Fracturing Colonialism: Phillip Hall Reviews ‘Journey To Horseshoe Bend’ by TGH Strehlow

Journey To Horseshoe Bend by TGH Strehlow, Giramondo Classic Reprints 2015.

Journey to horseshie bendJourney To Horseshoe Bend (first published in 1969) is the most unlikely of adventure stories as it recounts the desperate, but doomed, attempt in 1922 to save the life of Lutheran pastor, Carl Strehlow, who is described as ‘that grand old man’ of the Hermannsburg Aboriginal Mission. This book is also a colonial-era paean to Aboriginal culture and sense of Country – to the ‘creative Aboriginal mind’ – and, therefore, a celebration of the landscape of Australia’s arid interior; but it also rails against the ‘hypocrisy’ and ‘small-minded meanness’ of urban elites and church organisations, even as it reflects on the biblical experience of suffering to be found in the book of Job and Gethsemane chapters.

The story begins in 1922 when Carl Strehlow becomes seriously ill, far from help, at his Mission in Hermannsburg. This was a time before the Royal Flying Doctor Service and the Mission did not have a car (nor were there ‘roads’ in this part of the country anyway). Strehlow was too sick to walk or ride a horse. The intention was to make the perilous 611-km journey from Hermannsburg to the Oodnadatta railhead in a horse-drawn buggy in order to seek medical aid in Adelaide – but the desperate party could travel no further than the 257-km to Horseshoe Bend. The searing desert heat of the dry Finke River defeats them.

The narrator of Journey To Horseshoe Bend is Carl’s son, the linguist and anthropologist TGH (Theo) Strehlow, who writes this account of his father’s death march forty years after the events described. And while Theo Strehlow does capture every moment that ‘the sick man was jolted about unmercifully’ (p 44) he also, unexpectedly, describes the journey as ‘the greatest adventure of his young life’ (p 39). This long walk, with Hermannsburg Indigenous family and friends, must have seemed like a heaven-sent opportunity for the curious and passionate young Theo Strehlow as he revels in every opportunity to learn about Aranda culture and language. And while his values cannot always be described as being post-colonial he certainly does not uncritically perpetuate the racist and colonial values of the society to which he belongs.
Theo Strehlow is critical of those who prefer ‘the more prosaic’ Anglo place names – such as Boggy Hill – over their ‘true’ Indigenous names – such as Alitera (p 43). This is because:

Theo … was fully aware that every hill and mountain, every river and creek, every spring, rockhole, and waterhole, every plain and clay-pan, and all the highest dune crests in the sandhill areas, bore names of their own, and that they derived these names from the sacred myths and songs of the Aranda people. (p 287)

As Theo Strehlow walks beside his friends he sees evidence of this numinous landscape everywhere. At the Alitera waterhole he recounts the story of the two ancestral ilumbalitnana or white ghost-gum serpents and wallaby ancestor (pp 42-46) and he describes the Irbmangkara caves and pools which had been such an important Aranda ceremonial centre for ‘thousands of years’ (pp 46-48). Theo Strehlow knows that:

To the Aranda, Central Australia had been the Land of Altjira, the Land of Eternity. (p 288)

At the Irbmangkara waterhole Theo is ‘conscious of one of the loveliest landscapes he has ever seen’ (p 65) but he also knows that at this place of great scenic beauty there occurred one of the Northern Territory’s worst massacres of Aboriginal people. Theo Strehlow recounts how the much-hated Mounted Constable WH Willshire was responsible for numerous shootings of Aboriginal people, including the 1891 massacre at Irbmangkara waterhole (pp 48-65). Theo Strehlow quotes Willshire, who later wrote of this episode that:

Our Martini-Henry carbines at this critical moment were talking English in the silent majesty of those great eternal rocks. The mountain was swathed in a regal robe of fiery grandeur, and its ominous roar was close upon us. The weird, awful beauty of the scene held us spellbound. (pp 62-63)

Theo Strehlow writes of how Willshire would eventually be committed to stand trial for his criminal frontier behavior but was defended by Sir John Downer (previously the Premier of South Australia) and of course acquitted (pp 64-65).

One of the proudest anecdotes that Theo recounts about the life of his father at Hermannsburg relates to an exchange that his father had with the hated frontier mounted constables. Theo writes that his father always had a reputation for ‘fearlessly upholding justice for the Aboriginal people against unprincipled white men’ (p 9) when one day a group of mounted constables arrived at Hermannsburg and rounded up a group of men, women and children. They then got ready to ‘take them away and shoot them some miles out in the bush’ but the group’s ‘terrified relatives ran screaming for help’ to their pastor who ‘rushed in blazing fury … and shouted angrily for the release of his parishioners’ (p 10). The pastor sent the constables packing with the ‘menacing tones…and don’t you ever let me catch you hunting people again at Hermannsburg’ (p 10).

There are other aspects of this memoir that many contemporary readers may not find as accessible or interesting: endless praise of the ‘heroism’, ‘bravery’ and mateship of outback pioneers – even when they use stock whips on their Aboriginal employees (pp 200-207) – and the condemnations of ‘southerners’ (urban elites) and church organisations for ‘hypocrisy’, ‘meanness’, and ‘failures of compassion’. But the way that Theo Strehlow relates his intimate understanding of an Aranda sense of Country and the record that he gives of Central Australian massacre history make this book very important, even essential.

The book concludes with the young Theo Strehlow contemplating his father’s grave when a ‘deafening roll of thunder… shakes the scorched and heat-baked landscape’ (p 283) ushering in ‘the first wild fury of a triumphant rainstorm’ (p 285). To the Aranda ‘the existence and the continual re-creation of all forms of life depended on the fertilising and quickening power of rain’ (p 289). And to this boy:

The rain that was falling on his father’s grave had come to represent the symbol of life, the promise of life, the assurance of life, and the certainty of life. Life could not be fully conquered by death; for the power of life was greater than the destructiveness of death. Life was from eternity to eternity. (p 290)

Journey To Horseshoe Bend is certainly that rare thing; it is a genuine classic. It is as essential, and timely, today as when it was first published.

 – Phillip Hall

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Phillip Hall is a poet working as an editor with Verity La’s ‘Emerging Indigenous Writers’ Project’ (http://verityla.com/submission-guidelines/black-wallaby-ngana-banggarai-emerging-indigenous-writers-project/) and as ‘Poetry Reader’ at Overland (https://overland.org.au/). In 2014 he published Sweetened in Coals. He is currently working on a collection of place-based poetry called Fume. This project celebrates, and responds to, Indigenous Culture in theNorthern Territory’s Gulf of Carpentaria. In November 2015 Blank Rune Press will publish a chapbook of Phillip’s collaborative work with Diwurruwurru: The Borroloola Poetry Club.

 Journey to Horseshoe Bend is available from  http://www.giramondopublishing.com/non-fiction/journey-to-horseshoe-bend/

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