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.
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.
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.
Finally we made it to Mt Hopeless. It was just a morning walk across a gibber plain from the over night camp on the dusty clay plain. 12 days walking with the camels had come to an end.
The snapshot below is looking south across the camel train to where we had walked. It is from the top of Mt Hopeless and it was taken just after midday.
The light was bad at midday so I decided to return in the late afternoon. This picture is looking north to Lake Callabonne from the top of Mt Hopeless. Flinders and Beyond did offer another leg of the trek that started from Mt Hopeless and went north to Cooper Creek (I’m not quite sure of the end point), but there were too few takers to make it viable. It sounded pretty good to me: the creek is the second longest inland river system in Australia. It is part of the Lake Eyre basin and the Channel Country.
I have been reading some books on colonial photography in South Australia to look for some 19th century photographs of the northern Flinders Ranges and northern South Australia. Even though photography in the field would have been very difficult with the wet plate process at the time, I was expecting to find some examples of colonial expedition photography as the dry-plate process was available in the colony by the early 1880s. My initial understanding was that photographers had accompanied some of the inland expeditions to northern South Australia and across to western Australia in the 1880s-1890s. Cameras, for instance, were used on David Lindsay’s 1885-6 exploring expedition from Adelaide to Port Darwin by Lieutenant Hermann Dittrich, the German naturalist/botanist was on the expedition on the recommendation of Baron Ferdinand von Mueller. Unfortunately, the dry plate glass negatives were severely overexposed and useless.
It is a puzzle that the AGSA missed this body of expedition photography. Was it a lack of research? Were the researchers content to work only from their own collection?
European exploration of South Australia was effectively complete by the time of the Elder Scientific Exploration Expedition of 1891–92. So what about photography made on earlier expedition in the northern Flinders Ranges and beyond?
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.
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 realized when I was at Karlu Karlu in 2016 hat I found the country in the northern part of South Australia (ie., north of Port Augusta) that we had passed through on the way to and from Lajamanu to be as interesting as the destination itself. I realized that wanted to explore this country rather than travel though for 12 hours a day to get to a particular destination. It was the journey, not the destination that was crucial for me.
Pylons+ Flinders Ranges
But how to explore the northern part of Australia? Aerial photography was too expensive; I didn’t have a 4 wheel drive; I wasn’t prepared to go into this semi arid county on my own; I wasn’t interested in just sticking to the main highways, stopping for a break and a quick photo; or just taking photos through a car window as I travelled through the landscapes limited.
The landscape looked interesting through the window: there were the salt lakes either side of the Stuart Highway, the various deserts, the pastoral landscapes north of Goyder’s Line, the Flinders Ranges themselves, and the country of the northern Flinders Ranges. This was a landscape that I didn’t know. Continue reading →