, but I received an unexpected bonus when I left one of my employers. So, when my final pay hit the bank in mid-2014, we decided to book the holiday for the following year, taking advantage of the early bird discount. Most people leave these trips until late in life, and I was one of the youngest of the passengers in both journeys. I am glad we were able to do them when we did, as they were still giving a 25% reduction to pensioners, which mum benefited from. This has since been discontinued as the government removed the funding for concession fares. Still, this doesn’t seem to be deterring customers. Recently they launched a new journey, the Great Southern, which explores the south east coast starting in Queensland. When I looked at the availability, it was booked out months ahead. Of course, it has now stopped running until further notice.
It was a hot, humid 30 degrees in Darwin when we visited, and cold and dry in Adelaide. We could only take limited luggage on board, so we had to plan carefully. We spent three nights in Darwin, and each night we saw the sun set over the ocean in a magnificent red-orange sky. We visited the Mindil Beach markets at dusk; did a day trip to Litchfield National Park where we got up close and personal with crocodiles and swam at the bottom of a cascade – well, I did; mum stayed at the top. We visited the art gallery of the northern territory, the war memorial, and walked the city streets until we became hopelessly lost and mum developed blisters on her feet. Darwin is a cosmopolitan, vibrant city, quite different from what I imagined, though still showing the scars left by cyclone Tracy in 1974.
While at the Ghan, we did a number of off-train excursions and activities which included a visit to the majestic Nitmiluk Gorge in Katherine, a tour of Alice Springs, lunch at the heritage Post Office building, an Aussie Barbeque Dinner under the stars which included a camel ride, and half a day in Coober Pedy, the “Opal Capital of the World”, where most of the buildings are underground due to the scorching heat. On the last day, we watched the sun go down while sipping champagne at the Breakaways, a desert-like landscape with beautiful, red coloured rock formations; and returned to the Ghan on time for dinner around a bonfire, sitting at tables lit by candles which had been a arranged on the ground next to the train.
All the excursions were included in the ticket price except an optional extra to catch a light plane from Alice to Uluru, but this was hideously expensive and didn’t even include getting off the plane to see the sacred site from up close, so we didn’t take it. I was disappointed but I am sure I will be able to visit one day and spend more quality time there than I would have had in a fly-in, fly-out trip.
Adelaide was cold but welcoming and the sun shone on us every day. I had been there once before but it was mum’s first time in the city of churches, so we visited all the landmarks, markets, museums, galleries and gardens that we could cover in the three days we had, making time for a cruise down the Torrens river aboard the iconic Popeye. As usual, I was chasing sunsets, which I captured with my SLR camera, and we caught the tram to Glenelg beach to watch the sun set over the sea. The Cabaret festival was on, so we also attended a show at the Festival Centre, which fortunately was not too risqué for mum. The only mishap was that I lost my credit card shortly after we paid for the accommodation. It simply evaporated, so I had to go through the motions of cancelling it. This was a small inconvenience, and one that didn’t blemish the memories of a wonderful trip, and of a precious time spent with my mother.
For an account of our Indian Pacific adventure, visit my Great train journeys: the Indian Pacific blog.
In one of my first memories, I am nauseous at the back of a truck, which is precariously descending from the glaziers of La Paz to the tropics of the Yungas on the narrow, winding ‘road of death’ in Bolivia. My mother is holding a plastic bag under my chin and I am emptying the contents of my stomach into it, repeatedly, whilst other passengers throw us looks of pity. At the best of times I am a scrawny looking child with forlorn eyes, thin limbs and unusually pale complexion, so our fellow travellers look genuinely worried. I truly feel I am about to die, but more from embarrassment than from motion sickness.
We are making the trip to visit my father, who is a doctor doing his year of country practice in Irupana, a little town in the Yungas region known mainly for its coffee plantations. We board a bus in the early hours of the morning, while it is still dark and misty, but as we reach the cumbre, the highest and coldest point of the journey, the bus breaks down and we are shepherded into the back of a passing truck, our teeth chattering with cold and our breath condensing as it leaves our mouths.
At this time I don’t comprehend that I am travelling on one of the most dangerous roads in the world, a two-way dirt road that in some places is no wider than one lane, stretching for 90 kilometres, carved on the side of the mountains at over 4000 metres of altitude, with twists and turns so sharp it is often impossible to see any cars coming the opposite way. There are no barriers to stop vehicles from falling over the edge onto cliffs so deep and sheer that the passengers have no chance of surviving. As it is heavily used, up to 300 people lose their lives on this road every year and the way is peppered with crosses in memory of those who perished. In between bouts of nausea I count the crosses as they fly past, thinking that this surely is something that only happens to others.
A few years later, when I am perhaps seven and my brother is two, I come close to becoming one of those crosses when we find ourselves inside my father’s car, swaying on the edge of the cliff after he miscalculates the angle of a bend and two of the wheels end up off the road. If any of us moves as much as an inch, we will precipitate down to our deaths. So we sit tight, afraid to even breathe, avoiding looking at the precipice stretching below us, until other drivers stop their vehicles to come to our rescue, and pull the car back on to the road. As though staring at death in the face is something that happens to us every day, my father thanks them, gets back behind the wheel and we get on with our journey. Nobody speaks about what has just happened.
When I am in my thirties and living in Australia, a friend emails me a slideshow of the “most dangerous roads in the world” where the Bolivian death road features prominently. I show it to my mother, and she confesses that when I was aged two, I had travelled this road at high speed on my father’s motorcycle, squeezed between him and her and wearing no protective gear. Knowing my mother, who is the personification of cautiousness, it is hard to believe that she would have agreed to make that motorcycle trip not once, but several times with her infant daughter, but I have to take her word for it, as I was too young to remember.
When I am three, old enough to recall the endless bends, the precipices, the landscape morphing in front of our eyes from arid to lavish, and the beautiful ‘Bride’s Veil’ cascade, we make that treacherous trip several times; until my mother too finishes her medical degree and starts her own country practice in the same hospital as my father, and we move to Irupana for the duration.
It is the early seventies and Irupana, like many other regional towns in Bolivia, hasn’t yet caught up with the rest of the world. There is no electricity, no television, no telephone. My mother reads me books by the light of oil lamps and we listen to battery operated radios. The hospital is one of the few buildings that has electricity magically produced by a generator. We gorge on strawberries from our neighbour’s farm, and drink unpasteurized milk freshly squeezed from their cows, with a deliciously thick layer of cream. At night, we pluck oranges from the trees in our backyard and my father roasts them in a bonfire. My first movie is projected on a white sheet hung on the wall of an improvised theatre in town, where we sit on folding chairs scattered on the dirt. The movie is Walt Disney’s Pinocchio and I enjoy it immensely until Pinocchio gets swallowed by the whale. This seems completely unfair and I cry, kick and scream as though it is the end of the world, and we have to abandon the screening to pacify the other movie goers; it is not often that they get to see moving pictures.
The edges of my first memories are soft and dreamlike and they start in this tiny, backward town where everything seems to take place in slow motion. Irupana is surrounded by rolling green hills, plantations and tropical valleys. At only a few hours’ distance from the barren, high-altitude, noisy La Paz city, this is a completely different world.
Some of the memories are not as soft though. I am stung by a bee and attacked by two different dogs – though one of the attacks, from our own dog (Jackie) is entirely my fault. As the two dog attacks happen under the watch of two different babysitters, my parents give up on the idea of having me looked after by nannies and decide to send me to school.
The nearest school is an all-boys school. Neither my gender nor my age (I’m just over three years old) deter the principal, and I am allowed to join the kindergarten class. Not only am I the only girl at the school, but I am the youngest by almost two years. I am also the palest, as most of the inhabitants of Irupana have the copper skin tone of the Amerindians. Although there are some European immigrants in this area, most of the population is indigenous. Even in the city, my skin is unusually white in comparison with most Bolivians as a result of having some French and English blood somewhere down the line. At kindy I am not teased or ignored because of my differences - quite the contrary, I am the centre of everyone’s attention, from the teachers to the kids, and I bask in it.
We present a theatrical version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the end of the year, and I am given the title role - it would have been quite ironic if I didn't’ get the part, being the only girl in the troupe; even the witch is played by a boy. My mother makes me a beautiful pink dress for the performance and newspapers are carefully laid on the dusty stage floor to avoid ruining my outfit when I fall to the ground, after taking a bite of the enchanted apple.
Despite the dog incidents, this is a magical year, but twelve months fly and return we must, to the big city at the other end of the road of death.
Images from: http://www.ssqq.com/archive/vinlin27b.htm
Left: My home-town, La Paz (Bolivia) at dusk, 2012. Right: My adopted home, Sydney (Australia) on a stormy night, 2014 (both images taken by the author - click to enlarge)
According to Peter Read, in his book Returning to Nothing (1996), 'home' can be a city, a suburb, a house, a room in a house, or a single plant in a garden.
Home can be a physical or geographical place, but it is also a place inside our hearts and our minds. It could be a person, an object, or a collection of memories, individual or shared.
During my first years as a migrant, whilst I still lived with one foot on the vast island known as Australia and the other firmly placed on the soil of landlocked Bolivia, I remember finding myself continuously exploring the concept of home, perhaps as a way to understand and overcome my feelings of dislocation.
When I was studying the subject of Australian History at university, as a mature student, I wrote an essay exploring the concept of ‘home’ from three different perspectives: Home ownership, Home country, and Home land. To my delight, the essay received a high distinction. In this blog I revisit those ideas more succinctly and subjectively, as well as bringing them up to date. The fully referenced essay (1998) can be downloaded at the bottom of this page.
Home-ownership: The Great Australian Dream
The Great Australian Dream of owning a detached house in the suburbs, on a quarter acre block, has its origins in colonial times, when British colonists arrived here escaping the poor and overcrowded conditions of the cities in Britain. They were pursuing the ‘agrarian myth’ of owning a cottage and a bit of land in the vast Australian countryside. When the agrarian myth failed, and people had to leave the land to move back into the cities, they brought with them their ‘rural arcadia’ ideal, which reached its height in the post-war years.
By the 1960s, Australia became one of the nations with the highest rate of home ownership in the world. This however, had consequences: young families became committed to debts for most of their working life; there was a growth in inequality between those who could afford the dream and those who could not; suburbia began to sprawl, and Australians developed a culture of home centeredness.
In recent years, ‘the dream’ has been cut short for many, particularly in Sydney which in 2015 has officially become the most expensive city in the world, due to the skyrocketing of property prices. The size and composition of Australian households has changed dramatically since the post-war years. Younger generations have a busier lifestyle, are more focused on having a career than on having a family, they don't have the time to care for a house with a garden, nor do they have the means to buy said house.
Despite of all this, the Australian Housing Survey conducted by the ABS 1 at the start of the millennium, demonstrated that the overwhelming majority of Australians still prefer to own a detached house on a plot of land – regardless of the material, social or emotional costs that this might bring.
Home-country: stories of migration
In April 2013, my family and I celebrated a quarter of a century in Australia. Reflecting upon this milestone, I realised that most of the time, I no longer feel painfully divided between two cultures. The transition has taken a long time, but I have embraced this country, its language and its people, and they have embraced me back. And yet… when I speak about my country of origin, Bolivia, I still find myself calling it ‘home’.
In the almost three decades that I have been living in Sydney, I tackled the subject of ‘belonging’ with many fellow migrants from a variety of backgrounds. The metaphors of reincarnation, of living two parallel lives, of having been forever divided into two halves (before and after leaving our countries of birth), of being perpetually trapped in a kind of limbo, illustrate some of the ways we express ourselves when we think about belonging or feeling 'at home'.
Many migrants hope that their Australian-born children, still referred to as ‘migrants’, (second generation migrants) will finally establish roots in their parents’ adopted home. But for some of these children, ‘belonging’ is even more complex. Many years ago I spoke with one of my mother’s colleagues who had been born in Sydney in the 1950s to an Orthodox Greek family. She said she never felt at home growing up in Australia, and still had memories of being called a ‘WOG” at school; but when she visited Greece for holidays she didn’t feel at home there either. She looked at me, almost with envy, and said, 'at least you know where you come from; you have roots.'
When you put it that way, perhaps home is where your roots are, or as T.S. Eliot put it, ‘Home is where one starts from’. What happens then, when your roots are taken away from under your feet, in your own country?
Home-land: Indigenous Australians, migrants in their own home
The concept that indigenous Australians have of ‘home’ is not easy to explain, not only because of cultural barriers but also because of language limitations. Perhaps the words of W.H. Stanner express this language difficulty more adequately:
“There are no English words good enough to give a sense of the links between an Aboriginal group and its homeland. Our word 'home', warm and suggestive though it be, does not match the Aboriginal word that may mean 'camp', 'hearth', 'country', 'everlasting home', 'totem place', 'life source', 'spirit centre' and much else all in one. Our word 'land' is too sparse and meagre...To put our words 'home' and ‘land’ together in 'homeland' is a little better but not much”. 2
Without pretending to understand the multifaceted meanings of home in Aboriginal culture, as a migrant I found myself comparing some of the indigenous people’s experiences to that of unwilling migrants: the dispossession of their land meant the dispossession of their identity, and they became displaced persons, strangers and exiles. The difference is that they experienced, and continue to experience, all of these whilst they are still in their own home.
The story of Aboriginal families that had to leave the town camps to move to the cities is also a story of forced migration. Similarly to overseas migrants, aboriginal people who emigrate to the city tend to "identify themselves with their country of origin, choosing places to live and work where they can relate to kin and homeplace." 3 Many return to their home country after decades of living in the city; others finally identify themselves with their new home, as in the case of many migrants, only when their children are born in their new land.
1 Australian Bureau of statistics, 1999
2 Cunnen, C. and Libesman P. Indigenous people and the Law in Australia, Buttersworths, Sydney 1995
3 Goodall, Heather Invasion to Embassy – Land in Aboriginal Politics in NSW, 1770-1982, Allen & Unwin, 1996
TO DOWNLOAD THE FULL, REFERENCED ESSAY, CLICK ON THE BOTTOM RIGHT CORNER OF THE PDF BELOW
Back in 2000, whilst watching Pedro Almodovar’s movie, ‘All About My Mother’ on the big screen, I was blown away by an aerial scene of Barcelona at night. It started from a distance and then zoomed into the city at such vertiginous speed I felt as though I was falling into it, and I would crash-land in the middle of this bright, pulsating metropolis any second. At that moment I felt that this place, with all its beauty and seediness, was calling me.
Have you started compiling your ‘bucket list’? Or is it something that you will do when you are closer to ‘kicking the bucket’?
Personally, I got started early. Being diagnosed with a chronic condition such as Diabetes Type 1 (insulin dependent) makes you consider such things.
Bel Vidal - Débutante novelist (author of Exuberance), blogger,