Both the surveyed hundreds in the arid lands in the 1870s and the development of the old central railway north in the 1880s were done in anticipation of the continuing northward advance of cropping. ‘Rain would follow the plough’. The droughts of the early 1900s saw the retreat of agricultural and today many of the sections of these far northern hundreds are parts of large grazing properties (stations).
We were to stay at the Shearers Quarters during our 6 days of walking in the Vulkathunha-Gammon Ranges National Park. The first walk the following day (31 July) would be in Weetootla Gorge and to Grindals Hut and return. In the early morning prior to this walk I wandered around an overcast Balcanoona taking a few photos.
The morning (1/6/21) of our short walk away from Lake Frome to our pick up point for the return to Blinman was heavily overcast. We could see rain in the northern Flinders Ranges. Lake Frome at the south eastern end of the Lake Eyre Basin to be an intersection point between the winter rains from the south and the monsoonal summer rains from the north.
We were fortunate to have been able spend the night camped on the edge of Lake Frome floodplain. The next group of 12 who would be walking back to Blinman from the pickup point beyond the old dog fence would only be able to spend an hour in the afternoon there.
The overall impression from being at Lake Frome is one of a long history and a deep time. Deep history restores the historicity to the aboriginal people who, despite being here for 50,000-60,000 years, were deemed to be a people without history by the colonial white settler culture. The latter’s thin and shallow history of 240 years, which was what was dished up in Australia’s classrooms, ignored the story of a peopled landscape of long duration. That was pre-history, even though there is no such thing as a people without history.
I never made it to Lake Frome proper as we camped on a sand dune on the edge of Chambers Creek floodplain near the western shoreline of this ephemeral lake or salt pan. This stretches over a depression approximately 30 miles wide and 60 miles long It is the most southerly playa in an arc of ephemeral lake bodies that lie to the southeast of Lake Eyre in the Lake Eyre Basin. The smaller playa lakes including Lake Frome and Callabonna are sparse as they are fed only by the ephemeral creeks and rivers from the localised catchment areas of the northern Flinders Ranges.
In the dry season, Lake Frome exists as little more than a dry crust of salt and minerals. However, when rains fall in the northern Flinders Ranges, or the floodwaters creep in (usually the overflow from another saltpan to the north, Lake Callabonna), the depression becomes a lake again, providing habitat for a large number of animal and birds. However, significant runoff reaching Lake Frome is rare.
Finally, the day (31st May) that we would reach at Lake Frome dawned. If the south-westerly wind was chilling on the morning of day 11, the early morning light was stunning, whilst the colours of the plants on the 2 tree plain were overwhelming. It was a magic moment, albeit one that didn’t last very long.
Ryan informed us over our breakfast by the fire that we would reach Lake Frome around lunch time. I had no idea what the lake would look like. I imagined a salt lake where I could stand at the edge of lake and photograph a lake of glistening white salt in the late afternoon light. I had Lake Hart between Port Augusta and Coober Pedy on the Stuart Highway in mind.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.