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The oldest transport plan of all: walking

Date

Catherine Armitage

The BIG idea

In the week's weft of words, Premier Mike Baird spun a Rumpelstiltskin-esque vision of road and rail transport gold woven from electricity privatisation straw. No surprise that in all the shining talk of poles and wires, toll roads and trains, there was scant attention for our cheapest and oldest ways of getting around, cycling and walking.

The British wanderer Robert Macfarlane in his wonderful 2012 book on walking, The Old Ways, calls the paths of his homeland ''a labyrinth of liberty, a slender network of common land that still threads through our aggressively privatised world of barbed wire and gates, CCTV cameras and 'No Trespassing' signs''.

To him, a 50-year-old path is a ''young way''. There are ''old ways'' in England so grooved into the earth by the passage of feet and wheels that they are sunken six metres deep. They're called holloways. The wealth of words to portray what in Australia is called merely a path or track conveys the depth and richness of British walking culture: pilgrim path, green road, drove road, corpse road, trod, ley, dyke, drong, sarn, snicket, bostle, shute, driftway, lichway, riding, halterpath, cartway, carney, herepath.

We can only envy the Scandinavian customary right of Allemansratten, or ''everyman's right'', which allows a citizen to walk anywhere on uncultivated land, gather flowers, nuts and berries, light fires, sleep and swim in any watercourse provided they cause no harm. With no history of feudalism, the Scandinavians lack an inherited deference to the landowning class, Macfarlane points out. So it makes sense that it's in Aboriginal art that the most vivid and reverential portrayals of human and animal tracks in contemporary Australian culture are found.

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