The Kaiara Wandjinas of the far north Kimberley Coast.
What does this have to do with shipwrecks or Maritime history? Bare with me...
The Wandjina style of rock art is unique to the northern parts of Western Australia's Kimberley Region, stretching from King Sound to Kununurra and to the north coast of the Kimberley and its offshore islands. It is the most recent in the sequence of Kimberley rock art and thought to have first been painted between 1000 to 4000 years ago.
To the Worrorra, Ngarinyin and Wunumbal people of the Kimberley, the Wandjinas are not only spirits of fertility and rain or weather events, but also their ancient ancestors who once walked on country as the creators of the land and tribal law. When they passed on, they left their image imprinted on the caves of their final resting place.
Repainting or keeping the Wandjinas fresh by the senior law men, kept the creators happy and in turn they provided for the country with rain and abundant fresh water and maintained the circle of life allowing the traditional owners to hunt, live and survive.
On the far north coast live the Kaiara Wandjinas or Sea Wandjinas. The Kaiara were said to have arrived on the Kimberley coastline from the great whirlwinds from the north. They are considered to be very influential of the weather events. To upset, deface or bother a Kaiara would bring forth fierce cyclones and driving storms. In the early 1960s, Dr. Ian Crawford was appointed the head of Aboriginal Studies for the WA Museum and spent the following years researching and visiting the remote northern Kimberley art sites. The traditional stories relating to the Kaiara sites I've written about below have been referenced from his 1968 book "Art of the Wandjina-Aboriginal Cave Paintings in the Kimberley, Western Australia" p69-80.
Almost indistinct from other Wandjina sites throughout the Kimberley, the Kaiara are only told apart from the legends of their beginning. Ranging from Bigge Island east to Vansittart Bay are six documented Kaiara sites. Although it is not recognised by the traditional owners of the sites, the stories relating to the Kaiara could be said to have distinct similarities to interactions with the first visitors to the Australian continent.
Most Kaiara sites tell of stories of a father Wandjina and his children, similar to the hierarchy of a ship's captain and his sailors. At Bigge Island near the image of the boss Kaiara, are paintings of boats and what was described as his child spirits chewing on a popular root found in the area. However, it has been suggested that they are images showing men with pipes, possibly an interaction with the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman when he sailed the Kimberley Coast in the 1640s. At the site Chalangdal in Vansittart Bay the story was told of a group of Kaiara brought to the land by sea from the north. They landed and in fear, sought shelter in the large caves and rocky outcrops as a large cyclone lashed the coast. They remained there and their images were left on the cave walls. A similar story in Swift Bay where a father Wandjina is painted with an impressive halo depicting a huge storm cloud, his children Kaiara surround the cloud peeking from its edges. At Mudge Bay the site tells the story of a Sea Wandjina whose catamaran foundered and who walked on the bottom of the sea like a diver, his children all cried for him to return. When they brought him back to the surface they had to remove the barnacles that had collected on him. He was placed in a nearby cave, perhaps a story of interactions with the first pearl divers? or possibly with Makassan trepang collectors from Sulawesi who are believed to visit the north coast as early as the 17th century?
It could only be speculative whether or not they are glimpses into our indigenous Australian's first interactions with outside visitors. Given their extreme remoteness and inaccessibility, that we still have an insight into their stories is very impressive and a credit to Ian Crawford and the traditional owners. Over the last century, since being off country some sites have been lost to the elements but of those that remain, the Kaiara sites of the North Kimberley coast are some of the most impressive and enigmatic art sites we've ever been fortunate enough to visit across Australia.