Wagiman sacred women’s site at Douglas Hot Springs impacted by government bore: ABC

By Jack Hislop 10 Oct 2023

Read the original article here on the ABC website

Douglas Hot Springs has been closed since 2019. Supplied: DEPWS

Key points:

  • Douglas Hot Springs have been closed since 2019 due to “water supply issues”
  • The ABC can now reveal a government bore was drawing water from a sacred site
  • The ongoing closure is affecting tourism in the area, according to nearby operators

A sacred women’s site located near a popular hot springs tourism spot in the Northern Territory has been impacted by a government-constructed bore, authorities say.

Douglas Hot Springs, about 200 kilometres south of Darwin, was temporarily closed in 2019 due to “water supply issues”.

At the time, NT Parks and Wildlife (NTPW) said the decision to close the site had been made “for hygiene reasons, as the bore is unable to service the [hot springs’ toilet] blocks”.

“A poor wet season resulted in a lower-than-normal water table, which has fallen below the bore’s intake level,” NTPW wrote in a post on Facebook.

“[The closure] includes all camping, swimming and day use areas.”

Four and a half years later, the popular tourist spot remains closed.

But the ABC can now reveal that before the 2019 closure, the government bore servicing the hot springs’ toilet blocks had been drawing water from a nearby sacred site.

Picture of a sign to a national park in front of a gate and padlock which shuts off entry

NT Parks and Wildlife initially said the hot springs had been closed due to “water supply issues”. ABC News: Peter Garnish

The body responsible for overseeing the protection of NT sacred sites confirmed it was “aware of concerns that a bore was impacting a sacred women’s site” at the springs.

“[The] Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority … understands traditional owners and the Northern Land Council (NLC) are working to resolve the issue,” a spokesperson said.

Under the territory’s Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act, the NT government can be prosecuted for sacred site damage.

Information initially withheld by NT government

Also known by its traditional name of Tjuwaliyn, the hot springs are located on the lands of the Wagiman people.

In August, the ABC sought further information through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the NT government.

It identified 83 pages of correspondence relating to the springs — 74 of which were either fully or mostly redacted.

Aerial shot of water following through an arch of rocks with trees overhanging

The Douglas Daly region is located on the lands of the Wagiman people. ABC News: Peter Garnish

At the time, an FOI officer told the ABC the redactions were made in part because of “the harm … that would be caused to the measures put into place to protect a place of cultural and historical significance”.

In weighing up the decision to redact the information, the officer also conceded full disclosure of the documents would have promoted “open discussion of public affairs and enhanced the government’s accountability”.

On Monday, in response to questions, an NTPW spokesperson disclosed that the hot springs had been closed in part due to “traditional owner concerns that the water supply to the campground was connected to the aquifer of the sacred site”.

The spokesperson said the bore had been drilled by the NT government in 1986, before the NT Sacred Sites Act commenced in 1989.

Water issues related to land claim

In November 2022 Wagiman traditional owners settled a long-running land claim with the NT government, with both parties agreeing on a way to address “water supply issues” at the springs, according to an NLC spokesperson.

This would be done “by drilling a new bore to draw water from the Tindall aquifer”.

“The resolution of the land claim and the water supply issues at Tjuwaliyn are related and have been pursued in tandem,” the NLC spokesperson said.

“The agreement secures future public access to Tjuwaliyn once the water supply issues are resolved.”

A serene tropical creek in evening light.

The hot springs were popular with both locals and interstate tourists before their closure. Supplied: Sally Cummings

It is unclear when those water supply issues will be resolved.

Tourism ‘would double’ if hot springs reopened: Operators

Leanne and Anthony Lane, who own the nearby Douglas Daly Holiday Park, said the closure of the hot springs was affecting their business.

The couple bought the park in July 2020 after being frequent visitors themselves.

Woman stands at bar near cash register in front of fridges of drinks

Leanne Lane says the closure of the hot springs is deterring tourists. ABC News: Peter Garnish

“We thought it’d be a great experience to show the visitors what the attractions are around the area,” Ms Lane said.

But they said the closure of the hot springs has left visitors disappointed.

“We get phone calls quite often asking ‘when are the hot springs going to open?’ And they just don’t come,” she said.

A sign saying two tourist attractions down a road are closed.

The nearby Butterfly Gorge has also been closed indefinitely. ABC News: Peter Garnish

The other major drawcard in the area, Butterfly Gorge, has also been closed indefinitely since September, due to crocodile management work.

“If Tjuwaliyn Hot Springs was to reopen, tourism in the Daly River region would double,” Ms Lane said.

“Having the hot springs not open, a lot of people are deterred from coming, because that’s the main attraction.”