The Pilgrims

Written by Chester Eagle
DTP and cover art work by Karen Wilson
Cover photo by Ian Stapleton of Feathertop Track, Harrietville, Victoria.
Circa 91,000 words
Private edition 50 copies 2012 and 24 copies 2013
Electronic publication 2012 by Trojan Press

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The lyrebird

To read about the writing of this memoir click here.


Australia is strangely made.  Mountains run down the eastern side, then turn the corner.  Rivers flow out of them, to the sea at their feet, and to the inland.  The inland rivers are tedious, straggling, in the habit of forming billabongs.  Between their origins and their end, they have only a little way to fall.  It’s an eroded country, but such mountains as it possesses are full of character.  Anecdotes abound; this book hopes to present a few of them, not so much as they happened but as they might have happened.  The consciousness of earlier generations is something we can only guess at, and our need to guess, the reasons impelling us to guess, will make themselves inherent in what we say.

This is a book about men who called themselves pilgrims: journey-makers to holy places, holy regions, where their minds, their souls if they believed in them, might be changed en route.

It’s the journey, rather than the end-point, that gives rise to meanings.  I invite you to come on a series of journeys, to see what happened when, where and to whom.  The pilgrims we will come to shortly.  Let me introduce you, first, to their guides.

Bill Gillio led the Skyline Tours.  He was a bushman and an ex-soldier, two of his country’s strongest traditions.  He was big, strong, loud, and practical.  He was thoughtful.  He saw the need to be organised.  If you wanted something done well, you planned.  To delegate, you needed good people.  You had to trust them, and you couldn’t do that unless you trusted yourself.  Everything started from the self.  It had to be without flaw.  Bill could ride, he could build, he could explain.  Above all, he could lead.

deCourcey was something else.  Nobody understood him.  He was a tall man, of French and Irish descent, quite unworldly.  It was said of him that he wanted to fly like the birds, but whether he said this himself we cannot know.  He died of cancer a little after fifty: not a long life.  He was a great runner and a fast walker; he played the violin.  He was at home in the bush but got lost at times, something that never happened to Bill, whom he revered for possessing a certainty impossible for one who sought spiritual states that could never be taken for granted.  Some people are proudly human; deCourcey was an escapist, too conscious of humanity’s failings to be comfortable.  He loved the mountain bush because it could be inhabited without looking into the self.  What he saw within rarely pleased.  The mysteries of the mountain world made him free.  Did he really want to fly like the birds?  Riding in the forest, walking, sitting and observing, were just as good.  Contemplation meant looking outwards rather than in.  He needed an ‘other’, and the world around him supplied it.  He followed social rules because it was safer to do so, rather than from an instinctive wish to be like other people.  He loved Bill because he never felt questioned by him; Bill accepted him as he accepted everyone else.  Bill had the common humanity deCourcey never possessed.  He was an average horseman, an average handler of cattle, a poor-to-middling farmer, someone who intuitively misread social situations as barriers separating him from the world where he belonged.  He took up Bill’s offer to join the Skyline Tours with enthusiasm because he would surely know better than the pilgrims, as he called them, and taught them to call themselves, what to feel in the presence of the mountains.

These too are characters in our story – Mount Wellington, Trapyard Hill, The Pinnacles, the Crosscut Saw, Bennison’s Plain, Mount Howitt, Wonnangatta Station on its river of the same name, Lake Tarli Karng, Spion Kopje, the Snowy Range, right out to Mount Hotham and the long descent to the inland, where there were no magic mountains and the stories that grew on the flat had a different character from those conceived in the hills.  Erosion confirms the character of mountains even as it flattens them.  The mountains, abraded as they may be, cling to things that have happened in their secret places.  Mountains recall.  They don’t let memories die, though they kill off careless travellers.  Bill told his pilgrims they’d be safe if they did what he told them, and anyone who didn’t wouldn’t be coming back.  Bill was the guardian of experience, memory, of proper bush ways for dealing with the dangers of getting lost.  He knew where he was, while deCourcey had sometimes to climb trees to find out.  Bill had only to see a distant peak to know, by its shape, the angle he was seeing it from, and therefore where he was.  On the very first of the Skyline Tours a pilgrim said to him, ‘You’re different from us.  We need to be told where we’re going.  You know where you are wherever you are.  In a way, you’re not going anywhere because you’re already there.’  Bill nodded to this as to everything people said.  He rarely disagreed, but then he rarely let the observations of other people affect him.  He knew who he was, where he was, and what he was doing.  Didn’t everyone?

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The party walked well, the first couple of hours.  Bill moved up and down, getting to know them, shaping them too.  ‘First person you got to look after’s yourself.  Then everybody else.  Just keep an eye out, see if everyone’s okay.’  It was simple, it was a rule.  Bill had brought it home from the war; it had validity behind it: this was how his pilgrims felt about him.  His off-sider?  They weren’t so sure.  He was ever so polite, but he lived in another world, and what it was like, they had no idea.

They came on Billy Dibbs’ fire, and deCourcey handed cups around.  They drank.  The sun shone imperially on the party.  Bill wanted to know about the walkers’ feet.  Any problems?  He wasn’t expecting anything, but let him know ...  He noticed that the attention of one of the party, George McGeorge, was wandering.  ‘What’s that, mate?’  McGeorge indicated a bush.  ‘There’s a little bird in there.  It’s quite agitated.’  Bill hardly needed to look.  ‘It’s got its nest in there.  It’s thinkin of havin a family.  But it’s worried.’  He pointed at the sky, and his party looked up.  A hawk was hovering high above.  ‘That’s why it makes its nest in a bush.  It hopes it won’t be seen.  Problem is, the ones that fly high have got super-good eyesight.  They can see the nest all right.  Only protection for this little fella is whether or not the bush is thick enough to make that fella’ – he waved at the sky – ‘stay up there instead of comin down like a thunderbolt to pick the little fella off.’

It should have been clear to them that the bird in the sky wouldn’t drop on its victim when so many people, and horses, were standing about, but they weren’t ready for what deCourcey had to say: ‘Even the skies are impure.  It’s all very difficult.’  McGeorge and the others expected Bill to clarify, but he was filling his cup, Billy Dibbs appeared to take deCourcey’s words as an inexplicable act of nature, and the birdman said no more.  It seemed to McGeorge that the bush men had made some sort of settlement of a moral problem which he and his fellows weren’t aware of. 

This incident, or rather its outcome in deCourcey’s words, affected the party.  The skies are impure?  The skies were full of light, the skies were a blessing on the heads and shoulders of the walking men.  It didn’t seem silly to call the sky the heavens.  They were heading for the mountains and the mountains would lift them higher, and higher again as they got further out.  They had horses to carry their packs, Bill and his men had everything organised – huts, fires, food, places to sleep: their souls were liberated, or on the way to being so.  What would it be like to have left the world behind?

The skies were impure?  Well, yes, the skies were the realm of birds of prey, but wasn’t the earth the same?  And the oceans too?  Or was that what deCourcey meant?  They supposed it was.  If the sky wasn’t pure, what about themselves?  It was one thing to be calling yourselves pilgrims, and walking along happily, stopping whenever you wanted to look at something, or ask if anybody knew the name of a flower, but purity meant perfection, and no one thought that could be maintained for very long.  They all had jobs, and homes, families and children, responsibilities and a need to make money, so they couldn’t be away forever.  They rather envied Bill and his men who lived within reach of these places, who seemed in some way to own what nobody could own, because mountains were not only places, but states of mind.  They were envious when they noticed deCourcey and Bill pointing at distant peaks and murmuring names, and distances, talking about things that had happened there.  They sensed the mountains were full of stories, just as they knew that birds, animals and insects were all around them, but out of sight.  Trees began to look different after a while.  They seemed bigger with every passing day, but ageing too, getting ready to die as they declined.  Occasionally the pilgrims heard the crash of a branch falling somewhere in the forest.  They knew what was happening.  It was happening to them too.  These were glory days, these days of walking, and no one held onto such things forever.  When their trip was over they’d go back to Melbourne, and then, when the photographers had done their work, they’d gather for a dinner to re-live the experience they were now in the middle of, albums of photos would be given out, signed by all members of the party, Bill would be there, and his assistants if they could be persuaded to travel to the city, to be flattered, and thanked, and asked if they were ready to make another trip the following year.

This, it might be said, all lay ahead, but that was the nature of a pilgrimage, was it not?  To walk in the present with the future always a pace ahead, always another day, another vista, destination, something marvellous to talk about, to be set up as an aim and finally to reach!  They were impatient in the foothills, a little restless, wanting to get to the high country where trees were taller, and even the names, scattered carelessly, had a largesse the lowlands couldn’t support.  Trapyard Hill, Mount Tamboritha, Bennison’s Plain, the Crosscut Saw beckoned them forward, ennobled their chatter, made them feel as mystically important as the places themselves.  It was good to be alive, but ...

... deCourcey said the skies were impure, and amazing as he might be to any sensible professional from the city – where reputations were earned, or lost – they sensed that he knew something they didn’t.  The skies were impure?  How could that possibly be?

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They went home the next day, by train, looking with longing in their eyes at the mountains which had sheltered them, called them, hosted them, changed them, though how they could not say.  When the Gippsland train got to Flinders Street they’d leave the station carrying their bags, they’d leave each other, they’d be un-bonded at last, and free – free? – to resume their normal lives.  Each of them knew there was no avoiding it, each of them felt ambivalent.  They’d been captured by the paradox that life-changing experiences happen quickly and, having ended, they push the central figure, the one who’s been changed, out the other side, confused by what’s happened, not having understood it yet, and feeling that the only sure ground is behind them, that’s to say in the experience itself or in the secure period behind it when they didn’t know what was going to happen.

The train trundled along its tracks, taking them back to Melbourne.  The splendid places they’d learned to revere were dropping behind them, further and further with every passing minute.  Trapyard Hill, Mount Arbuckle, Mount Wellington, the Gable End, Mount Hump, the Moroka hut, Bennison’s Plain, Castle Hill, Mount Kent, the Pinnacles, the Wonnangatta River with its like-named station, abandoned now, haunted by tales of murder unsolved, the Crooked River, Briagolong where they’d had their first and last drinks, the Crosscut Saw, the Snowy Plain, long stretches of snowgum, strips of mountain ash (woollybutt), messmate, narrow-leaf peppermint and mountain grey gum, black sallee too, everything that grew in those uplifted places they were leaving behind.

They arrived.  They shook hands, and went their several ways.  Some of them had friends picking them up with cars, others caught trains, trams or buses.  One or two who lived in the city walked.  An hour or two after they reached Flinders Street, they were with their families, hearing what had happened while they’d been away, marking the date they’d provisionally set down for dinner at the Cathedral Hotel on the night the photo-albums were handed out.  Would Bill be down, this year?  deCourcey and the others?   Martin Casey had even invited Tommy and Jan Burke to the reunion if they felt like coming.  ‘After all,’ he’d said to them, ‘we spend the first night and the last night of our trip at your hotel, you give us beds and a drink or three for those who feel like it. You’re part of our tour too!’

Tommy thought this was no more than a bit of palaver and couldn’t imagine himself joining the city men whom he deigned to allow in his pub, but Jan, his wife, was more accommodating.  ‘That’s a lovely offer.  I’d enjoy a couple of days in town.  It’d be good to see you all again, and hear about your plans for next year.  You are coming back, aren’t you?’  And of course Martin and those who’d been standing around assured her quite vehemently that they’d be back the following year, it’d take another world war to stop them doing that!  The previous great conflict that their country had been involved in had been supposed to be the war to end all wars but nobody believed that any more; mankind was too troublesome to be able to keep itself quiet, so, they had to suppose, there’d be another war another day, but until that time, and while peace was prevailing, their best bet was to revel in what peaceful days allowed – walking through the mountains on Bill Gillio’s Skyline Tours.

They were home.  Martin Casey slept late, then told his wife he needed to go to his office to pick up all the briefs that had accumulated while he’d been away.  Sylvia, his wife, was disappointed.  The break in the legal year wasn’t all that long, she and the children hadn’t had a break, she thought the family should have a few days at Sorrento; she’d rung the hotel and they had rooms.  Martin conceded.  He’d read his briefs on the verandah of the Sorrento Hotel while Sylvie and the kids paddled in the bay, then he’d join them.  Then they’d have lunch ...

A day later, it was happening as she’d planned.  The waters of the bay, and the sands that edged them, were gorgeous, and sometimes they walked to the ocean, wilder by far, and pounding on the shores outside the bay.  The papers didn’t arrive until afternoon, and they didn’t read them anyhow.  Her husband was content, the family was as one, and yet there was a difference.  Inside Martin, her husband, something new was buried.  There was a dimension Sylvie couldn’t reach.  She asked him about it, sitting on the hotel verandah, sipping gin and tonic before dinner in the spacious dining room.  He put it down to the briefs.  ‘There’s a ghastly rape case, I think it’s going to be easy enough to get the man off the charge but the fact is, he did a horrible thing.  He is horrible, and the woman he raped isn’t much better, though I suppose I shouldn’t say it.  And there’s a fraud case.  Man who’d worked for his company for twenty-seven years, had been making off with money in small amounts until he got greedy. Tried to get away with the lot.  He’s been caught up with, he’ll go to jail for sure, but ...

Sylvie said, ‘You’ve been handling cases like these all your life.  What’s the change?’  He was caught.  What was the change?  Could he really say he was changed by a good walk and some splendid views?  No, the change was in himself.  The gap between himself and the people he represented was greater than before, and it had changed in the way he felt about it.  It used to be so simple.  He was clever, they were fools.  He’d defend them if they paid the fees he charged.  It was a job.  He did it better than most, so they had to pay.  The money coming in was society’s estimation of his worth.  He deserved it for being what he was.  To ensure a bit of justice on an imperfect earth, good people had to be persuaded to work their hardest, to perform virtuously as well as cleverly, and he was good at it because he believed in it.  He was what he was doing.  He embodied the law, articulated it, applied it to the cases he took on.  He was respected by the judges and his peers.  People listened.  They wanted to know his views.  If they pointed out an error or inconsistency they expected him to correct them in return, or correct himself so that perfection, superiority in judgement, was maintained.  The waters of the bay, on a shiny, sunny afternoon, were well-nigh perfect, and his arguments, his presentations of the law were, because they had to be, pretty much the same, and the truth was, he didn’t feel the same about himself any more.  The mountains hadn’t agreed with him, or disagreed, they hadn’t cared.  They didn’t care, and they wouldn’t care when he went back.
As he knew he would.

‘Sylvie,’ he said to his wife, ‘before I go on next year’s Skyline Tour – and I want to go, don’t have any doubts about that – I think you and I should take the children down there on a visit of our own.  I’d like you to meet the people who took us out into the hills.  Bill.  deCourcey.  The people at the pub.  And I’m not sure how we can do it, but I’d like you to meet the mountains too.  Trapyard Hill ...’  He rattled off the names of the places he’d learned to revere.  ‘I don’t suppose they sound much, but they’re special.  I’d like the children to see them.  I’d like you to see them.  You’re going to be surprised, when you do.’  He paused.  Sylvie was looking at her husband, estimating the quality of this new influence.

‘What would the children do?’

He thought.  ‘I’d like to think they’d understand what’s happened to their father.  And you too, darling.  We need to be in balance, and I’m ... no, I’m not out of balance ...’  He laughed.  ‘Unbalanced!  That sounds like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it!  No, I’m in a new balance, a different one, and you need to see what changed me so that you can adjust yourself, or maybe it’s readjust me, so we can still be a true couple.  How does that sound?’

He waited.  He’d given her the power to make the verdict, and she was considering.  ‘It seems pretty obvious that we have to do what you say.  We’ll have a little break in the places where you’ve been, to give me, and the children too, if they can sense it, the chance to catch up with what’s happened.’  There was a sting in the tale: ‘Whatever it may have been!’

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Bill wondered where the next tour, the fourth, should go.  His thoughts kept hovering over the places his companion, deCourcey, was thinking about – Castle Hill, the Pinnacles, the Moroka River, where he’d built a hut ... country he knew well.  Skyline Tours had already been there, so if they went again, what could they do to make the journey better?  More of a pilgrimage, holier, more respectful ... he knew he was moving onto deCourcey’s territory, and it felt right.  That was what they would do.  He rang Martin Casey, he sent his plan to the Tourist Bureau, who were curious about what he was doing.  ‘Never went to school,’ Bill told himself, ‘and they’re takin notice of me.  Not bad, eh?’  And he told deCourcey that their ideas had coincided.  They’d alter the emphasis of the trip, this time, to the edges of the Moroka country, and in particular the gorges where the river fell away to the Wonnangatta.  ‘Those fellas think water comes out of a tap.  They got no idea how it springs outa the sides of mountains, or how it gets down to them.’  And Bill had another request.  ‘That trick o’yours, heatin up the rock to catch the fish, ya feel like doin’ that again?’  He saw at once that his friend was embarrassed.  ‘Okay mate, sorry.  Mustn’t make a showman outa ya.  Not your style, I shoulda thought o’that!’  It was a measure of Bill’s humanity that when he made an apology it was accepted as simply as it was given.  The two of them discussed dates for the trip in the light of seeing alpine flowers.  ‘There’s nothing like walkin through those places when there’s flowers noddin as ya walk along.’  The bush men knew they were thinking thoughts that bush men found it hard to share.  What did they want the pilgrims to think about the flowers?

Bill said, ‘I want’em to know how lucky they are.  There’s plenty o’fellas I was with are pushin’ up flowers on the other side o’the world.  I’d like our pilgrim fellas to think o’the blokes that never came back.’  He knew that his friend’s ideas would be different, and was curious.  ‘Whaddaya say to that?’

deCourcey thought.  Why was he so keen to help Bill take the city men away from their habitual places?  He was selfish, he realised; he took the city men out because he wanted to be there himself.  He was filled, also, with what the priests who taught him would have called the sin of pride.  He was more advanced than the pilgrims.  Their frequent incomprehension, their sometimes-silly questions, told him he was further advanced.  This flattered him whenever he felt earthbound, which was most of the time.  Having the city men to compare himself with gave him relief from his mind’s merciless critique.  ‘Flowers,’ he said to Bill, ‘make us humble.  They are good for us, therefore.  That is how I see it Bill.’

His friend was thoughtful.  ‘You weren’t at the war, deCourcey.  It takes flowers to do that, for you.  I had Germans firing at me every day, and we were firin’ back.  Ya had to keep ya head down, and that’s pretty close to bein humble.  Funny thing was, every now and again, somebody’d go mad, and stand up and blaze away unprotected.  Sometimes they’d get shot straight away, sometimes they’d win a medal instead.’  His face creased, though whether from puzzlement or contempt one could not have said.  ‘Stark, ravin mad.  They’d get a citation for bravery but what it really was was madness.  They couldn’t stand bein’ tied down, so they’d stand up and blaze away.  I saw one fella do it.  The Huns was firin back as fast and loose as they could.  Why they never shot him, I dunno.  You’da sworn some power was makin the bullets go round him.  They never missed like that, any normal time.’  He looked at his friend, who’d chosen not to go.  ‘Fella in charge of our company wrote a report, said he oughta get a medal.  He woulda too, except he never lasted long enough.’  He paused, still thinking.  ‘We were taken outa the line for a few days, the bloke got drunk and somehow managed to fall under the wheels of a truck.  Killed him.  So he never got his medal.’

deCourcey listened in silence.  Bill would find his own way out.  As a man who’d chosen not to go, he had no right to comment.  Bill said, ‘Flowers’re alive.  Sometimes I think of the flowers we saw in France.  I never seen anything so beautiful as the flowers that grew in the mud.  Until ...’

The soldier and the pacifist were in agreement.  The flowers of the high country were life itself, in all its radiance, and they came out every year, reminding ... reminding whom of what?  Bill needed no answer, because life itself was a question.  deCourcey needed no answer because if the earth could produce such flowers, surely mankind, so ingenious, so driven by all sorts of contradicting needs, could produce states of enlightenment as wondrous as the flowers?  Or could it?  deCourcey said, ‘I don’t think we need to organise anything special for our journey, Bill.  If our awareness is on a high enough plane, we’ll be rewarded in some way, and so will the men who come with us.  It’s up to us, my friend.  They’ll get their lead from us.’

Bill concluded their discussion.  ‘Well, okay, that’s been decided, then.’

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The lyrebird

The party was on another of those up and down ridges when they were surprised to come upon deCourcey, whom they’d thought far ahead, with his pack-laden horses.  It seemed that the birdman was in pantomime mood because he was putting his fingers to his lips, waving impatiently at anyone whose voice was loud, and so on.  Bill said to him, ‘Anything wrong, mate?’ only to see his face light up with joy.

‘Sssssssshhh!’  He pointed ahead.  The pilgrims gathered to see whatever it was he wanted them to know about, but it was a sound, not a sight, that came to them.  Someone was chopping wood.  Martin Casey couldn’t believe it.  ‘What?  Out here?  Who could possibly be doing that?’  But Bill was smiling now, and gathering his pilgrims to listen.  ‘Down the gully,’ he said.  ‘What a champ!’  The sounds changed.  The axe gave way to a cockatoo squawking, then a whipbird.  Bill was beaming.  ‘Bloody good, isn’t he!’ while deCourcey, by way of contrast, whispered, ‘The bush is conscious.  The forest knows about itself!’  It filtered through the minds of the walkers that what they were hearing was a lyrebird in performance, and that deCourcey had stopped them blundering into its territory.  They listened.  The bird gave them thirty or forty sounds, grew quiet, repeated a few of its calls, then withdrew into silence.  The pilgrims were delighted.  ‘How good was that!’  They’d heard something special, and deCourcey had earned their gratitude by stopping them.  Without him they’d have blundered forward and frightened the bird away.

It was a male bird, Bill reminded them.  ‘Makes ya wish y’could sing!’  The pilgrims had never heard him say anything like this.  Bill?  Sing?  Singing was a state you only entered after training the voice to be beautiful.  They weren’t that far developed, yet.  They were as new to the bush as it was new to them; no great art had yet derived from the meeting.  Nothing they knew had derived from the coming together they represented except, of course, the Skyline Tours they were on.  They asked deCourcey if a whipbird, say, could recognise that a lyrebird was making its sound, or would it too be deceived?  deCourcey wasn’t sure.  He asked Bill, who wasn’t sure either, but thought the genuine whipbird would know that there was something un-genuine about the sounds made by the lyrebird.  ‘Good question though,’ said Bill: ‘I dunno how’d you’d get an answer to that one, short of askin the birds, and they mightn’t know what you were talkin about!’

Suddenly they were self-conscious, talking about something as silly as humans talking to birds but deCourcey wanted to go on, having caught them, as it were, on ground he thought about all the time.  ‘We think we’re the top of the tree.  Nothing in the animal kingdom knows as much as we do.  But we may well be wrong!  The lyrebird gives back to the other birds what they give to it.  He makes them conscious of themselves.  We say that the creatures sharing the world with us can’t do such a thing, but we’ve just heard that they can!’  Bill began to suggest that the party could go on, now, because he didn’t expect the lyrebird to give a repeat performance, but deCourcey grew stubborn as a few of the pilgrims objected to what he was saying.  Carl Taylor said the lyrebird was just a mimic; that is, it imitated.  It couldn’t explain what it was doing, it merely did it.  deCourcey said this was insulting.  If the bird knew what other birds were doing then it must know about itself.  A number of the pilgrims disagreed.  The fact that the bird they’d listened to could render the sounds of its fellow creatures in the forest didn’t mean that it had a human understanding of them.  ‘No,’ deCourcey said, ‘of course not!  They don’t understand in the way we do, but they understand in another way.’  And what was that, the objectors wanted to know.  ‘Aha!’ the birdman told them, ‘you are starting to realise that the problem is everywhere.  Many creatures have better sight than we have.  Dogs have better noses.  Sense of smell,’ he added for the literal-minded who wanted to jump on him.  ‘Better hearing is everywhere in nature.  Better swimming.  Impossible flying!  Better caring for the young, or producing young that don’t need any nurturing.  Creatures are so different, one from another, that they can’t be ranked.  When we say we are at the top of nature’s tree, we are making a claim that shows how foolish we are.’

He’d have gone on but Bill led the party forward and made a sign to the birdman that he should get his horses in front of the main party and open up the gap he’d allowed to close.  So the pack-horses were set in motion but the argument was by no means stifled; walkers bunched when they could in order to keep the discussion going, and Bill knew his friend well enough to know that his mind would be seething with the ideas he’d only begun to express.  When the party came on the spot where Tiger and Andy had their fire going and were ready to serve the walkers, the stopping point was again on the edge of a steep drop: there was an open plain before them, a belt of bush sheltering whatever lived in the gorge cut by the stream that sprang out of the earth, and a belt of blue ranges separating plain from sky.  In accepting their drinks, the pilgrims felt they were taking on an inheritance of sorts, or were at the very least being tolerated, even accepted, perhaps, by the blue band of ranges.  They wanted to know the names of the mountains they were looking at.  ‘Don’t think there is a name for that lot,’ Bill told them.  ‘Nobody’s claimed the naming rights as yet.  Whaddya reckon?  Anyone got any ideas?’

This amused the walkers.  Ideas?  They had plenty.  Mount Tiger-Tea!  Mount Andy.  Mount Martin, after their organiser.  Mount Bill!  The bushman swept the idea aside.  ‘Can’t have that!  I didn’t discover it!’  The play went on.  Mount Lyrebird, Mount Sing-Song?  No.  Bill objected again, and so did deCourcey.  Lyrebirds didn’t belong on peaks, they made their homes in valleys, deep down out of sight.  They built nesting mounds, they weren’t birds of the soaring ranges at all.  Names had to be suitable, they had to express something of the spirit of a place …  ‘So,’ the pilgrims wanted to know, ‘what would you, deCourcey, like to call that peak, if it was up to you?’

The birdman hadn’t expected this, but the moment was upon him, and could not be denied.  ‘I call it Mount Serenity.  It is peaceful in itself and what it sees when it looks about it must be pleasing to its eyes.’

Bill surprised his walkers by commending this name to them.  ‘We’ve got enough Mounts Buggery, Despair, Seldom Seens and all the rest of those miserable names.  I think it’s time we had something cheerful instead.  But …’ and the old soldier looked respectfully at his friend, ‘… Serenity’s a bit high-falutin.  What say we call it Mount Peaceful?  Somethin oughta be peaceful in the world we live in.  Whaddaya reckon?’

deCourcey bowed his head respectfully, Martin Casey said he’d talk to his local Member of Parliament when they got home, and the matter was settled, at least as far as the party was concerned.  A mountain called Peaceful was looking down on them, and they were looking up to it.  As they finished their tea and started to clean up the spot, put out the fire and so on, another lyrebird startled them by calling from beyond the edge of the plateau they were on.  It wasn’t as adventurous as the first bird, but it was enough to make them feel that their day was as blessed as the place.  ‘Yes, yes!’ Martin said, with joy in his voice.  ‘Sing-Song Gully, I’ll put that name to him too.’

‘Ifya bloody well know where it is when he asks ya,’ Bill murmured to the birdman, and the two of them were laughing inside themselves at what they’d caused the senior of their pilgrims to undertake.  ‘We’ll probably find the names on a map one of these days … somewhere about twenty miles from here!’

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As they greeted their families, or caught the trains, trams and taxis that would take them home, they knew that something had ended.  They must revise, rethink, consider themselves and find a new way to look at what they’d been doing, or let new people take their places.  Bill, deCourcey and above all those eroded, eloquent places had had their effect.  In the lowlands again, they knew very well where they’d been.  Privilege had descended on their brows, their shoulders.  They were changed.  Could they go further, or were they, for the time being at least, finished?  That remained to be seen.  They were home.  Some new balance had to be made, or otherwise a resignation they were unwilling to sign.  Everything was familiar but nothing felt the same.  What to do?

Martin got himself to Sorrento as quickly as he could.  Sylvia had spoken to the chef to ensure that their dinner on the first night en famille was something impossible to cook on an open fire, a long, slow, bouillebaisse.  He saw the point at once, loved her for it, yet knew he would pay in some way, probably much later, when he thought his return was behind him.  She’d made friends with a fisherman and he’d taken the children and their mother into the bay, ‘but not through The Rip, Martin, we weren’t as bold as that.’  The Rip, if they decided to chance it, would be a decision for him to make.  His way back to being head of the family was so clear, so obvious, that he realised it was a ritual Sylvia had planned as the change in their family’s control.  He heard her tell someone she was ‘only’ the children’s mother and he knew that his children’s mother, at least, had promoted herself – no, had taken control while he was away.  He suggested to her that she should become a partner in his business in her own right and she agreed, telling him she’d already discussed this with a lawyer friend whom she named.

Ron Myrtle resumed arguing with Anna.  She knew he was trying to wear her down with patience, persistence, and something more ruthless than that.  She knew he didn’t consult her if he suspected he might meet resistance.  He had a delightful vagueness which she was scarcely able to penetrate.  ‘I haven’t thought about that yet,’ he would say, or, ‘Time enough for that when it’s needed.’  Nothing was ever needed when she thought it was needed. Or she might find that he’d done his measurements, given his orders and the new kitchen table, or cupboard she’d been planning to spring on him as her surprise was already being made, and in the way that he wanted it made.  The fact was that he had much better ideas about kitchens, stoves, gardens and almost everything else than she had; Anna was a controlling person whose planning came out of a limited mind, but she certainly wasn’t silly, and she knew that if Ron was ‘patient’ with her then he’d already decided something and was letting her talk as a way of dismissing ideas he didn’t need.  So why was she needed?  She wasn’t sure.  She could never quite sort out the goods and bads of their relationship because he didn’t let her see everything going on in his mind.

He left the office one afternoon and went to Pentridge to tell Erik Burchill about the latest tour.  Erik hadn’t realised how deeply imprisoned he was until he heard about the trip the men had made without him, their climbing, walking, their waking at dawn to relieve themselves in the bush and their return to sleeping bags until the noisy calls of their leader pulled them out for another day.  Ron told him where they’d been but he hadn’t brought a map and Erik had to question him – names and places – until he understood their route.  Many of the places were new to Erik, others known from earlier trips: Erik reacted strongly to both.  He wanted the new places described so that he could add them to those already in his mind, and he wanted the old ones recreated with new detail so that he could visit them again.  Ron saw, as he expected to see, that Erik thrived on this.  Liberty is best understood by those without it.  ‘Tell me more next time you come,’ were Erik’s last words to his visitor.  ‘Bring that map!  I want to see it all laid out so I can go there in my mind.’  Ron said he’d bring the map, and he certainly meant to, but Anna, had she been there to hear this conversation, would have told Erik that Ron did exactly as he pleased, he was selfish, he couldn’t be counted on, and that it was in some way an amusement for him, not a kindness, to tell Erik about things he’d never do again.

Erik wouldn’t be getting out of gaol until he was too frail to go walking in the mountains.  Ron wasn’t sure whether it was right of him to feed the prisoner’s dreams, but decided that it did less harm than staying away, and if telling Erik what he wanted to hear was in a roundabout way a cruel form of punishment, what more justification did he need beyond the fact that it was what Erik called for when it was offered?  That led Ron to wonder what he wanted for himself.  He wanted to go back to the high country the following year, but he couldn’t have told anyone why.  He thought about this and realised he didn’t know himself.  He knew that he did it as a way of annoying Anna, a way of reserving some part of himself from a demanding wife, but was there anything further, less disreputable than that?  He not only didn’t know, he wouldn’t know until he’d been in the mountains again with Bill, the other pilgrims and the men Bill enlisted to guide them and cook.  It seemed to him that Bill and the others from Briagolong, in leading simpler lives than their guests, were not as ‘limited’ as the walkers liked to think, but more certain of themselves.  Once you accepted that there were lines around the areas you could occupy, you were not so much trapped within the lines as able to make the most of what you’d got.  You only got your freedom after you accepted your restrictions!

This was a rich discovery for Ron.  He talked about it with everyone he met, including Anna.  She didn’t think that way and suspected he was putting a trap in her path.  ‘I’m glad I was brought up a Presbyterian,’ she told him.  ‘I’m in no danger of falling into a Jesuitical trap!’  This amused Ron.  ‘I haven’t turned my collar back to front, Anna.  Sometimes we see things we couldn’t see before.  What I’m telling you about is a good result of going on Bill’s tours.  The mountains give you detachment.  God knows they’ve got plenty!  The mountains are a lesson to us.  They do nothing except get eroded by abrasive winds, and yet they’re there!’  It was the sort of talk that annoyed his wife.  Of course the mountains were there.  They couldn’t pick themselves up and walk somewhere else.  They couldn’t buy and sell, and move as humans did, so what was so admirable about them, as her husband liked to think?  It was too much for Anna.  She hoped Ron would grow out of this nonsense and take up something else.

It was the opposite at Edwin Mickle’s house.  Robin, his wife, was an opposite almost by birth.  She was as skinny and tiny as he was fat.  They made jokes about themselves as a couple.  Their friends made jokes also, mostly of the four bare legs in bed variety.  How could she put up with him on top of her?  Or did they do it the other way around?  Or standing up?  So many imaginings of their love life were in circulation that the pair couldn’t help but be aware of their status as objects of curiosity.  They loved each other as perhaps only opposites can do.  Robin suggested that they get pictures taken - faked - of themselves at love-play on the back of a horse, leading Edwin to suggest that elephants offered more room.  If people thought their bodies were a silly combination it made them happier.  Robin was a simple soul and liked the fact that Edwin was smart, and it pleased Edwin that he wasn’t called on to justify his wilder flights of fantasy or, as he liked to call it, though he knew the claim was ridiculous, reason.  Edwin was scornful of the powers of reason, and when he told Robin about the mountain trips he liked to tell her things that the birdman had said or done.  Robin, untroubled by the stupidity of these statements, laughed with delight.  It pleased her that someone could be so wild, so bird-like, in his thinking.  Rationality mattered not at all, so who cared about its opposite?

Not Robin, nor Edwin either.  ‘I’m going again next year,’ he told her, ‘so long as they’ll have me.  I haven’t finished yet.’  She looked at him, unable to estimate how anyone would know if they were ‘finished’ with mountains or not.  ‘What I have to work out is what I would like various places out there to tell me.  You see, you do have a feeling that certain places have come to certain conclusions for themselves, and I’d like to work out …’ he hesitated ‘… what to ask them, if they could reply, or how to find out a way to hear the message they’ve got hidden there.’

She didn’t think this silly.  ‘What about automatic writing?’

‘What’s that?’

‘It’s a bit like people trying to get in touch with spirits.  They try to call them up.  I know it’s only mumbo-jumbo, but do you see what I mean?’

‘Tell me, if you can.  I’d like to know.’

‘Imagine you’re out there in a place that interests you, and you’ve got a pad and pencil.’

‘Go on.’

‘You get yourself into a trance.  You ask the spirit of the place to speak.’


‘And you write down what it says!’

He started laughing, and she, not in the least embarrassed, laughed even more light-heartedly than he did.  When he pulled a drawer open and there was a writing pad before their eyes, they roared with delight.  ‘Let’s do it now,’ Robin said.  ‘I’ll be the mountain.  You write down what I say!’

‘Darling Robin,’ he began and she demanded to know why he thought it wouldn’t work.  He took a grip on himself.  ‘We’ll never know, will we, unless we give it a try.’  That seemed obvious to her.  ‘Tell me what mountain I’m supposed to be.’  He looked unsure.  ‘Why does one of us have to be a mountain?’  ‘Silly!’ she said.  ‘How else can we know what the mountain’s got in its head?  One of us has to be the mountain and the other has to write it down.’  He still had doubts.  ‘How can you be a mountain you’ve never seen?’  Again, it was easy for Robin.  ‘You tell me what sort of mountain I am, and I’ll tell you what I’ve worked out.  I’ve been there for thousands of years, Edwin, millions, probably.  It’ll work.  Give it a try!’

He took up the pad and pencil, and tried to concentrate.  ‘Your name is …’


‘Your name is …’  He began to giggle.  ‘Mount Buggery!’

‘It bloody well is not!  Take me seriously, Edwin.  Just because you’re cleverer than I am, it doesn’t mean I’m silly.’

‘Mount Deception!’

She began to cry.  ‘I’ve never deceived you, Edwin.  Never.  Not once!  We’ve lived together for …’

He knew he had to stop her before she plunged into despair.  That couldn’t be allowed.  Pushing the pad and pencil into her hands, he said, ‘You take these.  You write down what I say.  This is worth a try and we’re going to try it.  Are you ready, Robin?  Really, truly, ready?  Here’s what I’ve got to say!’

Solemnly, simply, she took up the pencil.  ‘Speak, mountain,’ she said, as if it wasn’t silly to talk this way.  Edwin, loving his wife because her silliness made her vulnerable, wide open, to the cruelties inside him, called on the goodness he knew was also there, and, slowly, because she had to get the words down, and she wasn’t a natural with paper and pen, or pencil for that matter, he spoke.

‘I’m old and cold and I don’t blame you for calling me Buggery.  You can call me Deception if you like, because I don’t care.  I never deceived anybody and I never will.’

‘This is good darling.  But slowly, if you don’t mind.  I’ve got to get this down.’

‘The better name would be Complete Indifference – capital C, darling, capital I – Complete Indifference, but you mustn’t suppose I don’t know.  Knowledge accumulates.  It doesn’t need a brain, just a place that stays the same.’

‘Beautiful darling, I like what this mountain’s got to say!’

‘When you see things happen for the twenty-thousandth time, you give up speaking.  There’s no point in repeating yourself.  So what do you do?  You become more certain.  Sure.’  Edwin paused, needing to think.  It was both easier and harder than he’d expected.  And he was enjoying it because he felt possessed.  People with faith must feel the same, no matter how stupid they looked to those who hadn’t the same, sustaining faith.

‘Darling?  Go on … or can’t you hear what the mountain’s trying to say?’

‘I can hear, Robin.  I’m just gathering myself to make sure I get it right.’  In her childish, lovely way, she showed him the pad, where the words thus far had been written down.  He continued.  ‘I’m curious about people because I can’t possibly be one.  Nor can a person become a mountain, even though we’re curious about each other.  Mountains are curious about people because they’re mobile.  They can get around, sleep in many places, night after night …’

Robin giggled.  ‘Sleep with different people, night after night, if they’re … er…’  She wanted to say ‘lucky’ but it didn’t seem appropriate for a wife to say this to a husband.  Edwin went on as if she hadn’t broken in.  ‘… while mountains are doomed – or are we lucky? – to live our lives in one permanent place.  That means a mountain can’t be inconsistent.  It knows who it is.  If it’s a high mountain, it can see for miles, to the furthest horizon!  That’s why humans envy us, because they think we must be wise.  And we are!  But we can’t do a thing!  We know everything and we can’t act.  This makes us the opposite of people, who know buggerall, are bloody stupid most of the time, but …’

The excitement was catching up with Robin: ‘But?

‘… can do things with their stupidity.  Can act!  Can make mistakes and sometimes make fortunes too!  Wisdom, humans know, is useless when it can’t act, and mountains, which can’t act, are jealous of people, who can.  But human beings, travellers, voyagers … pilgrims! … are jealous, in their turn, because they know how stupid they can be.  Like attracts like, it’s said, but like attracts its unlike, or so it seems to this mountain …’

She interrupted again.  ‘What’s your name, mountain?  You’d better tell us that!’

He thought.  He found an answer but not the courage to say it.  She put down her pencil and took his hand, rubbing it tenderly.  ‘Your name, darling?  You must have a name?  Or do you want me to give you one?’

He felt his desire for her rising, and his courage too.  ‘Mount Hope, that’s who I am.  That’s what I’m called.’

‘Who gave you that name, darling?  Was it someone who knows you well?’

‘It was you, my love.  You gave me hope, and you give it to me still.  Every minute of every day.  Life wouldn’t be worth living without the hope you give me, because it equates with love.’  She was amazed that their foolery and passion had so entwined with each other that they’d produced this moment.  ‘Then my name,’ she said, ‘is clear, too.  I’m Mount Uncertainty, I’m Mount Unsure, and when I’m gazing through the ethereal sky at you on the opposite horizon, I know who I am, and I also know where I am.  I’d be lost if I didn’t have you, darling, truly I’d be lost, I wouldn’t have a clue what to do.  Go on another trip if you must, darling, but don’t fall in love with another mountain out there, one of those ones I’ve never seen.  Find your way back home, darling, and you’ll find me waiting for you.’  She felt her chest heaving as she tried to take in more air than she needed.  ‘It’s just a chance, darling, but somehow the cards have fallen our way.  We need another mountain for that, and I’ll call it Mount Give Thanks.  You understand why I say that, don’t you darling?’

She looked at him with a passion that belied the gossip of their friends suggesting that they were a shallow, amusing couple: four bare legs in bed!  Their souls had a spaciousness which allowed the universe to wander in, wander about, and wander away when it wanted to.  ‘When you go back, darling,’ she said, ‘next year, if that’s when it is, you’ll have to find a humble little hill that nobody wants to take from you, and name it after me!’

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The writing of this book:

This book came about in a curious way.  I was asked to select writers and examples of their work for an Australian edition (November 2012) of the Beijing magazine World Literature.  I did this and at the invitation of the people at the magazine I included my story Escape, which I had published in 2004 as a tiny booklet (mini-mag) circulated throughout Australia by Avant Card free postcards.  The story concerns a solitary woman and a local landholder, and the locale for their dialogue is a hut just off the edge of the Dargo High Plains, within reach of Victoria’s Mount Hotham.  My setting and theme were, I thought, essentially Australian, but I was to be surprised.  Both the editor I was working with (Xiao Ping) and the translator of Escape (my dear friend Chen Shubo) were taken by the story.  It treated a theme that has long been part of China’s culture – the hermit, artist or scholar who goes into remote and/or mountainous places as part of a spiritual quest.  Their enthusiastic response caused me to search my mind for something that would allow me to go a little further in this treatment of the theme of spirituality, normal life, remote places, and the relation between the three.

The quirkiness of Escape meant that it could hardly give rise to a sequel or any other form of development from within itself, so I decided to work with two personalities and a narrative strand from my first published book, Hail and Farewell! An Evocation of Gippsland (Heinemann, Melbourne, 1971, and now available from my website).  Bill Gillio (I called him Gallico in 1971) was unusual in his normality, a man representative of his generation in his willingness to go to war, and representative also of the Gippsland mountains version of the Australian bush man.  deCourcey O’Donovan, on the other hand, was most unusual in his pursuit of spirituality as a release from the pressures and problems – the impossibilities perhaps? – of normal life.  Neither of these men married, yet they stamped themselves indelibly onto the character of their place and time.  Something that bonded them, apart from personal friendship, was their role in the operation of the Skyline Tours, which took parties of about thirty Melbourne men into the mountains from the summers of the mid 1920s to the last excursion in 1940.  It was deCourcey who called these walkers ‘the pilgrims’, and it was Bill who showed me some of the albums of photos taken on these tours and distributed among participants at a follow-up dinner held in Melbourne some weeks after each walk ended.

I was, as a young man, fascinated by the mountains of Gippsland, I roamed all over them in my car, alone and with other people, and I walked on a number of occasions from the Dargo-Bairnsdale road to Castle Hill, one of the places mentioned in The Pilgrims.  I also wrote a vast play on the life and doings of deCourcey the birdman (Up there, deCourcey!).  This was never published, nor is it available on the trojanpress website, but a copy sits with my other papers in the National Library, Canberra.  The play has its moments, I think, but the fact is that as a young man I simply couldn’t control its ambitious theme, that of the relationship between ‘normal’ life and a life lived in search of spiritual enlightenment.  The enthusiastic response accorded my story Escape by Xiao Ping and Chen Shubo prompted me to return to the Skyline Tours, the doggedly democratic Bill and the spiritual searches of deCourcey, to see if I could do a little better in my old age what I had attempted to do when I was training myself to be a writer.

Readers will note my claim in the first section of the book that the many mountains mentioned should be considered as characters in the book.  This means that these places are supposed to become forces in the readers’ minds.  They are not characters in the sense of being able to act in a variety of ways they have chosen for themselves, but I have tried to show them resonating in the minds of the pilgrims who walk to and between them, and I hope that readers, too, will sense them as influences in that thematic discussion mentioned above, of spirituality, remoteness, and the areas of life which most of us think of as ‘normal’.

The Pilgrims is nothing like most people’s idea of what a novel is about, or like.  It’s not contemporary, it’s got no love interest, while its people are unimportant, barely worth noticing, one might say.  Yet I found it both testing, and very enjoyable, to write.  I was trying myself out to see if I could do something.  A few days after I finished it, I found myself recalling something that happened in Bairnsdale fifty years before:

One of the few possessions [Hal Porter] had carried with him since his days with the Occupation Army in Japan was a copy of Hokusai’s Mengwa, or sketchbooks.  When Hal showed them to me, in the back room of the Bairnsdale library, I was enchanted by this foreign world of finely drawn wrestlers, monkeys, courtesans, and crowds of umbrellas crossing dainty bridges.  This was an art that was full of life, and the life of the streets, at that.  Hal told me that Hokusai had described himself, in his eighties, as ‘an old man mad about painting’.  Hal was 48.  I was 26.

At the time I was recalling, Hal was well on the way to establishing himself as a writer, while I had only the faintest idea that I might be drawn to follow the same path.  That was then, and now is now.  Hal is dead, I’m 79, and I find that I too am mad about my art, which is, like Hal’s, the art of writing.  One’s thoughts, like the English language itself, are not easy to bring under control, but trying to do so seems, at this late stage, one of the few demands worth making an effort to respond to.

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