Walkabout refers to a rite of passage where male Australian Aborigines undergo a journey during adolescence and live in the wilderness for a period as long as six months. It’s a vision quest taken to extremes.
My introduction to it was through a fill called Walkabout by Nicolas Roeg. I saw it the year I started college and it really intrigued me.
It follows the journey of a sister and brother who are abandoned in the Australian outback and their meeting with an Aborigine boy who is on his walkabout. Together they journey innocence into experience in the wild.
The film has a cult status these days, but back in the early 1970s very few people I knew had ever heard of it. Of course, I was not alone in having a crush on the unnamed girl in the film played by Jenny Agutter.
The film was unconventional and had almost none of the “plot” that we expect in a film. Years later, I saw a “director’s cut” but by then I had forgotten the details from my original viewing. (A benefit of the aging brain and memory is that you can re-experience things you loved as if they were new again.) The scenes of frontal nudity and realistic, survival hunting scenes seemed perfect in context, but unusual at the time.
So, that film led me to read the original book and several other non-fiction books about the walkabout experience. I even tried once to teach the book to middle school students, but they just didn’t get it.
I loved the idea that the seeker followed “songlines” that their ancestors took. These songlines (or dreaming tracks) of the Indigenous Australians are an ancient cultural concept and motif perpetuated through oral lore and singing and other storytelling dances and paintings.
The songlines are an intricate series of song cycles that identify landmarks and mechanisms for navigation. They remind me of the songs of whales. I can’t explain how they work any more than I can explain the whale songs or how migrating birds find their way. Though I have read about all of these things, I don’t think I really want to know (at a scientific level) how it works.
Each song has a particular direction or line to follow and walking the wrong way may even be sacrilegious. You don’t go up one side of a sacred hill when that is the side to come down. That would send you in the wrong direction both literally (on a map) and figuratively (in your life).
What is it about being alone in the wilderness that tunes (or, more likely, re-tunes) our awareness of the natural elements and our connection to them, and even to some creational source? Though I and my ancestors are a long way from that natural life, something remains inside us.
Like the vision quest, the walkabout is an initiation into the teachings and mysteries of the self and the universe. The seeker both finds truths and has truth revealed.
While the walkabout may have Aboriginal roots in Australia, and the vision quest is associated with Native American traditions, the journey is not unique to only those locations. That is why that film eventually led me to read about the archetypical “hero’s journey” and the search for the Holy Grail.
I wish I had a true vision quest or walkabout tale to tell you. I still hope that someday I will.
I have taken two much smaller journeys. On one full moon weekend journey, with some guidance from someone who knew more about it than I did, I sought my “guardian animal” in a vision or dream.
I wish I could say it was a wolf that I found because I have always felt an affinity to them, but it was a rabbit. (Of course, I was in New Jersey at the time, so a coyote would have been about as close as I was to come to a wolf – and we know the coyote is the trickster.)
I have also felt some kind of connection to rabbits since childhood. The rabbit in my vision was quite real and I felt led me. I say that because I followed it and it never ran away but would stop, look back at me, wait, and then continue. I followed it for what seemed like a long time, and then, while I was looking at it, it disappeared.
That’s how I would describe it. Disappeared.
We were at the top of a rocky outcrop. There was a small stream ahead of us and down the rocks. I did not see a life direction or message in where I had been taken that day. But I felt that I was at a place where I had a good, clear view. I did not know exactly where I was, but I was not lost. I could find my way back to where I had been, but I didn’t see where I needed to go next.
In the traditional Lakota culture, the Hanblecheyapi (vision quest) means “crying for a vision.” I am still looking.