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Historical & Aboriginal Sites in the Western Deserts

    Beadell Tours specialise in showing folks what they wouldn’t be able to see or find themselves. Connie & Mick have spent a great deal of time over the years discovering sites & features (where allowed) not shown on all the maps available these days, and in most cases no maps at all, ever. This is an article detailing some of the things that can be seen throughout the western deserts that should be of interest to the traveller if they want to learn a bit about the country they have come so far to see.

    Human history & a good proportion of our birds & some animals in our desert country have been regulated by one thing & one thing only, WATER. Seems such a simple thing but it astounds me these days how little attention people pay to water in country where it is precious well beyond the price of gold. Last year for the first time in more than 20 years of my desert wandering a tourist asked where did the Aboriginals get a drink from? I can’t remember the topic ever being voiced before in general conversation by travellers. I was stunned to say the least. To give you an idea about the importance of water you need only read any explorer journal from arid country, any of the early prospecting books that are in print these days or any of the Aboriginal books dealing with contacting nomads before the advent of communities etc. Every one of them will detail water as a prime topic. It was either hunted for in the case of the early white fellas for survival or the Aborigines were located at water sources living off the land as they always had. To put it simply, water is special in an environment where at first glance it doesn’t exist.

    These days as folk roar along in air-conditioned comfort travelling roads that are often ancient Aboriginal routes they don’t even think of how the desert works. They’ll notice the bright green flocks of Budgies as they zip by but not think if they need water & where it might be. Tourists marvel at the Aboriginals knowledge & powers of survival but don’t put much more thought into it than that. Tourists will admire the courage of the explorers while reading about how they searched for water endlessly but as soon as the topic changes the interest fades and the significance of water is given little or no thought a few minutes later. With roadhouses scattered along the main roads through the deserts and water from good bores on tap at all of them, travellers these days and for quite some years have not the need to know about natural water sources. The age of the motor vehicle has changed the focus, attitude and survival skills of people in general, both black & white. I guess that’s just progress.......

    If you read any of the early books about the western desert country or study a few older maps you will soon find that desert water sources were & are known by different names & types. This article should help you to understand what the early people were talking about when it came to water sources.

    The vast bulk of the sites will be of Aboriginal significance, now please realise that any water source in desert country will be significant to nomadic people who survive off the land they live in. However, there is a vast difference between significant or important and sensitive or sacred. Without the full initiated knowledge of the original nomads it is impossible to draw the line between the two sorts of water source or site. These days it is very obvious that many places are labelled sacred when in fact during nomadic times they were simply an important place, a solid link in the network of waters scattered throughout the deserts, or simply a handy or reliable rockhole, well or soak when hunting or gathering during the course of the passing seasons. (We do know that some sites needed special things done before approaching but we’ll skip over that until another time). No doubt we will raise a few hackles by saying this but we believe it to be true in a general sense.

    Water sources of all different types have been the scene until recently of every conceivable human circumstance known to man. Births, deaths & marriages have all taken place at water sources throughout the western deserts & beyond. People have camped & lived near these sites for tens of thousands of years. We often say to travellers when standing at a major rockhole that within a few miles of this place hundreds if not thousands of people have been buried over the duration of human occupation of the area which may stretch back more than 40,000 years. It is a concept that is hard to grasp at first. Think of a desert water source as a modern-day supermarket, everyone that lived in the area went there.

    We have included some pictures of the various types of water sources & other sites we are describing in this article.

 

BLAZED TREES

    After so much time has passed not many of the original blazed trees still remain intact. Most folks will immediately think of a famous explorer leaving his mark in some remote area by cutting into a good sized handy tree their camp or waterhole, an initial & date. While this is true there are other types of blazed trees that remain in the desert country as reminders of past times. What remains most these days are signs of the nomadic Aboriginals living in their homelands.

 

Explorer Trees

    There are very few of these left in the western deserts. After the passage of so much time most of them have gone due to age, fire & white ants. The reason for this is simple, normally the explorer chose a large mature tree to start with, in this case a Eucalypt of some description. Once blazed the tree was subject to attack from insects etc and was vulnerable. Time did the rest, and there is plenty of time in the western deserts. However, in some country there wasn’t a big gum tree to blaze so the white fella had to use what was on hand, and the most common tree in the deserts is Mulga. These trees are tough, and many of them that were blazed are still upright and quite readable if you know where to look. The other long-lived tree that found favour for explorers was the Corkwood. These can grow to a good size particularly in a better watered area. They live to a great age, for example a Corkwood that the Forrest Brothers blazed in 1874 is still alive and in good health on the edge of the desert.

 

Cable blaze 1930

This blaze was cut in 1930 by the Cable Brothers looking for minerals,
Sandalwood or anything to make a quid during the Great Depression.

 

Coolamon Trees

    The most common are trees that have been used for making a Coolamon or Piddi. During the time of the nomads if a quick easy dish was needed for a job then a Eucalypt normally was found of the right shape & size and the bark chopped and levered off in the required size. They weren’t as good as the famous timber versions but could be made in a hurry and were tough enough for light jobs for a time, particularly as the bark dried out. It is surprising how many trees can still be found with this sort of blaze still in good condition. Be warned though, many trees carry scars in the deserts country so not all trees have been intentionally blazed. Always check above the blaze for the stump of a broken limb that has fallen and damaged the bark below, Mother Nature can play tricks with the unwary.

 

Coolamon blaze

A blazed tree that has not been carved, most likely cut for the bark to make a
Coolamon or Piddi dish. These are pretty common if you keep your eyes open.

 

Woomera Trees

    The next of the blazed trees is far harder to find but still exist if you know where to look. These are the trees the nomad men used for making Woomeras & other important tools. These will normally be Mulga trees of a reasonable size pretty close to a water source we have noticed over the years. The tree will have a slab removed on one side about 2’ or 3’ long. It’s easy to see where the end of the slab has been chopped with an axe or on the older versions chipped in a special way with a large heavy sharp stone. Once the slab has been cut at one end or both the slab is then split off and taken back to camp for the rest of the work to be completed. Only a few times have we found a Mulga that has been "slabbed" at a bend for making a Boomerang or Kylie, these seem to be much rarer.

 

Woomera blaze

An old Mulga that has been slabbed for a Woomera many years ago,
this one has been cut with a steel tool, most likely an axe.

 

start of Woomera blaze

This is a very old blaze that would have been cut with a large sharp rock. If it had been completed
there would have been a second cut made higher and then the slab split off the tree
with a wooden wedge. There are still a few of these in the bush.

 

ROCKHOLES

    Quite simply a rockhole is just that, a hole in rock that holds water after rain. As with most things though, there is a bit more to it than that. Rockholes can be broken up into several types and we’ll go through them below. Scattered throughout the western deserts are thousands of rockholes, more like tens of thousands actually. They make up a network once exceptionally well known by the nomadic Aboriginals & reasonably well known by the early whitefellas. Some rockholes are large & deep holding thousands of gallons, others are tiny and may only hold 1 or 2 gallons. Some are up high in the hills, others are in the middle of the plains, some are halfway up breakaway cliffs, and others are in creek-lines in the Mulga scrub. Rockholes can be found anywhere, if you make a study of them you soon find there is no strict rhyme or reason when it comes to rockholes & where they might be in general, just that they must be in rock.

    Don’t be fooled by any old hole in the stone either, a water holding rockhole will show signs that are much different to ordinary or unused stone. The inside of the rockhole will usually be stained almost black nearer the top and the stone immediately around the rockhole edge will be a different colour to the rest of the area. This is due to the wear from millions of feet, claws, pads & hooves that have used the apron of the water source for millennia. Think of it like carpet that has been worn in a doorway, it’s much different to what it looked like when new. Below are the general descriptions of all the rockhole types.

 

Gnammas

    A gnamma is a rockhole of a certain shape. Essentially it is narrow in the top and wider in the bottom. Normally when you see the word gnamma it will be written as "gnamma hole", but gnamma loosely means hole anyway so just gnamma is the best way to use the word. We don’t know what dialect gnamma comes from but it was used in the early days of white exploration & settlement in the arid areas and is still used to this day, much the same as Kangaroo & Goanna. We are not geologists but gnammas remind us of an air pocket trapped in the stone when it was laid down maybe hundreds of millions of years ago. Whether that is a good description or not doesn’t matter, these gnammas exist all over the deserts in many different sizes & shapes. Due to the narrow-topped shape, the water is nearly always shaded from the sun so it lasts much longer than an open rockhole which made them far more dependable in general for the nomads. Gnammas come in all sizes from a gallon or two to several thousand gallons, generally they will be in rock in the middle of nowhere, but every now & again you’ll find them tucked into the side of creek lines and in some extraordinary places. Almost without fail they will be well used by the animals & birds that require water to survive, by this it would be safe to say the nomads used them often as well.

 

rockhole

Typical gnamma, they flare out underneath having more volume then you first think.

 

Native Wells

    You will often see on explorers maps a water source referred to as a "well". The easiest way to describe a native well is this; a buried rockhole or gnamma. Generally speaking these are quite large rockholes, we guess the smaller rockholes were not worth the effort required to dig them out as they didn’t hold enough water to warrant the work. Native Wells are normally very hard to find these days as they are no longer being used by nomads (Aboriginals these days live in Communities that have taps etc.) and in most cases the Dingos can’t keep these open by digging for water as they do in many of the rockholes. To explain further, what has happened over a great deal of time can be described two ways with Native Wells.

  1. Firstly, an established rockhole has over a great period of time, or by some huge weather event or shifting sand due to fire, been buried. The nomads of the time already knew that the rockhole was there so they simply dug down through the sand & wash to open the rockhole again and access the water held below.
  2. Secondly, the nomads after wet seasons in the desert country took note of the wetter or greener patches & dug for water hoping to get some as the country dried out. Many of these spots would have been what we now know as soaks, & others would be the Native Wells we are describing here. We ourselves have used the "green spot" method to locate native wells over the years. At a glance, often the only way to tell the difference between a soak & a native well is the vegetation growing near & at the point where the water has been accessed, & even then it can be misleading.

 

rockhole covered in sand

You can see the sand hill crimping over this covered over rockhole,
no doubt it has been like this for millennia.

 

Soaks

    Now soaks can be a confusing thing as there are two types of soak, one is a silted up rockhole in a creek and the other is a drainage point for a large area that holds water permanently or almost so. Both were excellent water sources and the reason for the confusion stems from some of the old timers calling the creek rockholes soaks because of the need to dig the sand & silt away to get the water. The explorer Frank Hann was probably the main culprit for calling creek rockholes soaks, but it was common in the old days and I’ll mention Frank simply because a lot of the "soaks" he used in his many travels were put on the map & remain on maps to this day.

    We’ll describe the rockhole variety below;

Soak - creek rockhole

These are generally very large rockholes in the bed of a creek or along a run-off from a range or breakaway. Almost always they would be like a small waterfall in wet times if the creek was running, the water would flow over the stone shelf into the soak hole below. Creek Soaks were a very reliable water source as the water was keep in the sand & silt of the hole and didn’t evaporate much at all. To access the water a small hole was dug in the soft stuff and the water would appear when you got to the right level. Large creek soaks will often have artwork or petroglyphs nearby which means that water was available there for substantial periods; the nomads had time to devote to other pursuits not just survival.

 

Hann soak

Creek Soak used by Frank Hann more than 100 years ago, typical large hole under waterfall
that fills with silt and holds water for long periods – reliable places for water.

 

Soak – large area drainage (not any sort of rockhole)

    A proper soak was the most reliable water source in the desert. The simplest explanation is to think of a large depression in the country, large ones may drain thousands of acres. Small ones may only have a watershed of a few acres. Under the ground is a layer of stone or clay that the water can’t get through, by digging down at the low point water can be got at reasonably shallow depths. Large volumes of water would be laying in these depressions and for this reason soaks were known in many cases to be drought proof for the nomads, early explorers & settlers. Tallaringa Well on the Anne Beadell Highway is a very good example of a proper soak and seeing all the bone fragments in the sand around the area means it was probably drought proof and well used for countless generations of people. In the 1950s it was rediscovered by Len Beadell; the party dug it out and timbered the hole.

 

soak

A good soak in an open low area, many artefacts nearby and after a quick dig we got water at
about 3’ (1 metre) – a good spot. Soaks are normally the best water sources in the deserts
as they have huge well protected volumes of water, you just need to do some work to get it.

 

Springs

    The last of the water sources would be Springs. These are where the water is forced up to the surface by some sort of underground pressure. I don’t know much about the mechanics of springs but what I do know is that there are quite a few exceptional springs through the desert country. Often springs are just long-term seepages from the ground when there has been enough rainfall. However, there are some where you can see the water "bubbling" from the ground, these are true springs and would have been highly prized locations in the old days. Imagine a water source in the desert that never went dry whatever the season........We have seen springs in caves, seen them on tops of hills, seen them in creeks, there doesn’t seem to be any rules about where a spring might be, only that there isn’t that many of them in the deserts.

 

spring

A little spring in a gorge that made water slowly when we opened it up, you can see the
place is well used, look at the colour of the stone near the water & further away.

 

THINGS FOUND NEAR WATER SOURCES

    Whenever we find a rockhole or soak the next thing to do is fan out and carefully look around the immediate area. Some places just have a feel about them and you know straight away there is much more to the place than just a water source. Then there are times when by accident you just happen to bump into some extra bits as you flounder around looking at the birds or the view. The local Aboriginals when times were right had quite busy social calendars, there was generally something on if the people weren’t flat out trying to survive in a dry spell. As whitefellas we won’t ever fully understand most of the things we find but that doesn’t mean we can’t respect & appreciate the "old people" and the things they left behind them.

 

Artwork/art galleries

    It may seem strange to include artwork in with water sources but the reality is rarely do you find any artwork anywhere else but very close to a good water source, a very good water source.

    Nearby will be a cave or breakaway with an overhang where the stone face is relatively smooth, not rough and jagged. We have a saying when looking around for artwork, "the canvas is no good" meaning that the stone is too rough to allow the use of paint. Sometimes the artwork will be easily seen and in good condition, other times it may be faded or water stained from run-off. Most times it will be on the walls at working height for a person, other times it may be on the roof of the cave and you may have to lie on your back to see it properly. Whatever the case, take plenty of time to look the places over when you have the chance to see them, the more you look at these galleries often the more you will see. You will notice different styles in galleries across the deserts. Most times they are line type paintings done with a finger or stick, other times they will be the dot variety and give a clue to the modern art movement that we know today. You may be lucky enough to see hand stencils. The western deserts don’t seem to have a great deal of these, at least not as much as the other types. We don’t know why this is so but we do know some hand stencils have been dated to 20,000 years. Maybe it went out of fashion for some reason, or the next wave of migration didn’t express themselves that way, we have no idea.

    In most galleries whitefella won’t understand what the figures are or what they mean, some of it will be easy to identify but almost always the characters are dreamtime or story based and are hard to interpret. It doesn’t matter really, it is just nice to see a gallery that hasn’t been disturbed or graffitied. They are special places, normally quite sensitive these days. Take care and please don’t publish the photos of these galleries on the internet for all to see or damage them for any reason. Doing this creates anxiety & anger for the traditional owners and may result in access to these sites being restricted. (In many cases this has already happened, Calvert Ranges off the Canning Stock Route being the best example of this abuse by tourists).

 

Aboriginal artwork

A typical overhang with a good range of paintings scattered over the smoother surfaces.

 

Petroglyphs

    This is the technical term for the pecking & carvings made in stone by the Aboriginal people of long ago. Once again these will be found very near a water source of some description. Most times the carvings are small and just a few, other times they are extensive galleries such as found in parts of the Flinders Ranges & Calvert Ranges. Occasionally such large galleries will have a variety of styles throughout and it only makes us wonder how many different waves of migration have occurred over many tens of thousands of years as it can’t be that the same mobs did so many different styles of petroglyph at the same time. Standing there looking at these things hundreds of kilometres from the nearest town & civilisation makes one wonder all sorts of things about our early history in this ancient country.

 

Aboriginal petroglyphs

This gallery is on the flat stone floor of a creek nestled into a large well known range.
There is quite a bit nearby so the area had some significance in local
Aboriginal life, it’s a pity we may never know exactly what it means.

 

Stone Arrangements

    Most people think stone arrangements made by nomads are a rare thing and only found in a few places. This is simply not so. There are hundreds if not thousands of stone arrangements scattered across the western deserts. Nearly always near a water source and no doubt significant for a variety of reasons depending on what the site was built & used for. Some are large covering several acres of ground, others are small and may only consist of a few cairns and or small circles of placed stones.

    No doubt some of these arrangements are very sensitive and you can assume this from the fact that the stones are well away from the good water source where the mob will normally be camped. These arrangements will have a smaller gnamma or rockhole located right next to them so the participants didn’t have to go far for a drink during whatever ceremonies were being performed. At least that is how it looks to me from a common-sense perspective. Remember nomadic aboriginals were survivalists and water was the key to almost everything for them.

 

Aboriginal stone arrangements

Part of an extensive arrangement for a purpose we don’t understand.

 

Aboriginal petroglyphs

Part of another extensive stone arrangement.

 

 

Mick Hutton
Copyright : November 2017

 

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