camel trek, Flinders Ranges, landscape, ruins

degraded-landscape: Flinders Ranges

July 7, 2018

On my  first night camping on the camel trek in the northern Flinders Ranges I experienced   a culture shock due to  the degraded-landscape around me.  Our camp at  Bend Well (a water point) was  west of Arkaroola and just outside  the edge of the northern tip of the Gammon Ranges and I was stunned at just  how degraded the ecology of this  landscape of this part of the northern Flinders was. It wasn’t the dryness of the landscape that shocked me. This is a semi-arid landscape given the minimal rainfall (roughly around 150mm) that is highly variable and  the hot, dry desert climate with cool to cold winters, and the periods of drought.

We were camped on Umberatana Station south of the dingo or dog fence that runs roughly east-west across South Australia. To the south of the fence, dingoes (wild dogs) have been destroyed   It is north of the dog fence sheep that grazing is unviable due to dingo predation. The main grazing pressure south of the dog fence is from sheep, a few cattle and unknown number of rabbits and kangaroos.

trough, Bend Well, Umberatana Station

What really shocked me  was the condition of the land—the ecological devastation–that had been caused  by the long history  over stocking  by the pastoralists, drought   and the plagues of rabbits since the mid-nineteenth century with little signs of contemporary landcare.  I couldn’t help but notice the loss of vegetation and the subsequent destruction of the soil surface. This is certainly a human altered landscape that had been changed by the pastoral industry.

I appreciate that these pioneer settlers  underpinned the general prosperity of South Australia  in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries since the various attempts at mining in the Flinders Ranges usually  fizzled out quite quickly.   The pastoralists also  opened up the interior of the continent.

However, the history of this landscape is one  of the  colonisation of South Australia from 1836  being driven  by a ‘colonise and conquer’ attitude with policies to encourage the development of many small, prosperous farms throughout the state. Due to unrealistic expectations and ignorance of climate and land capabilities, the land was overgrazed, leading to widespread degradation. What I saw on my first night was an indication of  pastoralism as a land use in a semi  arid zone results in the land being continually degraded. Many argue that  much of the degradation apparent today can be attributed to the early phase of ‘trial and error’ in the pastoral industry.

2 trees, Umberatana Station

I appreciate that there is a process of   ‘natural desertification’ in the sense of the  gully erosion  being caused by  the runoff from the bare rocky slopes of the hills.  Water does shape this landscape,  but it is not the cause of  the degraded-landscape.  The soil degradation and   lack of biodiversity is caused by stock overgrazing  and rabbits, which  have  denuded this landscape and transformed it into a  degraded landscape.

Although I knew that I would be walking through a semi-arid landscape I wasn’t prepared for the degradation. It was only in the gullys and the creek beds that there were more than the odd scattered tree.  The trees in the creek beds  were mostly melaleucas  with  the odd eucalyptus:

melaleuca, Umberatana Station

My image of the Flinders were the various  landscapes  by Hans Heysen from his 10 trips in 1926 and 1933 into the Arkaba and Aroona country and a further two trips in the late 1940s. The emphasis was on the beauty of the Flinders Ranges and the Red Gums in the creek-beds of the Flinders. I also knew of  the photographs of the Flinders Ranges  by Harold Cazneaux in the 1930s; especially the one  of  a gum near Wilpena Pound  made in  1937 and  entitled Spirit of Endurance.   This  was more stark,  and the photograph  showed evidence of  overgrazing and soil degradation. These historical images  were a along way from the country I was camped  in, and then walking through  on the first day of the camel trek.

ruins, hut, Umberatana Station

This was not the spectacular semi-arid landscape–unique, rugged and majestic—that I had been expecting. It was such a long way from the awesome, breathtaking, untouched, spiritual or, in other words,  the sublime. The nineteenth century technology did not evoke any sense of the technological or industrial sublime since  the windmills, fences, mines, huts, wells etc were very primitive technologically speaking,  and they were mostly in ruins. They were  definitely not awesome in terms of their power and greatness. The mode of transport was donkeys, bullocks,  horses  and camels not railways.

Maybe it is the various ruins in the degraded landscape, which imply tragedy,  that suggest the sublime?





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