A Letter from a 2018 Walker

Last weekend I did the MOUNTAIN TO MOUTH 80KM EXTREME ARTS WALK creating a contemporary Songline. It is a two day walk from the Sacred Rock Hole of the Wadawurrung in the You Yangs (near Geelong) to the mouth of the Barwon River at Barwon Heads.

The focus of the walk is to do a ceremonial pilgrimage honouring and connecting to the land. The walk incorporates, as well as walking, art, song, ritual, dance, performance, community engagement and environmental awareness and regeneration.

It is one of the most wonderful, rewarding, deepening, spiritual, physically challenging, emotional and enjoyable things I have ever participated in.

The conception is sublime. The walk includes three major ceremonies which include the local Wadawurrung people. They do a ‘Welcome to Country’ and smoking and dance to start the walkers off acknowledging Country.

Photographer: Jarrah Lynch

The icon of the walk is a canoe ‘sculpture’. I.e. a light canoe made by artists which is carried by teams from the community all the way to the Barwon river mouth. The carriers change over every 5-10 kms. The canoe was a truly beautiful creation made of bamboo and parchment.

Travelling with Canoe (she becomes personified) is sacred water drawn from the Big Rock waterhole in the You Yangs by a Wadawurrung elder, and all the walkers. Canoe is carried at 4 km per hour – which is quite a fast walk.  I walked from Big Rock to Lara which is 12 kms in two hours fifteen minutes.

There are 12 ‘Songline Stations’ where Canoe stops for a short rest. At each of these, including Big Rock in the You Yangs, there is a choir to sing the canoe in and out, a major art work installation and performance artists. As well as food vans, tea & coffee facilities, water and other conveniences. The team set up an information tent and you can get your  ‘Pilgrim’s Passport’ stamped.

The walk organisers commission 100 (yes, one hundred) artists to create sculptures, paintings, installations, dances, performance art, etc all along the walk. They also commission music to be composed for the walk and there are repeating chants for the walkers and choirs to sing.

As you walk into a Songline Station there are usually quirky art pieces positioned along the track and every now and then there is a group of performance artists doing a tribute to Country when you least expect them.

The organisation behind the walk is remarkable. Traffic control people closed off roads and intersections so we could get through safely. There are mini buses that will pick you up if you conk out and take you to the next stop. Canoe arrives and leaves pretty much on time.

The art work is all ‘ephemeral’. It is only view-able up to an hour before and after Canoe arrives and leaves. Canoe is accompanied by colourful banners held by walkers. On arrival Canoe does a circle around the major art installation while the choir sings, then is put down and the banners positioned around. Some of the sacred water is poured around the circle. When it is time to leave a special bell is rung and the choir sings everyone out.

The choirs vary from local adult choirs to rehearsed groups of school children and some had been coached, especially for the three major ceremonies, by Jonathan Welch.

I didn’t know before I did the walk just how magnificent in conception and execution it was going to be.  I had heard about it (this is the 3rd public walk and the 4th year the concept has happened.)

As it travels through the Country I was born and raised in I just knew it was a chance to connect with and pay homage to the indigenous Country which has formed my deep connection to Land. I believe, like indigenous people do, that the particular spirit of the land where we are born infuses our being and we remain special to that place and it remains special to us. Even if we are not fully conscious of that in this mad mechanical world. I was born in Geelong and raised in Ocean Grove. I always feel more at home there than anywhere else in a very elemental way.

I walked only about 22Km of the walk – because I hadn’t trained myself up for walking (a big gap in my planning)  and my feet have been giving me a bit of trouble from the pounding they get during my approx 6-7 hours of competitive badminton a week. And let’s face it. I am an ‘old age pensioner’ now.

There is no expectation that all walkers will do the whole trek. Hundreds of walkers do parts of the distance, and a few dozen do the whole length. Some just do one section. The organisers have people scouting around the walkers on bikes to check if everyone is OK and will call the mini bus to pick you up if needed. They provide  transport to the start from Geelong, on to the next station if you can’t keep up with Canoe or can’t make it, back to your car if you need and on to Geelong at the end of the walk. Amazing.

For all this I paid a fee of $40 for two days. That money goes to regenerate the flora along this new ‘songline’, which where ever possible goes off road along walking tracks and the Bellarine ‘rail trail’ and along the beach. This year it was a very high tide so they put us on buses from Pt Lonsdale to Ocean Grove.

The corporate and government sponsorship of this event, to my way of thinking, is the best value for money imaginable. It makes it very affordable and engages up to 11,000 people in the event. Apparently this year it may have been a bit down in numbers. Perhaps because the weather on Friday was pretty rough. Gale force winds blowing in gusty rain storms. I had on full rain gear and hoody and beanie the whole day. Despite walking fast it still felt cold and I didn’t stop once on the 12km for fear of seizing up. Talking to other walkers kept me going. Meeting people being part of the fun.

On the first day I went off after walking to Lara to pick up accommodation keys and Liz from the train (as she was going to walk with me the next day). Later I met up with Canoe and the walkers in Geelong along Corio Bay. Some of them had been at the Opening Ceremony at 9am and been walking from noon till 9.30pm. Arriving in the night at Johnston Park we were greeted by a huge crowd. Geelong was also having an After Dark light festival with laser projections,etc.

Canoe did a circuit to the cheers of the crowd and caroling of the massed choirs and then was set down while there was a marvelous series of performances. The Wadawurrung dancers and didgeridoo, massed dancers both young and old doing some very well rehearsed beautifully executed routines, a brass band playing “What A Wonderful World, as a group of four women carried Mother Earth on their shoulders in a performance indicating she is in much stress and we have important work to do for Her. Such as the Mountain to Mouth Extreme Arts Walk.

That whole ceremony was very exciting, beautiful and moving. Reminding us of our responsibilities to Country/Mother Earth and how much joy She gives us.  Part of the ceremony was many children carrying candle lanterns and lots of children and school groups participated all along. Not many walked – as they would be hard put to keep up the ‘extreme’ pace for long. Many were excited and caressed Canoe as she was very charismatic with her icons of animals on her panels.

The ceremony finished well after 10pm and Canoe was setting off at 6am the next morning so it was time for walkers to get to their lodgings and grab what rest they could!

I got down to the Barwon River Song Line Station at 7am to see the art work – a giant eel. It is eel migration season and this was a major food of the indigenous people of Victoria. This eel and her spawn was made out of recycled plastic and fairy lights (it was still dark when Canoe arrived).

I went to our lodgings and picked up Liz and we went to see the art work and Canoe at a couple more stops before we actually started walking. It is possible to experience all the art and song, and see Canoe come and go, and be handed on to the next Landcare Group, Fire Brigade, Scouts, Health Workers, Lifesavers, Football Team (!), Friends of Swan Bay, etc. etc . That is you can follow the walk without even walking if you want to.

Photographer: Jarrah Lynch

At Drysdale Station there was even a lesbian art work. Canoe came in to a stone circle with children clapping a chant with stones which we could join in to. The Station artist had made a representation of the couple Miss Drysdale and Miss Newcombe who were some of the first white colonists of the area. On our way there I took Liz and Pat to see their original house. Still a feature of the area. Pat dropped us off and we were walking towards Queenscliff on the Rail Trail.

I walked past what had been my brother’s farm and where my father’s ashes are still buried. Down to where I had gone to High School on the shores of Swan Bay. We didn’t make the whole length of this long stage. So we asked the bike ‘minder’ to call the mini bus for us and were taken in early so we could go to the toilet, get food and drink and have a bit of a rest. The day was still windy but at least dry so we could sit on the grass.

We did some of the peripheral activities. At each stop women would come by with a basket offering us pieces of cloth, gum leaves or paper to write our wishes for ourselves or the earth and then collect them to be used in the finale of the walk.

The major art works at each station were amazing. A giant mandala made of sliced up fruit and vegetables arranged in an amazing pattern, fairy lights frozen within giant tear drops suspended over the ocean which they were dripping into. All worth seeing for themselves alone. As were the smaller art pieces planted along the walk as a little surprises if you happened to look that way.

People from the community gathered to welcome and see off the walkers. Some baked muffins and brought them down to the river at dawn to hand out and fuel up the walkers. People waved to us from the special steam train chugging along the track beside the walking path. There were endless special touches.

The whole event had a special feel. Non-competitive, integrated, multi-tasking. Sure there were some participants who were obviously high achieving walkers keen to prove they could do the marathon. But some of the all distance walkers were obviously there in service to Canoe and the spirit of the pilgrimage.

Canoe arrived in Barwon Heads just on sunset. As planned. The bridge was decorated with flags and the Bluff was glowing with the last golden light of the sun as all were welcomed in with cheers, claps and kind words from the woman on the microphone who had been pepping up the crowds and making us feel special all day.

Without delay the final ceremony began. It was an event worth travelling for in its own right. There were drummers, dancers, performers, choirs, fire twirlers (mirrored by others positioned across the other side of the river), There were masses of children parading with candle lanterns, travelling eels, women carrying the large Globe of the Earth which had some of our wishes made along the walk wrapped around her.

The Wadawurrung sang, called in language, danced and smoked Canoe for one last time. Hundreds watched in awe from the sand and the bridge, and the beach was cloaked in the growing darkness lit by lights and light sculptures and projections and the atmosphere built up with special music vibrating in the night air.

Flaming torches were lit and the wishes we had made were ceremonially placed in Canoe and she was put on a boat in the river which was piled high with branches and leaves, Canoe was christened with sacred water from Big Rock in the Mountains which overlook the whole Country we had walked through.

Photographer: Jarah Lynch

The three dancing torch holders bowed to us all and then set Canoe alight and the flames immediately shot up high into the sky. Canoe was pushed off and rapidly moved out along the river mouth into the ocean flaming all the way.

It was a most profound and moving moment. No-one could fail to be moved. I am sure it moved more than just I to tears.

The tide kept going out and we made our way to the conveniently waiting bus to be taken back to Geelong. Our pilgrimage through the Country was over for now. But our spirits were still soaring high and stayed elevated for a long time afterwards. Even when we got back to our lodgings and I fell exhausted into bed after two days out in the elements walking and taking in so much stimulation I was still buzzing with excitement and couldn’t stop talking about it.

For me this was, and is, LIVING. Walking and singing and dancing the land. The organisers call it ‘creating a contemporary songline’. This is working for the Land. This was work worth doing.

Mountain to Mouth takes place ever second year. Surely too complex to organise  every year. 2018 was the third one in this current incarnation. The first was conceived differently. It was all conceived by a woman [Meme McDonald] (who passed away late in 2017). That time water was gathered from the mouth of the river and carried to the mountain. It was carried by various means of transport: canoes, bicycles, runners, horse riders, utes, women with prams, train, etc.

Each year has a different theme. This year was Earth. One year fire was carried in that Canoe from Mountain to Mouth.

Having done this journey once I will do it again next time. May 2020. I invite those who want to join me. Either as walkers or support team. Many walked in groups with support teams (or individuals). Support teams may drive to the next ‘Station’ and have cups of tea and food ready. Or they could be relay walkers and supporters. Changing roles.

Next time I will be more trained up to walk long distance. Maybe you will be too. Who would miss a chance like this?

Chris Sitka