We have all been explorers

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In 1899, EJ Brady bought a covered wagon and headed north from Parramatta. ‘I longed to see Australia away from the geography and the guidebooks’, he recounted in his book The King’s Caravan, ‘I had a recurring desire to cross mountains, ford rivers, and explore plains, slowly and deliberately’. 1 There was a restlessness in Brady’s character, a romantic yearning for new scenes and new ideas. But the ‘gipsy inclination’ that set him aboard a caravan bound for Townsville, was sharpened by his literary ambitions. Unlike some of his Bulletin contemporaries, Brady believed that his hopes of becoming a ‘representative Australian writer’ carried ‘an obligation to know more about the Island Continent’. 2 And to know Australia, you had to travel.

Brady’s fifteen months on the roads of NSW and Queensland ‘whetted his appetite for further knowledge’, and it wasn’t long before his ‘wander-lust’ took over again. 3 ‘I’d like to take a motor boat down the Murray from Albury to Adelaide’, he proposed to his mate Jim Jones one warm Sydney day. Sponsored by The Lone Hand, the two set out upon a 1500-mile journey upon ‘the highway of adventure’—a ‘world’s record’ for river travel. 4 But Brady’s ‘longest journeyings’ had not yet begun. In 1912, he set about the compilation of Australia Unlimited, and spent the next few years travelling ‘over all the Australian States, into the Northern Territory and out to Malaya and the Dutch Indies’. 5

Travel indulged Brady’s love of the bush, and his genuine interest in the lives and hopes of its steadfast inhabitants. It was, moreover, an affirmation of his own ‘Australianness’. ‘Australia is most of my religion’, he told an Irishman on the Atherton Tablelands, ‘If there is any man between Cape York and the Leeuwin more Australian, I take my hat off to him’. 6 Travel was a patriotic duty, an opportunity to learn ‘the truth about Australia’, to catalogue its resources and marvel at its possibilities. 7 This was a work both practical and spiritual. Brady looked to the development of a unique local voice, one that would be able to convey ‘the message of Australia’. 8 The pessimism that suffused the work of many Australian writers and poets, including Brady’s long-time friend Henry Lawson, did not reflect the reality of the bush. 9 ‘The men and not the country are responsible for the gloom and misery of the song’, he argued in the Bulletin. 10 Instead, the progress of Australian literature could be traced in ‘the reaction to an environment which no longer disturbs or upsets’. Artists were engaged in their own voyages of discovery, to find inspiration in nature, to chart the outlines of ‘the true Australian spirit’. 11 ‘In one sense’, noted Brady, reflecting on his literary companions, ‘we have all been explorers and pioneers’. 12

The 1920s and 30s brought a surge in travel writing as Australians displayed a renewed interest in the hardships and heroism of outback life. 13 Writers such as Ion Idriess and Frank Clune were both prolific and popular, at a time when more ‘literary’ authors were struggling even to be published. 14 In 1934, the Australian National Travel Association established Walkabout, a magazine that aimed to help the public ‘learn more of the vast Australian continent’. ‘Travel’, an early edition announced, ‘teaches that the bigger drama of life is played in the open’. Alongside the school, the church, the library and the museum, travel provided a ‘university of experience’ that could ‘stimulate human vision and our powers of observation’, at the same time serving to ‘regulate imagination by reality’. 15

Travel writers sought to document the ‘real’ Australia for the edification of their largely urban readership. And yet, for all their colour and romance, these celebrations of outback life were often tinged with a sense of change and loss. As Tom Griffiths points out, writers like Ernestine Hill were collectors, recording ways of life on the brink of disappearance. 16 Something new was coming. But even as these worn and weary fragments were duly mounted for posterity, the collector’s eye ofttimes was caught by the glint of promise. Their collections ranged from the past to the future, cataloguing revolutions as well as relics, progress as well as pioneers.

On EJ Brady’s wall was a map of Australia, liberally decorated with coloured pins. The pins carried labels such as ‘Hydro-electric Supply Base’, ‘Irrigation Area’ and ‘Area for Tropical Settlement’. Every now and then Brady would add a pin or two. ‘It is a harmless form of amusement’, he remarked, ‘and helps one to remain an optimist’. 17 Brady was a ‘tremendous hoarder’, who spent a lifetime collecting evidence of Australia’s future greatness. 18 ‘What in hell I accumulate such stuff for I don’t know’, Brady complained in 1947, ‘For half a century I’ve been heaping up notes, reports, clippings, pamphlets, etc. on… all phases of the country’s life and development’. As the elderly man surveyed the ‘bomb blasted pile of rubbish’ strewn about his writing tent, he admitted that ‘this collecting is a sort of mania’. 19 The coloured pins traced a journey, one that Brady had begun in a caravan in 1899, and continued now, ‘collating and tabulating’, in his tent at Mallacoota.

While perhaps none were quite so diligent as Brady, many travel writers shared his enthusiasm for Australia’s developmental opportunities. At a time when expert scepticism was gathering force against the hopes of ‘boosters’, these writers provided some of the most vivid depictions of the possibilities of progress. Ion Idriess championed a scheme to irrigate Australia’s arid lands. ‘The dreams of today are the facts of tomorrow’, he wrote in The Great Boomerang, blending outback anecdotes with plans for massive engineering works. 20 William Hatfield argued for a socialist reconstruction of Australia that would bring about the ‘rehabilitation of our arid lands and basic improvement of the whole continent’. 21 Ernestine Hill, Frank Clune, George Farwell and others couldn’t quite manage a scheme of their own, but were alert, nonetheless, to Australia’s potential for development. Even casual observers felt compelled to consider the future. An early edition of Walkabout included one man’s account of his trek across Australia by motorcycle. The expedition had been ‘fraught with hardship’, the intrepid traveller concluded, ‘but I had learnt many things from it of a “land of promise”, full of possibilities for our national development’. 22

Travel seemed to change one’s sense of time, past and future crowded in around the moment. Perhaps it was the feeling of movement, the traveller self-consciously swept up in the onward flow of time. ‘Time marches on—time waits for no man’, noted Idriess in a commentary on northern Australia. 23 Perhaps it was something in the nature of the journey itself: a remembered beginning, an imagined end, an episodic existence where each moment carries a weight of expectation and hope. Paul Carter draws attention to the ‘double aspect of travelling’, an experience that ‘required places to rest as much as roads’. 24 This double aspect, he notes, was reflected in travellers’ perceptions of the picturesque, embodied one moment in a pleasant site for settlement, the next in a dramatic vista that calls the traveller on. The picturesque, he adds, ‘appears to telescope time’; it is an experience that brings the future closer, until it too becomes part of the scene. 25

EJ Brady’s campfire offered a place to rest and reflect amidst a dramatic onrush of change. That night in 1912, Brady was both nostalgic and excited. Revelling in the familiarity of old ways, he nonetheless felt the imminent presence of the new. Past and future combined in the experience of the journey.


  1. Edwin James Brady, The king’s caravan: across Australia in a wagon, Edward Arnold, London, 1911, p. 3.
  2. Edwin James Brady, ‘E.J. Brady, by Himself’, Life Digest, vol. 3, no. 3, June 1949, p. 22.
  3. ibid., p. 20; Brady, The king’s caravan, p. 3.
  4. Edwin James Brady, River rovers, George Robertson & Co., Melbourne, 1911, pp. 7-10.
  5. Brady, ‘E.J. Brady, by Himself’, p. 20.
  6. Edwin James Brady, The land of the sun, Edward Arnold & Co., London, 1924, p. 144.
  7. Edwin James Brady, ‘The truth about Australia’, Bank Notes, vol. 21, December 1938, pp. 13-17.
  8. Edwin James Brady, ‘Life’s highway – extracts (continued)’, Southerly, vol. 15, no. 1, 1954, p. 58.
  9. Webb, ‘A critical biography of Edwin James Brady’, pp. 383-5, 398-9.
  10. Quoted in Webb, ‘A critical biography of Edwin James Brady’, pp. 384-5.
  11. Brady, ‘Life’s highway – extracts (continued)’, Southerly, vol. 15, no. 1, 1954, p. 58.
  12. ibid., p. 54.
  13. Griffiths, Hunters and collectors, pp. 176-9.
  14. Brian Kiernan, ‘Perceptions of Australia, 1915-1965’, Penguin new literary history of Australia, special issue of Australian Literrary Studies, vol. 13, no. 4, October 1988, p. 275; Richard Nile, and David Walker, ‘Marketing the literary imagination: production of Australian literature, 1915-1965’, Penguin new literary history of Australia, special issue of Australian Literrary Studies, vol. 13, no. 4, October 1988, p. 297.
  15. ‘Travel’, Walkabout, vol. 1, no. 5, 1 March 1935, p. 9.
  16. Griffiths, Hunters and collectors, pp. 190-2.
  17. Brady, ‘A map and some pins’, p. 10.
  18. Oscar Mendelsohn, ‘One man’s view of EJ Brady’, Southerly, vol. 15, no. 1, 1954, p. 60.
  19. Quoted in Mendelsohn, ‘One man’s view of EJ Brady’, p. 61.
  20. Ion L Idriess, The great boomerang, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1941, p. v.
  21. William Hatfield, Australia reclaimed, Cumberland Newspapers Ltd, Sydney, 1944, p. 14.
  22. E Bankin, ‘Across Australia by motor cycle’, Walkabout, vol. 1, no. 10, 1 August 1935, p. 28.
  23. Quoted in Griffiths, Hunters and collectors, p. 187.
  24. Paul Carter, The road to Botany Bay: an exploration of landscape and history, Alfred A Knopf, New York, 1988, p. 232.
  25. Carter, The road to Botany Bay, p. 244.

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