Finally, the day (31st May) that we would reach at Lake Frome dawned. If the south-westerly wind was chilling on the morning of day 11, the early morning light was stunning, whilst the colours of the plants on the 2 tree plain were overwhelming. It was a magic moment, albeit one that didn’t last very long.
Ryan informed us over our breakfast by the fire that we would reach Lake Frome around lunch time. I had no idea what the lake would look like. I imagined a salt lake where I could stand at the edge of lake and photograph a lake of glistening white salt in the late afternoon light. I had Lake Hart between Port Augusta and Coober Pedy on the Stuart Highway in mind.
We camped overnight on the plain between Chambers Gorge and Lake Frome after we walking over the low scrub of the flat plain with its Eremphila duttonii We had walked alongside Chambers Creek as it made its way east to Lake Frome. Chambers Creek started at the eastern mouth of the Chambers Gorge — for some reason it was called Rose Creek in Chambers Gorge.
The morning of Day 10 (30th May) dawned bright, cloudless with clear, bright light. It was cold with a bitter north easterly wind on what I called 2 Tree Plain. We have left behind the mountainous terrain of Hans Heysen’s water colour interpretations of the southern Flinders Ranges with the creek bed trees twisted and distorted from surviving in an arid land, or the ranges in a harsh, drought landscape.
We had a delay in leaving the camp that morning as the camels raced off after breakfast, just as the loading of the food and gear was beginning. The camels went racing back towards the mouth of Mt Chambers Gorge looking for some decent food. Whilst we waited for the cameleers to bring them back to the camp I noticed a wedgebill and a circling wedgetail eagle.
After leaving the side gorge with its rock drawings we continued walking through Mt Chambers Gorge (Marlawadinha Inbiri) with its high orange coloured limestone walls and big river gums during the afternoon of the 28th May. Ptilotus or mulla mulla with the purple, pink, silver, and yellow candlestick flowers were growing profusely in the creek bed that wound its way through the Wearing Range.
This is Hans Heysen country. It is arid, though not barren or bleak, and it has its own colours and textures. Associated with this visual tradition is a cultural formation about the Australian pastoral landscape representing a pastoral Acardia connected to Australian national identity, with its construct of Australia as a white Anglo-Saxon culture.
This cultural formation in a settler colonial society about a wilderness to be tamed into an Arcadia became a vehicle of national self-definition’ as well as a template for the construction of an idyllic settler colonial pastoral way of life highlights how the concept of the landscape as cultural construct is bound up with our national myths and visions.
There was a side gorge with open-air Adnyamathanha rock carvings or Yura malka by the Adnyamathanha people just past the western entrance to Mt Chambers Gorge. These rocks carvings (peroglyphs) were scratched grooves on rock surfaces on the gorge’s cliff faces and they consisted of simple geometric motifs or shapes (circles, concentric circles, lines). They have been interpreted by archaeologists as being part of the Panaramitee style or tradition, the core region of which lies in the geographical area between the Flinders Ranges and Broken Hill. These Yura malka are usually seen as both rock art and as archaeological relics of an ancient Australia: ie., as probably belonging to the late glacial Pleistocene or the early post-glacial Holocene (approx 10,000 years ago).
This was after the Ice Age which peaked around 20,000 years ago. Lakes had dried up, forests disappeared, deserts expanded, animals went extinct and vast swathes of the Australian land mass would have been simply uninhabitable ie., became too dry to live in. People contracted towards better-watered refuges around the coastline and in upland areas such as the Macdonell and Flinders Ranges in the interior. Sea levels fell more than 120 metres during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), exposing much of the continental shelf and connecting mainland Australia to Papua New Guinea and Tasmania. Then the weather warmed, the rains increased, the ice melted, the sea levels rose and Australia began to experience a a drier and more variable climate from around 5,000 years ago.
Some of the rock carvings were very weathered and worn and the circles had enclosed bars or lines within them. The rock of the gorge wall looked to be very hard. Was the rock metamorphosed quartzite? The petroglyphs are resistant to weathering processes especially on hard rock types in arid and semi-arid regions.
From what I can gather Leslie Maynard held that the older, non-figurative, geometric art was older than the figurative tradition (simple and complex). This interpretation looks at rock art through an evolutionary lens where simple motifs were used in the beginning, and they eventually became more complex. The Panaramitee style is best understood as a composite that includes Pleistocene components but also covers the entire Holocene; in fact petroglyphs of the non-figurative style were still produced in the 20th century.
On the morning of Day 8 (28/5 2021) we looked back at Mt Johns from our drop off camp next to a dry creek bed. We prepared to walk towards Mt Chambers and Chambers Gorge via the various creek beds and ridges. The plan was to arrive at Mt Chambers for lunch. The morning dawned overcast and it remained overcast for the rest of the morning.
I managed a few photos looking back at the pastoral landscape we had walked across the day before. It was the momentary sunlight that caught my eye. Was I making a pastoral landscape photo I kept wondering, despite the lack of Hans Heysen river gums, as in his In the Flinders, Far North 1951 painting. This painting was based on a carefully executed sketch in the field and then worked up in oils in the studio latter. Heysen’s sketches were central to his picture making.
My memory and understanding of the pastoral landscape painting tradition in the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century was vague. I knew it was exemplified in the paintings of Hans Heysen, Arthur Streeton, (Land of the Golden Fleece, 1926 ) George Lambert (Squatter’s Daughter, 1923-4) and Elioth Gruner,(Murrumbidge Ranges, Canberra,1934) that it embodied the white settler vision of life in Australia, and that it place an emphasis on rural values and rural folk. Heysen’s sketches and paintings of rural, agricultural life in Harndorf, South Australia, typified this Australia.
This pastoral tradition was one in which what was represented in painting celebrated the achievements of the pastoral industry in which the painter separated out the pastoral landscape from the forced occupation of the land. There were strict rules governing what could and could not be represented in painting with conflict, violence and the traditional aboriginal owners of the land being unrepresentable.
Whilst walking through the dry creek beds I found it difficult to grasp and hold onto the geological time scale or epochs. I found it difficult, for instance, to imagine that 25 million years ago (mya) there was enormous richness and variety of plant and animal life. The parched land east of the Flinders Ranges around Lake Frome and Lake Pinpa was once a rainforest filled with a rich variety of birds (water birds such as cormorants and flamingos and forest birds such as parrots) and animals (wombat ancestors, possums and koalas). There were crocodiles, turtles and freshwater dolphins in the lakes.
Continental drift helps to imagine this wet climate as back in the early Miocene (25mya) — the area around what is now Lake Pinpa was located more than 1,100km south of where Adelaide is today, at a latitude equivalent to present-day Fiordland at the southwestern tip of New Zealand. The aridification started around 15 million years ago (the middle Miocene) when the Australian continent had moved north.
I carried the Reynold’s book in my day pack along with the Rolleiflex TLR, and I would dip into it before dinner after the afternoon photo session. Frontiers is a corrective to the traditional Australian history that ignores the frontier wars over the ownership and control of land. It is concerned with the colonial attitudes and the behaviour of the settlers and their reaction to the blacks they were dispossessing. The book is sequel to The Other Side of the Frontier, which dealt with the aboriginal response to the European invasion and settlement of Australia, which I haven’t read. Reynolds argues that land is at the centre of conflict between black and white Australians: land ownership and the rights to the earth.
Day 6 (ie .26th May) was one of clear skies, a cool wind, and puffy clouds during the afternoon. The day temperature was around 18 degrees. This is pleasant walking weather in an arid country.
We walked across a plain to the east of the Wirrealpa Range crossing the various creek beds that flowed into the southern end of Lake Frome. I slipped on a rock crossing a creek and fell, jarring my back. I walked slowly behind the camels. We crossed the Arkaroola Blinman Rd for the second time and then rested whilst we picked up a food drop in a creek bed by the side of the road.
I was grateful for the food drop rest as the muscles in both my legs and back were starting to hurt and I was now walking with difficulty. I walked at the back of the camel train.
What was being reinforced as I walked was that what people call drought conditions (ie; lack of rain) was actually the new normal. The rain ie., the big monsoonal rain — is now the exception. The winter rains from the south consist of little more than light sprinkles. The monsoonal rains are the key to life in the northern Flinders Ranges.
This arid country had been drying for 50,000 years. The water in the creeks rarely make it to Lake Frome in the east, or to Lake Torrens in the west. Climate heating is speeding up the drying process. According to the latest UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Report Australia’s land area has warmed by about 1.4C since 1910 and are now above anything that could have been caused by natural variation with Australia on track for 2C of warming and its heating faster than the global average. That means that some of the extreme temperatures we are seeing now will be closer to the average by the mid-21st century. Fait accompli.
On Day 5 there was a sprinkle of rain in the early morning, during breakfast and as we packed the camels. A sprinkle that just settled the dust and it cleared as we left Wirrealpa Creek. We were still on Wirrealpa Station, and Ryan and Kym spent some time in the mid-morning looking for a new way through the Wirrealpa Range. Whilst we waited for them to find a way that was suitable for the camels I started thinking about the human history of this region — and how colonial history with its sense of emptiness of nothern South Australia matters. It shapes the present, even if we are not aware of the region’s geological and the human history.
It slowly dawned on me that we were walking through the pastoral landscapes – a landscape where the physical transformation of the land into agriculture did not happen. The heroic pioneer narrative of turning wilderness into garden through the settlers taming nature did not make any sense of the pastoral landscapes in the northern Flinders Ranges. The pastoral landscape did not have to be created. It was already there. Pastoralists just used and extracted from the land and they badly damage it in the process of overgrazing. As they were, and are, unable to significantly transform it to their economic needs, they had to adapt the arid land, with its cycles of drought and flood just like the animals.
Secondly, a cooler Australia was once a vibrant and living environment of people, plants, animals and rocks that had not yet been disseminated by colonial and industrial forces. After the 1850s Aboriginal people had worked on, and traveled between, the sheep stations scattered among their tribal lands through these various ranges. The principal pastoral stations had supplied rations, clothing and a small wage to station-hands and domestics, supporting a network of extended family groups. The Adynamathanha participated in the colonial economy and maintained their traditional activities until they moved to Nepabunna in the 1930s, which was initially run by the missionaries, (1931-73) then the SA state government. They’d survived and increasingly they gained greater autonomy as a people.
I was able to do some hand held film photography with the Rolleiflex TLR in the early morning of Day 4 in the creek bed opposite our camp. (The film still needs to be processed). I was starting again after losing the previous roll of photos made during the previous three days.
This was Adnyamanthanha country, and I was a stranger walking through it with no knowledge of their history, the geography of the various watercourses and creeks that came down from the northern Flinders Ranges and flowed east towards Lake Frome or the historical geology of the country. I knew nothing about the frontier wars in the northern Flinders; nothing about the sites of significance for the Adnyamanthanha people; the stories for those sitesor the power of particular places in this country.
I presumed the pastoralists in the mid-nineteenth century regarded the country — including the waterholes and springs — as their land despite only having a lease. The Adnyamanthanha people were free to move across the pastoral leases which were for grazing purposes only. Both pastoralists and the Adnyamanthanha people shared the land according to the High Court’s 1996 Wik Judgement’s interpretation of the nature of the pastoral lease.
However, the pastoralists viewed the Adnyamanthanha people as invaders with no rights to the land, and they had no reservation about killing the Adnyamanthanha whilst taking their water and hunting grounds from them. The Adnyamanthanha people, especially during the drought in the mid-1860s, raided the stock and the colonists huts for food and killed the hut keepers. The pastoralists retaliated and the police would then be sent to hunt the Adnyamanthanha down to protect the pastoral industry.
This was the frontier. The logic was simple: –the border wars were about the ownership and control of the land, about taking it by force from those who had been in possession for 40-50,000 years.
The pastoralists kept expanding — by the 1860s they had moved beyond Mt Hopeless to Lake Blanche. The Lutheran mission (Bethesda) was established at Lake Killalpaninna in 1868, where the missionaries tried to create a German agrarian community based on sheep, goats and growing vegetables in Dieri country that was shaped by the extreme cycles of drought and flood. The Nepabunna mission in the northern Flinders was established in 1931.
So what happened to the Adnyamanthana people between the 1860s and 1931? They had survived the loss of their country. But how? What was the long, entwined colonial history between the Adnyamanthanha people, pastoralists and the state? Were the Adnyamanthanha people more than fringe or camp dwellers near the station’s homestead?
The historical discourse of Australian history has been one of the displacement of Aboriginal people and the establishment of settlers as the natural occupants of the land. The historical narrative is one of a progressive embrace of modernity. So where were the memorials or monuments to the more than 20,000 indigenous people killed in the frontier or border wars in Australia?
We were still walking on Angoriachina Station walking in a north easterly direction from our starting point at Blinman. We walked close to Red Hill and the western boundary of Wirrealpa Station as we traversed various ridges and tablelands with their various water erosions. It was slow going for the camels as we made our way through various old pastoral fences that were in a rundown condition. Sometimes we found a gate, other times we looked for a fallen part of the fence lying flat on the ground. I didn’t understand why the fences were where they were. Were they to prove the pastoralist’s developing the unimproved land?
It was hot, dry and dusty walking across the clay and stony plains with their minimal salt and blue bush vegetation. Lots of flies. The country looked to be in a bad condition from excessive grazing –some of it looked too degraded to rehabilitate. Rehabilitation would need to be on a massive scale and very expensive.
We crossed the road from Blinman to Wirrealpa (which takes you to the Junta-Arkaroola Rd) and then walked along Eregunda Creek which discharges into Wirrealpa Creek. We made our camp adjacent to a creek bed near the ruins of the small Wirrealpa Silver-Lead Mine. The cliffs of the creek bed or water course were limestone. There was no water in the creek that came from the ranges in Wirrealpa station.
The morning of Day 3 was overcast, but the welcomed cloud cover quickly disappeared after we had loaded up the camels for the days walk. We started walking around 9.30am and Greg was picked up early in the morning by Ed from Angoriachina Station, who dropped him back at the North Blinman Hotel, so that he could make his way back to his home in Sydney. Peter, his Sydney friend, continued on the camel trek with us. This was his second camel trek. A large number of people on the various camel treks are returnees.
The walking pace to Lake Frome picked up as we did not have to stop and wait for people to catch up. The morning was spend crossing 3rd plain, and prior to entering Tea Tree Gorge in the late morning, e saw bullock bushes, a rough blue bell bush, and a young bearded lizard.
By late morning we were walking along the creek bed through Tea Tree Gorge. Lunch was in the gorge. Firewood is collected, a fire is lit, and the billy is boiled. I had a wrap with left overs (sweet and sour chicken wings, hokkien noodles and veges) from the previous nights dinner that had been cooked on a camp oven. I noticed the grass trees (Xanthorrhoea) growing high up on the gorge walls whilst eating a slice of fruit cake with a cup of licorice tea.