The Role of ‘The Road’ in the Australian Imagination

This month we published Roads, Tourism and Cultural History by Rosemary Kerr. In this post the author explains how ‘the road’ inspired her book.

As the summer holiday season approaches in Australia, many people will take to the road – visiting family and friends; heading up or down the coast for some rest and relaxation; revisiting favourite spots, or exploring new places off the beaten track. The road trip looms large in Australian culture. Distance and mobility have shaped the nation’s history and character, but until now the role of ‘the road’ and road tourism in the Australian imagination has been relatively unexplored.

From sacred Aboriginal ‘songlines’; trails blazed by explorers and pioneers; to the rise of the road trip in the early 20th century, as cyclists, motorists and caravanners answered the ‘call of the open road’; to modern-day backpackers and grey nomads following ‘Highway One’ around and through the country on journeys of national and self-discovery; to four-wheel-drive adventurers, who dream of getting off the road altogether, this book examines how roads and road travel beyond urban settings are imagined, experienced and represented by travellers, writers, poets and film makers. Through detailed studies of iconic routes, including the Birdsville Track, Stuart Highway and Great Ocean Road, it asks, how and why have some roads become more famous than others? What are the implications for heritage preservation and tourism interpretations of these routes?

Based on my doctoral research, completed at the University of Sydney in 2012, the topic was inspired partly by my work as a historian and heritage consultant, where I was involved in several projects studying the heritage of roads and bridges. This work focused on assessing the physical fabric of roads and infrastructure as well as their historical context and significance. Questions such as: ‘how and why were they built? Where did they go? Who travelled them?’ and ‘Why are they important?’ made me think about the layers of history, memory, meaning and mythology embodied in roads. I wanted to explore the idea of the road in broader Australian culture.

Travel narratives, tourism literature, fiction, poetry and feature films reveal the Australian road to be a space of contrasts and contradictions between: Aboriginal and European conceptions of space, road and off-road, coast and outback, nostalgia and modernity, nature and technology, freedom and constraint, memory and forgetting, dream and nightmare.

As well as representing adventure, escape and opportunity, the road also has a dark side. The much-anticipated holiday road trip often ends in tragedy, and Australia has one of the highest incidences of road trauma in the world. Terms like ‘horror stretches’ and ‘accident black spots’ attest to the spectre of death which haunts the nation’s highways. Disturbing – and often bizarre – cases involving murders and disappearances of hitchhikers, backpackers and other travellers on outback and regional highways contribute to the image of the road as a ‘badlands’. These images have also entered our cultural consciousness, inspiring road movies such as The Cars that Ate Paris, Mad Max and Wolf Creek.

 Yet, the ‘weirdness’ and ‘melancholy’, which often characterised representations of the Australian bush and outback can be attributed partly to Australia’s history as a settler colonial society. It reflected the sense of dislocation and alienation experienced by many, both convict and free, who found themselves far from ‘home’ in an unfamiliar and often threatening environment; and the violent dispossession of Indigenous peoples which the process of colonisation entailed. That history has had a lasting and ongoing impact on imaginings, experiences and representations of the Australian road.

By exploring ‘the road’ as both a physical and imagined space, the book delves deep into the Australian psyche, revealing much about underlying Australian culture including relationships to landscape, modernity, national identity and colonialism. It offers a new way of thinking about roads and road tourism as important strands in a nation’s cultural fabric.

Rosemary Kerr

Consulting Historian

rtk@tpg.com.au

 

For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like Histories, Meanings and Representations of the Modern Hotel by Kevin J. James.

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