THE WANDJINA MYSTERY

To the Aboriginal people who live in the Central, Northern and East Kimberley region, including Mitchell Plateau and King Edward River areas of Western Australia, the Wandjina has a deep and meaningful relationship with their heritage and their culture. The Wandjina has for many years appeared on bark coolamons which were used for food gathering and for cradles for newborn babes, ceremonial boomerangs and shields and a myriad of symbolic artefacts - the Wandjina is part of the lives of the tribes who have for many many years lived and hunted and survived in the country of the Wandjina rock art.

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Outside the Indigenous community to whom they belong, Wandjina have long been the subject of speculation. Their mystique can be traced to the earliest European recording of Wandjina rock art by George Grey, during his expedition of 1838–39. Grey questioned the derivation of the Wandjina paintings: ‘Whatever may be the age of these paintings, it is scarcely probable that they could have been executed by a self-taught savage. Their origin, therefore must still be open to conjecture.’

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By calling into question the origins of the Wandjina paintings he saw in the Kimberley, Grey initiated a kind of conjecture that has continued to this day. Grey’s initial belief in the non-Indigenous external origins of Wandjina took firm sway among the interpretations that followed. His illustrations and the creative licence they entailed played a part in seeding further speculation. Some commentators were convinced they could translate ancient script from the headdress detail of Grey’s drawing. Later, Erik Von Daniken famously used the Wandjina as evidence of humanity’s ancestral connections to outer space. Magazines and web sites supporting celestial evolution theories continue to interpret Wandjina figures in this way. The characteristic semicircular headdress is often referred to as an extraterrestrial’s helmet.

As these examples indicate, one aspect of the Wandjina’s contested heritage envelops the views of alternative archaeology and hidden-history theories. The other trajectory of debate regarding Wandjina concerns the cultural and intellectual property of Indigenous people and their rights to repaint the Wandjina image. This controversy revolves around a division in how Wandjina are perceived either as culturally situated tradition or as part of a collective universal heritage. Both lines of debate distance Wandjina figures from the Indigenous people to whom they belong. Their effect is to question Indigenous ownership and their custodial rights and obligations in mediating how Wandjina are represented and in managing the powers that they carry. This context of mystery, controversy and speculation adds an important dimension to the appearance and reception of Wandjina in Perth and in understanding the full gamut of reactions that were conveyed.

In Aboriginal culture, the Wandjina is the Rain Spirit of the Wunambul, Wororra and Ngarinyin language people, the controller of the "Seasons", the bringer of rain which equals water which equals "life". Then it says that the Earth is hot and that it breathes; the Earth it breathes, it's a steam blow up, and it gives cloud to give rain. Rain gives fruit, and everything grows, and the trees and the grass to feed other things, kangaroos and birds and everything. With the completion of their earthly tasks, each of the Wandjina turned into a rockface image. There, the Wandjina spirits continue to live.

The Wandjina figures are strange, majestic creatures; usually painted against a white background. An oval band encircles the face, except for a break at the chin, and from the outer edge of the head, lines radiate out. They are often shown wearing a headband; eyes and nose form one unit; with lashes encircling both eyes, and they are rarely given a mouth. The body, when there is one, is filled with parallel stripes down the arms and legs. Long lines coming out from the hair are the feathers which Wandjinas wore and the lightning which they control. Wandjina ceremonies to ensure the timely beginning of the monsoon wet season and sufficient rainfall are held during December and January, following which the rains usually begin. The figures are generally drawn surrounded by the totemic beings and creatures associated with them, on which they depend for sustenance, and these caves and rock shelters become a focus of tribal religion and ritual action.

Aboriginal people believe that if the Wandjina are offended then they will take their revenge by calling up lightning to strike the offender dead, or the rain to flood the land and drown the people, or the cyclone with its winds to devastate the country. These are the powers which the Wandjinas can use. Aboriginal culture teaches it is possible for new life to emanate from the figures adorning the cave walls, to re-enter the physical world as unborn children. Such places are sites to which local Aborigines have a deeply spiritual attachment. These Wandjina are seen to have considerable powers and the Aborigines are careful to observe a certain amount of protocol when they approach the paintings, fearing that if they do not, the spirits might take their revenge. This protocol normally consists of calling out to the Wandjinas from several yards' distance, to tell them a party is approaching and will not harm the paintings. Visitors are required to walked past small fires to be "smoked" before visiting Wandjina sites. This is not only to let the spirits know that "strangers" are visiting, but also so that the Wandjina's "strong spirit" would not follow visitors home.

Although the paintings represent the bodies of the dead Wandjinas, the Aborigines believe the spirits of the Wandjinas live on in much the same way as they believe the spirits of human beings continue to exist after their death.

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The Story of Wodjin and the Wandjina

The most widely known Aboriginal story from the Kimberley refers to a mythical being. In this legend, Wandjina collaborated to fight against human Aboriginal groups and, in the process, kill many of them. The story is one of cause and effect and is told here in an abridged version. Two children were playing with the bird, Tumbi, who they thought was a honeysucker. However, it was really an owl. They did not see the difference in the eyes and thought the bird was unimportant. The children maimed and blinded the bird. They mocked him by throwing him into the air and telling him to fly, but he could not and fell back to earth.

Tumbi was not just an ordinary bird, he was the owl, the son of a Wandjina. This is why he was able to disappear and go up to Inanunga, the Wandjina in the sky, to complain. The news flew to all the Wandjina who determined to punish the people. A Wandjina named Wodjin called all the Wandjina from throughout the country together, and the owl who had been maimed incited them to revenge. However, they did not know where to find the people, and the lizards and animals which they sent to scout around for them refused to tell where the people were. The animals were sorry for the people, and tried to hide them, knowing that the Wandjina would kill them in revenge for the bad deeds.

But the Wandjina saw the people on a wide flat near the spring at Tunbai. They moved to the top of one of the hills which surround this flat and Wodjin, by stroking his beard, was able to bring heavy rain and floods. The Wandjina divided into two parties and attacked in a pincer movement from the top of the hill. Meanwhile, the Brolgas (birds) had been dancing on the wet ground and had turned it into a bog. The Wandjina drove the people into the boggy water, where they drowned. The people tried to fight back, but they were unable to harm the Wandjina. The boys who had injured the bird were very frightened by the fight, the rain and lightning, and escaped to a large boab tree with a split in it, where they decided to hide. But the tree was really a Wandjina and no sooner were the boys inside than it closed on them and crushed them. The Wandjina, having achieved their aim and revenged the injuries done to the owl, were now able to disperse around the country.

Were the Wandjinas European religious figures?

The earliest claim to the discovery of Australia by Europeans was made by a French sailor from Normandy named Jean Binot Paulmier De Gonneville, who claimed that, during a two year voyage of discovery with the intent of finding an ocean route from Europe to the East Indies, he landed on the shores of the Southland early in 1504. In his paper on "Early Voyages to Terra Australis," printed in 1861, British Admiral Burney, and the eminent English geographer, Mr. Major, told of De Gonneville's voyage but dismissed his claim, stating instead that the country De Gonneville's described was the island of Madagascar. This opinion has been generally entertained by navigators and historians ever since, though others have argued he landed in Brazil (Brazilians celebrated the 500th anniversary of his arrival on their shores in 2004 at Carnivale), however there is much evidence to suggest that De Gonneville might well have reached Australia's shore. After having rounded the Cape of Good Hope he was assailed by tempestuous weather and driven into calm latitudes. After a tedious spell of calm weather, want of water forced him to make for the first land he could sight. The flight of some birds coming from the south caused him to run a course to the southward, and after a few days' sail he landed on the coast of a large territory at the mouth of a wide river. There he remained for six months repairing his vessel and making exploratory excursions into the hinterland, establishing contact and maintaining good relations with the inhabitants during his stay. These included a tribe of light skinned people. He left this great Austral Land, to which he gave the name of "Southern Indies," on 3rd July, 1504, taking with him two of the natives, one of whom was the son of the chief of the people among whom he had resided.

Subsequent discoveries, and a closer scrutiny of the Norman captain's narrative indicate that De Gonneville's "Southern Indies" could be the Australian Continent, and that he may well have landed at the mouth of one of the rivers on the north-western coast, namely the Glenelg or Prince Regent Rivers of North-west Australia. De Gonneville's description of the place of his sojourn fits the description of the area, which is quite different to any other part of Australia.

Lieutenant George Grey explored the Kimberley region in 1838 and his description of the natives, their customs, tribal structure and way of life, is not dissimilar to that described by De Gonneville. Further, Grey discovered a series of caves containing what we now know as the Wandjina figures, that he observed were unlike any currently being drawn by the local natives. Some of these figures resembled nuns with head-dresses and beads, not unlike pictures common throughout contemporary Europe of the Virgin Mary surrounded by other women in an act of worship. Of one, he wrote, "Its head was encircled by bright red rays, something like the rays which one sees proceeding from the sun, when depicted on the sign board of a public house."

Of another, he recorded, "It was the figure of a man, ten feet 6 inches [3.2 metres] in length, clothed from the chin downwards in a red garment, which reached to the wrist and ankles" "... The face and head of the figure were enveloped in a succession of circular bandages or rollers ... these were coloured red, yellow and white: and the eyes were the only features represented on the face. Upon the highest bandage or roller, a series of lines were painted in red ... it was impossible to tell whether they were intended to depict written characters, or some ornament for the head." Grey's writings are an accurate description of a priest dressed in his cassock. The illustration is from Grey's journal. Grey then found there the head of a European sculptured in the hard rock, evidently with instruments such as the natives do not possess. The sculpture has never been located by subsequent visitors to the area.

To Grey the art in these caves was a strange mixture of European and Malay art; the former exhibited in the remarkable aureolas which so commonly surround the heads of saints in church windows at the time of De Gonneville; the latter depicted in the dress-like garment over the body, which resembled the matted clothing of Malay peasants (Malay fishermen were known to have made regular fishing trips to the area).

In the tribal history of Aborigines living in the vicinity of Napier Broome Bay on the far North Eastern coast of Western Australia, is the story of how two Portuguese swivel guns named carronades were taken after a battle with white-skinned invaders dressed in skins like those of turtles and crocodiles, a description of European armour. The tribal elders, using the number of past generations to calculate the passage of time, estimated that the intruders were seen about l550 AD, which coincides with De Gonneville's claimed visit to the South Land.

It is well documented that Aborigines in all parts of Australia, on first meeting white people, commonly mistook them for spirit beings. Their common reaction, like lighting fires and throwing stones, was consistent with their method of driving spirits away. If De Gonneville did land on Australian soil, by the description he gave of his landfall he could have landed nowhere else but at precisely that part of the country visited and similarly described by Grey. The paintings Grey discovered, which today are known as Wandjina, may well relate to De Gonneville and his companions and their practising of Catholicism during their six month sojourn in the Kimberleys.

The ancient paintings have received all manner of interpretations from stylized representations of people or even owls, to ancient astronaut theories which suggest that extraterrestrial beings visited Earth tens of thousands of years ago and had direct contact with the inhabitants. Some believe that the extraterrestrials even played a direct role in creation, which is reflected not only in the Dreamtime stories of the Aboriginals but also the myths and legends of many ancient civilizations around the world.

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One could be forgiven for thinking that there is indeed a remarkable similarity between the Wandjinas and the stereotypical image of an extraterrestrial which we see time and again in art, movies and witness accounts. And many raise logical questions such as, why were the Wandjinas painted with white skin if it was representing another Aboriginal, all of whom had black skin? Why were the eyes always painted so disproportionate to the face and nose? And why were they all painted without a mouth?

But what is even more surprising is the oral account of the Wandjinas which has been passed from generation to generation as all of the Aboriginal Dreamtime stories have.

The story goes like this – the Wandjina were “sky-beings” or “spirits from the clouds” who came down from the Milky Way during Dreamtime and created the Earth and all its inhabitants. Then Wandjina looked upon the inhabitants and realised the enormity of the task and returned home to bring more Wandjinas. With the aid of the Dreamtime snake, the Wandjina descended and spent their Dreamtime creating, teaching and being Gods to the Aboriginals whom they created. After some time, the Wandjinas disappeared. They descended into the earth and since then, have lived at the bottom of the water source associated with each of the paintings. There, they continually produce new ‘child-seeds’, which are regarded as the source of all human life. Some Wandjina also returned to the sky, and can now be seen at night as lights moving high above the earth.

Aboriginal people, in the Kimberley also believe that even after they disappeared, the Wandjina continued to control everything that happened on the land and in the sky and sea.

Today, the Aboriginal tribes of the Worora, Ngarinyin and Wunumbul still revere the Wandjina and only certain individuals are given permission to paint them. It is said that the Wandjina could punish those who broke the law with floods, lightening and cyclones and the paintings of the Wandjina are believed to possess these powers, therefore according to the Aboriginals they are always to be approached and treated respectfully.

Other Aboriginal Legends

Aboriginal actor-historian Ben Blakenley tells of "The Legend of the Silver Bird", "Long long ago, far back in the Dream Time, a great red coloured egg (spaceship) came down from the skies. It tried to land safely on the ground but broke (crash landed). Out of it emerged white-skinned culture-heroes (gods) and their children."

"The children's elders soon died, either through their old age or because they could not accustom themselves to our atmosphere. The children however were young and able to adapt more easily to their new surroundings. They carved and painted the likenesses of their parents upon cave walls to perpetrate their memory. In time the great red coloured egg rusted away until its remains had merged with the ground, thus creating the red soil of Central Australia. The children of the culture heroes who came from the sky grew in numbers until they eventually populated the whole land, their skins turning black due to the hot climate."

Scholars have long argues whether these are visiting astronauts and their spacecraft, or mythical culture heroes and toltemic designs. Ufologists have pointed out that many of these puzzling shapes are similar to UFO shapes which have been sighted and reported in the 20th century. The implications are that 15,000 years ago strange shapes were observed in the skies. Whether these were spacecraft containing ancient astronauts remains unknown. There is evidence both for and against the theory of ancient astronauts and that they may once have visited and had some influence upon the ancient history of Australia.

An ancient astronaut legend comes from the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. This was told by the Dharuk tribe which formerly occupied a vast area stretching from the Hawkesbury River-Sydney District across to the western slopes of the Blue Mountains. The legend concerns "Biramee the Bird Man," who laid a great egg near what is now the town of Linden, from which the ancestors of the Aborigines hatched.

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Another legend contends that Biame, the Sky God, came down from the sky in a big dreamtime hunt across the Blue Mountains. He gave the Aborigines the spear thrower and the boomerang, teaching them how to hunt their food and also to make fire...then he returned to the sky from whence he had come. The carvings not only depict Biame but also many strange little figures which were also the totemic figures of the various tribal groups that peopled the area. Among these totemic figures carved on the stone is a strange fish-like object which some have theorized to be space-craft. They also point to a strange human figure clad in garments which could be said to resemble an astronaut; others see a resemblance between this figure and a Egyptian soldier equipped with helmet and shield and say that the above creation myth is more reminiscent of those of the middle-east.

Although these finds may not be proof of extraterrestrial civilizations having visited earth in antiquity, there is certainly evidence which could be said to lend considerable weight to the ancient astronaut theory in Australia. The evidence primarily consists of archaeological finds which imply the former existence on this continent of a race of non-aboriginal man who inhabited Australia before the dawn of history, and who have left behind them traces of a vast astronomical knowledge. Similar features are to be found elsewhere throughout the ancient world. However, the mystery remains as to how these ancient peoples came by their knowledge often without sophisticated equipment which is only now available too modern man.

George

Journals Of Two Expeditions Of Discovery In North-West And Western Australia‚ Vol. 1, by George Grey.

CHAPTER 9. TO THE UPPER GLENELG. Works of native industry.

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PAINTED CAVE. DRAWING ON ROOF OF A CAVE.

Finding that it would be useless to lose more time in searching for a route through this country I proceeded to rejoin the party once more; but whilst returning to them my attention was drawn to the numerous remains of native fires and encampments which we met with, till at last, on looking over some bushes at the sandstone rocks which were above us, I suddenly saw from one of them a most extraordinary large figure peering down upon me. Upon examination this proved to be a drawing at the entrance to a cave, which on entering I found to contain, besides, many remarkable paintings.

The cave appeared to be a natural hollow in the sandstone rocks; its floor was elevated about five feet from the ground, and numerous flat broken pieces of the same rock, which were scattered about, looked at a distance like steps leading up to the cave, which was thirty-five feet wide at the entrance and sixteen feet deep; but beyond this several small branches ran further back. Its height in front was rather more than eight feet, the roof being formed by a solid slab of sandstone about nine feet thick and which rapidly inclined towards the back of the cave, which was there not more than five feet high.

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15.1. Figure drawn on the roof of Cave, discovered March 26th.

On this sloping roof the principal figure (Number 1) which I have just alluded to, was drawn; in order to produce the greater effect the rock about it was painted black and the figure itself coloured with the most vivid red and white. It thus appeared to stand out from the rock; and I was certainly rather surprised at the moment that I first saw this gigantic head and upper part of a body bending over and staring grimly down at me.

DESCRIPTION OF THE FIGURE.

It would be impossible to convey in words an adequate idea of this uncouth and savage figure; I shall therefore only give such a succinct account of this and the other paintings as will serve as a sort of description to accompany the annexed plates. The dimensions of the figure were:

Length of head and face 2 feet.

Width of face 17 inches.

Length from bottom of face to navel 2 feet 6 inches.

Its head was encircled by bright red rays, something like the rays which one sees proceeding from the sun when depicted on the sign-board of a public house; inside of this came a broad stripe of very brilliant red, which was coped by lines of white, but both inside and outside of this red space were narrow stripes of a still deeper red, intended probably to mark its boundaries; the face was painted vividly white, and the eyes black, being however surrounded by red and yellow lines; the body, hands, and arms were outlined in red, the body being curiously painted with red stripes and bars.

DRAWING OF FOUR HEADS.

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15.2. Figure drawn on side of Cave, discovered March 26th.

Upon the rock which formed the left hand wall of this cave, and which partly faced you on entering, was a very singular painting (Number 2) vividly coloured, representing four heads joined together. From the mild expression of the countenances I imagined them to represent females, and they appeared to be drawn in such a manner and in such a position as to look up at the principal figure which I have before described; each had a very remarkable head-dress, coloured with a deep bright blue, and one had a necklace on. Both of the lower figures had a sort of dress painted with red in the same manner as that of the principal figure, and one of them had a band round her waist. Each of the four faces was marked by a totally distinct expression of countenance, and, although none of them had mouths, two, I thought, were otherwise rather good looking. The whole painting was executed on a white ground, and its dimensions were:

Total length of painting 3 feet 6 3/4 inches.

Breadth across two upper heads 2 feet 6 inches.

Ditto across the two lower ones 3 feet 1 1/2 inches.

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15.3. Oval drawing in Cave, discovered March 26th.

The next most remarkable drawing in the cave (Number 3) was an ellipse, three feet in length and one foot ten inches in breadth: the outside line of this painting was of a deep blue colour, the body of the ellipse being of a bright yellow dotted over with red lines and spots, whilst across it ran two transverse lines of blue. The portion of the painting above described formed the ground, or main part of the picture, and upon this ground was painted a kangaroo in the act of feeding, two stone spearheads, and two black balls; one of the spearheads was flying to the kangaroo, and one away from it; so that the whole subject probably constituted a sort of charm by which the luck of an enquirer in killing game could be ascertained.

TWO OTHER DRAWINGS.

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15.4. Figure drawn in Cave, discovered March 26th.

There was another rather humorous sketch (Number 4) which represented a native in the act of carrying a kangaroo; the height of the man being three feet. The number of drawings in the cave could not altogether have been less than from fifty to sixty, but the majority of them consisted of men, kangaroos, etc.; the figures being carelessly and badly executed and having evidently a very different origin to those which I have first described. Another very striking piece of art was exhibited in the little gloomy cavities situated at the back of the main cavern. In these instances some rock at the sides of the cavity had been selected, and the stamp of a hand and arm by some means transferred to it; this outline of the hand and arm was then painted black, and the rock about it white, so that on entering that part of the cave it appeared as if a human hand and arm were projecting through a crevice admitting light.

After having discovered this cave I returned to the party and, directing them to prepare for moving on, I ordered that as soon as all was ready they should proceed past the cave, so that all would have an opportunity of examining it, and in the meantime I returned in order to make sketches of the principal paintings. The party soon arrived and, when my sketches and notes were completed, we retraced a portion of our route of this morning, moving round the sandstone ridge through one portion of which I saw a sort of pass which I thought might perhaps afford us a means of egress. I therefore halted the party and moved up with Corporal Auger to examine it. After proceeding some distance we found a cave larger than the one seen this morning; of its actual size however I have no idea, for being pressed for time I did not attempt to explore it, having merely ascertained that it contained no paintings.

INTAGLIO CUT IN A ROCK

I was moving on when we observed the profile of a human face and head cut out in a sandstone rock which fronted the cave; this rock was so hard that to have removed such a large portion of it with no better tool than a knife and hatchet made of stone, such as the Australian natives generally possess, would have been a work of very great labour. The head was two feet in length, and sixteen inches in breadth in the broadest part; the depth of the profile increased gradually from the edges where it was nothing, to the centre where it was an inch and a half; the ear was rather badly placed, but otherwise the whole of the work was good, and far superior to what a savage race could be supposed capable of executing. The only proof of antiquity that it bore about it was that all the edges of the cutting were rounded and perfectly smooth, much more so than they could have been from any other cause than long exposure to atmospheric influences.

ROUTE CONTINUED. HIGH GRASS.

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16. Head cut in Sandstone Rock. Captain Grey, delt. G. Foggo, Lithographer. M. and N. Hanhart, Lithographic Printers.

After having made a sketch of this head (see the accompanying plate) I returned to the party and, as I had not been able to find a path which would lead us across the sandstone ridge, we continued our course round it, retracing our steps until we reached the stream which had been crossed this morning, and then moved westward, keeping along its southern bank until we had turned the sandstone range and reached another stream running from the south, which we traced up in the direction of its source, travelling through a series of basaltic valleys of so luxuriant a character that those of the party who were not very tall travelled, as they themselves expressed it, between two high green walls, over which they could not see; and these green walls were composed of rich grass which the ponies ate with avidity. On a subsequent occasion when we visited this valley we had to call to one another in order to ascertain our relative positions when only a few yards apart; and yet the vegetation was neither rank nor coarse, but as fine a grass as I have ever seen.

REFLECTIONS.

We halted for the night in one of these lovely valleys; a clear stream bubbled along within about fifty yards of us and, about a mile beyond, two darkly-wooded basaltic hills raised their heads, and between these and the stream our ponies were feeding in grass higher than themselves. I sat in the fading light, looking at the beautiful scenery around me, which now for the first time gladdened the eyes of Europeans; and I wondered that so fair a land should only be the abode of savage men; and then I thought of the curious paintings we had this day seen, of the timid character of the natives, of their anomalous position in so fertile a country, and wondered how long these things were to be. With so wide a field of conjecture before me, thought naturally thronged on thought, and the night was far advanced ere I laid down to seek repose from the fatigues of the day.

DEEP STREAM.

March 27.

The ponies having been routed out of their long and excellent feed, amongst which indeed it was no easy matter to find them, we moved on. I could not but reflect how different our position and the condition of the ponies would have been had we known as much of the country at first starting as we did at present; but these reflections were now useless. With the exception of one small rocky valley, the whole of our morning's journey was through a rich and fertile country until we reached a deep stream, thirty or forty yards wide and apparently navigable for large boats up to this point; it ran away to the westward, but with a current scarcely perceptible.

DIFFICULT APPROACH TO IT.

It was very difficult to approach this stream on account of the marshy nature of its banks, which were overgrown with bamboo and, even if we could have got the ponies to it, it was not fordable here. We therefore turned up it in an easterly direction to look for a passage over it; and in so doing were necessarily compelled to cross many smaller streams and a great deal of swampy ground in which some of the most weakly of the ponies got bogged and were only extricated with great difficulty. However annoying this was I could not but smile at the distress of some of the men, who had contracted a friendship for the animals they had so long led, when one of their favourites got into a difficulty. The exclamations of Ruston the old sailor were particularly amusing, as, according to the position in which the animal got bogged, he used to roar out for someone "to come and give his pony a heave upon the starboard or larboard quarters;" and once, when violently alarmed at the danger he imagined his pet pony to be in, he shouted amain, "By G---, Sir, she'll go down by the stern." At last however we got clear of the marsh, and reached a rocky gorge where this stream issued from the hills, and here we stopped for breakfast

This spot was very picturesque. The river as it issued from the gorge in the high wooded hills first formed a series of cascades, and then at the mouth of the gorge expanded into a large pool. It was at this point, although only a secondary stream in this country, far larger than any of the rivers of South-Western Australia. At the gorges, where they issue from the hills, its banks were clothed with the pandanus, lofty gum trees, and a very luxuriant vegetation. We first sought for a ford up the river in the direction of the rapids, but our search was fruitless. On returning to breakfast I found that the men had caught three fish and one of the long-necked fresh-water turtle which are common over the whole of this continent. Mr. Lushington had also shot several black cockatoos so that we were supplied with a meal of meat, a luxury we had not enjoyed for a long time.

CROSS A LARGE RIVER.

After breakfast Corporal Auger started alone and returned in about an hour to report that he had found a ford across the river close to us. I therefore ordered the ponies to be brought up and we at once moved on. The river where we crossed it in south latitude 15 degrees 49 minutes, east longitude 125 degrees 6 minutes, was about a hundred yards wide. It was however nowhere more than knee deep as we wound through it, following a circuitous course; but we passed very deep parts on each side, and I could not but admire the perseverance of Auger in having discovered so very intricate a ford as this was. There were several minor channels to the stream not much wider than an English ditch; they were however very deep and went winding along through groves of the pandanus and lofty reeds, which formed leafy tunnels above them. It was some time before we got rid of the main stream, and we then found ourselves on a narrow terrace of land which was bounded on the left by rocky cliffs, and on the right by a large tributary of the stream we had just crossed. This tributary was not fordable here so we were compelled to travel up the terrace where our way was much impeded by the luxuriant vegetation and by fallen trees of great magnitude; indeed of a size which those alone who have traversed tropical virgin forests can conceive.

That we could not get off this terrace was the more provoking from seeing, immediately on the other side of the stream, one of those wide open basaltic valleys which I have so often mentioned. We at length reached the point where the stream issued from the high land and, having here forded it, entered the large valley, but in its centre we found another impassable stream and, in order to turn this, were obliged to travel round the valley; but before we could gain the head of it we had to cross two streams which ran into it on the eastern side. These however gave us but little trouble.

NATIVE HUT.

On the tongue of land between them we found a native hut which differed from any before seen, in having a sloping roof. After passing this hut we began to wind up a rocky ascent, and just at sunset reached the watershed, which threw off streams to the north and south: the valley which lay immediately to the south of us appearing as fertile as that which we had been travelling through for the whole day.

March 28.

The first part of our journey was through a fertile valley, about four miles in length, through which wound a rapid stream. It was clothed with the richest grass, abounded in kangaroos, and was marked at its southern extremity by a very remarkable precipitous hill. The heights to the westward were all composed of basalt, whilst those to the eastward were sandstone. On passing the ridge of hills which bounded this valley to the south we entered on a sandstone district, although the hills to the westward were still basaltic.

NATURAL GRAPERY. GRAPE-LIKE FRUIT.

I here halted the party for breakfast by the side of a stream and, on casting my eyes upwards, I found that I was in a sort of natural grapery, for the tree under which I lay was covered with a plant which bears a sort of grape and I believe is a species of cissus.

We met altogether with three varieties of this plant, all of which were creepers but differing from each other in their habits and in the size of their fruit. Two of them generally ran along the ground or amongst low shrubs and the third climbed high trees; this latter kind bore the finest fruit, and it was a plant of this description which I today found. Its fruit in size, appearance, and flavour resembled a small black grape, but the stones were different, being larger, and shaped like a coffee berry. All three produced their fruit in bunches, like the vine, and, the day being very sultry, I do not know that we could have fallen upon anything more acceptable than this fruit was to us.

FORD THE GLENELG. ANOTHER RIVER.

After breakfast we continued our route through a barren, sandy district, heavily timbered; and in the course of the afternoon met either the Glenelg or a very considerable branch of that stream in south latitude 15 degrees 56 minutes, east longitude 125 degrees 8 minutes: it was 250 yards across and formed a series of rapids at this point, where it emerged from a rocky gorge. Just above the rapids we found a good ford, the average depth of which was not more than three feet. After crossing, the banks on the other side were clothed with a species of Casuarina which I did not observe elsewhere. The country on that side of the stream was sandy and, as I found by the time we had proceeded two or three miles that we were getting embarrassed in a sandstone range, I halted the party for the night and went on to try if I could find a pass across it. My exertions were not however very successful: I came upon a path which I thought might be rendered practicable for the ponies over the first part of the range, but found no line by which we could proceed without making a road.

WEAKNESS OF THE MEN.

March 29.

At dawn this morning the men were at work forming the road; the poor fellows were however so much enfeebled from constant fatigue and very inefficient nutriment, whilst exposed to the great heat of a tropical climate, that they were unable to exert the same energy as formerly, and I could not but be struck with the great difference in their strength as evinced in their incapacity to move stones and other obstacles, which a few weeks ago they would have had little difficulty in lifting. The path was however soon made as passable as our abilities permitted, and we started along it with the ponies; some of them were however no less reduced than the men and, in endeavouring to lead one of them up a rocky hill, it fell, and from weakness sank under its light load without making an effort to save itself; the spine was thus so severely injured as to render it unable to move the hinder extremities; we therefore killed the poor creature and moved on.

SANDSTONE CAVE.

Throughout the day we continued gradually the ascent of the range which we had yesterday commenced. The large valley we were in led us by a gentle slope winding higher and higher amongst the rocky hills; at first it had been so wide as to appear like a plain, but by degrees it contracted its dimensions, until, towards the afternoon, it suddenly assumed almost the character of a gorge. Just at this point we saw in the cliffs on our left hand a cave, which I entered in the hope of finding native paintings

Nor was I disappointed for it contained several of a very curious character. This cave was a natural chasm in the sandstone rocks, elevated at its entrance several feet above the level of the ground, from which the ascent to it was by a natural flight of sandstone steps, irregular, of course, but formed of successive thin strata, resting one upon another, and thus constituting an easy ascent; these successive layers continued into the body of the cave, quite to the end, where was a central slab, more elevated than the others, and on each side of this two other larger ones which reached the top of the cave and partly served to support the immense sandstone slab that formed the roof.

ANOTHER PAINTED CAVE.

The cave was twenty feet deep and at the entrance seven feet high and about forty feet wide. As before stated the floor gradually approached the roof in the direction of the bottom of the cavern, and its width also contracted, so that at the extremity it was not broader than the slab of rock, which formed a natural seat.

FIGURE DRAWN ON THE ROOF.

Grey1 21

17. Figure drawn on roof of Cave, discovered March 29th.

The principal painting in it was the figure of a man, ten feet six inches in length, clothed from the chin downwards in a red garment which reached to the wrists and ankles; beyond this red dress the feet and hands protruded and were badly executed.

The face and head of the figure were enveloped in a succession of circular bandages or rollers, or what appeared to be painted to represent such. These were coloured red, yellow, and white; and the eyes were the only features represented on the face. Upon the highest bandage or roller a series of lines were painted in red, but, although so regularly done as to indicate that they have some meaning, it was impossible to tell whether they were intended to depict written characters or some ornament for the head. This figure was so drawn on the roof that its feet were just in front of the natural seat, whilst its head and face looked directly down on anyone who stood in the entrance of the cave, but it was totally invisible from the outside. The painting was more injured by the damp and atmosphere, and had the appearance of being much more defaced and ancient, than any of the others which we had seen.*

(*Footnote. This figure brings to mind the description of the Prophet Ezekiel: Men portrayed upon the wall, the images of the Chaldeans portrayed in vermilion, girded with girdles upon their loins, exceeding in dyed attire upon their heads, all of them princes to look to, after the manner of the Babylonians of Chaldea, the land of their nativity. Chapter 23:14, 15.)

OTHER PAINTINGS.

There were two other paintings, one on each of the rocks which stood on either side of the natural seat; they were carefully executed and yet had no apparent design in them; unless they were intended to represent some fabulous species of turtle; for the natives of Australia are generally fond of narrating tales of fabulous and extraordinary animals such as gigantic snakes, etc.

One of the party who appeared much amused at these different paintings walked straight up the cavern, gradually ascending the steps until he reached the slab at the end, and then, taking his hat off with a solemn air, seated himself; to his own, and our surprise, his bare head just touched the roof of the cave, and on examining this part of it we found it fairly polished, and very greasy, from all appearance caused by the constant rubbing against it of the head of a person whilst seated on the rock. This and other circumstances led us to conjecture that the cave was frequented by some wise man or native doctor who was resorted to by the inhabitants in cases of disease or witchcraft. We saw many footmarks about, and found other signs of the close presence of the natives, but they themselves remained invisible.

BEAUTIFUL SCENERY.

The cave was situated in an exceedingly picturesque position, it occupied the corner leading from a wide valley to a narrow ravine, down which came bubbling along a clear deep stream, which passed within a few yards of the cave's mouth. After making sketches of the paintings and for a few minutes admiring this romantic spot we moved up the ravine, which appeared to lead by a gradual ascent to the summit of the mountain range that now completely hemmed us in both to the southward and eastward.

This ravine, in the luxuriance of its vegetation and the great size of the trees, as well as in its rapid stream, at times leaping in cascades or foaming in rapids, resembled those we had before seen in the sandstone ranges, but it differed from them in the greater height of the surrounding hills and cliffs which, being overshadowed with hanging trees and climbing plants, presented as rich a painting as the eye could behold: and, as these grew golden with the rays of the setting sun or were thrown into deep and massive shadows, I could not but regret that no Claude of the tropics had arisen to transfer to canvas scenes which words cannot express.

But however beautiful the scenery was the road we had to travel was so extremely inconvenient that the view scarcely made amends for it; we were continually compelled from old land-slips to cross from one side of the stream to the other, and this, from the depth of the ford and the slipperiness of the rocky bottom, was sometimes no easy task; moreover the ravine continued rapidly to contract in width and to become more rugged and precipitous; I therefore turned off to the right into a rocky amphitheatre which seemed well suited for encamping, and halted the party for the night; then, taking one of my men with me, I ascended the cliffs to see if I could make out any line by which to get clear of the precipices which embarrassed us, but on all sides I could descry nothing but lofty hills and frowning crags, except in the direction of the ravine which appeared to run directly into the heart of the mountain chain; I therefore turned about to rejoin the party, with the intention of continuing the same course the ensuing morning as we had done this evening.

NARROW ESCAPE.

Both myself and the man who was with me had however a narrow escape of being shot, for, as we were returning he let his rifle fall and it exploded, the ball striking the rocks close to us before it glanced into the air.

OTHER CAVES.

March 30.

At the earliest dawn we continued our course up the valley, which rapidly became narrower and more inclined so that it formed, as it were, a series of elevated terraces, at the edge of each of which was a little cascade. We found two caves in the cliffs on the right hand, both of which were painted all over but with no regularity of pattern: the only colours used were red, yellow, and white. The largest of the caves exceeded in breadth and depth any others I had seen, but it was only three feet high; in this one there were several drawings of fish, one of which was four feet in length; these I copied, although they were badly executed. The caves themselves cannot be considered as at all analogous to those I have before described.

INCREASING DIFFICULTIES OF ROUTE. IMPASSABLE SANDSTONE RANGES.

The difficulties of the road continued to increase rapidly, and the dimensions of the ravine became so contracted that I hesitated whether I should not turn up another which branched off to the right; previously however to taking this step I sent a man forward to examine the one we were in; he soon returned and reported that it terminated in a high cascade a few hundred yards further on. This intelligence confirming my previous opinion, I now moved up the ravine which came from the westward, but we had not proceeded for more than half a mile when the rugged nature of the country brought us to a complete stand; we found ourselves in a rocky area, bounded on all sides by cliffs, the only outlet from which was the path by which we had entered. I therefore halted the party for breakfast whilst I prepared to ascend some lofty pinnacles which lay to the south of us.

The state of my wound rendered this exertion one of great pain and difficulty; I however accomplished it, and found myself on the top of a high rocky eminence which bore the appearance of having fallen into ruins; the prospect from it was cheerless in the extreme; to the north lay the rich valley country far below us, and to the south and east nothing could be seen but barren sandstone rocks and ranges rising one above the other until they met the horizon at no great distance from the eye; the only outlet, except the ravine by which we had approached, appeared to be by the westward, and I descended to the party in this direction to see if I could find a route from where they were to the terrace leading to that point. I struck on a place up the cliffs where I imagined it possible to construct a road by which the ponies could ascend, and then returned to breakfast.

COUNTRY INACCESSIBLE FOR HORSES.

As soon as our scanty meal had been concluded all hands were employed in making this road; and sincerely did I pity the feeble men, whom I saw in the burning heat of a tropical sun, which was reflected with redoubled intensity from the bare sandstone rocks, toiling to displace large stones and obstacles which they had hardly sufficient strength to move; not a murmur however escaped them; they saw the necessity of the case and exerted their failing energies as readily as they had done when these were in full strength and vigour. The road was at last made and we moved on to the westward, toiling for the remainder of the day amongst steep precipices of barren sandstone rocks and hills, utterly inaccessible to horses, till, finding our efforts to proceed useless, I at last turned the party about and halted them for the night just above where we had breakfasted; intending with the earliest dawn to renew my search for a pass by which we might cross this mountain range.

Comments (2)

1. strangedaze (link) 31/01/2014

Glad you enjoyed it.

2. Rosemary Sutherland 30/01/2014

Great reading

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