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.
As the second camel trek draws near I ask myself did: Captain Sweet photograph in the Flinders Ranges? I have kept asking myself this, given my realization that there is a big gap in research on early South Australia photography and South Australia’s lack of visibility in Australian photographic discourse. Sydney and Melbourne continue to remain the focal points.
So I started doing some research into what art historians call views photography in the colonial period in South Australia When I came across this landscape of the Flinders Ranges between Beltana and Leigh Creek by Captain Sweet in 1885 I was intrigued. Were there more photographs of the Flinders Ranges by Sweet?
I was aware that Sweet is seen as part of the colonial views trade photographic tradition (1860-1890) by photographic historians (Gael Newton, Isobel Crombie and Helen Ennis); that he had created the most comprehensive documentation of colonial South Australia by any single nineteenth photographer; that his colonial eye represented a positive interpretation of the process of modernity in the colony and that he is part of the photographic canon (ie., included in Gael Newton’s Shades of Light and Helen Ennis’s Intersections).
His photographic approach to the land in the Flinders was different to the emphasis on the mountain ranges, waterfalls, caves, fern gullies and the bush favoured by photographers in Melbourne and Sydney (eg., J.W. Lindt + N.J. Caire) and from the romantic framework of nature and the poeticising of place (eg., Charles Bayliss). Sweet also seems to be different to the standard understanding of the metropolitan views trade photographs being author-less and taken by operators. This kind of photography was an industry, and Sweet was a commercial photographer producing images for a commercial market. He was also part of a culture that was aesthetically aware and he could employ a range of picturesque compositional and stylistic techniques when needed.
The obvious art historical place to start my research into the representaton of the Flinders Ranges is Arid Arcadia: Art in the Flinders (AGSA, 2002) by Alisa Bunbury. Alisa Bunbury, then a specialist curator of Prints and Drawings at Art Gallery South Australia (1999-2002), specialises in Australian colonial art. In this text she notes that there is much research to be done in the history of colonial photography in the nineteenth century in the Flinders Ranges region of South Australia. Bunbury, then a curator of Prints and Drawings at Art Gallery South Australia, goes on to mention Captain Sweet’s 1882 studio advertisement about his picturesque scenery on the Great Northern Railway line from Port Augusta to Farina.
Bunbury comments that this advertisement demonstrates images of visual interest at the time — of gainful employment of the land and of national progress. (p. 58). Surprisingly, there are no images by Sweet in the text, despite Bunbury saying that Sweet had a reputation for accomplished photographic landscapes and views of country towns and stations. Bunbury quickly moves on to consider H. H. Tilbrook’s 1894 photos of the Flinders Ranges that he made around Wilpena Pound, explores Heysen’s paintings of an arid landscape in depth, then mentions Frederick Joyner and Harold Cazneaux.
Bunbury’s thesis is that during the second half of the nineteenth century South Australia lacked a landscape tradition. The inference is that Captain Sweet as a topographical photographer was not considered to be a part of the landscape tradition in a way that Heysen or Cazneaux were. So he did not help to establish the landscape tradition in South Australia in the second half of the nineteen century.
One possible reason for this is the widely recognised and long held distinction in the art institution between imaginative landscape and topography, or to put it another way, between landscape ‘proper’ – fine art landscape – and ‘mere’ topography or views. Topography is a mark of inferiority–obsolete and second rate. It is descriptive not imaginative and it is a kind of map-work. This is a hierarchy of genres in the representation of land that goes back to the 18th century (eg.,Henry Fuseli) premised on the distinction between imaginative and descriptive landscape painting. Art historians had been quick to expand this definition of topography as distinct from and inferior to landscape art with the distinction between evidence and art. The former in terms of picturing places has little aesthetic value or interest.
The art historians depiction of Sweet’s photography as views refers to the topographic as descriptive–the ‘faithful representation’ of particular scenes. This understanding of topographics as real views of particular places was then developed in the 19th century’ with a linking of the topographic to travel and geography. Topographic as a word in relation to picturing places is not intended to just identify a genre but to indicate its limitations.
I am not having that much success in my research on expedition photography in South Australia. I recently came across a book on colonial photography in Australia entitled Shifting Focus: Colonial Australian Photography 1850-1920 ed., Anne Maxwell and Josephine Croci (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2015). It looked promising as the Introduction states that photography circa 1850-60 was shown in the technology section (optical instruments) of the Great Exhibition in London (1851) and not in the fine art section. Photography, they continue, shared with science common roots in empiricism and positivism, an optimistic faith in progress, and common agendas to see and know the world. Photography entered the nineteenth-century imagination as a way of capturing the world in precise detail, and bringing it home for careful study. References to travel, geography, topography, and landscape are common in this period.
This insight references Joan Schwarz’s article ‘Records of Simple Truth and Precision: Photography, Archives and the Illusion of Control’ (2000) that is based on her PhD thesis. Schwartz argues that in the 1840s travel was embraced as a way of seeing and knowing the world and photographs offered a new means of acquiring, ordering and disseminating geographical information. This was an era when geographical movement was embraced as intellectual method,and observation was the paradigm of knowing, photography made it possible to gather and disseminate all kinds of information in visual form, with unprecedented ease and accuracy. Photography’s links with science meant that it was seen as a method for observing, representing, and knowing the world. Photography was seen as an enhanced form of visual note taking, a tool of observation, and an accurate and reliable means of documentation.The photograph as a means of extending human powers of scientific observation is characterized as the topographical tradition, with the positivist rhetoric of unmediated representation being expressed as a “mirror” of nature, a “window” on the world, and a “mirror” with a memory.
Expedition photography in South Australia would fit snugly within the emergent role of photography in making and communicating new knowledge and its significance for natural history as part of the work of empire. Bernard Smith in his European Vision and the South Pacific says that the development and introduction of photography represented a significant juncture in the use of images as records and for interpreting visible phenomena. This emerging photographic culture was directed, as needed, towards fulfilling an official agenda of satisfying the appetite of a European public eager for curiosities suitably composed to current tastes. Images of natural history subjects were produced not only as scientific documents or as artistic conceits but also to validate and promote Britain’s expanding empire.
Shifting Focus does mention expedition photography in South Australia: — namely, Tim Smith’s and Kitty Magee’s articles on Goyder’s 1869 Northern Territory Survey Expedition to survey this territory so as to establish colonial settlement in and around Port Darwin. Joseph Brooks and especially Captain Sweet photographed the early stage of this part of Australian colonial settlement process — ie., they, and especially Sweet, made positive views of colonial development, progress and prosperity.
Sweet’s Darwin photos were taken while he was working as a ship’s captain for the South Australian Government, commanding a supply vessel supporting the exploration (1869) and settlement (1869-71) of Darwin and the construction of the Overland Telegraph (1870-72). Sweet was not employed as a photographer when he took these photographs and his Darwin photographs can be also understood as a surrogate for travel at a time when travel was the premier avenue to knowledge of the world. Photographs were cheaper, more truthful, more accessible, more convenient, and more egalitarian than other forms of visual imagery.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 HerschelBabbage 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.
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.
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.