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.”
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.
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.”