Getting Water

Article | Updated 4 years ago

Courtesy Phil Withers
Water-holding frog

Gnarlbine Soak

Gnarlbine Soak was a very important water source for Aboriginal people. The first European to discover the soak was explorer Henry Lefroy in 1863. Gnarlbine then became a vital stopping place for explorers and prospectors.

By 1894, the government had provided what it believed to be ‘a permanent water supply,’ with six wells in the area for the thousands on the track between Southern Cross and the goldfields. The wells were instrumental in the opening up of the Eastern Goldfields before the development of the Goldfield pipeline in 1903.

Gnarlbine Soak has been registered as a site of historical significance and can be visited today.

Image of Gnarlbine Soak

Gnarlbine Soak
Courtesy Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts

Water-Holding Frogs

Sometimes, water could be found in surprising places:

He was perishing from thirst, and, at the last gasp, he came to a clay-pan which, to his despair, was quite dry and baked hard by the sun. He gave up all hope, not so his black boy, who after examining the surface of the hard clay, started to dig vigorously, shouting, ‘No more  tumble down, plenty water here!’ Struggling to the side of his boy, he found that he had unearthed a large frog blown out with water, with which they relieved their thirst. Subsequent digging disclosed more frogs, from all of which so great a supply of water was squeezed that not only he and his boy but the horses also were saved from a terrible death!

David Carnegie, Explorer and prospector, 1898

The Northern Burrowing Frog (Neobatrachus aquilonius) is one of several water-holding frog species to be found in arid areas. When inactive (aestivation), the frog forms a cocoon to conserve water. Aboriginal people are able to locate these frogs underground, and then squeeze out the water to drink.


Image of water-holding frog

Water-holding frog
Courtesy Phil Withers

The Water Problem

If only the water problem could be solved the world would be astonished by the production of the precious metal.

Catherine Bond writing of her visit to the goldfields in 1896

Initially, the tent settlement at Hannans' (on the goldfield) depended on Hannan's Lake: a salt lake located at some distance from the field. Private condensers were established at Hannan's Lake to purify the water, and camels and horses were then used to carry the water in tanks to the tent camps on the field. The supply became increasingly precarious as the number of men rapidly increased. Water supply became such a concerning issue that the government began to warn people against moving to the goldfields.

As thousands headed to the 'fields water became a priority. The government responded by building water tanks, and sinking wells and bores. However, the water was mostly salty and needed purifying through a process of condensation. Due to the arid climate, the price of water fluctuated according to rainfall levels.

By 1894, Coolgardie’s principal water source was a government bore, sunk to a depth of around 170 feet (52 metres) and producing around 3000 to 4000 gallons (14-18 kilolitres) per day. A horse and whim, more commonly used for mining, were used to haul water to the surface, but the process was slow. Men queued for hours to have their water bags and buckets filled with the brackish liquid at one shilling a gallon.

Image of men queuing for water at Dunnsville, NNW of Coolgardie, c.1890s

Queuing for water at Dunnsville, NNW of Coolgardie, c.1890s
Courtesy State Library of Western Australia 4732B/1


Image of a man pumping water on the goldfields, c.1900

Pumping water on the goldfields, c.1900
Image copyright WA Museum

The poor quality of goldfields water meant that water filters were popular. Unfortunately, they were ineffective against disease. An 1894 British Medical Journal report stated:

None of these filters possess the power of intercepting micro-organisms...We must conclude that these filters not only confer no protection, but in all probability materially increase the risk of infection.

Something drastic needed to be done.