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.
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.
I made several photos of the Balcanoona stockyards and sharing shed prior to the short walk along Acacia Ridge on the last day — Day 8. It was a short walk as we were to have a farewell lunch at the cafe/restaurant at the Arkaroola Resort. We were to leave Balcanoona to spend 2 days in the township of Hawker the following morning. Hawker is the gateway to the Flinders Ranges (as seen by the satellite of the Copernicus Sentinel-2 mission) .
It was an easy but fascinating climb to Acacia Ridge in this semi-arid mountainous landscape. There were seven species of Acacia along Acacia Ridge: Dead Finish, a spiky shrub; Mulga, a greyish tree; Elegant Wattle, a grey shrub with spines Barrier Range Wattle and Witchetty Bush. Some were flowering. We also saw some plants unusual for the Northern Flinders Rangers – eg., the delicate pink- flowered Fringe-myrtle and Green Fuchsia-bush which are both more common further south and can only be seen here in good seasons. There was also a strand of gum-barked Coolibah trees along the ridge that took advantage of the extra water that would flow down the rock face.
The ridge itself is of Blue Mine Conglomerate, one of the older sediments of the Adelaide Geosyncline. This conglomerate was formed from sediments laid down 800-900 million years ago —a stunning example of the deep time of the Vulkathunha–Gammon Ranges.
The hike offered views of the old homestead of the Arkaroola Pastoral Station nestled in the series of ridges with the Arkaroola Rd from Balcanoona winding its way past the homestead towards the Arkaroola resort. It suggests that we need to dump the bifurcation of nature and civilization, or the idea that nature exists as something that sustains civilization, but exists outside of society’s walls. This has its roots in the aesthetic distance in the green Romantic view of nature as a bucolic respite from the horrors of industrial society.
The Vulkathunha–Gammon Ranges are no bucolic respite or refuge. The views from Acacia Ridge gave a clear sense of both the folly of pastoralism in the Vulkathunha–Gammon Ranges, and their sheer strange or uncanny wildness. This is not country where you go walking on your own off the marked trails, unless you are a highly skilled bushwalker.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.