A review of Waltzing Australia by Cynthia Clampitt

Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs

Waltzing Australia
by Cynthia Clampitt
2007, 497 pages, ISBN 1-4196-6306-2

Waltzing Australia is an account of a six month period the author spent exploring Australia. A Chicagoan more accustomed to a lifestyle defined by a well-paid corporate job, attendance at theatres, and fine restaurants and fine wine, in her thirties Clampitt decided there was something missing in her life and that she wanted to experience the ‘outback life’ she’d read about in the works of writers such as D. H. Lawrence, Miles Franklin and Banjo Patterson, and seen depicted in Australian movies such as ‘Breaker Morant’ and ‘The Man From Snowy River’.

Written in diary-style, we accompany the author as she travels – mainly in organised tour groups – around the continent, on a journey that covers some 20,000 miles. Clampitt’s travels took in most of the east and west coasts, the ‘red centre’, Tasmania and large sections of Victoria. Cape York and the Nullabor Plain are the only coastal areas she didn’t see by road, making her arguably more familiar with the country than many Australians who have lived here all their lives.

Waltzing Australia is a thick tome, and I confess to being somewhat daunted at attacking almost 500 pages of ‘what I did on my holidays’, but Clampitt’s warm, evocative and open-hearted writing soon won me over. She has a particular gift for describing the natural world and her accounts of rainforests, deserts, waterfalls, natural features such as Uluru in the Northern Territory and Wave Rock in Western Australia, and the myriad plants and animals she encounters are woven together into a rich tapestry. Her interest in botany particularly stands out and her descriptions of native plants, though not quite as effective as photographs, are so detailed as to make them seem almost as good. In every place she visits she is careful to discover and document the history and these accounts of Australia’s past are woven seamlessly into the narrative.

She’s no slouch either, taking in her stride new and challenging experiences such as camping out under the stars, sleeping on the ground in a swag, staying in cheap and cheerful hotels the like of which she would previously have avoided, and a week-long camping trek on horseback through the Victorian Alps. This latter adventure leaves her somewhat bruised and injured but, as always, she still expresses unbounded joy at the landscapes she encounters and the people she meets along her journey. Fearless and intrepid, she wanders on foot around Australia’s cities, trying to cram as much sightseeing and learning into her time here as is humanly possible.

This is a marvellous introduction to the continent for any American considering the arduous journey to the other side of the world, and would certainly be useful for trip planning. For Australian readers, there’s little to quibble with, though I was struck by the glossing over of some things – such as the bloody history of Aboriginal disenfranchisement – by tour operators, to make the place more appealing to tourists. Clampitt is told that many remote Aboriginal communities have banned alcohol because of the social problems it causes, but was clearly not told that much of this ‘banning’ has been a the behest of paternalistic governments rather than the communities themselves. Likewise, in her two visits to ‘Ayers Rock’ (which she seems unaware has been commonly known to all as ‘Uluru’ since being handed back to the traditional owners some two decades ago), her tour group makes the climb to the top of the rock, seemingly unaware that Aboriginal people prefer that tourists forgo climbing it, as they regard it as disrespectful to their beliefs in the rock’s spiritual significance. But a tourist can only report what they see and are told, so this is more a criticism of the Australian tourist industry than the author.

Clampitt would have to be the first American I’ve ever encountered (and that includes my American expat partner) that actually likes Vegemite! Often she employs some joyously laugh-out-loud descriptive prose, revealing a unique way of seeing the world around her. Here, for example, is an encounter with wombats: “These delightful, funny little animals have short, thick muscular necks, which makes it impossible for them to look up, so when they beg for food, they simply trot up and stare at your ankles … They don’t look quite real – sort of a cross between a woodchuck, a bear cub, and a footstool” (p.277-8). I’d never thought of wombats quite in this way before, but the footstool analogy is both apt and hilarious! By the end of the narrative, I felt I knew the author very well. Unafraid to honestly respond to her own emotions, and her surroundings, reading this book is as much about witnessing a person’s transformation through close contact with the natural world as it is about the places she visited in Australia.

Clampitt has returned to Australia several times since the journey described here, and has also subsequently travelled extensively in Asia, China, South America and many other places since taking the decision to ‘never again let expectations and security eclipse the dream’ of being a full-time writer and opening herself up to the world (p.463). This is an inspiring book, by an inspiring woman, whose appreciative writing made me want to invite her to my place on her next visit so I can show her the beauties of ‘my’ little pocket of Australian paradise.

About the reviewer: Liz Hall-Downs has been writing, publishing and performing since the early 1980s. Her published poetry collections include: Conscious Razing: combustible poems (1986), Writers of the Storm: 5 East Coast Performance Poets (1993), Fit of Passion (1997), Girl With Green Hair (2000), and My Arthritic Heart (2006). Her poetry has been broadcast on television and radio in Australia and the USA, and published in literary journals. A past winner of poetry slams in St Kilda, Melbourne (1991) and Austin, Texas (1994), she has worked with several performance poetry outfits including ‘The Word Warriors’ (1990-1), ‘Stand-Up Poets’ (1992-4), ‘Ozpoets’ (USA tour 1994), and ‘Fit of Passion’ (1995-2000). Since 2006 has been singing and playing bush bass in the Brisbane-based alt-country-blues-roots trio ‘Cathouse Creek’. An experienced factual writer, editor, reviewer and manuscript assessor, she has worked on many community arts projects and in 2004 was employed as a writer for Brisbane City Council’s ‘Creative Democracy: Homelessness’ Project.