Sto­ries set in stone

West Arn­hem Land’s rock art of­fers a price­less glimpse of the past

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Australia -

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

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