This is a spellbinding book. The arresting cover photo of a lonely grave in an arid vista of Australia’s Red Centre, gives some clue to the story within, but it also symbolises so much more. To our 21st century eyes, the grave with its Christian iconography seems incongruous: that land has been indigenous country since time immemorial. What is that grave doing there in that barren landscape?
Journey to Horseshoe Bend is the astonishing tale of an epic journey taken by the Lutheran missionary Carl Strehlow in 1922. Travelling upright in a chair on the back of a horse-drawn buggy, and accompanied by his fourteen-year-old son Theo in a van drawn by donkeys, Strehlow and his wife Frieda Keysser struggled for twelve days in the relentless heat across the dry bed of the Finke River in Central Australia to get medical help. A doctor was driving up to Oodnadatta and they were hoping to meet up with him via Horseshoe Bend, 250km miles away from the mission at Hermannsburg (130-odd km southwest of Alice Springs). They never did reach help: after 28 years of devoted outback service in the most remote parts of the country, Carl Strehlow died at Horseshoe Bend, leaving his wife and child penniless and dependent on the goodwill of the Lutheran community and the stoic folk of the outback.
Years later, T.G.H. (Theo a.k.a. Ted) Strehlow who was traumatised by these events from his boyhood, chronicled each day’s journey across the unforgiving landscape. There are four elements to his story: the journey with all its trials and tribulations; the history of the pastoral industry and the mission at Hermannsburg; Aboriginal myths and legends about the landscape over which they move; and Biblical stories, notably the story of Job, who was chosen by the Old Testament God to suffer innumerable sufferings as a test of his faith. As the reader follows the trail, the narration becomes more and more engaging, because none of it can be taken at face value. T.G.H. has an axe to grind against the Lutherans that (he thought) had failed to help and could have saved his father’s life; he makes dubious claims that the local Aranda (Arrente/Arrarnta) people had given his father sacred knowledge usually given only to the initiated; and he offers an account of his father’s innermost religious doubts and fears, which he could not possibly have known. And although he is honest about massacres of the indigenous people, and admits to the widespread practice of child removal when white men fathered daughters to indigenous women who they used as of right, T.G.H. has a Eurocentric view of missionary activity and dispossession, believing that development of indigenous land was appropriate and that spreading a foreign religion was God’s work.
Despite – or perhaps because of – these flaws, this classic of Australian literary history is utterly compelling to read.
The University of Western Sydney has a project website which includes archival photos and videos of the journey to Horseshoe Bend, capturing Hermannsburg and its residents, including the participants in this story. While the book paints a vivid picture of the surrounding landscape at Henbury, Idracowra, Tempe Downs and Horseshoe Bend, these images enhance the reader’s understanding of the difficult terrain. If you ever wondered why indigenous Australians had no need to invent the wheel, footage of vehicles driving through deep sand and gibber deserts shows why walking was infinitely easier in the days before 4-wheel drive. Indeed, in rough stages T.G.H. found himself getting off the van and walking too … but his father was in no condition to walk. Early in the book, T.G.H. explains his situation:
There could no longer be any doubts about it at this stage: he had originally suffered an attack of pleurisy and, because of long neglect, dropsy [Oedema] had begun to set in. His swelling lower limbs and his constantly weakening condition, a little later also his increasing shortness of breath, had made him fully ware of the urgent necessity for seeking out medical help without delay. (p.22)
Strehlow was due to return to Germany, to be reunited with his four older sons and a daughter who had been at school there for over a decade. But – perhaps because of hubris – he delayed his return until a suitable replacement could be found. He did not have a high opinion of his Lutheran brethren, and he was held in high regard by the indigenous people, among whom he was known as the ‘ajua’ (old man of importance or ‘ingkata’ (ceremonial chief). According to the Afterword by Phillip Jones, he had rescued the mission from a disorganised shambles; instilled durable Christian faith; and completed an extraordinary work of scholarship about the Arrernte and Luritja peoples. (p.293) Strehlow had also put a stop to police massacres in revenge for indigenous cattle spearings, and although for religious reasons he did not allow indigenous ceremonies on mission land he was tolerant of their religious beliefs, and he paid them the respect of learning their language and used it to deliver his sermons. So he was not going to hand over his legacy to anyone who didn’t meet his standards.
Today the Flying Doctor Service could have saved his life, but Strehlow left his departure too late:
[On the morning of departure] Strehlow knew that he was about to take the irrevocable step of leaving Hermannsburg on a journey which might end with his own death long before Oodnadatta had been reached. His physical condition had kept on deteriorating each day. His lower limbs were already so swollen that his trousers had to be let out considerably to enable him to wear them at all; and for the past week he had no longer been able to sleep in his bed. He had been forced to use an upholstered chair at night, so that he could sit upright without pressing too heavily with his back against any supports: for as soon as he lay down on his bed, the resulting compression of the fluids in his body made his breathing both difficult and painful. He had also been forced to push his trusted homeopathic medicines aside and to use the strong drugs from the official medicine chest supplied to the station by the government health service. During the past week he had needed a full dose of laudanum every night in order to gain any sleep at all. (p. 26)
The suffering of this man as he made his way towards hope of help was appalling.
Theo watched with horrified fascination the wheel tracks made by his father’s buggy the night before, particularly at the places where they crossed these sudden watercourses. Many of them were only about twenty feet wide, and their low, hard clay and rock banks descended almost perpendicularly to a depth of two, or even three, feet at the camel pad crossings. It was clear from the wheel marks and the tracks of the struggling horses that the buggy had plunged down during the night into all of these watercourses with a violent jar that would almost have shaken the passengers off their seats, and that sometimes several harsh and jolting leaps by the rear horses had been necessary before the vehicle had bumped its way out of the deeper gutters again. Since the driver had only the dim lantern lights carried by the two riders in front of the buggy to guide him, it was amazing that the vehicle had not been overturned when hitting the sharpest and deepest of these ditches. What the totally exhausted sick man had been forced to suffer on his rough night ride through the Land of Death was almost beyond imagination. (p.183-4)
Could not God at least have spared him unseasonably hot weather? asks Theo, as he tries to reconcile the story of Job with the sufferings of his father.
There are three heroes of this story: Mrs Ruby Elliot, who rode seventy miles in twenty four hours over rough country without taking a rest; her husband Gus Elliot who offered to race down eighty miles in a buggy to Charlotte Waters in less than a day and a half, pick up the doctor on his arrival, and then turn around without a break in order to speed back in the same space of time or even less; and Ezekiel’s marathon walk to Alice Springs. There were also the drivers of the van and the buggy, plodding along in temperatures well over the century, and many readers will find it painful to read of the sufferings of the animals along the route as well. While T.G.H. is under no illusions about the way bushmen treated the indigenous people, especially women, he contrasts the way that the uneducated, a-religious men and women of the outback always looked out for each other, against the cant of the Lutherans far from the remote missions, who did nothing to help their loyal servant. Philip Jones in the afterword refutes this accusation, and suggests that T.G.H. elevated the conduct of the bush folk in order to shame the mean-spirited Lutherans who caused his father’s death. Whatever the truth of it, it is clear that T.G.H. felt that his father was paid the respect he deserved by the men who attended the inevitable wake in the Horseshoe Bend Hotel.
The book initially gives the impression of being a non-fictional account but the narrative perspectives and the mythical elements suggest otherwise. Is it a novel? In the program notes to Journey to Horseshoe Bend, a cantata for actors, singers, choruses and orchestra, composers Andrew Schultz and Gordon Kalton Williams refer to it as the ‘novel’ which inspired their work, but they praise it as a story of the promise of two cultures intermixing. T.G.H.’s story is bookended by excerpts of hymns by Bach that were sung by the Aranda people at Strehlow’s departure and at the funeral. In his retellings of Aranda creation myths as the party makes its way towards Strehlow’s doom, T.G.H. seems to give equal status to indigenous religion and his own Christian faith. In the end, the genre of the book doesn’t matter. It’s a magnificent piece of classic literature, and Giramondo Publishing are to be congratulated on republishing it after it has been out of print for almost forty years.
Author: T.G.H. Strehlow
Introduction by Philip Jones
Title: Journey to Horseshoe Bend
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2015
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing
PS This title is one of a series of Giramondo Classic Reprints. #SomethingToLookForwardTo In July they are bringing out Landscape with Landscape by Gerald Murnane as part of the same series.