Gnamma Holes

Article | Updated 3 years ago

Rainfall is low and unpredictable in Australia’s arid regions, but water can be found if you know where to look. The traditional owners of the lands surrounding Kalgoorlie depended on and protected such seemingly hidden water sources for many thousands of years. When Europeans arrived, they relied upon, and often forced, this ancient knowledge from the Aboriginal people to help them locate a variety of water sources, that included wells, claypans, soaks and springs.

One of the main sources of water for the Aboriginal people were ‘gnamma’ holes. These natural cavities are commonly found in hard rock, particularly granite outcrops, and as such act as natural water tanks, which are replenished from underground stores and rainwater run-off. Gnamma holes vary in shape and depth, and the small surface area of the hole helps to minimise evaporation.

Gnamma Hole

Gnamma Hole
Image courtesy Mark Cowan

Aboriginal people would lay sticks and leaves over the narrow openings of the gnamma holes in order to protect the precious water sources from being fouled by animals, and to further help prevent evaporation. They did not waste water, ‘getting every drop that was to be had,’ with some wells as deep as thirty feet. A dry season meant that they were forced to go deeper for water, 'plastering the sides with mud as they got lower.’

 

Sketch of a Gnamma Hole

Gnamma Hole
Annual Report 1894, Department of Mines. http://valuingheritage.com.au/learningfederation/5520.html


This sketch by S Göczel shows a landscape with three Indigenous people approaching a gnamma hole. Underneath the scene is a cross-section of the gnamma, revealing it to be a deep hole capable of holding water.

What scenes of bitter quarrels these watering-places have witnessed! The selfish striving, each to help himself, the awful sufferings of man and beast, horses and camels mad with thirst, and men cursing the country and themselves, for wasting their lives and strength in it; but they have witnessed many an act of kindness and self-denial too.

David Carnegie writing of his 1896-97 expedition

By the early 1890s the trickle of new arrivals coming to search for gold had became a deluge. The population of Western Australia went from 49,782 in 1891 to 100,515 in 1895. This increase put pressure on water sources, and many of the Aboriginal watering places were subsequently drained,  destroyed, polluted by animals  or lined to create more permanent water supplies for the newcomers.

Monochrome photograph of watering camels at gnamma hole, 1890s-1900s

Watering camels at gnamma hole, 1890s-1900s
Courtesy State Library of Western Australia 010175PD

 

Monochrome photograph of cameleer pumping water for camels, c.1900s

Afghan camel driver pumping water for thirsty camels, c.1900s
Courtesy State Library of Western Australia

New settlements began to lure Aboriginal people from the desert. In time, and through a combination of severe drought and an increased desire for Western goods, initial sporadic encounters led to increasingly permanent contact between very different cultures.