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.
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.
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?
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.
This particular project is slowly taking on a vague shape with the recent shift away from thinking in terms of the classic idea of the roadtrip to walking the country. I’d started with the roadtrip concept as these were the classic way that photographers had historically explored the country beyond the various state capitals. More recently biking has replaced the Kombi’s of old.
The 14 day camel trek from outside Arkaroola to Mt Hopeless that Suzanne and I did with her walking friends in 2018 has bought this project into focus. It is about going off road and walking in northern South Australia. The earlier road trips to Andamooka and Lajamanu can now be seen as precursors to walking in the northern region of South Australia. These roadtrips gave me a sense of the country beyond the settled areas: they opened my eyes up to the country through which the highways passed.
Walking the country has come to the foreground because we have recently registered to walk in the Gammon Ranges with the ARPA Bushwalkers, and also signed up to do a camel trek from Blinman to Lake Frome in 2021. I suddenly realized that this mode of exploring the country of northern South Australia photographically meant a conceptual shift from roadtrips to walking.