Perhaps Australia's best know song begins "Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong". The idea of the swagman was deeply embedded in Australian mythology. In very simple terms, the term swagman emerged during the 1850s Australian gold rushes and referred to an itinerant bush worker who walked from place to place looking for work. Or, in the case of prospectors, the next strike.
A swagman was not the same as the tramp, a much more derogatory word, although some were tramps and some were thieves. It was just a way of life, of travel between work when there were no cars or trains or, indeed, bicycles. No, bicycles is not a misprint. Once invented, they became a major form of transport in country Australia.
This 1896 painting by the Australian painter Frederick McCubbin is called simply On the Wallaby Track. It shows a family on the move. Dad is trying to boil the billy, while Mum sits exhausted.
The term on the Wallaby Track apparently first appeared in 1849. It appears to be based on the tracks that Wallabies created by hopping through the Australian bush moving towards food or water. It came to mean the track followed by people on the move.
From time to time, I have felt that it would be interesting to go onto the Wallaby Track, to see the country as swagmen once saw it. And, in case you wonder, I can walk long distances; I can survive in the bush to some degree, although I know that life might be unpleasant in cold or wet weather; I know how to build a camp, to create a proper fire, to boil a billy, to cook damper.
I would make some concessions to modernity. I would want to carry a camera and my writing logs. That means waterproofing, and probably requires a pack instead of the rolled-up blanket or swag.
Why don't I do it then? Well, apart from work issues, I'm not sure that it's possible anymore. Even forty years ago you could stop by a creek on the side of the road. light a fire and create a camp. You could tramp through the bush and create a camp there. Today, it's all rule bound. I would probably be arrested for breaking one law or another. Instead of just going, my trek I would require detailed investigation in advance, and that defeats the point.
Today, the term swagman has been replaced by tramp or homeless. I think that's a pity.