I had been looking forward to reading this book since its release last year, and I’m happy to say that I wasn’t disappointed. Melissa Harper has turned her PhD thesis into a very readable (translation: accessible to the layperson) argument about how bushwalking emerged as a recreational pastime in Australia.
Harper begins with accounts of journeys undertaken by the earliest European settlers around Sydney –which are interesting in themselves- and follows this history of walking in Australia through exploratory walks by people emulating explorers, gentlemen (and lady) pedestrians, nature lovers, trampers, hikers and finally bushwalkers. The questions she poses are: What is bushwalking? How did bushwalking emerge? And: How do the walkers of the past differ with what we understand as bushwalking today?
Another appealing feature of this book are the historical photographs of walkers –and the front of the 1934 Women’s weekly with two gorgeous female bushwalkers in shorts boldly defying stuffy post-Victorian era sensibilities. (Gary thought this picture alone made the book worth reading. His comment: the girls are ‘honeys’…). The photos support the text, l and there are enough of them to keep drawing the reader through the book without interrupting Harper’s argument.
I should say that I enjoyed the chapters about the early settlers, gentlemen bushwalkers and the explosion of hiking between the World Wars much more than I enjoyed the account of bushwalking more recently. I felt the last two chapters left a lot of interesting information out. For example, little mention is made about the bushwalking movement’s role in establishing the NSW NPWS –a literature I am familiar with from my own PhD research- or about the political splits between the various walking groups in Sydney. Perhaps Harper had this in her PhD manuscript but had to leave it out of the book.
Another topic I would like to have seen discussed in depth was of the advent of long trails (like the Bibblemun and Larapinta) and a bit about walking in Central Australia – but again, perhaps it’s in Harper’s thesis and had to be left out.
At any rate, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and was sad to finish it. Actually, I should say that I’m a little jealous that I didn’t think of it as a PhD topic myself. The Ways of the Bushwalker won’t be of interest to everyone, but if you’re a bushwalker or interested in conservation or natural history, give this book a read.