by Robert Scheer
The small handprints on the rock seemed to be reaching out to me. More than a dozen Ang-Gnarra boys had put their hands on the sandstone wall, sprayed mouthfuls of red ochre over their outstretched fingers and left behind their signatures in the form of hand silhouettes, and they did it some time between 12,000 and 30,000 years ago. I was near the town of Laura in the Cape York peninsula of Queensland, Australia, hiking among the world’s oldest Aboriginal rock paintings.
The petroglyphs were unknown to white Australians until the 1950s when an air ambulance pilot, Percy Trezise, spotted them. Percy was a renowned artist, who illustrated a series of children’s books about Aboriginal mythology. He also owned Jowalbinna Bush Camp, where many of the galleries of rock art are located. Percy passed away in 2005. I was fortunate to visit Jowalbinna in June, 2000 and will treasure the short time I was able to spend with Percy.
June is the first month of winter down under, and it is the most pleasant season for travel to tropical north Queensland.
“This was a boys’ initiation site,” our guide said, “and the paintings under this rock illustrate some of the Ang-Gnarra’s most sacred, secret ceremonies.” Allan, who was explaining the rock art to us, had to lie down on his back to point with his walking stick at the stylized human images, and we crouched low to see them. There was grotesque monster, a voluptuous female figure, and a man with a missing front tooth. Allan explained that these pictures told the story about circumcision rites. After an adolescent boy was circumcised, he had to live in isolation, not speaking to anyone nor touching anyone else’s possessions, until his scar healed. Afterwards, he would be taken away by an older woman and taught about sexual intercourse. The rock picture of the monster showed the kind of horrible creature the boy would become if he violated sexual taboos.
The next step in the Ang-Gnarra initiation process was to have one of his front teeth knocked out. This is because they believed in life after death, as most Australian Aborigines still do. When someone dies and is buried, their spirit rises up three days later and flies to the entrance of Woolunda (Heaven.) The door is guarded by a spirit, whose real name is so sacred it must never be said out loud, so they refer to him as “Big Boss” or “Big Uncle.” When Big Uncle confronts you, he tells you a story that’s so funny you can’t keep from laughing. And, of course, as soon as you start to smile, Big Uncle sees whether or not you’ve had a front tooth knocked out. If you haven’t endured the tooth avulsion ceremony, then you can’t get into Woolunda.
At another rock art gallery we saw a spirit believed to be Big Uncle. He was a very tall, thin figure, painted with a white outline, in-filled in red. His long arms and fingers were outstretched, and his eyes bulged white. There were several layers painted one upon the other, so it was difficult to tell whether Big Uncle was supposed to have an enormous penis, or whether a garfish or crocodile painting had simply been superimposed between his legs. Allan quoted what Tommy George, the head Ranger for the Ang-Gnarra Aboriginal Corporation, said about the painting: “He’s the big boss for all people – white man too!”
The rock paintings are created during magic ceremonies. It is not the paintings themselves that have magic powers, but rather the magic powers are invoked while the pictures were being painted. This is why many of the images in the paintings are overlapped.
The area near Jowalbinna is the only place on Earth with rock pictures of Quinkans – supernatural spirits so powerful that some Aborigines even refuse to pronounce their name. Quinkans are said to lurk in caves and only come out at night. The first Quinkan we saw didn’t look very menacing, though. She was a rock painting of a female whose arms were raised above her head and her knees were bent, as if she were jumping up and down. “She’s an Imjim Quinkan, sometimes called Anurras,” Allan told us. “They’re short and fat, and bounce around at night like kangaroos.” According to Tommy George, “they can bounce half a mile in one hop.” Other varieties of Quinkans are tall, skinny Timaras, who protect children, and the nasty Turramulli, a no-necked giant.
We were told crystals are used for protection against Quinkans, and that crystals had been found in the periphery of ancient Ang-Gnarra camping sites.
The graphic at the top of this website is a picture of an ancient Ang-Gnarra rock painting I took during my stay at Jowalbinna. As of June 2008, the camp is now operating as Jowalbinna Rock Art Safari Camp, located near the town of Laura, Queensland. Its cabins, camping, café and rock art tours being operated by Wilderness Challenge. For more information visit www.jowalbinna.com.au
Robert Scheer is a freelance writer who specializes in spiritual travel to sacred places.