Last updated 11/8/2022 at Noon
A rock wallaby atop the boulder pile we were halfway up ignored us. Humans move clumsily on furniture-sized stones by comparison, so it kept ambling along despite being 40 feet away.
The encounter had little effect on us as well. Commanding our attention were incredibly ancient images right before our eyes, meticulously chiseled into rock, and local authority Graham offered insights:
“Could this be some sort of abstract portrayal known only to its creator or might it rep-resent one of the great beasts — giant wombat, marsupial lion — which went extinct eons ago and that Aboriginal people call The Dreamtime? We simply can’t know.”
Though my wife and I own a Native American art gal-lery in Sisters, our interests aren’t limited to Indigenous peoples of North America, nor contemporary artwork. For us, this “art” on the west coast of Australia happens to be the ultimate as some works are dated at more than 50,000 years of age.
Saltwater crocodiles, dugongs, thylacines, kan-garoos, emu tracks, along with multidimensional geo-metric shapes are but a few of the likenesses making up the largest art gallery in the world. There are over one mil-lion petroglyphs across the 20-square-mile, rock-strewn Burrup Peninsula.
The first panel that Graham took us to included a stylized face, like ones appearing on Indigenous masks throughout the world and similar to She Who Watches above Oregon’s Columbia River.
“This one just might be the grandparent of them all,” he conjectured.
Deeply pecked, and well over 30,000 years old, local Aboriginal elders have given him permission to take people to this sacred image but photo-graphs are not allowed.
The Burrup Peninsula doesn’t make anyone’s list of Places To See. A far-flung destination, there’s no luxury accommodations. Widespread, massive mining operations all around obliterate any potential for “charming” to occur.
Some exposed rocks of the Burrup, volcanic granophyre and gabbro that resonate when struck, are 2.6 billion years old. Hardy to an extreme, they don’t weather, thus making long-ago efforts to peck con-cise images onto them rather significant undertakings.
Western-world scholars theorize the Australian conti-nent became populated 60,000 years ago, when land bridges from Southeast Asia existed as sea levels were much lower due to a great Ice Age.
Early peoples began pro-ducing images on rocks shortly thereafter and eventu-ally became cut off from the rest of the world by rising seas.
Graham, with a sort of Aussie Jacques Cousteau air about him, provided his services pro bono that day. Though neither archeologist nor anthropologist by trade, he’s worked with the best of them for decades, and now provides expertise to foreign university researchers who regularly appear, seeking enlightenment about rock art.
He’s also a powerhouse advocate regarding what’s occurring on the Burrup Peninsula, a bedeviling amal-gamation of resource extrac-tion and conservation.
Ethics, government poli-tics, and economics mash into a shapeshifting quagmire of decision-making that regu-larly favors developers over preservationists.
The next day we venture back into Murujuga National Park, sans Graham, believing the previous day’s newfound knowledge, combined with our well-cultivated Southwestern U.S. rock art eyes, will lead us to petroglyphs galore.
It’s not to be. What works in another part of the world has no corollary effect here.
Striking out time and again — combined with the heat, pesky black flies, and an unex-pected lack of wind that nor-mally alleviates the temps and bugs — it’s entirely humbling. Tired, resigned to failure, we head toward the rental car for the last time, following a cir-cuitous route — and implausi-bly stumble upon it.
Concrete-and-steel storage tanks, one hundred yards in diameter and 50 yards high, stand half-a-mile from us across Whitnell Bay. A gar-gantuan offshore drilling rig additionally sits a mile to the side of those behemoths as we cross over a relatively small pile of boulders 75 feet across, less than 15 feet high.
A sea turtle likeness appears, another gets located, and these two are followed by image after image. We’ve found the most prolific site yet with dozens, possibly hun-dreds of tortoise effigies. We name it “Turtlehenge.”
Unlike any of the places that Graham showed us the previous day, this has but one likeness represented. It’s shrine-like, perhaps hallowed ground. Immediately after leaving the site, we learn why.
There’s a white-sand beach but 100 yards away. Since a few of Western Australia’s remote islands continue to be sea turtle nesting sites, it’s only logical to conclude this beach once offered such a refuge.
Judging from the widely varying ages of the petro-glyphs, which are determined by the coloration of rock var- nish atop an image — the darker the varnish the older the engraving, this site would have been used as an egg- laying sanctuary for at least 25,000 years.
Perhaps in another 60,000 years, the monolithic resource extraction efforts at Whitnell Bay will be forsaken, possi-bly all signs of those activities might even be obliterated. It’s not unreasonable to go ahead and wonder if any humans will be left on this planet at all.
I’d like to think, if it hap-pens that we no longer exist and the Earth has returned to a more primordial planet, the artistic representations at Turtlehenge will still remain.
And during a few full moon nights of the year, this beach will once more come to life with the very creatures those images mutely acclaim.