Early in the morning of 31st December 2014 before the sun became too strong, we set up outside and prepared to open our old well.
It’s not the first time we’ve done this. Our last house also had a well, but that one was only six metres deep and a little wider, being of 1870’s construction. Unfortunately we discovered in that instance that it had been concreted at the bottom and in effect turned into an underground tank collecting roof runoff.
Our present well is much older, deeper and narrower. We thought about 1850’s, but the presence of railway sleepers suggests fifteen years later as the railway only came to our town in about 1868. However, the bolts in the railway sleepers are very much handmade without many tools so it’s hard to be sure. Perhaps they shipped the sleepers by bullock from an existing line.
This is how it looks when shut. You’d hardly know it was there.
It looks dangerous but the lid is actually fairly solid, with four beams under the corrugated iron. It’s also very heavy to lift, definitely a two person job.
Working with any structure in rural Australia which is not handled daily by humans is a very dangerous business. We had boots and gloves and hats, plenty of sunblock and plenty of water. The first discovery was the redback spider under the lid. Redbacks are rather dangerous and are everywhere in inland South Australia. We killed what we found but it was the first warning to be very careful.
The heat is what causes most problems with taking care. Anyone can be alert and careful on a cool day, but those who work outside for long hours in 35 degrees Celsius or more will become tired. If dehydrated as well they are quickly exhausted and generally push on because they know they shouldn’t be exhausted, given the small amount of work they’ve done. This is a big trap for anyone unaccustomed to our climate and conditions. Once tired, that’s when a person forgets to check every gate or tree stump for dangers before touching it.
Then we looked into the well and found our second impediment.
We weren’t actually planning to go into the well, so this wasn’t a huge impediment. Just something to be constantly aware of. It was good to know whether snakes could get into the well. For a while we weren’t sure if it was stuck in there, or if the well was part of it’s home. We still aren’t quite sure but we think the latter.
The snake was lying very still so we proceeded anyway. We set up the pump and lowered it down. The snake jumped a bit when the pump went by, so we knew it was alive. It settled back to sleep so we just carried on.
It worked beautifully. Because the well hadn’t been used for years, we just pumped the first lot of water out on the ground. We didn’t have a clue how salty or toxic it might be. As it turns it it’s very good water and we now have a useful water source for summer. Those old-timers really knew what they were doing!
We pumped for a while and based on the rate of discharge we estimated the well would drop a meter per hour. We thought it would probably be done by midday and we could escape the worst of the heat. The first hour went very smoothly. We had morning tea in the shade of a nearby tree. The sun slowly moved across the sky and we thought we’d have full light on the base of the well just when it emptied.
Then the sun reached the snake and it woke up.
Not a very clear photograph I’m afraid. We’d been taking guesses as to the snake’s length. My husband is somewhat snake-phobic and he estimated two metres. I’m quite comfortable when they are at a safe distance and I’d guessed about one metre. This one was about one metre seventy centimetres as that is the length of the exposed portion of those sleepers and the snake when stretched out was pretty much the same length.
It was afraid at first and went to a little hole in one side and hid, but then it gained confidence. It came out and sniffed the hose as it is in this picture. Then it went onto the other beam and sniffed the cord and the rope. Then it began wrapping itself around the cords. It wrapped itself around the hose and we really thought it was going to climb up. However, the hose proved too slippery. Or maybe the snake thought the hose was another snake, we can’t really be sure. Instead, it settled down on the ledge and watched everything.
We realised now that the water wasn’t pumping out as fast. We were nearing the bottom and were rather keen to reach it. The day was heating up. In the sun our district easily reaches forty degrees Celsius even on a cool summer’s day. We had been measuring consistently and realised that the output hadn’t decreased. The well was recharging from somewhere below. Excellent news! The level was still dropping so we continues.
Unfortunately the well reached its lowest point at about 2.30pm when the recharge was equal to the discharge. We didn’t get to see the bottom but believe we were only about 40cm from it. We could see it through the water but the water was a little bit murky, though not too bad, and the sun had moved too far to the west now.
We took out the equipment and over the next two hours we measured the recharge. It came back up to the original level just a few hours later.
My husband is very pleased by this. I am too, of course, but I would have liked my trinket from the past. There must be something interesting in the sand at the bottom. However, it’s just not safe to go in. Eastern Brown Snakes, although fairly docile, have apparently the second most toxic venom in the world.
My sons have now renamed the well. They refer to it as the ‘Snake Pit’. Perhaps an unfair name, but we’ve decided to go with it as it is a very good reminder of the danger posed by the well. When that snake was hiding in the crevice at the side, we’d never have known it was there. Someone could very easily climb in and be confronted by a startled reptile.
Towards evening, we covered over the well again and packed it all away. Mission successful. Next task, to eradicate redbacks from the well cover. Makes you wonder how those unwary Northerners survived but in the early colony days.