Red Desert Dreaming – modern times, ancient magic (The Kimberley, Western Australia)

By Ian Cochrane, March 19, 2013

Strange figures are painted in broad strokes of red ochre – Wandjina spirit-men – eerie round faces with big pools for eyes. I stand next to Maurice, “a Worara blackfella” and a driver at local mines. I ask him why they have no mouths. His voice is hushed, as he points at the staring spaceman figures. “Ah, you see bro, these spirits, they have much magic; so much power. They have no need for mouths.” He knows these spirits well. “We must be respectful, ‘cause if offended, lightning will strike us dead for sure.”

Wandjina spirits - Raft Point,  Kimberley

Wandjina spirits – Raft Point, Kimberley

We’re at the far northwest of Australia amidst 1000km of serrated and sunburnt Kimberley coast. This is the edge of a vast moonscape, a coastal escarpment broken by wild inland ranges and 12m tides careering through narrow coastal gorges. I stand in awe of these 30,000yr old spirits that morph before our eyes into animals and fish. This is part of the `Dreaming’, the ancient ongoing story of Maurice’s people and the great creator bringing life to a parched earth. Dugongs and turtles mingle with fish, all adrift this rock-face gallery. The air is damp and dusty. The sheer red sandstone shades us from a blistering morning sun. I turn and gaze at the Indian Ocean and down at a great red rock of an island just offshore; a seagoing Uluru afloat a turquoise pond.

Maurice has dishevelled curly hair, his black face round with a low forehead and eyes half-closed as if he’s lost in thought. His short-cropped beard is grey. An open-necked khaki shirt reveals rows of horizontal welts; the initiation scars of another world. His shorts are baggy, of sun-bleached blue; his bare feet caked in red dust.

His English is slow and deliberate; his hand movements expressive. In addition to his own tongue, he speaks Ngarinyin and “some Wunambol-Gamberre.”  I ask him if he’s travelled. He says he’s been to Perth, over 2000km south. Maurice screws up his nose. “Didn’t like it much at that place; no good for me bro. Even the quiet streets, them much too busy.” He shakes his shaggy head and looks out to sea. “I miss the colour of the water if I leave here.” He turns his head inland. “And I miss the moon on them hills; the sun and the red skies. I miss the songs of the old people that float on the night wind.”

The silence is heavy, and I’m loathed to break it. Maurice waits, looks at me knowingly, then follows my gaze back down to the island. “You know bro, the blackfellas in olden days, they learned the secret ways. They paddled on small rafts out there.” He points a crooked finger. “They must climb, and stay until they are men.” I ponder how the hell anyone climbs 30m vertical walls. “Yes bro; those blackfellas are just kids, and some, they die. There are many sharks here; stingers and salties.” He extends both arms out to his sides. I get the picture; the saltwater crocodiles are giants. Maurice’s eyes return to his people’s faded paintings and I wonder how long this Dreaming can last.

To get here we’ve left Broome 2-days earlier – my girlfriend and I – on a chartered baronial twin-masted ketch with dark, wood-panelled cabins; accompanied by visiting whales, side-winding sea snakes and curious green and brown turtles turning their heads to stare before plummeting to depths unknown.

At Cape Baskerville we entered Lacepede Channel, the site of a 1935 cyclone sinking 36 pearl luggers and drowning 142; a timely reminder of  a wild coast. Our first chilli-red sunset coincided with the appearance of the flashing light of Cape Leveque. My girlfriend stares into the green glow of the radar screen. Are the blips whales or rocks? With the first sun The Buccaneers have emerged from a dark infinity pool; 800 rocky islands of parched pink.

Picking up Maurice at Cockatoo Island, we passed Koolan and moored at Talbot Bay where a lone 3m tawny nurse shark arrived with dusk, cruising around and beneath us, sinuous tail rhythmically flicking from side to side. Another appeared, slipping alongside and under the first. By nightfall there were six identical sharks; streams of phosphorous lights trailing behind as the sharks rise to the surface, gracefully criss-crossing each other to the dulcet strains of Debussy’s Claire De Lune that waft from the galley where Maurice cooked fettuccini.

Kimberley 1201 Australia_iancochrane

Steep Island and Raft Point, Kimberley

In the morning we crossed Collier Bay, passing Kingfisher Islands and landing here at Raft Point. We’ve clambered across a rubble beach and up past crumbling sea cliffs, grabbing at sticky tufts of spinifex that somehow smell of caramel. We paused in the sparse shade of an ancient boab with a 3m girth.

I take in the odd spirit-men paintings for one last time and we leave on an outgoing tide. Passing Montgomery Islands, the 2600Ha reef rises from the ocean floor. The mainsail is unfurled, waking tiny bats that abruptly emerge from the sail into the dazzling sunlight. The startled creatures dart between masts, before settling among stern rigging. The Kingfisher Islands offer up another salient sunset and by nightfall the bats are gone. At Silver Gull Creek we lounge under the stars until ripples and rhythmic breathing alert us to a surrounding pod of dolphins rising, spouting and circling as they round up fish.

Back at Old Broometown we dine among clumps of palms and flickering tea-lights beneath a scented canopy of frangipani and patches of the ubiquitous Milky Way. The beer is cold; the whole-baked threadfin salmon adorned with sprigs of coriander. Later we sit by our B&B pool, the balmy moonlight throwing jungle patterns across the flagstones. A Kimberley breeze ruffles palm fronds, while my girlfriend unrolls a small painting.

The painting was a parting gift from Maurice, while standing at the Cockatoo mine jetty. It’s on handmade paper – burned browns, reds and yellow – the circling shapes are friendly spirits engendered by the land. I recall Maurice’s sweeping hand movements and his slow drawl. “Even in modern times bro, them spirits wander always, in search of the unborn to continue the Dreaming.”


  1. JerseyLil says:

    Ian, what a splendid post. “The Dreaming,” reminded me of stories told by Native Americans here, such as the “Diné Bahane” (Navajo creation story). Different elements but similarities.

    Really love the painting of the Wandjina spirits. I clicked on to enlarge and see details. Spectacular drawings and colors; I am in awe of those ancient spirits too. I felt as if I were right there looking at it and could almost feel the damp, dusty air and see Maurice standing nearby. Your description portrayed him so vividly; I immediately liked him. If I lived near water the color of turquoise and listened to “songs of the old people that float on the night wind,” I’d sure miss it if I left, too.

    I’d love to visit the Kimberley coast one day and have “a Worara blackfella” like Maurice as my guide. Your paragraph about dining back at Old Broometown was luscious is its rich description of culinary and visual delights! Thank you for taking us on this awesome journey to the Kimberley coast.

    Btw, I found it quite interesting that Maurice cooked fettuccini for you and your girlfriend. Guess Italian food is everywhere. 🙂

    • IanC says:

      Hullo JL.
      I was interested to hear your comparison with the Navajo. Have read of the Navajo & their lands. I feel there’s something that binds us all through those ancient cultures. (& yes, Italian cooking…that may be something else that binds us?)

      I’m quite sure that Maurice would be quite taken by your tales too JL.
      Very kind comments. Thanks.
      Cheers, ic

  2. Dennis Hodgson says:

    I spent a year working in ‘the Bush’ in Western Australia in 1970, and I came away with a profound admiration for the Aborigines, particularly their ability to pass on their knowledge about how to survive in such a harsh landscape without a written language.

    So I enjoyed reading this, but there was one phrase that really caught my attention: “grabbing at sticky tufts of spinifex”. I wouldn’t put my hands anywhere near a clump of spinifex, having fallen off a motor bike into one and getting hundreds of splinters in my hand. It may look like grass from a distance, but it sure as hell ain’t.

    • IanC says:

      Always appreciate your input Dennis. You really do have a wealth of background. & yes, they are quite an amazing people.The spinifex thing is interesting, & it’s always possible my recall may not be so good : smallish clumps & sharp. I remember the smell though, quite clearly.

      So glad you enjoyed the story, especially having that first hand experience in the West.
      Cheers, ic

  3. PBScott says:

    An excellent post, I did not intend on reading it right now, but after the first paragraph I was compelled to read until the end. I felt like I was right there with you.

    I had spent several months traveling around Australia, but regrettably did not visit Tasmania.

  4. I love Maurice’s character and the way he calls you “bro.” I had a really clear mental image of him in this story; I’d love to know someone like that with mystic tribal roots. The spirit men paintings are so intriguing, and Maurice’s answer about why they have no mouths made perfect sense. I’ve never been to Australia, but it sounds absolutely magnificent; inspiration at every turn. Another fantastic voyage, Ian.

    • IanC says:

      Haha Kris. Yes it’s sometimes `bro’ or `cuz’. Maybe it’s the culture being so based on the extended family.

      I too find the spirit component intriguing, & we are lucky to have a wealth of paintings. I do hope you make it out here.
      Cheers, ic

  5. nothingprofound says:

    Ian, what a vivid picture you’ve drawn of that dreamlike world of ancient spirits set against the very real background of that rugged,sea-washed, Australian moonscape. Reading your story, I felt inside me that timeless wonder of nature and richness of spirit that no cyclone or tidal wave can sweep away.

    • IanC says:

      I think it’s the colours that really strike @ the heart NP. They are straight from the great painter’s pallette. & yes, the place is timeless.
      Cheers, ic

  6. umashankar says:

    Ian, I am overwhelmed by this feast to my senses, natural and supernatural, by this haunting piece of pilgrimage.

    The ‘serrated and sunburnt’ moonscape awash with towering tides, the rock-face gallery adorned with ‘Wandjina spirit-men’ morphing into animal and fish right before your eyes, and the phantasmagoric ‘Worara blackfella’ who took you there are not too far off from ‘the songs of the old people that float on the night wind.’ The dreamy sequence is pregnant with the creatures of the sea and air as it proceeds further into the sea. The dazzling sunlight, the chilli-red sunset, the starry nights, the parched-pink islands and the turquoise pond stand out in vibrant contrast yet beautifully converge into the theme. Right till the very end when you and your girlfriend unroll the painting under palm fronds ruffling in Kimberley breeze, the story is scented and painted in vivid imagery. Kudos to your art!

    • IanC says:

      Thanks US,
      An assault on the senses, as is your exotic country. A beautiful (quiet) corner of the world.
      Much appreciated,
      Cheers, ic

  7. dalecooper57 says:

    Beautiful, thanks for taking me there.

  8. Michelle Atkins says:

    Wonderful! I love your writing style…very elegant. Delightful story!

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