We have been fascinated by the Bradshaw paintings for some time. These are rock paintings, figures painted with ochres on exposed rock walls and predating Aboriginal paintings.
They are called Bradshaws after the man who discovered them in 1891.They are known to Aboriginals as Gwion Gwion.
Nobody knows quite how many there are, but some estimates go as high as a million paintings. No one knows for sure how old they are, but guesses are that they may be between forty and twenty thousand years old.
During this period of the Ice Age the sea level was much lower and the Kimberley would have been a very different place to be.
It seems likely that access from South Asia was possible, probably via the land mass that is now Papua New Guinea and that these ancient paintings were made by the descendants of people who made that trip.
That makes these sophisticated, Bradshaw paintings as old as the first cave paintings in Europe.
The big difference is that in Europe the paintings are inside caves; here in Australia they are painted on open rock faces.
Bradshaw paintings had interested us for some time so we decided to
see them for ourselves. We flew from Cairns to Darwin and rented a four
wheel drive motor-home there. We headed for the Kimberley via
Katherine, Kununurra, Lake Argyle and the Bungle Bungles. What a
splendid country we live in!
We then drove west to Broome along the highway, then back east along the Gibb River Road. This road is accessible for only part of the year, but it gives access to quite a few places which have the small Bradshaw paintings on rock faces.
Our first encounter with the Bradshaws was at Mount Elizabeth Station. They took our breath away - exquisite, simple, elegant, small, in one colour only...
The clarity and immediacy were astonishing, caused by a fortuitous combination of the type of sandstone and the materials used by the artist. The details achieved on this surface with the materials available are extraordinary.
The head dress, the bracelets with tassels, the dilly bag but
above all else (for us) is the sense of joy and pleasure in movement
that has been captured .
We were constantly impressed by the standard of camp grounds run by the National Parks...lovely, lots of birds, noisy rosellas...and information on two sites about Bradshaw paintings in the immediate vicinity.
Both sites are quite large and require some time to experience. Good
shoes, a hat and adequate water are a pre-requisite when exploring ‘off
the beaten track’ throughout the Northern Territory and the Kimberleys.
The Edward River Camp is one of the many sites that has a mixture
of Bradshaws and Aboriginal paintings. There we encountered Wandjinas,
other Aboriginal animal paintings and some wonderful Bradshaws.
Our next stop was the mighty Mitchell River Falls.
Here our main aim was to walk from the camp to the falls, exploring the paintings along the way.
Having said that, the falls and associated gorges are magnificent, even without the paintings!
Following the track down from the campsite we found an overhang, with a waterfall roaring down and there, behind it, was the rock surface covered in Bradshaws.
It was magnificent, looking at the paintings, trying to understand
their meaning while leaning against the rock, worn smooth from all
the people that had been there before us, those ancient artists the first.
It is aboriginal custom to ‘refresh’ rock paintings from time to time, as the elements take their toll, and as a ritual homage to those who have gone before. However, aboriginal over-painting rarely has the sophistication displayed by the ancient Bradshaw paintings. In this spot at the Mitchell River Falls it’s clear to see where the Bradshaws have been over-painted by more simple aboriginal figures.
Called ‘the battle scene’ we like to believe it tells the story
of two tribes meeting and, having laid down their spears, approaching
each other for a get – together, a familiar scene that still happens
One could spend a lifetime exploring the country and the paintings, but we had reached the end of our stay.
We went back, first to Darwin, where we were lucky enough to visit the Mindil beach night markets and see the sun set there. We were together with hundreds of other people. We sat in the warm sand, enjoying the company of so many people, the beauty of the setting sun, the beach, the sea . We were celebrating the end of the day, the coming of the night.
And we thought back about those people of long ago, maybe they did the same thing at sunset... sometimes, if they were close to the sea....or sometimes , looking out over the country, the hills.
Were they afraid of the night or did they look forward to the night, safely around the fire? Did they even have fire?
The enigma remains. Who were those people so long ago, how did they live, what is the meaning of their paintings, where did they go?
We know we only caught an infinitesimal glimpse of a very distant past.
Story by Frieda van Aller, Port Douglas 2011. Thank you, Frieda, for a fascinating glimpse into this 'lost world'.