A few years ago I became compelled by songlines — variations of which have long been known as churinga and Dreaming tracks — after travelling partially along one, with Yolngu guides, into the Arafura Sea from north-east Arnhem Land. And I started reading about them again as I geared up to review a wonderful exhibition about songlines at the National Museum of Australia. Providing you knew the song, you could always find your way across country. Indigenous creationism — whereby ancestral beings animals and humans made the land and, simultaneously, their stories, as they traversed it — baffles outsiders. Several people I know who encountered him in Australia during the s said their memories of Chatwin — who died in — were not positive.

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Why do we travel? Chatwin, who reinvented travel writing with his seminal book In Patigonia, was a restless soul. He travelled much of his life, which was sadly cut short in early middle age. In the opening pages of The Songlines he offers one plausible origin for this inveterate wanderlust in a childhood spent constantly on the move. My mother and I would shuttle back and forth, on the railways of wartime England, on visits to family and friends.

But for Chatwin this explanation is not enough. He feels that the need to travel is much more deeply engrained in us than mere childhood experience. For Chatwin the origin of our wanderlust goes right back to the dawn of human life on Earth. For Chatwin to be a human is to be a traveler…. For his book the writer went to Alice Springs to find out more about about Australian Aboriginal culture. The reason he chose Aboriginals was because he felt they were the best-preserved nomadic culture still in existence.

Before that and, for most of our history since we evolved from apes, we followed the migratory herds, living constantly on the move.

The Songlines are a metaphor for this nomadic spirit. They are a labyrinth of invisible paths that criss-cross the Australian outback. According to Aboriginal Creation myth ancient beings walked over these paths literally singing the land into existence.

As well as being a beautiful concept, for thousands of years the Songlines also served a very practical purpose. Since the songs contained an index of the geographical features of the land along a particular path, an Aborigine who knew the song could use it to navigate the land. On his journey to learn more about The Songlines Chatwin butts heads with the darker reality of the contemporary condition of Aborigines.

They are being egged on by a clientele of truckers and construction workers who call them names and hand them smashed bottles to attack each other with. I think part of the reason for this is that Chatwin had already made up his mind about Aboriginal culture and its place in his theory of life. Because of this he often feels less concerned with learning first-hand from the local than with impressing on them his own vast stores of knowledge.

In one fairly typical encounter he meets an old Aborigine, Father Flynn. At first the man has no interest in talking to him. Then Chatwin starts telling him about gipsies.

The world is their hunting-ground. The gem of knowledge about gipsies was also typical of the kind of thing Chatwin loved to collect in his notebooks. He quotes from the likes of Rimbaud and Baudelaire as well as including relevant snippets from his own travels. His notes are fascinating and persuasive but, like the whole of The Songlines, also a form self-justification.

Chatwin was addicted to travel and he needed a way to understand that addiction. Chatwin died in from Aids. Ever the storyteller, he got round the taboo surrounding the disease at the time by claiming to friends he was suffering from a rare fungal infection picked up on a trip to China. He was just For Chatwin to be a human is to be a traveler… Into the outback For his book the writer went to Alice Springs to find out more about about Australian Aboriginal culture.

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The Songlines

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The origins of travel: A review of The Songlines (Bruce Chatwin)

Welcome sign in sign up. You can enter multiple addresses separated by commas to send the article to a group; to send to recipients individually, enter just one address at a time. For the previous half century, travel writing seemed to consist either of grim, extended journeys through desolate landscapes or jokes about foreigners. And the leading figures—such as Wilfred Thesiger or Robert Byron—in their tweed suits were celebrated for neither their prose nor their charm.

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