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Cultural Values of the Great Artesian Basin Fact Sheet


An essential resource

The Great Artesian Basin is one of the largest underground water systems in the world. It underlies more than one-fifth of the Australian continent, extending across parts of the Northern Territory, Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia. Its groundwater is vital environmentally, socially, economically and culturally—particularly in the arid and semi-arid country to the west of the Great Dividing Range. In this vast area of unpredictable rainfall and high evaporation, rivers rarely flow and there are relatively few permanent waterholes.

Importance of the Basin to Aboriginal Australians

Over millennia, Aboriginal people have established travel routes between the many springs fed by the Basin. The existence of these semi-permanent waterholes has facilitated trade in ochre (for ceremonies), stones (to make weapons and tools), food and other commodities. Many of the sites continue to be used as meeting places and for ceremonial practices, such as initiation ceremonies, funerals, marriages and corroborees—reinforcing the strong cultural connection that Aboriginal Australians have with the Basin.

In Aboriginal lore, spiritual beings (such as the rainbow serpent) created aquifers, springs, ecosystems and landscapes. Aboriginal people recount the activities of these beings in creation stories and songlines.

Examples of Basin creation stories include:

  • Arkaroo’s Dreamtime journey—how the water serpent created waterholes at VG Rangers, South Australia
  • Biammi
  • Gurangatch and Mirragan—how the lizard man and quall created waterholes and caves in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales
  • Meem-maa-gar Gaunggan (St Mary’s Waterhole)
  • Munda-gadda
  • The formation of spring waterholes in the Flinders Ranges
  • The freshwater at Raymanggirr
  • The origin of Narran Lake
  • Three brothers
  • Tjilbruke and the coastal springs.

Basin creation stories serve to protect the quality and quantity of spring water and the Indigenous people, animals and plant species that rely on the Basin’s natural resources.

In-depth mapping, culturally appropriate research and quantification of cultural water requirements at spring sites will help all Australians better understand the importance to Aboriginal people of groundwater-dependent sites. Work has been done on the western margin but is urgently needed on spring sites across the Basin as development pressures increase.

Colonial heritage of the Basin

In the 19th century, colonial governments and individuals established pastoral stations and transport and communications routes near Basin springs. The Overland Telegraph and original narrow-gauge Ghan railway between Marree and Oodnadatta were built along a line of Basin springs. The outback tourism industry draws on this heritage.

In 1878 the first shallow bore sunk near Bourke in New South Wales produced flowing water. Discoveries in Queensland followed, with flows struck at Back Creek east of Barcaldine in 1886 and at Thurrulgoonia near Cunnamulla in 1887. By 1915 over 1 500 flowing artesian bores had been drilled throughout the Basin. Assured of reliable water supplies, more settlers drove their stock westward. On properties, thousands of kilometres of bore drains were dug to carry water to stock. Prime sheep and cattle were raised on the vast Mitchell grass, mulga and spinifex plains xxxx.

Future of the Basin and its outback comunities

Today, the Basin is the primary source of water for many rural communities and for agricultural, mining, cultural and tourism activities in outback Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and the Northern Territory.

The ‘outback’ is central to Australia’s identity. Every year, thousands travel to Australia’s arid interior to visit its iconic attractions and to better understand its diverse landscapes, human history and cultural diversity. Growth in the tourism industry depends on maintaining the Basin’s unique ecosystems, its cultural and environmental values, and the supply of sufficient water for infrastructure and services.

The Basin is vital to the future of Australia’s unique outback.

More information

Great Artesian Basin Coordinating Committee Secretariat
Water Division, Department of Agriculture and Water Resources
GPO Box 858
Canberra ACT 2601
Phone 1800 900 090

July 2016