Searching for Suggan Buggan

In 1933 a young English schoolteacher living by the river at Woodford Green in Essex wrote a novel that had a quiet impact on our world. James Hilton had never been out of England, but his Lost Horizon described a paradise clinging to the edge of a precipice somewhere in the mountains of Tibet. Tibetans call this sort of place a beyul. Hilton called his Shangri-La.

The dream of an unspoiled paradise has stayed with us, as has Hilton’s fanciful name. Deep in the buttoned-up breasts of modern city dwellers beats the urge to get away—from traffic, from pollution, from people like ourselves. Wilderness calls, and for some, mountains call loudest of all.

In the 1950s I met John Hammond, one of Britain’s so-called ‘hard men’—those who were doing the toughest mountain climbing then. Edmund Hillary, the first to be knighted, reached the top of Everest in 1953, a tremendous feat of endurance, unlike the walk it is today. But John Hammond was the most interesting, quite different from the others, a suave, urbane man you could never quite imagine wielding a piton or struggling through a blizzard up the sheer face of a peak.

It was Hammond who convinced me I had to come to Australia. ‘It may be the flattest and driest country on earth, old boy,’ he said in his languid Oxford drawl, ‘but there’s some excellent trout fishing, and it’s got its own Shangri-La.’

This Shangri-La of Hammond’s had the curious, equally unforgettable name of Suggan Buggan. He told me it was near the Black–Allan line. The line, I was to discover, is that straight stretch of the NSW–Victorian border running from Cape Howe to the nearest source of the Murray. In 1870 Alexander Black from Victoria and Alexander Allan from NSW were hired by their respective governments to survey the disputed border. It took them two arduous years to draw an agreed-upon line through some of the country’s most rugged terrain.

Late in the 1950s I followed Hammond’s advice, and went on several field trips to study the rocks abundant in the area that Black and Allan surveyed. My colleagues and I made detailed geological maps of it, and were astonished by the work the two Alexanders had done. The area was rough and inaccessible. The highways between Melbourne and Sydney were dirt for the most part, and the few roads into the mountains were little more than tracks. Hammond was right: this was wonderfully wild country. Trudging through it I learned a great deal about Australian granites, stumbled on a couple of crashed aeroplanes, and caught a lot of trout, but failed to find his mysterious Suggan Buggan.

Fast forward half a century. After years away I returned to Australia and thought about Hammond again, who had disappeared trying to climb the south face of Mt Cook in New Zealand. I recalled my treks through the Australian Alps and Hammond’s elusive Shangri-La. This time, I told myself, I was determined to find it. I logged onto the internet, tapped in the letters, and there it was. A valley, a tiny bark-hut schoolhouse, beautifully preserved. A real-estate company selling property in the area. A few tourist blogs. I was determined to go. I had a letter from a friend in British Columbia who wanted a taste of the Australian bush. He flew in from Vancouver, we packed the car with enough supplies to furnish Burke and Wills and off we went.

I noticed huge changes in the country, the most remarkable to begin with being the roads. The Barry Way led straight into the area, and many of the tracks were paved. There was much less snow but many more visitors, and it was now a national park.

And there lies the conundrum. If each of us seeks our Shangri-La, will there be any Shangri-Las left?
The days of white exploration had ended when James Hilton wrote Lost Horizon—the realisation of this could have compelled him to write it. Another world war was looming, an escape to a perfect utopia was alluring, as it is now. After the war, there was the bomb. The atomic age had all those men climbing, when John Hammond found his version of James Hilton’s paradise. Perhaps what was driving me to seek it were the tensions of our own beleaguered age. But wherever we go, there’s no escaping. We lug our flawed selves in our backpacks, and if we no longer believe in the right to exploration, we believe in tourism instead.

I had no trouble finding Suggan Buggan this time. The tiny two-room schoolhouse, built in 1860, ten years before Black and Allan began surveying, was just as Hammond had described it—the irony being that tourism made this possible, in a place where history is kept more alive than just about anything else.
It was all so utterly changed, perhaps irreparably so. The Snowy River Scheme had diverted most of the water inland. The bulk of the rivers Hammond saw have shrivelled, and most of the trout had gone. As for the native fauna, it was depleted too. A wombat, a possum, was scarcely to be found. I saw one dead quoll.

The hand of the national park seemed far too heavy. My Canadian friend was shocked to learn that rangers were using the chemical 1080, banned in most countries, to ‘kill off harmful predators’—dingoes and other feral animals. The problem is, it kills native animals too.

The dream of Shangri-La lies at the heart of the dilemma. Tourism, the salvation of many rural economies not only in Australia but around the world, is the market’s answer to the call of the wild. But we’re kidding ourselves to imagine there’s no harm in it. From Everest to the Rockies, the marks are evident: invaded habitats, garbage middens, dried-up streams. Not to mention the unintended consequences of well-meant intervention, like hydro-electric schemes or the misguided use of poisons to reclaim an area for its native species.

It’s a tough nut to crack, and if I had the answers I wouldn’t be writing this. But it may be time to revise our thinking about our Shangri-Las.

Anthony Taylor worked as a geologist in Victoria before leaving for Canada in the 1960s, and now lives in Sydney


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