Wisdom Walking: the Augusta to Busselton Heritage Trail

In October 2020 I’m planning to walk the Augusta to Busselton Heritage Trail, as a gesture of respect for Wadandi-Pibelmun people and their connection with country.

The far south-west of Western Australia is a remote and wild corner of the continent, well forested and bounded on two sides by the sea. Traditional owners have lived here for over 48 000 years, building up a sophisticated cultural relationship with the landscape.

But then, just a few centuries ago, everything changed. Tall ships began to appear along the coast, and before long newcomers moved in and took possession of the land. After 190 years, immigrant cultures are seeking ways to establish a better relationship with traditional custodians and with country.

Walking is one of the best ways to do this. Moving oneself along within the landscape invites reflection and communion with place. There are ancient traditions of this in Europe: pilgrim routes, and cultural threads about people seeking inspiration from landscape. The poet William Wordsworth is said to have walked 175 000 miles in his lifetime, composing poetry to the rhythm of walking country. This tradition continues in Australia, with walking a natural way to build connections with people, culture, and landscape.

In 2017 a group of scientists, artists, and elders gathered for a walk through the World Heritage area at Lake Mungo in NSW. Vera Hong made a short video called the “Willandra wisdom walk.” I love the gentle and receptive connotations of the word wisdom. I feel it fits well with the goals of my own journey, and I hope that others will be inspired to join me.

In the south of Western Australia there are a few well known long-distance walking trails. The Bibbulmun Track crosses the south west from Perth to Albany. The well travelled Cape to Cape Track follows the Leeuwin-Naturaliste Ridge between Yallingup and Augusta. But there is another journey in the Margaret River region, neglected and almost forgotten.

The Augusta to Busselton Heritage Trail was created for the bicentenary of Australian colonisation in 1988. It begins at the historic townsite of Augusta, then travels north through an ancient landscape of jarrah forest interspersed with sandy plains, swamps, and streams, to emerge at Busselton and the shores of Geographe Bay.

(Map sourced from The Augusta-Busselton Heritage Trail: retracing the Pioneer Route from Augusta to the Vasse’ published by the Heritage Council of WA.)

However, the trail is rarely walked and has fallen into disrepair. Signage is small and difficult to find, sections are growing over, and no-one takes responsibility for it. Perhaps this has come about due to unresolved issues with the colonial history the Trail celebrates. It follows in the footsteps of European pioneers, who used the route to move between the first colonial townsites in the region.

Augusta to Busselton Heritage Trail

But it has a far older heritage. For many thousands of years there has been a network of such trails across the south-west. Ancient trackways along which the Wadandi-Pibelmun people trade, move in annual cycles looking after country, visit relatives, and maintain social connections.

In 1829, Western Australia was annexed by the British Government and became the Swan River Colony. Governor James Stirling was keen to establish regional communities, and encouraged settlers to take up land at Augusta. Nestled in the lee of Cape Leeuwin, at the far south west of the continent, the site was one of the first Australian shores to be visited by European traders and explorers.

Despite the seemingly ideal situation, heavy timber cover and isolation made it difficult for colonists to flourish. Some began to look elsewhere for more productive lands that were easier to farm. In 1831 four men made an exploratory journey north from Augusta. Travelling on foot, they spent a week on the return journey to Vasse. John Bussell, the highly literate son of a clergyman, wrote a report on the rich grasslands and plentiful water they encountered upon the way. This is the first recorded encounter of Europeans with the Margaret River. He writes with an intimate eye for the landscape; noting characteristics of soil, stone, water, and vegetation, with detail most of us now would miss.

Canebrake pool

Canebrake Pool

As a result of this exploration, some of the Augusta families moved to Vasse, and the trail became the land route between the two settlements. However, the grasslands at Vasse were already owned and occupied, being the result of thousands of years of ‘firestick farming’ by the Wadandi-Pibelmun. Colonists saw the land as theirs for the taking. Violence and conflict soon erupted, culminating in the Wonnerup Massacre of 1841.

The invaders were refugees from a cruel and material world, clinging to their beasts and bags of flour as if their very lives depended on it. Twenty first century methods of dealing with such situations would draw on legal and diplomatic methods rather than violence.

The courage, initiative, and resourcefulness of the pioneers is now overshadowed by their role as colonial invaders. As individuals, they were doing what was expected of them as products of the colonial ideology. The new immigrants had roots stretching far back into Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic lands. Colonialism has its origins in Viking-like cultures of warfare, invasion and raiding. Much violence was fuelled by land hungry economies, always on the hunt for new places to raise cattle and source timber. Colonials were people of their time: who knows with what horror our own resource-guzzling generations will be viewed in the future.

In contrast, Aboriginal cultures of the time were non-materialist and highly sophisticated, with complex ritual and spiritual connections with the landscape. There was an indelible custodianship ethic whereby people belonged to country rather than just the other way around. Annexing someones else’s land was unthinkable.

Since the Bicentennial celebrations in 1988, inter-cultural politics have shifted us away from one-sided representations of Australian colonial history. We are re-evaluating how we tell those histories. People are keen for indigenous voices to be heard, and restitution to be made.

The Augusta to Busselton Trail is an opportunity to foster an ongoing dialogue with the Wadandi-Pibelmun people about the telling of colonial history and relationships with country. Perhaps the trail could be revived and reinstated with a new name. One which recognises both colonial and Aboriginal heritage, and the country that it traverses.

The trail offers deep experience of a unique landscape. It runs north across the Blackwood River Valley; across the upper Margaret River catchment, and then over the Whicher Scarp. It traverses the Blackwood Plateau, an ancient basin filled with sedimentary deposits which have been accumulating since Gondwana began breaking up over 100 million years ago. Leeched, nutrient poor soils have resulted in an explosion of adaptations, making the region one of the worlds biodiversity hotspots. The number of plant species is phenomenal, making the walk a fantastic wildflower experience during winter and spring.

Walking the inland Trail is a powerful way to connect with country. It holds a different character to the sparkle, glitz, and vistas of the coastal Cape to Cape Track. Less glamorous, it holds instead a deep resonance with the heart of the landscape. Inland, we travel the deep wild forests, where the beauty is in the detail. Being immersed in a close-view of thick scrub and forest invites us to be self-reflective and look within. What are our own origins, where are we going, and what are we doing?

By walking this trail I want to listen to the voices of country: the tales it has to tell, and not just those we impose upon it. Part of this process will involve rethinking the way we relate to landscape, not as a resource to be exploited but as a future to nurture.

Walking is a dialogue with wild space, with country but also within ourselves. What might we discover, and who might we encounter along the way?

Wisdom Walk 2020 Itinerary

Wednesday 7th Oct to Sunday 11th Oct. I will be camping four nights along the way. People are welcome to join in for the whole walk, a section, or even just a cup of tea around the campfire. If you’d like more information, or to register for part or all of the walk send me a message! Or you can follow the facebook event page.

There are three campgrounds along the trail: Alexandra Bridge, Chapmans Pool, and Canebrake. You can read about some of their history in my web article The Wild Campsites

article and images by Jinni Wilson