E.C. Frome’s expedition to Lake Frome

Three years have passed since the 2018 camel trek from Umberatana to Mt Hopeless. In early 2021 we decided to undertake another camel trek, this time to go east from Blinman through the Flinders Ranges via Chambers Gorge then follow Chambers Creek to Lake Frome.

Early in 2021 I had come across some historical material about E. C. Frome, South Australia’s third Surveyor-General. Frome had succeeded Colonel William Light as Surveyor General of the newly established colony of South Australia, and in 1841 he surveyed large areas of the colony, including mapping and recording new territory around Orrorro, north of the newly established city of Adelaide. In 1843 he explored the eastern flank of the Flinders Ranges as far as Mt McKinley (which he mistook for Mt Serle that had been named by E. J Eyre in 1839-40) in the Vulkathunha-Gammon Ranges National Park.

Frome was mapping the country looking for permanent water that the pastoralists needed to establish their sheep runs. In doing so he saw the eastern plains and Lake Frome which he described: ‘a more barren sterile country could not be imagined.’ The land eastwards of the Flinders Ranges simply was not suitable for agriculture.  Frome made a water colour of these plains in 1843, which he entitled ‘First view of the salt desert–called Lake Torrens’:

The salt lake is now called Lake Frome. Lake Torrens is on the western side of the Flinders Ranges.

The reason for the misnaming is that three years earlier (1840-41) Edward Eyre had explored north and west of the Flinders Ranges, and after sighting several salt lakes concluded that a continuous horse-shaped Lake Torrens created a barrier to the north of the continent.

In his journal Eyre describes the extent of Lake Torrens as he sees it, stretching in an arc from the west around to the east and with the surface too soft and yielding for any attempt to cross. His expectations of a route to the north and the possible discoveries of pastoral land, flowing rivers and lakes of fresh water, were barred by the appearance of an enormous horseshoe shaped salt lake.

The dog fence + photographic eye

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.

Why was photography absent in colonial exploration? Did the interior of South Australia lack pictorial interest for photographers? Were the explorers more interested in their journey and not the landscape they were traveling through? Did the explorers hold that photography was not really needed? The abandoned Elder Scientific Exploration of 1891-2 under David Lindsay appears to be the first to successfully make use of photography. Dr Frederick John Elliot, the photographer on that expedition, does not rate a mention in A Century in Focus: South Australian Photography 1840’s-1940s. Nor is the expedition mentioned in this text.

firewood

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.

polypipe, Murnpeowie Station

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.