ABORIGINE ROCK PAINTINGS ILLUSTRATE SECRET CEREMONIES
I woke up suddenly to the sound of howling. Were last night's campfire stories about evil monsters really true?
I was in a remote Australian bush camp near the town of Laura in Queensland's Cape York peninsula. The place is noteworthy for its Aboriginal rock art, painted by the Ang-Gnarra people as much as 40,000 years ago. The petroglyphs only became known to white Australians when an amateur archaeologist discovered them in the late 1950s. In 1981, his son established Jowalbinna Bush Camp and began organizing tours to the rock art galleries.
Getting there from Cairns was a five-hour trip, and a rugged, four-wheel-drive vehicle was needed to splash across the Laura River.
As my small group hiked up a rocky path, our guide pointed out a sandy coloured snake. "That's a Western Brown," Allan said. "The tenth deadliest snake in the world." It quickly slithered away, and we stepped more carefully from then on.
The first paintings we saw were in a cave-like setting, and we had to crouch down low to see the stylized images. There was a grotesque monster, a Rubenesque female figure, and a man with a missing tooth. "This was an initiation site for boys," Allan said, "and these paintings reveal some of the Ang-Gnarra's most sacred, secret ceremonies."
An adolescent Aboriginal boy had to endure elaborate circumcision rites, living in silent isolation until his scar was healed. Then, an older woman would teach him about sexual relations. The monster illustrated what he would become if he violated tribal taboos.
As his initiation process continued, he had a front tooth knocked out. The Ang-Gnarra believed in life after death, and that spirits rise up to a heaven called Woolunda, where they encounter "Big Uncle," the gatekeeper. He tells them a joke, and when they laugh he can see their teeth. If one is missing, then they are allowed to enter Woolunda.
I saw a painting of Big Uncle a little while later. He was tall and thin, coloured in red with white outlines. His eyes bulged white, and his long arms and fingers were outstretched. "Big Uncle is not really his name," Allan said, "but his true name is so sacred it may never be spoken out loud."
The most notorious creatures in the paintings are Quinkans. These supernatural spirits are said to lurk in cracks in the rocks. At night they come out to do evil things. The female Quinkan I saw didn't look all that scary. She was painted with her arms curved over her head and her knees bent in a jumping position. "She's an Imjin Quinkan," Allan said. "They can bounce half a mile in one hop."
That night, around the campfire and over a glass of Bundaberg rum, I learned more about Quinkan folklore. There are good Quinkans and evil ones. The good, like Big Uncle, are ancestral heroes. "During the Dream Time he created bush tucker (food)," Allan said. "The Ang-Gnarras say he's the big boss for all people-white man too."
The malevolent Quinkans come out of their hiding places and sneak around at night. They use purri-purri-black magic-to catch humans so they can devour their body fat.
Archaeologists digging at one of the rock art sites were confused when they found several quartz crystals, which are not native to the area. An Ang-Gnarra elder explained the mystery. He said they were for protection against Quinkans. The crystals would be placed in a campsite where people were sleeping around a fire. Any Quinkan trying to sneak up on them would see flashes of firelight reflecting in the crystal facets and be driven back into the shadows. Even today the local natives get nervous if asked to talk about Quinkans after dark.
I was grateful for the full moon that had risen into a sky bright with stars, but I was even more grateful for the powerful flashlight Allen loaned me to light the path back to my cabin.
The howling noise that later woke me up was most likely a wild dingo, but I still wished I had some quartz crystals to scatter around my camp cot. I made a mental note to add them to my check-list of things to bring on a return trip to Quinkan country.
If You Go:
The best time of year to visit Jowalbinna Rock Art Safari Camp is during the dry winter season between June and August. Even better would be during the bi-annual Laura Aboriginal Dance Festival, when native arts and crafts, didgeridoo music, boomerang and spear throwing, drumming and singing are celebrated along with guided tours of the Quinkan rock art galleries nearby. The 2011 festival is slated for June 17th through 19th. For more information visit http://www.queenslandholidays.com.au
Photos: by Robert Scheer
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