Bigge Island

Australia's Kimberley: Land of the Original Ancient Mariners

Chris Done|January 19, 2008|Blog Post

More than 50,000 years ago Australia’s original inhabitants arrived from Sundaland (Southeast Asia). They arrived in the area we now call the Kimberley, the northwest corner of the land of Sahul, or greater Australia. How and why they came here is the subject of great conjecture and debate but it is certain that they had to make significant sea crossings to do so. These were, in all probability, the first open sea journeys undertaken by homo sapiens—in an ancient time that surely rivalled modern day space exploration for sheer audacity and courage. A 30-year-plus resident of the Kimberley, Chris has cultivated an in-depth understanding of the region’s Aboriginal art, flora, fauna, and geology through work for the Department of Conservation and Land Management, as well as through his own explorations. He is a leader on Zegrahm’s voyages to the Kimberley.

Most scholars believe this original settling of the great South Land predates the arrival of man in parts of Asia, Western Europe, and the Americas. It is interesting to reflect then that the Kimberley constitutes the most recently settled part of Australia from a European perspective; much of it remained virtually unexplored and unsettled right up until after World War II. It wasn’t uninhabited though! Aboriginal people whose roots stretch far back into the Dreamtime continue to live in this vast, rugged area. Their knowledge of the country is intimate and their culture developed to ensure their survival and ability to maintain their links with the land.

Stories in the stones…
Some of the world’s oldest rock paintings adorn the sandstone overhangs in the Kimberley. To witness these works of sometimes exquisite, sometimes bold, and always inspiring art really puts a different perspective on our grasp of history. Some of the paintings depict now-extinct fauna from many thousands of years ago.

Gwion art (also known as Bradshaw art), found in a wide arc along the north and west of the Kimberley, is characterised by dynamic elegant figures of a dark or mulberry hue. These exquisite figures, believed to be well over 20,000 years old, seem to be chemically bound to their substrate rock. Wandjina art, on the other hand, represents a much more recent culture dating back some three or four thousand years. These figures are very bold and evoke a strong sense of custodianship over the land.

Tied to the tides…
Non Aboriginal exploration may have started as early as the 15th century, with possible Chinese and Portuguese voyages. These were followed by Dutch and English mariners. Also during this period, Maccassan fishermen and traders regularly visited these shores. Such voyages were, as modern day voyages to this region continue to be, ruled by tides which are among the biggest in the world—over 35 feet in some areas. These tides are both the heartbeat and the chronometer of the Kimberley and produce awesome phenomena, such as the Horizontal Waterfalls, and the countless spectacular cascades of the twice daily emergence of Montomery Reef which covers nearly 150 square miles. Green turtles, tiger sharks, and fish abound in these waters, taking advantage of the “groceries” delivered by the cascades. There is a chance of catching fleeting glimpses of the dugong (the Aussie relative of the sea cow, or manatee) here as well.

The Horizontal Waterfalls are the result of the twice daily inflow of the rising tide filling two huge basins. Water from these reservoirs then rushes in the reverse direction through the narrow gaps following the falling tide. Zodiac rides through these fantastic accidental cascades are a trip highlight.

Waterfalls of the conventional type also abound along this sheer coastline whose ancient sandstone origins reach back billions of years. Much of the coast remains largely unaltered by the passage of eons—but in some areas, violent tectonic forces have folded and faulted it into bizarre, imagination-defying formations.

Unique flora and fauna…
Boab trees are endemic to the Kimberley. Their swollen trunks and sometimes grotesque shape are the features of local legend, as well as historical and geographical landmarks. They are just one of some 2,000 species of native plants occurring here—and one which may indicate Gondwanan links with southern Africa and Madagascar.

Monjons (the smallest of the kangaroo species, and also known as the warabi) abound along parts of this coast; at Biggie Island we have the opportunity to see them standing side by side with their ancient ancestors depicted in the Wandjina art. Wader birds from far off Siberia and humpback whales from Antarctic waters cross paths here, calling the Kimberley home during their epic feats of migration. And birdlife comprises a dominant part of the wildlife—sightings of Australia’s only stork species, the Jabiru or black-necked stork, along with many other birds, are likely.

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