Waltzing Matilda with a swag, Part 7 – Navigation and Direction-finding

Swagmen often didn’t need to navigate “properly” since they followed tracks and roads the bulk of the time. In unfamiliar areas they relied upon directions from other swaggies and from station workers and other locals they might run into and stop to yarn with along the way. In some areas the roads were little more than kangaroo or cattle pads so the swaggie usually had a working knowledge of direction-finding via the sun and the stars as well as other natural cues.

The swag-carrying bushwalkers such as those from the Mountain Trails Club who swagged their way for weeks on end through the dense, trackless expanse of what is now the Blue Mountains National Park, needed to know how to use the map and compass, but since theirs were often the first European feet to set foot on much of the country they trod and much of it was largely unmapped, they also used the lay of the land to navigate. Some of these old time bushwalkers, such as Myles Dunphy, took the opportunity to actually map some of these areas.

Presented here are just a few of the more common methods used by bushmen to find their way in years gone by. For a more comprehensive look at bushman’s navigation lore, see my forthcoming book On the Wallaby Track: A Swagman’s Handbook


The sun was the most commonly-used direction-finding aid for those travelling without a compass. Since most bushmen carried a pocket watch, it could be used to find north in exactly the same way we today might use our analogue wristwatch. The 12 was pointed at the sun and halfway between the 12 and the hour hand is true north. This method can be inaccurate in far northern Australia where the sun can be directly overhead and can even be to the south during the wet season.


Finding true north in the Southern Hemisphere using a pocket watch and the sun.

The sun rises in an easterly direction and sets in a westerly direction regardless of where you are in the world, however in Australia it rises/sets generally southeasterly/southwesterly in Summer, or generally northeasterly/northwesterly in Winter.


Like the sun, the moon rises/sets in a generally easterly/westerly direction. For more precision, keep in mind that the moon’s orbit makes it appear generally opposite the sun from the perspective of an earthbound observer.

When the moon is in a “crescent” state, it can be used to find the general direction of north in the southern hemisphere. Simply draw an imaginary line through both of the points of the crescent and continue the imaginary line down to the horizon. Where the line intersects the horizon is (usually) true north. For more details as well as a diagram of this method, see http://www.naturalnavigator.com/find-your-way-using/moon


In the southern latitudes of Australia the Southern Cross (constellation Crux) method was used to find south. There are several methods for finding the South Celestial Pole using the Southern Cross, but the most common, shown below, uses both the Southern Cross and the two pointer stars.


Imagine a line connecting the two pointer stars. Halfway along this line, draw another imaginary line at a right angle to it and extend this off into the sky. Draw another imaginary line through the Southern Cross lengthways and also extend it off into the night sky. Where the two lines meet is the South Celestial Pole. Now drop another imaginary line down to the horizon. This is True south.

Prevailing winds.

This method relies upon knowing the direction the wind blows from in a particular area. This can be ascertained by observation practice, or from the vegetation. In sparsely vegetated areas especially, trees will usually bend ever so slightly with the prevailing winds. Air from the south will often be cooler than air from the north and wind often blows in from the ocean during the day and towards it in the evenings. These cues, when combined, provide a generally accurate method of direction-finding as long as you have an idea where the ocean lies and you’re within a couple of hundred kilometres of the coastal strip.

Lay of the land.

Much like today’s average bushwalker, the old-time swagman never usually travelled off-track through thick scrub, but if he did, it would have been unusual if he ever became really bushed (lost). Reason being, all that time spent travelling through the country at walking pace gave him an acute eye for the little things, a break in a ridgeline there, a gentle slope there… If you find the watersheds and where they drain, then follow them down hill. Water always drains into more water so eventually you’ll hit the coast, and the coastline where major waterway drain into the ocean is usually populated, or at least visited fairly regularly. The chances of running into a settlement, road or even a decent sized town while making your way to the coast are very good.


Often, a page torn from an atlas was the only form of map available. Some atlas maps included towns, roadways, major pastoral stations, waterways and borders, but they were large scale and usually didn’t show mountains, vegetation types or other useful features found on proper topographical maps. As with most maps, the top of the map was usually true north, which allowed a rough orientation to the ground using a pocket compass or an improvised compass rose despite the lack of a useful-scaled grid.


Map of New South Wales, Victoria and part of Tasmania from the 1916 edition of the Official Year Book of the Commonwealth of Australia. Torn from a book or atlas, this was the type of printed map most commonly available to swagmen and other bushfolk. Click on the map for full size.



My Hunter-cased pocket compass with a printed paper Royal Geographical Society pattern card as used between the 1870s and the 1920s. Don’t get this one wet.

A pocket compass, while nowhere near as precise as a proper prismatic surveyor’s or military compass, was accurate enough for general direction-finding. In use, the compass is opened out flat and a sightline is taken to a distant landmark with the direction on the dial noted. The line of march is noted and while walking, the compass is used as a guide to stay on a relatively straight track, sighting off trees, white ant hills or other landmarks as you go. The closer together your landmarks, the more accurate your line of march.

Waltzing Matilda with a swag, Part 5 – Eating


In this picture showing the contents of the nosebag you can plainly see the eating equipment usually carried.

The swagman’s eating equipment is simple and  concise. I use vintage and vintage-style eating equipment. It consists of a tin plate, a silver-plated spoon, three-tine fork, bone handled butter knife sharpened to a razor edge and the quart pot’s pannikin.

As seen in the last post, the tin plate is a multiple-use item since it doubles as a frypan and hot plate. You could also use it as a pan for gold prospecting if you wish. It’s lightweight and easily slips down the side of the nosebag. Speaking of goldpanning, I have recently started using a 9 inch spun carbon steel gold pan as a plate/frypan/gold pan while swaggin’ it. It’s a bit heavier than the tin plate, but it has multiple uses. More on these in my forthcoming book On the Wallaby Track: A Swagman’s Handbook.

The spoon is probably antique, dating to at least the 1910s. It’s made of brass which has been silver plated. The silver plating is just a non-tarnish finish applied to the spoon, but it’s possible that there are health benefits to using silver or silver-plated utensils, which may be why they used them.

The three-tine fork is a Colonial-era item which could date back as far as the 1870s. It is carbon steel so it can rust and needs to be carefully dried before being placed in the nosebag after use. It has riveted wooden grip scales and a nice patina from more than a century of use.

The bone-handled knife is made from carbon steel and using a butcher’s steel, it comes up to a razor-sharp edge. As described in a previous post, this isn’t your mum’s butter knife, but it will butter damper quite nicely. The knife is multi-purpose and is a very effective carving knife and vegetable chopper.

Like the knife, the pannikin has already been described in a previous post. It is made from tinware and has folding wire handles. Like any tin cup, it can be placed on the fire to boil water when water is at a premium. Another type of tinware cup I use is a colonial-style tin cup which dates from at least the 1910s.  Since I am not sure whether the solder in this one contained lead, I use it very rarely, and never place it on the fire.


Colonial-style tinware cup.

Waltzing Matilda with a swag, Part 6 – Water

A swaggie walking his circuit out west knew where the water was, and he also knew that when water was more than a day’s walk he’d have to carry his own supply. Usually a swagman would carry a flax water bag. This would not only allow him to carry 3 or 4 litres relatively easily, but the slightly porous nature of the bag meant the water was always cool. In fact, the hotter the day, the cooler the water. Other methods of carrying water were, in a 5 pint billycan with the lid tied on, or in a canteen or glass bottle on a shoulder strap.


Water carriage options I use. In this picture you’ll see a homemade six pint water bag, a 950ml enamel water bottle, a 1200ml MkVI water bottle in a Pattern 03 leather carrier, and the quartpot filled for hand carry.

I don’t use a billycan to carry my water, since when I do carry one, it’s usually used to carry fresh food rather than water. A billycan packed with shredded stringybark lets you carry a half a dozen fresh chook’s eggs safely, even if the billy is tied off to your swag strap and the swag thrown around and sat upon. I use a water bag and I use canteens for water carriage on traditional trips.

My waterbag is six Imperial pints (approx 3.5 litres) and it is an army issue vehicle waterbag made in 1941. I have also made an exact replica of this bag using lighter weight canvas and it works perfectly well. The army water bag originally had a porcelain spout. This was a hygienic measure since many people would share the same water bag. I stupidly knocked my bag onto concrete and broke the spout not long after I acquired it, so I made my own spout out of a section of seasoned black wattle and bored a hole through it to accept a water bottle cork. It hasn’t let me down.

To prepare a flax water bag for use it’s necessary to first soak it for up to two days before hand to swell the fibres. I soak these in hot water since that not only swells the fibres, but it shrinks the bag a little as well. Both of these things make it hold water better.


Flax water bag soaking for 24 hours before use. The soaking swells the fibres of the bag, making it hold water better, while still allowing seepage through the flax canvas.

The water bag is hand-carried. A pair of leather straps through the grommet-holes in the bag allow you to push a stick through the straps, which provides a perfect handhold.


Stick used as a handle. Picture stolen from my other site – League of Bushmen

Canteens are also useful. Sometimes I will carry three canteens instead of a water bag. I tend to carry canteens in three main ways – on the belt, in the nosebag or on a shoulder strap. I have a pre-WWI US M1910 canteen which I carry in a belt pouch. It has a nesting cup which is almost identical to a modern Australian Army cups, canteen but it’s made of aluminium. I also have several Australian WWI/WWII enamel water bottles. The most oft-used of these is one set up for Light Horse use in a leather shoulder carrier. The design of the carrier makes it very easy to drink while on the go. It’s almost as easy as sipping from a modern-day Camelbak or similar hydration bladder.


WWII enamel water bottle I actually found off the side of the track during a bushwalk a couple of years back. This one has since been restored with a wool cover and a new cork. Great water bottles, but being enameled steel, they are a lot heavier than the plastic or even aluminium equivalents.

Water purification is a topic which is important. Once you delve into the source material like I have, you read the old swaggies talking about drinking creek water with animal remains in it, stagnant, algae-packed ponds or even muddy puddles. That’s how it was usually done back in the day, but coming from an outdoor industry background, I prefer to treat my water. Getting a bad case of the “hurls and squirts” two days after you’ve drunk dodgy water isn’t my idea of fun, particularly if you’re halfway through a month-long swaggin’ it expedition. There were ways to purify water available to the swagmen of yesteryear and like today, they could be classified into three main types – filtering, boiling and chemical treatment.

Filtering was usually done with multiple layers of cotton such as a neckerchief or a knotted shirtsleeve.

Milbank filter bag in action #ausbushcraft #bushcraft

Milbank filter bag in action.

To filter I use a millbank filter bag, which is a 1940s-era invention. It is a canvas bag which is first soaked and then filled with water. When the water level reaches the marked line you place your quartpot under it and start collecting the filtered water. It’s only useful for removing mud and particulate matter. You still need to otherwise treat the water before drinking. The millbank filter can be made more effective by placing a couple of handfuls of fine sand inside.


Quartpot on the boil. Canteens are ready to fill.

Boiling is the surest way to purify water. Conventional wisdom states that rolling-boiling your water for a minute will kill most of the bugs. To be 100% sure, keep a rolling boil for 10 minutes. If you haven’t filtered the water first, there are a couple of different ways to deal with muddy water or particulate matter. The easiest is to drop a few hefty pinches of fine wood ashes into the water as it’s boiling. The ashes will settle to the bottom of the quartpot or billy, taking the mud with it. You can simply pour the clear water off the top.

Chemical treatment is probably the most convenient. Even if you can’t filter or boil the water then and there, you can make it drinkable using chemicals. The most common chemical agent carried back in the day was condy’s crystals, otherwise known as potassium permanganate. These were a multi-purpose item, so it was worth carrying a small bottle of them. The efficacy of condy’s crystals for use as a water purifying agent isn’t all that good, especially if you need your water quickly. It takes up to 24 hours for a 1g per litre solution of condy’s crystals to kill the nasties. Boiling is quicker and more effective.

One area where condy’s crystals does work well is in removing taste and smell from foul water. If you boil water from a stagnant pool, it will still taste like it’s a stagnant pool. Add three or four individual condy’s crystals to a quartpot of water and the oxidation effects of the chemical will make the water more palatable within a few minutes.

Personally, when it comes to chemical water treatment, I use a modern-day option, Aquatabs, which are Sodium Dichloroisocyanurate tablets used at the rate of one tablet to a litre of water. Contact time is 30 minutes, after which time the water is safe to drink.