On the rocks: discovering the rock art of Quinkan Country


Fiona Harper goes deep into the Australian bush to see some of the best Aboriginal rock art in the country.

Rock Art Fiona Harper

UNESCO regards the images depicting spirit figures in Quinkan Country as being among the most significant rock art in the world. Credit: Fiona Harper

Beneath a twinkling, star-filled sky, I’m about to close my eyes and fall asleep after an exhilarating day of travelling overland when an amber glow on the horizon catches my attention.

My first thought is that there must be a fire. I sniff for smoke and smell none. As I rise on my elbows to focus more clearly, the radiance is noticeably brighter. It’s now silhouetting the gum trees standing proud on the far escarpment. Moments later I realise I’m seeing the full moon rising and call softly to my friend, who has settled into her camp stretcher 30 metres away.

‘We’re just 300 kilometres west of Cairns, though this timeless land feels a million miles from civilisation.’

Amidst the stillness of the bush, we both sit up and watch the moon’s graceful ascent. There’s not a breath of wind. The silence is absolute as the enormous orange ball rises above the horizon, extinguishing the stars as it moves ever higher, casting a silvery tint across the landscape. Soon, I fall asleep bathed in moonlight, having shunned the canvas tent in favour of a camp stretcher sans walls and ceiling.

Quinkan Country

The peaceful embrace of Quinkan Country wraps around me as I sleep deeply before awaking at dawn to a pastel sky tinged the colour of fairy floss. I feel rested and blissfully at peace, despite hair matted by dampness and the persistence of early-rising flies.

We’re just 300 kilometres west of Cairns, though this timeless land feels a million miles from civilisation.
Travelling by 4WD through savannah lands awash with merlot-hued kangaroo grass, the rugged track beyond the small community of Laura has led us deep into Quinkan Country.

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The ghostly remains of May Town, a thriving metropolis during the height of the Palmer River gold rush, are
further down the dusty track, its once abundant golden riches plundered into history.

‘Proud Western Yalanji man, Johnny Murison, is our ticket to these treasures.’

Now, it’s rock art that lures travellers to Quinkan Country, thanks to an evergrowing enthusiasm for Australian Aboriginal culture. This land holds its treasures close to its heart and requires a local guide to locate the art sites, not only to avoid getting lost, but as a sign of respect for walking on this sacred country.

Quinkan rock art galleries are considered amongst the world’s most important collections, with UNESCO regarding those with images depicting Quinkan spirit figures as one of the 10 most significant bodies of rock art in the world.

Proud Western Yalanji man, Johnny Murison, is our ticket to these treasures. He set up Jarramali Rock Art Tours in 2016 after he and a mate stumbled across an impressive gallery.

‘In 2016 myself and my cousin were out hunting, camping and fishing when we rediscovered the rock art now known as the Magnificent Gallery,’ he says. Oh, it had been ‘discovered’ before, he explains, but its location was kept pretty quiet.

He explains how he eventually came to be a custodian of this extraordinary place, enabling the development of a low-key glampingstyle tourism business. ‘I knew I belonged here. Once I had all the permissions from the Elders and my uncles I started bringing others here,” he continues.

In developing Jarramali Rock Art Tours, Murison has created a simple yet adequate camp on the edge of a sandstone escarpment a short walk from the appropriately named Magnificent Gallery rock art site.

Bringing in materials like water tanks, timber and roofing iron on the back of his 4WD, he built a cabin with one side completely open to take advantage of the views over the extraordinary landscape.

There’s a kitchen sink and gas stove to boil water but Murison prefers to cook roasted meats and vegetables flavoured with plenty of garlic in camp ovens over hot coals.

A handful of tents equipped with camp stretchers and duvets are positioned in strategic locations a short walk from this cabin. The doorless compost toilet has the best view, with the treelined escarpment hogging the limelight.

As glorious as the views are, the undisputed star of this two day/one night adventure is the Magnificent Gallery. After a brief smoking ceremony to negate any ‘bad’ spirits, we follow Murison across the ridge and down into the valley.

He announces our arrival at the open-fronted cave, calling out to his ancestors, letting them know that he has people with him not ‘from country’ and that we are friend, not foe.

This is an excerpt of the article ‘On the rocks’, which was first published in the March-April edition of Paradise, the in-flight magazine of Air Niugini.

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