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.
We camped overnight on the plain between Chambers Gorge and Lake Frome after we walking over the low scrub of the flat plain with its Eremphila duttonii We had walked alongside Chambers Creek as it made its way east to Lake Frome. Chambers Creek started at the eastern mouth of the Chambers Gorge — for some reason it was called Rose Creek in Chambers Gorge.
The morning of Day 10 (30th May) dawned bright, cloudless with clear, bright light. It was cold with a bitter north easterly wind on what I called 2 Tree Plain. We have left behind the mountainous terrain of Hans Heysen’s water colour interpretations of the southern Flinders Ranges with the creek bed trees twisted and distorted from surviving in an arid land, or the ranges in a harsh, drought landscape.
We had a delay in leaving the camp that morning as the camels raced off after breakfast, just as the loading of the food and gear was beginning. The camels went racing back towards the mouth of Mt Chambers Gorge looking for some decent food. Whilst we waited for the cameleers to bring them back to the camp I noticed a wedgebill and a circling wedgetail eagle.
After leaving the side gorge with its rock drawings we continued walking through Mt Chambers Gorge (Marlawadinha Inbiri) with its high orange coloured limestone walls and big river gums during the afternoon of the 28th May. Ptilotus or mulla mulla with the purple, pink, silver, and yellow candlestick flowers were growing profusely in the creek bed that wound its way through the Wearing Range.
This is Hans Heysen country. It is arid, though not barren or bleak, and it has its own colours and textures. Associated with this visual tradition is a cultural formation about the Australian pastoral landscape representing a pastoral Acardia connected to Australian national identity, with its construct of Australia as a white Anglo-Saxon culture.
This cultural formation in a settler colonial society about a wilderness to be tamed into an Arcadia became a vehicle of national self-definition’ as well as a template for the construction of an idyllic settler colonial pastoral way of life highlights how the concept of the landscape as cultural construct is bound up with our national myths and visions.
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.
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.