Arts & Letters

Walking the Wukalina Walk

By David Neustein
A new four-day tour in Tasmania is owned and guided by Aboriginal people

In 1773, English captain Tobias Furneaux observed the many campfires burning along Tasmania’s north-east coast and named the area Bay of Fires. The name is often misinterpreted as a reference to the dramatic orange lichen that grows on the bay’s granite boulders. While it is possible to visit the Bay of Fires today and see only natural beauty, the area is rich with evidence of its first inhabitants.

Wukalina Walk is both the first Tasmanian tourism venture to be initiated by the state’s Aboriginal community and the only walk in Australia that is owned and guided by Aboriginal people. Located in the Bay of Fires region, the four-day walk takes a maximum of 10 guests on a 33-kilometre journey from wukalina (Mount William) to larapuna (Eddystone Point). Having just concluded its inaugural season, it joins a stable of other guided tours and treks around Tasmania, including the Bay of Fires Lodge Walk, Cradle Mountain Huts Walk and Three Capes Walk. Whereas these operations promise immersion within a spectacular and untouched wilderness environment, Wukalina Walk reveals that this environment is far from untouched. “Their walks are about nature and wildlife,” says Clyde Mansell, chair of Tasmania’s Aboriginal Land Council and originator of the vision for Wukalina Walk. “We’re engendering a discussion about people’s relationship to land.” Participants in this new walk are shown the remnants of tens of thousands of years of Aboriginal inhabitation.

Tasmania’s Aboriginal community is used to things taking time. The descendants of a society isolated from their mainland brethren for at least 12,000 years following the last ice age, the palawa/pakana were the last Indigenous Australians to be recognised in a state constitution as a first people and traditional custodians of the land. Wukalina Walk is itself the culmination of more than 10 years of campaigning and planning by Mansell and other community elders.

The choice of a site for the walk’s standing camp (krakani lumi) was a much swifter process. Together with Mansell and Aboriginal Land Council manager Graeme Gardner, a group of Aboriginal trainee rangers followed the route from wukalina, skirted a protected eagle’s nest, crossed the banks of a freshwater creek, and came across an area near an open hunting ground and in close proximity to the beach. It was quickly apparent that this was the ideal spot.

The selection of the campsite’s architect was just as fortuitous. Poppy Taylor and Mat Hinds of Hobart architectural practice Taylor + Hinds happened to catch Mansell speaking about the idea for the walk on the nightly news. “I bet you they don’t have an architect,” said Hinds. “I bet you they do,” said Taylor. Mansell greeted Hinds’ phone call with a simple response: “It’s good that you called. Let’s meet.”

Eight years later, after considerable effort, community consultation and historical research by the architects, the walk’s ideals and values have met their built counterpart. A hidden track through coastal wattle, melaleuca, banksia and centuries-old grass trees leads to a number of charred black boxes set into the vegetation. The largest of these structures contains a timber half-dome that opens to its surroundings like a bandstand or cathedral apse. In front of the half-dome is a deck with an inset fire pit.

Each of the six sleeping huts is a smaller version of the main pavilion, with a blackened silvertop ash box containing a red-stained blackwood interior dome, like the smooth hollow of a seed that regenerates through fire. The domed interiors re-create the spatial and material qualities of traditional Aboriginal domed and bark-shingled shelters, only in negative.

The unusual form of the dome provides a sleeping space that is both compact and generous, with a wide opening, through drapes and insect mesh, to the hushed and moonlit world beyond. Sliding or suspended doors can be drawn closed theatrically to conceal the enclosure from view or secure the campsite between visits.

On the walk, Ben Lord, one of the pakana guides, points out edible and usable plants alongside the timber boardwalk leading down to the beach. “A lot of bush tucker and medicine stories were handed down to us, but no ceremony,” he says. “That’s been lost. There’s a part of it we’ll never get back.” Concealed up in the dunes is a huge and ancient midden, riddled with the shells of countless warina (periwinkles or sea snails). Lord exhibits a collection of finely honed tools, made from stone carried from the island’s interior, that were designed to scoop out snail meat. Some previous guests, Lord says, baulked at the sheer scale of the midden, unable to believe it was human made.

At one point during the third day of walking, the route along the brilliant white quartz beaches to the lighthouse at larapuna turns inland. This is to avoid crossing a coastal dune where Aboriginal remains have been found. Behind the dune there’s a shallow estuary and a small holiday encampment of corrugated and fibro shacks. A mother and two young children sit in folding chairs, the kids patiently waiting to trap a seagull under a rigged milk crate. The older members of this family tell me that they have visited this spot several times a year for more than four decades, perhaps unaware of the site’s spiritual significance.

On the final day, the group tours the elevated peninsula before ascending the lighthouse, a 35-metre-tall monolith clad in granite quarried from the nearby cliffs and erected on another vast midden. As with everything else in this part of the world, the layers of history are palpable and speak of loneliness and dispossession, but also incredible resilience and resourcefulness.

David Neustein was a guest of Wukalina Walk.

David Neustein

David Neustein is The Monthly’s architecture critic.

@dneus

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