Hookina Creek: deep history

Two months after the camel trek from Blinman to Lake Frome we returned to the Flinders Ranges to walk in the Vulkathunha–Gammon Ranges National Park under the auspices of the Retire Active SA Bushwalkers. On the way to Balcanoona we stayed at Hawker in the southern Flinders Ranges and in the afternoon I went looking for the road to Lake Torrens in the locality of Barndioota. The latter was proposed as a possible site for a nuclear dump.

I found the turnoff near a bend in Hookina Creek on the Five Ways road near the ruins of the Hookina township. Hookina Creek is a drainage creek to Lake Torrens — it drains water from the area south of Wilpena Pound to Warcowie, Willow Plains and Cradock.  Adjacent to the Lake Torrens turnoff and by a sweeping bend of the Hookina Creek I came across some old river gum logs lying on the floodplains above the creek.

Hookina Creek, southern Flinders Ranges

I could sense the presence of long history. This is in the Yappala Indigenous Protected Area and Adnyamathanha country. These logs have been lying there for a long time and that is a very old creek bed, as are the southern Flinders Ranges in the distance. There must have been huge floods to cut such a broad and deep creek bed into the floodplain.

at Stokes Hill Lookout

As mentioned in an earlier post we stopped at Stokes Hill Lookout on our way to Hawker from Blinman the day after finishing the camel trek. The lookout offered a view of Wilpena Pound after the overnight rain. The deep past of the Flinders Ranges was historically defined as terra nullius: a land belonging to no one.  Reading a landscape is an activity mediated through the viewer’s cultural lens.

Stokes Hill Lookout

Looking at the Flinders Ranges from this topographical perspective you could see that this was a very old landscape, geologically speaking. What you couldn’t see, and what the bronze tourist diorama at the lookout didn’t mention, was that this old landscape was also a peopled landscape. The Ikara-Flinders Ranges were glacial refugia for the aboriginal people during the Pleistocene, roughly 25-16 thousand years before the present. So we have a long pre-colonial history.

leaving Lake Frome

The morning (1/6/21) of our short walk away from Lake Frome to our pick up point for the return to Blinman was heavily overcast. We could see rain in the northern Flinders Ranges. Lake Frome at the south eastern end of the Lake Eyre Basin to be an intersection point between the winter rains from the south and the monsoonal summer rains from the north.

rain, Lake Frome

We were fortunate to have been able spend the night camped on the edge of Lake Frome floodplain. The next group of 12 who would be walking back to Blinman from the pickup point beyond the old dog fence would only be able to spend an hour in the afternoon there.

The overall impression from being at Lake Frome is one of a long history and a deep time. Deep history restores the historicity to the aboriginal people who, despite being here for 50,000-60,000 years, were deemed to be a people without history by the colonial white settler culture. The latter’s thin and shallow history of 240 years, which was what was dished up in Australia’s classrooms, ignored the story of a peopled landscape of long duration. That was pre-history, even though there is no such thing as a people without history.

Lake Frome: long history and deep time

I never made it to Lake Frome proper as we camped on a sand dune on the edge of Chambers Creek floodplain near the western shoreline of this ephemeral lake or salt pan. This stretches over a depression approximately 30 miles wide and 60 miles long It is the most southerly playa in an arc of ephemeral lake bodies that lie to the southeast of Lake Eyre in the Lake Eyre Basin. The smaller playa lakes including Lake Frome and Callabonna are sparse as they are fed only by the ephemeral creeks and rivers from the localised catchment areas of the northern Flinders Ranges.

floodplain, Lake Frome

In the dry season, Lake Frome exists as little more than a dry crust of salt and minerals. However, when rains fall in the northern Flinders Ranges, or the floodwaters creep in (usually the overflow from another saltpan to the north, Lake Callabonna), the depression becomes a lake again, providing habitat for a large number of animal and birds. However, significant runoff reaching Lake Frome is rare.

to Lake Frome

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.

am, 2 tree plain

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.

Two Tree Plain

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.

Two Tree Plain

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.

Mt Chambers Gorge

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.

Mt Chambers Gorge

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.

Mt Chambers Gorge + rock markings

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.

Pastoral landscapes

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.

Mt Johns, am.

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.

reading Henry Reynolds

I was reading Henry Reynold’s Frontier: Aborigines, Settlers and Land whilst walking on the camel trek in a north-easterly direction towards the barren salt-encrusted land in South Australia’s arid north east of Chambers Gorge that winds its way through the Wearing Hills.

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.

Benbibuta Creek, am

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.