A red dusty road stretches out in front of our bus as we hurtle northeast away from Alice Springs. By the time we arrive at our campsite dust has found its way into every nook and cranny of the bus and our luggage. The Sandover River is a dry, wide and sandy riverbed with a thin line of straggly trees marking each bank, offering patches of elusive shade. Hugging the edge of the riverbed are a haphazard row of small blue tents; they look strangely out of place. Our campsite is several hundred metres away from the Soapy Bore Aboriginal community and we can just see a rooftop or two above the low shrub.  It is quiet – deeply quiet – and tranquil, and in the distance a dog barks. I can almost feel the earth breathing around me. 

I wonder about the notorious flash floods in dry riverbeds in the outback, remembering stories about walls of water descending on unsuspecting tourists.  We are reassured that the river flows about once every ten years and only after heavy rain.  We would have plenty of warning.

The days are hot and the temperature reaches mid 30s most days or even higher. There is little shade and we huddle around the few trees trying to stay out of the sun. In the afternoon, once the shade extends out from the bank on the other side, we make what becomes known as ‘the crossing’; hoisting folding chair, water bottle, hats and books to trudge through the thick hot sand to the other side. This journey at times seems exhausting, but somehow symbolic of something significant and bigger than us all. On some days it seems interminable, it’s all I can do to muster the energy required to get to the other side.

People from the Soapy Bore community come down to watch – sitting in small groups at a distance. The children are curious and wend their way through the scrub to see what we are doing. We can hear their voices laughing and calling long before we see them. They gather around us speaking Alyawarre, the local language; a rhythmic rise and fall of words, like river water rippling over rocks.

The children show us how to dig down to cooler sand. Cooler sand that is slightly moist, water under the riverbed. Is this the river underneath us? Is it left over water from the last time the river flowed, rains that have soaked down into the earth? Or is it ground water that has seeped up from the layers of rock below? I am fascinated by what I know of the Great Artesian Basin, groundwater that falls as rain in Queensland and takes more than a million years to seep through the sub-strata, eventually reaching the surface again and emerging from mound springs in South Australia. I wonder where this Soapy Bore water comes from.

We become obsessed with water knowing that in the heat we won’t last long without it. We feel vulnerable and keep our water bottles close by. We need to keep drinking, simply to survive the heat. A big tanker full of bore water for drinking and washing is parked near our kitchen area. The tanker has a constant leak – a little river of water that twists away from the truck and disappears into the sand: a waste of something so precious, yet despite our efforts we can do nothing to stop it.

We fall asleep at night lying in our swags on the riverbed, water underneath us, somewhere below. We have dreams about water, being underground, dreams about lying under the ground, dreams about what is on and what lies underneath the surface of the earth.

I dream I am in Utopia, in the sand. Kam gives me an igloo…I am unsure of the usefulness of an igloo in the desert but Kam tells me to bury it and it will be useful in the future.

In my dream a trough alongside us becomes a swimming pool, I swim naked while my best friends swim in bikinis.

I dream I am in a swimming pool. There are men in the pool swimming: I assume they are looking after a small child who is left by himself up one end of the pool. The baby seems to be struggling, so I lift him up and put him on the side of the pool.

I dream all the members of our group are submerged just below the surface of the Sandover River all lying parallel to the ground and barely below the surface, visible through the water. There is an eerie feeling about this as it looks a little like death or pre-birth with blue and grey hues, the water almost like a membrane resting just above us all.  

I dream I am in ‘far north France’ looking at black stones, a place where pilgrims in the fifteenth century stayed for a week before continuing their pilgrimage. I  see footmarks on the ground where the walking had worn into the stone. Overlaid was an Aboriginal design, like a painting on the ground, also showing the way.

I am in an underground space; the walls were made of earth and were rounded – there were two tunnels running off at right angles.

Our associations to the dreams explore notions of surface and depth, of boundaries and layers.  We explore the boundary between air, earth and water. We wonder where dreams and stories are held.  Where and how is knowledge stored so it can be uncovered in the future? What is imprinted in us and how does this affect the way we understand each other. What do we bury, what is hidden, what do we bare?

After a day or so, the Aboriginal women start coming down to the edge of our camp. They bring paintings and lay them on the ground, then sit quietly and wait. The women do not directly invite us to look at their paintings and we approach with some hesitation. This begins to feel like an unspoken encouragement to enter a far more intimate experience of the Aboriginal land we are camped on; a glimpse of visual and verbal representations of a culture and things potentially unknowable.

The paintings are beautiful, intricate stories that belong to each painter, stories that belong to their own country.  We are told that these stories have been passed through countless generations, and are entrusted to those who are responsible for that country. When we ask the women to tell us about the paintings, heads draw close and stories are offered in whispers; stories to be respected and cherished: ‘Honey flower dreaming’, ‘Kurrajong leaves’, ‘Bush plum’. Many paintings are simply described as ‘country’. I sense the richness and depth in this word, and Kam explains that ‘country’ encompasses many things. Country is not just land but language, culture, law and spirit; a wholeness of life and connection to land. I begin to feel these paintings as more than visual representations of country. They draw us into something deeper; to move beyond the surface of the canvas to a more tangible and physical embodiment of country.

We want to buy the paintings and stumble through negotiations about price. We are keen to honour the inherent value of the paintings and seek advice from Kam about what would be reasonable. Our verbal communication is tentative and we struggle to find the right words. In contrast, the agreements we reach feel immediate and concrete, business transactions.

On a shopping trip into the local store, Kam introduces me to a woman called Lena Pwerle, a well-known artist and respected elder. She is sitting just inside the door of the shop on the concrete floor, I squat down and chat to her. Kam asks if we can come and see some of her paintings and we make a time for the following afternoon. We load the car up the next day and make our way to Lena’s camp; simple wiltjas and caravans scattered around on bare earth. Lena is sitting on the ground, hosing the ground around her to cool it down. She sends off one of the children to fetch a painting from a nearby car. The child comes back with a long canvas roll that hangs back over her shoulders, touching the ground. The painting is laid out on the damp earth and a dog walks over it. It is two metres square – a dazzling burst of rich colours. I ask Lena to tell the story of this painting and she describes it as ‘soakage water’, ‘that water that lives under the ground’. She explains that in the old days, before they put in the bores, the old people would press a coolamon into the soakage to gather water. I was overwhelmed by the significance of this painting for me, linking to our dreams of water, water under the ground, themes of surface and depth. It seemed symbolic of the whole process of social dreaming.

The image of ‘soakage’ represents a boundary or membrane between what is above and what is below the surface of the earth. Water underneath the surface rises to the top to be collected, to nourish: water that has been in the layers of rock below for thousands, if not millions of years. What memory does the water hold? Perhaps ‘soakage’ also describes the process we as visitors to this place are invited into when we experience the paintings. The canvas and paint act as a surface, or membrane; a point at which ‘country’, culture and story emerges to give those who are willing to immerse themselves a hint of things otherwise hidden, vast and unknowable. 

I think of our dreams in this way too, seeping through time, through the different layers of our unconscious being, coming to the surface only through our remembering. If our dreams are part of a collective universal dreaming, what memory might they hold? Social dreaming is at the boundary between the Great Artesian Basin of our collected and collective dreams and our waking conscious life. Our social dreaming sessions are a way of gathering the material of the unconscious, that which lies below the surface: dream material seeping upwards through our dreams to be sometimes remembered. The social dreaming matrix becomes the coolamon that gathers and holds the dreams. This feels more than a gathering though; there is a sense of nourishment here, of dreams, water and painting slaking thirst.

On our last night, a soft dark moonless night, I drag my swag out close to the fire in the middle of the riverbed and drift off to sleep.

I dream I am sleeping in a swag out in the open, in the middle of a dry riverbed. I look up at the night sky, millions of clear bright stars on a moonless night.

I wake up, in my swag, in the riverbed.  Boundaries dissolve and realities merge; dreaming and waking/sleeping life become one.

Text by Jill Webb

Soakage painting by Lena Pula