A friend recently flew back into Sydney. It was after sunset and she had the window seat. As the plane banked lower and lower across the north west of the city she began to recognise some of the main roads that she was used to driving on. Seen from the air they looked a little different. But it was when she saw Parramatta Road, beautifully lit up at night, that she realised that Sydney from the sky looks like a huge Aboriginal dot painting. And like the paint lines on those canvases, none of the roads are straight, rather they snake slowly north, south, east and west. It was then that she wondered if our main roads followed the ancient dreaming tracks of the original inhabitants.
I’ve always been fascinated by old roads. On long road trips along modern highways playing ‘spot the old road’ is a favourite pastime. Sometimes they run parallel for a few kilometres, then disappear over a cumbersome hill, now conveniently bypassed by the billion dollar ribbon of concrete that we are speeding along. Highways are fast, modern places but most of them still trace the old routes, the Aboriginal people’s roads along which they traveled for trade. From these came the songlines or dreaming tracks, “effectively oral maps of the landscape, enabling the transmission of oral navigational skills in cultures that do not have a written language.” 1 Songlines are part of a complex Indigenous belief system connecting knowledge of the land with spirituality and culture.
I’ve also discovered the old roads during my walks across the city. I’ve done a lot of walking since ditching my car three years ago. Walking connects you intimately to the landscape. Sydney, when you walk, is a very hilly city. These hills, when we lived close to the harbour became my constant companions. I came to know their ridges and the valleys below. I got over those hills, literally, and found myself choosing paths that avoided going up and down them. I would find a road along the ridge of a hill and stick to it, even though this might be a more circuitous route, rather than dip into a valley only to climb back out again. Now that we have moved to the western side of the city we are blessed with flatness, or at least softer, smaller hills, mere slopes. I wonder how many of the roads laid along these ridges are songlines masquerading as the ubiquitous suburban streets of this unplanned, lopsided city.
Shannon Foster, D’harawal Educator and Saltwater Knowledge Keeper at Sydney University, in his article, The Aboriginal Science Behind Sydney’s Nightmare Traffic, talks about the local Aboriginal people using fire to create and maintain these paths. “When the Europeans landed on the sandy shores of our sparkling harbour, not only did they comment on the highly manicured appearance of the landscape, but they naturally decided to explore the well-trodden paths of the local Aboriginal people who had been maintaining these walking paths with the use of fire for thousands of years. One of the first paths wandered down by white men led directly west to Parramatta and is now known as George Street. Not far from there, a path led to a fresh water supply and is now known as Pitt Street. There was a path running south connecting Sydney’s two main waterways War-ran (Sydney Cove) and Gamay (Botany Bay), known to us now as the peak hour debacle that is Botany Road.”2
One of the most famous of these paths is the Great Western Highway over the Blue Mountains. In, The Significance of the Route across the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, Ian Jack tells us that prior to 1789 these mountains were, ‘a meeting-place on the periphery of several language groups. For the Wiradjuri, the Gundungurra, the Darug people, the Mountains were a natural point of contact. One result was that there was widespread knowledge of how to attain the table-top from the plains and valleys and how to cross the climactic landscape of the table-top without abruptly terminating one’s journey. Aboriginal people knew that the single track from the Sydney basin to the Bathurst plains, and vice versa, held to one narrow ridge on top. They knew also that there were only a few viable options for attaining that ridge from the Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley at the east and from the Hartley Valley at the west. This knowledge was passed to Europeans whether directly in the form of Aboriginal guides or indirectly through discussions with Aboriginal people.’3
This would have been the case, not only for Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth, but for many of the other colonial explorers of this country. Robert S. Fuller in his article, How ancient Aboriginal star maps have shaped Australia’s highway network reflects on the star maps, or songlines in the sky, used by the Kamilaroi people of northwest New South Wales as a mnemonic aid. ‘In the winter camp, when the summer travel was being planned in August or September, a person who had traveled the intended route was tasked with teaching others, who had not made this journey, how to navigate to the intended destination. The pattern of stars (the “star map”) was used as a memory aid in teaching the route and the waypoints to the destination. After more research I asked Michael if the method of teaching and memorising was by song, as I was aware that songs are known to be an effective way of memorising a sequence in the oral transmission of knowledge. Michael said, “you got it!”, and I then understood that the very process of creating, then teaching, such a route resulted in what is known as a songline.’4 Fuller’s discovery of the proliferation of songlines across the Australian landscape and their uncanny mimicry of the routes of major roads, or vice versa, as the songlines were there first, makes for a great read.
It is a beautiful privilege to live on a continent with such an ancient history and wonderfully inspiring to be able to read about the culture and practice of this country’s First Peoples. I now have an enduring image of a starlit winter astronomy lesson to carry with me on my summer road trip. And on my next walk I’ll keep Shannon Foster’s image of the ‘D’harawal tackling prickly tea tree bush, thick undergrowth and enduring the face scratching torture that is Australia’s drought resistant, dry sclerophyll (hard leaved) forest’1 in mind as I venture those same, now sealed, virtually treeless, but still hilly roads that encircle our city.
Image attributions: Vivid Sydney 2016, James Horan/Destination NSW via Wikimedia Commons; Canning Stock Route by Peter WH via Wikimedia Commons