Category Archives: Kimberley

Rock Art

It sends a shiver down my spine.  I see strange elongated figures dancing, wearing tall headdresses, limbs swaying to the beat.   They share a space with crosshatched echidnas, giant kangaroos and striped thylacines.   I almost hear the voices from the past, ancient humans communicating across tens of thousands of years.   The rock art in the Kimberley region is unforgettable.

On our way back from Mitchell Falls, we find two aboriginal art sites.  The land here is flat and sandy, dotted occasionally with stacks of quartzite boulders.   The cultural sites at Munurru are well marked and easy to find from the road.   The well beaten path from the car park leads the way, but then you are on your own.  There are no signs telling you where to look, or even what to look for.   We become explorers, searching the jumbled pile of flat rocks and rounded boulders for the best place to paint.  We look for a hidden recess, the underside of a rocky overhang,  the roof of a small cave – a flat piece of rock, easy to reach, well protected from the elements.  We try to think as the artists did, to adjust our eyes to look for a red, white or yellow line that is man made.  And suddenly the art begins to reveal itself.

Echidna

Echidna rock art

The paintings are drawn in red ochre, yellow, black and white.   Many are overpainted.    Some are clearly recognisable human figures, animals and plants.   Kangaroos are easy to recognise.   There are root vegetables, maybe yams?   A striped animal with a straight tail has to be a thylacine, the Tasmanian Tiger, painted thousands of years ago when he still lived this far north on the mainland.  He’s sadly now extinct.  Two huge birds painted lying horizontally, head to head, look like brolgas.  Thankfully these elegant birds are still with us.

Human figures wear what appear to be grass skirts and pointed head dresses with tassels.  They are shown moving, with bent knees and elbows, I assume in a dance.  They are beautifully painted in a very distinctive style.  Apparently they are examples of the famous Gwions or Bradshaw figures that are found throughout the Kimberley region.  People are also painted more simply, carrying bags or boomerangs and wearing skirts.  Pictures of daily life.

Leaving the obviously human figures, we move on to panels of otherworldly creatures.  Odd squatting frog like figures appear in one shelter.  I learn later they are child spirits, the first sign of new human life.  When a woman is found to be pregnant it is believed her husband has dreamed of a child spirit and allowed it to enter his wife.

Wandjina

Wandjina rock art at Munurru

It is said the child spirits came originally from the Wandjina, the mythical ancestors who sang the land into being.  The Wandjina panels at Munurru are eerie.  The ancestors have stark white alien faces with large blank eyes that stare impassively back at the observer.  They guard a burial site where a human skull and bones have been placed on a rock ledge in the sacred site. A common practice in this tradition.

A cooling wind blows gently through the boulders, but the air is heavy here with human history, with stories of the oldest surviving human culture on the planet, with images representing powerful myths that have endured for millennia.

Research continues, but recent dating of artefacts in the Kakadu indicates that aboriginal people have lived on this continent for 50-60 thousand years.   Imagine that.  It’s humbling.

Kimberley foundation:  Kimberley Foundation on YouTube

Mitchell Falls

The worst road in Australia leads to Mitchell Falls.  It is the Kalumburu Road.  It is a hard gravel road, corrugated so badly that the vibrations will find and shatter any weaknesses in the metal and plastic of your vehicle.  It is a rocky road, full of washouts and pot holes.  The rocks are sharp and pointed and cut through brand new tyres without a second thought.  It takes 2 or 3 hours to travel less than 100 km and at the end of it you feel like you’ve spent the afternoon rattling around inside your washing machine on quick spin.  

Hey, we know how to have fun!

It’s awful.  We passed top-of-the-range offroad campers with broken axles, 4WD utes with lost bullbars, overheated red-faced men changing punctured tyres and recovery trucks taking trusted vehicles for repair.  Inside our Land Cruiser, the bracket for the reversing camera fell apart.  Outside, our metal toolbox, welded to the ute tray, was hanging by a spot weld.  All fixed with some tape and strapping.  We were the lucky ones.

So, I hear you ask, why oh why would you do it?  

Oh it’s worth it.  It’s worth all this and more to take the walk to Mitchell Falls.  If you are visiting the Kimberley, this may well be the highlight of your trip.  It was certainly mine.

Turning with relief off the Kalumburu Road, we navigated the deep King Edward river crossing then stayed overnight in the nearby Munurru campsite.  This is a popular and attractive grassy site by the river, an excellent spot for weary travellers, with everything you need – swimming, fishing and good toilets.  We sampled some of these delights, but didn’t stay long, leaving early in the morning to take the Mitchell Plateau track up to the falls before the sun rose to high in the sky.  

This track was a rough one, but nothing like the day before.  Lush livistonia palms took over the vegetation as we rattled further north, vibrant green fronds covered liberally with paprika red road dust as we passed.  After a couple of hours we arrived at the car park, ready to walk to the falls.

It’s about a 9 km hike.  9 km of the most varied terrain imaginable.  It had everything, I loved it.  Let me count the ways… it had inviting swimming holes, ancient rock art, rock hopping over huge boulders, flat rocky plateaux with vertigo inducing drops, lilies, birdsong, inclines up and down, wading across a fast running river and then, at the end, the glorious Mitchell Falls, also known as Punami unpuu.

Looking for rock art at Mitchell Falls

Richard on the way to Mitchell Falls

 

You feel small before the mighty Mitchell Falls, even at a distance.  And you have to have that distance to take in the scale of the four tiered waterfall.  The Mitchell River hurtles over a precipice before crashing down into a vast rock pool, collecting there, then tumbling down again, and again, and again, before continuing on its way to the sea.

The natural energy released here is vast.  It’s tangible.  You can feel the air humming with its unstoppable force.  Looking across at the falls from my perch on the other side of the gorge, I couldn’t quite believe it’s raw, powerful beauty.  A photo will not do it justice.  

Of course, you can fly in by helicopter and hover above the falls without getting your feet wet, your brow heated or your clothes dusty.  But to me, the journey is a must.   I felt the same when I visited Uluru, you have to drive the corrugated road and walk the dusty track to feel the wild, remote power of these natural wonders.