A soakage, or soak, is a source of water in Australian deserts, called as such because the water generally seeps into the sand and is stored below ground, sometimes as part of an ephemeral river or creek.
Soakages were once a dependable and important water source for Australian Aboriginal people and although many are dried or contaminated now, they can still be found across the deserts.
Aboriginal elder Lena Pwerle of Utopia is a keeper of traditional knowledge of soakages in her area. She knows their names and locations, although she says it's getting harder to remember because her people don't drink from these sources now. Nowadays, retaining this community knowledge is under great threat.
“Long time [ago] olden time mob get their little coolamon (bowl), they check them [soakages] – proper good one water! They been find ‘em under the ground. My grandmother taught me where to find ‘em."
'Soakage' painted by Ahalpere artist Lena Pwerle
180cm x 90cm
Some soakages are found in the form of rockholes hidden by overgrown foliage, others under the sand where digging is required, and some are the length of football fields sunken into the ground like a swamp.
Pictured below left and centre is a large soakage in Arnkawenyerr country that has been flooded by continuous rain. Ordinarily one would need to dig beneath the surface of the ground to get a pool of water there, but in this case children could swim in it.
Pictured above right is a sacred soakage called Aremela Rock Hole in Ilkawerne country which is now contaminated but once the source of a great water supply for the neighbouring communities. Clumps of long grass that grew nearby were utilised to scoop the water when levels were low and hard to reach.
As with many soakages located on land where stations exist, Aremela has become contaminated due to introduced livestock and no longer provides safe drinking water.
Soakages that could be protected from fouling by animals would be covered with dead branches, or wire mesh in recent times. Other soakages, ones found under the sand, were naturally protected and could be dug with coolamons until clear water pooled in the bottom of their dig.
Years ago, it was extremely important to know where soakages were yet often extremely hard to find to those unfamiliar to the land.
"For a white man the difficulty in this country is that there is no way in which he can find the wells and soaks unless he does so by chance, and certainly nothing to indicate that the well is there, nor as a rule, even when the terrain and at least its superficial geological formation, the lie of the country, is examined, is there anything to explain the presence of water when he does find it" - Anthropologist Donald Thomson
With their intimate knowledge of the land, desert Aboriginal people knew how and where to find them.