The world has a long history, reaching back into distant ages. We can sometimes trace the events that shaped the land through careful study, based on sophisticated scientific techniques. Humans have also found other ways of recalling long-ago changes as documented in Patrick Nunn’s book “The Edge of Memory”. Sometimes we can just go there and look. Some history is right before us.
During our periodic returns to Australia from France where we live, we usually try to visit some Bush Heritage properties to witness the ecological restoration work that we read about in bushtracks. During these visits we're lucky enough to see first-hand the restoration under way.
We naturally also wonder about the history of the property; who were the first occupants and what changes were wrought even before Bush Heritage came on the scene?
Some properties have several different ‘pasts’, one layered over another, each layer removing or adding to the influences of its predecessors. Often this evolution isn't always easily visible, and the additional changes now occurring for valid ecological reasons – removal of weeds and old fences for example – can further de-link us from the immediate and more distant pasts. Trying somehow to intertwine the historical and ecological factors gives additional meaning to a visit, however brief.
Recently we recalled the vestiges of historical change in two properties we visited in 2009: Bon Bon and Boolcoomatta, both in South Australia.
The former had just been acquired and still showed the characteristic features of a pasture station in an ancient dry landscape. The typical layout was intact – homestead, mustering yards, shearing sheds and shearers’ quarters, water tanks and outhouses. The old Stuart Highway that once ran through the property now resembled a dirt track, barely recalling its past function of a vital transport artery connecting north with south.
Elsewhere, a tunnel shelter designed as a safe refuge from potential falling rocket debris from the Woomera test range was still there, making us wonder how regularly the station personnel would have looked up at the sky in anticipation of things falling on their heads.
Inspecting the various buildings away from the homestead intended for station workers led to speculation about the lonely life of outposted workers. There were frequent signs of the then cavalier attitudes to outback housekeeping in bye-gone days. Copious litter, decaying fences, rusting shells of old cars, campfire junk and disused food containers could all be seen in various places across the landscape.
Outdated infrastructure was abandoned, rarely reclaimed, it seems. Beside the old highway one could find fallen telegraph poles, discarded tires and parts of old motor cars that had succumbed to the primitive road conditions.
Elsewhere we encountered abandoned buildings and discarded equipment. Untidy, certainly, but closer inspection also gave an inkling of what constituted daily station life in those bygone days. Will all this litter (as we consider it now) be eventually removed? How much will remain in place on the ground rather than on a museum shelf as an in-situ memory of the past?
There were also reminders of the interface of two cultures - Aboriginal and European. Particularly evocative, within view of the homestead were the remains of an abandoned residence for Aboriginal station workers. On the bare ground some sheets of corrugated iron and a few detached windmill blades formed the essentials of what had been a basic shelter; some discarded objects and other detritus scattered about recalled a daily life somehow eked out here. Who now remembers this, were any records kept, are there still living memories of this era? Is it all gone, or perhaps too uncomfortable to recall?
At Boolcoomatta we witnessed the remnants of the hopes and disappointments of early Europeans trying to make a living from mineral exploitation. Again, the numerous stock fences recalled its earlier vocation of a sheep station. There was also evidence of early attempts to wrest metals from the ground, with vestiges of miners’ camps beside their various shafts, abandoned ironmongery and mullock heaps (leftover residual dirt from mining activities). All was at small scale.
The miners’ existence had been built on hope more than on expectation. It was a remote location, water was scarce. Mining was never successful, there was no rush for gold. More recent attempts to revive mining activity for copper employed (slightly) more modern technology as for example concrete vats for on-site acid extraction of the crushed ore. This, also, was in turn abandoned when ore ran out, prices dropped or other bad omens came on the parched winds of change.
We could also see that the pastoralists and the miners had not been the first ones here. The rocky outcrops of Boolcoomatta showed remnants of an earlier Aboriginal presence, in the form of gnamma holes: judiciously located sources of drinking water among the boulders. What stories could these First Peoples have told us? What else did they leave behind, what other traces did they carve into the landscape that escapes our Western eyes?
Bon Bon and Boolcoomatta are valuable ecological reserves. Since our visit, careful management by Bush Heritage has nursed a damaged landscape back to a better state of health. The ecological future looks bright.
So, do we need to know the history of such land? In France I once spent some days walking with an independent-minded rural architect who was passionate about ‘le memoire des lieux’ – the memories of the land in all its forms.
If we look carefully, we can find many traces of the past. Fossils reveal what lived before us. Magnetic evidence of tectonic changes is imprinted in the rocks. Cave paintings depict ancient activities. AI-aided visual techniques can now even detect the ocean surface turbulence of ships several days after their passage. Inland, what stories does the chemical composition of groundwater tell us? Where does it come from, where has it travelled? We have sophisticated modern techniques, but we can also learn to look around us, listen to nature’s voices and tune in to ancestors’ tales.
As transient visitors we were fascinated by what we learnt from our hosts and by what we saw for ourselves. We are confident that Bush Heritage is sensitive to these issues and is documenting history as well the landscapes of the properties it has acquired. Someday it will make a fascinating tale.
Fritz and Beverley Balkau are grateful for the friendly welcome accorded in 2009 by Paul and Carol Spencer, and Pete and Emma Ashton at Bon Bon and Boolcoomatta respectively. Their guided visits and insights enriched our appreciation of these two special Bush Heritage properties. It is important not to forget the past.