Following the Footsteps of the Ancestors: The Walkabout Coming of Age Ceremony
Australia has been inhabited for more than 50,000 years and the Aboriginal people have a complex and fascinating spiritual life. Their culture is filled with traditions and ceremonies with special meaning, and their cultural identity is particularly important to them today now that the many tribes from across Australia have come together as one.
The Aboriginal people were treated horrendously by the British who sought to colonize the island. Many of the distinctive cultural groups were wiped out when their traditional hunting grounds were taken over, or when they were exposed to new diseases which were foreign to them. Others were brutally massacred or captured and forced into a life of slavery.
Children were taken from their families and forced into residential schools – a practice which served to deliberately and methodically wipe out Aboriginal culture. They were not allowed to learn their own languages or pass on traditions and folklore. Aspects of Aboriginal culture which had been passed down over thousands of years were erased within a generation.
The Aboriginal Australians are striving to hold onto their culture. (Cristian Carotenuto / Adobe Stock)
And yet today, there are still people who are proud of their heritage and take part in the ceremonies which have survived. These ceremonies arguably encapsulate the things which were most important to Aboriginal societies, and by studying them it is possible to learn a lot about their culture and way of life.
Coming of Age Traditions
The ‘coming of age’ ceremony is a significant rite among many cultures. It is an important milestone and it marks a difficult time for many young people. They are too old to be considered children, but they have not yet found their place in the adult world. For some cultures it is considered a dangerous time.
The age at which a person is initiated in a coming of age ceremony varies – Jewish Bar and Bat Mitzvahs take place when the young person is 13 years old, and a Quinquennia is held on a girl’s 15 th birthday. Other ceremonies rely on physical changes such as the onset of puberty. The way the event is marked also varies by region and culture – sometimes it is a simple party and other times it is a religious ceremony.
In recent years there has even been a rise in secular coming of age ceremonies, which aim to prepare adolescents for adult life. As religion now has a less integral role in many societies, the transformative adolescent years have remained difficult to navigate and the need to observe the time has remained important. These secular coming of age ceremonies are especially popular in Scandinavia, but they are starting to become more commonplace in North America.
But whether they are spiritual, cultural, or secular, coming of age ceremonies all have a few things in common. They acknowledge that the threshold between childhood and adulthood is a special and often difficult time for young people, and they reassure them that as adults they are a welcome addition to their social or cultural group. Many of them offer a guiding hand to young people who may be struggling with their identity and offer the advice of an older figure (for example a Rabbi or a tribal elder) that teaches the young person the skills they need to thrive as an adult.
Aboriginal Coming of Age
The coming of age ceremony is an important aspect of Aboriginal culture, too, and for this reason more than one Aboriginal coming of age ceremony is practiced today. In Eastern Australia, an initiation ceremony called a Bora is held for young boys who have achieved the status of men.
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Like the Aboriginal Bora ceremony, the Walkabout is a ‘coming of age’ ceremony. (HappyWaldo / Public Domain)
While the initiation varies between the Aboriginal cultures and regions, the ceremony is an intense one. The boys are subjected to physically demanding activities such as scarification, tooth removal, and genital mutilation. They are taught the secrets of the tribe’s spiritual beliefs through traditional songs, dances, and lore. The ceremony is held at a special ceremonial ground and it is attended by a number of men.
This intense group initiation helps a young man to feel like a part of the men. They are physically accepted by the other men and share in group experiences which cement the bonds between people who have traditionally relied on each other for safety during grueling activities such as hunting and warfare. The Bora encourages camaraderie. But the Bora is not the only coming of age ceremony still practiced by Aboriginal Australians, and the second is the polar opposite of the adrenaline fueled group ceremony.
The Walkabout Ceremony
The Walkabout coming of age ceremony is a rite of passage for young men between the ages of 10 and 16 (though most commonly 12-13) years old. It is often misunderstood by those with little knowledge of Aboriginal cultural practice and the term has been used as a derogatory way of describing wandering pointlessly.
The term is even used in other English speaking societies who often have no idea of its origin - you have probably heard someone ask something like “Have you seen the Joe? I was supposed to meet him, but he’s gone on a walkabout,” or frustratedly proclaim “I’m sure I left my keys here, but they have gone on a walkabout.”
For this reason, the traditional name ‘Walkabout’ is now generally replaced by the term ‘temporary mobility’ so that the spiritual significance of the event and its importance to the young men who undertake it is not undermined.
A young man on Walkabout, providing for himself as he makes the spiritual journey into manhood. (PawełMM / Public Domain)
It is undoubtedly a physical rite of passage – the young man undertaking it must live a temporarily nomadic lifestyle and survive alone – but it is also a spiritual one. It is a journey both spiritual and physical over the ancestral Aboriginal lands which takes place over a period as long as six months.
Walkabout is both physically and mentally demanding, particularly for such young men, and they must prove they are ready for the task before they gain approval for the ceremony from Aboriginal elders.
In the years before the Walkabout they are prepared by the elders, who give them advice both about surviving physically and about their imminent adult lives. They receive the secret knowledge of their tribes, and knowledge about how to survive in the unforgiving lands which have been home to their ancestors for so many generations.
The Physical Ceremony
Young men who are undertaking their Walkabout ceremony are dressed distinctively so people know this is what they are doing. Their bodies are decorated with paint and ornaments. Just like the Bora, the way they are decorated varies based on region – some boys will receive a permanent mark when they set out, such as scarification or extraction of a tooth. Traditionally, a boy on Walkabout will dress only in a loin cloth.
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A young man is decorated with paint and ornaments in preparation for the Walkabout ceremony. (Fæ / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The journey they undertake can cover as much as 1000 miles. The Australian landscape is famously dangerous and unforgiving, with soaring temperatures and poisonous insects and snakes. And so, to survive the ordeal of a Walkabout ceremony, the young man must be able to adequately and safely provide for himself. He needs to know how and where to get clean water, to build safe shelter, and to hunt for food. He must be able to hunt, fish, and identify edible plants.
The plants the young man learns to gather are traditional. They eat bush tomatoes, Illawarra plums, quandongs, lilli pillies, muntari berries, wattle seeds, Kakadu plums, and bunya bunya nuts. He must also know which plants are medicinal and be able to attend to his own wounds and injuries, so he is not impaired and unable to continue.
Because of its demanding nature, the Walkabout ceremony is also seen as a test of bravery. The boy risks getting lost or injured daily, and sleeping alone in the wilderness at night is something which requires a great deal of courage. The physically demanding challenges of surviving alone are different to the difficult aspects of the Bora ceremony, but they are more likely to have a long term effect on the young men.
Spiritual Goals and Navigating the Land
While the physical aspect of the Walkabout ceremony helps young men prove they are capable members of their society, the Walkabout is not only about learning to survive alone. When the boy is going through this rite of passage, he must use the time alone to reflect upon spiritual matters and discover who he is as an individual.
The Walkabout is not only about learning to survive alone but also a spiritual journey. (Rafael Ben-Ari / Adobe Stock)
He is expected to reflect on his relationship with his ancestral land, and with nature and to connect with those who have been through the same rite of passage before him. He is supposed to think of his ancestors as he undertakes the Walkabout and to honor them.
He is taught to sing traditional spiritual songs known as ‘songlines’. These songs are extremely special – they are not just a way to pass the time, but a way to navigate the treacherous landscape. The boys are not given modern instruments such as compasses or drawn maps, and the songs describe the landscape and milestones such as rivers and rock formations, so the boy makes his journey with the aid of a spoken map. The songs guide the young men to hunting grounds for prey such as wallabies and describe the location of seeds and wild fruits for cooking.
Preserving nature and respecting the land is an integral part of Aboriginal culture and being able to interpret the songs is important. Attaining food without depleting resources can mean traveling long distances while supplies closer to home regenerate and regrow, and the songlines reflect this.
The songlines also describe areas of spiritual importance and describe significant historical events. As the young men make their journey with the aid of the songlines, they learn about the important places of their ancestors and see the places first hand. Finally, the songlines give thanks to the earth for her resources and during Walkabout the importance of respecting the earth and the resources it provides is reaffirmed and, perhaps, more clearly understood.
The Aborigine’s believe they are guided by a higher spiritual power when they are making their Walkabout journey. When the boys return from the Walkabout ceremony they are considered men. They have not only proven they are able to survive alone, but that they are spiritually awakened, and ready to take on more responsibilities and play a more important role in their communities.
The traditional Walkabout ceremony is still known today and there are some Aboriginal boys who consider it an extremely important part of their identity and undertake the rite of passage in the traditional way. Unfortunately, as times have changed in recent years the ceremony is becoming less commonplace.
Today, some young men want to complete Walkabout but do not feel comfortable doing so on foot. Others are unable to commit to a long term Walkabout over the course of many months due to school or work obligations.
This has resulted in the Walkabout ceremony evolving and adapting for modern times. Young men may choose to experience the Walkabout as a road trip, driving though their ancestral lands rather than traversing them on foot.
This means they lose out on the physically demanding aspects of the Walkabout, and yet it is still a valuable rite of passage which they want to undertake. Perhaps this is because the spiritual aspects of the Walkabout ceremony are so important, even now. The Aboriginal Australians have fought very hard to hold on to their cultural traditions, and for young Aborigine men this is a way for them to partake in a traditional ceremony which can guide them at a difficult time in their lives.
The Aboriginal Australians have fought hard to hold on to their cultural traditions such as the Walkabout. (thakala / Adobe Stock)
Some people believe that the feelings of helplessness experienced by some young Aboriginal men, who find it hard to determine their place in Aboriginal society and their identities as Aboriginal men in modern day Australia, would be less of a problem if the Walkabout ceremony was still widely practiced. The ceremony was always intended to help boys connect with their ancestors and that is perhaps even more important to young men today.
Top image: The Walkabout is the Aboriginal culture’s coming of age ceremony. Source: Rafael Ben-Ari / Adobe Stock.
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