'Walkabout’ is an Australian English term used to describe the travels of Indigenous Australians, as they moved across their ancestral lands to take advantage of seasonally available resources. These were not random wanderings – known pathways were carefully followed, and tribal boundaries closely observed to avoid conflict with neighbouring groups. Survival in the varied environments of Australia depended on an intimate knowledge of the environment – which plants were edible, where to find animals to hunt, and particularly the location of waterholes. Significant landmarks were often sacred, imbued with the presence of ancestral beings, their histories and their power. This ‘walkabout’ is much smaller in scale, and hopefully less demanding. The trail features Australian objects in the Museum’s collection.
Surviving fire Balga, Xanthorrhoea preissii
Bushfires are lethal for both people and plants. However, some Australian plants have adapted to not only survive fire, but use it to help them grow. Fire causes balga trees to flower – a long, straight flower stalk sprouts from among the grass-like leaves at the top of the blackened, fire-resistant trunk. The stalk is covered with tiny flowers, which produce a sweet nectar – delicious when made into a drink. Indigenous Australians used dry flower stalks to rub together and make fire. In some areas, fire was used in a controlled way to promote new growth.
Listen to Richard Wilford, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, explain the qualities of Balga.
Surviving conflictBark shield
Shields were used as protection from spears in conflict situations, or during ritual contests held to settle disputes. This shield is known as an elemong, and is connected with the Gweagal people of Botany Bay, on the eastern coast of Australia. It is made of red mangrove (Rhizophora stylosa), which was used to make shields because it was a strong wood, resistant to the impact of weapons, and to insect damage and rot. The shield was used in response to musket fire, during James Cook’s landing at Botany Bay in 1770.
Listen to Natasha McKinney, British Museum, explore the significance of the Bark shield.
Surviving deathPainted log coffin
In Arnhem Land, in central northern Australia, mortuary rituals ensure the safe journey of the soul after death. In the final stage, bones are placed in a hollow log coffin. This example features a depiction of Mana, an ancestral shark, and totem of the Yolngu peoples. In ancestral time, Mana was attacked by an ancestor from another clan. He angrily charged towards the land, carving out the rivers; his sharp teeth remained on the riverbanks as pandanus trees. The strength of ancestral beings can be drawn on through art, song
Listen to Natasha McKinney, British Museum, introduce the coffin.
Surviving droughtSidney Nolan (1917–1992), 'All tastes like dust in the mouth/All strikes like iron in the mind'
This 1954 drawing by Sidney Nolan depicts a cattle carcass, a victim of the drought, slowly disintegrating into the arid landscape. Australia’s climate is extraordinarily dry, with two-thirds of the continent having an annual rainfall of less than 500 millimetres (20 inches). Cattle farming represented a major new form of land use following British settlement – the clearing of the land decreased the productivity of the landscape for hunting and gathering purposes by Indigenous Australians, and in some cases produced desert conditions. For some Indigenous Australians, participating in the cattle industry was one way of remaining on their ancestral lands.
Listen to Stephen Coppel, British Museum, introduce the drawing.
Surviving journeysRare water container made of seaweed
Tasmania enjoys a wetter and more temperate climate than mainland Australia. While there are fewer species than on the mainland, the coastal areas have many types of seabirds, a rich food resource. These were supplemented with seafood and plant foods including fruits, providing a comfortable lifestyle for the nine indigenous groups living on Tasmania and surrounding islands. They did not need to carry food with them on long journeys, sometimes from island to island, but fresh water was carried in bull kelp containers like this model.
Listen to Lissant Bolton, British Museum, introduce the container.