Incredible Aboriginal Rock Art in Queensland

{Updated: November 2019}

Even after almost 20 years in this sunburnt country, I’m still woefully ignorant about its Indigenous history, culture, social justice, governance, native title, you name it…

Most of that ignorance falls on my shoulders simply because I have not taken the trouble to learn more about Indigenous issues beyond reading a few books, skimming various snippets in newspapers and having chats with a good friend who knows infinitely more about this topic than I do.

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.

Aboriginal Rock Art in Queensland: A Selection of Sites

In so many ways, Queensland is different from the rest of Australia.

But one thing I’ve really appreciated since moving north is the opportunity to learn about and experience Aboriginal rock art. It is something truly magnificent.

In case you’re wondering about ‘Indigenous’ vs. ‘Aboriginal’: Indigenous includes both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Indigenous rock art in Australia includes paintings, drawings, hand 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.

Every rock art site we’ve explored so far has been fascinating. Some people dismiss it as mere childish hand prints but I’ve found each site to be special, reflecting the spirit of Australia’s Indigenous population.

Since we haven’t been further north than Rockhampton on our road trips, my list of spots is still small. But it’ll help you get started if you want to learn more about Aboriginal rock art in Queensland.

1. Cania Gorge National Park

Whilst Cania Gorge didn’t do much for us in terms of spectacular scenery, you can find some Aboriginal rock art there.

Although Queensland National Parks maintain that none of the Aboriginal rock art sites at Cania Gorge are accessible, you can find a few ochre-coloured hand prints.

And then there’s also Big Foot, a large print of a 4-toed foot.

I’m not at all sure that “Big Foot” is considered Aboriginal rock art since I have not been able to find anything on it. I’ve even skimmed a couple of academic papers that mention this spot as an excavation site for cultural artifacts but nothing on “Big Foot” as such.

If you know anything about Big Foot, do let me know in the comments below.

2. Carnarvon Gorge, Carnarvon National Park

It’s a fair trek out to Carnarvon Gorge but the national park offers absolutely magnificent examples of Aboriginal rock art in Australia.

Most of the sites are inaccessible to the public 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)

Along the sheer sandstone rock face of the Art Gallery, Carnarvon Gorge

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. It’s 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.

3. Mount Moffatt, Carnarvon National Park

Mount Moffatt is home to the Bidjara and Nuri Aboriginal groups.

This section of Carnarvon National Park is even more remote than Carnarvon Gorge but its Aboriginal sites are imbued with such extraordinary beauty and sacredness that it’s absolutely worth making the long trip.

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 or when we circumnavigated Uluru).

Stencils of a kookaburra and hands. The kookaburra is tiny but it’s still very cool.

At Mount Moffatt, 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.

As at all indigenous sites, 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 Moffatt, 2014)

Mount Moffatt, Carnarvon National Park

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!

4. Blackdown Tableland National Park

Although only a small site, Blackdown Tableland offers another spot to see Aboriginal rock art.

The Ghungula art site remains of significance to the local Aboriginal custodians, and there are a couple of interpretive signs to help you learn more.

Summing Up…

Actually seeing some rock art has awakened my interest to know more about Australia’s Indigenous population.

One of the best places for Aboriginal rock art in Queensland is Carnarvon National Park, whether the Mount Moffatt section or Carnarvon Gorge itself.

It’ll require a bit of a road trip out west but it’s worth it.

You can get to the Carnarvon Gorge section by conventional vehicle but if you want to explore the Mount Moffatt area, you will need a high-clearance 4WD, a good map and be keen on roughing things a bit more (camping + pit toilets only).

We also saw some magnificent examples of Aboriginal rock art in the Northern Territory a couple of years ago. Kakadu National Park was simply spectacular, even without a 4WD. 😉

If you’re interested in finding out more about Aboriginal culture and rock art specifically, here are some good starting points:

If you’ve got any recommendations for rock art sites or find Aboriginal Australia interesting, please share. I’d love to know!

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6 Comments

  1. This reminded me of a tour I did at Uluru, where our guide told us that past guides in the 60s used to throw WATER ON THE CAVE ART in order to make them brighter for the tourists visiting the area (and thus destroying them in the process). The stupidity of it baffles the mind – honestly. Was interested to hear that you felt a certain vibe to some of those sacred sites too. Equal parts awesome and chilling.

    Reply
    • What?! Seriously?!? I can only shake my head, I don’t even know what to say about that. (Though I guess, we’re probably doing a lot of stupid things right now that people in the future will just shake their heads at…)

      Yes, mostly definitely felt that the burial ground at Mount Moffat was sacred. I didn’t even want to talk out loud, I think I only whispered. Plus we were the only people there so that added to the remote and ancient vibe.

      Reply
  2. When I was in Australia for a conference and sporting events, I found that the acknowledgement of the aboriginal peoples to be very refreshing. Coming from the States where this kind of thing is not even thought about, it’s great to see how Australia at least tries.

    That’s interesting that they have video monitoring in some places! I hope that it is helping with the problem, but sounds like a burden that shouldn’t even be needed. :-\

    Reply
    • Yes, true, I can’t say that I think of the US as a prime example of acknowledging traditional people. 🙂 It really stood out to me when we visited Canada last year, they seem to have just as much of a troubled history in this regard and it got me thinking about Australia as well.

      Yeah, shame about the video monitoring but I guess I much prefer that than people destroying rock art. Agree, shouldn’t be needed…

      Reply
  3. Here in Wester Victoria there a many sights of interest but when my son took me to Kings canyon & Uluru it blew my mind. In tune to the spiritual aspects I was stuck with intenseintense & also elation. In a number of places with a deep sense of respect for the surrounds. If all could relax & soak in the atmosphere instead of ticking off as many of their bucket list – we would have have far less vandalism. I love our Indigenous / Aboriginal peoples and their song lines.

    Reply
    • Hi Wally,

      Yes, the rock art found in the NT is incredible, I agree! I felt similarly moved when we went to Uluru two years ago, it certainly leaves you with a deep sense of the connection to the land, doesn’t it? Kakadu National Park also has some exquisite rock art examples of barramundi and turtles.

      Yes, it’s sad to see so much vandalism and this insane wish to climb Uluru this year. I think we often forget why we actually explore places, and just want to tick them off, as you say.

      Thanks for commenting! 🙂

      Reply

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