Review of Journey to Horseshoe Bend, by TGH Strehlow

This was first published in Sydney Review of Books, July 2016, under the name of Paul Galimond.

By the late 1960s, when T. G. H. Strehlow was writing what would become Journey to Horseshoe Bend (first published in 1969 and reissued in 2015 by Giramondo), he had already produced key works of Australian ethnology, such as Aranda Phonetics and Grammar (1944), Aranda Traditions (1947), and many articles and papers on Australian Aboriginal societies. His magnum opus, though, proved to be Songs of Central Australia, which was written between 1945 and 1953 but not published until 1971. In the words of Strehlow’s biographer, Barry Hill, Songs of Central Australia would become ‘a huge, marvellous, astonishing gift of a book’. It is also a very commanding work. With great care and thoroughness it transcribes the musical structures of Central Australian song while drawing extensive parallels between those songs and the Western poetic tradition. One example in the book of this comparative approach is when Strehlow argues that Indigenous Australians have in their own way achieved an ideal similar to that expressed by William Wordsworth in his poetry. He quotes from Wordsworth’s ‘Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle, in a Storm, painted by Sir George Beaumont’:

Ah! Then, if mine had been the Painter’s hand,
To express what then I saw; and add the gleam,
The light that never was, on sea or land,
The consecration, and the Poet’s dream …

Strehlow then argues that something akin to this ‘gleaming light of poetry’ was what ‘transfigured the landscape of Central Australia for the natives into a home fit for their totemic ancestors’. Journey to Horseshoe Bend is about a passage through that totemic land, but the book’s poetic precept derives from Wordsworth, in particular, the poem ‘My heart leaps up when I behold’:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man:
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The child is father of the man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

The child in this poem is ideally formative of the kind of man the poet will become and would always like to be. He is what Wordsworth called, referring to his childhood self, ‘Thou child of joy’, a phrase which appears in ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’. In this poem we read:

To me alone there came a thought of grief;
A timely utterance gave that thought relief.

Some critics have argued that the ‘timely utterance’ here is in fact the poem ‘My heart leaps up’, which Wordsworth wrote shortly before ‘Ode’ in March 1802. ‘My heart leaps up’, then, is a poem for the revival of a childhood joy — a joy that can ward off grief and remind one of the wonder of being alive. In Journey to Horseshoe Bend Strehlow aims for this Wordsworthian poetic renewal of childhood joy and its attendant affirmations of life over death and hope over despair, but within the context of Central Australia.

Journey to Horseshoe Bend tells the story of the journey Strehlow made with his family and others in October 1922 from their home at Hermannsburg, one hundred and thirty kilometres southwest of Alice Springs. They were hoping to go all the way to the railhead at Oodnadatta, and then by train to Adelaide, where Strehlow’s father, who was suffering from dropsy, could get medical assistance. Horseshoe Bend was to be a stop along the way. The route they selected — the shortest route — was south, along the dry riverbed of the Finke River and through the Britannia Sandhills. The heat was cruel and the journey unforgiving; his father suffered greatly.

Given the personal circumstances informing the book, one would expect to find first-person narration and a focus on personal experience. This book is anything but. It is not a subjective account of a journey. Strehlow writes a third-person narrative and characterises his fourteen-year-old childhood self, or persona, as ‘Theo’. Thus the story is told as though it happened to someone else, focusing more on external life and events than on feelings and memories.

Theo is hardly present in the book. His appearances are brief, Strehlow using them to evoke that Wordsworthian sense of delight in natural beauty and innocence:

Sitting near the edge of a thick fringe of bulrushes, he watched the black-and-yellow butterflies flirting about gracefully among the blue flowers that grew along the damp bank of the quiet pool, over whose calm waters delicate-bodied, red dragon-flies were hovering in quest of water insects. … From time to time the faint whisper of a summer breeze sighed through the rustling stems and sharp leaves of the bulrushes, and then the clear outlines of the trees and the surrounding cliff walls temporarily lost their mirror-like keenness. The twittering of small birds sitting on the tree branches, the cooing of the large-eyed crested rock pigeons on the stony ground below, and the occasional rush of wings as a flight of long-necked ducks with gleaming green-and-black feathers skimmed low over the water: these were the only sounds that filled the ancient scene with their gentle, age-old music.

Here Strehlow is renewing the child’s joy, the child who is ‘conscious only of the peace and beauty of one of the loveliest landscapes he had ever seen’. But this is only a passing awareness within a much larger consciousness of land and history as Strehlow situates the child and his innocence within an adult world of tragedy and horror:

[T]he race whose love and imagination had given to Irbmangkara its rich store of songs and myths had gone sadly down in numbers since the advent of whites. Theo recalled Jack Fountain’s remark that until the turn of the century the figures of aboriginal hunters had often been visible in the Finke valley upstream and downstream from Irbmangkara, stalking animals that had left the game sanctuary precincts of the sacred site.

They are camped at Irbmangkara, and Strehlow provides a detailed account of massacres connected to that place, ranging from revenge killings between regional groups of Aranda people to the white men who later invaded the land, men who wielded what Strehlow calls ‘a mercenary attitude’, which is based solely on use-value. Use-value is a quality upheld and deemed worthy insofar as it finds its material application in money and power. As Strehlow writes: ‘generally speaking, civilised man normally associates dignity only with power and with money. Even fellow human beings who are lacking in power and in money tend to be regarded as inferior creatures, fit for all kinds of exploitation’. One example Strehlow gives of the ‘mercenary attitude’ is that of Mounted Constable W. H. Willshire, who was eventually arrested for murdering Arrente people. Yet as Strehlow tells us, Willshire was later freed by the verdict of a Port Augusta jury, which had listened to a speech on Willshire’s behalf made by ‘Sir John Downer, Q. C., who had been premier of South Australia from 1885-87, and who was to hold this office again from 1892-93’.

Though Theo may be an attempt by Strehlow to reprise a sense of his childhood as ‘Thou child of joy’, his remoteness from the narrative seems to mirror his remoteness from his father (there is no exchange between them in the book). Strehlow is not concerned with telling us how Theo feels (and therefore how he himself felt) about his dying father. He instead goes to great lengths to show how important his father was, not so much to him (though he was), but to everyone else who had held the man in high regard as an admired and well-respected community figure. The book is actually a kind of gift to the legacy of Strehlow senior:

Hermannsburg had become a symbol not only for aboriginal welfare but for aboriginal rights and aboriginal dignity under Strehlow’s management. Would, or rather could, there ever be a successor to equal him?

In Journey, Strehlow’s father Carl wrestles with his Lutheran faith, and parallels are drawn between his inner struggles (‘an all-exhausting battle of his own heart’) and those of the figure of Christ during his last night in the garden of Gethsemane. And the father’s cry of despair at Horseshoe bend — ‘God doesn’t help’ — is seen by Strehlow as representing, ‘in a way, a free version of the psalmist’s despairing cry, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me”?’ Interestingly, and in keeping with an objective narrative style, Strehlow reveals the growing awareness of his father’s death without reference to personal memory and emotion. Instead, he records his father’s plight through the analogy of Job’s trials and sufferings in the Old Testament. That Job was a man whose patience and piety were tried by undeserved misfortunes is telling, for as Philip Jones observes in the ‘Afterword’ to the book, ‘Strehlow had sought to attach blame for his father’s catastrophic condition to the Lutheran hierarchy’s apparent negligence in delaying his evacuation from Hermannsburg until it was too late’.

But this is not a personally religious book, despite descriptions of religious discourse and Christian belief. And although there are depictions of his father’s religious doubt by way of biblical reference, Strehlow’s concern lies more with what he calls ‘storied land’, that is, with the mythical ancestral lands of the Australian Aborigines. Yet even here religious feeling is not the point. In fact, Journey to Horseshoe Bend is a very secular work, for the book sees literature (or narrative, or writing) as the vehicle by which a loving attention, that abiding sympathy, can be achieved. And anyway, the land for Strehlow is metaphysics enough. The ‘storied land’, that is, which is everything, is ecology, nature, religion, myth, metaphysic, song, art, and poetry.

Indeed, some of the most inspired writing in Journey to Horseshoe Bend is in Strehlow’s narratives of ‘storied land’. Many ancestral stories relating to animals — wallabies, emus, fish, birds, snakes — are lucidly and meaningfully given. There are accounts of important Aranda ceremonial sites and their local myths, and the waterholes along the Finke River valley are shown to be points of travels of the ‘Unmatjera-Aranda fish ancestors’. The smaller permanent pools also have ‘mythological episodes attached to them’. Yet there is pathos here too. ‘This wealth of sacred traditions,’ writes Strehlow,

had been comparatively easy to preserve during the pre-white days. The wide and fertile Finke flats carried a profusion of the larger game animals, in particular of kangaroos, emus, and rat kangaroos; and the sandhills were rich in carpet snakes and all those smaller marsupials that stood in no need of drinking water. Since the Britannia Sandhills had, in the old days, yielded these additional highly prized food supplies, the middle Finke Valley dwellers had once been a very numerous group. There had never been any dearth of males who could be called upon to preserve the rich local heritage of myths, songs, and ceremonial acts from one generation to the next.

Strehlow also imbues the narrative of ‘storied land’ with some evocative nature writing:

The flourishing desert oaks, standing well-spaced apart, looked magnificent. Their straight, dark, ridge-barked trunks rose to an average height of from twelve to fifteen feet before the first strong, crooked branches were reached; and the many hundreds of young desert oaks which soared up around the big trees in the form of slim, straight saplings showed that the Britannia Sandhills had enjoyed a long run of good seasons in recent years. … The fresh bluish-green needles of the desert oaks contrasted with the shiny dark-green leaves of the willow-foliaged ironwoods, and with the grey-green leaves of the mulgas. The spinifex tussocks on the flats between the dune crests, expanded by a succession of excellent years till each spiky clump touched its neighbour, were in full ear; and the swollen spinifex seed-heads closely resembled the heavy ears of a waving, ripe cornfield.

Journey to Horseshoe Bend is intensely a book of land. It is, among other things, a compendium of nature writing, but nature writing connected to the wider complexities of ecology and the history of settlement. Strehlow might begin, for example, by noting a closely observed detail such as the ‘resinous scent emanating from the bulging tufts of spinifex which the donkeys kicked with their plodding feet’, and then go on to meditate how this ‘resinous fragrance drew attention to the … dangerous waterlessness of the huge inland sandhill regions’. He might also describe signs of recent abundant rain in the desert oaks, ironwoods and mulgas, all ‘clad with luxuriant foliage’. Or perhaps he’ll note the quality of the soil in wide silt flats, and how ‘the dense network of roots under the cane grass tussocks had enabled the ground covered by them to withstand the gouging action of the ripping, tearing floodwaters’. He’ll observe, too, the way in which ‘nature had used the soil differences to put a sharp line of demarcation between the habitats of … two kind of eucalypts’, and how the river gums demand ‘clean white sand for their roots, and the box gums … clay soil’. Finally, he might remark on the negative impact grazing has had on the land — the great increase of dust and flies — and how ‘the whole country had been powdered and churned up by the twin-clawed hoofs of hundreds of wandering cattle’. But Strehlow will then also interleave the ecological with the mythological. Thus, the narrative can go from the smell of spinifex and observations on rain totals to Theo contemplating the haunting loneliness of a moonlit landscape, where the scene is no longer the adult’s one of environmental awareness but, as night falls, the child’s one of ‘the spectre shapes of the iliaka njemba that had frightened him as a child’.

So it is that Journey to Horseshoe Bend is a skilful and clever essaying on different orders of reality. The narrative shifts and layers various modes of writing and areas of enquiry. Whether it is the fairy tales of childhood, environmental degradation, the fate of ‘half-caste’ women at the stations and missions, the local histories of pastoral settlements, or even human loneliness and cruelty — all of which are featured — this book marvels at rediscovering the child’s landscapes as it describes the more worldly or historical ones of the adult.

Actually, Journey is a thoroughgoing work of selflessness, one given over to the histories and hardships of others. In this respect it achieves a deep abiding sympathy, one that goes beyond (yet while no doubt still including) the sympathy of subjective feeling to a loving attention to country, a term — specifically an Indigenous Australian term — that unifies both the natural and the metaphysical. According to Roslynn D. Haynes country is an interrelationship between three sets of entities:

the Ancestors, spirit beings who created and continue to nurture the land in which they dwell; all the biological species, including humans, that they created; and the living, sustaining land. In this triad the land provides the vital nexus between the physical and the spiritual, between temporal and eternal, since, as the dwelling place of both supernatural beings and living creatures, it connects both realms.

Conceptually, Strehlow’s narrative expands on this triad. His book is witness to the relationships between spirit beings, the living, sustaining land, and the Aboriginal people for whom these things are so vital and important. And Strehlow knew first-hand what such interrelationships meant. He was born in Ntarea (the Aranda for Hermannsburg) and brought up and educated alongside Aboriginal children at the Lutheran Hermannsburg mission. ‘German was his mother tongue; Aranda that of his youth; English running between them’, writes Barry Hill in the biography, Broken Song.

As for Theo, he comes to the fore only as the book concludes, experiencing ‘an overpowering sense of loss’. And as a great thunderstorm hits Horseshoe Bend, ‘the rain that was falling on his father’s grave had come to represent the symbol of life’. Theo awakens now to an affirmation of life and to the strength of a positive response to land, to how he is ‘linked indivisibly with one special site in the country of his birth’; and he entertains ‘the hope that some day he might return to his own Aranda country and steep himself in its ancient traditions’. Steep he did. The result was Songs of Central Australia, a work, as already mentioned, of poetic grammar that shows ‘parallels’ between Aranda song and the Western poetic tradition. ‘In pointing out these parallels’, writes Strehlow,

I have not had any desire to suggest any special affinities between the Aranda and the old European traditions. My intentions have been quite different. … The European parallels are designed to achieve a more sympathetic attitude in the mind of the white reader towards aboriginal verse and toward the aboriginal world of ideas. For once it can be shown that some of these apparently crude, cruel, strange, or disgusting ideas were once to be found also in ancient pagan Europe, then more thoughtful readers may hesitate to reject them as utterly valueless.

Strehlow devoted much loving attention to knowledge deriving from Aboriginal Australia. Songs is a book of vast erudition and technical knowledge, an encyclopaedic work spanning many fields of enquiry and interest, and yet woven throughout is sadness, mourning for the destruction of Aboriginal culture and society. And though the story of Journey is sometimes told through the eyes of a fourteen-year-old, the narrative, as Melinda Hinkson notes, in fact turns, like Songs, ‘upon a lifetime of acquired knowledge and careful research’.

What ‘Thou child of joy’ was for Wordsworth, knowledge was for Strehlow. Not knowledge as a comfort to the soul but as an amplifying awareness of being alive. Journey to Horseshoe Bend is the story of Theo’s awakening knowledge of the wider historical complexities of not only who he is, but also where he is, and the significance of that. And his rite of passage is one of intellectual purpose and ambition, curiously coinciding with his father’s painful death. Whether such ambition was ultimately the means by which to deflect personal grief, the reader cannot tell.


Roslynn D. Haynes, Desert: Nature and Culture (Reaktion Books, 2013).
Barry Hill, Broken Song: T. G. H. Strehlow and Aboriginal Possession (Knopf, 2002).
Melinda Hinkson, ‘A Mythic Last Journey’, Arena Magazine (No. 140, Feb/Mar 2016, pp.51-2).
T. G. H. Strehlow, Journey to Horseshoe Bend (Giramondo, Classic Reprints, 2015)
— Songs of Central Australia (Angus and Robertson, 1971)

Paperless Pilgrims

This review first appeared in Arena Magazine, Number 150, 2017. It appears here in a slightly altered form.

Oscar Martinez’s The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail is an important book for anyone who wants to know why people are forced to flee their home for life in another country.  It is the first English translation of Los migrantes que no importan, or, ‘the migrants who do not matter’.  The Spanish edition was published in 2010; the English in 2013. 

Enthralling and humane, The Beast is a work of great daring.  It contains, however, stories that are quite horrific.  One of these is the story of Erika.  When she was a girl Erika was treated like a slave and sent out into the streets of Honduras to sell fish and firewood.  If she didn’t get rid of everything her adoptive mother would whip her with an electrical cord.  Beaten so badly, Erika had open sores all over her back.  Salt was used to cover the sores and Erika’s twin brother was made to lick it off.  The brother became sick and died.  Erika was told it was parasites, but she knew the punishments were the cause.

When Erika herself fell sick she was taken to the hospital, but no one came back to pick her up.  So thereafter she lived on the streets.  One day several years later she happened to run into her adoptive mother, who convinced Erika to come back with her.  But nothing would change.  Soon her step-brother was raping her.

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Óscar Martínez, The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail, translated by Daniela Maria Ugaz and John Washington (Verso Books, 2013)

No wonder that at fourteen Erika left Honduras for a better life.  Like many other Central American migrants she would try to get to El Norte, the United States.  But once she was over the border and in Mexico she had endured enough.  And she needed money.  Migrants don’t get anywhere without money.  They have to pay Mexico’s borderland gangs and they have to pay the polleros (or people smugglers, who themselves are subject to gang-rule).  So, needing money, Erika spent her nights dancing and working clients in a strip club.

‘Erika paints a typical portrait of the Central American migrants whose suffering lights up the nights of border towns,’ writes Oscar Martinez in his powerful book.  Erika (not her real name) is one of the women who, without citizenship papers or other such forms of identification like a Birth Certificate, live and work in southern Mexico’s brothels, and whose story is recorded with great humanity by Martinez in The Beast

Since 2007, when a law was passed in Mexico against human trafficking, the plight of women and prostitution has been a much publicised issue.  Martinez, a journalist who has written for Latin America’s online digital newspaper, travelled Mexico’s borderlands to see for himself what was happening to people, particularly young women like Erika, who were poor, sexually enslaved, beaten, and whose bodies were ‘little more than a ticket from one hell to another hell.’  A woman migrant’s body is known colloquially as cuerpomatic, an idiomatic expression that means the body becomes a credit card which, as a community worker tells Martinez, ‘buys you a little safety, a little bit of cash and the assurance that your travel buddies won’t get killed. … It buys a more comfortable ride on the train.’  Between 2008 and 2010 Martinez documented the heartbreaking experiences of migrants (Hondurans, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, Guatemalans) who were trying to flee to the freight trains that would take them north to the United States.  The trains are known collectively as Le Bestia, or The Beast.  Martinez encountered not only migrants, but also polleros, migration agents, police, journalists, and priests who run migrant shelters. 

In The Beast Martinez concisely documents the very well-organised criminal networks of gangs, or cartels, and their operations that involve everything from kidnapping to extortion.  For cartels like the notorious Los Zetas — who own, run and administer whole towns and regions, influence local police, and have the migration agency turning a blind eye — migrants are third in line after the other businesses of drugs and arms trafficking.  Martinez describes Los Zetas as a ‘metastasizing cancer.’  As he explains, ‘Migrants are recruited.  Soldiers are recruited.  Policemen, mayors, businessmen — they’re all liable to become part of the web.’  In this enlightening book Martinez vividly depicts the hopelessness of what he sees, and shows that a sense of fatalism pervades everything.  This is a deterministic world.  People’s wills are not their own, their fates decided by cartels; for only cartels possess a will and the right to use it.

So where is the hope?  For the migrants it is of course in the chance of getting to the US.  But for the reader it’s in the writing.  Martinez’s writing has great purpose.  He sees it as ‘an ethical responsibility’.  Bringing the facts, he also writes a heart-breaking story of struggle, sorrow, brutality and suffering amongst the people who are marked by the magnetic pull of the United States.  But he doesn’t dwell on violence for its own sake and isn’t gratuitous in his telling of it.  And he’s not out to make the reader feel depressed.  He understands that the evidence will speak for itself.  Above all, Martinez writes to inform and dispel ignorance.  He wants the voices of people like Erika to be heard within the context of what they have to deal with.  Yet at the same time he keeps the narrative moving swiftly and episodically through those borderlands and beyond.   

What also makes The Beast so astonishing and so eloquent is the way Martinez is alive to language (his own and that of others).  He’s alert, for example, to the ‘subtle wordings’ used by traffickers and pimps which make ‘trafficking not sound exactly like trafficking; the suggestion that it’s the girls’ decision.’  Also, Martinez employs simile and metaphor very sparingly, but when he does they leap off the page: ‘In Indeco walking the streets is like stepping on a spinal cord, a touchy boundary line between two countries in conflict’; ‘The Beast is the Rio Grande’s first cousin.  They both flow with the same Central American blood’; ‘bones aren’t a metaphor for what’s past, but for what’s coming’; ‘a migrant passing through Mexico is like a wounded cat slinking through a dog kennel.’  Moreover, his style eloquently captures the everyday while hinting at the epic:

The highway snakes through the rocky hills in this vast, open desert.  Only the Gran Desierto of Sonora and Arizona is as large.  The hills here reach as high as 6,500 feet above sea level.  And the huge cold rocks that cover them resemble Olmec heads, as though fallen in some long-past Biblical rain.  These hills form into chains that stretch beyond the horizon.  In the middle of this desolate landscape lies the small truck-stop town, La Rumorosa.  It’s a town of little more than gas stations, twenty-four-hour restaurants, small cafes, and vacant lots where long-haul truckers like to pull off the road and doze.

From the vastness of desert to mythical and religious analogy the narrative sweeps down to the roads of a desolate town and ends with truckers dozing in their cabins.  This passage is typical of the way Martinez concisely and evocatively introduces his scenes.  It also shows how landscape becomes an important part of the migrants’ stories.  Climbing up a steep pass Martinez looks out across the land:

Rock after rock.  Hill after hill these men and women have to cross.  And then they have to navigate the dangers of getting caught along the distant highway.  This is the first clear crossing point we’ve come upon, and we realize that it’s just as dangerous for migrants as crossing through a narco zone.  It’s not a human hand here that kills the migrants, but the system that pushes them to walk this far.

Then there is La Arrocera, in southern Mexico — a remote area dense with overgrowth and vegetation that Central American migrants must pass through if they want to get to the train at Arriaga.  But travelling through La Arrocera means going unprotected.  So vast is the region that police cannot cover it, and bandits are better equipped (or armed) than cops.  This is the brutal reality of the land.  Martinez is an explorer of this reality, and because human realities are based on systems of value, The Beast is also an enquiry into such systems and the cartels who enforce them.

The accumulative power of the migrants’ stories and the episodes of Martinez’s journey through Mexico impel the reader on.  The Beast is in fact a compilation of chronicles or ‘Crónicas,’ artfully structured so that the book has thematic continuity.  Crónicas bring the news, report events and issues.  But they’re usually a long-form genre of writing that also offers analysis and interpretation, as well as the journalist’s perspective on his or her experiences ‘in the field’.  The journalist is part of the story in a chronicle.  The New Journalism of the 1960s in the US is something similar in intent to crónicas.  But Martinez’s book may be closer to Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry (1926) than to New Journalism.  Like Babel, Martinez’s interest lies in the humanity which is buried in a world of dire circumstance.  Babel set out to tell a story of circumstance and what it was like to be trapped within it when he wrote of the experiences of a Jewish news correspondent who joins the Red Cossacks and reports on frontline action during the Soviet-Polish War.  Similarly, Martinez aims to chronicle the horrors of his time and place: extreme violence and a cruel indifference to the value of human life.  And though his commitment as a writer is to fact and event, the intensity of Martinez’s involvement never fails to come through.

The ingenuity of the book is that Martinez is learning for himself the extent of ruin and systematic, well-organised depravity.  Such is the law of much of Mexico’s borderlands, where evidently the only people immune to narcos are not polleros, justice officials, police, migrants, migration agents — not even military personnel — but priests.  In a world where ‘gangs consider migrants as part of their long-term business plan,’ priests, we learn, do not have to pay a ‘tax’ to the cartels.  It’s not that priests are sacred. They’re just a mere exemption and have to pay their dues the old-fashioned way — to God.