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Water – life and death

In dry country like the Flinders, knowing where to find water literally means life or death.

  • Many water sources are at the foot of the ranges. In some places there are springs. In others, streams that run after rain have deep waterholes that hold water for months. Springs and waterholes like this are especially valuable during droughts.
  • They were precious to the Aboriginal people. Dreaming stories told where waterholes and springs were located, and gave people strategies for survival in droughts. Digging in special places in dry creek beds was one way of finding water.


Many parts of Australia are naturally extremely dry and drought isn’t the same as normal low rainfall. People living in low rainfall areas are always aware how precious water is. It took the colonists decades to learn how to manage land and water in the Flinders Ranges, especially in drought years. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) says: ‘A drought is a prolonged, abnormally dry period when there is not enough water for users’ normal needs. Drought is not simply low rainfall; if it was, much of inland Australia would be in almost perpetual drought.’ http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/drought/livedrought.shtml The BOM site shows the main parts of Australia affected by drought cycles since 1864. Drought in the Flinders Ranges

  • Drought hits the Flinders region in most decades. • Since we have learned about the El Nino/La Nina cycles, we have a fair idea of what is coming in the next year or so. Pastoralists can shift their stock around and farmers adjust their plantings.
  • But in the past, people had no idea about long term weather cycles. Early settlers made terrible mistakes – pastoralists over-stocked the land and farmers ploughed soils that were too fragile. Both destroyed native vegetation. Link to impacts of settlement.
  • The northern farm lands of South Australia were settled in good years after rains, but years of low rainfall soon followed.
  • Recurrent droughts have wiped out life and livelihood several times.
  • Farmers and graziers have learned to manage the country for dry times and, with dams and pipelines, water supply isn’t the worry it used to be. Examples of what happened in the Flinders region in two great nineteenth century droughts are included here: the 1860s and 1890s. The Great 1860s Drought • ‘The great Drought of 1864, 1865 and 1866 scorched up all South Australia north of Mt Remarkable, laid waste the Flinders, and caused damage from which the ranges and the adjoining plains probably have never fully recovered (Mincham 1983:104). • Goyder’s initial over- assessment of carrying capacity had encouraged graziers to increase their stock numbers and they had overstocked the country. • When the drought struck, settlement had spread beyond the ranges into the saltbush plains. Mines on both sides of the ranges had opened and dray traffic was heavy along the tracks to and from Port Augusta. • The heat was extreme. There were choking dust storms and water sources failed. Hot winds and lack of feed killed off great numbers of stock and native animals. • The Aboriginal people were terribly affected. Native food sources were dwindling, and they were severely punished if they took sheep for food. They were also pushed away from waterholes, sometimes with vicious violence. Many died of starvation and thirst. • In 1866 a regional Sub-Protector of Aborigines was appointed at Blinman (J. P. Buttfield) to organise relief for Aboriginal people as far as he could. • In the middle of the 1860s drought, Goyder was sent out again to the northern areas. His task was to ‘lay down as nearly as practicable, the line of demarcation between the portion of the state where rainfall has extended and where the drought prevails’ (quoted in Mincham 1983:111). • Goyder used the vegetation zones as guides for rainfall zones. Saltbush was the main marker. [LINK to map of Goyder’s line http://www.history.sa.gov.au/chu/programs/sa_history/sa_dry/map_goyders.htm ]. • After the drought, pastoralists began to run fewer sheep on larger areas of land. Large paddocks were fenced. Shepherds gradually disappeared and boundary riders took their place. The Great 1890s Drought • The 1896-1902 drought was the most devastating of all in terms of stock losses and left its mark permanently on the country. • In the Flinders, stock losses were appalling. Wilpena, Kanyaka and Coonatto each lost 20,000 sheep. • ‘It completed the devastation of vast areas denuded of vegetation caused by over-stocking and plagues of rabbits’ (Mincham 1983:172-3). • The implications of drought go well beyond crops and flocks. There wasn’t enough feed for the horses or bullocks that pulled the drays. Some services were cut altogether (such as the passenger cart from Blinman). Most of the bullocks died. Transport costs skyrocketed. • Wool prices were falling in the 1890s too. Run after run was abandoned at this time. All of the runs in the Gawler Ranges and many in the North Flinders and beyond, including Callabonna, were deserted. • Farmers’ crops failed. Wells failed. Choking dust storms took away soil and left sand drifts. The Hookina pub was almost covered by drifting sand and the owner, George Glass, closed it down in 1897. • Fences were buried or left hanging in the air from sand drift. One drift can still be seen over a hundred years later along a fence line just west of the main road a few km north of Hawker. The farm abandoned here was first owned by Heinrich Borgas. The drifting sand was held by the fence, and then ‘consolidated by the alien plant Ward’s weed and other growth’ (Mincham 1983:170). • Farmers had to leave to their land, and townships faltered as their surrounding populations fell. Some men found work on unemployment relief projects like building the railway extension to Oodnadatta • One of Hawker’s four mills closed and was demolished in 1899, the other closed a few years later. After the exodus of farmers and towns-people from Cradock during the 1890s, the police station was closed in 1901. • Mincham says that farming confidence was never really restored after this drought. Nevertheless, there were always people who kept going. Twentieth Century • People in the region can talk to you about great seasons, and about the long periods when not much rain fell and everyone had to manage water very carefully. • Every drought cycle has meant that some farmers have been forced to leave the land. As farmers struggled to make ends meet, businesses and services in the wheat towns closed down too. • Technological change in farming over the decades has led to consolidation of farms, and shrinking population too. [Link to Farming in Arid Land] • Unoccupied houses surrounded by wheatfields are a common sight in the Upper North of South Australia. • Geographer Michael Williams calculated that between the 1930s and the 1970s, an average of three houses were abandoned each month in the Northern Areas – another empty house every ten days. Williams estimated that about half of the region’s houses were unoccupied, and about one in six was in ruins: ‘With about half the dwellings either abandoned or in ruins it is little wonder that one of the most abiding impressions of the North is of the decay of habitations, but most of it has occurred since 1920.’ (Williams 1974b, p. 10, quoted in Bell, 1998). Willochra Plain The Willochra Plain looks as though it should have water. Maps show a system of creeks flowing through it, but they don’t flow very often. Rainfall here is unreliable. • The first settlers here were the Ragless brothers, who moved on to the Willochra plain in the 1840s. A good deal of traffic passed through their run and when the small town of Willochra was surveyed in 1860, another brother opened a small hotel. The surveyed township never developed. It has disappeared, along with the hotel. • In the drought of the 1860s, the Willochra plain lost its saltbush cover, and became a choking dustbowl. Although they had to borrow money to keep going, the Ragless brothers survived the drought. To save what they could from their dying flock, they picked the wool off dead sheep to sell it. Eventually, they lost their run when the Willochra was cut up for wheat farming (Hans Mincham 1983:79) • The Ragless brothers ran several stations, sometimes living in tents as they moved into new runs. They were among the first to bring in steam power to raise underground water for stock and to fence their run at Yalpara, before it too was resumed for agriculture. • The green growth of good years led to pressure to break up the pastoral runs here for farm land. Willochra Valley soil was easily ploughed and it looked fertile. When there was rain it naturally grew tall spear grass. Wheat did well there too for a few years, until the rainfall dried up again. • Frederick Ragless summed up what happened to the land that was cut up into small holdings for farmers to grow wheat. ‘The farmers ploughed up the salt-, blue- and cotton-bush, totally destroying the mainstay of the pastoralist, and failed to grow wheat. The land eventually came back to the pastoralist but not in its original condition’ (quoted in Mincham 1983:80). • In drought years the Willochra Plain is notorious for severe dust storms which ended the farming careers of many early settlers in the district. By 1915 much of the farming activity had ceased in this area, and the land reverted to sheep and cattle grazing. • It now produces excellent wool from large-framed Merino sheep, and high quality meat. You don’t count the number of sheep or cattle per hectare in this country. You count the amount of land needed to support one animal and keep the country in good shape. Around Quorn in the late 1970s this was about 5 to 8 acres (2 to 3 hectares) per sheep (Quorn 1978:43). Resources • Bell, Peter, 1998. The Heritage of the upper North: a short history. http://www.sahistorians.org.au/175/documents/the-heritage-of-the-upper-north-a-short-history.shtml • Bureau of Meteorology ‘Living with Drought’ http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/drought/livedrought.shtml • Mincham, Hans 1983. The Story of the Flinders Ranges. (3rd ed). Adelaide, Rigby. • Quorn and District Centenary 1878-1978, 1978. Quorn Centenary Book Committee, Quorn. • Williams, Michael, 1974a. The Making of the South Australian Landscape: a study in the historical geography of Australia, Academic Press, London, • Williams, Michael, 1974b. “The Northern Areas: the last fifty years’ change”, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (South Australian Branch) 75, , pp. 1-22 Dams, pipes and bores Underground water was tapped through artesian and sub artesian bores by 1914. The water quality at that time was ‘for the most part good, but at Hammond, on the eastern side of the valley, the water carries 1¼ ozs. of salts to the gallon’ (Gordon and Ryan 1914: 179). Aroona Dam The Aroona dam was built across Scott Creek to provide water for Leigh Creek. Its location in a beautiful valley makes it a stunning scenic attraction. Over 200 people from the local community and all over Australia worked for years to create the remarkable 44 sq. km Aroona Dam Sanctuary around the dam. The aim of the sanctuary, which was declared in 1995, is to create a perpetual habitat for local native plants and wildlife. Activities have focused on rehabilitation and biodiversity enhancement. This is a great achievement for a remote community.