Nothing captures Australian pop-culture’s relationship with the land more succinctly than the terrified cries of a Victorian schoolgirl: "Miranda, don’t go up there!" From Hanging Rock to Wolf Creek, the natural world is, at best, a sublime mystery waiting to swallow you whole; at worst it’s an unrelenting murderer.
This fear is a hangover from the anxieties of colonial Europeans. It’s deeply imprinted onto our national psyche, and permeates everything from art to proud Facebook bragging about the 10 deadly things Australians live with every day that can kill you just by looking at you. Number 1 on that list is Australia, because make no mistake, this country is trying to kill you.
The Australian-environment-as-killer was most famously personified in Wolf Creek’s backpacker-murdering Mick Taylor. Like nature’s opposite force to Mad Max’s eponymous Max, Mick was uncaring and cruel, our national fears surrounding the outback given form.
If there was one major flaw when Wolf Creek was given the TV series treatment earlier this year, it was the attempt to give Mick a backstory. A category 5 force of nature was downgraded into just another murderer with a traumatic childhood. In losing that Australian anxiety around nature, Mick Taylor became Michael Myers in a flanno.
But one question that isn’t asked often enough is how truly Australian this fear is. In watching Shadow Trackers, a new SBS documentary series focusing on two Indigenous myth and monster hunters, you quickly come to realise that our First Peoples have an entirely different relationship with the land. It’s respectful instead of fearful, spiritual instead of nihilistic, and it runs as strongly through Indigenous stories as anxiety does through mainstream pop-culture.
That’s not to say there aren’t horrors to be had; it would make for a pretty dull monster-hunting show if there weren’t. Stories abound of bunyips rising from lagoons as mounds of wet hair, snatching farmers and their horses while ghosts, manifesting as the sound of waterlogged boots, frighten off anyone up to no good.
This is perhaps one of the most important takeaways from Shadow Trackers,summed up towards the end of the first episode by one of our intrepid guides, Hunter: maybe the monsters only prey on those with ill-intentions. In that sense they’re not actually monsters at all, but guardians of the sacred land.
The sanctity of the land is in stark contrast to mainstream Australian portrayals. It’s sacred, spiritual, and a direct line to the past, something we’re explicitly shown as hosts Hunter Page-Lochard (Cleverman) and Zac (8MMM) ask the spirits of their ancestors for permission to enter their land.
Fear and anxiety is nowhere to be seen. In their place is respect and reverence, with an underlying sense of guardianship. The land won’t hurt you, unless you intend to hurt it.
Australia is still a land divided, even down to the way it’s portrayed in the art and stories of the many people who call it home. If we want a truly inclusive Australian national identity, we need to make sure all of these stories are heard.
This is why it’s important that more Indigenous Australians are given platforms to tell Australian stories. We shouldn’t allow the narrative around the land, and around the Australian experience, to be solely dictated by the anxieties of European settlers.
Shadow Trackers premieres Thursday 27 October 8.30pm on NITV.