Sweat ran down my torso as I hid under the branches of a Kakadu plum tree from the midday sun. I was trying to focus on our guide, but the calm cobalt blue ocean of the bay below blinked. Dare me to take a dip, damn alligators and stingers.
“Manjushri, Manjushri!” cried our naturalist guide, a petite brunette named Juliana Restrepro, who resembled a feisty air traffic The controller pointed frantically at the valley below. I turned around, forgetting to swim and sweat, just in time to see a small brown furry creature bounce off the rock and disappear safely into the crevice.
Restrepro is excited. Monjons – the smallest species of rock kangaroo, only discovered in the 1970s and endemic to the north-west Kimberley – are usually only seen in the early morning and late at night. We’re lucky, she said. Now I’m starting to pay attention.
We are located on Big Island, the largest of the Bonaparte archipelago, 6 kilometers from the Australian mainland. However, 40,000 years ago, before the last ice age, the island would have been the mainland. “Because of this, there are many of the same fauna as on the mainland,” Restrepro said. “But as an island, invasive and wild species haven’t come here yet, so it’s a natural wildlife sanctuary.”
The more time we spent on Big Island, the more I realized it was a true haven. After a few minutes, Restrepro pointed to the rugged ravine where the monjon disappeared, pointing to a long, curving line of carefully placed rocks. “These rocks were likely a ritual site for the local Wunambal Aboriginal people, possibly a man’s business.”
Similar rock formations can be found all over the Kimberley, she said, some as long as 25 kilometers. “They usually lead from one place of cultural or spiritual significance to another, but this place could lead to a source of fresh water, or to a rock art site that we’re about to see.”
We follow Restrepro along dull pink, quartz-rich sandstone boulders and dark gray dolerite blocks to an intricate mangrove forest. The ground around them was littered with holes and footprints—small dunes scooped up by ghost crabs, Monjon and northern quoll tracks, and birds with toes as thin as brushstrokes.
It was hot and progress was slow, but Restrepro quickly gathered us at the entrance of a sandstone cave. At the entrance is a majestic white figure with a ocher-white halo around its head, large black eyes, and no mouth.
This was my first look at the Kimberley’s famous Wandjina art, which depicts ancestors who traveled through the region during the Dreamtime. We are told that the spheres around the head represent clouds, since Wandjina is responsible for bringing the rains of the monsoon and thus all creation.
With our sweaty backpacks and hats off to avoid scratching the walls and ancient art, we entered the cave. We marveled at giant snakes circling above our heads, more powerful Wandjina figures, ocher mudras, and a boat full of people.
“If you look closely, you can see that these figures have ties, and oar locks, so we know this picture depicts the first contact with European tall ships in the area,” Restrepro said. However, whether these figures were Dutch, English, or Portuguese sailors from the 1600s, or French sailors from the early 1800s, we may never know.
I could spend hours admiring this art, pondering its mysteries, imagining how the Unambol people lived thousands of years ago. But our time on Big Island is up. It’s not a cool day at all. Our own ship is waiting.
APT 10-day Greater Kimberley Coast Cruise from Broome to Darwin (or reverse) with MS Caledonian Sky from $10,995 per person, two sharing. See aptouring.com.au
Nina Karnikowski travels as a guest of APT