In 2014 Mary and I drove out to the Flinders Ranges in South Australia to get a look at the great inward-draining Lake Eyre Basin. We drove out via Nyngan where we were lucky to get the last cabin in the Bogan River camping area.
There had been a lot of rain in the weeks before we left home and as we headed out into the dry country of the west the views were of a flat landscape completely covered with flowers that had been awakened by the rain. We passed through the mining and pastoral town of Cobar, where the country looked hard, but was still covered in a blanket of flowers of every hue. We stayed a couple or three days at Broken Hill, the mother lode that set up BHP, Australia’s biggest company. Sidney Kidman, the Cattle King had a share in the mine, but swapped it for some horses and cattle. Although he may have rued the day he did that deal, he amassed a pastoral empire he reasoned would make him drought proof, due to the spread of stations in Victoria, South Australia, NSW, Queensland and the Northern Territory. He was a genius at organising so much land at a time when there was no communication as we know it. The Overland Telegraph certainly helped and his other big skill was in choosing good people. His managers respected him greatly and were intensely loyal.
The flat landscapes of the west give a clue to the immense amounts of stable geological time necessary to create these vast floodplains. The generally flat topography of inland Australia is the result of the more than 300 million years of erosion and deposition since Australia was last covered by an ice sheet. Glaciation, tectonic upheaval and volcanic activity are the three big land and soil forming processes. Unlike North America, Canada and most of Europe that was covered in the vice-like grip of two kilometres of ice only 18,000 years ago, Australia has been free of glacial ice for 300 million years.
Most other countries have rivers that flow to the sea, whereas many of the rivers in Australia are inward draining and terminal. The Lachlan river in NSW flows mostly west-south west and terminates in a 30,000 ha swamp. The flood plain of the Lachlan is so flat in the west that creeks are not tributaries, but flood-out creeks flowing away from the river. So flat is this area that the Murrumbidgee and the Lachlan are somewhat parallel and depending on which of these rivers is in flood, the Lachlan can flow overland and meet the Murrumbidgee or vice versa. The Hay plain is thought to be the largest, flattest, part of the world. Once a chenopod shrubland, grazing over the last 160 years has gradually turned it into a mostly annual grassland.
Vast areas of this semi-arid country has gradually been invaded by native shrubs, species such as Hop-Bush, Eremophyla and Turpentine. This has reduced the original stocking rate of the area covered with shrubs by a third to half the rate it would carry in the 1950’s. As we left the Shrublands of Broken Hill and headed down into South Australia, I recalled speaking to a station owner from White Cliffs who told me that when he left school in the 1960s one of his jobs was to shovel dust out of the ceilings of the homestead to stop them falling in. After the shrubs arrived, the dust storms stopped as the land was covered. I spoke with this fellow about ten years ago during the 2002 to 2010 drought and he told me that a lot of the shrubs were dying and native perennial grasses were growing beneath the dead shrubs. Perhaps this was nature’s way of protecting the soil and providing cover for the next layer of succession to take place. Effectively, the conditions changed to favour the grasses and forbs, over the shrubs.
We went through the towns of Orroroo and Quorn, where cropping and livestock, mixed farming was well established. These town were just south of Goyders Line. Goyder was a government surveyor who drew a line on the map, basically the 200 mm isohyet line, above which cropping would fail for lack of moisture. Over the years when seasons seemed to be a little better, farmers cropped north of the Line, and you can see the abandoned farmsteads as you travel north towards Marree, which is south of Lake Eyre South and had a rail line to freight cattle from the Birdsville track to markets in the south. This line was closed in1987.
Then on to Hawker on the southern edge of the Flinders Ranges National Park. As we approached Hawker the abrupt ramparts of Wilpena Pound came into view. Wilpena Pound is a roughly circular geologic feature, the outer edge is defined by steep cliffs and the centre is dished like a gigantic bowl. There were sheep stations in the centre area before the Flinders Ranges National Park was constituted. The mostly dry, intermittent creeks of the Flinders are usually seen by travellers as sandy, gravelly dry beds. They are home to some of the largest River Red Gums you will see anywhere, the most famous of which is the Cazneaux tree made famous by the landscape photographer, Harold Cazneaux, whose 1937 photograph of it, he titled, Spirit of Endurance. Whispering Gums, a poem written by Bruce Simpson, one of the last of the Northern Territory packhorse drovers, evokes the image of this historic tree :
Sentinel gums by the river, twisted and gnarled and grey, saplings back in the dreamtime, sentinel gums today.
Alone by the long years drifting, sturdy and grey and old, unmoved by a thousand tempests, unconquered by droughts untold.
Whispering gums by the river, close-wrapped in your own mystique , the stories that you could tell us, if you only could but speak.
We had booked a flight from the Park Centre at Wilpena, to fly over the range heading north, flying over Lake Eyre which was almost full, Cooper Creek was still running into the Lake from flood rains north of Longreach a month earlier.
Our son Matthew had tragically died of complications to a congenital heart problem, seven years earlier, and we had decided then that we would not fly together in light aircraft in case something went wrong, leaving our young daughter, Alice, parentless. However we decided to make an exception because the Lake only filled infrequently and we felt we may not get another chance to see it. As the day of the flight approached I could detect some understandable anxiety developing. Mary decided to ring the Park Centre to assure herself that we were having a very experienced pilot. ‘Yes Madam’, they assured her, ‘you have our senior pilot’. The plane landed and we watched to get a look at the senior pilot. Out of the seat stepped a boyish-looking young fellow who looked about sixteen! He had, however, qualified as a pilot in controlled air space in Europe and had a thousand hours under his belt. He flew us faultlessly!
We took off on a perfect day and climbed up over the lip of Wilpena Pound, from the air it was an incredible view of the somewhat symmetrical shape of the Pound, the tall, abrupt ramparts of the outer edge and the dished centre made the aircraft feel gnat-like against the massive geological structure beneath us.
I found it impossible not to reflect that when this formation was uplifted by a mighty force around 540 million years ago, and wore away over huge eons of time, humans were not in existence. In fact this range has been a geological feature of the earth for 10,800 times that aboriginal people have been in existence. We consider that the first human occupants of the Australian landmass is the oldest civilisation there has been, and it is, yet in terms of the history of the world even the most ancient society is dwarfed in time compared to Earth-time.
We flew over the ancient reptile-like spine of the Flinders range, Lake Frome was to the west, as long as Lake Eyre, but much narrower. We flew over the lake which in some parts is below sea level, and landed at Mulloorina Station for a cup of tea and fuel. Drought was upon the outback and panels in the men’s Mess shed showed the history in numbers and photographs, of the station decade by decade. Two mates who had a water drilling business at Quorn had bought the station and each family managed it year about. However this proved difficult, and they decided to toss a coin and one family took the drilling rig and the loser got the station! The station-owner declared himself the loser! The panels showed the ebbs and flows of this edge-of-the-desert grazing business, dictated by the weather. Out there it is too expensive to intervene, when it gets dry, stock are sold to better conserve ground cover, and provide some cash. In the 1950s there were 20,000 sheep and 2,000 cows, trucks and an aircraft and plenty of staff. The fortunes of the dry stations are a mirror of weather and when we were there the plane had long ago been sold, no staff except the manager and the stock had been wound backwards to 400 cows. These stories were told by Francis Ratcliffe in Flying Fox and Drifting Sand. A story of the dust storms of the South Australian, Western Victoria, NSW and Queensland western areas that lost shrub and grass cover in the 1930s.
A story of enormous environmental degradation, brought on by set stocking with sheep and then rabbits in plague proportions who killed the saltbush. The back story was of the incredible resilience of the people who lived in these remote areas. Trapped, with no transport out for stock, they were condemned to watch their livestock die of hunger and thirst. Ironically, the very thing that made it possible to stock these dry areas, was the technology that allowed the tapping of the Great Artesian Basin, which encouraged owners to hang on longer in the hope of rain. When this country relied on surface water (large ground tanks put in with horse teams and scoops), there were large areas that could not be grazed, due to distance from water. But when the Great Artesian Basin was tapped many of the bores were under pressure and the water did not need to be pumped and so bore drains fanned out from the bore-heads on a contour, and water could go to areas that had previously been stockless. This of course led to greater denudation of the plants and eventually dust began to blow, a depressing scenario for any farmer who cares, and they all would have. As we flew back to the Wilpena visitors centre in the early dusk, the light was coming over the ranges obliquely, such that the western slopes were sunlit while the eastern slopes were in shadow. There had been some storms about ten days before our arrival, and the hills of the ranges looked like they had been dusted with light green powder and sprinkled with trees, in that almost-eerie light.
It was a fitting visual masterpiece, unable to be created by humans, created only by the complexity and power of all things connected, and inestimable time; an Earthly, but other-worldly scene that burned these images deeply into our consciousness.
We could not avoid the observation that all the country we had covered on this memorable trip, bore the mark of our species. We, who care, do not condemn those who, often forced by economic circumstances chose their business over the complex landscape. In the time since those days of the 1930s we have developed technology and understanding that should ensure that those scenes do not happen again. Now, people like me are sure that the best decisions are always to manage for increasing diversity and complexity. Gradually farmers are inching towards a way of looking at land where more of us are seeing ourselves as part of a biotic community, rather than the directors and controllers of it.
Small steps, and a long way to go, but a good beginning. Perhaps Churchill’s famous quote after Montgomery’s troops’ victory in the desert at the Battle of El Alamein would be appropriate. “This is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”.