If ‘pilgrimage’ invokes ideas of journeying, reflecting, searching for meaning and knowledge within a spiritual or sacred context, the wukalina Walk might perhaps be considered a pilgrimage experience for the Aboriginal people of Tasmania. It is certainly a physical and spiritual journey which they generously want to share with anyone interested in walking with them on their Country.
A 4-day journey, owned and led by First Nations people, this Walk gives non-Aboriginal people an opportunity to listen, learn and gain understanding of the significance of cultural connection. It is an experience provided with a warm spirit of sharing knowledge and friendship – without side-stepping the dark history of European invasion and injustice which so severely impacted on Tasmania’s indigenous people.
I embarked on the wukalina Walk in late March 2021 with 3 friends (including Alison Bell, Editor of this Camino Chronicle), plus 5 other ‘whitefella’ walkers – who all proved to be wonderful travelling companions. At the Aboriginal Elders Centre in Launceston, we met our palawa (Tasmanian Aboriginal) guides and support staff, and were introduced to the stories and customs of their people through the paintings, photos and quilts that hang on the walls of the Centre. The yarning that was to continue throughout our journey also began here. Lead guide, Hank, a man of deep knowledge, wisdom and humour, had us laughing, thinking and learning before even setting off in the minibus that took us 3 hours away to Mt William (wukalina) for the start of the Walk.
wukalina Walk operates from late September to April and involves days of hiking through bushland and beach. Walking level is mostly easy to moderate, though the climb to the top of Mt William at the start of the journey is steep and rocky in parts, and the beach walk on Day 3 is long, and can be tough in windy conditions. But the view from the top of Mt William gives the opportunity to see the country to be crossed in coming days. On a clear day it’s possible to see all the way to the Furneaux Islands in Bass Strait to where Tasmanian Aborigines were ‘removed’ in the early days of colonisation. The Islands were a grim and inhospitable place to live in the 1800s, but they remain highly significant to the community today. Hank and Carleeta, a young palawa woman guide, told us many yarns about the importance of the ‘birding’ season that takes place on the islands every year in April/May when the whole community moves back to catch and process the mutton birds that migrate from the Arctic.
On descending Mt William, the walk took us approximately 12km through bushland to our first camp. Along the way we saw forests of grass trees (yuccas) and learned about some of the plants which provide indigenous tucker. The going was slow in parts to avoid hundreds of giant webs of the orb spiders. Fortunately, the guides cleared them gently. Snakes were also evident, so we were encouraged to wear gaiters… just in case.
On the second and third days, we walked along the wild and beautiful northern coast where we learned more of the palawa history and culture. Walking on white sandy beaches, past huge rocks and crashing waves, we heard stories about the abundance of food which the pakana (Aboriginal women) traditionally fetched from the sea, including crayfish, scallops, and even baby seals. The women’s hunting skills were, of course, exploited by the sealers in the early days of the colony, with many women kept away from their families and treated with extreme cruelty. Along the beach, we found sharks’ eggs, beach ‘popcorn’, shells for making necklaces and strands of huge kelp which was used for basket-making. We were also shown tracks of Tassie devils, wallabies and other wildlife, and advised to avoid the hundreds of blue-bottle stingers washed up on shore.
Then, respectfully following the guides’ request to walk barefoot and not take photos, we were led to a site of great cultural significance – a sheltered place in the dunes where generations of palawa met for thousands of years to share food, stories and celebrations. Sadly, this beautiful and remote place is now being slowly destroyed by beachcombers and dune buggies, simply through a lack of understanding of the wealth of history and anthropological evidence that it contains.
Just like the Camino, there’s so much more to the wukalina Walk than just the walking. For example, being welcomed to Country with a smoking ceremony under the stars was an unforgettable experience. The fire-pit sits in a clearing in front of the large open dome of the architecturally-designed main camp building. This stunning structure is built from beautiful Tasmanian timbers and was a fantastic sight as we stumbled into camp at the end of the first day. The building extends into a kitchen/dining room, and then bathroom facilities. Wooden walkways lead to the sleeping huts which are built from the same timber and shaped like traditional aboriginal shelters. With comfy beds and kangaroo rugs, we spent two nights at this camp (krakani lumi).
Other welcome surprises were the flutes of champagne and gourmet platters of oysters, scallops, cheeses and wallaby salami that appeared when we arrived. This set the standard for the remaining 3 days. Superb food and wine – maybe not exactly traditional tucker – but always served with flair and an indigenous twist.
The third and final night of the walk was spent a lighthouse keeper’s cottage at larapuna, Eddystone Light, on land that has been leased to the Aboriginal Elders for 40 years. When handed back to the original owners, the two cottages were in disrepair and inhabited by local wombats! With generous philanthropic assistance and many hours of volunteer work, the first cottage has been beautifully renovated and furnished by the community, providing a place of warmth and safety.
The storms that had been battering the east coast of mainland Australia arrived at larapuna during the night. We woke to gale-force winds and heavy rain – and were grateful it hadn’t arrived a day earlier. Despite the wild weather we all made a 5-minute dash for the lighthouse – now surrounded by a moat! – so that we could climb the spiral staircase to the top and look out over the wild sea and the Bay of Fires. Visibility was near zero but it was worth it. Another dash back to the cottage and we were drenched. But after a welcome cuppa and a change of clothes, then our final delicious lunch together, we boarded the mini-bus for the return trip to Launceston.
There is so much to take-away from the wukalina Walk – new friendships formed, knowledge gained and a better understanding of the past and present history of Aboriginal settlement, British colonial invasion, exploitation and destruction. We came away with a greater awareness that the way forward, for the benefit of all Australians, must be through truth-telling, treaty and Constitutional recognition.
So, while it may not be possible for any of us to follow in the footsteps of medieval pilgrims in Europe in the foreseeable future, we do have the opportunity to share an Aboriginal pilgrimage on Aboriginal Country. And to come away with the same spirit of ‘one-ness’ that the Camino de Santiago provides.
See www.wukalinawalk.com.au for more information and booking.