A Bush Idyll

Reproduced from Grass Roots, issue no. 65, February 1988.

By Ray & Carol Drew, Tarago, NSW.

In July 1981 we left our house behind and walked off into the bush, carrying our new home and our chattels on the pack saddles of two donkeys. The residents of Campbell’s Creek, in central Victoria, looked rather bemused as two adults and a child battled their way down the main street with two recalcitrant donkeys and two rather disobedient collie dogs. We had spend many hours practising for this day; teaching the donkeys to carry packs and follow one another, and teaching our two-year-old son, Bear, to ride atop a loaded pack saddle. Caught up in the excitement, the two donkeys were lurching around, banging the packs against people’s front fences in absolute disarray. But we eventually cleared the town limits and reached the dirt road leading out of the town in to the bush two hours later.

We passed a farm, and a young man we knew asked us where we were going. ‘We’re going to live in the bush,’ we said. “We’re going to see what it’s like to live with nature. We’ll just follow our noses, and see where we end up.’ The young man gave us a faraway look and told us he envied us. He wanted to do that one day, he said.

Still further down the road, with the afternoon sunlight filtering through the gums, an elderly man drew up alongside us in his car. ‘What do yer think yer doing?’ he demanded. We told him that we were going to camp in the bush, for the adventure. He grew very red in the face and yelled. ‘Yer crazy! What about your responsibility to society! Look at that poor little boy – he ought to be home, watching television! You’ll freeze to death out there!’ He went on and on and eventually we walked away and he roared off in his car.

We walked off the dirt road into the forest. At the time, the bush seemed very wild, and yet it was only light forest. As the sun began to set, we found a valley and tethered the donkeys. We put up the tent and lit the fire.

It occurred to us that this was no camping trip. On a camping trip, you have your car, and if things get rough, or it rains too much and floods you go home. But the tent, all seven by seven feet of it, was now our home. There was no other home. Realising this fills you with a great excitement, and you begin to feel a part of nature. (Of course, we are always a part of nature, and have never been anything else.) But then a fear arises, because you have no security, you are vulnerable, exposed. You wonder if you are a bit crazy, irresponsible, as the old man said.

We wanted to live in the bush because we like the bush, and we felt that it was a good thing to do. We were unemployed, and there was no work in our area. We would travel and look for work as we went. Without rent, we could also survive with a little less pressure.

The first weeks in the bush excited and frightened us; our minds went a little crazy for a while, looking for the usual distractions. Where was the television set, the books, the conversation with neighbours, and so on? But after the initial confusion, we became much more peaceful.

We moved locations, gradually entering wilder and more remote bush. We tried the valleys, which in mid winter were damp and lush and water was plentiful, but it was a little too damp. Then we moved up to the ridges of the forest between Castlemaine and Daylesford. We were alone. Without a car, we could lead the donkeys into remote areas, where there were only animal tracks. After we settled in a new campsite, the wild animals who lived in the area would come back. The grey kangaroos lumbered past the tents, and we fed the birds every morning. At night you could lie back and study the stars. We never felt frightened of nature, even in the middle of a violent electrical storm. Rather, as time went on, we grew tense, like the animals, when we heard the shooting from hunters over the next ridge.

Apart from grey kangaroo and birdlife (and the kangaroos were not plentiful) wild life was pretty scarce. If one wanted to subsist by hunting and trapping wildlife – even with some skill – it is doubtful if you would survive. We mounted our favourite donkey, Jamie, and cantered off to town every week, and shopped just like everyone else. One the way back we walked and Jamie carried the groceries. The ten mile walk was not difficult after we became fitter and healthier. We visited people in our old town, too. We noticed that, as time passed, we had become outsiders to them. We were no longer in their social scene. Perhaps we had less in common. Perhaps we seemed threatening. I don’t know.

A great deal happened in the bush. There was so much to explore – we walked ten miles or so a day – we didn’t think of covering great distances in order to reach some goal. It was enough to be in a place we liked. On our walk from the city to the bush, we passed an old slab hut. We discovered two girls living in the hut. The girls had four horses. One day we went in to see them. Shy at first, they gradually warmed, and a friendship grew. We found that the two girls were planning a bush trek, like ours, through the high country of Victoria.

The two girls had unusual names – Ziggy Stone and Earth Flute. Ziggy and Flute would sit around a huge fire in their slab hut and tell us stories about their adventures in the bush. We often stayed there quite late until Bear was sleepy, and then we carried him outside to the donkey and made our way home to the tent, pushing through the scrub and the eucalyptus trees. We crawled into the tent and into our sleeping bags where it was warm and cozy.

Months passed and Carol was pregnant. She loved the bush. Yet it became harder for her to walk the long distances for food and water. Where, how would she have the baby? We knew that, even if we wished to re-enter ‘society’, it was going to be hard. There were no houses to rent in the towns near where we were camped. And a family who emerged from the bush dressed in army style clothing would not be regarded as ‘respectable’ citizens. Whilst it was easy enough to leave middle class suburbia behind, it was becoming obvious that we were going to have great difficulties getting back in.

Winter passed, then spring. Winter and spring are the best times to live in the bush. When summer comes, especially in the more arid areas, life can become a battle with all sorts of insects – mosquitos, blowflies, and so on. The streams dry up, and you have to go further for water. The ground becomes cracked and hard. Even the donkeys grew rebellious. Seeking pasture, they snapped their tethers. We found them, eventually, miles away, at a lush farm. I went to grab Jamie and he kicked me in the groin. He was plainly saying that he didn’t like the bush, not the grassless bush anyway. We ordered hay from the produce merchant in Castlemaine, and carried it to our campsite, bale by bale, fifteen miles in century heat.

I purchased a rifle. I found a clearing in the bush where an old abandoned homestead lay, walls crumbling. There were lots of rabbits there. I shot a few rabbits. After skinning them in the heat, with the blowflies and offal I didn’t feel very hungry, but the dogs enjoyed their rabbit. I sold the rifle.

I was becoming despondent; I wanted to be able to move to a cooler climate, but we couldn’t move more than a few miles a day.

One day our friends, Ziggy and Flute, suggested we buy ourselves a car. We agreed that it seemed the only thing could do in order to move to a more amenable climate. Our two friends gave us the money to buy a second-hand car so we sold our donkeys.

Selling the donkeys really hurt us. They had been our friends and we played and joked together like kids. Our favourite donkey, Jamie, had become a member of the family. Yet six months later there we were, fifteen miles away from where we’d started, and feeling we should have travelled a lot further! Where did we want to go? We thought we’d like to end up in Canberra because our relatives lived there. Also perhaps there was work there, and we needed the money. Our donkeys too now seemed to dislike the bush. We wanted to swell them to someone who would let them run free in a large lush paddock. And we did sell them. As we got into our car and left our donkeys behind in a paddock, I have never seen sadder donkeys.

The car gave us a feeling of freedom. Zoom – we could be in Bendigo in an hour; zoom – to the border of NSW in four. As we left Victoria bound for Canberra, we began to realise that w were confined to the roads now and that nature was flashing past us at a great distance. We drove to the South Coast of NSW and camped by the beach, where it was cool and relaxing. They felt, it seemed, that we had become unwelcome gypsies. Oh, we could have have a shower, a meal, but…

So we drove up to the highlands around Canberra. The Brindabella Mountains were wild and exciting. There were lyrebirds around the tent, wild pigs and huge galahs. It was beautiful country. Then we drove to Booroomba Rocks, still in the highlands of ACT, above the snow line. It was still summer and there it was cool. Carol would soon give birth to her baby.

Carol and I sat in the car one night in January, 1982. How would she have the baby? In a relative’s house? In hospital? No, not in hospital, we decided. There were possibly great risks have the baby in a tent – but were there? All our conditioning said ‘no!’ Yet we had always found nature to be a friend, not savage, red in tooth and claw. What if something went wrong. ‘What if baby or mother died?’ I asked. Carol just said: ‘Well, we have to face that, if it comes’. At the time we were looking out the car window as we talked, and a shooting star fell from the heaven. ‘That’s a good omen,’ I said.

The next morning sunlight was beginning to filter into the tent. Bear was up running around with the dogs. We started to think about making a fire for a cup of tea. All around the tent there were ferns and rocks and trees upon trees. There were granite cliffs with trees rising up very high, and mist floating around the topmost trees. Carol awoke to find she was in labour. She jumped up, left the tent, and strode up and down outside. Then she came into the tent. ‘I must be in labour,’ she said, as the head of the child appeared!

Our second child, Joe, was born in the tent, easily, naturally, perfectly. The dogs seemed to sense the occasion and jumped and danced around the tent, barking. Bear stood at the door of the tent and watched the birth with interest. I cut the cord and tied it with shoelaces. Our new baby looked around the tent with wide open eyes.

Our tent space was crammed and it started to grow cold. Our car was also showing signs of deterioration. We need the car to obtain food supplies from Canberra, forty miles away. And we knew too that our trip would have to end.

It took us a long time and a lot of hardship to find a house to rent. Eventually we found cottage on a farm. We envy animals who are able to live in nature without all the agony and struggle we human beings seem to subject ourselves to. It is no longer possible, it seems, to live as a hunter/gatherer. The land is being hunted out and there in nothing to gather. Everything is becoming bounded, confined, under the name of private property. Carol and I would like to go on the road again on foot, with some pack animals.

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