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Published: March 12th 2012
‘These are some of the important parts of my landscape,’ my friend Don says, his hands and eyes pointing beyond the horizon ahead as we clear Adelaide’s northern extremities and feel the spaciousness of the plains and low hills. He had offered to show me around some of his favourite parts of South Australia, should I get an opportunity to slip away from work for a few days. His words encompass far more than geography: they are part of the psychic landscape of his life.
He is a great travelling companion, since he knows the region and its people so well.
Don farmed for decades near the Clare Valley
, famous for its wines, although these days he lives in Adelaide, his base for providing business services to pastoralists and Aboriginal communities. I am his handy excuse to escape town and get covered in inland dust.
He had promised bushwalking in the Flinders Ranges, and that’s where we start. I hadn’t realised that they stretch 430km, starting near Port Pirie (about 200km north-west of Adelaide). Our first walk was at Dutchmans Stern
. It’s now a conservation area but, early in his life, Don owned and farmed this land.
We camp for the night in a dry creek bed, hayfever thick and pretty with flowering grasses and herbs, yarning about our shared farming backgrounds over a fish curry cooked on the campfire — and a good South Australian red.
Several hours’ drive north, we find ourselves entering into a Hans Heysen
landscape, gnarly river red gums
) framing mountains folded on themselves in blue and purple swirls. This is country I recognise instantly from the Heysen prints that hung on the walls of my childhood home. We take Shanks’s pony to the Blinman Pools, and end up further back in time than Heysen, part of the magical landscape of myth. The nearby hamlet of Blinman is said to have the highest altitude of any surveyed town in South Australia — 601 metres above sea level.
This country hasn’t weathered European colonisation well. Many of the river red gums, one of the most magnificent of Australia’s trees, are stressed and dying.
‘The whole hydrology of this area has changed,’ Don says, as we head north through spare country denuded of its original vegetation and soil by failed experiments in European-style farming.
‘Water has been taken out of rivers
and from underground for farming and pastoralism, for farm dams. Understanding how surface water moves is complex enough — and we don’t do that very well. We know very little about how the underground waterways work.’
He sweeps his hand across the country we were driving into. ‘So we’ve planned and developed without taking the hydrology, or the geology or ecology, into account.’
‘The vegetation has changed with European settlers bringing in farming and pastoralism. We made a new landscape, opened up the space, made it attractive for galahs and the white cockatoo, which expanded their range from Queensland into South Australia. The river red gums are stressed anyway, because now they seldom get watered in the ways they are adapted to. And now these birds chew at the gums in such numbers that they kill them slowly,’ Don says.
We lament the wreckage we humans have wrought.
And for the sadness in the blind visions that caused the Europeans to plough up this gibber country. ‘This is stone country, and an arid one with an extremely variable rainfall, always low. The topsoil was blown away with the first good breeze, never to return,’ Don says.
We drive through spare land sprinkled with salt bush and empty-socketed skeletons of settlers’ huts. We pass a road labelled Dairy Farm Road.
‘In this country?’ I ask.
Don nods. ‘They tried farming this. Came in after a run of good seasons. Not only did the farming fail, it has resulted in desertification. The soil blew away and now the land struggles to grow anything. Except this elegant wattle, which is flowering beautifully this year.’
It is, too.
The second night’s stop is at the fastidiously extended Prairie Hotel
at Parachilna, population 7. The original hotel retains strong visual links to its colonial heritage. Out the back, where the accommodation wing has been added, is not a breath of stereotype. The owners, Jane and Ross Fargher, have built rooms that use the characteristics of the local climate and geology, and good design, instead of air-conditioning to create air flow and comfortable temperatures. This barely there pin-prick on the map has become something of a cultural hub. It has a good restaurant, is the base for photographic expeditions, and was where Rabbit Proof Fence
was filmed; stars of both kinds of music (that’s country and western) stay here while
We head north, past Leigh Creek, a company-built town to house mining families whose job it is to dig up the sulphurous brown coal found here. It is almost unsettling, neat and homogenously attractive with its stone gardens and many trees all of an age. There is no rubbish, nothing old and rusting lying in public view. We stop for coffee — bad — and a home-baked tart made with the native quandong
) — wonderful — at the Copley Bush Bakery.
‘Mmm,’ says Don, licking his lips. ‘You know, the children of the white settlers used the seeds as marbles and in games of Chinese checkers. I’d rather eat it.‘
We hit the road again. Kilometre after red kilometre.
Farina comes and goes. It is a geometric blip in an expanse of rusty flatness, mirroring the blue plane of the sky, marked by the cut that is the road and the radio tower that breaks the skyline. Farina is the northernmost point in South Australia at which wheat has been grown. It’s a dubious claim to fame, and another example of the dreaming or desperate (or both) that, if they ploughed this
land, rain would surely follow
. The experiment lasted only a few years.
We continue towards Marree, home of the Lake Eyre Yacht Club
. The 100 or so people of Maree provide services for about 30,000 tourists a year. The town is also the meeting point of the Oodnadatta and the Birdsville tracks, which have almost mythological status among rural Australians for their part in pioneering history.
We stop for water, and follow the Oodnadatta Track north-west, past the water tank at Callanna station siding to the Wabma Kadarbu Mound Springs
. Mound springs
are ecologically important, and also socially important, first to Aboriginal people and, later, Europeans. These springs were on the property of the Kidmans, another legendary name in Australian Outback history. I hear that they have been excised from the property so they can be conserved, because the family would not do it. Kidmans owned Stuart Creek Station
, where these springs are found, and others, including nearby Anna Creek Station
. The flash of parrot blues and greens in the plant life here are a relief to the eye and the heart.
Our furthest point north and west is the oasis of Coward Springs
, once a siding of the Ghan railway
, and renovated with understanding and love by the talented Prue
Coulls and Greg Emmett. Here the average rainfall is 125mm a year. Information that Prue and Greg have left out for visitors says that, in the last 10 years, the most rain in any year has been 100mm, the lowest 6.5mm. Even so, the vegetation here is thick as coastal scrub in this wetland, and even in the middle of the day birds twitter and chirrup all around.
Our focus changes. We head south again, past stands of weeping emu bush (Eromophila longifolia
) and elegant wattle (Acacia victoriae
), disused railway line, dry creek beds, the dingo fence, the swirling blue and purple rocks of the Flinders, through the ugly, car-yard approaches to Adelaide City, and back to the realities of work.
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