Waltzing Matilda and Billabong

Woolabra Station Outback Landscape

Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong

Under the shade of a coolibah tree,

And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled:

“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me?”

 

The Woolabra Station tour was my very first connection to the Outback. It’s about a half hour drive out of Charleville (and Charleville is 2 hour flight from Brisbane).

“Let’s get you some tucker,”

Kevin said when he picked me up in his old Land Rover. I wasn’t sure if ‘tucker’ was a good or bad thing.

 

Kevin, the station owner and our tour guide for the day, shared the history of his life in the Outback and how he settled down in Woolabra. As any authentic Outback man would do, Kevin used lots of local slang, or just their usual language, during the tour. As a first time visitor to the Outback, let alone Australia, I had to stop Kevin from time to time to have him explain what he meant. Even the name of the tour was a mystery for me from the beginning: Bush Breakfast by Billabong: Brolgas, Bastards, & Beau Birds. I understood about 15% of what this tour was about. But as you can imagine, I loved it.

I learned a lot about life out in the Outback, and the challenges of keeping property. The constant drought and flooding. The failures and successes of his life are remembered in his rough hands and wrinkles.

A billabong at Woolabra Station

A billabong at Woolabra Station

 

I wasn’t alone on the tour. Bob and Shelly, an older Aussie couple, were there with me, and they helped me understand the culture and some of the expressions. Finally we reached our breakfast spot that was supposed to be by a billabong. Tucker, turns out, means ‘food’. But what was a billabong? It’s an Aboriginal tribe Wiradjuri’s word for an oxbow lake, a pond left by a river when it changes direction. Kevin’s wife made this beautiful breakfast, and we enjoyed them looking out onto the rough terrain and billabong.

The place we stayed in Charleville was called the Waltzing Matilda Motor Inn. We talked about how great this place and food were.

“Oh yes, have you heard of Waltzing Matilda the song?”

Shelly asked.

I just thought the inn owners named it this way because their daughter’s name was Matilda or something. When I asked the origin of the inn’s name, they simply said it had been this way for decades. The current owners only bought it several years ago. Turns out, Waltzing Matilda is one of the most famous songs in Australia. What do you know?

“It should’ve been our national anthem,”

said Shelly. Everyone agreed.

Bob, Shelly, and Kevin started singing Waltzing Matilda by the billabong. This is how it goes:

 

Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong

Under the shade of a coolibah tree,

And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled:

“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me?”

 

Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda

You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me

And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled:

“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”

 

Down came a jumbuck to drink at that billabong.

Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee.

And he sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag:

“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”

 

Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda

“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me,”

And he sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag:

“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”

 

Up rode the squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred.

Down came the troopers, one, two, and three.

“Whose is that jumbuck you’ve got in your tucker bag?

You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”

 

Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda

“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me,”

“Whose is that jumbuck you’ve got in your tucker bag?

You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”

 

Up jumped the swagman and sprang into the billabong.

“You’ll never take me alive!” said he

And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong:

“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me?”

 

Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda

“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me,”

And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong:

“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me?”

 

Waltzing Matilda is a folk song widely known as Australia’s bush ballad. The gist of the song is the story of a nomadic worker (swagman) making a drink of tea at a bush camp and catching a sheep to eat. Matilda is the name of the swag (sleeping pad). It keeps him warm at night, like a woman. Can you imagine a traveler waltzing with Matilda? But when the sheep’s owner arrives with three police officers to arrest the worker for the theft, the worker commits suicide by drowning himself in the nearby watering hole, after which his ghost haunts the site. I thought the story was so sad. The mood of the song is so jolly, I didn’t expect this plot when I heard them singing. The story was written by the poet Banjo Paterson in 1895. It’s been known as the unofficial national anthem of Australia ever since.

Camping in the Outback under the star

Camping in the Outback under the star

 

I agree that it should be the national anthem! There’s something romantic about this rough terrain and how people make their life here. It’s a place worthy of having stories written about. How romantic.

Oh, and brolgas and bustards are types of birds that are native to Australia. Kevin’s farm attracts several hundreds of them every year for some reason, and that’s why he decided to start the tour. A few of them wandered around the farm. I could only imagine how beautiful it’d be with several hundred of these beautiful cranes.

 

I’ll start my day with my billy and think of a swagman waltzing with Matilda.

 

About Juno Kim

One Response to “Waltzing Matilda and Billabong”

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  1. Andrew says:

    Waltzing Matilda is a GREAT national song, I agree, but it isn’t about…. It’s about a guy. A swagman. Not about Australia. I for one like out national anthem. I know I am in the minority, but it’s hard to imaging Waltzing Matlida as an anthem. Thanks for your thoughts Juno! It seems you really loved your time in Australia which is great!

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