from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: Farina – travelling to an Outback ghost town

September 13.

Farina township, established in 1876, is now 7 hours due north of Adelaide, 630 kms on good roads. You can leave home at 8am, stop for tea in Port Wakefield, a lamb pie in Port Augusta, coffee and a Quandong pie in Hawker and arrive into the ghost town around 4pm. Without speeding.

But pause. Farina was once a month’s ride away or two months if you were on a wagon. Farina, for me, stands as an example of the struggles endured by Australia’s early settlers. You cannot but admire their tenacity at the same time you acknowledge their ignorance of this country.

It would have been a harsh lesson in an unforgiving land.

On our recently trip to Witchelina Nature Reserve, 30 kms west of Farina, we travelled this route north, taking in the landscape as it changed, as the green became brown, as the trees shrunk and disappeared, as the towns became smaller, as the wedge-tailed eagles (Australia’s vultures) became more numerous lifting from the roadside off dead kangaroos. Heartbreak land. Hard to love, hard to survive.

Kanyaka Station – half way to Farina – was established in 1851. Early on, there were 41,000 sheep on the property. In 1867, 20,000 sheep died in the drought.

We did not want to be depressed. This was our keenly anticipated holiday after 6 months of being home-bound thinking of little more than family and the issues of the daily news: how many new cases of Covid-19? How were our children doing in the USA? In Australia? In South Africa?

We were escaping to look at the landscape and geologyof the Adelaide Superbasin. We would have experts: geology professors and practitioners, biologists and bird watchers in our group. We would be beyond the reaches of WiFi. No TV, no shops. We were looking forward to evening discussions, communal meals and shearers’ quarters for 8 nights.

Farina landscape

Farina lasted for many years after the dreams of wheat and barley farming faded with the rain decreasing to the normal levels of 6.5 inches a year. The town, at its maximum had 600 people: Aboriginal people, Afghan cameleers and European immigrants. Once there was water at Farina but it did not last. The town only struggled on after the 1890s due to the railway line – closed in 1980.

The empty rooms of Farina

Over the years, it has become a ruin and a tourist attraction for Outback travellers in their A-Vans and sleek Ultimate Caravans. A café is being established there with an underground bakery. Winter is the time for the Outback when the days are warm and sunny and nights cold. In summer the temperatures can reach 50 degrees.

There is something that draws us in awe to these golden stone ruins, stark in the gibber plains. No roofs remain. The walls impress all who stand before them: the massive rectangular rocks that form the lintels last the longest, holding up the doorways and chimney places. You have to admire the workmanship that went into the stonework. There is confidence in these buildings as well as a warning for the hubris of those who ignore nature.

Arriving at Witchelina Nature Reserve

Our group passed through Farina in our 4-WDs, complete with spare tyres, Air-Con, Satellite phones, 2-way radios, GPs, cameras the size of a pack of cards, binoculars and bottles of spring water. If those early settlers could have seen us what would they think?

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: Walking on the Cryogenian, thinking of an Urmetazoan

River red gum in Alligator Gorge

6 September. The second day of our travels north was spent in the Mt Remarkable National Park, near the town of Wilmington, 320kms north of Adelaide. On reflection, this felt like being on the edge of the known world. The countryside north of Wilmington suffers from a severe shortage of rain and is dotted with half-deserted towns and collapsing stone buildings built over a century ago.

My husband and I elected to visit Alligator Gorge within the park. The origin of the name is in dispute. Rest assured, there are no alligators, nor crocodiles in this gorge. You might find a large goanna which looks intimidating but will not rise from the murky depths to grab your leg and refuse to let go. A long time ago, a large goanna raided my Queensland campsite. I learnt that they have an efficient sense of smell, a liking for cheese and powerful jaws.

salt water crocodile in the Daintree River, Queensland. Far away.

This National park was relatively green and we saw may euros, or common wallaroos, on our drive to the gorge. Euros are marsupials – they are smaller than the larger common Western Grey kangaroos and have noticeably darker paws and tails. They did not seem afraid of us, enjoying the grass in open areas, a teenage joey doing circuits round its mum. Visitors to Australia struggle with the many names of our marsupials and tend to call all hopping creatures of this shape, ‘kangaroos’. But we have potoroos, quokkas, bilbies, bandicoots, euros and wallabies to name a few survivors.

a Euro ‘jill’ (female) checking the joey in her pouch

Over time, rivers have cut into the 700 myo quartzite of Mt Remarkable leaving a steep gorge. We made it down the 272 steps, counting all the way. At the end, a small river was running and we did not feel inclined to wade through the slippery Narrows. Instead, we marvelled at the rocks beneath us, where the ripples marks of ancient seas were frozen in time. This is a geologist’s paradise: a moment to ponder the question of the origin of animals.

Ripple Rocks on the descent into Alligator Gorge, Mt Remarkable

These were rocks of the Precambrian (older than 541 million years before present): a period which covers almost 90 percent of Earth’s history. The Precambrian is split into three time spans and the Alligator Gorge rocks belonged to the more recent of those eras: the Proterozoic (good news – this is when oxygen first entered the earth’s atmosphere).

Keep on splitting as geologists do: the Proterozoic is again divided into three periods. The most recent is the Neoproterozoic era from 1,000 to 541 million years ago. We are getting there. More splits: the Neoproterozoic is split into three as well – the middle period of this is the Cryogenian period (cold birth) and the rocks on which we walked on the 24th August, 2020 were formed during the Cryogenian – between 720-635 million years ago.

I am sorry I cannot be more specific on the date.

the rocky Narrows of Alligator Gorge

I can only say we walked on the shore of an estuary or beach formed into rock when nothing lived on the land – since it was a frozen waste without much oxygen. Some call this the time of ‘Snowball Earth’, others, ‘Slushball Earth’. A matter of the degree of freezing.

The big question for scientists is when did animals originate? They evolved before the Ediacaran Period (635-542 million years ago). It is currently agreed that animals originated during the Cryogenian period, either in the depths of the frozen ocean around hydrothermal vents OR close to the ocean surface around a slightly warmer equator. So, we were walking on the rocks formed during the time the first animals appeared.

Another point of interest. The Adelaide Geosyncline or the Adelaide Superbasin (includes the Flinders Ranges, Mt Lofty Ranges and Kangaroo Island) consists of sedimentary rocks (some volcanic) that were deposited during the time of the breakup of the super-continent Rodinia (motherland). Thus, where we were standing in Alligator Gorge was on the eastern shore of Rodinia, an ancient land where the first animals stirred in the superocean of Mirovia.

https://earthlyuniverse.com/cryogenian-glaciations-birth-animals/

What I like most of all was learning this new word, a very important word. Urmetazoan. The urmetazoan, is our common mysterious ancestor living in the Cryogenian Period. What did it look like? – probably like a sponge.

All this science and questions of millions of years, puts our current world’s woes into a little perspective. Such issues were later discussed by our Field Geology Club of SA members, but not resolved, over dinner at the local Wilmington pub.

From Anne in Adelaide, Australia: towards the Centre.

Wheels from a bygone era

Travelling north from Adelaide you are heading towards the Outback … often called the Red Centre of Australia. It gets dryer and dryer the further you go. Yesterday, we travelled 300 km north to the region of Mount Remarkable. Our group of 20 belong to a field geology club. The main interest is geology but they also look at the flora and fauna.

It’s the first time this year that we have been able to travel. so, there is an added excitement to this nine day journey of ours. Because of COVID-19 there were extra steps in organising this trip. We all submitted statements about our recent movements and possible exposure to infected people. If we had cold or cough symptoms during the last week before departure, we were asked to have a COVID-19 test.

For those who are interested in geology, we are travelling along the Adelaide Geosyncline. This is a geologist paradise: a unique area with some of the oldest animal fossils ever found – the Ediacara fauna – as well as many other interesting exposures.

A thinning and stretching of the earth’s crust 800 million years ago caused troughs to form. Since then complex geological activity deposited material into the trough. Ice ages, rising and falling of seas, buckling of the land masses, life flowering and dying, all have all left their mark on this landscape.

Bungaree Shearing Shed

We drove through fields of half-height wheat, yellow fields of canola and pastures filled with sheep and their tiny lambs to arrive at Bungaree station for morning tea. Bungaree has been in the family for six generations. It was established in 1841 by the two Hawker brothers, shortly after the first colonists arrived in South Australia. The station was originally 267 mi.² in size. Since then it has been divided and subdivided. The original Homestead and 22 stone buildings remain. The station became famous for the breeding of Merinos. Once upon a time, they farmed 100,000 sheep and had 50 full-time shearers. It was a veritable village on the edge of the settlement of South Australia.

The Bungaree Homestead

One of the family showed us around their historic shearing shed which is still used for their current flock of 7000 sheep. Tourists are returning to Bungaree to stay in their historic accommodation and their refurbished shearers’ quarters. The station is also a popular venue for weddings. At the top of the hill is a quaint stone family church and within it it is a family memorial to a recipient of the VC- Major Lanoe George Hawker who was awarded the VC in the Great War before dying in action in 1916.

https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/major-lanoe-hawker-vc

Amongst the olive trees

(In the centre of every little town we have passed there is a memorial for those who fell in the First World War.)

For a long time it has been said that Australia “rode on a sheep’s back“. Farming in South Australia seems to me to be a balancing act. The choice of land and the choice of what you farmed made you a fortune or broke you. This is a harsh country and the struggles of the first colonists is written on the land. Driving north, you see abandoned, crumbling stone cottages along the road.

Wirrabara’s silo art

We carried on north to the tiny town of Wirrabara to see the newly painted wheat silos. Across Australian disused silos are being creatively decorated.

We are now staying in cabins in the Beautiful Valley Caravan Park in the shadow of Mt Remarkable.

Throughout the park there are old eucalypts with deep holes. For ten years, the owners have encouraged brush-tailed possums to inhabit these gum trees. Every evening at dusk, the possums are fed slices of carrot. A tap on the tree trunk and the possums wake up to carrot time. Many have joeys. As I walked back to our cabin after dinner at the local pub, every tree had a little large-eyed grey possum lump, waiting for treats.

Happy possums!