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Australia's Bard
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Australia's Bard @ National Geographic Magazine
By Roff SmithPhotographs by David Alan Harvey

Banjo Paterson celebrated shearers, drovers, and life in the outback with poetry that still defines how Australians see themselves—and how the world sees Australia.

It started out as a routine brief to chase up a deadbeat: A stockman from up-country New South Wales had been refusing to pay some debts, and his creditors wanted something done about it. They turned the matter over to their solicitor, a dapper young man named Andrew Barton Paterson, of the Sydney law firm Street & Paterson. He duly took up the case, writing the man a stern reminder and advising him to settle up. But it was no use. The Australian outback was simply too big and easy and fancy-free. The letter bounced back, undeliverable, with the simple explanation scrawled across it: "Clancy's gone to Queensland droving and we don't know where he are."
The plaintiffs couldn't have been too pleased, but their lawyer had a quiet chuckle, imagining this Clancy fellow at that very moment a thousand miles (1609 kilometers) away in the bright Queensland sunshine, spending his days on horseback and his nights camped out beneath a canopy of stars, gloriously free and untouchable while his creditors, their lawyers, and all the rest of polite society were stuck impotently behind their desks. Paterson took up his pen again and began to write, not a letter this time but a little gem of a ballad, for he had a sideline writing humor and verse for a popular weekly magazine under a pen name, "the Banjo"—a name he borrowed from a racehorse his family used to own.
In 32 breezy lines—leaving out the real-life Clancy's awkward legal situation—he told the story of his errant letter, mused about a drover's simple unfettered life in the bush and contrasted it with the noise, dirt, haste, and stifling anonymity of his own life in the city, then wrapped it up with a note of whimsy:

And I somehow rather fancy that I'd like to change with Clancy,
Like to take a turn at droving where the seasons come and go,
While he faced the round eternal of the cash-book and the journal—
But I doubt he'd suit the office, Clancy, of The Overflow.
The poem was an instant hit when it appeared in the Christmas edition of the Bulletin magazine in 1889 and remains one of Australia's best loved poems. It caught the mood of the nation just after it had celebrated its centennial in a flush of patriotic pride and was casting about in a nostalgic way for a sense of identity in a fast-changing world. In Clancy, Australians found a beauty: the rugged, sun-bronzed laconic drover, too big of spirit ever to fit in any rabbit hutch of an office and utterly at home in the wide brown land down under. They took him straight to heart, and they've loved him ever since.
It didn't do A. B. Paterson any harm either. Aside from the thirteen shillings and six pence the magazine paid him for the poem, about double the fee he'd collect for a legal consultation, "Clancy of The Overflow" marked the start of a golden decade for the lawyer-turned-poet. In a burst of creativity, which spanned much of the 1890s, the Banjo produced a cavalcade of poems, ballads, and songs—classics such as "The Man From Snowy River" and "Waltzing Matilda"—that established him as Australia's best loved poet.
 His secret was simple. As Mark Twain did in America, Banjo Paterson wrote as though Australia were the center of the world. His stories sprang straight from the Australian bush; they could have been written nowhere else. They were the first truly Australian ballads, and they gave the nation its own unique cast of heroes—the romantic drover on the plains, the fiercely independent swagman who preferred death to surrender, and the shy mountain-bred horseman from the Snowy River district who took cliffs and fallen timber in his stride.
And more than a century later they remain feisty celebrations of Australianness: from a jubilant Oscar-winning Russell Crowe decanting a few of his favorite lines from "Clancy" at the 2001 Academy Awards, to the rousing choruses of "Waltzing Matilda" at the 2003 Rugby World Cup, to the electrifying "Man From Snowy River" stock horse sequence at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. Paterson's portrait, jaunty in a wide-brimmed hat, has graced Australia's ten-dollar bill since a redesign in 1993. In a poetic touch the engravers inscribed the words to "The Man From Snowy River"—all 104 lines of it—in microprint around the poet's face, presumably to thwart counterfeiters or at least ensure that any successful ones are patriotically Australian.
It's been quite a while since anyone sat behind a partner's desk in an office on Bond Street—where the firm of Street & Paterson once practiced law—and whimsied about trading places with a drover. The escapist fantasy among Australians these days is telecommuting from some sleepy seaside community up (or down) the coast, an old fishing village perhaps, that has been "discovered" only to the extent that it already has broadband access and a smart café where you can buy a decently constructed macchiato or piccolo latte. This is a nation of city slickers at heart, bright, sassy, outward-looking, relentlessly cosmopolitan, and loving it. By the latest reckoning more than 80 percent of Australians live in an urban setting, typically only a short drive from the beach and mainly on the busy eastern seaboard. Twenty percent live in metropolitan Sydney, a suburban sprawl that stretches 80 miles (129 kilometers) from end to end. Their 21st-century bustle is about as far removed from the bucolic ways of the bush as it's possible to be: Many have never been to the outback at all, know very little about it, don't appear to give it much thought, and sometimes seem downright disdainful of it.
Yet when one of the worst droughts in a century struck in 2002-2003, there were tele-thons in the cities, fun-runs, T-shirt sales, and a glittering celebrity-studded concert in Sydney to raise millions for the Farmhand Appeal. "Lend a hand to your mate on the land" went one of the promotional slogans. When the drought-relieving rains finally fell, in February 2003, they received rapturous coverage. Wars, terrorism, and global events were knocked off the front page of the Australian, the country's national newspaper, by a delightful photo of three-year-old Lucy Geddes, a farmer's daughter who'd never experienced rain in her life, splashing in a puddle on the family property near Brewarrina, in western New South Wales.
And when outback country-­music legend Slim Dusty died last year at the age of 76, after a lifetime of writing songs about the bush and endless touring of remote towns and Aboriginal communities, he was accorded a state funeral, attended by the prime minister and a flock of dignitaries and celebrities from the music world. Flags were flown at half-staff. The congregation sang his famous 1957 hit "The Pub With No Beer," and his flag-draped coffin, with his old bush hat on top of it, was carried from Sydney's Anglican cathedral to the strains of "Waltzing Matilda."
"The bush occupies a funny sort of place in the Australian psyche," says Melbourne author, demographer, and social commentator Bernard Salt. "It's a bit like Melbourne's old-fashioned trams. Nobody wants to ride them, but they're a part of our heritage, and we love to hear them rattling down the streets just like always. It's the same with the bush. We want to know there are still people out there leading those picturesque 'Clancy of The Overflow' kinds of lives, even though it's something we'd never do ourselves."
Nobody understood, or embodied, these inconsistencies better than Banjo Paterson. He was born in the bush, in 1864, on a sheep station in New South Wales, and he might have stayed there, remaining a grazier all his life and never writing a word, if it hadn't been for the droughts that forced his family to sell. His father was hired by the new owners to manage the property. Ten-year-old "Barty," as he was known in the family, was packed off to live with his grandmother in Sydney, so he could get an education and escape a life of low-paying drudgery as a station hand.
When he finished school at 16, he joined a law firm as a lowly clerk and began a life of higher paying drudgery in the desk-bound world of the city. He worked his way up the office ladder and qualified as a solicitor when he was 22. By the time he landed the brief to dun the elusive Clancy, he had been behind a desk for nine years, fidgeting under the weight of his own expectations. Poetry became his escape, Clancy his muse.
"There was nothing preventing him from walking out of his dingy little office any time he liked and finding work as a drover, if that was what he truly wanted to do," said Darvall Dixon, a cattleman in the Snowy River district and a distant cousin of Paterson's.
"It's a question of what you're willing to give up. He had a pretty lucrative career going. Living a footloose drover's life wasn't something he really wanted to do, so much as something he would love to have done. He'd have liked to have had a romantic past like that to look back upon."
And so he created one. He was already contributing verse to the Bulletin, a popular weekly with a nationalist flavor and a bent for the bush. Although he continued in the quiet, secure, and well-compensated practice of law for another ten years, after office hours he let his fancies roam free and, as the Banjo, traipsed vicariously around the bush, chronicling the exploits of swagmen and drovers part of him wished he dared be like. He wrote what he knew, the river-and-range country of Australia's southeast, but he made it all his own—a cheery land inhabited by salt-of-the-earth characters who met adversity with pluck, ingenuity, and the laconic wit of outback Australia. He sketched them with such verve and good-humored affection they became real, and his classic Australian landscapes, from the "gorges deep and black" along the Snowy River to the hot brassy "land of lots o' time along the Castlereagh," as familiar as childhood memories. He put out the welcome mat, and generations of Australians dropped in. His poetic world became the nation's own Secret Garden, a lyrical outback that embodied all that was good and unique about Australia and the Australian character.
And it still is. While that gaudy whip-cracking stock horse display at the Olympics opening ceremony might be considered a tourist event, staged to promote a once-upon-a-time Australia to believing visitors from the rest of the world, it proved so popular with locals that organizers later took a version of it on the road—with a troupe of dancers, trick riders, horses, dogs, stagecoaches, and an enormous set that included stage rocks and tons of local earth for the mountain riding scenes—and performed to sellout crowds around Australia. The CD soundtrack for the show, which includes a dramatic recitation of "The Man From Snowy River," debuted at number 20 on the Australian charts.
Another production, also based on the ballad, proved a popular attraction at Sydney's annual Royal Easter Show, while a play based on Paterson's life and works recently had a good run in Melbourne. Meanwhile a 24-million-dollar (U.S.) film version of "Clancy of The Overflow" is in the works—the biggest budget ever for a locally financed film No matter who lands the role as the nation's best loved deadbeat, and some big names have been bruited about, one certain star of the piece will be the immense landscapes of Queensland's legendary Channel Country, the "Overflow" of the poem.
Paterson's stories and characters might have been fictional and his settings romanticized, but they always had a grounding in fact. He was a keen listener and observer and, with a lawyerly concern for detail, spent hours poring over maps and gazetteers to get his locations and landscapes right. So much of his imagery remains: the timeless outback settings; the mounted stockman in tattered Akubra hat and tobacco-brown oilskin, stockwhip coiled over his shoulder as he nudges his mob through a backlit haze; the old shearing sheds, those rambling timber-framed structures clad in corrugated iron, dim and musty inside and smelling of lanolin, and full of rowdy camaraderie at shearing time; the bookie with his leather satchel and tote board at country race meetings—a staple of Paterson's poetry—and a rollicking, booted, hatter crowd out to have a good time and beat the favorite. Sure, the characters may all be set against an enduring backdrop of drought and hardship and uncertainty, which Banjo tended to gloss over, but that doesn't make them any less real. 

Yet they do need to be taken with a grain of salt, as Banjo himself cautions lightly in poems such as "A Mountain Station," a humorous ballad about a tenderfoot who buys a beautiful grazing property along the Murrumbidgee and discovers, to his chagrin, how precarious it really is to make a living in the bush. Banjo puts it more whimsically in another poem, "Come-by-Chance," a sort of reverie about a location of that name he discovered in the postal guide and imagines as a perfect outback idyll where:

. . . one's letters and exchanges come by chance across the ranges,
Where a wiry young Australian leads a packhorse once a week,
And the good news grows by keeping, and you're spared the pain of weeping
Over bad news when the mailman drops the letters in the creek.
But I fear, and more's the pity, that there's really no such city,
For there's not a man can find it of the shrewdest folk I know;
"Come-by-Chance," be sure it never means a land of fierce endeavour—
It is just the careless country where the dreamers only go.
I never made it to Come-by-Chance myself, at least not the geographic one. I found its location on the map, all right—a lonely spot in north-central New South Wales—but in a nice bit of dramatic unity, a fickle burst of outback rain washed out the track. In 5,000 miles (8047 kilometers) of bouncing along gum-shaded back roads and long empty sweeps of outback highways on Paterson's trail, I came by chance across plenty of other Banjoesque reality. Like 89-year-old Betty Osborne, an old-family grazier whose father played polo as a young man in the 1890s for the hard-riding mountain team that Paterson glorified in "The Geebung Polo Club." She still runs a 7,000-acre cattle station in the southern highlands of New South Wales from an elegant sandstone homestead built by an uncle in 1884 and where she grew up as a child. "City people seem surprised to find that we do in fact have nice china out here in the country," she said as we talked in her kitchen. And when I was leaving and needed directions back to town, she knelt down and expertly sketched a bushman's "mud map" in the dirt; she was a blend of courtliness and down-to-earth practicality that seemed to belong to another age.
And then there was the bold horsemanship of 44-year-old Kerry Wellsmore, a sixth-generation grazier in the Snowy River district, who was out surveying lines for a firebreak in the high country during the terrible bushfires of 2003 when the wind shifted and he found himself trapped by a fast-moving wall of flame and had to gallop cross-country over the same harrowing mountain wilderness Paterson described in "The Man From Snowy River." "I looked behind me once and just went weak," he said. "The flames were so close I could feel ash tickling my neck. I just clung to the horse and rode as hard as I could through the smoke and fallen trees towards a water hole I knew a couple of miles (3 kilometers) away." They raced nip and tuck, the flames gaining on the uphills, horse and rider picking up ground on the descents. They made the water hole and sheltered there as the flames roared past, and in a 21st-century touch he called his wife on the satellite phone to tell her he was safe.
I even encountered those quirky improbabilities that would seem to belong only in one of Paterson's more whimsical efforts: like the prayer service in Barcaldine, where graziers had gathered in the sheep pavilion at the local fairgrounds to pray for rain, only to have the first hymn, "How Great Thou Art," disrupted by a cloudburst, the first good drenching in two years. As we stood beneath the dripping iron roof, watching it pelt down and listening to one of the local ministers wax lyrical about the power of faith, a craggy-faced old grazier pointed to where his truck sat, a good brisk dash away and now up to its hubcaps in shimmering mud and water. "Aw, can't you see He's just having a laugh?" he growled good-naturedly. "Not a bloody one of us brought gum boots or an umbrella, and I'm in me best shoes!"
I wasn't the only one on the highways and back roads looking for this mythical Australia. Fifteen thousand out-of-towners, a large part of them city folk, descend on Corryong, a remote mountain town in northeast Victoria, every April for the Man From Snowy River Bush Festival, a three-day celebration of Banjo's most patriotic ballad. There are horse parades down the main street, reenactment rides in the hills, a bush poetry competition, and, out at the showground, the main event: a grueling sort of outback decathlon, where top station hands and horsebreakers from all around Australia compete for the title of the Modern Man From Snowy River.
Paterson published the ballad in the April 26, 1890, edition of the Bulletin, only four months after "Clancy." It's the tale of a high-spirited pursuit of a valuable racing colt that had joined the wild bush horses, and was written partly in response to an article Paterson had read in an English sporting journal that made the rounding up of wild horses in Australia sound too much like a romp through the gentle English countryside. Paterson showed the world an ancient, gnarled, slab-sided wilderness, deeply carved by snow-fed rivers and dominated by the 7,310-foot mass of Mount Kosciuszko, Australia's highest mountain—a dangerous landscape where "The wild hop scrub grew thickly, and the hidden ground was full / Of wombat holes, and any slip was death."
Popular wisdom around Corryong has it that the poet based his tale on the exploits of a recklessly brave local horseman named Jack Riley, with whom Paterson supposedly shared a campsite one night on a trip in the mountains in 1890. But there were plenty of other claimants as well: Lachie Cochran of Adaminaby, "Hellfire" Jack Clarke of Jindabyne, and an Aboriginal stockman named Toby, to name a few. But nobody aside from tourism promoters and the occasional literary historian really cares, because the eponymous horseman was everybody, a metaphor for how Australia saw itself: a nation of quiet, determined underdogs who would one day surprise the doubters and do great things, and a people who could rise fearlessly to any occasion and never give in, no matter how tough the going. The others might rein up at the mountaintop, terrified of the ground that lay ahead:

But the man from Snowy River let the pony have his head,
And he swung his stockwhip round and gave a cheer,
And he raced him down the mountain like a torrent down its bed,
While the others stood and watched in very fear.
He sent the flint-stones flying, but the pony kept his feet,
He cleared the fallen timber in his stride,
And the man from Snowy River never shifted in his seat—
It was grand to see that mountain horseman ride.
"It's an exhilarating poem to perform," says Karm Gilespie, a Melbourne-based actor who puts on a one-man stage show of Paterson and his works. "Paterson was a superb horseman himself, and he wrote the ballad in such a way that the words gather pace from a trot to a canter to a full-out gallop so you feel as though you're in the saddle yourself."
Which was what brought me and the hordes of other spectators to Corryong. The town was already bustling when I arrived, hotels and motels full to overflowing, so I headed out to pitch my tent with the competitors in the eucalyptus scrub around the showground. It was a cheerful, noisy sprawl of a camp, swags rolled out beside utes, tethered horses, barking dogs, clotheslines strung between trees, lean-tos made from tarps, and a cool April night dotted with campfires.
In the easy small-world vernacular of the bush I found myself camped between Peter Cochran, the great-grandson of Lachie Cochran, and Geoff Willis, the winner of the previous year's Modern Man From Snowy River Challenge, a horse-breaker from a small town in New South Wales with the Banjoesque name of Gumly Gumly. "The challenge is a straightforward test of good all-round practical skills," Geoff explained, "the sort of stuff you'd use in everyday life."
I woke in the morning to the sounds of kookaburras hooting in the gums and the pistol-crack snaps of stockwhips as competitors warmed up for the whip-cracking competition. This was no flashy rodeo crowd. The competitors somehow all managed to look the part of the ballad's quiet, mountain-bred horseman, whether they were leathery men in their fifties with walnut complexions and craggy features or clear-eyed kids barely out of adolescence. A handful of these would-be men from Snowy River were women.
The next two days were filled with all manner of riding events, horseshoeing, camp drafting, packhorse loading, and the premier event: catching and taming a wild brumby in under four minutes (less time than it takes to recite the famous ballad). The wild bush horses had been yarded up in the mountains only a couple of days earlier and brought down to the showground, untouched by human hands, and one-by-one they were tamed—not with any fancy rope work or rough handling, just a slipped-on halter, soft words, and an expert knowledge of equine psychology.
The overall winner of the challenge was 27-year-old Jason Leitch, a horse trainer from Scone, New South Wales, and as the crowds and press gathered around him, along with two international film crews and the producers of one of Australia's national TV morning shows, I thought of something Paterson once wrote: "That is the greatest compliment a writer can have, to know that he has written a thing so truly that people not only believe that it happened but that it happened to themselves."
Paterson wrote his biggest international hit while on holiday in outback Queensland in 1895, where he'd come to spend some time with his fiancée, Sarah Riley, and her family, near the town of Winton. Sarah was keen to show off her handsome and successful husband-to-be, and together they rode off to stay with one of her old school chums, Christina Macpherson, whose brother owned the nearby Dagworth Station, a 250,000-acre grazing property. They were a merry enough gathering at first. They went to the races, held dinner parties, and had picnics by the Combo Waterhole, one of the prettier spots on the station.
It was there Paterson learned of the suicide of a shearer on the water hole's edge the previous spring, during a bitter shearers' strike. The sad personal tale, set against the larger backdrop of forlorn working-class defiance (the shearers lost their strike), piqued Paterson's imagination, and he decided to craft a ballad around it: A hungry tramp camped by a water hole kills a sheep to feed himself, only to be caught in the act by the wealthy landowner and three mounted policemen. Faced with arrest and the loss of the open-road freedom he cherishes more than life itself, he dives into the water and drowns himself. Paterson planned to call it "Waltzing Matilda," after the slang term for drifting around the outback on foot with a bedroll—your "matilda"—slung over your shoulder.
Christina Macpherson was an accomplished musician and entertained the group by playing tunes on her Autoharp. One in particular struck their fancy, a lilting Scottish number called "Thou Bonnie Wood o' Craigielea," to which no one seemed to know any words. Paterson, who was smitten by Christina, had an idea: They could put their heads together and adapt his ideas to the music. So off they went, the handsome solicitor and the pretty songstress, to collaborate in private.
What happened off the score sheet is a little vague. None of the people present at the homestead ever spoke much about it, but the upshot was that Paterson's engagement to Sarah was abruptly broken off, and the two women, hitherto the best of friends, never spoke to each other for the rest of their lives. Banjo was reportedly run off the property by Christina's outraged brother—at gunpoint, according to some versions of the story.
"We don't know if he was actually still up here when the song debuted over at the North Gregory Hotel," says Ian Jempson, the director of the Waltzing Matilda Centre in Winton, a museum dedicated to Australia's national song. "His movements around that time are unclear. What we do know was that Banjo was acutely embarrassed by the whole incident. For the rest of his life 'Waltzing Matilda' was a very sensitive subject with him. He rarely mentioned it."
Whether he wanted to claim it or not, he had a hit on his hands. Australia didn't have a national anthem then, and "Waltzing Matilda," with its themes of ornery independence and iconic outback setting, filled the bill perfectly.
The lyrics were so crammed with outback slang that you virtually had to be an Australian to understand them. But that doesn't seem to have slowed its popularity abroad. To date more than 500 versions of the song are known to have been recorded worldwide. Burl Ives, Bill Haley and His Comets, Bon Jovi, Liberace, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Coldstream Guards band, even the Vienna State Opera Orchestra have all had a crack at it. It has been done in blues and heavy metal; in yodeling and steel band arrangements; in Japanese, Swedish, and pidgin in Papua New Guinea. Winston Churchill allegedly sang it to what must have been a bemused Charles de Gaulle at a dinner at Chequers in 1941, proclaiming at the end of it: That is one of the finest songs in the world!—something that millions of Australians had already decided for themselves, although the song lost out to the magisterial "Advance Australia Fair" in a 1977 referendum to determine the country's official national anthem.
"I'm afraid I'm one of those who agree with that decision," Jempson laughed. "Much as I like 'Waltzing Matilda,' I do think we needed something a little more dignified for our national anthem than a charming folk song about a sheep-stealing swagman who commits suicide rather than go to jail."
Popular as "Waltzing Matilda" was, it never made Paterson rich. He sold the rights to it, "along with some other junk," to his publisher for five pounds in 1903. He had done much better eight years earlier with his first book, a collection of 46 of his best ballads called The Man From Snowy River and Other Verses. He woke up famous, much in demand in literary and social circles. The London Times loftily compared him "not unfavorably" with the empire's other action poet, Rudyard Kipling, and Kipling himself sent a congratulatory letter to Paterson's publishers. "Give my best salutations to Mr. Paterson and tell him to do it again. There can't be too many men in this world singing about what they know and love and want other people to know and love." He found a following in the U.S. too. One notable fan: Theodore Roosevelt, the old Rough Rider himself.
Fame opened doors, allowing him to lead the action man life he'd been dreaming about for years. He took a leave of absence from his practice and spent months up in Australia's wild tropical north, hunting crocodiles and water buffalo, sailing on pearling luggers in the Arafura Sea and writing a series of travel articles for the Eastern & Australian Steamship Company and others. Then he was off to the Boer War, where he made a name for himself as a dashing war correspondent, seeing plenty of action, writing vivid dispatches from the front, and mingling with some of the British Empire's most glittering names: Lord Kitchener, Winston Churchill, and Cecil Rhodes. Next it was China and the Boxer Uprising of 1900. Hostilities were over by the time he arrived, but he filed a series of postcard-style vignettes of life in the Philippines and Shanghai and the Chinese provinces. When heavy winter snows foiled his plan to travel overland to St. Petersburg, he traveled to London by steamer instead, via Suez, visiting with Kipling with whom he'd become friends after they met in South Africa.
Compared with the life of glamour and danger he'd been leading, the law office back on Bond Street was looking very small and dingy indeed, and when he returned to Australia in 1902, he formally quit his day job for good. "Henceforth I am a journalist," he confided in his diary, and took up duties as editor of Sydney's Evening News. In 1903 he married Alice Walker, a grazier's daughter he'd met on the lecture circuit. They settled in Sydney, where he spent much of the rest of his career editing various city newspapers and sporting journals, and covering the horse racing scene for the Sydney Sportsman.
With the exception of a four-year retreat to the country, and military service in World War I, when as Major Paterson he helped supervise the training of horses for the troops in the Middle East, he spent the rest of his life living in quiet prosperity in Sydney's fashionable eastern suburbs. He continued to write poetry and published a couple more well-received volumes of verse, but his best work, or at least his best remembered, was long behind him, mostly written before he was 30. Paterson retired from the newspaper business in 1930, was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for his services to literature, and seemed a trifle bemused by the impact a handful of his outback ballads—written so long ago—still had on the national psyche.
"Our 'ruined rhymes' are not likely to last long," he wrote in one of his last published essays, a couple of years before his death in 1941. "But if there is any hope at all of survival it comes from the fact that [we] had the advantage of writing in a new country. In all the museums throughout the world one may see plaster casts of the footprints of weird animals, footprints preserved for posterity, not because the animals were particularly good of their sort, but because they had the luck to walk on the lava while it was cooling. There is just a faint hope that something of the sort may happen to us."
It's still a young country, in years if not sophistication. For all its considerable glitz and style, the first thing you notice about Sydney, when you drive back toward the city from the Blue Mountains and see its skyline in the distance, is how tiny it looks compared with the bigness of the bush around it, and how convincingly it all melds together so that it is hard to tell just where the bush ends and the suburbs begin. The bush is ubiquitous, and subtly close at hand, like the micro-printed verses of Paterson's on the ten-dollar bill. Sophistication hasn't banished it. You can come face-to-face with it over dinner at one of Sydney's most fashionable restaurants, high above the city. It's not just the Tasmanian myrtlewood parquetry on the floor or the seared carpaccio of kangaroo filet on the menu—look out the window into the light haze above the skyscrapers, and you'll see hundreds of giant native fruit bats, flying foxes, swirling in the corporate glow like so many moths to a candle.
The bush is not always a benign presence—terrifying bushfires whipped up by scorching winds and fueled by the oil in eucalyptus leaves invade the suburbs almost every summer—but it is a uniquely Australian one, always there on the margins, from the low, comfortable outlines of the Blue Mountains to the spicy tang of the native scrub when you catch it just right in a park or garden after a rain, or when you step out of the international terminal at the airport after a long time abroad. It gives an unmistakable stamp of authority: This could only be an Australian city. And that distinctiveness, as Paterson understood so well, brings with it a host of powerful associations, memories, a way of life, that might have nothing to do with living on the land, or drovers, swagmen, or dashing horsemen. It is what makes the 20 million diverse people who live here Australians. It is the canvas on which they paint their dreams. 

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VIDEO Watch images of the outback narrated in rhyme reminiscent of Banjo Paterson's style.
Part 1:
RealPlayer  WinMedia
Part 2:
RealPlayer  WinMedia

Australian Matt Francis takes you into the rugged heart of the outback with readings of Banjo Paterson's poems, including "The Man From Snowy River" and "Clancy of The Overflow."
Tap your feet and sing along to the tune of "Waltzing Matilda."
RealPlayer  WinMedia
Courtesy of Larriken Records
Decorate your desktop with the bare, sculpted beauty of eucalyptus trees  and boulders near Cooma, New South Wales.

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
While Banjo Paterson's works captured the hearts and minds of his countrymen and helped define the Australian bush for the rest of the world, Banjo's friend and colleague Henry Lawson (his most famous work is "The Drover's Wife") is usually considered a finer writer. His works may not be as widely known as "Waltzing Matilda" or "The Man From Snowy River," but they pack a feeling of bush grit and reality that Banjo often shied away from. During the time both were writing, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they carried on an open rivalry over how to view the bush—Banjo romanticized it and glossed over many harsh aspects, while Lawson was a realist willing to explore the inherent difficulties of life in rural Australia.

In 1892 Paterson, Lawson, and a few of their colleagues carried on a lively exchange for three months in the Bulletin magazine, discussing the joys and perils of bush life in verse. (Click on to see the poems.) Lawson leads off with "I am back from up the country—very sorry that I went," and decides that from now on he intends to stay in town, "Drinking beer and lemon-squashes—taking baths and cooling down." Banjo's reply is the poem "In Defense of the Bush" (see "Banjo," NGM, August 2004, page 4). Three other poets then speak up to defend Lawson's grittier views, but Banjo gets in another salvo, in which he agrees to disagree with Lawson:

    And if fortune only favours we will take the road some day,
    And go droving down the river 'neath the sunshine and the stars,
    And then return to Sydney and vermilionize the bars.

Paterson attempted to explain the difference in their points of view in an essay near the end of his life: "I had done my prospecting on horseback with my meals cooked for me, while Lawson has done his prospecting on foot and had had to cook for himself." Lawson was definitely a man of fewer means. Paterson recalled bumping into Lawson's wife once and asking after his friend. She said she was happy because Lawson was working again. Paterson asked, "What's he working at, prose or verse?" "Oh, no," she said. "I don't mean writing. I mean working. He's gone back to his trade as a house painter."

—Elizabeth Snodgrass
Did You Know?

Related Links
The National Library of Australia
Browse this extensive, logically constructed site for background on the history and origins of "Waltzing Matilda." It features copies of original manuscripts, audio files of the different versions of the song, a guide to Australian words, and much more.

The Poems of Banjo Paterson by Publication Date
This University of Queensland staff site (You will need to click on "Proceed" when you first reach the University of Queensland portal if you wish to access the site.) gives an extensive listing of Banjo Paterson's poems and features direct links to those in the public domain (the majority). In short, this is the nearly complete (poetic) works of Banjo Paterson at a touch. Other links within the site give more information on the life and times of Banjo Paterson.

The Man From Snowy River Bush Festival
Calling all bush men and women! If you've got a hankering for the bush experience and want to see it all in one place, the Man From Snowy River Bush Festival is for you. Website sections here include Riley's ride, the ute muster, and information on a reenactment of the poem, as well as poetry and bush music and an excellent gallery of festival images showing everything from regional scenery to people being tossed from bucking broncos.
Henry Lawson, "The Drover's Wife"

Lawson's classic, "The Drover's Wife," is shown here in full text. Click on "When the Billy Boils" for access to the rest of Lawson's book of short stories by the same name.
"Waltzing Matilda" Site by Roger Clarke
This rabbit-warren of a site is jam-packed with interesting information about "Waltzing Matilda," including scans of original manuscripts, many different sections about the tune (or tunes) that usually accompany "Waltzing Matilda" and who has sung it, and a miscellany section of fast facts.
Aussie Glossary
Jumbucks, swagmen, and billabongs, oh my! This extensive glossary of Australian words and slang is one-stop shopping for the linguistically inclined. There is even a search feature that allows searches for the Aussie equivalent of a word in standard English.
The Ute Appreciation Society of Australia (UASA)
A website dedicated to Australia's special contribution to the auto world, the ute. This surprisingly entertaining site showcases the Aussies' devotion to their utes. You truly have not seen a ute until you've checked out the "Feral Utes" category of the "Ute Gallery."


Dennis, Anthony. "Just Can't Get Enough of the Man." Sydney Morning Herald, June 18, 2002.

Heinrich, Karen. "Expect Moments of Elation, for the Word Has Passed Around." The Age, September 5, 2002.

May, Sydney. The Story of "Waltzing Matilda." W. R. Smith & Paterson Pty., Ltd., 1955.

Paterson, A. B. Complete Works, 1885-1941. 2 vols. Singer of the Bush: 1885-1900.  Song of the Pen: 1901-1941. Lansdowne Publishing, 1983.

Paterson, A. B. The Man From Snowy River and Other Verses. Angus & Robertson, 1981. (First published as The Collected Verse of A. B. Paterson. Angus & Robertson, 1921.)

Paterson, A. B. Saltbush Bill J. P. and Other Verses. Angus & Robertson, 1917.

Semmler, Clement. The Banjo of the Bush: The Work, Life and Times of A. B. Paterson.  Lansdowne Press, 1966.


NGS Resources
Burnford, Angela. "Aboriginally Authentic." National Geographic Traveler (November/December 2003), 86.

Tan, Ming. Traveling Across Australia. National Geographic Books, 2002.

Brenner, Barbara. Voices: Poetry and Art from Around the World. National Geographic Books, 2000.

Parfit, Michael. "Australia: A Harsh Awakening." National Geographic (July 2000), 2-31.

Betz, David. "Aboriginal Art." National Geographic Traveler (May/June 2000), 83-4.

Bryson, Bill. "Australian Outback." National Geographic Traveler (October 1999), 86-8.


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