Camel Trek to Lake Frome: Day 1

The camel trek from Blinman to Lake Frome through Mt Chambers Gorge took place in late May 2021. Blinman’s history is one of copper mining. This was successful during the 1860s and the town was built on its success. The mine lasted until 1918 when the ore finally ran out.

We arrived late at Blinman on the 20th of May, as we had a flat tire between Snowtown and Redcliffs. We had to stop at Port Pirie to buy a replacement tire for the Subaru Outback, and we arrived at camel HQ around 4.30pm.

Ryan gave us quick instructions on how to use the swag, we had a camp fire dinner (with Quandong pie for desert) swagged the night in the open, had breakfast and left around midday the following morning. Loading the camels took all of the morning — the first day on a camel trek is difficult and painful. There were ten walkers and three support staff.

Reflections on 2018 camel trek

The photographs on the 2018 camel trek to Mt Hopeless were made naively, with little awareness of the geological history of the Flinders Rangers. I had a vague awareness that the southern Flinders Rangers were conventionally seen as barren, desolate, empty and hostile — a wasteland, desert or timeless land. This is in contrast to the romance of the bush or outback as evoked in the picturesque tourist representations of the Flinders Ranges as a warm, winter, restorative getaway for stressed, suburban Australians.

I didn’t have any knowledge of the recent history of the visual representations of the arid Flinders Ranges, apart from a nodding acquaintance with Hans Heysen’s paintings of the southern Flinders Ranges in the late 1920’s and early 1930s. I’d seen these when I briefly looked at Alisa Bunbury’s Arid Arcadia: Art of the Flinders Ranges in the Art Gallery of South Australia’s bookshop. This plays on the theme of South Australia as a rural arcadia for free immigrants and Heysen’s landscape paintings of the Flinders Ranges have became regional, if not national icons.

Naive in the sense that I just photographed what I saw around me:

Even though I spent little time in them. I was intrigued by the architecture of the towns of the Flinders Rangers, such as in Blinman above and in Hawker over the page.

Naive in the sense that I had no knowledge of the images of photographers who photographed during the 1980s-2000 period, such as Ed Douglas, Stravos Pippos, Michael Kluvanek, and Ian North; nor any sense of the critical writings about the landscape tradition in Australia apart from the central role of the landscape (representations of nature) determining Australia’s national settler identity. Nature as opposed to the development of civilization is central to the colonial narratives of settler history in Australia. The familiar colonialist narrative centers on the success or failure in the battle against nature to tame, master and possess the land. Colonial settlement was transformative: wasteland becomes productive land, nature becomes culture.

Mt Hopeless

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.

the final leg

We are about to go on another 14 day camel trek. This one is from Blinman to Lake Frome in South Australia.

I need to complete the posts about the 2018 camel trek to Mt Hopeless before we leave early on Thursday morning (20th May 2021). This post refers back to this previous post about walking and the camel trek as we made our way to Mt Hopeless in 2018.

After crossing the dog fence we continued north, and camped the night on a dry, dusty clay plain before we walked to Mt Hopeless the following morning. There was not a hint of water anywhere–given the minimal rainfall and there was no permanent surface water The clay plain consisted of saltbush and Mitchell grass.

the last camp, 2018

Mt Hopeless was the end of the camel trek. It is also the northern most point of the Flinders Ranges. Beyond are the salt lakes (Lake Callabonna and Lake Gregory) that stumped and disheartened the early explorers such as Eyre and Sturt when they were exploring the interior of South Australia looking for the inland sea in 1840. Sturt even carried a boat on his 1844 expedition.

Colonial expedition photographs: an absence

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.

I started with A Century in Focus: South Australian Photographs 1940s-1940 by the Art Gallery of South of South Australia (AGSA) — the most obvious place. It was a disappointment. For instance, The Elder Scientific Exploration Expedition, 1891–92 under David Lindsay, which left from the northern railway terminus (near Andamooka) in South Australia and traveled across the Great Victoria Desert to Western Australia, made substantial use of photography. Yet Dr Frederick John Elliot, the expedition’s medical officer and photographer, is not mentioned in A Century in Focus.

This is a strange omission since there are a selection of photos that Elliot made in the State Library of South Australia’s (SLSA) Elder Scientific Exploration Expedition collection.

F. J. Elliot, Creek, Everard Ranges, 1891

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?

Camels + walking

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.

Timothy

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.

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.

Mt Babbage + photography

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.

landscape, northern Flinders Ranges

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.

Mt Babbage, northern Flinders Ranges

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 Herschel Babbage 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.

Terrapina Gorge + Tors

I mentioned in the earlier maps and territories post that on Day 8 we’d made our way to a camp near Terrapinna Gorge in the north east of the Flinders Ranges, and that we had an afternoon to explore both the gorge and the Terrapinna Tors. By this stage I was beginning to develop a vague sense of the geography– ie., Hamilton Creek flowed north east to Lake Callabonna and that we were on the southern edge of the arid interior.

What I didn’t I know was the geological history of the arid zone: ie., the historical past of the Pleistocene (2,580,000 to 11,700 years ago,) and the latter Holocene-— the time since the end of the last major glacial epoch, or “ice age around 11, 600 years ago. Nor did I know the history of the different deserts, that of the desert societies prior to colonisation, or how the various desert people were subsequently drawn into various missions and government settlements.

The map I had of this territory was the white settler-colonial one one in which Lake Callabonna was seen to be part of an arc that included Lake Blanche and Lake Gregory — a chain of large salt lakes. The map was based on E.J. Eyre’s 1840 expedition to northern South Australia, in which Eyre following the Flinders Ranges found his route blocked to the west, north and east by a chain of large salt lakes. Eyre thought this chain formed a single large ‘horseshoe lake’. He suggested that it was an old arm of the sea. This was the dead heart of settler Australia–a part of the ‘country that was once covered with salt water’; a territory that Charles Sturt understood to be a great inland sea.  

Terrapinna Gorge walls

In the afternoon of day 8 walking I wandered into Terrapina Gorge on my own as the rest of the group had decided to walk along the Terrapinna Tors trails, rather than entering the gorge. As I slowly made my way upstream, the stranded logs in the trees gave me a sense that a lot of flood water would have flowed through Hamilton creek when the northern monsoons reached the northern Flinders Ranges. As I walked along the rocky walls and sculptured basins I realized that many of Australia’s meandering ephemeral rivers drain inland, that they often end in ephemeral salt lakes (eg., the Lake Eyre drainage basin) and that many of the features of the internal drainage pattern have a very long history.

I wondered how was this gorge part of Australia’s geological past, its deep time of settlement and it being the home for the oldest continuing cultures in human history? From memory the last glacial period was at its most intense about 20 000 years ago, and by around 11,700 years ago the ice had retreated, the sea level had risen, and the land bridges to New Guinea and Tasmania (which had formed the single continent of Sahul) began disappearing under the rising sea. Around 6000 years ago Australia became an island continent. If the First Nation’s people had been in Australia for 65,000 years, then they would have lived through the last ice age and the subsequent dry periods.

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.