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

Sun.

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.

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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.

Moon.

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

Stars.

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.

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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.

Maps.

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.

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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.

Compasses.

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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.

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Waltzing Matilda with a swag, Part 1 – Packs and Carry

Welcome to the first in a multi part series on the “how-to” of bushwalking in the old style with a swag and nosebag.

Each of the parts of this series of posts will cover a separate aspect of the gear and how to use it, but keep in mind that there were literally dozens or even hundreds of different configurations. In this series you’ll see the gear I tend to use most often while swaggin’ it. For an exhaustive look at this stuff and the rationale behind it, you’ll need to wait for my soon-to-be-released book On the Wallaby Track: A Swagman’s Handbook . This series of posts is designed to give you nuts and bolts info purely to get people started and out there on the track swaggin’ it in the old style.

Packs and Carry has a broad definition. In this case it refers to:

  • The swag straps and shoulder strap used to carry the wrapped bundle which is the swag roll
  • The nosebag
  • Tucker bags
  • Ditty bags
  • Any belt kit
  • Any haversack

The most important parts of the swag are the straps and the nosebag. Everything else is secondary, even the swag roll itself isn’t as important as the straps used to secure it.

The Swag Straps

Traditional swag work in progress.

2 inch wide belts work perfectly as swag straps.

The path of least resistance for this setup is to use a couple of old leather belts for the swag straps. These wrap around the packed swag roll and keep it from coming open while you’re on the track. I have often used a pair of 2 inch wide army surplus Swiss Army officer’s dress belts. Bare with me here because you’ll see army surplus gear pop up over and over as we go through this series of posts.

Being wide and strong, these belts are secure and are almost unbreakable. You’re unlikely to ever destroy them. I usually go with swag straps between a metre and 110cm long. This gives you plenty of wiggle room when it comes to strapping up a fat, cold weather swag, or if you want to strap an oilskin coat or a rain cape to the outside of the swag roll where you can get to them easily enough.

The Shoulder Strap

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Adjustable leather shoulder strap is fastened between the swag straps.

This is little more than a short leather strap which is fixed between the two swag straps and which is long enough to put an arm through so you can carry the swag roll hanging off your shoulder. In my case I use an adjustable leather “cobra” pattern rifle sling. It works fine and being more than two inches at its widest, it doesn’t dig into my shoulder when carrying a heavy swag.

The Nosebag

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This picture shows how the nosebag is secured to the swag strap. In this case it it tied on using a calico triangular bandage, rather useful as multi-purpose item.

Also known variously as a tucker bag or as a dilly bag, the nosebag has a double purpose – it contains your food and cooking/eating gear and its weight helps to offset the weight of the swag roll on your back.

I use a vintage 50lb flour bag as my nosebag. This is twisted at the top and tied closed with a piece of jute twine. This twisted neck of the nosebag can then be tied off directly to a swag strap or you can tie it to the swag strap with a tea towel (seriously) or a calico triangular bandage. Both of the latter are easier on the shoulder when carrying a lot of tucker in the nose bag.

Use

There you have the basic carry system for swaggin’ it – swag straps, shoulder straps and a nose bag to balance it all out. In use, you would put an arm through the shoulder strap, which will lead the swag roll to sit diagonally across your back. If you have the nosebag nosebag tied off to the right hand swag strap, swing the nosebag around behind your neck and over your left shoulder so that it sits on your left chest.

Reading this, it’ll seem counterintuitive, but trust me, it’s the most logical way to wear the nosebag in practice. If you were to sling the nosebag over the same shoulder as the swag’s shoulder strap, you will in short order start getting a seriously sore shoulder and neck.

Miscellanous bags

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In this picture you can see the contents of the nosebag, many of which are laid out on their various ditty bags. The 50lb flour bag itself is the nose bag. The green bag is a rubberised canvas jungle food bag from WWII which was used as the tucker bag in order to keep the flour and other dry food from getting wet during a soggy swag trip. The quartpot gets its own calico bag in order to keep soot off everything else carried in the nosebag.

Inside the nosebag, everything is in miscellaneous calico bags I have found or have made up.

The most important of these bags is the tucker bag. I call this one the tucker bag because it contains the food separately to the rest of the stuff in the nosebag. When you’re camped for the night you can remove the whole tucker bag from the nosebag without having to untie the whole thing. Its size depends on how much food you’re taking. Mine is a calico book bag so flattened out it’s a little bit bigger than A4 size.

Inside the tucker bag you’ll find ditty bags full of foodstuffs. I use one for flour and others to keep small tin canisters and glass vials of spices together, as well as separate ones for coffee beans, sugar and tea.

Salt beef or pork goes into a calico meat bag before being carried in the billy. The calico stops the meat from sweating so it lasts longer without going rancid.

I also use calico ditty bags for carrying camp equipment (rolled up in the swag) such as candle lantern and candles, spare matches and the like.

Belt Kit

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Some basic belt kit items seen here (right to left) – a water bottle in skeleton leather carrier, compass in leather pouch, clasp knife pouch, larger bush knife sheath with attached accessory pouch.

I used to wear my bush belt quite often when swaggin’ it, but I tend to wear it less these days, since I’ve streamlined my kit considerably. The bush belt kit consisted of the following:

I use a belt-mounted canvas water bottle pouch to carry a WWI-era US M1910 canteen and canteen cup where it’s close to hand.

The belt itself is a 2 inch wide leather belt with a brass buckle I picked up from somewhere. It does the job.

I use an army surplus Urugayan/Argentinian 1910s rifle stripper clip pouch to carry my prismatic compass. The compass is secured to the belt with a plaited leather lanyard.

I use a leather pocket knife pouch to carry a Swiss pattern 1908 soldier’s clasp knife.

I use a brown leather knife sheath designed for a Buck 19 to carry my Svord Drop Point Hunter knife.

Haversack

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My What Price Glory repro Pattern 14 Haversack with leather sling.

A shoulder haversack can be useful on longer trips or when carrying extra equipment such as field sketching or photographic equipment.

My haversack of choice is a reproduction WWI-era Mills webbing Pattern 14 side pack from What Price Glory. These have leather straps and brass tongue buckles. I use it with a 1 inch wide leather military rifle sling, which admittedly is a bit less comfortable than a wider shoulder strap when the haversack is packed to the gunwales.

Archival Gear – Schmacalder Prismatic Compass by Ross Ltd. circa 1897-1907

Well, I’m back.

My dalliance with that other site wasn’t as successful as I’d have liked, so I’m transferring the more interesting of my posts over here to where they are more suited.

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The pocket-sized Schmalcalder prismatic compass ready to use, with lid removed, front sight vane in position and prism flipped up.

The first is a good look at an unusual compass from the late 19th Century. One of the first prismatic marching compasses, it’s the sort of thing Baden-Powell or Burnham may have carried during the Matabele Campaign.

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