Discover the Indigenous art of the Kimberley on a cut-price, muck-in-and mend cruise.
The last thing you expect to see on a cruise along Australia’s most remote – and arguably most beautiful – coastline is an art gallery.
Admittedly, there’s some navigation needed between the different exhibits. They’re only accessible by water, and none of the exhibition halls would pass modern health and safety standards.
On the other hand, you’re unlikely to be eaten by a crocodile – which is why the ancient Indigenous peoples of the Kimberley chose these remote “cave” locations in the first place.
We’re here on Ahoy Buccanneers’ 13-day, 12-night voyage from Broome to Wyndham aboard the MV Oceanic. This is a cut-price cruise. A muck-in-and-mend trip aboard a schooner appealing to those backpackers, grey nomads and, frankly, cash-strapped travellers who can never afford a luxury Kimberley vessel.
Sure, we all take turns to do the washing up, hoist the sun shades, serve the mid-afternoon “cheese and biccies”. And some members of our party are sleeping in swags on deck under the stars.
But we’re paying at least half of what our more affluent fellow travellers are paying.
And guess what? We’re here, and they’re not.
The Indigenous art of the Kimberley is as different from the dot paintings of the central desert as Greek iconography is from Picasso: great art from the same continent, yet created in different times by other artists with other sensibilities and belief systems.
Which is why I feel sorry for Steven, the Aboriginal member of our crew. Born in Alice Springs, this is his first visit to the Buccaneer and Bonaparte archipelagos.
“How old is this one, Steven?,” a fellow passenger asks. “How did they mix their colours?,” says another.
Steven is too polite to reveal he’s as much in awe as the rest of us.
Only Robbie – Steven’s fellow coxswain – knows the locations. Though white, he’s grown up in this most secret corner of this vast land, working on pearl farms, fighting bush fires, and crewing vessels through these exquisite, sometimes treacherous waters.
On the way to Raft Point – the first of the rock cave galleries we visit – Robbie points out the beach that gave the site its anglicised name. That’s where the saltwater people of this area used to launch their mangrove-wood rafts, using the massive tides to propel them in their chosen direction (the paddle was only used to steer).
This is Wandjina country, Robbie explains – artwork confined to the northern Kimberley.
The first European to record seeing a Wandjina site was the British explorer Sir George Grey in 1838.
Since then, the ancient paintings have provoked endless Erich von Daniken-like theories about aliens visiting us before humanity was ready to receive them.
You can understand why as soon as you see them: huge, mouthless heads on tiny frames that defy Newtonian physics.
“The Wandjina drew themselves,” according to local folklore. They’re considered ancient spirits who carved out the waterways, lifted the mountains, created many of the plants and animals of the Kimberley.
More importantly, they’re “the rainmakers” who renew the land during “the Wet” (December-April).
We’re here in late February: peak “Cyclone Season”. But luckily we dodge both Cyclone Kelvin and Cyclone Marcus. And – since Ahoy Buccaneers is one of the few operators which start this early in the season – we have the blue skies and rock art to ourselves.
(That’s not quite true if you include the green ants we encountered as Robbie negotiated our way up a trail that hadn’t seen humans for months: they have a sharp nip, but taste like honey if you’re into bush tucker.)
Is Raft Point the best rock art site along the Kimberley coast, I ask him. “No, just the most accessible,” he answers. “Wait until we get to Jar Island.”
At Bigge Island, we see more recent rock art – one shows a figure smoking a pipe, another what is unmistakably a European sailing ship.
But Jar Island – named after the pre-1788 Indonesian pottery found here – has no Wandjinas.
Its stick-like figures – known as “the Bradshaws”, after Joseph Bradshaw, the white pastoralist who first recorded seeing them in 1891 – are about 20,000 years old.
Who painted them? Unlike the Wandjina, whose testicles are sometimes even longer than their heads, these figures betray no sign of their sexuality.
Their origin remains a mystery, even to the Indigenous locals. They’ve been compared – in colour and form – to the paintings of “ancient Eqypt”, but the pyramids were built at least 15,000 years later.
Blows your mind – especially if you escape a cyclone.
Ahoy Buccaneer offers several cruises of the Kimberley coast and the Torres Strait aboard the MV Oceanic, departing from Broome, Wyndham or other ports depending on the length of the voyage. See: ahoybuccaneers.com.au
Broome and Kununurra have regular flights via Perth or Darwin from most Australian capitals.
Steve Meacham was a guest of North West Tourism and Ahoy Buccaneers.