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A Pedagogy of Place

Chapter 5

Expeditionary Learning and a Sense of Place

~ Brian ~

As we have seen in the previous chapter, the journey or expedition has long been part of the staple diet of pedagogic approaches to outdoor education. We have suggested earlier in the book that notions of adventure as a form of cultural practice and assumptions about the ability to generalise learning from novel experiences are problematic. Even so, we also acknowledge that outdoor travel is likely to continue to be an important element of outdoor education programming. So what are the pitfalls and possibilities of outdoor travel in terms of participants developing a deeper understanding of, and sense of attachment to, an outdoor place that is remote from their homes? Is an expeditionary pedagogy that is responsive to a remote place possible, and what would be its educational value? These are important questions for outdoor educators and guides. As we previously argued, humans pay a price for modern levels of hyper-mobility. Yet, to an extent, this mobility is inevitable. Humans are, by their very nature, travellers as well as home-makers. Can a sensitive and place-responsive pedagogy of outdoor travel be developed?

This chapter discusses a research study into outdoor education participants’ responses to expeditionary style travel on a section of the River Murray in south-eastern Australia. I wrote about working with place-responsive pedagogies in outdoor education practice over the last ten to 15 years in my earlier narrative in chapter two. My doctoral studies gathered data from undergraduates from that time and inquired into what aspects of their river experiences seemed to deny place and which seemed to develop the potential of place attachment. Accounts of that research have already been published (Wattchow 2007, 2008), but I think it is worth revisiting some aspects of it and developing them further here. In the original study I contacted many of the students I had guided on those river journeys and gained permission to use the reflective writings they completed about their experiences at the time (of which I had the original copies). I also used these writings to select a number of the past students to interview. The time span between the participants’ writing about their river travel experiences and the interviews varied between one and nine years.

It is worth briefly mentioning several salient points here. I noted that on fast-moving water the students’ attention was often highly focused on developing competency in their kayaks, canoes and rafts. They strove to develop their skills to the point of being comfortable in the demanding environment of the white water rapid, though few achieved this in the time available. Interpreting their written and spoken words I concluded that, in the main, they saw these places as having wild, awesome and enduring qualities. These are classic images drawn from a Romantic disposition towards the land, as discussed earlier, and I concluded that this was largely problematic for experiencing the more nuanced and local particularities of the rivers we were journeying along. The students’ experiences of slower flowing rivers, such as the Murray on its floodplain, were much more relaxed and none expressed any fears about being on the river or in the outdoors. As one of them recalled in an interview:

It wasn’t a threatening environment to me … the adrenaline levels weren’t huge … it was achievable … stress wasn’t there and the risk was low … Quite enjoyable and not out of your comfort zone. Comfortable trip.

But their language continued to suggest that they were still encountering the river through the Romantic constructions of the outdoors as a sublime, vast and eternal entity: ‘The tranquil movement of the canoe on the water, the dripping sounds of the paddle blade, the alternative view of the surrounding environment, and the romanticism of being in a Frederick McCubbin painting’ (female participant). But within the written and spoken data for these ‘slow river’ experiences there were many notable passages that suggested more responsiveness to place was also going on.

In this chapter I want to re-visit the data from that study, to look more closely at those canoe journeys along the Murray, where certain elements of the experience seemed to allow the participants to open themselves to the place. I have been quite selective when returning to the data to search for such indications. I also want to write about how I am continuing to try to develop an approach to expedition travel that encourages what Relph (1976) calls an ‘empathetic insideness’ – a sensitised traveller rather than a touristic consumer. There were some common elements to these canoes journeys which are worth briefly noting.

  • Students first encountered the River by arriving at night and camping on its banks.
  • There was a slowness to the travel. Much of the first day was devoted to drifting at the pace of the river.
  • There was minimal technical instruction about canoeing on the trip.
  • Students experienced canoe travel solo, with a partner, with boats tied together in rafts of two, three or even all boats tied together.
  • The ‘rafts’ became a site for travel, games, reading, storytelling, even cooking.
  • Campsites were not preselected, they were chosen en route. Camping involved sleeping under tarpaulins, or under the stars, or under simple shelters built from the canoes. No tents were taken on the trips.
  • Unprocessed food was taken that required a lot of communal preparation (such as baking bread). Students were set a food budget and much of the fresh produce sourced by students was organic and bought from local markets. All cooking was on campfires. No stoves were taken. All food scraps were brought home and composted.
  • Students were encouraged to wear natural fibre clothing rather than high-tech outdoor gear.
  • Solo time and predawn paddles were timed around the most favourable conditions.
  • All students were encouraged to carry and use journals (blank cartridge paper style journals for sketching and writing).

There was no set formula for the journeys. Each one would ‘emerge’ out of the ingredients above. Before writing further about the participants’ responses to these programs I must first introduce you to the River Murray’s story.

Carting cultural baggage to the River

Let us start with the general and work towards the specific. Rivers in a land as flat and vast as Australia are a very curly proposition. Their cultural meanings, and hence travellers’ experiences of them, are far from straight forward. It is little wonder that European settlers and visitors in Australia could not fathom the rivers that they encountered as they travelled inland, away from the verdant fringe along the east coast. These rivers simply did not behave like the rivers that they were familiar with in Europe. They didn’t seem to be real rivers at all. Instead, they often encountered dry watercourses with no flow at all, and when it did rain ‘the tendency was for flood water to spread out, to disperse through a lacework of temporary channels, which, far from concentrating the water, fanned it out to cover huge areas of normally waterless desert’ (Carter 1988, 55). Carter concluded that it became near impossible for the explorer to ‘invest the space of his journey with meaning’ (p. 56) as a result of his experience with these ‘unimaginable’ rivers.

Put simply, the inland rivers of Australia did not fit the ‘fluvial mythology’ (Schama, 1995) of the Old World that stretched back beyond Classical Antiquity to the times of ancient Egyptian settlements along the Nile. This long history, built up through centuries of river travel and trade, irrigation and river-based industry, has left a lasting legacy of expectations about how rivers should look, behave, and about their function and sacredness. The inevitable mismatch between European expectations and Australian reality has had dire consequences for rivers in Australia.

For the new settler Australians rivers ‘refused’ to maintain regular flows during dry periods or stay within their banks when the rains came. Stories of drought and flood became legend, none more so than on the major waterways of the Murray and the Darling. It was not long before systems of locks, weirs and dams were surveyed and built to force rivers to conform to settler expectations. The story of environmental degradation that has resulted from both inappropriate early settler farming practices (particularly sheep grazing), the damming and regulation of river flows, and inappropriate irrigation-based agriculture, is too extensive to tell here. Fullerton (2001) does a particularly good job of summarising this history and representing current debates about the competing demands for water from Australia’s river systems. Interestingly, it is a view of water as a placeless commodity that dominates these current debates, and the pre-regulation stories of the River have largely been forgotten in the modern discourses of water and river management (Sinclair 2001).

The Murray River, known simply as the River to locals, provides a compelling example. The Murray’s headwaters collect in Australia’s highest mountain range in southern NSW. The River falls rapidly and leaves the mountains to commence its long journey of 2500km across the inland flood plain. In pre-European times the indigenous peoples who lived along the River had a number of names for it – Indi, Millewa, Dhungulla, Kalara, Tongala, Milloo and Murrundi (O’Neill, 2005) – each representative of Aboriginal nations. The River was first sighted by the European explorers Hume and Hovell near the current day township of Albury on 16 November 1824 on their journey from Sydney to Port Phillip Bay. A few years later, Captain Charles Sturt led his inland expedition overland from Sydney and then down the narrow Murrumbidgee River to where it entered the Murray. Sturt and his crew arrived at the confluence just after 3.00 pm on 14 January 1830. The captain noted in his journal that evening:

It is impossible to describe the effect of so instantaneous a change of circumstances upon us. The boats were allowed to drift along at pleasure … whilst we continued to gaze in silent astonishment on the capacious channel we had entered … We had got on the high road, as it were, either to the south coast, or to some important outlet; and the appearance of the river itself was such as to justify our most sanguine expectations. (Sturt 1833)

Sturt’s expedition had begun to fill in the blank spaces of the colonisers’ maps and ignite the imagination for the possibilities of European settlement and trade along the River. The following 180 years would bring profound changes to the Murray. The Aboriginal population was decimated by diseases such as smallpox, measles and influenza as a result of contact with Europeans. The River became an important overland stock route and squatters soon followed, establishing sheep and cattle properties along the River’s banks. By the mid-1850s steam-driven paddle wheelers were beginning to ply their trade, taking supplies upriver that aided in establishing new settlements, and bringing loads of wool downriver on their run to the Port of Goolwa near the River’s mouth. Wire fencing, the cutting of large volumes of timber along the banks to both build and fuel the steamboats and radical changes in human population, were rapidly impacting upon an ecology and culture along the River that had changed very little in the preceding 5000 to 15,000 years.

Large-scale irrigation commenced in 1887, led largely by the Chaffey brothers in the irrigation colonies of Renmark and Mildura. 1912 saw the launch of the scheme to build a series of locks along the River in order to make its navigability by the paddle wheelers more predictable. Construction of the Hume Weir, above Albury, commenced in 1919 and was completed in 1936. This allowed for the storage of winter snowmelt and spring rains, which then could be released to downstream towns and irrigators during the summer months. This reversal of the River’s flow regime has fundamentally changed the nature of the River’s ecology. The final significant change to the River involved the post-World War II construction of the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme. This nation-building project was intended to drought-proof the important inland agricultural districts along the Murray by redirecting flows from the Snowy River into the Murrumbidgee and Swampy Plains rivers (and hence into the Murray). Yet even this additional water has not been enough to satisfy the combined needs of agriculture and settlement downstream. The extended dry of the last decade sees the River and its communities at crisis point, struggling to find a way to live within the new reality of diminished river flows and agricultural systems built upon grossly excessive water allocations. The consequences may be dire as the Murray-Darling basin is Australia’s most productive agricultural region.

The section of the River that we journeyed through is referred to as ‘The Barmah’. Just in this week of writing it has been declared a National Park and the traditional peoples of the area, the Yorta Yorta, will have a significant role in its management. This decision does not please everyone. Cattle graziers and timber cutters will no longer be able to use the area for these purposes.

The Barmah Forest is 28,900 hectares in size, of which 4500 hectares is swamps and lagoons. The River in the Barmah owes much of its current character to two colossal damming events – one deep in geologic time, the other in recent settler history. The Cadell Tilt block was formed by a geologic uplift 25,000 years ago, which crosses the River near the site of the Barmah township. This dammed the River, splitting it into two streams (the Murray flowing south and the Edwards anabranch flowing west). As a result the uplift forming a natural dam, the River regularly flooded an immense area, creating the distinctive forest and wetlands. The second damming occurred when the River’s waters were impounded behind the Hume Weir, completed in 1936 (260 kilometres upstream from Barmah). This human regulation of the River made it possible to control winter and spring floods, and thus allowed extensive European settlement along the Murray Valley. It also made it possible to reverse the flood regime of the river, storing water in winter and releasing it for summer irrigation downstream. The River’s water thus became an economic commodity that could be traded, between governments and water users. As a result the forest no longer experienced regular flooding and its ecology must now be managed by controlled floods.

The Barmah region was originally populated by the Bangerang Tribe, which was decimated by two smallpox epidemics in 1788–89 and 1830 (the current indigenous peoples of the region call themselves Yorta-Yorta). Dispossession was followed by pastoralists in the 1940s when Edward Curr established the Currs’ Lower Moira run to graze sheep, cattle and horses in the forest in the driest months of the year, after the spring and winter floodwaters receded. Firestick farming by the Bangerang created the open forest pastures so attractive to those who would displace them. Cattle grazing, timber harvesting, bee keeping, camping, fishing and tourism became the main ways that people interacted with the River and forest. Now the cattle are gone and the chainsaws are going. As we have written earlier, places never stay the same, they are always evolving.

This briefest of introductions the River reveals it as a complex place – one that has changed so quickly in the last two centuries that it is hard to keep pace. As the River historian Paul Sinclair (2001, 21) states:

These stories, memories and histories need to become the tools that Australians use to reimagine a future for the Murray and the communities who rely upon it. Without stories of what the river once was, it will be impossible to identify the qualities Australians wish to protect and restore in the new regulated river. Australians need to recognise how the decline of the Murray has not only eroded biodiversity, but also diminished our culture. (Sinclair 2001, 21)

Along the River tourism promoters hail the achievements of the river regulators who brought the River under human control, while simultaneously championing the natural and wild river as a splendid landscape for visitors (Sinclair 2001; Stone and Stone 1996). Thus when outdoor education participants make their way to the River they are already carting with them a series of contradictory images and expectations – a curious mix of European river mythology, a view of the River as a nationalistic icon (both for its wild and tamed connotations), and perhaps some knowledge of more local ecological and cultural conditions.

Sensory reciprocity with the River

David Abram (1996a, 41–42), paraphrasing Edmund Husserl (1859–1938), the founder of modern phenomenology, suggests that beneath the layers of diverse cultural lifeworlds we have for a place like the Murray, there exists ‘a deeper, more unitary lifeworld, always there beneath all our cultural acquisitions, a vast overlooked dimension of experience that supports and sustains all our diverse and discontinuous worldviews.’ We wrote in chapter four about the significance of human body in ‘sensing place’. Perhaps place-responsiveness requires both a well-developed sensory awareness and a knowledge of ecology, history, politics, and so on. Perhaps an experience of place is to be found in the tensions that exist between cultural lifeworlds and bodily sensations.

Within the written and oral data from several participants in the study there was the suggestion of awareness that there were subtle aspects of their experiences that seemed just beyond articulation, and that they felt may even be endangered by words. As one participant put it in relation to her River experiences: ‘I am afraid I might destroy them by analysing them and reducing them to words’. It seems reasonable to suggest that these type of responses indicated ways that participants responded to their situation at a sensory level and began to develop feelings of connection to the River. Perhaps, like Abram (1996b, 85), they had found that by ‘examining the contours of this world not as an immaterial mind but as a sentient body, I come to recognize my thorough inclusion within this world in a far more profound manner than our current language usually allows’.

Recognition of these types of experiences could be crucial for a place-responsive outdoor education. They could so easily be missed precisely because they are difficult to express. They are there in the seemingly simple utterances. For example, one male participant who, in recalling a predawn paddle on the Murray, said that he was ‘simply keeping the River going’, or for another for whom the ‘the River has a voice … it speaks to me in its own way’, or for the participant who stated that she might ‘explode with the enormity of my feelings’.

These expressions are crucial for the possibility of a place-responsive form of outdoor travel. Because without this acknowledgment of the deep significance of our sentient engagement with the world, ‘place’ would become nothing more than another addition to the already diverse and sometimes contradictory cultural lifeworlds that govern the interpretation of our experiences. A crucial component of place-responsiveness must be how we attend to ‘sensing a place’. As John Cameron (2003a, 173) puts it; ‘The word “sense” does not refer simply to the physical senses, but to the felt sense of a place and the intuitive and imaginative sensing that is active when one is attuned to, and receptive towards, one’s surroundings’. Although it will, and indeed must, escape complete representation in language, I believe that some of the data collected in this study begins to reveal the experiential structures that encouraged these travellers on the River to become open to, and to connect with, the River.

Revealing these aspects of participants’ experiences seemed to confirm the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty’s (2002) conclusion that we are not finished at the skin. Participants’ bodies and the River were constantly overlapping and transgressing each other. Of course, this must be equally true for all the river places encountered in the original study which included other fast-flowing rivers – from crashing rapid, to sandy beach, to quiet meander. But it was in response to the calm, less forbidding encounters with the River on its floodplain that some participants stated that they felt this most acutely. Interpreting their words it is possible to suggest that there were times when they felt that their own fleshy margins had become osmotic with the River.

For participants in this study there seemed to be three overlapping phenomena. First, a releasing and opening of both the participant’s mind and body to the experience. Second, a sensing and filling, where the body’s fleshy perimeter seems to be breached, and what was outside floods in while what was in drifts out. Finally, there is a powerful sense of connection.

While it is clear that this is not a fully indigenous experiencing or knowing of a place, nor even a holistic cultural experience (which must include the interpretive lifeworlds of the individual), it may be the crucial first step towards connection with outdoor places that it seems has been so hard for settler Australians to take. As such, this overlapping phenomenon is worthy of examination in greater detail.

Releasing and opening

The initial phase of connecting to place for many of the participants in the study involved a release from analysis of their situation and action. I do not think that this signals an abandonment of the human qualities of rationality, but it does re-position them as secondary to our ongoing embodied relationship within our surroundings. One student related a story in his written reflection, completed not long after the journey. I think the story is compelling.

I just want to tell you a story that sums up one of the reasons I paddle. It was on the third evening of the Philosophy [the Murray River canoe journey] trip last year. This is why I paddle and why I think others should too.

We pull the canoe up onto the bank and [canoe partner] takes out her thermarest, sleeping bag and clothes to make a comfortable bed. We rearrange the gear, move the camp oven and shove the packs into places they shouldn’t fit. The sun slowly sets as we push the boat back onto the lazy, swirling waters of the Murray. The rustling, wobbling and shuffling slowly dies down as [she] makes herself comfortable in the front of the canoe and drifts into sleep or something almost as restful.

I paddle the canoe as smoothly and quietly as possible, breathing out with each ‘j’ and in with each recovery. I listen to the sounds of the encroaching evening as I watch the concentric circles formed from water dripping from the blade and the small whirlpools meander away after each stroke. My mind is comfortably blank, no assessing, no philosophising – the canoe, the surrounds and the river. A kingfisher swoops past, some wallabies hop casually along the bank, I feel as though I’m a silent, invisible observer.

The first star shows itself and others follow, each slowly, steadily brightening. Every time I look at a section of sky that is starless another one appears. The sounds of evening fade into the comfortable silence of night, the only sounds being the gurgle of water sliding past the banks and the drops falling from the blade of my paddle. Soon my sight is no longer necessary, I feel my way down the river, keeping the canoe between the two whispering banks, looking up to see the stars between the crowns of the red gums that form a haphazard queue along
the banks.

I know when I am approaching a corner because the avenue of stars above me seems to end until I draw near enough to find is swings either left of right. I round a corner and see a small red glow in the distance, I have no idea how far away it is but I know [another student] and [another student] have built a fire and the glow I see means camp. [She] stirs for the first time in hours and I remember that I am not alone. We talk about the universe and other things that are best discussed under a blanket of stars. [She] tells me that she has been breathing with the roll of the canoe caused by each stroke. It is an amazing feeling to know that I have been breathing in time with [her] for several hours although my mind cannot summon the energy to analyse the meaning of it. I am glad for not having a hyperactive mind.

The glow has become a dancing conglomeration of reds, oranges and yellows. We hear the crackle and smell the smoke. [She] asks me to stop paddling so that we don’t have to leave the river and the stars too soon.

With a ‘blank mind’ the body ‘feels’ its way along. The body-subject, as Merleau-Ponty would say, knows how to find its way. There is little feeling of intent in the experience. It simply unfolds. As I mentioned earlier, as a guide I was quite consciously encouraging students to engage with the River in quite different ways – such as just drifting along in the canoe rather than paddling. Another male participant in the study expressed in an interview his memory of what it felt like to try to let go of one way of being that he brought to the River, and to find another.

Pushing off in a canoe is … a release, and it’s … like a plunge, like a drift into loveliness, drift into peacefulness … it’s a bit of a journey to get there … so I’ll do a lot of sighing initially and just releasing crap that I’ve got in me, and then … I’ll gradually evolve into getting into river pace, and then once I’m there I could be there for two days, ten days, 20 days, six months, three years I reckon. Once you are in that sort of zone, you’re just existing. So, it’s really a feeling of peace and connection, like I’m part of the river. I feel like I am the river.

These outdoor canoe journeys that the participants are responding to here were deliberately crafted to be slow, simplified, communal and open to possibilities. The following comments by one of the female students capture a sense of the slowness and simplicity of the journey:

sitting in a boat, just drifting along, like that’s the times I enjoy the most on the river are the times when I’m sitting and just moving with the river not, not trying to go upstream or across the river or faster than the river. Just moving with the river … I felt that we hadn’t journeyed on the river as, as with it … just move with the river, the pace of the river, and go where the river takes you.

Because of the nature of the River, we could travel at night or predawn. The canoes themselves could be tied together in catamarans or even a giant raft and drift along at the speed of the River while we told stories about the place, or played games, or simply relaxed to soak it all in. Campsites were established on the bank where good food was cooked from basic ingredients on wood fires. Participants slept under tarps, the night breezes of the River bringing subtle sounds and aromas with them. I think it is reasonable to suggest that this form of travel may remind us, or even allow us, to experience that ‘the world is not what I think, but what I live through. I am open to the world’ (Merleau-Ponty cited in Matthews 2002, 61).

Filling with place

The River, and its floodplain, is a sacred place. It may be wounded by reduced flows, salinity, increased water turbidity, cattle grazing, and so on, but it is hard to ignore the remnant earthen mounds and canoe trees indicating that Yorta Yorta and their ancestors have lived here for millennia. It is also hard to not recognise the sleeper cutter’s camps, the small weirs along the anabranches, or take note of the names of specific campsites such as Stewart’s Kitchen, Punt Paddock, Green Engine Lagoon. On a slow journey such as these where it would be hard to not notice that the place had been ‘made’ through a long history of human-river-forest interactions. Travellers on the River are still awakened each morning by a cacophony of galahs and corellas in the red gums and are accompanied downriver by waterbirds, snakes, and turtles – all living in the ribbon of life that the River provides.

As one participant commented:

My attention to nature’s detail also increased with each stroke of the paddle; the sounds, the colours, the smells, all flooded my senses. This made me slow down my thinking and my movements to suit the environment that surrounded me and I was alerted to the importance of the forest to so many people.

Almost every participant who experienced the predawn paddle on the Murray River trips commented upon the sense of heightened perceptual acuity to their surrounds. At its deepest level this was manifest as an experience of the limits of the body becoming porous, and a feeling that the place entered the participant:

But I never felt that connectedness [before] … it didn’t sort of feel as though that entered me at that [other] environment. Whereas I did feel [it enter me] that morning.

As a result of such as experience it becomes possible to feel and believe that ‘intelligence is no longer ours alone but is a property of the earth; we are in it, of it, immersed in its depths’ (Abram 1996a, 262) As another participant noted; ‘it’s very hard to describe. Just awestruck by being part of the environment … I just felt like I was blending in with it.’ Such a realisation shakes our foundations, as no amount of effort on our part can make or re-make place. Nor can we imagine or re-imagine place. Neither ourselves nor places exist ‘out there’, or even ‘in here’. We fill with our surroundings when we let go of the illusion that we are finished at the skin. As Abram astutely concluded:

A genuinely ecological approach does not work to attain a mentally envisioned future, but strives to enter, ever more deeply, into the sensorial present. It strives to become ever more awake to the other lives, the other forms of sentience and sensibility that surround us in the open field of the present moment. (1996a, 272)

Abram’s sentiment was well captured by one of the student’s on their canoe journey, who penned the following poem.

I think of and feel

Gravity, Slope, Time and Energy,

Life around.

Moon shadow

Moon reflection,

On the boat,

On the water,

On the forest,

On the bow wave

Stars pass behind treetops

I feel the speed of the river

I travel at the river’s pace.

The bow gurgles, a frog sings

Gently, the bow nudges the shore,

All I hear now is the forest, river and me

The life I surround and am.


I think that the experiences portrayed by these participants suggest that a personal connection to a place that is visited, where we have limited or no ability to put down roots and build a home, is possible and even educationally valuable. It is not equivalent to the holistic and seamless lifeworld of place that belongs to the indigene, the person that Relph (1976) calls the existential insider. However, I think this is an important element of what Relph refers to as ‘empathetic insideness’. It goes beyond a cognitive appraisal of place and includes an embodied response, a feeling for place. It occurs beneath language and is pre-discursive. It is perhaps the first step, for those of us steeped in an outsider’s heritage, towards an indigenous experience of place. It brings sensation and reflection into correct relation with each other. This may be crucial to the future of the River which has national, regional and local significance as an ecological and agricultural region. It is possible that there are vitally important lessons to learn in these outdoor places and they should be visited and experienced by all students whose lives are interconnected with them.

On several of the canoe journeys down the River we were fortunate to be in the company of a Yorta Yorta man. For many students, this was the first time that they had met, let alone been in the outdoors for five days with, an Aboriginal person. As the journey neared its end, we would camp at the point where a small anabranch called Cutting Creek, leaves the main channel of the Murray. On that last evening, stories were told of the spiritual significance of this particular place to the Yorta Yorta. Early the next morning we paddled down the narrow creek. Eventually the trees lining the banks gave way to tall bulrushes. The channel tightened until it was little wider than the boat, creating a feeling of enclosure. Then, quite suddenly, the bulrushes gave way and the travellers found themselves in the open space of Barmah Lake. Having been on the ‘corridor’ of the main channel for several days it was a stunning transformation to open water, huge skies, the reflections of clouds, and the distant sounds of swans and ducks slapping their feet on the water as they tried to take off. Let’s follow the story of one of the students.

On the last day when I left early to watch the bush come alive as the sun rose on Barmah Lake. [The Yorta Yorta man] told us the night before how this was a special place, the centre of his ‘mat’. It has now become a special place for me. As the sun slowly rose above the trees and I felt its warmth, the birds began flying about. This was the only sound, even though there were a few of us there on our own. I can’t remember feeling more relaxed and closer to nature.

There was a mist rising off the water and there was not a single sound and there was not a ripple on the water at all. And it just sort of drifted for about a quarter of a kilometre along into the lake and it almost seemed a sin to put your paddle into the water and to disturb it and when you did you made sure that you didn’t make any noise doing it because there was, I was also conscious of the rest of the group being there. But everyone was absolutely dead silent … just taking this almost spiritual moment I think it was – and it was really powerful.

As a result of his endeavours to develop place-responsiveness with his students, Cameron (2003a, 194) noted; ‘As many of my students discover, a felt response to place without ecological understanding is as one-sided as scientific or historical knowledge of a place without any emotional engagement with it’.


The ability to let go of self and to become open to place requires a certain amount of vulnerability. It requires the absence of fear and a heightened sense of comfort in one’s surroundings. It is the near opposite of the popular ‘out of their comfort zone’ model in outdoor education. To return to the story of the student drifting on Barmah Lake:

It was some sort of journey that I’d been through to get to that moment … It was one of the most inspirational, deeply impacting experiences I’ve ever had. (male participant)

The journey is, of course, physical, emotional and intellectual. But perhaps the most significant journey is across the boundary we imagine lies between ourselves and the place that sustains us at that moment. Such an experience of place, though fleeting, may ripple through a lifetime. However, such a pedagogic approach, to encourage an ever-deepening sensory exploration of one’s place, is not without risks. You may recall that we drew on the work of John Cameron in chapter five, who cautioned against the tendency to leave students adrift in this state of sensual saturation. Experiential educators, he argues, can be guilty of not bringing students back to the harsh demands of politics, ecology, economy that may imperil a place’s future. Educators and learners have to engage with these realities as well.

Glassy smooth water reflecting the bush and sky in mirror image

”Perhaps the most significant journey is across the boundary we imagine lies between ourselves and the place that sustains us at that moment.
Such an experience of place, though fleeting, may ripple through a lifetime.”

Part of the lesson here, I think, is the simplicity and everyday quality of the experience. One participant reflected in her interview about the clear differences she saw between this kind of journey in relation to other, perhaps more conventional types of practice, that she had experienced as part of her outdoor education training.

that was something I learnt about the Murray … the whole way the State Park was … managed compared to National [Park]. You’d see people fishing in their tinnies … lots of snags and lots of evidence that there’d been big groups or big base camps, campers or caravans or four wheel drives. I didn’t mind that. It felt like, ‘Hey, I can do this, this is really ordinary. Anyone can do this.’ And it doesn’t feel so elite and exclusive. It’s like, ‘I’ll just come in there and I can hang out with … old Joe and his fishing boat and me and my dog’. It was nice and ordinary for a change. Oh, just sometimes the trips that we did were so specialised. You had to have everything and you were so remote and you had to be so highly skilled to be able to get to those areas. Whereas you just go to the Murray and you’ve got your boat, got your dog, got your cup of tea, paddle down, maybe fish. I just found that really humble.

I mentioned earlier about how much the student letters, and subsequently the research study which included the interviews, revealed to me about my own practice as an outdoor educator. One of the failings perhaps, of these canoe journeys, was the ‘risk that place immersion could remain an individualised phenomenon’ (Cameron 2003a, 189). I feel that this style of program was very good at providing opportunities for students to have a personal and sensory engagement with the River, but less effective at providing a systematic knowledge about the region’s politics and economics. It is encouraging that several of the participants in the study, but by no means all, had returned to the River many times and now run their own educational programs there.

As we have seen, places such as the Murray River and the Barmah Forest continue to change. A decade has passed since these paddling programs and the whole management system that governs the area has evolved. The Australian historian Peter Read (2000, 20) writes: ‘It’s the connecting sensibility; and that’s what Aborigines are doing talking about the dreaming and the land … Connect Connect Connect’. A traveller begins the process of becoming an empathetic insider the moment that he or she commits to making the effort to both open their sensing body to the possibilities of a place and to learn what a place ‘is’ to the local community and to the broader region for whom the place has significance. Students are not likely to discover a pleasing story in a place’s troubled history and politics. All ground is contested ground. But they will get closer to the unique character of a place, and its profound significance, than they would if it were to be encountered as an arena void of meaning or as an adversary that must be overcome.

In addition, outdoor educators might see that an important aspect of their work involves teaching learners how to travel. It is unimaginable that high levels of mobility are likely to change in the near future. When I write how to travel I mean how to adapt and become comfortable in a place, how to work your way inside it both bodily and intellectually. Indeed we have argued that experiencing travel from one place to another is a natural part of the human condition. As Tuan (1974, 102) suggests, ‘“home” is a meaningless word without “journey”’, for humans are not trees, destined into immobility through ‘rootedness’ in one place. Learners are destined to be travellers – better that they learn to be responsive to the places that they travel to and in.

Cite this chapter as: Wattchow, Brian. 2011. ‘Expeditionary Learning and a Sense of Place’, in A Pedagogy of Place: Outdoor Education for a Changing World, Wattchow, Brian and Brown, Mike. Melbourne: Monash University Publishing. pp. 106–122.

© Copyright 2011
All rights reserved. Apart from any uses permitted by Australia’s Copyright Act 1968, no part of this book may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission from the copyright owners. Inquiries should be directed to the publisher, Monash University Publishing.

A Pedagogy of Place

   by Brian Wattchow and Mike Brown