FAQ - General

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What is Bushwalking?

Bushwalking covers a very wide range of terrain in Australia: from the heat (and rain) of Far North Queensland to the wild territory (and more rain) of South West Tasmania; from desert walking to ski touring, from easy track walking in rolling country to canyoning in the Blue Mountains, and so on. Needs differ - not surprising with a continent the size of ours.

"Bushwalking" means walking through the Australian bush: other countries call it something else (hiking, tramping, trailing ...) because they do not have our "bush". Aspiring hard walkers may be interested to know that Australian bushwalkers do have a bit of a reputation - or at least our bush does. Some overseas companies will not release some of their lighter gear in Australia because our bush is too rough. Apparently, walking in some countries usually means "on a track", rather than "off track". Bunch of wusses.

And from where did we get this term 'Bushwalking'? I thank Anthony Dunk and Tom Brennan for the following.

The word "bushwalking" is derived from the title of the first hiking club in Sydney which was open to both genders. This club, formed in the late 1920's, was originally called the Waratah Walking Club, but then changed its name to "Bush Walkers". Later the name of the club was changed to Sydney Bush Walkers (SBW). "Bush" is just an Australian term for our unique combination of Eucalypt forests, wildflowers and scrub.

"Trekking" in this country usually means going around Youth Hostels and such: is isn't covered here. "Camping" here generally refers to a fixed camp, which may be near a car. We don't really cover car camping much either. Other specialised activities are described later on.



This can raise a puzzled look on many walker's faces, but there is a generally agreed etiquette among experienced walkers, even if they don't think about it. There are two parts to it: how you treat the bush, and how you treat others.

Minimum Impact Bushwalking (MIB) is a conservation ethic adopted in Australia and many other countries. It means you try to do no damage at all to the environment: ideally someone following you could not tell you had been there. The MIB motto, upgraded from the older Sierra Club one, is "Take nothing but photos, leave nothing". This is in some contrast to the older idea that one should make pioneer and "tracks" everywhere. Can you imagine what our wilderness regions would be like today if there were tracks everywhere?

One of the issues which does often arise in discussing MIB is the maximum size of a group of walkers. In keeping with the principles of MIB, we generally encourage walkers to travel in small groups rather than large ones. We leave it to others to define exactly what a "small" group is: it varies with the terrain. The author finds a party of two about right, but novices would be advised to have a slightly larger party for safety. Some clubs do seem to have trouble keeping to small parties - conga lines of over thirty people have been seen in places.

How you treat others relates mainly to noise. We do not go through the bush with radios blaring and phones squawking. In fact, we mostly leave such things at home, although some people carry a mobile phone in their pack, switched off, as a safety measure. After all, how are you going to see all the wildlife around if you scare it off with loud noise? Anyhow, in most of the good walking places there is no phone coverage anyhow.

We remember sitting quietly by our tent on the Colo river one hot evening. A bird sang nearby. Then another bird sang. Then yet another bird sang. After about 15 minutes we realised that what we were really hearing was a lyrebird going through its entire repertoire, just 2 metres away from us. After 30 minutes it decided we had heard enough and flew away. How can electronics equal that?


Learning about bushwalking

Many of us learnt by just going and doing it. This is perfectly OK, but sometimes you can shortcut some of the more painful (or memorable) experiences by learning from others. The best advice for novices seeking to learn about bushwalking is join a bushwalking club where other members will delight in teaching them (or showing off their knowledge anyhow). This is a good way to learn about gear, navigation and survival. Lists of Club web sites may be found on the bushwalking.org.au web site and on other web sites. Scout and Guide groups are usually fairly good sources for younger people as clubs often have age limits (for insurance reasons).

You can also learn something from going on commercial trips, but these are usually a bit short and hurried. If you want it all spelt out for you the first few times (and have lots of money), this may work for you. Commercial operators are usually found under "Adventure" in the Yellow Pages. However, it may be worth while pointing out here that we do not have any regulations in Australia as to who can set themselves up as 'professionals' or take children on adventure trips. In Europe and New Zealand there are Guide Associations with very strict regulations: this may have to happen here one day too. In the meantime, you are on your own.

You may learn a bit from going on school and church group trips, but sadly these groups seem to feature a lot in Search & Rescue operations - as victims. We realise many of the people involved mean well, but we cannot recommend this path.

One associated question is what age range can go walking. Well, we have seen walkers of all ages from new-born to over 90, although both extremes (usually) take it a bit more easy than the rest of us. Paddy Pallin died of a heart attack at 89 while ski-touring. If you want to go walking, just go.


Bushwalking Areas

People often ask "where can I go walking?" In fact, there are hordes of places, but a good starting point is to contact the local National Parks office and get some sketch maps from them for their areas. These show walking tracks, and usually give useful information about the routes as well. Bushwalking club meetings are of course a mine of information, as are bushwalkers' web sites.

In practice most bushwalking in Australia is done in National Parks or State Forests. The legal reasons for staying off private property are fairly obvious. However, there is also the fact that most private property is not very interesting to walk through anyhow, having been converted to cow and sheep paddocks and such like. Other legal issues like river banks are covered later on, but usually these can be followed.

In the better known areas you will find tracks. Places like Kuringai Chase, Royal National and the Grose Valley in the Blue Mountains, Wilsons Prom in Victoria and so on have lots of tracks, some of them of "tourist" quality. The more remote areas don't have tracks, and so greater navigation skills are required. This comes with practice. It makes sense to start on tracks so you can enjoy your trips.

If you go overseas you may find that things are very different there. In the UK for instance all land is privately owned. Even the National Parks are privately owned: you will find yourself sharing the hills with sheep, or sometimes cows (or sometimes very low-flying fighter jets which can scare the pants off you). Often you have to stay on a "Right of Way" footpath. Europe too has lots of organised tracks, like the GR10 in the Pyrenees or the Tour de Mont Blanc. Most American walking seems to be done on tracks as well, although they do have some very long and very well-known ones like the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), the Appalachian Trail (AT) and the John Muir Trail. Be grateful for the freedoms we have in Australia.

There is a consensus among walkers that we do not broadcast track information for those areas officially designated by the Parks Services as "Wilderness Areas". For a start, they are wilderness areas. 'No published track notes' means every group can have the fun of doing their own exploration, rather than blindly following someone else's instructions. Secondly, those areas are usually fairly rugged, and safe travel through them requires a bit of experience and skill. When you have that, you don't need track notes. That said, you will still find a lot of information from other experienced walkers at a personal level and from club meetings.


Flora and Fauna

Australia is blessed with an incredible range of unique flora and fauna. But much of it requires careful searching. Some, like the Wollemi Pine, is very rare. Native orchids (my pet flora) need a sharp eye, but great is the joy when a new species is found and photographed. (A funny sight, two walkers flat on their faces on the ground inspecting some little flower with a magnifying glass!)

Every now and then someone asks where the Wollemi Pines are located. One web site gives two map references, but these turn out to be those of the Sydney and Brisbane Royal Botanic Gardens. Very droll, albeit true. The general situation is that those who do know where the sites are won't admit to knowing, and those who don't know won't admit that either. The sites are small, and we are rather protective of them.

Fauna is more difficult: it can run away. Make a lot of noise and you will see very little. But despite what some "experts" say, our bush does have a lot of fauna, even in frequented areas. Keep looking, read a few books, and gradually you will start to see birds in trees, animal and bird tracks at creek banks and waterholes, nests in trees, burrows in hidden spots, animal dung ("scats") in places, and of course snakes and lizards sunning themselves by the river. Identifying all these becomes a pastime. There is a fascinating book by Barbara Triggs called "Identifying Animal Tracks and Signs" - more commonly known as "What Shat That?".

I am sure it was a python I tried to use as a handhold while going up a cliff in Wollemi once - at least I hope it was. Fortunately it decided to retreat into a hole under a rock. And I am still not really sure whether it was an antechinus or "something else" which ate a hole through my tent and into my muesli bag one night on the Cox. The Magpie we had outside our tent in the snow near Twynam was fussy: cheese or meat were OK, but no vegetables thank you. It didn't quite get its beak in the cooking pot. The ones at Yerranderie were much more tolerant: food is food. And the mountain pygmy possum we found at Lake Pedder trying to eat our food was incredibly cute. What could we do but watch him eat? Such little fingers, with finger nails even.

However, feeding animals in the bush is generally considered unwise: some of the larger ones can be a bit pushy after a while. Tourists in kangaroo parks get mugged sometimes by the larger males. We were having afternoon tea on Ironmonger Mt when two large male kangaroos having a fight (honest) nearly landed on top of us: one kick from those back legs and we would have been in trouble.

© Roger Caffin 1/May/2002