This year is my 17th year since I more or less intentionally moved to Australia – crikey, I say! Where has the time gone?!
As my Permanent Residency visa runs out in a few months’ time (let’s ignore the fact for now that ‘Permanent Residency’ does not actually mean permanent), I find myself reflecting on all sorts of things Australian. And one area that I’m still woefully ignorant about is Indigenous history, culture, social justice, governance, native title, you name it… Even after 16 years.
Most of that ignorance falls entirely on my shoulders simply because I have not taken the trouble to learn more about Indigenous issues beyond reading a couple of books, skimming various snippets in newspapers and having chats with a good friend who knows infinitely more about this topic than I do.
That said, let me share a little bit more about my experience with Indigenous Australia and specifically, Aboriginal rock art.
LIVING IN VICTORIA…
Living in Melbourne for most of my years in Australia didn’t do much to highlight Indigenous issues. At least not for me.
Melbourne is such a melting pot of cultures but it is far removed from the large number of Indigenous communities in northern Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. According to the 2011 census, only 0.9% of Victoria’s population considers itself ‘Indigenous’ (compare that 30% in the Northern Territory).
That doesn’t excuse me not learning more about Indigenous affairs, it is just that in Melbourne, sports, arts and multiculturalism dominate.
Welcome to Country
I remember the first Welcome to Country speech I heard was at my graduation in 2009. Welcome to Country protocols recognise Aboriginal people as the First Australians and as the Traditional Custodians of this land.
Although Melbourne is sports-mad, Indigenous Round in the AFL (Australian Football League, and no, that’s not soccer) only became a thing in 2007 (after a couple of Dreamtime games were played in 2005 and 2006). It’s been held annually since and honours the contribution of Indigenous players to the game. Teams wear specially designed guernseys (tops) that I always find quite interesting, both the stories behind each design and the designs themselves.
But interestingly, the first Indigenous player at AFL level actually played in 1905. That’s a hundred years of Aboriginal players in one of the biggest sports leagues in Australia until the beginning of Indigenous Round.
Still controversial but in 2008, Australia’s then prime minister Kevin Rudd issued an official government apology and acknowledged the wrongdoings committed to the Stolen Generation and “their families and communities, for laws and policies which had ‘inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.'” (Australian Government, 2015). Between 1910 and 1970, many Indigenous children were forcefully removed from their families, and in turn affecting several generations of people looking for their families. They are hence referred to as the Stolen Generation.
Although I was in the final throngs of writing my dissertation, I do remember this moment in Australia’s history and the controversy surrounding it.
Indigenous affairs is such a complex and deeply polarising topic in Australia, and I feel by no means qualified to speak on the topic. But growing up with the collective burden and guilt of World War II and the Holocaust, I cannot help but ponder how mainstream Australia deals with its past compared to Germany.
LIVING IN QUEENSLAND…
Queensland is different from Victoria in so many respects. In fact, I experienced culture shock upon moving here. Not immediately but things bubble up after a while. I might get around to writing about that at some point…
Anyways, since moving to Southeast Queensland, I’ve found Welcome to Country ceremonies to be much more meaningful. I’ve witnessed a couple of amazing acknowledgments and demonstrations of respect through song, music, dance and storytelling by local Aboriginal Elders, making their connection with the land much more tangible for me.
But one thing I’ve really appreciated since moving north is the opportunity to see Aboriginal rock art. It is something truly magnificent.
ABORIGINAL ROCK ART
Rock art includes paintings, drawings, stencils, engravings, and similar. You can usually find these on rock walls, in caves, on boulders and platforms. Researchers estimate that there are at least 100,000 rock art sites across Australia.
We explored three Aboriginal rock art sites on our almost Outback road trip. I found them all special, reflecting the spirit of Australia’s Indigenous population. But the Mount Moffat section of Carnarvon Gorge National Park offered the most incredible ones!
Rock art at Cania Gorge National Park
Whilst Cania Gorge didn’t do much for us in terms of hiking or seriously spectacular scenery, you can find some hand prints and other rock art there.
According to the Queensland National Park’s website though, none of the Aboriginal rock art sites are accessible so I’m a bit perplexed as to how we came across these ochre hand prints. I’m positive it was on our hike along the trail to the Overhang…
I’m not at all sure that “Big Foot” is considered Aboriginal rock art since I just couldn’t find anything on it. I even skimmed a couple of academic papers that mention the site as an excavation site for cultural artifacts but nothing on “Big Foot” as such. But it looks pretty impressive to me in any case!
Rock art at Carnarvon Gorge
It’s a fair trek out to Carnarvon Gorge, some 720 km west of Brisbane, but the national park offers magnificent examples of Aboriginal rock art. Most of them are inaccessible but there are two specific sites, the Art Gallery and Cathedral Cave, where you can admire over 2,000 free-hand paintings, ochre-coloured stencils and engravings.
In fact, the entire gorge reflects the Bidjara and Karingbal peoples’ deep connection to this land.
“The dreaming says that the rainbow serpent Mundagurra created Carnarvon Gorge as he travelled through the creek system, coming in and out of the water, and carving the sandstone as he travelled.” (Queensland National Parks, 2016)
You can find paintings and stencils of tools and weapons (boomerangs, spears), hand prints, animal prints (kangaroo, emu), and nets among others.
“The freehand nets tell us that this is also a burial site – some of our ancestors were laid to rest here. Sometime in the past the bodies of our people were removed without consent.” (Interpretative sign at the Art Gallery, Carnarvon Gorge, 2014)
Flick through the photo gallery below to see more examples of Aboriginal rock art from the Art Gallery and Cathedral Cave.
Wind and weather damage rock art naturally but since many Aboriginal sites have been intentionally desecrated over the years, video cameras now monitor visitors at the two rock art sites. I found it really sad that video monitoring has become necessary.
We don’t have to agree with what rock art signifies or even care but we can at least show respect that this is meaningful for others and leave it alone. Rock art is very fragile so stay on the boardwalk and don’t touch it.
Rock art at Mount Moffat
The landscape around Mount Moffat is home to the Bidjara and Nuri Aboriginal groups. This section of Carnarvon Gorge National Park is even more remote, about a 12-hour drive from the Sunshine Coast, but its Aboriginal sites are imbued with such extraordinary beauty and sacredness that it’s absolutely worth making the long trek for.
The area remains of great significance to Aboriginal people, and walking around some of the sites feels very special indeed. The land exudes a sacredness that I’ve felt in few other places (Machu Picchu comes to mind).
At Mount Moffat, one of the walking trails takes you through The Tombs, an Aboriginal burial ground that includes a massive sandstone bluff with carved holes used for burials. You are asked not to touch the rock, and indeed, the whole area feels so sacred and powerful that I would not have dared.
“This rock was […] a burial site for Aboriginal people, who placed their dead within tunnels in the sandstone. Unfortunately the site has been desecrated – the bark burial cylinders all stolen from the site by the early 1900s.” (Interpretative sign at The Tombs, Mount Moffat, 2014)
The Tombs also have some 400 stencilled images – weapons, tools, ornaments, hand prints, human feet, kangaroo feet, and even the outline of a human – on a sandstone wall. They are some of the most vivid I’ve seen so far!
Actually seeing some rock art has certainly awakened my interest to know more about Australia’s Indigenous population. Oh, and in case you’re wondering about Indigenous vs. Aboriginal… Indigenous includes both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
If you’re keen to see some for yourself, head to Carnarvon Gorge National Park in Queensland. It’ll require a bit of a road trip into the interior but you can get to the actual Carnarvon Gorge section by conventional vehicle. If you want to explore the Mount Moffat area, you will need a high-clearance 4WD, a good map and be keen on roughing things a bit more (camping + pit toilets only).
From what I’ve read and seen online, the Northern Territory and Western Australia also have magnificent examples of Aboriginal rock art. I am yet to venture there but I’m already looking forward to the day when I do.
In August, we’ve got plans to travel to Uluru, Kata Tjuta and King’s Canyon in the Northern Territory. I can’t wait to learn more about the local Anangu Aboriginal culture and history then!
If you’re interested in finding out more about Aboriginal culture and rock art specifically, here are some good starting points:
- Australian Indigenous cultural heritage, Australian Government, 2015
- Indigenous Australians, Australian Museum, 2016
- Sorry Day and the Stolen Generations, Australian Government, 2015
- Aboriginal rock art, Creative Spirits, 2013
- Aboriginal rock art at Carnarvon Gorge, Queensland National Park, 2016
- Aboriginal rock art at Mount Moffat, Queensland National Parks, 2016
If you’ve got any recommendations for rock art sites or find Aboriginal Australia interesting, please share. I’d love to know!