The Kimberley - Drysdale Plateau - Bradshaws and Green Ants, a day spent in search of ancient art.

Sunday, Jul 25, 2010 at 00:00


Sunday 25th July, 2010
The Kimberley WA

From their previous expedition to the area in 2009, John (Jaydub) and Suzette had walked some of the gorges immediately opposite our campsite. "Gorge" is probably too finer word to describe this vicious slash in the face of the escarpment. To get access to it you first had to climb a good way up the escarpment over a fall of jumbled boulders and tangled vegetation. While the initial entrance is fairly narrow, there are sections, as you walk further along the gorge, that are almost creek like. At times the gully was cloistered by high stone cliffs and overhanging vegetation and yet in other sections, quite open. Small gullies ran off in all directions and in many places, well worn boulders choked the creek making progress slow and cautious lest a moments inattention cost you a twisted ankle or worse.

Running partly on memory, partly on instinct and a little bit of GPS, John (Jaydub) first led us up the northern wall of the gorge and onto the top of the escarpment overlooking the Drysdale River and the magnificent country to the west. The sandstone had been weathered into amazing shapes. Large clusters of boulders formed caverns and overhangs and it was in one of these that we got our first taste of Gwion art. In a sheltered cavern, we came across a panel full of paintings.

Gwion art written history begins in 1891, when pastoralist Joseph Bradshaw became the first European to discover this distinctive rock art, which became popularly known as the “Bradshaws”. Bradshaw enthusiastically recorded: “One might think himself viewing the painted walls of an Egyptian temple.”

In 1977, Graham Walsh, began a three decade long campaign to comb the Kimberley for Bradshaw rock art. He painstakingly photographed, sketched and documented his field research, identified some 300 recurring motifs in the paintings and sought to unlock a code to interpret meanings. Walsh had huge respect for Aboriginal culture. He constantly questioned Aboriginal elders, but maintained the elders told him they knew nothing about Bradshaw paintings; they were done by “different people to us”. Walsh heard stories that indigenous people believed the paintings were made by the gwion gwion, a long-beaked bird that pecks at rock faces to catch insects and sometimes draws blood. Walsh died in 2007.

Gwion rock art sites are thought to be at least 17,000 years old, perhaps more than 25,000 years old (As a marker, the famed Egyptian hieroglyphs are only 5000 years old). Carbon dating was successfully undertaken on wasp casings discovered underneath the pigment of paintings located in the Kimberley. The tests indicated an age of 17000 years). Current understanding believes that a group of highly skilled people came to the Kimberley and painted this highly distinctive rock art. At the height of the Last Glacial period, 18,000 to 20,000 years ago, conditions became so harsh and arid that the majority of the population left the Kimberley, which was largely abandoned for the next 8000 to 10,000 years. The Gwion artists disappeared, leaving their magnificent paintings, but barely another trace of their existence.

Conventional wisdom has classified the Bradshaw’s into three distinct eras. The oldest, tassel paintings with figures fully adorned in ceremonial garb with tassels hanging from appendages. Sash figures are next with the tassels replaced with a 3 sided sash hanging from the waste. The figures are often portrayed with a dilly bag, spears and boomerangs hunting kangaroos and other wildlife. The last are the clothes peg figures. These thin figures are stripped of adornments and are all seen “in action”. There are scenes of hunting, fighting and many of the portrayals are much more aggressive than previous epochs. It’s as if the groups are contesting scarcer resources.

We had been joined on our journey of exploration by a couple camped nearby who we had spotted from the helicopter the day before. Harm and Ann were fromBendigo and had been doing the big lap. They had found their way into the Stockyard and then followed our tracks into the Drysdale setting up camp a couple of hundred metres upstream from us. The whole plateau is a rugged jumble of ridges, cracks and crevasses, often choked with thick scrub. The reality is far more unfriendly than the benign environment envisaged while crusing across it in a chopper at a few hundred feet up. The going was slow, cautious and difficult as we wove our way through this madman’s wonderland. I was very glad that I had worn long trousers and in the absence of gators, I had tucked the bottom of my strides into the tops of my thick explorer socks. This allowed me to avoid the worst of a particularly nasty grass that was prevalent across the area. The leaves excreted a sticky resinous substance that glistened in the sunlight. The long fronds also had a serrated edge that could easily break the skin of a passing hiker. The resin was extremely hard to get off your skin once it was attached.

We stumbled a cross a few galleries of art, usually in protected overhangs. Much of the art was in good condition while others had suffered degradation due to the decay of the underlying rock or intervention by plants and water over many years. Vikki located one particularly fine gallery containing portraits of hunters and a large emu. A mid morning break found us all seated in the shade of a large boulder overlooking a sheer 10 metre drop into a gorge.

Our plan had been to revisit many of the locations that had previously been located and recorded. Armed with some GPS co-ordinates, we envisaged that this would be a fairly easy exercise. How wrong we were. It soon became apparent that the lie of the land made navigation somewhat problematic and the GPS co-ordinates more often than not only led us to a particular feature such as a large knob or rocky outcrop. The discovery of any art then involved identifying and exploring any likely locations around that particular feature. In the end we just gave up using the co-ordinates and searched caverns and overhangs as we stumbled across them. The art was plentiful once we became more comfortable in identifying the best places to look.

The nature of the gorge itself changed as we moved further into the escarpment. In places it was deep and wide and sheltered on both sides by sheer stone walls up to 15 metres high. A thick green canopy kept the place shaded and cool. In one area, we disturbed hundreds of butterflies sheltering in the cracks and overhangs. It was another wonderland scene as they fluttered around us before settling again. Lunch was taken under a huge overhang, the roof of which had been totally adorned with art over thousands of years. It was easy to imagine countless generations of artists laying on their backs and adorning the roof above them. It was also a lovely cool place to have an uncomfortable but needed nap. Unfortunately for me my Kimberley Dreamings were rudely interrupted by a guttural “Aaargh” or three and shrieking of a piercing nature. Rousing myself from slumber I eventually identified that the noises were emanating from Queen Vik. She was about 30 metres away, jumping up and down and running madly in circles beating herself with a stick. No she hadn't been possessed by ancient spirits in the midst of a pagan ritual, Vik was performing the time honoured and traditional Kimberley dance known as “The Green Ant Shuffle”. It appears that she had brushed a little too closely against a green ant nest and had got herself covered in the little buggers.

The Green Tree Ant (Oecophylla smaragdina) is also known as the Weaver Ant. They build balloon-shaped nests among the foliage of trees and shrubs by pulling leaves close together and then weaving them together with silk produced by the ant larvae. A Green Tree Ant colony may consist of many nests spread over several trees . Green Tree Ants occur across northern Australia from the Kimberly to Gladstone in Queensland. The workers are very aggressive and defend their nests by swarming onto the attacker. We often saw hundreds ringing the edge of their nests actively trying to pull us towards them so they could get a piece of the action. They don’t sting but bite with their jaws and squirt a burning fluid from the tip of the abdomen onto the bite wound. Believe me when I say, it is very painful and the little buggers have the knack of slipping into the most private places before deciding to strike. Anyway back to Vik and her dance…..

By yelling instructions, Vik was encouraged to run towards us rather than in continuous circles away from us. Thus eventually Gaby and Anne were able to assist her in scraping the ants away and she could pick off the ones inside her clothing. I managed to laugh a fair bit and then go back to sleep. Fortunately for Vik, the stick she grabbed had a fairly flat edge and she was able to scrape several hundred of the vicious blighters off her before they could get to bare flesh. The sight and sounds will live long in our memories ha ha.

The early afternoon was spent ambling amongst the higher faces on the southern side of the gorge. We found many great examples of the mysterious figures and I was often left wondering just what sort of pigment had been used to enable these images to be indelibly etched into the rock face. Many were still so vivid as to appear that they had been painted recently, belying their true age of tens of millennia.

It was tough going as we eased our way along the rocky gorge to the point where it tumbled over the edge of the escarpment. Taking a breather we were rewarded by great views of our “Barking Owl” campsite. Picking our way down, we were exhausted from the exertions and heat so the lot of us just dropped into the cool waters of the Drysdale. How refreshing.

After recovery and a re-hydration, the six of us mounted the quads and headed down across the sand to the boats negotiating the two tinnies through the shallows to the deep, wide main pool. It was a fantastic way to end the day zipping along the cool surface of the water watching the many snapping turtles dive quickly or quietly watch our passing. I tried to grab a couple with no result. The escarpment itself provides a perfect backdrop to the wide stretch of river. Here and there Livistonia palms would jut out of the rocky walls at odd angles. Often huge caverns and overhangs could be seen clearly through the surrounding brush at the very top of the escarpment walls and we could only wonder just what sort of art would be found there keeping a watchful eye over the water and land below. Having divided the crew’s along gender lines, there were a few shenanigans on the way home generally aimed at seeing who could get the opposing crew the wettest. The bird life was also incredible.

The evening was spent around the communal fire once the rest of the camp had returned from Kalumbaru. It was a warm evening and thankfully, the mozzies and sand flies dropped off after sunset. We will all sleep well after the days exertions.

''We knew from the experience of well-known travelers that the
trip would doubtless be attended with much hardship.''
Richard Maurice - 1903
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