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 6 (ie .26th May) was one of clear skies, a cool wind, and puffy clouds during the afternoon. The day temperature was around 18 degrees. This is pleasant walking weather in an arid country.
We walked across a plain to the east of the Wirrealpa Range crossing the various creek beds that flowed into the southern end of Lake Frome. I slipped on a rock crossing a creek and fell, jarring my back. I walked slowly behind the camels. We crossed the Arkaroola Blinman Rd for the second time and then rested whilst we picked up a food drop in a creek bed by the side of the road.
I was grateful for the food drop rest as the muscles in both my legs and back were starting to hurt and I was now walking with difficulty. I walked at the back of the camel train.
What was being reinforced as I walked was that what people call drought conditions (ie; lack of rain) was actually the new normal. The rain ie., the big monsoonal rain — is now the exception. The winter rains from the south consist of little more than light sprinkles. The monsoonal rains are the key to life in the northern Flinders Ranges.
This arid country had been drying for 50,000 years. The water in the creeks rarely make it to Lake Frome in the east, or to Lake Torrens in the west. Climate heating is speeding up the drying process. According to the latest UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Report Australia’s land area has warmed by about 1.4C since 1910 and are now above anything that could have been caused by natural variation with Australia on track for 2C of warming and its heating faster than the global average. That means that some of the extreme temperatures we are seeing now will be closer to the average by the mid-21st century. Fait accompli.
On Day 5 there was a sprinkle of rain in the early morning, during breakfast and as we packed the camels. A sprinkle that just settled the dust and it cleared as we left Wirrealpa Creek. We were still on Wirrealpa Station, and Ryan and Kym spent some time in the mid-morning looking for a new way through the Wirrealpa Range. Whilst we waited for them to find a way that was suitable for the camels I started thinking about the human history of this region — and how colonial history with its sense of emptiness of nothern South Australia matters. It shapes the present, even if we are not aware of the region’s geological and the human history.
It slowly dawned on me that we were walking through the pastoral landscapes – a landscape where the physical transformation of the land into agriculture did not happen. The heroic pioneer narrative of turning wilderness into garden through the settlers taming nature did not make any sense of the pastoral landscapes in the northern Flinders Ranges. The pastoral landscape did not have to be created. It was already there. Pastoralists just used and extracted from the land and they badly damage it in the process of overgrazing. As they were, and are, unable to significantly transform it to their economic needs, they had to adapt the arid land, with its cycles of drought and flood just like the animals.
Secondly, a cooler Australia was once a vibrant and living environment of people, plants, animals and rocks that had not yet been disseminated by colonial and industrial forces. After the 1850s Aboriginal people had worked on, and traveled between, the sheep stations scattered among their tribal lands through these various ranges. The principal pastoral stations had supplied rations, clothing and a small wage to station-hands and domestics, supporting a network of extended family groups. The Adynamathanha participated in the colonial economy and maintained their traditional activities until they moved to Nepabunna in the 1930s, which was initially run by the missionaries, (1931-73) then the SA state government. They’d survived and increasingly they gained greater autonomy as a people.
I was able to do some hand held film photography with the Rolleiflex TLR in the early morning of Day 4 in the creek bed opposite our camp. (The film still needs to be processed). I was starting again after losing the previous roll of photos made during the previous three days.
This was Adnyamanthanha country, and I was a stranger walking through it with no knowledge of their history, the geography of the various watercourses and creeks that came down from the northern Flinders Ranges and flowed east towards Lake Frome or the historical geology of the country. I knew nothing about the frontier wars in the northern Flinders; nothing about the sites of significance for the Adnyamanthanha people; the stories for those sitesor the power of particular places in this country.
I presumed the pastoralists in the mid-nineteenth century regarded the country — including the waterholes and springs — as their land despite only having a lease. The Adnyamanthanha people were free to move across the pastoral leases which were for grazing purposes only. Both pastoralists and the Adnyamanthanha people shared the land according to the High Court’s 1996 Wik Judgement’s interpretation of the nature of the pastoral lease.
However, the pastoralists viewed the Adnyamanthanha people as invaders with no rights to the land, and they had no reservation about killing the Adnyamanthanha whilst taking their water and hunting grounds from them. The Adnyamanthanha people, especially during the drought in the mid-1860s, raided the stock and the colonists huts for food and killed the hut keepers. The pastoralists retaliated and the police would then be sent to hunt the Adnyamanthanha down to protect the pastoral industry.
This was the frontier. The logic was simple: –the border wars were about the ownership and control of the land, about taking it by force from those who had been in possession for 40-50,000 years.
The pastoralists kept expanding — by the 1860s they had moved beyond Mt Hopeless to Lake Blanche. The Lutheran mission (Bethesda) was established at Lake Killalpaninna in 1868, where the missionaries tried to create a German agrarian community based on sheep, goats and growing vegetables in Dieri country that was shaped by the extreme cycles of drought and flood. The Nepabunna mission in the northern Flinders was established in 1931.
So what happened to the Adnyamanthana people between the 1860s and 1931? They had survived the loss of their country. But how? What was the long, entwined colonial history between the Adnyamanthanha people, pastoralists and the state? Were the Adnyamanthanha people more than fringe or camp dwellers near the station’s homestead?
The historical discourse of Australian history has been one of the displacement of Aboriginal people and the establishment of settlers as the natural occupants of the land. The historical narrative is one of a progressive embrace of modernity. So where were the memorials or monuments to the more than 20,000 indigenous people killed in the frontier or border wars in Australia?
We were still walking on Angoriachina Station walking in a north easterly direction from our starting point at Blinman. We walked close to Red Hill and the western boundary of Wirrealpa Station as we traversed various ridges and tablelands with their various water erosions. It was slow going for the camels as we made our way through various old pastoral fences that were in a rundown condition. Sometimes we found a gate, other times we looked for a fallen part of the fence lying flat on the ground. I didn’t understand why the fences were where they were. Were they to prove the pastoralist’s developing the unimproved land?
It was hot, dry and dusty walking across the clay and stony plains with their minimal salt and blue bush vegetation. Lots of flies. The country looked to be in a bad condition from excessive grazing –some of it looked too degraded to rehabilitate. Rehabilitation would need to be on a massive scale and very expensive.
We crossed the road from Blinman to Wirrealpa (which takes you to the Junta-Arkaroola Rd) and then walked along Eregunda Creek which discharges into Wirrealpa Creek. We made our camp adjacent to a creek bed near the ruins of the small Wirrealpa Silver-Lead Mine. The cliffs of the creek bed or water course were limestone. There was no water in the creek that came from the ranges in Wirrealpa station.
The morning of Day 3 was overcast, but the welcomed cloud cover quickly disappeared after we had loaded up the camels for the days walk. We started walking around 9.30am and Greg was picked up early in the morning by Ed from Angoriachina Station, who dropped him back at the North Blinman Hotel, so that he could make his way back to his home in Sydney. Peter, his Sydney friend, continued on the camel trek with us. This was his second camel trek. A large number of people on the various camel treks are returnees.
The walking pace to Lake Frome picked up as we did not have to stop and wait for people to catch up. The morning was spend crossing 3rd plain, and prior to entering Tea Tree Gorge in the late morning, e saw bullock bushes, a rough blue bell bush, and a young bearded lizard.
By late morning we were walking along the creek bed through Tea Tree Gorge. Lunch was in the gorge. Firewood is collected, a fire is lit, and the billy is boiled. I had a wrap with left overs (sweet and sour chicken wings, hokkien noodles and veges) from the previous nights dinner that had been cooked on a camp oven. I noticed the grass trees (Xanthorrhoea) growing high up on the gorge walls whilst eating a slice of fruit cake with a cup of licorice tea.
It had been a warm night sleeping in the swag in the open air. Breakfast was around 6.30am in front of a fire. It was a cloudy morning and there was no wind. The aim of the 2nd day’s walk was to leave 2nd plain and reach 3rd plain, which also runs north south between the ranges. We were slowly making our way north east through a series of ranges to reach the eastern flank of the Flinders Ranges.
We walked all day along the rocky creekbeds that were the tributaries of Balcanacana Creek covering a distance of around 11 kilometres in sunny conditions. The temperature was mild, the sun bright and the sky was blue. It was slow going as one of the walkers from Sydney, who had a recent knee reconstruction, found the creek bed walking very hard going. He continually fell behind and we had to wait for him to catch up.
Greg was also overweight and he had signed up for more than his body was capable of. He had judged that he could walk at the pace of camels–which he could–but his preparation/training consisted of him walking on flat surfaces (ie., footpaths), and not on the rocky or sandy creek beds for several hours on end. The sand and stones in creek beds make for slow and difficult walking. It can be hard going, especially so for someone with a recent knee reconstruction.
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.
Three years have passed since the 2018 camel trek from Umberatana to Mt Hopeless. In early 2021 we decided to undertake another camel trek, this time to go east from Blinman through the Flinders Ranges via Chambers Gorge then follow Chambers Creek to Lake Frome.
Early in 2021 I had come across some historical material about E. C. Frome, South Australia’s third Surveyor-General. Frome had succeeded Colonel William Light as Surveyor General of the newly established colony of South Australia, and in 1841 he surveyed large areas of the colony, including mapping and recording new territory around Orrorro, north of the newly established city of Adelaide. In 1843 he explored the eastern flank of the Flinders Ranges as far as Mt McKinley (which he mistook for Mt Serle that had been named by E. J Eyre in 1839-40) in the Vulkathunha-Gammon Ranges National Park.
Frome was mapping the country looking for permanent water that the pastoralists needed to establish their sheep runs. In doing so he saw the eastern plains up to Mt Hopeless and Lake Frome which he described: ‘a more barren sterile country could not be imagined.’ The land eastwards of the Flinders Ranges simply was not suitable for agriculture or pastoralism.
Frome made a water colour of these plains in 1843, which he entitled ‘First view of the salt desert–called Lake Torrens’:
The salt lake is now called Lake Frome. Lake Torrens is on the western side of the Flinders Ranges.
The reason for the misnaming is that three years earlier (1840-41) Edward Eyre had explored north and west of the Flinders Ranges, and after sighting several salt lakes concluded that a continuous horse-shaped Lake Torrens created a barrier to the north of the continent.
In his journal Eyre describes the extent of Lake Torrens as he sees it, stretching in an arc from the west around to the east and with the surface too soft and yielding for any attempt to cross. His expectations of a route to the north and the possible discoveries of pastoral land, flowing rivers and lakes of fresh water, were barred by the appearance of an enormous horseshoe shaped salt lake.
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.