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5 Surprises Cruising Western Australia’s Kimberley Coast

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We stopped to view art twice during our trip – a high percentage considering there wasn’t an art museum within thousands of miles. Raft Point’s caves are home to 4,000-year-old Aboriginal Wandjinas art. When we arrived on the beach we were greeted by local Aboriginal guide Kenneth Gibson, whose uncle is caretaker of the spiritual art. We had colorful ochre dabbed on our faces prior to the short but steep climb to see the caves. We stop to catch our breath, admire the moon-faced people, fish, and patterns and listen to the complex “Dreamtime” origin mythology behind the art from local guide Robyn Gulwulu.

Gibson later explains that when his uncle is too old for the job, he will take the mantle of responsibility to touch up the paintings and keep the powerful Wandjinas spirits “alive and happy.” Prior to getting back into our zodiacs, we are cleansed of bad spirits by the smoke from Ironwood trees on the beach.

Our next art foray is to Jar Island in Vansittart Bay where we crowd on a ledge to see the mysterious Bradshaw Art. Long, thin ochre-painted figures almost blend into the rock. Are those spears? Is that a crown? No one knows for sure. Joseph Bradshaw, a failed pastoralist in the Kimberley who thought he could farm cattle, was the first European to discover them in 1891, and become entranced.

We listen as Orion’s Harry tells us what is known about the art. Aboriginal people don’t claim the art as their own. Legend has it that the Gwion Gwion bird pecked the rocks until he bled, then painted the images using a tail feather dipped in his blood.

Western archeologists are no better at determining authorship, materials or age. A fossilized Mud Wasp covering the paintings was dated at 17,000 plus years but doesn’t account for the age of the painted figures underneath.

This is Cold Case art! Some archeologists dare to date it at 50,000 years old. That would make it the oldest depiction of the human form ever. I stare at the wraith-like figures unable to process the lack of information. How can I face something unknowable in the age of Bosun Higgs? Dazed, I return to the zodiac. My journey is almost over.

As the Orion departs for Darwin, our last port of call, I decide it is appropriate that the Kimberley is home to a sphinx of this magnitude. The Bradshaw Art is an apt metaphor for the Kimberley Coast – a place troublesome to reach and difficult to comprehend – and one that ensures travel junkies and nature enthusiasts will continue to explore it into the next century.

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By Thea Klapwald for Thea Klapwald writes about travel, culture and parenting with a humorous bent. Her work appears regularly in The Wall Street Journal, Westways, and Her blog is