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Aboriginal Wells and Rock Caves

‘The waterhole that enabled the soldiers abandoned on Wiebbe Hayes’s Island to survive. (Newspix/Andy Tindall).’ Photo from Peter Fitzsimons’ historical novel, ‘Batavia’.

By Steve Trotter

Posted on 27th August 2023

Hidden Sites

When I lived in Bendigo, in the early 90s, a friend of mine from North Queensland told me something that changed everything I thought I knew about Aboriginal people, culture and their history. This is what he told me.

We’d played a game of rugby, scrubbed up and then went to a Maori fellah’s place where we were waiting for a hangi to cook in the backyard. The team was made of Indigenous fellahs from NZ, Western Samoa, Tonga and Australia, so it wasn’t anything new. I was talking to my Murri mate, who I played in the centres with, and asked him what he’d been up to lately. What he told me next blew my mind.

My mate explained to me that he was starting up a little Indigenous tour thing. Nothing big. He got a small van and was taking people around on tours showing them some local Indigenous sites. I remember asking him, ‘But aren’t you from up North? How do you what’s around here?’

He told me that even though he was from the other end of the Great Dividing Range, he could still find the wells and cave art because he could read the signs. He said he’d go out to farms, climb the fence, and look around a bit. He’d turn over a rock and it would point him to a cave or a well.

Credit: Ed Gifford / Radius Images

Then he’d go and knock on the farmer’s door, ask him if he knew he had an Indigenous well or cave on his property. Sometimes they’d freak out and think he was trying to take their land or something, but most of the time they’d be genuinely curious, take a look and give him permission to do tours to the site.

Two things hit me, straight up. Well, three things really.

Firstly, did his mob actually travel here before the whites came? I had the longest trip of my life on a bus from Ballina to Bendigo one time. The route went north to Brisbane, then south along the Great Diving Range to Melbourne and then west over to Bendigo. It was a 35-hour trip. If it took me 35 hours on a bus, how long would it take to walk along the range? Surely, they didn’t walk this far?

Secondly, signs? What signs? Aboriginal people danced and sang and told oral stories. What signs was he talking about? I’d walked on a bit of the country around Bendigo and couldn’t see a sign anywhere. Every rock looked exactly the same to me. And if there were some hidden signs I couldn’t see, how could he possibly know where to look for them unless someone had told him where they were? Even if an Elder passed a story on to him and told him about the signs to look for, how could he remember them in such detail and actually find the well or cave from the story?

Thirdly, it was a bit ironic having to get the famer’s permission to show people significant Aboriginal sites that had existed on Aboriginal land for thousands of years. Just saying…

Anyway, this is what he said. He said that even though he was from Queensland, at the other end of the Great Dividing Range, he knew how to find significant Indigenous sites, like traditional wells and hidden caves filled with Indigenous rock paintings because his mob used to travel to Victoria and trade with the local mob.

And I said, ‘Yeah, but how do you know where to look?’

He said there were special rocks, with marks on the bottom of them, that acted like arrows pointing him in the direction of the well or cave. He could turn one over and it would point him in the right direction and then he’d turn another one over and so on until they showed him where the well cap or cave door was. Then he’d lift off the cap and uncover the well or the cave with paintings in it.

I asked him why there were caps over the holes to begin with. He told me it was to protect them. A cap on a well stopped other animals drinking the water, stopped pollution getting into it and stopped the water from evaporating. The cave doors hid the entrance to the cave and prevented damage to the site from people and animals.

Since then, a few more dots have been connected for me. I know now that my mate’s mob must have walked along a songline from Queensland to Victoria along an Aboriginal superhighway. The songline was a musical map that guided the traveller along the path. It told the traveller of the landmarks to look out for along the way. Some of these important landmarks included places where there was food and water, like the wells he uncovered.

The markings he talked about are a bit trickier. I think they must have been the pictographic symbols used by Aboriginal people on message sticks and in their paintings. They’re the visual equivalent of sign language. Aboriginal people knew them well and can read them easily.

I hadn’t found much information about these hidden wells since, until I recently read two of Peter Fitzsimons’ historical novels.

The first instance was in his book, ‘The Batavia’ where he describes the marooning of the soldiers on ‘Hayes’s Island’ and their increasingly desperate search to locate fresh water:

9 July 1629, Hayes’s Island

Another day, another search…

The sun is climbing high in the sky and beating down upon Hayes and his men to the point that they should be perspiring profusely, if only they had any moisture left in their bodies to sweat out. Now, they are searching along the western side of the island, at a point where there is a large expanse of sandstone covered by various boulders and flat rocks.

It does not look promising, as it seems every bit as arid as everywhere else, with the only leavening feature being the shrubs. But nowhere they have searched so far has looked remotely promising. Their mood is sombre, bordering on desperate. Though they have been able to eat well by killing the jumping cats and slightly assuaging their thirst by drinking their blood, the lack of water remains a severe problem. The only drops they can get lie in the brackish pools, and if it does not rain again soon, they will be in real trouble.

Typically leading the way, with his men fanned out like ducks in flying formation behind him, Wiebbe Hayes is crossing a flat expanse some 200 yards back from the shore when he steps upon a large, flat rock… and stops. That sounded odd, beneath his wooden clogs. It was sort of… hollow. Motioning for the others to give him a hand, he shifts the rock aside to reveal a small, almost perfectly circular hole about a foot across. Leaning over it, he looks down and is confronted by a vision of… himself. His face and the bright blue sky above are reflected in the water below!

Excitedly, his men gather around and gaze down the hole. Scarcely able to believe it, one o them lightly tosses in a small stone, and an instant later they hear a wonderful, soft… plop, as their reflected image is broken up in so many ripples.

…It is fresh water! They are saved.

Excerpt from pages 251-252 Peter Fitzsimons bestselling novel, ‘Batavia’.

The second instance was in Fitzsimons’ novel, ‘Burke and Wills’, where a ‘black tracker’ leads some more thirsty explorers to a hidden well:

…the green plains has been replaced by dusty plains, shade by searing sun, and their water is running ever lower. Through his rising anxiety, wondering if they should perhaps turn back to where they know water can be found, Dr Beckler can’t help but notice that his companion, the worthy Peter – who had been raised in the traditional environment before becoming a stockman – does not appear to be remotely worried and…

And suddenly Peter reins in his horse, dismounts and points to a spot on the ground.

‘You see this?’ he says in his thick native accent. ‘A dingo has scratched here for water and we will… find enough water for us and our horses.

Dr Beckler is stunned, for he can, frankly, see nothing much about the tiny patch of ground that Peter is pointing to that is any different from the hundreds of thousands of acres they’ve been traveling through, bar, yes, a few stray scratches in the yellowish soil. He climbs down, and the two men are soon pawing away at the ground, making an ident in the soil, only to find… their hands are getting wet! Continuing to dig, they quickly come to several large slabs of rock which they are able to lift and, to their infinite joy, ‘we had a little basin before which quickly filled with water again and again, however often we filled our hats to quench the thirst of our poor animals … In less than half an hour we felt as much at home as if we had known the place for years.

Dr Beckler looks upon Peter with renewed respect.

Excerpt from pages 287-288 Peter Fitzsimons novel, ‘Burke and Wills’.

 

There’s a whole lot of stuff like this out there that we weren’t taught about in schools. It’s worth checking out.

Want to Know More About Aboriginal Culture?

If you or your children would like to know more about Aboriginal history and culture, check out Magpie Publishers’ bookstore. There you will find stories that celebrate our First Nations’ People and detail the impact of colonization on Aboriginal people, the environment, and their culture. 

 

Walk on Country

How about a tour? If you want to learn about a deeper time history of Ballina, why not arrange a tour of the Nyangbal people’s country? Eli Cook, and the other Nyangbal custodians, will guide you through their country, share their culture with you and tell you about their history, in person. 

We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of Australia and honour the Elders past and present.

© Steve Trotter 2023

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