On Day 4 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.
It had been a warm night sleeping in the swag in the open air. Breakfast was around 6.30am in front of a fire. It was a cloudy morning and there was no wind. The aim of the 2nd day’s walk was to leave 2nd plain and reach 3rd plain, which also runs north south between the ranges. We were slowly making our way north east through a series of ranges to reach the eastern flank of the Flinders Ranges.
We walked all day along the rocky creekbeds that were the tributaries of Balcanacana Creek covering a distance of around 11 kilometres in sunny conditions. The temperature was mild, the sun bright and the sky was blue. It was slow going as one of the walkers from Sydney, who had a recent knee reconstruction, found the creek bed walking very hard going. He continually fell behind and we had to wait for him to catch up.
Greg was also overweight and he had signed up for more than his body was capable of. He had judged that he could walk at the pace of camels–which he could–but his preparation/training consisted of him walking on flat surfaces (ie., footpaths), and not on the rocky or sandy creek beds for several hours on end. The sand and stones in creek beds make for slow and difficult walking. It can be hard going, especially so for someone with a recent knee reconstruction.
I mentioned in the earlier maps and territories post that on Day 8 we’d made our way to a camp near Terrapinna Gorge in the north east of the Flinders Ranges, and that we had an afternoon to explore both the gorge and the Terrapinna Tors. By this stage I was beginning to develop a vague sense of the geography– ie., Hamilton Creek flowed north east to Lake Callabonna and that we were on the southern edge of the arid interior.
What I didn’t I know was the geological history of the arid zone: ie., the historical past of the Pleistocene (2,580,000 to 11,700 years ago,) and the latter Holocene-— the time since the end of the last major glacial epoch, or “ice age around 11, 600 years ago. Nor did I know the history of the different deserts, that of the desert societies prior to colonisation, or how the various desert people were subsequently drawn into various missions and government settlements.
The map I had of this territory was the white settler-colonial one one in which Lake Callabonna was seen to be part of an arc that included Lake Blanche and Lake Gregory — a chain of large salt lakes. The map was based on E.J. Eyre’s 1840 expedition to northern South Australia, in which Eyre following the Flinders Ranges found his route blocked to the west, north and east by a chain of large salt lakes. Eyre thought this chain formed a single large ‘horseshoe lake’. He suggested that it was an old arm of the sea. This was the dead heart of settler Australia–a part of the ‘country that was once covered with salt water’; a territory that Charles Sturt understood to be a great inland sea.
In the afternoon of day 8 walking I wandered into Terrapina Gorge on my own as the rest of the group had decided to walk along the Terrapinna Tors trails, rather than entering the gorge. As I slowly made my way upstream, the stranded logs in the trees gave me a sense that a lot of flood water would have flowed through Hamilton creek when the northern monsoons reached the northern Flinders Ranges. As I walked along the rocky walls and sculptured basins I realized that many of Australia’s meandering ephemeral rivers drain inland, that they often end in ephemeral salt lakes (eg., the Lake Eyre drainage basin) and that many of the features of the internal drainage pattern have a very long history.
I wondered how was this gorge part of Australia’s geological past, its deep time of settlement and it being the home for the oldest continuing cultures in human history? From memory the last glacial period was at its most intense about 20 000 years ago, and by around 11,700 years ago the ice had retreated, the sea level had risen, and the land bridges to New Guinea and Tasmania (which had formed the single continent of Sahul) began disappearing under the rising sea. Around 6000 years ago Australia became an island continent. If the First Nation’s people had been in Australia for 65,000 years, then they would have lived through the last ice age and the subsequent dry periods.
I mentioned in this previous post that we would start walking through the Hamilton Valley on days 5 and 6 of the camel trek. The promise was that the creeks in the valley would mean that this area would be greener than the extremely dry pastoral landscape of Mt Freeling Station that we had walked through in the previous days. The Bureau of Meteorology classifies the climate of this region as a desert climate characterised by hot and persistently dry seasons.
It turned out that walking through the Hamilton Valley pretty much meant us slowly making our downstream of a very dry Hamilton Creek: making our way through and around the malaleucas (White Tea-tree) that were growing in the creek bed. Walking the creek bed was the camel way, as the camels do not like going up and down hills. They panic going down a slope.
Basically we were roughly following the footsteps of Warren Bonython, who had walked the Flinders Ranges from end to end. His 1971 book Walking the Flinders Ranges is an account of his epic 1967-1968, 1011 kilometre trek along the Flinders Ranges from Crystal Brook in the south to Mt Hopeless, which marks the end point of the northern Flinders Ranges. In 1840, the explorer Edward John Eyre climbed a low ‘haycock- like’ peak on the plains and described the scene as ‘cheerless and hopeless’. He turned away and beat a hasty retreat to the south.
Bonython had subsequently proposed an extension of the Heysen Trail from Parachilna Gorge in the central Flinders Ranges to Mt Babbage in the northern Flinders Ranges. This proposed extension is no longer on the Heysen Trail agenda, but it remains an option for wilderness walkers. In this region you can walk for 10 days or more and not meet anyone. The group had a copy of Bonython’s book and we read the relevant sections each evening.
This particular project is slowly taking on a vague shape with the recent shift away from thinking in terms of the classic idea of the roadtrip to walking the country. I’d started with the roadtrip concept as these were the classic way that photographers had historically explored the country beyond the various state capitals. More recently biking has replaced the Kombi’s of old.
The 14 day camel trek from outside Arkaroola to Mt Hopeless that Suzanne and I did with her walking friends in 2018 has bought this project into focus. It is about going off road and walking in northern South Australia. The earlier road trips to Andamooka and Lajamanu can now be seen as precursors to walking in the northern region of South Australia. These roadtrips gave me a sense of the country beyond the settled areas: they opened my eyes up to the country through which the highways passed.
Walking the country has come to the foreground because we have recently registered to walk in the Gammon Ranges with the ARPA Bushwalkers, and also signed up to do a camel trek from Blinman to Lake Frome in 2021. I suddenly realized that this mode of exploring the country of northern South Australia photographically meant a conceptual shift from roadtrips to walking.
At the end of the first day of walking we camped at a wonderful campsite close to Blue Mine Gap on the north western edge of the Gammon Ranges. We were walking in there of Sir Douglas Mawson’s 1906 explorations into the geology of the northern Flinders Ranges. In the 1920s and 1930s Mawson amongst others concentrated his research and fieldwork around the mineralization the northern Flinders Ranges, eruptions of the pre-Cambrian glaciation throughout the Flinders Ranges, the Cambrian strata of the Flinders Range, and the identification of uranium at Mt Painter Inlier, which is about 100 kilometres north east of Leigh Creek and south of the Mawson Plateau. South Australia is one of the world’s focal points for the study of the late pre-Cambrian era and glaciation.
After lunch on the first day we crossed a creek bed. The camels were playing up a bit, and this gave me 5-10 minutes or so to do some photography in and around the creek bed. Surprisingly, the light was still soft due to the continuing cloud cover, and the malaleucas in the creek made a welcome change to the bareness and environmental degradation of the stony hills with the loss of endangered plants and animals from the history of extensive pastoralism since the European occupation of the land.
malaleuca, creek bed
We had left the Umberatana Station track to walk in, and along, the Blue Mine Creek on the way to the campsite for the night. It was dawning on me that there was a history of extensive mining in the region for copper in the 19th century, and that the systematic regional mapping of the northern Flinders Ranges after 1945 centred around finding coal, petroleum and uranium. Mining was just as crucial as pastoralism in terms of land use. Increasingly it is now eco-tourism that provides the income and employment in the region. Continue reading →