It's a picture-perfect late winter's day on the sparkling southern shores of Eden's Twofold Bay. The waves are gently washing the oyster-covered rocks, the pelicans are cheekily chasing the cormorants, and along with a few fluffy white clouds, the imposing peak of Mt Imlay holds up the western horizon. From my vantage spot on a headland near the historic Davidson Whaling Station, rays of afternoon sunlight flicker off thousands of tiny white shell fragments which are scattered around my feet, and which form the top of a three-metre high ancient midden.
"This spot really makes my heart sing," beams naturalist and writer John Blay as he invites me to join him sitting on an old log, which fell long ago on top of the midden, making a tailor-made seat.
"We could sit back here and tuck into some fresh abalone, or sip a glass of wine, knowing that people have been coming here, feasting and enjoying this same view for thousands of years," suggests Blay.
I fossick around in my backpack; all I've got to toast this unforgettable vista is a bottle of stale water. But accompanied with an outlook like this, even water left sitting in the sun of the yowie mobile for most of the day somehow tastes refreshingly good.
Between sips, Blay points towards a gap in the distant hills, and confidently states "after you ford across the Kiah Inlet the Bundian Way then makes its way to the south of Balawan [Mt Imlay]."
If anyone can pinpoint the exact route of the Bundian Way, an ancient pathway used by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years which links the far South Coast to the roof of Australia, Mt Kosciuszko, from this distance, then it has to be Blay. The quietly spoken 71-year-old dedicated the best part of a decade traversing some of the nation's wildest, most remarkable landscapes searching for and rediscovering the 360-kilometre historic pathway which had become "lost" after more than two centuries of European settlement.
His epic journey of rediscovery, chronicled in On Track: Searching Out the Bundian Way (NewSouth, 2015), is much more than a bushwalking narrative; it's a spiritual odyssey in which Blay uncovers the long lost history associated with this significant track. It also highlights the trials and tribulations of long-distance walking. For example, at one point in the dry hills above the Snowy River, Blay's water drop leaked away after an attack by animals and he was forced to survive for several days without water.
However, it's Blay's delightfully detailed descriptions of the varying country through which he travels, unmatched by anything else I've read about this region, that makes On Track a must-read for any lover of the Australian bush, bushwalker or not.
Although the two ends of the old way – the high country and the coast – were relatively easy for Blay to uncover, the route between the eastern side of Monaro and the coast "wasn't so obvious" and he admits he had to "keep returning to find it".
Since first walking its entire length in 2002, Blay has negotiated the rudimentary track (actually it's mostly a series of waypoints) several times, however, luckily for me, this afternoon we are only following a few kilometres of the ancient way.
Just a short walk from the giant midden is Bilgalera, a flat area bounded on the bay side by a sandy beach, on the eastern side by a fertile estuary, and on the southern side by a steep naturally-occurring rock and earth wall, which all together combine to create a natural beach-side amphitheatre. "This is the site of a well-documented corroboree ground," says Blay, who adds, "well before white fellas arrived the Aborigines gathered here to feast on whales and have a good time".
Not far from the corroboree grounds, Blay leads me to a carved tree which overlooks the sapphire waters of the bay. This was the tree which he stopped at to ponder his remarkable feat on first completing the entire Bundian Way in 2002.
Today, the dead tree, protected from the elements by a crudely erected tin roof, is covered with the scars of many generations including "steps" hacked into the trunk, which according to Blay, indicate "the arrival of the white fellas and allowed people to climb up to spot fish or whales, or even to look back into the country along the old way."
"This vulnerable stump stands for all the stories brought here over the millenia, to be played out in song and dance, or told around the campfire, or even scribbled hurriedly into a notebook by early European settlers," says Blay who sees the tree as a symbol for the entire track, "a story of survival against the odds, of tribulation and triumph, reconciliation and renewal".
Despite the richness of the Indigenous sites around Twofold Bay, Blay's preferred stretch of the Bundian Way is back up in the high country. "I love it up around the Ramshead Range where on a really clear morning, before the eucalypts start pumping that blue into the sky, you can see all the way to Balawan," he says.
On a recent pilgrimage to the Ramsheads, Blay reports that "suddenly all the big rocks and tors turned black and then within seconds the blackness lifted off into the sky and took wing." It turned out to be millions of little ravens "who'd been feasting on the bogong moths, all taking flight at once".
Although the entire route of the Bundian Way from Targangal [Mt Kosciusko] to the coast is now fully mapped, there are still many hurdles for Blay and the Indigenous community to overcome before it can be opened as a modern walking track, complete with primitive campsites, and a wilderness lodge.
However, that hasn't stopped the impassioned Blay from regularly venturing along various sections of the track with local Indigenous people, most of whom have found it a healing journey. "The more they walk it, the more they have felt healed," Blay says.
One of his most memorable moments on the track was while camping with a group of Indigenous people in 2010. "On the first night, as we all went to bed, they threw a heap of logs on the fire, and I said, 'why are you doing that?' That's for the old people to come and sit by the fire and talk after we've gone to bed," was their immediate response recalls Blay, with a slight quiver in his voice. "It really showed me the level of respect they held for the many generations that had been there before them."
If Blay's dream does materialise and the heritage-listed Bundian Way is eventually open to the public for its entire length, it will surely be one of Australia's great walks. Bushwalkers from all over the world will flock to hike such a significant ancient pathway. Not only will it provide an innovative (albeit energetic) way to share the long lost Indigenous history of our south-east, but it will also provide a much-needed boost to eco-tourism in the area.
To correspond with the start of the 2015-16 cruise ship season (Eden is expecting a record 21 ships to visit during the next 18 months), a short section of the Bundian Way along the Twofold Bay foreshore is set to open later this year. While most of the track will be basic, a two-kilometre long "story section" near Eden will be wheelchair and elderly friendly to accommodate the thousands of cruise ship passengers who Blay and local Indigenous communities hope will want to be among the first to step out along part of the rediscovered Bundian Way.
The day the ribbon is cut (no doubt with a stone tool) to open this path, I've vowed to return, only this time I'll ensure I have something a little more celebratory than warm water to share.
The book: Mark McKenna, professor of History at Sydney University will launch John Blay's On Track: Searching out the Bundian Way (NewSouth, 2015, $39.99) at ANU School of Art at 5.30pm on Wednesday, September 2. The launch will coincide with the opening of Beyond Balawan: Visual Arts responses to the Bundian Way. All welcome but RSVP is essential via: tinyurl.com/no26bal.
Did you know? John Blay is the Bundian Way project officer for the Eden Local Aboriginal Land Council and has written extensively about the bush and its people in poetry, drama and prose.
Although the 360-kilometre Bundian Way isn't open for walking yet, an equally epic journey along the Snowy River into the remote Byadbo Wilderness which is criss-crossed by the ancient pathway was recently launched and already has John Blay's tick of approval.
Blay describes the multi-day paddle into "one of the most remarkable regions of the Australian continent: scenic, dramatic and full of special wildlife and cultural places," as the "experience of a lifetime".
The seasoned trekker, who recently joined a pilot paddle down the legendary river reports that "walking in this section of the wilderness is well-nigh impossible due to the many cliffs and high ridges that fall directly to the river, and that the only way to get to know that area is to travel downriver."
The 70-kilometre paddle from Delegate to Jacobs River is led by Richard Swain, one of Australia's most experienced river guides and who regular readers may remember expertly led a certain akubra-clad columnist down the rapids of Red Rocks Gorge near Tuggeranong.
"More people would paddle the Franklin River in one season than would have seen this section of the Snowy since European occupation," says Swain. "it's not only about the amazing scenery but also the Indigenous stories as well as the wildlife, including brumbies, emus, kangaroos, sea eagles and platypus."
A medium level of fitness is required and river conditions very from flat water to grade-3 rapids. Five-day, four-night (inclusive of food, camping gear, boat and guide) river adventures range from $990 a person (six people maximum) Upcoming dates are September 17-21, October 1-5 , November 12-16 and December 3-7. For more information and to book, contact Alpine River Adventures, Ph: (02) 64533016, riverguide.com.au.
Where in Canberra?
Clue: The room at the back of this bus shelter has no doors, no windows and no obvious way of access.
Degree of difficulty: Medium.
Last week: Congratulations to Glenn Schwinghamer of Kambah who was first to correctly identify last week's photo, sent in by Chris Blunt of Macarthur, as "the 19th-century stone wall, built as a boundary between the rural properties of Yarralumla and Lanyon, and which can be seen in a mostly reconstructed state, running from near present-day Athlon Drive down to the Murrumbidgee River near its junction with Tuggeranong Creek."
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday, August 29, 2015 with the correct answer wins a double pass to Dendy cinemas.