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.

the Adnyamathanha

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.

Charles Mountford, Mt McKinlay, Northern Flinders Rangers

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.

Charles Mountford, Nepabunna Mission Station, 1937

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.

pastoralism

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.

Helen

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.