Walking with camels has a different history to the freedom of walking tradition in the UK and the US that began in the late eighteenth century and peaked in the mid-20th century; a history outlined in Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Solnit says that this kind of walking culture, which was a reaction against the speed and alienation of the industrial revolution, declined with the emergence of suburbia. Suburbanization changed the scale and texture of everyday life, usually in ways inimical to getting about on foot (p. 249)
Ryan McMillan, the cameleer of Blinman, connected our camel walking in the northern Flinders Ranges to the history of the cameleers in nineteenth century South Australia. Philip Jones says that during the 1860s to the 1920s the (primarily Afghan):
cameleers pioneered a network of camel pads and tracks that later became roads across this region of South Australia. The homesteads, mines, missions, and townships linked by this network depended upon the cameleers for their viability during the course of 5 decades or more.
Philip Jones and Anna Kenny, Australia’s Muslim Cameleers: Pioneers of the Inland 1860s-1930s, Wakefield Press, Adelaide 2007, p. 9.
With the replacement of camels as a mode of transport in arid South Australia by the motor car in the 1920s this cameleer history and its material culture has largely been forgotten. Little remains of this heritage. We only have a fragmented history of an era that has almost slipped from view.
Most people now travel along the tracks in this region in air-conditioned 4WDs viewing the scene at a distance through their windows. They would probably not connect the mosque in the south east corner of Adelaide with the 19th century cameleers.
Day 11 was a 15 kilometre walk on a mild, dry winters day through Murnpeowie Station, over stony plains, lunch at Mundawatana Creek, then across a gibber plain, through the dog fence to a camp on a clay plain. Most of the trees were confined to creek beds and run-off areas. As we walked through the territory, which was a long way from the benign, pristine and photogenic landscapes and iconic vistas of the tourist brochures — the Outback — I wondered about the absence of photographers in the explorer’s expeditions to Lake Eyre and the northern Flinders Ranges and Central Australia until Francis Gillen and Baldwin Spencer in the late 1890s. Maps, journals and sketches filled the space of photography’s absence in exploration to discover land of economic value was crucial to the well-being of colonial Australia.
The Pastoral Land Management and Conservation Act 1989 limits land uses on pastoral leaseholds almost solely to grazing specified stock on native pastures. The rangeland at Murnpeowie Station over which we walking was unsuitable for agriculture. How sustainable is pastoralism as a land use—sheep and cattle grazing on natural vegetation— in this arid zone? The leased land that I was walking over looked denuded, eroded and degraded from drought and over-stocking, and it had little protective plant cover.
This is a culturally encoded landscape. The pioneer legend is about the battle that the explorers fought and won over great natural difficulties and obstacles, whose triumph resulted in permanent occupation and settlement of a vast continent through subduing the land and battling the elements by those pastoralists who first “settled” the land. The legend celebrates the courage, enterprise, hard work and perseverance of the explorers pastoralists, and then the farmers. Settlement was held to be the necessary and benevolent introduction of British civilization.
The pioneer legend overlooks two significant aspect of the colonial history. Firstly, there is the long history of the environmental degradation of the land from 100 years of pastoralism’s bad management practices since European settlement. Habitat change and the introduction of feral predators and herbivores resulted in medium sized mammal species (bilbies) becoming either endangered or extinct.
Secondly, the Aboriginal people’s presence in the legend is one of adversaries who had to be battled and put in their place in the process of subduing the land. The aboriginal perspective on the frontier violence had no place in the pioneer legend. The legend, which mythologized the violent frontier, indicates the then cultural supremacy of the pastoral industry in South Australia.
Presumably, as the Adnyamathanha people were dispossessed from their traditional land many were able to retreat to the ranges, sheltering there from the violence and disruptions of colonial contact and the beginnings of pastoralism in their traditional countries on the surrounding plains. Those who resisted were depicted as savage blacks by the pastoralists.
In naming places (Lake Eyre, Lake Torrens, Mt Babbage, Mt Hopeless etc) the white colonial history ignores both aboriginal names and that aboriginal peoples have a long-established and visually sophisticated culture; avoids the violence on the South Australian frontier in the Flinders Ranges; avoids any overt representation of armed conflict between the squatters and the aboriginal people; downplays the pastoralist’s campaigns against the Adnyamathanha people; idealizes the pastoralists whilst marginalizing the indigenous resistance to the invader taking their land and water. The European/Australian art of this period is also devoid of the history of this frontier struggle.
On Day 10 walking we left the Terrapinna Gorge and Tors, turned away from the ephemeral Hamilton Creek and started to make our way north to the end point of the northern Flinders Ranges. We were over half way to Mt Hopeless. It was sunny with a blue sky and just the odd cloud –not desirable photographic conditions. The stony ground was flatter, with scattered low shrubs, granite boulders and undulating hills. I had a sense that only a few of the Heysen Trail bushwalkers walked this way.
The only sense of the geography I had was that we were making our way to the northern edge of Moolawatana Station and to the dog-proof fence, which we would cross the following day as we made our way north. I just followed along behind the camel train.
We lunched at the foot of Mt Babbage — a small mesa (300 metres in height) on the high plain that we were walking along. Most of the party walked up to its summit before lunch. I stayed back to photograph the granite boulders in a watercourse.
The mesa was named after Benjamin HerschelBabbage who had conducted a geological and mineralogical survey for the South Australia colony in the northern Flinders Ranges up to Lake Blanche in 1858. The survey was to ascertain mineralogical resources, (to search for copper and gold) and to open up the country (for farming and grazing land) — it was still terra incognita to Europeans. Their maps of ‘the interior’ implied an inner realm separated from the exterior by a curtain that had only been penetrated by explorers. Their map was of a harsh and forbidding country (a dead heart), until Hans Heysen established the arid arcadia as a sublime landscape in the 1920s.
There was very little discussion of the colonial history in the northern Flinders Ranges on the camel trek about what happened to the Adnyamathanha people in the northern Flinders Ranges. The history that was referred to, and talked about, was settler history: explorers, pastoralism, mining, Mawson’s expeditions using camels, and white men walking the northern Flinders. The long shadows cast by the historical injustices of the colonial past were not discussed.
Our only contact with the Adnyamathanha was when we drove past Nepabunna from Copely on route to our starting point at Umberatana Station. I didn’t know that Nepabunnan was the site of the old mission station that had been established by the United Aborigines Mission in 1931 on land donated to them by Balcoona Station owner Roy Thomas Nor did I know that the land was officially given to the United Aborigines Mission, giving them full control over its indigenous inhabitants. Nepabunna, in effect, was the first permanent home the Adnyamathanha people had known since their dispossession and displacement from their traditional lands in the early 1850s by the pastoralists. Then, after 40 years or more years of Mission and Government control, Nepabunna was handed back to the Adnyamathanha people in 1977.
I knew nothing about the history of aboriginal dispossession in the northern Flinders Ranges. All I knew was that South Australia was founded as a model colony based on democratic and humanitarian ideals and hard-headed commercial objectives (enlightened colonialism). South Australia was founded with an explicit principle to protect Aboriginal peoples as British subjects in line with Colonial concerns in the 1830s, their actual treatment under the law proved to be little different to that which prevailed in Australia’s earlier settler colonies. It was aboriginal land the colonialists wanted. Hence the violent frontier history of European settlement and Aboriginal dispossession and subjugation.
In the 1940 the Aborigines Protection Board was formed, as a result of the Aborigines Act Amendment Act 1934 – 1939, and it had legal guardianship of all Aboriginal Children. William Penhall, the Protector of Aborigines and the Secretary of the Aborigines Protection Board (APB), had nearly complete control over the lives and destinies of the 5000 or more Aboriginal people scattered across South Australia. Penhall and the Board supported long-range weapons testing at Woomera—-the Emu/Maralinga nuclear tests in the 1950s.
On days 7 + 8 of the camel trek I started to think how this country in the northern Flinders Ranges had had been historically framed. In the mid-nineteen century this territory had historically been mapped as the ‘New World’ frontier–the edge of civilization as it were–by the white colonialists and settlers. What I knew was that the imperial map said this territory was terra nullius; that historically the settler societies are brought into being through invasion; and an outback mythology emerged with its images of vast stations, droving, skilled horse work, and dusty and laconic stockworkers that celebrated the pastoral industry.
When we left the John Waterhole in the Hamilton Creek we walk the country along tributory creeks full of scrubby melaleuca bush. It was often slow going as the density of the bush made it difficult walking for the camels to get through whilst carrying their bulky loads.
After leaving the creeks we walked across undulating territory with Mt Babbage on our right. We passed the ruins of a well (Harrison’s well), a bore (Con’s Bore), a mining site and an abandoned station— Mt Fitting Station. We were skirting around Terrapinna Gorge which Hamilton Creek runs through because the camels could not walk along the gorge’s very stony ground.
I started to wonder how the European signs and codes had mapped this territory, rather than thinking about its political economy or its environmental degradation from pastoral overgrazing. Was there a history of the codes, models, and signs that were the organizing forms that mapped and so shaped how we interpreted this territory.
As we walked along the station tracks of Moolawotana Station parallel to Hamilton Creek to camp in the sand a short distance from the Terrapinna Waterhole at the northern end of Terrapinna Gorge I wondered how the economics of this landscape in the British empire was shaped by culture. How had this landscape been mapped in colonial and even precolonial times by the Europeans?
Whilst photographing this part of the country after setting up the camp I remembered Baudrillard’s thesis in Simulacra and Simulation (1981) that the map precedes the territory. Baudrillard suggests, a map as a text stops functioning as a representation and begins to function as a simulation. If in the order of representation the territory precedes the map, then in a simulation the map precedes the territory. That is, in representation the map comes after the real world, but in simulation the map comes first and begins to shape the real world.
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.
The area we were walking through in the northern Flinders is known as South Australia’s Far North, which starts from the town of Blinman. The region has low rainfall mainly in winter, and averages about 200 mm/yr. It has very old hard rocks that were deposited between 500 million and 1,000 million years ago when shallow sea that stretched into central Australia from Kangaroo Island.
Just before we turned to walk along the creek beds of the Hamilton Valley on Day 4 we came across an old stone shepard’s hut on a pastoral station (large grazing property). Unfortunately I cannot recall which one, but I gather that most of this land in the northern Flinders Ranges was leased from the State government and not privately owned.
We hung around the site a bit using it for a morning break. The lack of rain meant that there was little water in the hut’s water tanks. The camels were very patient and they linked us back to the early 19th century and the Afghan culture before motorized transport replaced camels as a method of transport.
The hut itself appeared to be deserted, in the sense of it having been little used for quite some time.
We are in the process of deciding whether or not to return to walking in the northern Flinders Ranges in 2021. The two options currently on the table are either walking in the Gammon Ranges with Suzanne’s walking friends under the umbrella of the ARPA Bushwalkers; or doing another camel trek, this time from Blinman to Lake Frome.
I have returned to looking through the archival photos made on the earlier 14 day camel trek in the northern Flinders Ranges we did in 2018. This picture is from the morning of day 2 just before we started the days walk:
Day 2 was a short walk and it enabled us to spend the afternoon exploring the ruins of Yudnamutana mine and the smelter site. Yudanamutana also refers to the copper field of this name.
This mine was worked intermittently for copper from around 1862; work was abandoned in 1867, then picked up by the Flinders Copper Mining Company and worked between 1914 and 1918.
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 →