Stories set in stone
West Arnhem Land’s rock art offers a priceless glimpse of the past
IT is the dry season and brolgas, magpie geese and pelicans are gathering in argumentative flocks in the shrinking wetlands of West Arnhem Land.
The trunks of ironbarks appear fluorescent in the dry heat; parched floodplains shine diamond-bright and the blood-orange blossoms of the northern kurrajong live out their entire lives on this single day — tomorrow they will wither and die.
It’s a landscape apparently devoid of humans, except for our group of interlopers juddering along the crumpled surface of a dirt road, ant-like in the primordial surrounds. But the human spirit infuses this place, for indigenous Australians have lived here for 50,000 years, maybe longer. They have etched their history on to rock faces all along the escarpment that runs towards Waminari Bay, telling creation stories, recording change, documenting the arrival of the Macassans and the Europeans.
It’s at Waminari Bay that we unroll our swags. The ocean swirls milky-blue beside us, but there’s no question of cooling off in these crocodile-inhabited waters. This is traditional land, owned by the Maung people and accessible only with a strict permit. Most of the clan lives on the Goulburn Islands to the north; those who stay on the mainland at nearby Anuru Bay are away on sorry business when we arrive. So we feel like trespassers as we go about clearing a place to sleep and scouring the beach for ancient treasures.
It’s a rare privilege to be here. We are part of World Expeditions’ inaugural Rock Art Community Project, a journey that will take us to some of the country’s most inaccessible art sites. Our leader is Paul Tacon, professor of anthropology and archeology at Griffith University and visiting fellow at the Australian National University.
Tacon first came to the Northern Territory from Canada as a PhD student in 1981 and found his life’s work among its priceless artefacts. Partnering now with World Expeditions as part of the Protect Australia’s Spirit campaign, he hopes to highlight the plight of a muchneglected treasury of indigenous rock art.
‘‘Keep your eyes peeled for pottery shards and crocodiles,’’ he says as we wander along a curve of beach so lonely it feels as if we are the first to tread on it. But this is a false impression, for the coastline is embedded with archeological evidence of Macassan seafarers who journeyed from South Sulawesi in Indonesia to Australia in the 18th century or even earlier.
Tacon picks up a disc of dulled terracotta and brushes away centuries of dirt with his thumb. All around us are stone lines and burial sites and the remains of pots in