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The rock art mystery
The rock art mystery

This red sand countryside, with the exception of some rounded rocky outcrops scattered across the plain, is flat and desolate and, until recently, saw very few visitors. But this is beginning to change and part of the reason, it seems, is because word is spreading of a mysterious painting of an old sailing ship on a rock face some 300km inland from the West Australian coast.

The Dreamtime art site where this painting has been found is at Walga Rock, 47km west of Cue in the Murchison Goldfields. There is one main gallery at Walga - known to local Aborigines as Wolgarna Rock or Walganna Rock - and several other lesser-known art areas are scattered around the 2km-long monolith. The whole area here continues to have cultural and spiritual significance to the local Aboriginal people, now mostly based in Cue.

The Walga Gallery, dated with radio-carbon tests by archaeologists to about 10,000 years old, has extensive paintings of snakes, emus, kangaroos, footprints, boomerangs and hand motifs.

Some of the deep red ochre colours used in the paintings come from the huge Wilgie Mia ochre mine to the north, while the white clay tones come from nearby breakaways. Both finger painting as well as "paint" applied with the flattened end of a twig - an aboriginal bush paint brush - have been used at this quite extensive art site.

Clearly, though, the most fascinating aspect to most historians, researchers and rock visitors is the intriguing painting in white ochre of a sailing ship, complete with masts, rigging and portholes, about 2m high at the north-eastern end of the main gallery. It has the experts puzzled and curious.

After some years of investigation and discussion, debate rages today stronger than ever on who would have been responsible for this quite outstanding painting, why it was done, how long ago and exactly what type of ship is depicted. There is conjecture too about the strange Arabic- style writing underneath it.

As the controversy continues, it emerges that there are now four main theories to explain the presence of the drawing which appears to be of an old square-rigged sailing ship with seven square portholes and what seems to be six lines of writing underneath.

The first belief is that it was actually painted by a survivor or a descendant of a survivor, of one of WA's many shipwrecks, especially the Dutch vessels which came to grief along the treacherous central coastline.

More particularly, could it have involved one of the two young men, Jan Pelgrom or Wouter Looes, both aged 18 at the time, who had been cast ashore to fend for themselves by the skipper of the Batavia for their part in the bloody mutiny which took place when she ran aground on a reef in 1629 not far from where Kalbarri is now?

Or perhaps it could have been the skipper of the Sardam, which came to rescue the Batavia survivors? He was known to have taken the ship's long boat for a short exploration of the coast and Murchison River, and never returned.

A second theory, a classic tale, has the painting being done by a part Aboriginal girl with white hair and blue eyes. She is said to have been killed by local Aboriginals shortly afterwards, reportedly because she had violated the sacred site which was restricted to initiated men. There have been no human remains found nearby, nor has there been any other firm evidence found of such an incident taking place.

A third theory suggests that it is the work of an Aboriginal who saw an old square rigger in Geraldton Harbour, or off the coast, sometime last century. Or, perhaps a lot longer ago, an earlier Aboriginal witnessed one of the shipwrecks during the 17th or 18th century. Both the Batavia and the Zuytdorp came to grief in the 1600s.

Yet another account of the painting's origin relates to an early Afghan trader passing through the countryside during the Murchison gold rush late last century.

As there is no known evidence anywhere of its origin, exact dating has proved difficult and as there are no dreamtime stories regarding the scene, each theory continues to create debate and conjecture.

Archaeologists who have visited the site have so far been unable conclusively to prove or disprove any of these possibilities, although the sighting by an Aboriginal of a 19th century ship along the Geraldton coastline in the 1860s or 1870s is slightly favoured. How would an Aboriginal of the day, however, have known about the shape of the keel of a boat which would not be seen below the waterline? Cue locals, however, seem to favour the shipwrecked sailor account, a truly remarkable possibility some 300km inland from the coast.

Experts are also divided on the ship itself - it seems that it could have a smokestack of some sort. Is it a 19th century sailing vessel, a square-rig Western ship, or a brig, or does it date back to the Dutch explorers, or could it even be a whaler? The mystery continues.

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·Cue Caravan Park in Austin Street, Cue, has both caravan and tent sites - phone 9963 1107. Yalgoo Caravan Park, located in Stanley Street, Yalgoo, also has caravan and tent accommodation - phone 9962 8042. For other enquiries phone Cue Tourist Centre on 9963 1216. Mud maps of the town and local places of interest are also available.