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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.