In the Kimberley’s far northwest where the King Edward River divides the countries of Ngarinyin and Wunambal peoples, the sacred dreaming place known as Munurru records a 40,000-year-old history on its weathered sandstone walls.
The greatest story is also the most recent, recorded at Bundjamanumanu about 1000 years old after a long tribal battle.
According to traditional Wunambal people, Wandjina spirits arrived carrying the enormous boulders that dominate the riverside site, and deciding to stay, painted themselves onto the rock faces in distinctive clusters of round, mouth-less deities with mysterious, vacant, all-seeing eyes.
made famous when an image of the Wandjina, also known as ‘Gulingi’, appeared in the opening ceremony of Sydney’s 2000 Olympic Games.
Equally dramatic and about 16,000 older are the ancestral canvases of Gwion-Gwion (or Bradshaw) art: brilliant red haematite ochre scenes of intricately depicted dancers in ceremonial attire and hunters with spears and throwing sticks.
These detailed creations are like nothing I’ve seen elsewhere across Australia’s north, as distinctive as Cape York’s Quinkan rock art and equally mesmerising.
Even older still are the naturalistic scenes known as ‘irregular infill paintings’ that have been dated using optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) technology at 30,000-40,000 years old.
This makes Munurru’s records of early Kimberley inhabitants, their animal totems and food sources – including long-extinct animals such as the thylacine – some of the oldest ancient art works found in Australia and quite possibly anywhere in the world.
That they remain unfenced and open for self-guided tours (at no charge), is thanks to the generosity and enormous faith of traditional landowners who ask visitors to treat these sacred sites with respect and never touch the art works or burial chambers found there.
In all the years that I have spent seeking out Indigenous Australian rock art sites, I have only viewed one other burial site – the sacred Bidjara chambers at Mount Moffatt in Central Queensland’s Carnarvon National Park which were robbed of their contents in the 1920s.
This makes the small burial cave I chanced upon at a site downstream of Bundjamanumanu all the more poignant, tucked onto a ledge beneath a massively overhung rockface and providing a remarkable riverside resting place.
This second art site, located just off the road to Mitchell Falls, features elaborate Gwion-Gwion and infill paintings and together with Bundjamanumanu, showcases all four stages in the archaeological sequence of Kimberly rock art.
Exploring at sunset, overwhelmed by layers of ancient storytelling and the rituals that must surely have accompanied the creation of such canvases, it’s hard not to feel immensely privileged to have access to such sacred ground.
Both rock art sites are signposted from the King Edward River campground (8km beyond the Kalumburu Road turnoff) and are easily explored via foot trails that pad through the grasslands, encircling the rocky outcrops and teetering boulders that protect the overhung galleries.
Although getting to King Edward River demands a great deal of determination and planning, you’ll be pleased to know that an idyllic riverside campground awaits.
Providing grassy nooks alongside this clear, deep waterway, a free range campground has environmentally-friendly hybrid toilets, fire rings, a bit of shade and a picnic site close to a paperbark-fringed waterhole with a swimming ladder.
Just downstream where the river slips and slides over polished rock and corellas congregate noisily at sunset, King Edward Falls fills a picturesque rock amphitheatre that glows amber and gold as the sun dips low.
This vibrant strip of green is a great birdwatching spot at dusk and dawn when wild things emerge to feed and forage. Keep an eye out for the freshwater crocodiles that are reported to venture this far upriver, but pose no threat to respectful swimmers.
Location: King Edward River campground is signposted 8km off the Kalumburu Road, about 180km north of the Gibb River Road which opens to 4WD traffic after the wet season, usually from April to November (mainroads.wa.gov.au).
Track Conditions: You’ll need a high clearance 4WD vehicle to tackle the King Edward River crossing, which can be a heart-stopping adventure early in the dry season when the river level is highest (April to early May).
While the Gibb River Road (especially the western end) is in pretty good shape these days, the Kalumburu Road can be a different story. Expect a corrugated, dusty, slow ride for the 110km north of Drysdale River Station to Mitchell Plateau/King Edward River turnoff.
King River Camping: Big, grassy sites (firepits, toilets) cost $10/adult, $6.60 for concession cardholders and $2.20 per child, payable at the camp’s self-registration station.
No bins are provided and pets are not permitted. Top up drinking water supplies at Drysdale River Station before heading north, or simply boil or treat the river water.
Drysdale River Station (drysdaleriver.com.au) provides the last fuel and mechanical repairs south of Kalumburu, and camping at the homestead costs $15/adult ($5 for kids aged 5-15 years), or $10/adult for the free-range Miners Camp, 10km north on the banks of the Drysdale River. Stop here for the great swimming, canoeing and fishing, and because kids stay for free!
Favourite free camp: With flat, shady riverside campsites, the Gibb River Rest Area provides croc-free swimming just 3km north of the Kalumburu turnoff.
Best time to visit: The cool, dry months from June to August are the most popular. To avoid the crowds, visit in May or September, before the Kimberley temperatures peak and wet season rains close access via the Gibb River Road.
Contact: Find out more online at www.parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au or phone the Kununurra parks office on (08) 9168 4200.