14/05/2009 - 00:00

Aboriginal gallery in its natural state

14/05/2009 - 00:00


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There’s a wealth of indigenous rock art on the Burrup Peninsula, if you know where to look. Mark Pownall reports.

Aboriginal gallery in its natural state

THEY have stood the test of time and in the way of progress but the indigenous rock art of the Burrup Peninsula certainly doesn't stand out to the visitor of this industrial precinct.

Like adjacent parts of the Dampier Archipelago, the peninsula's unusual rockscape is littered with works of art, nestled in the hills surrounding the iron ore port of Dampier, the North West Shelf gas project onshore processing facility and the Burrup Fertilisers plant.

Yet despite the thousands of images that are said to be present on the peninsula, they hardly jump out at visitors.

I first got to see the art on a Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA tour of the north-west in 2005. It was a simple detour from a visit to the LNG plant, taking the rode to Hearson Cove and then a short gravel track off to the south - easily accessible by two-wheel drive and a short-walk.

I recently revisited the location privately four years later. A small sign asking visitors to "take care" was the only written acknowledgement of the site I could find, just 100 metres from the rock-strewn valley where numerous images have been etched into the rock.

The site I returned to is quite surreal. As with much of the Burrup, it looks like it has been created by rock overburden from a mine site that has been dumped in small hillocks. It looks as if the rocks have fallen from nowhere.

Late on a hot afternoon, the shady gully was cool and inviting, and eerily quiet. For much of the year, the early morning or late afternoon are the best times to attempt any such tourism in the hot Pilbara.

My April visit revealed more water than in May 2005, with a small trickle providing sustenance for an old roo who stands guard, unafraid of humans.

I'm convinced it's the same one that was resident there on my last visit.

The rock art itself is not that noticeable to begin with.

It is almost as if you have to train your eyes to see the art, much of it placed well up the 50-metre high walls.

Slowly more shapes emerge as your eyes tune in, adjusting to the gully's light and the subtle nature of the artwork. The late afternoon sun accentuates the light colours of the art on the deep red rocks that face west.

Turtles, birds, wallabies and people adorn the rocks from ground level up, a whole suite of imagery that was available to the indigenous artists of the time.

Some are more vivid than others, with the most faded believed to be oldest. Rather than being painted they are actually chipped from the rock - called petroglyphs - and must have been wearying to create, but which has helped them last over millennia.

In some cases the image is just an outline, in others the shapes are filled in completely. Just how old they are is not exactly known.

Archaeological speculation suggests the rock art could be as old as 20,000 years. Images on the peninsula thought to represent thylacines suggest they are at least 3,000 years old, which was when experts believe the Tasmania tiger became extinct on the Australian mainland.

More recently, the art has been at the centre of controversy involving industrial development on the peninsula.

When the North West Shelf's giant LNG plant was built there in the 1980s, many of the rocks adorned with art were moved to a new location.

While there was a detailed inventory of the rock art, including numbering of each item and a description of their location, some were damaged by the move.

In addition, there are claims that industrial emissions from the area may be damaging the rock etchings.

Pictures of artworks get some prominence on local tourism websites but there is little information available on how to find them or where the best areas for viewing are.

Whatever the case, for many who travel to Karratha or the surrounding cluster of towns for business or work purposes, it takes little local knowledge and very short drive to discover for yourself these cultural attractions, which hide among the industry and rocks of the Burrup.


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