A Chant of Lost Water

by Eric Rolls

© all rights reserved

The present population of Australia, now about twenty million, is a social glory, an exciting mix of the world’s people speaking most of the languages still extant.  The majority have been born in Australia but more and more the percentage of those born overseas is increasing.  Most are urban dwellers in coastal towns and cities.  Inland Australia is a foreign country to them.  The Finke River is more remote than the North Pole.

In Aboriginal days every square metre of Australia was known intimately and was worked productively by fire, by digging stick, by water.  Only the language groups of particular areas and their visitors knew their country first hand.  Other social groups knew it by song.  People everywhere chanted their country.  Songmen were invited to distant places to teach their country in song, chant and dance.

Whenever a man walked on to ceremonial grounds he did not give his name.  He either sang the name of the land that he owned or he chanted an imaginative, descriptive map of his home country, the main waters, the camping grounds, the hills, the clumps of trees.  It is a remarkable concept to stand before an assembly and specify what made the participant.  He brings his land with him.

At the time of the British invasion there were at least 1,500,000 people, probably 2,500,000.  They had known Australia when trade with Papua New Guinea involved settling their goods on head or shoulders and walking up there.  Thirty thousand years ago those dwelling in central Australia knew it as rainforest.  The Southesk Tablelands, an amazing formation rising abruptly 70 metres out of the flat Great Sandy Desert, record the level of the rainforest about 33,000 years ago.  It is capped with a flat-topped slab 14 metres high and 14 metres across which was the bed of one of the great lakes surrounded by rainforest.

Those who stayed in the area, the twenty-thousand-year procession of generations who watched their land change from very wet to very dry, found water by following it down as the last depression on a gypseous flat dried up.  Sometimes their digging found nothing, sometimes at depths of four to six and a half metres they found soaks of good water.

The Wangkangurru people, who became adept at life in the driest area of Australia on the border of South Australia and Western Australia, depended on nine wells spaced over a north-south line a hundred kilometres long.  The wells, the mikiri, were all named and children sang songs about where they were and how they came to be there so that they could always find them.  Adults sang imaginative longer cycles.

Within the Simpson Desert waterholes often get covered in sandstorms.  In the southern flood-out of the Plenty River, one of the nine or so streams big and small that end in the so-called desert, there were enough stones to build into metre high cairns at the wells, so that they could be found and dug out under any conditions.  Single stones were placed in trees as direction markers.

It was essential to know every landmark in a big area in order to find these wells.  Arrernte people constantly taught their children to record country as they walked:  ‘How many limbs has that tree got?’  The instructor would choose a single tree or a tree bigger than others around it.  They might not pass that way again for a couple of years.  Before they came in sight of the tree, the instructor would ask. ‘That tree I showed you, how many limbs has it got?  The main limb, in what direction did it point?’

They counted sandhills as they crossed them, often printing the number in their memories by pricking each sandhill into a finger with a thorn or sharpened twig.  When asked for the number crossed, the students drew lines in the sand or counted on their fingers.  Only by remembering the exact disposition of sandhills could wells be found in the dry country.

David Lindsay, the explorer, told of a people in the far north-east corner of the Great Victoria Desert who dug small holes in conglomerate rocks to hold water.  Each time they emptied a hole, they scraped out the rock softened by the water until they had wells holding up to two thousand litres of water.

Dry country people well understood evaporation.  They dug their wells in the shape of a flask with a narrow entrance.  People near the head of Spencers Gulf in South Australia covered their springs and waterholes with a thick lacing of boughs and leaves, both to reduce evaporation and to stop animals drowning in the water and fouling it.  After rain, ephemeral claypan water was used to save the more permanent water.  Frequently this water was muddy, but sinks cut into the ground just beyond the edge of the dirty water received clean water filtered through the wall.

During the spring and summer when sap was flowing freely up the trees, thousands of Aborigines in the dry Centre and in western New South Wales between the Lachlan and Darling Rivers had to get most of their water from tree roots.  White Mallee (Eucalyptus dumosa), Red Mallee (Eucalyptus oleosa) and Needlewood (Hakea leucoptera), all good water bearing trees growing as scattered small trees or in dense thickets, covered most of Australia’s dry country.  In addition there are Coolibahs (Eucalyptus microtheca) through the Centre and the north, kurrajongs and Bottle Trees (Brachychiton) and the Desert Kurrajong (Brachychiton gregorii) in most of the arid country.  The spectacular Desert Oak (Allocasuarina decaisneana) depicts the course of palaeorivers where underground water flows beneath what looks like desert.

Water-bearing trees have broad conduits to conduct sap through their roots.  In most trees the conduits are too small, perhaps one hundredth of a millimetre in diameter, to release their sap.

A slight bulge in the ground, a hairline crack, shows Aboriginal experts which way a root is running.  Beginning about a metre out from the trunk, they dig down to expose the root which is seldom deeper than 25 centimetres.  After chopping it free and loosening a sufficient length for several men to hold, they pull it out of the ground, 12 to 24 metres of it.  They cut the root into lengths of 20 to 80 centimetres and stand the pieces in a coolamon or skin bag.  One root can yield 370 millilitres or more.  Harry Tietkens, the explorer, told of getting a bucketful of water from one Inland Bloodwood (Eucalyptus terminalis), a tree found over much of the northern half of Australia.

Desert Oaks also stored water in cavities in the trunk.  It was usually good water since the entrance holes were small and no animals bigger than ants could get in.  Aborigines used ants as indicators of where the water was stored.  Trails led from the ground up to it.  Hollow reeds or fine tubes of bark fitted together made good straws to suck the water out.  If the hole was big enough, a wad of dry grass or teased bark tied to a spearhead made a good sponge which could be squeezed into a coolamon.

The people on flat country went to all sorts of shifts to avoid complete dependence on tree roots.  They cut U-shaped hollow branches and set them in the ground where water could run into them.  They used solid trees to collect water, fitting a big coolamon or a U-shaped hollow log at the foot and cutting grooves in the trunk to direct all water running down it into the vessel.  Those on the Nullabor Plain used some of the few trees to store water.  They bored a hole into a hollow in the trunk, then scored the bark so that water running down the trunk was directed into the hole.

The frequent dewy nights were always taken advantage of, especially in the southern Nullarbor.  Drops of dew could be shaken off shrubs into a coolamon, a wad of grass or teased bark could soon collect a good quantity off the leaves of grass.  Both kangaroos and dingoes collected dew off grass by moving through it slowly and brushing their tongues over the leaves.

Waterholding Frogs are a good resource, though it takes good observation to find the slight bumps that show where they are.  Every three steps in the Tanami Desert there is a frog underground, one of several species, waiting for rain in a cocoon of dry skin which prevents water loss.  Waterholding Frogs (Cyclorana platycephalus) go down while a drying lake or claypan is still muddy by scooping mud forward with their forepaws and sliding down backwards.  When they reach the harder layer about 50 centimetres down, they scrape out the bottom of the hole to make a cocoon part-filled with water.  Before putting in the plug to seal themselves off, they drink water to fill their extendable bladders.  Each frog holds a cupful.  The ground above them dries brick hard.

There is a good supply of these frogs.  When it rains enough to soak the ground down to them, they come up in thousands and breed, knowing that the water will last long enough for their tadpoles to mature.

Whenever necessary, wherever possible, Aboriginal people built dams to increase water supply.  At least 18 dams have been found in South Australia, Western Australia, north-western New South Wales and one described by Leichhardt in 1847.  This is nothing like the original number.  There were thousands of structures of logs, grass and clay that were built to hold water in deep pools as creeks and rivers stopped flowing.  This was excellent engineering.  The first flood washed them away and all the creatures that lived in the waters, visible and invisible, were free to move.  The permanent dam that Leichhardt described was probably on the Foelsche River about three kilometres from the junction with the Wearyan River in the Northern Territory, and so built by the Yanyuwa people.  The rivers are tidal salt water so the people needed a supply of fresh water when they were camping there.  The fresh water oozed out of a layer of clay on the bank, so the people built a clay wall to hold back the seepage and give them a supply that they could dip into.

The Gunditjmara people in the western district of Victoria were the first fish farmers, beginning work in 6000 BC to grow Short-finned Eels (Anguilla australis), the principal eel of those waters and the best to eat.  Before they began work, tidal Darlot Creek was fed by the Condah swamps which were fed in turn from the overflow of Lake Condah.  By a complex system of walls and trenches and dams the people turned a big area into an eel farm.  They enticed young eels in from the ocean and held them in the waterways and constructed dams for up to 20 years.

All this work required people constantly on the site.  Since they had wall-building skills they used them to build comfortable houses, laying the plentiful black, trapezoidal, basalt blocks in circular walls one metre high, then finishing off with a roof of bark or plaited reeds fitted to a timber frame.  The remains of 175 houses have been found.  Undoubtedly there were many more.

The first move in building the eel farm was to dam Darlot Creek with basalt blocks to give control of its water.  Then, by building stone walls a metre high and more than 50 metres long, and digging channels a metre deep and nearly 300 metres long, they connected the lake, the swamp and the creek so that they could manipulate the water flow and with it the feed flow.  Rainwater draining into the swamps brought important food for the eels and fish, so did every tide coming up the creek.  None of it was easy work.  The basalt blocks were heavy, the only digging tools were coolamons with fire-hardened cutting edges held by both hands.

Altogether they modified 10,000 hectares.  The extended swamps and ponds that they created grew plants with edible roots and tubers, they attracted waterbirds in thousands.  They caught the eels and fish in woven cane traps placed in the maze of waterways.  Smoked eel was a valuable food and traded widely.

The Gunditjmara were not the only eel farmers.  There was another system of traps at Lake Bolac on Salt Creek, an eastern tributary of the Hopkins River, 100 kilometres east-north-east of Lake Condah.  The Jardwadjali people probably managed it.  Up to a thousand people gathered there for a season of feasting and ceremony lasting one to two months.  As at Lake Condah the eels were principally Short-finned Eels, though there would have been a few less desirable Long-finned Eels among them at both places.

At Toolondo, south-west of Horsham in Victoria, the same people regulated the depth of water in swamps and made it easier to trap eels by joining two swamps with a ditch cut one metre deep, 2.5 metres wide and more than three kilometres long.  They could cope with floods, they stored water in dry times.  Near Mount William west of Ararat they put in six hectares of ditches.  In a spell as Protector of Aborigines for New South Wales in the late 1830s, George Robinson described some of these works.  He also mentioned many low weirs built of stone, sod or timber with circular holes in them to take plaited fish and eel traps.  The Narrungdera group of the Wiradjuri people built a complex system of channels and dams to trap fish and eels in Bundigerry Creek, which joins the Murrumbidgee River near Narrandera.

The Alyawarre people of the Centre dammed gullies and short creeks running off hills to spread the water over the mulga plains where the best stands of grasses with edible seeds grew.  Panicum species especially provided a major source of food.

A means of carrying water was essential everywhere.  For coastal people it usually meant no more than something to carry water a few hundred metres from the supply to camp.  Those living in the Atherton Tableland of north Queensland made carriers by peeling off the inner bark ofCalophyllum tomentosum, a tree with no common name.  They shaped it, added handles and sealed it with the carbonaceous cell structure of stingless native bees.

Bangalow Palm (Archontophoenix cunninghamiana) made equally good carriers.  Those living where it grew took a wide base of a frond, pleated it at both ends so that it made a bag and tied a vine across the top as a handle.

Various mammal skins made excellent carriers inland.  Some carried them skin side out, some hair side out.  The gum of bloodwood made a good tanning mixture.  Kangaroo skins were outstanding carriers, holding about 18 litres of water and so shaped that they fitted comfortably across the shoulders.

In well-watered Tasmania springs were important because rivers and creeks were often so hard to get to.  And the several different people all liked something to drink their water from.  Throughout the country they left bailer shells at springs.  They not only made water carriers out of flat, wide stems of Bull Kelp (Durvillea potatorum) but they chose small, light fronds and drew them together at the end with wooden pins to make drinking cups.

Every social group everywhere in Australia treated water with respect and with understanding.  Although they managed the land to suit themselves, they also managed the land to suit the land.  They knew the consequence of every action.  They were so much part of the land, they knew that they could prosper only when it prospered.

The Tank Stream, now consigned underground, was the principal waterpoint for the first British colony.  It came out of a spring-fed marsh that covered present Market and Park Streets in Sydney.  It got its name after the supply failed in the drought of 1789-90 and Governor Phillip ordered stonemasons to cut three big reservoirs out of the rocky banks between present Pitt and George Streets.

The good water was soon sullied.  The behaviour of the settlers lacked even common sense.  They built houses along the stream and repeatedly walked the same paths to collect water with the result that the banks began to wash.  Then they built pigsties that drained into the stream after heavy rain.  Phillip threatened to pull down houses whose occupants polluted the stream but his repeated orders had little effect.  By 1810 there was a line of tanneries, dyeing houses, breweries, distilleries, slaughter-houses along the banks.  The ancient stream of pure water became a conduit for waste.  Luckily, wells dug on the porous sandstone yielded good supplies of water.

In the 1830s, Thomas Shepherd, Australia’s first professional gardener, was enthusiastic about the agricultural possibilities of such a benign climate: for every 1000 plants that could be cultivated in the open in Britain, Australia could  cultivate 3000.  But he imagined these new crops growing in paddocks with wide borders of native plants, a beautiful mosaic.  He castigated landowners for overclearing.

When you, gentlemen, first got your estates your ground was well furnished with beautiful shrubs.  You ignorantly set the murderous hoe and grubbing axe to work to destroy them, and the ground that had been full of luxurious verdure was laid bare and desolate…No person of taste who has seen the rocks which border the shores of Port Jackson, and the beautiful trees, flowering shrubs, rock lilies and other plants growing there indigenous in masses and groups, unequalled by the art of man, must but admire them.  No rocky scene in England or Scotland can be compared with it.

Strawberry Hill, to the immediate south-east of the brickworks, was a huge sand dune stabilised by a good stand of blackbutts, bloodwoods, angophoras and banksias.  This ran off into Surry Hills, a series of lesser dunes.  People began to exploit them for timber and firewood.  By the 1840s the whole area was drifting sand and eroded gullies.

In 1858 Sydney council made the first connection of houses to a sewer, despite protests by knowledgeable men.  Dr James Martin was one of them.  In 1840 he had been created master in surgery at the University of Glasgow.  On 19 March 1880 the Sydney Morning Herald published a letter from him denouncing the sewerage works:

I have been blamed for rashly giving a positive opinion in favour of the earth closet system for Sydney in opposition to the recommendations of competent civil engineers and commissioners who have carefully studied the subject … If the question had been merely as to the best mode of constructing sewers, I should have been quite ready to accept the conclusions of those whose education made them familiar with such works.  But when coupled with this simple question of mechanics, there are the questions of filling up harbours, polluting waters, poisoning the air, wasting valuable fertilising materials, and destroying the public health.’

Pollution of waters and waste of valuable fertiliser continues despite modern scientific knowledge of how to deal with sewage.  As I write this the harvesting of superior Sydney Rock Oysters in the Bellinger River on the north coast of New South Wales has been banned because of high levels of faecal coliforms, probably from septic tanks on farms.  Composting toilets provide clean fertiliser; they use minimal amounts of water; no bacteria can escape them.

A 1990 estimate by New South Wales Fisheries put the return from prawns, crabs and fish in mangrove swamps at $8,380 a hectare a year.  Harvesting costs only came out of that.  No other enterprise can compare with those returns.  Throughout Australia there were huge areas of swamps, both freshwater and saltwater.  They provided substantial amounts of food for indigenous people at little cost in labour.  Swamps enriched lives.  The European reaction to them was to drain them as waste ground so that it could be put to what they thought was better use.  Originally the function of swamps as water purifiers was not understood.  Doctors regarded them as unhealthy, and so they were, but not from the ‘miasmic vapours’ rising from them but from the mosquitoes carrying malaria and dengue fever.

A swamp on the lower Macleay River on the north coast of New South Wales occupied 24,000 hectares.  There was an even bigger swamp between the mouths of the Clarence and Richmond Rivers.  In 1848 an observer looking down from a hilltop reported a swamp fifty to sixty kilometres long.  Every river, every creek was strained through swamps and marshes somewhere.

Surveyors and land inspectors recommended the drainage of swamps.  At times recommendation became compulsion, a condition of lease.  Surveyors pointed out how easy the work would be, the swamps were provided with ditches and waterholes and many of them drained themselves in summer.  All that was needed was the extending and deepening of the natural drains to keep them dry all winter.

In the 1880s farmers on the lower Macleay with individual areas of swamp varying from eight hectares to four hundred formed drainage unions to carry the water to the river.  A flood in 1893, increased in speed and volume by the rush of water out of the drained swamps, cut a new exit into the sea near South West Rocks, 9 kilometres south of the old 1.6-kilometre-wide entrance beside Grassy Head.  The river lost its meander, where it dropped its mud in marsh and mangrove swamp, and rushed unfiltered into the sea.  The government cut a channel 600 metres long and 75 metres wide to speed it on its way with its load of mud.  The old river mouth silted.

During the last 20 years thousands of hectares of seagrass died in Hervey Bay in Queensland.  Acid run-off from canefields on drained swamps and muddy water from general farming destroyed this magnificent water.  3,000 dugong died and most of the fish.  The bay is dead and no longer an attraction to the thousands of overseas visitors who came to see the life in it.  No amount of overproduced sugar will pay for the damage.

On the Lachlan River in 1817 Oxley found it lost in marshes; in 1818 he lost the Macquarie River in even more extensive marshes.  Australia’s rivers were looking after the land.  They had devised a filtration system that could handle the biggest floods and an even more remarkable system to handle salt.

Lakes, billabongs, lagoons and swamps acted as settling ponds.  I have to talk in the past, we have rendered most of them ineffectual.  An astonishing number and diversity of plants made up the active filters.  They were designed by density, leaf shape, stem length, habit to remove solids of all sizes, even chemicals in solution.  Many of these plants disappeared as recently as fifteen years ago.  One of the main filters of New South Wales’s rivers were the Macquarie Marshes, once about 100,000 hectares of the three-metre tall reed Phragmites australis.  Sturt described the waters as ‘perfectly sweet to the taste, nor did the slightest smell as of stagnation proceed from them’.  The filtering job was perfect.

Most of these filters and settling ponds have gone, none of them are as effective as they used to be.  All are stocked, some are farmed, water has been diverted around some of them.  An astonishing diversity of plants made up the filters.  Of the tall plants like lignum and the reeds already mentioned, apart from River Red Gum and Coolabah, there were also cumbungi, canegrass, manna grass, Giant Sedge, Giant Rush up to 4.5 metres high, and dozens of lesser plants under the popular names of sedge, rush, nutgrass, water-milfoil, waterwort, mudmat, mudwort, hornwort, knotweed, spike-rush, Water Primrose, Dirty Dora, all of them equipped by density or leaf surface to slow down water and collect its solids, even in solution.  In the rivers themselves grew Water Couch, Red Azolla, and several species each of waternymph, arrowgrass, eel-weed, starfruit, swamp lily, duckweed, pondweed with floating leafy stems up to four metres long.  And they supported a busy complex animal life, a huge associated world.  All these plants grew profusely in all the northern waters of the Murray Darling basin only 15 years ago, now they are almost gone and with them their associated life.  Wondrously busy rivers are now barren irrigation channels.

Salt drainage took place through special aquifers which led to creeks and rivers.  They were distinct from the aquifers that ran with fresh water.  But for the salt drains to be effective it is essential that rivers drop to low levels, not regularly, not even yearly, but periodically for some months.  The natural state of our waterways was one of great irregularity.  At times of extended low water they ran with a concentration of salt that exceeded any present levels.  Since all fish had a marine origin native fish had no trouble.  Birds and mammals drank at springs or lakes – there were many.  The salt flushed away with the first flood.

Now, the artificial high level of rivers maintained by dams and weirs has stopped the draining of salt.  With flood irrigation lifting watertables, the salt has nowhere to go but up to the surface.  If methods do not improve, if all flood irrigation does not stop, four million hectares will be salted in the Murray-Darling Basin alone.  That is sufficient land to grow one quarter of Australia’s wheat and barley.  When the huge area of salted lands in Western Australia is added plus lesser areas such as the Liverpool Plains of New South Wales, twelve million hectares of agricultural land will go out of production in the lifetimes of most middle-aged Australians, a catastrophic loss.

When increasing numbers of sailing ships and steamers began plying the coastline, both to carry out Red Cedar logs and to carry produce into and out of the increasing number of coastal settlements, the rocky and sandy bars at almost every river mouth caused more wrecks and more deaths than could be tolerated.  Engineers began work on river mouths to make safer entrances.  No one can blame them for that.  But they worked with too much enthusiasm and too little knowledge and they did far more work than was necessary.  Our own river entrance at the Camden Haven follows a new path.  The walls that hold the water in the cut channel are known as ‘training walls’, surely a gross insult to river and sea accustomed to its own way for millions of years.  The result of new outlets and of walls projecting out into the sea is gross interference with the movement of sand.  Millions of tonnes are in constant movement, picked up here and deposited there as a matter of course.  It was a device to protect the coasts.  Now the whole mechanics of the movement of coastal waters with their prodigious loads of sand has been changed.  Harbours and river mouths are silting up.  We watch our two beautiful lakes in the Camden Haven grow shallower by the year.  The creeks and rivers bring down mud, the tide brings in sand and dumps it.

Engineers worked the Murray with the same destructive effect.  In the 1850s snagging parties rowed up from Wellington in South Australia to clear the river for the new paddlewheel steamers.  Murray Cod had their homes of a hundred years sawn up and dragged out of the river by horse teams.  These magnificent fish were in great numbers.  There are stories of a shorn sheep jumping over the side of a barge straight down the mouth of a Murray Cod.  Sheep were much smaller in the 19th century and a Murray Cod weighing eighty kilograms has an enormous mouth.  So much life was pulled out with the logs that the South Australian section of the Murray lost many of its invertebrates.

Animal and vegetable life in rivers depend on woody debris for food and shelter.  When a big River Red Gum falls into a river it can dump more than 8000 invertebrates into the water, spiders, bugs, beetles, flies, ants, wasps, scorpions, moths, others in lesser numbers.  They are immediate food.  Bacteria, fungi and invertebrates then begin work on the leaves and wood providing a feast of organic matter for millions of creatures visible and invisible.

The boilers of the paddlewheelers required wood to fire them.  An eight-week trip used about 140 tonnes.  Since for some thirty busy years a hundred or so steamers plied 6500 kilometres of the Murray-Darling rivers, enormous quantities of timber were burnt to power them.  Trees green and dead of several species disappeared for kilometres out from the banks.

As river traffic gave way to railways, irrigation began.  From Blanchetown to the border in South Australia and along the Murray to Mildura and beyond, scores of steam engines set down on the banks to drive big centrifugal pumps with long, crossed, leather belts.  Each engine used more than 30 tonnes of wood a day.  Stockpiles of several thousand tonnes each maintained a supply.

All the water pumped was for flood irrigation.  Despite the fact that Australian soil began to protest as early as the 1920s that it could not tolerate that method of watering, the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme was completed in 1972, a social and engineering marvel, an environmental disaster.  It harvested two beautiful rivers, the Snowy and the Eucumbene, and turned their water into the Murray and the Murrumbidgee to salt thousands of hectares of river flats by unsustainable methods of irrigation.

Sixteen dams were constructed as part of that work.  Other dams on other rivers followed, the most stupid of all the Copeton dam on the Gwydir River.  Before that dam some of the world’s richest land, the Moree watercourse country, was laid out naturally to be flooded every few years.  In a high flood an extent of country 80 kilometres long and 80 kilometres broad received gentle flooding varying in depth from a few centimetres to a metre.  The growth of pasture after such a flood was prodigious.

Dams and weirs are an offence to native fish accustomed to ranging hundreds of kilometres.  Even when fish ladders were put in they were built to a Canadian design for salmon.  The engineers forgot to teach Murray Cod and Yellowbelly to jump.  All water is released from the bottom of the dams.  Such water has little oxygen, it is ten degrees Celsius colder than river water and the temperature holds for 300 kilometres, putting native fish off feeding and breeding.  If top water only were taken, not a difficult engineering feat, dams would not be nearly so destructive.

It is fair to say that irrigation in Australia has been a failure.  Not all the electricity, not all the vegetables, not all the grapes, not all the rice, not all the cotton, can compensate for the damage already done by flood irrigation.  Irrigation is essential, we can not produce enough food without it.  But it has to be drip irrigation or well-managed sprays.  Not a drop more must go onto the  ground than the crop can use.

We can no longer use water as though it is plentiful.  Cities and towns are running dry.  In April 2006 the Pejar Dam, the main supply for the southern New South Wales town of Goulburn, was officially pronounced dry.  The future of many cities and towns, including Perth and Adelaide, is threatened through lack of drinking water.  We can not continue to destroy what was a rich and beautiful country under previous management.

Poet and prose writer Eric Rolls was made a Member in the Order of Australia (AM), 1992 for service to literature and environmental awareness. His many award-winning publications include They All Ran Wild (1969); Flowers and the Wide Sea: Volumes 1 and 2 (1992 and 1996). An edition of his Selected Poems was published by Angus and Robertson in 1990.


Annotations for ‘A Chant of Lost Water’

– Population of Australia.  General knowledge but for confirmation see ‘CIA –
The World Factbook – Australia’ on the internet; also ‘Australia –
Wikepedia, the free encyclopedia’.  These come up on Google in response
to ‘Population of Australia’.  It is now estimated at just over twenty

– Languages and percentage of those born overseas.  See

– Walked on to ceremonial ground.  Invasion to Embassy Land in Aboriginal
Politics in New South Wales, 1770-1972
, Heather Goodall, Allen & Unwin
in association with Black Books, 1996, p. 16.

– At least 1,500,000 people.  See Aboriginal Pathways in Southeast
Queensland and the Richmond River
, J. G. Steele, University of
Queensland Press, 1984, pp. 17, 148 and 187.  These give figures of 500
warriors on the Tweed River, and the populations of Fraser Island and
Yuggerah.  By adding these populations – there are not many such
figures available – 11,000 people lived on 8000 square kilometres.  Since
it is impossible that more than seventy per cent of the population was still
alive, all had suffered smallpox, the original population on that 8000
square kilometres was 16,000.  So the whole rich coastal strip from the
Camden Haven to the Queensland border and from the coast west to the
Great Dividing Range, 30,000 square kilometres, might well have
nourished 60,000 people.
I cut out a rectangle of that size and applied it to areas of equal
production on the map of Australia.  By suitable reduction of numbers in
less favourable areas ending with one person per hundred square
kilometres over a vast area of the dry Centre, the total population before
smallpox came to 1,500,000 with the probability that it was 2,500,000.

– Found water by following it down.  Archaeol. Oceania 21 (1986), ‘Nine
Simpson Desert Wells’, Luise Hercus and Peter Clarke, pp.51-62, p.61.
– Wangkangurru people.  The Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia, general
editor David Horton, published by Aboriginal Studies Press for the
Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies 1994,
Volume 2, M – Z, 1994, p.1147.  See also McLean M, P.679.

– Simpson Desert waterholes.  Man from Arltunga Walter Smith Australian
, R. G. Kimber, Hesperian Press, Western Australia, 1986, p.326.

– David Lindsay.  Royal Geographical Society of Australia, Trans. II, ‘Brief
notes on the aborigines met with by the Elder expedition of 1891-2, by
David Lindsay, Read at the Thirtieth Ordinary General Meeting, held in
the Arthaeneum Hall, 9th August, 1893, p. 43.

– Understood evaporation.  The Royal South Australian Almanack and General
Directory for 1840
, ‘The Country from Adelaide to the Head of Spencer’s
Gulf and to the eastward as far as the Murray’, report of Mr. Eyre, Robert
Thomas & Co., Adelaide, 1840, P.118.

– Ephemeral claypan water.  Petermann Journey, Walter Gill, Rigby
Limited, Adelaide, 1968, p.77.

– Water from tree roots and cavities in Desert Oaks.  Proceedings of the Royal
Geographical Society of Australasia, South Australian Branch Sessions
1889 to 1897-8
, vol. III, Adelaide, ‘Australian Aborigine’s Water-Quest’, A.
T. Magarey, Esq., Read June 28th, 1895, PP. 67-81, pp. 67-74.  The
names of some of the trees have changed.  For the new scientific names
and the distribution of the trees see Hakea in Encyclopaedia of Australian
Plants suitable for cultivation
, W. Rodger Elliot and David L. Jones,
Lothian, Melbourne, vol., 1990.  For the mallees see Flora of Australia vol.
19 Myrtaceae Eucalyptus Angophora, Australian Government Publishing
Service Canberra.  See also Wild Food in Australia, A. B. & J. W. Cribb,
Collins, Sydney, 1975, pp. 165-170.

– People on flat country.  Reading the Country, Kim Benterrak, Stephen
Muecke, Paddy Roe, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1984, p. 95.

– Dewy nights.  Magarey in Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society…
as above, P. 78.

– Waterholding Frogs.  Australia a Biography The Beginnings, University of
Queensland Press, Eric Rolls, Brisbane 2000, p. 247.  Information came
from The Centre the Natural History of Australia’s Desert Regions, Penny
van Oosterzee, Reed, 1991, PP. 124-127 and Australian Frogs A Natural
, Michael J. Tyler, Reed, Chatswood, 1994, PP. 88-92.

– Built dams.  Mankind, Vol. 7, No. 2, December 1969,’The Aboriginal
Dam in Northwestern New South Wales, R. J. Rowlands and J. M.
Rowlands, pp. 132-136.

– Dam that Leichhardt described.  Mankind as above P. 132.  See also
Australian Explorers, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Oxford University Press,
1959, P. 245.

–  Structures of logs, grass and clay.  Narrandera Shire, Bill Gammage,
published by Bill Gammage for the Narrandera Shire Council, 1986,
P. 20.

–  First fish farmers.  Sydney Morning Herald 13 March 2003, ‘Secrets of the
stones’, Graham Phillips, Insight P. 15; Towards a New Dreaming,
Clean Up Australia Ltd 1995, P. 19; History, Magazine of the Royal
Australian Historical Society, Number 42, August 1995, ‘Food from water
in Australian Prehistory’, Hans Bandler, PP. 8,9; Gundjitmara in
The Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia, general editor David Horton,
published by Aboriginal Studies Press for the Australian Institute
of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies 1994, Volume 1,
A – L, P. 438.

– Not the only eel farmers.  Australians to 1788, ed. by D. J. Mulvaney and J.
Peter White, Fairfax, Syme & Weldon Associates, Sydney, 1987, ‘Swamp
managers of Southwestern Victoria’, Harry Lourandos, PP. 293-307, PP.

– Toolando.  The Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia, general editor David
Horton, published by Aboriginal Studies Press for the Australian Institute
of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies 1994, Volume 2, M – Z,
P. 1084.

– George Robinson.  A Distant Field of Murder, Western Frontiers 1834-1848,
Jan Critchett, Melbourne University Press, 1990, pp. 56, 57, 58-61.

– Narrungdera.  Narrandera Shire, Bill Gammage, published by Bill Gammage
for the Narrandera Shire Council, 1056, P. 19.

– Alyawarre people.  Stone tools as cultural markers, R. V. S. Wright, ed.,
Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1977, ‘Adaptive significance of
the Panara or grass seed culture of Australia’, N. B. Tindale, 1977, pp.
345-349.  The people that Tindale refers to as Liaura are now spelt

– Peeling off the inner bark.  The Queensland Aborigines, vol. II, W. E. Roth,
Bulletins 1-8 ‘North Queensland Ethnography’, Hesperian Press, Western
Australia, Facsimile Editions 1984, Bulletin No. 7, ‘Domestic Implements,
Arts and Manufactures’, presented to both houses of Parliament
[Queensland] by command, Government Printer, Brisbane, 1904, 59.P.30.

– Bangalow Palm.  Wallumbin, The Creation and Early Habitation of the
Tweed Brunswick and Richmond Rivers of N.S.W.
, N. C. Keats, self-
published 1988 [Wollumbin is the Aboriginal name for Mount Warning],
P. 36.

– Various mammal skins.  The Two Worlds of Jimmy Barker, as told to Janet
Mathews, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 1988, pp. 6,7,147.  Also
Man from Arltunga Walter Smith Australian Bushman, R. G. Kimber,
Hesperian Press, Western Australia, 1986, p. 65.

– Bailer shells at springs.  A history of Tasmania, Volume I, Van Diemen’s
Land from the Earliest Times to 1855, Lloyd Robson, Oxford University
Press, Auckland, 1983, p. 223.

– Water carriers and drinking cups.  The Baudin Expedition and the
Tasmanian Aborigines 1802
, N. J. B. Plomley, Blubber Head Press,
Tasmania, 1983, François Péron p. 22.

Some of the information for the next section came from articles and talks given twenty years ago so I can not give the sources that I used.  However I can show where similar information can be obtained.

– Tank Stream.  A Difficult Infant Sydney Before Macquarie, edited by
Graeme Aplin, New South Wales University Press, Kensington, 1988,
pp. 32, 33.  The Companion Guide to Sydney, Ruth Park, Collins,
Sydney,1973, pp. 15, 18-19;  The Australian Encyclopaedia, The Grolier
Society of Australia, Volume 6, second edition 1958.  J. F. Campbell wrote
‘The Valley of the Tank Stream’ for The Royal Australian Historical Society
in 1923, probably the November edition, pp. 63-303.

– Thomas Shepherd.  Shepherd gave two talks on horticulture at the
Mechanics Institute, Sydney, in 1834.  The Herald of that year reported
them.  They were published as Lectures on the Horticulture of New South
Wales delivered at the Mechanic’s School of Arts, Sydney
, pp. iv, 1835 and
Lectures on Landscape Gardening in Australia, Sydney, 1836 pp. viii.
Both the Mitchell Library and the Botanic Gardens have copies.  The
quote from Shepherd can be found in Cherish the Earth The Story of
Gardening in Australia
, Beatrice Bligh, The David Ell Press, Sydney, p. 43.

– Strawberry Hill.  Surry Hills The City’s Backyard, Christopher Keating, Hale
& Iremonger, Sydney, 1991, pp. 13, 14.
– Dr James Martin.  Sydney Morning Herald, 19 March 1880.

– Martin’s fears of pollution became nauseatingly obvious.  See Ruth Park’s
The Companion Guide to Sydney as above, p. 99.  In a book called An
Australian Ramble
published in London in 1890, J. E. Ritchie also
criticised Sydney’s sewerage system: ‘The rate of infant mortality is
alarmingly high. In Australia as in the old country, they have not yet
learned what to do with their sewage. In Sydney they laid out a million of
money, and then discovered that they had simply poured all their filth
into the harbour’.

– A 1990 estimate.  Information from Craig Copeland, a habitat biologist
with New South Wales Fisheries at Wollongbar east of Lismore whom I
interviewed in 1993.

– An observer looking down from a hilltop.  He was Charles Grant Tindal.
The Richmond River Historical Society at Lismore holds a broken run of
his letters from 1844 to 1848.  He reported the swamp in a diary entry
dated June 15, 1848.  The other swamp references are with my papers in
the National Library.  They are in an envelope marked The North Coast
Story.  I used them when writing that chapter in From Forest to Sea,
University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1993.

– Recommended the draining.  Many references can be found.  River
Control in New Zealand and Victoria
, 1941, H. G. Strom, State Rivers and
Water Supply Commission pp. 106, 107.   See Black Swamp Habitat in
swamp-habitat.pdf.  [NB ‘Back-swamp’ in address].  Lake
Monger, Western Australia, tells of the drainage of a whole system of
lakes: www.answers.com/topic/lake-monger-western-australia.  For
inspections, a paper in Victorian parliamentary papers gives a good
example: Lease of Swamp at Yering, 1864-65, presented to both houses
of parliament by His Excellency’s command, pp. 2.

– Farmers in the 1880s.  Information from Craig Copeland, as above, in
1993.  There is more information in my North Coast papers in the
National Library, including the story of the 1893 flood.

– Seagrass died and death of dugongs.  The extent of this damage can be
found in Occurrence and Conservation of the Dugong in NSW Australia
www.imaginecruises.com.au/dolphin-research/dugong.html; also in
Coastcare Week 2002: Keep our marine life out of strife! (Dugongs)…
www.deh.gov.au/media/dept-mr/cc02dec702.html, and in

– Lost in marshes.  Australian Explorers A Selection from their Writings with
an Introduction by Kathleen Fitzpatrick
, Oxford University Press, London,
1959.  For Lachlan see John Joseph Oxley pp. 58,59; for Macquarie see
Oxley pp. 66, 67.

– Perfectly sweet to the taste.  I got this reference years ago from Sturt’s
book in a library.  The book is on the internet and comes up on Google
to ‘Two expeditions into the interior of southern Australia’.  The
reference is in chapter 1.  No page numbers are given but the quote
comes up if Find is asked for ‘perfectly sweet’.  It is in a chapter headed ‘Causes of the Failure of the River’.

– An astonishing diversity of plants.  All of these with their scientific and
common names are in Plants of Western New South Wales, G. M.
Cunningham, W. E. Mulham, P. L. Milthorpe and J. H. Leigh, Soil
Conservation Service of New South Wales (no date of publication is
given – Neville Wran wrote the foreword as premier): see Angiosperms-
Monocots pp. 37-46, Water Couch p. 127, Swamp Foxtail p. 128,
Cyperaceae pp. 155-173, the seven families beginning with Lemnaceae p.
173 and ending with Juncaeae pp. 176-180, Polygonum and Rumex
species pp. 231-236, Water-Lily p. 307, Hornwort p. 308, River
Buttercup, p. 309, Water Primrose p. 533, Myriophyllum species pp. 538,
539, Wavy Marshwort  p. 551, Mentha species pp. 573,574,
Scrophulariaceae pp. 596-598, Water Buttons p. 670, Sneezeweeds pp.

– Now they are almost gone.  The Murray, ed. by Norman Mackay and
David Eastburn, Murray Darling Basin Commission, Canberra, 1990,
‘Water Plants’, Geoffrey Sainty and Surrey Jacobs pp. 265-273.

– The sources for the story of salt drainage are in the National Library in
envelopes marked either ‘Trees, Trees, Trees’ or ‘The Billion Trees of
Man’.  This is a chapter in my From Forest to Sea published by University
of Queensland Press in 1993.  The story was originally published in the
Independent Monthly in June 1990.  It won the Greening Australia
Journalism Award and the inaugural Landcare Media Award.  See also
The Murray A River and its People, Paul Sinclair, Melbourne University
Press, 2001, pp. 106, 107.

– Concentration of salt that exceeded present levels.  Southern Fisheries,
Volume 6 Number 5 Summer 1999/2000, ‘Will river Murray fish survive
rising salinity?’, pp. 14, 15.

– Snagging.  It was still being recommended in the 1940s.  See River
Control in New Zealand and Victoria
, H. G. Strom, State Rivers and
Water Supply Commission, Melbourne, 1941, pp. 102-106.

– Effects of desnagging.  The Murray, ed. by Norman Mackay and
David Eastburn, Murray Darling Basin Commission, Canberra, 1990,
‘Macroinvertebrates’, Garry Bennison and Phillip Suter, pp. 286-301,
p. 298.

– Importance of woody debris.  Proceedings of the Workshop on Native Fish
, Murray-Darling Basin Commission, Canberra 16 17 June
1988, ‘Management of snags (woody debris) and river and floodplain
vegetation for native fish in the Murray-Darling river system;, L. W. Lloyd
& K. F. Walker, pp. 99, 100.

– Wood to fire them.  The History of Bourke, vol. XI 1988, Bourke Historical
Society, p. 175.  The society holds a copy of the log of Captain Thomas
Freeman’s first voyage from Echuca to Bourke in 1879.

– To salt thousands of hectares.  The Journal of the Royal Historical Society,
Special Riverina Issue
, December 1994Volume 80, Parts 3 & 4, ‘Regional
Water Wars: River Leagues and the origin of the Snowy Scheme’, Donald
Boadle, pp. 195-211, p. 211.  Many newspaper articles , much discussion
among scientists.

– Moree watercourse country.  In 1993 Rob McCosker of the Department of
Ecosystem Management in the University of New England published an
important study of the Gingham watercourse.  His paper is with my
papers in the National Library.  See also a letter dated 29 June 1994
from Kate Boyd, National Parks Australia Inland Rivers Network
representative, to Mr Souris, Minister for Land & Water Conservation,
Parliament House, Sydney, headed ‘Water Management Strategy for
Gwydir Wetlands’.

– Dams and weirs an offence to native fish.  Proceedings of the Workshop
on Native Fish Management
, Murray-Darling Basin Commission, Canberra
16 17 June 1988, ‘Fish passage in the Murray-Darling Basin’, M. Mullen-
Cooper, pp. 123, 124.  the reference to the fishways based on designs
for salmon is on p. 124.

– Cold water from dams.  Watershed, September 2001, Cooperative
Research Centre for Freshwater Ecology, ‘Cold Water Pollution: Barren,
Wintry rivers in Mid-Summer’, John Harris, pp. 3,4,

– Irrigation a failure.  I reached that conclusion after years of reading the
evidence.  A few years ago, Holmes and Sackett, farm advisers in Wagga
Wagga, reached the same conclusion in one of their papers to



1. Some paragraphs of part of ‘Chant of Lost Water’ were published in ‘A Song of Water’ published in Island 102, Spring 2005.

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