PLAYING BANJO

ByUnsealed 4X4September 4, 2014
6 MINUTE READ
PLAYING BANJO

The landscapes of Australia’s great bush poet, A.B. Paterson

When we were looking for a name for the journalists’ room at Unsealed 4X4 HQ, all tracks wound back to Banjo Paterson (1864-1941). No man has done more to capture the romantic beauty of the Australian bush and celebrate its colourful characters. 

He was a man who recognised that the Australian character hadn’t been forged on the beach at Bondi but on the pastoral frontier, in the bush pubs and back paddocks frequented by drovers and shearers.

We are an overwhelmingly urban and coastal people, but because of Paterson we still look to the bush for our legends and cultural compass.

Modern poet Les Murray says Paterson “carries us into a legendary Australia he did much to create, a country in part bygone, in part fictional, in part still there”.

And now it is 150 years since the great man was born. Australia Post has honoured the occasion by producing four glorious stamps.

We decided to do our bit as well. Come play Banjo with Unsealed 4X4 editor Dan Lewis as we waltz our matildas from the icy peaks of the Snowy Mountains to the outback banks of Cooper Creek.

THE MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER

He hails from Snowy River,
up by Kosciusko’s side,

Where the hills are twice
as steep and twice as rough,

Where a horse’s hoofs strike firelight from the flint stones every stride,

The man that holds his own is good enough.

Paterson was no slouch as a horseman himself, and his pen name Banjo came not from the musical instrument, but from a racehorse.

When it came to poetry, his greatest work featured blokes on horses. It was The Man From Snowy River that really made him famous in 1890.

Who was The Man? Some claim he was based on Jack Riley, a stockman who worked at Tom Groggin, near Kosciuszko’s side.

The Victorian town of Corryong hosts the annual Man From Snowy River Bush Festival, while the High Country is also home to some of Australia’s best 4X4 adventures.

On the NSW side of the border it’s hard to beat Geehi Walls.

It is a drive rich with spectacular views, historic cattlemen’s huts, alpine meadows, mobs of kangaroos, river crossings, brumbies, trout fishing opportunities, camp sites, the heritage of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Authority and bushwalks.

On the Victorian side, try the journey from Benambra to Tom Groggin where you can camp on the very land where the man who may have been The Man lived.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

“My first impressions are of life on a mixed sheep and cattle station called Buckinbah in the west of NSW somewhere about 1868: they consist mostly of the things that would appeal to a child’s mind – the emus that came fearlessly up to the house and would peck at the buckles of the bridles of horses tied to the fence, causing many a broken bridle, and many a horse gone missing; the mobs of wild horses that went tearing through the timber … and the long days spent out shepherding sheep with one of the station lads, days when a motionless sun brooded over a motionless forest till one could almost hear the leaves whispering to each other.”

Banjo Paterson wasn’t just a great poet. He was also a journalist, farmer, sportsman, solicitor, war correspondent, father, husband and soldier.

And before all that he was a child. Paterson spent the first seven years of his life on Buckinbah Station, near the village of Yeoval in NSW, where he first fell in love with the bush and its characters.

Yeoval celebrates its most famous son with the Banjo Paterson Museum. There’s also Clancy’s Café, the Mulga Bill shearing competition and there’s Banjo Paterson Bush Park.

There’s powered camping sites at Yeoval Showground, or else try nearby Goobang National Park.

Alf Cantrell, who runs the museum and Clancy’s Café, says Goobang was once part of Buckinbah, and it’s the perfect place to drive unsealed roads that let you immerse yourself in the bush that won Paterson’s heart as a boy.

CLANCY OF THE OVERFLOW

In my wild erratic fancy visions
come to me of Clancy

Gone a-droving `down the Cooper’ where the Western drovers go;

As the stock are slowly stringing,
Clancy rides behind them singing,

For the drover’s life has pleasures
that the townsfolk never know.

For all those of us who have had to endure time in a dingy little office amid “the foetid air and gritty of the dusty, dirty city”, this 1889 poem is a magical thing. It transports us to the banks of a legendary outback waterway where Clancy “sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended, And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars”.

The ephemeral Cooper Creek – famous for its beautiful tree-lined waterholes and birdlife – snakes for more than a thousand kilometres across Queensland and South Australia before emptying itself into Lake Eyre.

And two of Australia’s most legendary 4X4 adventures, the Birdsville Track and the Strzelecki Track – which both began life as stock routes pioneered by drovers – take you to the banks of Cooper Creek, where modern-day adventurers can enjoy incredible history and hedonism.

A few years ago I was on the Birdsville Track and had the pleasure to yarn with Daryl Bell, from Dulkaninna Station, who was a drover pushing big mobs of cattle down the track to the railhead at Maree before the road trains took over in the early 1970s.

He painted a picture of droving that wasn’t quite as romantic as Paterson’s.

Bell told me drovers were only allowed to kill a beast once every fortnight to feed themselves, even though they had no fridge. For the first few days they would gorge on the prime cuts. By the time the fortnight was coming to an end there was more curry powder than meat in most meals to hide the taste of the rancid flesh. The maggots were scraped off prior to cooking.

The Queensland outpost of Windorah also sits on the Cooper on the way to Birdsville and is famous for its yabbie races just prior to the Birdsville Races each year.

MULGA BILL’S BICYCLE 

‘Twas Mulga Bill, from Eaglehawk,
that caught the
cycling craze;

He turned away the good old
horse that served him many days;

He dressed himself in cycling clothes,
resplendent to be seen;

He hurried off to town and
bought a shining new machine.

Banjo Paterson was a horseman through and through, so no surprise he took delight in making fun of the cycling craze of the 1890s.

While the image of Mulga Bill astride an ungainly penny-farthing bike has become welded to the poem, Paterson was actually writing about the superior “safety bike” that helped make cycling massively popular when the poem was written in 1896. The safety bike was adopted by many shearers to move from shed to shed. Particularly in drought times, when feed was expensive or hard to find, they were more practical than a horse.

Eaglehawk is a historic gold mining village on the outskirts of Bendigo and boasts the Mulga Bill Bicycle Trail.

There’s more great mountain bike riding – and 4X4 and camping opportunities – to be had on the unsealed roads of Greater Bendigo National Park. The park is dominated by box and ironbark forests and there’s fascinating remnants of the area’s gold mining, eucalyptus oil and charcoal industries. The best time to visit is August to October, when wild flowers are abundant.

WALTZING MATILDA

Once a jolly swagman
camped by a billabong

Under the shade of a coolibah tree,

And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled:


“Who’ll come a-waltzing matilda, with me?”

It is Paterson’s most famous work, still sung from coast to coast. It’s been recorded hundreds of times by everyone from Harry Belafonte to Andre Rieu. And a Slim Dusty version has been played from outerspace.

What makes it so special? The music is borrowed from a Scottish folk song, but the lyrics tell a story and contain language that could have only come from one place – Australia.

Musician John Williamson says  “Waltzing Matilda is our larrikin anthem. It describes things that are deep down in our Aussie psyche and will never die: affinity with the underdog, love of the bush and the campfire.”

Paterson visited Winton, western Queensland, in 1895, and stayed at Dagworth Station, where a ferocious shearers’ strike had not long ended.

It was there that he first heard the music and wrote the lyrics to Waltzing Matilda, inspired by events at the station.

Striking shearers had fired their guns and set fire to the woolshed. One of the strikers was soon after found dead beside Dagworth’s Combo Waterhole with a gunshot wound to the head. An inquest found it was suicide. Others suspect it was murder.

In Winton they celebrate Waltzing Matilda Day each April 6. Winton also boasts the excellent Waltzing Matilda Museum, which claims to be the only museum in the world dedicated to a song.

Getting to Winton can be a great unsealed adventure if you take the dirt road from Windorah via the dinosaur footprint site at Lark Quarry.

There’s also great camping and 4X4 adventures to be had in Bladensburg National Park – a former pastoral station with its own fascinating history – south of Winton.

And of course be sure to take the unsealed road to Combo Waterhole, about 130km north-west of Winton. There you can hear the ghost of a swagman, and maybe Banjo Paterson’s spirit haunts it too.

The actor and the poet

One of veteran actor Jack Thompson’s best known roles was as Clancy of The Overflow
in the 1982 movie The Man
From Snowy River
.

Thompson, 74, first heard Banjo Paterson’s poems as a schoolboy and says: “What I remember most is the mood they conjured up: an optimistic world of humour and bravery, an irrepressible pioneering spirit. Hearing the poems gave me a sense of life’s adventure.”

And he is a believer that poems should be heard, rather than read.

“Listening deepens the experience and can get us much closer to the meaning and the art of the writer. As an actor, there is also, of course, a pure pleasure in finding the rhythms in the words of such a gifted storyteller as Paterson.”

Thompson has recorded Paterson’s most loved poems as part of a Fine Poets project. Go to finepoets.com to buy the CD or get the tracks online for your own permanent collection.