Heart of the Kimberley

Chris Whitelaw — 5 March 2020
Mt Elizabeth Station, in the heart of Wandjina Country, provides an unmissable opportunity to see rock art

The Kimberley region of Western Australia is one of the greatest natural galleries of ancient art in the world. Many different styles of rock paintings are found here, but the most intriguing and perplexing are those depicting the mysterious Dreamtime spirits and legends called ‘Wandjina’. 

Wandjina country is a vast area of some 200,000 square kilometres, embracing the land, sea and islands of its traditional custodians, the Worora, Ngarinyin and Wunumbal people, whose occupation dates back more than 40,000 years. 




WANDJINA

The Wandjina were powerful ancestor beings who came down from the heavens to create the land and all its inhabitants. After completing their creation journeys, the Wandjina returned to the spirit world, leaving behind their ‘shadows’ imprinted on the rock in places where they descended into the earth or ascended to the sky. 

Wherever they now reside, the Wandjina continue to influence the land and people, bringing rains, controlling the elements and maintaining the fertility of all living things. As well as benevolent seasonal regeneration, they can also deliver floods, lightning and cyclones to punish those who break their laws. As their images are believed to possess these powers, they are treated with great respect and reverence.

Wandjina images are not regarded by Aboriginals as ‘art’ as it is believed they were not originally made by humans. They are, however, conserved by human hand. Each Wandjina has a custodian family or clan responsible for protecting and maintaining the image. This involves periodic repainting to restore their brightness and preserve the ancestor’s spiritual essence within. Not only does this ensure good relations between Wandjina and the people, it also perpetuates the regeneration of all life. Only senior men of the clan have authority to do this.

Frequently associated with the Wandjina are other images portraying mythological beings and a wide variety of plants, animals and items of material culture. These motifs are often linked to events that occurred in the Wandjina’s creative journey and may include Gwion Gwion figures, also called ‘Bradshaws’ after the first European to record them in 1891. Attempts to date the rock paintings suggest the Wandjina may be as old as 4,000 years, while the Gwion Gwions date back at least 18,000 years, deepening the mystery that enshrouds them both. 

The spirits may be depicted alone or in groups, upright or horizontal depending on the dimensions of the rock. They are often imposing in scale, sometimes extending up to 6 metres in length. If a Wandjina is shown as a full body, it is said to be walking the Earth; if depicted as a torso with head and shoulders, the spirit is said to be moving across the sky in a cloud or storm. 

They are generally drawn front-on on a white background, which is created by blowing pigment from the mouth. The outline is often black or red and the decorative infill is applied in red, yellow, orange or black pigment. The body lacks anatomical detail but is decorated with dots or stripes representing rain. Sometimes an oval shape placed centrally on the chest represents the Wanjin’s heart and may be painted as a pearl-shell pendant, signifying the spirit’s life-giving powers.

Heads are surrounded by a semicircular band of solid colour or radiating lines that give the impression that they are wearing a helmet or headdress. Radiating lines represent the lightning that heralds the wet season rains. Ceremonial dances paying homage to the Wandjina Rain Spirit can include headdresses symbolizing this element.

But perhaps the most striking aspects of a Wandjina image, which make them instantly recognisable, are the facial characteristics — large black eyes gazing out from a luminous white face that is always devoid of a mouth. Two explanations have been given for this: they are so powerful that they do not need speech or that if they had mouths, the rain would never cease. A feature between the eyes resembles a nose but is actually a power line or conduit through which energy is transmitted. 

The overall effect is mesmerising and has been the subject of many interpretations. One of these is that Wandjina are stylized representations of extraterrestrial beings who visited Earth tens of thousands of years ago and played a direct role in creation — a theory shared by myths and legends in ancient civilizations around the world. Yet, despite exhaustive study and voluminous writings, the origin and meaning of the Wandjina images remain a mystery, lost forever in the mist of time.

MT ELIZABETH STATION

Paintings of these ‘sky beings’ occur at many sites throughout northern and central Kimberley and one of the best places to see them is Mt Elizabeth Station (MES). The Station lies in the heart of Wandjina Country, about halfway between Derby and Kununurra. On a trek through this iconic region, we made a point of stopping at MES for some much-needed R&R and a guided tour of these fascinating paintings.

After topping up with fuel and supplies at the Mt Barnett Roadhouse, we continued 39km further east along the Gibb River Road (GRR) and turned onto the 30km access road to the homestead — an oasis of lush gardens, soft green lawn, pandanus palms and gum trees. All roads in this part of the world are unsealed, some rougher than others, and we found these ones to be in reasonable condition and traversable in our high-clearance vehicles and vans (4WD is recommended but not obligatory).

The area has a long history of human occupation. Abundant water and food sources enabled the Ngarinyin people to flourish, which explains why there is so much Wandjina artwork among the station’s rocky outcrops. Gold prospector and explorer Frank Hann visited the area in 1898 and named Mount Elizabeth after his mother and in 1945, pioneer Frank Lacy established the station on the Kimberley’s oldest pastoral lease. Both Lacy and his wife, Teresa, are buried near the homestead. The Lacy family operated the enterprise until 2016 when the lease was sold to Western Australia’s biggest landholder, Shanghai Zenith.

Although MES welcomes and is able to accommodate tourists, it is not a touristy dude ranch. It is a fair dinkum working cattle station and reputedly one of the best places to experience true station life.

The 2000 sq km station stocks about 6500 head of cattle on its pastures. The cattle, predominantly Brahman-crosses and some shorthorn, are bound for export markets in Indonesia and the Middle East. Mustering was happening at the time of our visit and we got to see some of these beasties — at a respectful distance — in some of the bush collection yards. Back in the 1950s and ‘60s, the Lacy’s employed Aboriginal stockmen (many from the nearby Dodnun community) on horseback to round up the animals. Today, the operation mostly uses quad bikes and helicopters. Stockmen cull and manage the critters at close quarters through the homestead yards, which is a risky exercise as the long-horned bulls have been the undoing of many a slow ranch hand.

Although the primary focus has been the production of beef cattle, some years ago the Lacy’s opened MES to eco-tourism, with accommodation in the homestead complex (with or without full board) or in the adjacent camping area, serviced by showers, toilets and laundry. With magnificent gorges and waterfalls on the Barnett and Hann Rivers, scenic bush-walks, a huge variety of native flora and fauna and extreme terrain for enthusiastic 4WDers, MES has much to offer visitors. The main attraction for us was joining a guided tour of the station’s several Aboriginal rock art sites. This proved to be a very popular choice by many of the visitors at the time and we had to extend our stay by an extra day to secure a berth on a tour.

TAKING A TOUR

After a sub-zero night under a million stars, the day of our tour was balmy and clear — typical Kimberley weather in the dry season. We piled into the back of a station troopie, driven by Phil (a Kimberley veteran who hailed from WA’s southern wheat belt), and settled back to enjoy the ride accompanied by his laconic commentary and wry bush humour. Other members of the tour opted to drive in a tag-along convoy that provided some interesting fourwheel driving.

Our route took us along some rudimentary tracks that have to be re-graded or pioneered afresh after each wet season, and the further from the homestead, the rougher they became. We followed these red dirt tracks through undulating prairies and savannah woodland, crossing creeks at stony fords and skirting rocky outcrops that rose from diverse, ever-changing vegetation.

Phil told us about the station’s environment and the abundant wildlife that thrives despite the harsh conditions. A host of native grasses, shrubs and trees are endemic to the region, many of which have been used by Indigenous people as bush tucker or medicines for thousands of years. The most common native animals on the station are wallabies (which frequent the campground and home paddocks in large numbers) and reptiles such as goannas, water monitors and pythons. Dozens of bird species also inhabit the region’s woodlands and watercourses including brolgas, jabirus and egrets, flycatchers, warblers and orioles.

At the Hann River, Phil announced smoko and we dismounted to stretch our legs and admire the pristine waters of one of the many watercourses that traverse the station. Pandanus lined the banks and silky grevillea with golden, nectar-laden combs grew beside the track. Kingfishers darted here and there among the trees, their iridescent plumage flashing under a cloudless Kimberley sky. The rough track beckoned us deeper into the savannah beyond the ford and, smoko done, the convoy pressed on.

During the course of the day we stopped at five art sites, to which the station owners have permission from the Traditional Owners to conduct tours (there are many other sites on the station that are still out of bounds to all but the initiated). At each one Phil regaled us with Indigenous folklore entrusted to him by an elder from the Dodnun community. The paintings comprised an interesting mix of Wandjina and Gwion Gwion figures of varying size, colour and complexity, as well as ochre murals immortalising the exploits of corporeal ancestors. Many had been painted in the sandstone caverns and overhangs so long ago that they were faded and barely discernible, which seemed to accentuate their antiquity and the mystical aura surrounding them. 

We stopped for lunch at a beautiful billabong, fed at one end by a stream that cascaded gently over a modest waterfall, enclosed on one side by a low sandstone cliff and, on the other, by a stand of paperbarks that cast cooling shadows across the pool. This grotto seemed to be imbued with a tranquility not entirely natural. While the billy boiled for lunch, Phil pointed to the rocky overhang at the far end of the pool, adorned with several Wandjina that had been recently repainted — a narrow ledge cradled the earthly remains of an Aboriginal elder, whose skull gazed sightlessly across the water. 

We were acutely aware that we were in a special place with the express permission of the Indigenous custodians and felt extremely privileged to be there. Our sojourn among these beguiling ancestor spirits, the legacy of an ancient culture, had been a truly enriching experience in the heart of the Kimberley. 


FAST FACTS

  • Mt Elizabeth Station is 340km east of Derby and 365km west of Kununurra along the Gibb River Road. The Station turn-off is 39km east of Mt Barnett Roadhouse and the homestead is at the end of an unsealed 30km road. 
  • 4WD and/or high clearance vehicles are recommended.
  •  MES is open seven days a week during the dry season (April to October) but is inaccessible and closed during the wet season (November to March).
  • A gorge pass ($20) is required for access to Wunnamurra and Warla, and a fee of $150 per vehicle, plus a $50 key deposit (refundable on return) is charged for travel on the Munja Track.
  • Unpowered camping is available with a camp kitchen, BBQ (wood supplied) and amenities that include drinking water, hot showers, flush toilets and a laundry. Bookings are not required for the campground but fees apply (not available at the time of publication). 
  • Single, twin share/double and king rooms are available in the homestead complex, with a mix of shared and ensuite amenities. Room only $137/person/night; bed and breakfast $167/person/night; full board $229/person/night. Linen, towels provided. Bookings essential. 
  • Mt Barnett Roadhouse is the nearest place for fuel and offers meals and a limited range of supplies. 
  • There is no mobile coverage but MES and the Roadhouse have Telstra payphones available 24 hours.

Contact: 

Mount Elizabeth Station

P: (08) 9191 4644

E: bookings@mtelizabethstationstay.com.au

W: www.mountelizabethstation.com

Tags

Destinations Western Australia Mt Elizabeth Station Wandjina Country Dreamtime Rock art

Photographer

Chris Whitelaw