by Paula Waring
Emerging on the northern side of Strathfield station, I eyed apprehensively the boisterous assembly of perennially shorts and T-shirts clad figures who milled around the debris of packs and sleeping bags at their feet.
“That must be them.” I thought, still harbouring vague notions of retreating while I remained at a safe distance. But I steeled myself, hitched my pack upon my shoulder, and with freshly summoned resolve, approached the tribe. Having arrived in their midst, I thrusted my pack to my feet as a sign of goodwill.
The pack, carried by all, is the universally recognised sign of the “bushwalker”. Tribal legend has it, that back in the dreamtime, Hughie, the all-powerful diviner of the elements, appeared before the two chosen founding members of SUBW and commanded that they, and all who may come after them, should take unto themselves the sacred pack. This pack, while fastened unto its bearer’s back, would compel he or she to walk unflinchingly and unceasingly into the wilderness, in order to reach ultimate spiritual fulfilment in “The Quest”. Only when the pack was laid ceremonially upon the earth, could the weary bushwalker be released from The Quest to indulge in what is known as “bludging”. *
So it was with this gesture that I confronted this savage and untamed gathering which seemed more than a little incongruous within this inner-west suburban jungle.
“Hi”, I said nervously.
A brief nod from various tribal elders acknowleged my presence as they scrutinised me, fathoming my potential as an initiate. Naturally I was humbled and in awe of these overpowering figures and at once felt inadequate in my virginal Adidas alongside their wanton Volleys, split, frayed and soiled from having sold their services to the most demanding of masters: the bush. Their shins bore the proud scars from a lifetime of purgatory in the undergrowth, and their lithe bodies were a living testimony to an existence devoted to the holy calling of self-denial and discipline.
Shortly, we were off, and I tingled with anticipation at being among the priveleged few to witness this tribe in their natural habitat. Not that this was to be just any jaunt into the wilderness. I was to participate in the SUBW initiation ceremony, held annually on the traditional stamping grounds oE fhe Blue Mountains Mational Park. It was here that teams of yaung hopefuls would have to undergo rigorous tests of daring and unbridled masochism; to experience hardships and deprivations known to few of their fellow mortals. Only the toughest and most resilient of these would survive intact to carry on the SUBW tribal ways and carry The Quest on its glorious path to the next generation.
One thing that often puzzled these young initiates, however, was just what The Quest was for. Sometime back in times past, the early forefathers had forgotten exactly what it was they were looking for, so as the generations passed, in the minds of its members, the means somehow became the end and SUBW came to the conclusion that The Quest was to walk and to walk was The Quest.
And thus a complex sociological behavioural pattern was born and refined whereby respective members, upon consulting pieces of paper with strange lines and symbols of quasi-religious significance, would set off en masse into untrod territory, with packs weighed down with offerings to Hughie (the most blessed being those with the heaviest pack) in order to walk. Upon returning to civilisation, SUBW would cleanse their spirits at a local watering hole and engage in a feasting rite known as a “munch-out”. After this, duly purged of their sins, they would drop and empty their packs in a terminating gesture in readiness for the next stint in the scrub.
So here we were in the Megalong Valley; a foreboding place, exuding a deep timeless significance which I wallowed in reverently. Upon descending Breakfast Creek, a hierarchy began emerging among the bushwalkers. Leading the tribe is a cut throat game undertaken by a delegatian of only the most esteemed elders. This clique sets a cracking pace, each member following closely on the other’s heels, watching and waiting for the slightest hesitation on the part of the person in front. Should this happen, the one behind will surge forward to take the lead, only to be surpassed eventually by the ambitious and bloodthirsty individuals behind. This group is primarily composed of the males of the species, who believe that the speed at which they walk is directly proportional to their virility and that maintaining this pace will increase their sex appeal.
Generally toward the end of the line are the “freshers”, who, stumbling on rocks and clumsily attempting to extricate themselves from the seas of blackberries which are lacerating their naked skins, are already beginning their initiation into tribal life. Soon they too set their sights to the front, not daring to stop and tie their shoe laces or pick the burrs off their brand new Explorer socks lest this should be interpreted as an excuse for a breather, or that they should lose their place in line.
Thus they begin their conformity to ancient and established tribal customs, and in doing so, inadvertantly perpetuate the status quo. This is not to say that the status quo goes unchallenged in these early stages. Some individuals – naive and idealistic ones albeit – show great reluctance to accept The Quest on a faith basis alone, believing that there most be more to all this than gallivanting flat chat through the countryside, looking neither left nor right. These members dawdle uncomfortably towards the end of the line, hesitating momentarily as they pass a banksia in bloom or a particularly picturesque pool, feeling thet perhaps they deserve more than the light coating of dust the thundering herd in front have given them. But such sensitive flowerings of alternative philosophies rarely take hold on the club, as these members, upon returning to civilization are invariably never seen again.
Other more well-adjusted members of the tribe conform, but not without a modiium of cynicism. These members generally refuse to be drawn into the power play, preferring their own pace. Many female ones in particular, have trouble keeping a straight face in observing the blatantly machismo antics of the jerks up front, and like to overtake a few from time to time just to make it clear who is and isn’t impressing who.
But all such petty rivalries and soul-searchings are forgotten once the tribe makes camp. This is the time for dragging out the mac (legend has it that it was eaten straight out of the packet by earlier, tougher tribespeople) and for the more virtuous members to display their liquid offerings to be consumed as a communion vith Hughie (and by other bludgers with CONSPICUOUSLY light packs and big cups). But more importantly, it’s a time for exercising the vocal chords – so neglected in the intense concentration needed during the hard days Walk. This cacophany around the campfire is one custom which truly must be experienced to be believed. Possessing all the aural appeal of a high speed train crash, this event has been known to have a similar effect on the nerves of the uninitiated. Not only do the tribe display a constant lack of consensus over the words, but they appear to disregard all notions of tempo and key and even fail to agree on which song they’re singing. It is not unheard of for opposing sides of the campfire to form splinter groups which proceed to unleash their frustrations at the internal contradictions of their socio-cultural ethos by earbashing the other side with loud, discordant renditions of their chosen song.
The next morning, with all this out of their system and after a good nights sleep, the tribespeople engaged in a mid-morning prayer session, paying homage to their Volleys by way of performing mysterious rites upon a ball named in honour of them. This was concluded by a dignified baptismal ceremony in the pure waters of the Cox’s River to refresh body and soul before hauling on packs for another hard day on the hoof.
Having returned to the more sedentary surroundings of the Blackheath Hotel beer garden, I sat and rested my torn and aching muscles and balanced a schooner of Old upon my scratched and bruised knee. It was a time for fondly recalling my short but vivid experience with this rare breed of savages, and I couldn’t help but glow with satisfaction at having been accepted into the fold. And so it was with great reluctance that I parted company with the fabled SUBW, armed with a new vocabulary and great set of war wounds to exhibit to the incredulous and admiring gazes of my cohabitants. But I was sure in the knowledge that it would only be a matter of time before the uncontrollable urge to invest in a pair of Volleys would consume me, and I too would mount up my pack and head for the hills with all the maniacal and irrepressible zest of the true Bushwalker.