Simpson Desert Native Wells
The key to unraveling the puzzle of Aboriginal occupation is to be found in the journal of the late nineteenth century surveyor and explorer David Lindsay. In 1886 Lindsay, with the help of a Wangkangurru man, used a series of nine native wells to cross the southern and central parts of the desert.
Inveterate traveller Denis Bartell retraced Lindsay’s journey in 1980. He was able to locate seven of the nine wells and later research by Dr. Luise Hercus from the Australian National University, using first hand accounts from the last remaining Wangkangurru people who were born in the Simpson, obtained direct evidence of Aboriginal lifestyle and habitation. The native wells, or mikiri, were the critical focus of life because they provided the only source of permanent water. The wells were actually shallow freshwater soaks in the centre of low lying depressions between the dunes. The soaks are formed when rain water percolated through coarse-grained sands around the depression until it met an impermeable clay layer. Water so trapped was obtained from a soak by digging narrow shafts, some of which were seven metres deep. In this way the wells were able to provide permanent, albeit limited, supplies of water. Most of these wells are now silted over as a result of wind erosion and lack of maintenance since the Wangkangurru left the desert. However water still exists in the wells at the same depth and of the same quality and taste as described by Lindsay over a century ago.
A typical day in the life of the people living at a well would see the men occupying their time hunting animals and the women searching for seeds in the nearby dunefields. Stone material for tool manufacture and grinding was a precious material in a sandridge desert and the Wangkangurru would travel long distances to exchange goods and interact with groups from different regions. The trade routes often followed the Dreaming trails of ancestral beings and, as a result, were highly significant in mythological terms. After 1900 the Wangkangurru never lived permanently in the Simpson Desert again. Regular supplies of food and water could now be obtained from the stations on the desert fringe. Unlike other groups, they left of their own accord and were nor driven forcibly from their land.
Nevertheless, a culture had vanished forever.
Extract from ‘The Simpson Desert’ by Mark Shephard. Reprinted with kind permission of the author.
From 2014 to 2019, working closely with the Wangkangurru people, ADE has conducted surveys focusing on the Simpson Desert mikiri.
The 2020 survey will take place in the south eastern corner of the Northern Territory section of the Simpson. There are a number of wells in this area, all of which have been visited by Europeans, from explorer David Lindsay to mining companies to modern day 4WDrivers (sometimes illegally) however that is not necessarily the primary focus of this survey. To explain:
In 2006, whilst on a 28 day Simpson Desert Expedition, the Outback Camel Company rediscovered a 'lost mikiri' to the east of these known sites. That discovery was made possible purely by two reasons: because they were traversing the country on foot, and keen observation by the expedition leader Josef Schofield. The discovery brought home the point that to understand the desert, and to read the signs that the land holds, walking is definitely the best method. ADE founder Andrew Harper explains:
"Even in this day of 4WD travelling, the best way to see the deserts is to walk them. With the demise of the stockman and his horse, and the Aboriginal leaving of the Simpson and Western Deserts in the 1900s, very few people walk the remote desert any more for extended periods. In fact, we are now the only people who do. Consequently, the stories the desert holds have been missed over the last few decades. The desert deserves to be approached gently, so its mood is revealed. The way people have always approached these (areas) was on foot, as we have done today. That reveals the country - the continuum of country."
In addition to conducting a botanical specimen collection and bird survey, the most important element of our survey in 2020 will be to explore and document the area around the wells and the country between the wells - where people no longer walk. This is where having dozens of pairs of eyes scanning the landscape shows the strength of our walking surveys. We may find artefacts, an old midden (cooking fireplace), a small pile of stone chippings on a dune top - all this can be a 'pointer' to occupation of an area and are things that can never be observed by driving across the landscape. Wangkangurru elder and Watti Watti songline custodian Don Rowlands was sure that there were more mikiri lying within the Simpson Desert dunes and indeed in 2018 we found two more, both of which were unknown to the Wangkangurru or to the archaeological record. We feel confident that in 2020 we will be able to discover even more about this important network.