Retracing Lawson’s historic path

By Barrie Bryan 6 April 2011
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Two brothers walk in footsteps of Henry Lawson’s 1893 summer trek from Hungerford to Bourke and back.

IN THE EARLY 1890s the editor of The Bulletin, J.F.Archibald, (after whom the Archibald Prize is named) challenged the young Henry Lawson to get away from the undesirable influences of The Rocks area of Sydney, and to seek the true Australian outback in search of material for his writing.

Archibald offered Lawson a rail ticket to Bourke and a £5 note. Lawson accepted the challenge and in the mid-summer of January 1893, he took about three weeks to walk with his mate Jim Gordon, from Bourke in outback New South Wales, to Hungerford on the Queensland border.

In Lawson’s day there existed about 20 inns and shanties between Bourke and Hungerford. Today, only one remains, at Fords Bridge, approximately 70km north-east of Bourke, so it’s believed that Lawson broke up his walking by stopping for refreshments along the way.

Unimpressed by Hungerford when he arrived there, Lawson subsequently turned around and walked back to Bourke. This trek, about 450km, influenced Lawson’s work, and provided much of the material for his writing from that point onwards.

Lawson died in 1922 and is buried in Sydney’s Waverley Cemetery, as is Archibald.

Inspiration on the trail of Henry Lawson

After being taught and inspired by Lawson’s writing at school in Mount Gambier in country South Australia in the 1980s, my brother Greg has always wanted to one day attempt to retrace Lawson’s footsteps and attempt the walk himself.

In July 2009, Greg, who now lives in Canada with his wife and two daughters, and an old school mate completed the first leg of Lawson’s walk (one way from Bourke to Hungerford). After that, Greg was even more determined to complete both legs of Lawson’s original walk – the entire 450 km from Bourke to Hungerford and back – and to do so during the outback summer, as Lawson originally did.

On 1 January, 2011, Greg and I set off from The Port of Bourke Hotel to walk from Bourke to Hungerford.

The next evening we reached The Warrego Hotel at Fords Bridge. Built in 1913, it is Australia’s oldest surviving mud-brick pub. The owners of The Warrego Hotel, Annette and Scott Parker, were wonderfully welcoming and the food we were served was delicious, just what we needed to re-energise ourselves after two long days’ walking.

Tough trail to Lawson’s outback

Over the 15-day trek, we averaged 30-35 km a day, and sometimes as often as 40 km a day, in temperatures ranging from approximately 35-45ºC.

While walking alone one day, I busied my mind by calculating the number of steps we would be taking. I figured out that by the time I completed the 450 km trek, I would have taken approximately 600,000 steps.

Besides being away from our wives and young children, Greg and I faced extreme heat, humidity, flies, mosquitoes, ants, heat rash, red dust, prickly burrs, sore feet, blisters, fatigue, medical advice not to continue, and 17 water crossings (in up to thigh-deep water in flooded creeks and rivers).

Throughout the first week of the trek Greg really struggled; he was fatigued, the heat of the outback Summer knocked him about. He’d gone from -17ºC in Canada to 40ºC + in the space of a week. His feet were badly blistered.

Knowing Greg’s single-minded determination and commitment to this endeavour, I knew he wouldn’t give up. I couldn’t help but admire his physical and mental toughness and wondered to myself, “If I was in as much discomfort as Greg, would I be able to keep going?”

We reached Hungerford on the morning of 7 January, the day after my 45th birthday, allowing ourselves a rest day, taking the opportunity to mix with the locals as Lawson no doubt did.

Henry Lawson’s version of the outback

Although incredibly challenging, both physically and mentally at times, the trek was a wonderful experience. We saw feral pigs, feral goats, snakes, lizards, birdlife, kangaroos and emus, and got to meet some unique Australians: people who call the Australian outback home.

John Stephenson, caretaker of Warroo Station, for example, one day drove 25km out of his way to surprise Greg and I by serving us frozen peaches and ice cream. Tony Marsh, who owns Kia-Ora Station, gave us cold beers, steak, eggs and a night’s accommodation in his workers’ quarters.

Some days we didn’t see a single vehicle on the road but when we did, people invariably stopped to ask us how we were going, to enquire about our trek, to tell us we were “bloody mad” and to wish us well in our endeavours.

During my food breaks and in the evenings, I read Lawson’s short stories and remarked to Greg at one stage, that after experiencing the challenges of the outback first-hand, “I now have a greater appreciation for Henry Lawson the man, and Henry Lawson the writer.”

I also have an even greater appreciation of our beautiful country and concur with Lawson’s sentiments: The land I love above all others…Australia! My country! Her very name is music to me. God bless Australia!

A poem by Barrie Bryan, inspired by Henry Lawson:


“I’m walking from Bourke to Hungerford and back,
In the heat of the outback sun;
I’m retracing the footsteps of Henry,” Greg said.
Come with me; It’s never been done!”

6.30am January 1st, we left Bourke
Past 40 the temperature soon soared;
Scorching heat, blisters, snakes and fatigue,
A thousand ‘friendly’ flies on board!

450 kilometres in 15 days,
Over 600,000 footsteps we walked.
Farmers, ‘roo shooters, pig hunters, tough men,
To so many wonderful characters we talked.

Fascinated, we listened to their interesting tales,
From people who call The Outback ‘home’,
We’d listen, we’d learn, we’d be entertained,
Then we’d continue to roam.
Emus, kangaroos, snakes and lizards,
Feral pigs and feral goats;
Abundant birdlife, different species of frogs,
And at night, mosquitoes in droves!

“Australia! My country! God bless Australia!” Lawson wrote.
Around the campfire at night, we would read;
Of the people he’d met whilst on his travels,
When he himself, was a young man and free.

The harshness of The Outback with all of its challenges,
It’s certainly not for all,
But for many such as Henry, Greg and I,
We’re glad we answered her call.

We encourage you to go, see The Outback,
Experience her beauty first hand;
You’ll certainly be challenged, but not disappointed;
God bless Australia! Our wonderful land!