Brachina Gorge

On our last full day in the southern Flinders Ranges we drove through Brachina Gorge which runs through the Heysen Range towards Lake Torrens. We started from the Blinman Hawker Rd, exited on the road to Parachilna + Leigh Creek, then returned to Hawker via the Moralana Gorge Rd through the Elder Range in the late afternoon.

We walked around the area known as the  Golden Spike which marks the geological reference point for the Ediacaran Period. This is where we ran into Natalie and Ryan McMillan from the Flinders and Beyond Camel Treks who were spending an afternoon looking for fossils. We chatted for a while and then I concentrated on slowly walking around and photographing the gorge walls:

abstract, Brachina Gorge

The rock formations were easily accessible for large format photography as there was no need to walk kilometers up a creek bed carrying the gear. The rock formations in the gorge wall were in open shadow and so they could be photographed during the day even when it was bright and sunny.

at Hawker

We left Balcanoona in the early morning and drove to Hawker via the Wearing Pass and Blinman. We were to spend two days in Hawker so that I could see if could find a road that would provide public access to Lake Torrens.

20K from Blinman

Late that afternoon I drove out to the 5 Ways Corner and the Hookina Creek floodplain that I had briefly explored whilst we were on our way to Balcanoona. There was a road sign at the corner that pointed to Lake Torrens.

Hookina Creek: deep history

Two months after the camel trek from Blinman to Lake Frome we returned to the Flinders Ranges to walk in the Vulkathunha–Gammon Ranges National Park under the auspices of the Retire Active SA Bushwalkers. On the way to Balcanoona we stayed at Hawker in the southern Flinders Ranges and in the afternoon I went looking for the road to Lake Torrens in the locality of Barndioota. The latter was proposed as a possible site for a nuclear dump.

I found the turnoff near a bend in Hookina Creek on the Five Ways road near the ruins of the Hookina township. Hookina Creek is a drainage creek to Lake Torrens — it drains water from the area south of Wilpena Pound to Warcowie, Willow Plains and Cradock.  Adjacent to the Lake Torrens turnoff and by a sweeping bend of the Hookina Creek I came across some old river gum logs lying on the floodplains above the creek.

Hookina Creek, southern Flinders Ranges

I could sense the presence of long history. This is in the Yappala Indigenous Protected Area and Adnyamathanha country. These logs have been lying there for a long time and that is a very old creek bed, as are the southern Flinders Ranges in the distance. There must have been huge floods to cut such a broad and deep creek bed into the floodplain.

at Stokes Hill Lookout

As mentioned in an earlier post we stopped at Stokes Hill Lookout on our way to Hawker from Blinman the day after finishing the camel trek. The lookout offered a view of Wilpena Pound after the overnight rain. The deep past of the Flinders Ranges was historically defined as terra nullius: a land belonging to no one.  Reading a landscape is an activity mediated through the viewer’s cultural lens.

Stokes Hill Lookout

Looking at the Flinders Ranges from this topographical perspective you could see that this was a very old landscape, geologically speaking. What you couldn’t see, and what the bronze tourist diorama at the lookout didn’t mention, was that this old landscape was also a peopled landscape. The Ikara-Flinders Ranges were glacial refugia for the aboriginal people during the Pleistocene, roughly 25-16 thousand years before the present. So we have a long pre-colonial history.

leaving Lake Frome

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.

rain, Lake Frome

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.

Mt Chambers Gorge

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.

Mt Chambers Gorge

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.

Pastoral landscapes

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.

Mt Johns, am.

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.

Benbibuta Creek

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.

near Blinman/Arkaroola Rd

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.

Wirrealpa Range

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.

co-existence

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.

Wirrealpa Mine grave

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.

Camel Trek to Lake Frome: Wirrealpa Mine

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?

wall of Eregunda Creek

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.