Cruising the Kimberley coast

By Amanda Burdon 30 March 2010
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Some of the oldest art on the planet resides in the beautiful rocky palaces of WA.

TIME AND LIGHT ARE against us as skipper Neil Harding carefully threads the tender through the narrow channels of an unnamed reef in the Bonaparte Archipelago. The Kimberley currents are notorious and the tide is retreating as fast as the vermilion sun. A gang of juvenile blacktip reef sharks muscle past in search of deeper water as our outboard quietens to a soft purr. In a magical flourish, the waning tide conjures up a dense garden of honeycomb sponges, spiky crimson sea urchins and intricate aqua brain and green staghorn corals growing in such profusion as to render our small party speechless – until a small flatback turtle surfaces beside the boat and eyes us curiously.

Thousands of mysterious reefs, islands and hidden bays the colour of jade comprise the wildly beautiful Kimberley coastline in north-west Western Australia. A maternity ward and playground for humpback whales, as well as a refuge for dugongs, turtles and Australia’s only endemic dolphin, the rare snubfin, this marine environment is as spectacular as it is secluded. Its many splendours – at sea and on land – were revealed in the course of a seven-day Australian Geographic Society supported cruise aboard Kimberley Quest II to explore the indigenous rock-art galleries that inscribe the ruffled shores.

Inaccessibility has, up until relatively recently, spared our nation’s largest, and possibly oldest, rock-art collection from widespread scrutiny. But the tide is turning. Pearlers plying these pristine waterways now share them with a growing number of tourist vessels, and scientific focus on both the art and the environments that inspired it is growing fast. The Kimberley’s drawcards are many and varied: corals with potential for biomedical use, vast swathes of remnant rainforest peppered with giant land snails, Australia’s smallest macropod (the toe-tapping monjon) and cave-dwelling frogs.

Then there’s the quest, by global resource giants, to uncover its ancient geological treasures, with proposals to mine bauxite on the Mitchell Plateau and develop a hub to process natural gas extracted from deep below the seabed.

OVERHANG of toffee-coloured rock on the Bougainville Peninsula, the complex conservation arguments evaporate in the humid air as our guide, Wunambal Gaambera traditional owner Sylvester Mangolamara, gazes up at a series of ornate portraits and explains how “the old people” created them. “Those fellas would sing and hum magical, strong songs when they painted, so that the rock sucked their paintings in,” Sylvester says. “Maybe one spirit that could hover off the ground would paint those paintings way up high.” In this impressive cultural museum, resonating with the music of another age, even levitation seems possible. The ochres blend so seamlessly with the grainy surface that it’s impossible to tell where the art begins and the stone ends, or what lofty heights art can reach.

“These paintings are to be shown by Aboriginal people like me, to help you understand how my people were living a long time ago, in the Dreamtime,” Sylvester adds. “When my old people come back here, they break down and cry for their place. They can only do that once in a while, but it’s still locked in their memory, every single place.”

“Most of the paintings in the Kimberley are associated with cosmology and the way people lived,” explains another guide, anthropologist Dr Kim Akerman. “Without the detail of the Gwion Gwion paintings, for instance, we wouldn’t know that they made multi-barbed spears and wove intricate baskets or wore their hair in a certain way. A mark of their identity was the tools they used, how they dressed and what customs they practised.”

During our 300 nautical-mile (555 km) journey from Prince Frederick Harbour to Admiralty Gulf, our group sampled a catalogue of art styles – from the elegantly attired, mulberry-coloured Gwion Gwion figures (thought to represent Australia’s oldest rock art) to extinct animals and imposing, owl-like Wanjina sentinels (creator beings of the Dreaming). Some have adorned shallow sea caves and rock shelters for centuries; others, hidden metres up sheer escarpments more suited to rock wallabies, could date back tens of thousands of years. More recent history is writ large, too, in the remains of the smokehouses used by Macassan fishermen and the tamarind trees they planted.

ON BIGGE ISLAND, WHERE powerful artworks depict these early encounters, time is immaterial. Life here once sashayed to very different rhythms. “This landscape wasn’t wilderness to the Aboriginal people who created this art; it was home, with men on mangrove rafts visiting islands to collect bird and turtle eggs, and women cooking yams on the fire and children running around squabbling,” Kim says. “The powers of the Dreaming are still present here. This midden, laden with shells, represents peoples’ lives. When people today marvel at how Aboriginal people were able to survive here, you can only ask: how couldn’t they thrive here? Such a rich landscape; so many generations of shared knowledge.”

Many scientists believe that the artistic legacy may offer explanations as to how and when our continent was first populated by humans, how early cultures developed, and how the Australian landscape has changed over time. Chemical reactions with water, oxidation, bacterial growth, and other geological processes have caused some of the Kimberley paintings to deteriorate. Fire, grazing animals and vandalism have also taken a toll.

Traditional custodians are considering protective measures in some more accessible locations, due to the growing rate of unregulated and unapproved visits. There is also talk of limiting tourist vessels’ access by sea.

With more than half the Kimberley under Native Title, the future of these precious art galleries, along with the management of the land itself, rests with the people who maintain long spiritual connections with this country – people like Sylvester, who take their cultural responsibilities very seriously. “If we break the law, the spirits punish us,” he says. “I work hard for my people, but also for my spirits. The more you respect my country, the more it look after you.”
Amanda Burdon and Hugh Brown travelled on Kimberley Quest II courtesy of Pearl Sea Coastal Cruises.