Australia has some of the oldest, most diverse and detailed rock art in the world.
By Sue Gough Henly
Australian Aboriginal rock art is unequalled worldwide, thanks to its age, detail, freshness and range of colour. There is also a lot of it. Australia has 100,000 known rock art sites, with incredible diversity and complexity.
In many areas it's also possible to visit this rock art accompanied by one of the artists' descendants, as there are still Aboriginal descendants who can provide explanations, and cultural interpretations of each work's meaning. There are many ways to access Australia's rock art - some sites are a short stroll from a nearby carpark within national parks; others require boat or helicopter access, or can only be reached on a bush walk.
The earliest examples to have been accurately dated go back as far as 28,000 years. Other sites are estimated to be 40,000 years old, making them among the oldest in the world. While most rock art is in remote regions, it is well worth seeking out.
The following seven listings offer just a small sample of places where rock art can be found. If you want a more in-depth rock art experience, consider taking a custom-designed tour with Diverse Travel Australia.
Davidson's Arnhemland Safaris at Mount Borradaile, in the Northern Territory's Aboriginal Arnhem Land, offers wildlife wetland cruises and fishing as well as access to some of the most remarkable rock art on Earth. Access is by air charter from Darwin or Jabiru (a town in Kakadu National Park) or via a five hour scenic 4WD trip from Darwin. Spend a few days exploring a dozen galleries brimming with art that is unrivalled in terms of artistic quality, quantity, colour and state of preservation. See a six metre (20 foot) fanged rainbow serpent, a mulberry red Tasmanian devil with jagged teeth superimposed on a large yellow stingray, early naturalistic figures, X-ray art and expansive contact galleries showing sailing ships and houses on stilts. Not far away, visit Injalak rock art site at Oenpelli, a town in Arnhem Land, where Aboriginal guides describe the stories behind the paintings and you can buy weavings and bark paintings at the art centre.
About 5000 rock art sites have been recorded along the escarpment, gorges, and rock outliers of Kakadu National Park, about a three hour drive from Darwin. Ranging from 20,000 years old to the recent past, the rock art is a key reason that Kakadu is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Visit Nourlangie to see a great depiction of the Lightning Man Creation Ancestor. Go to Nanguluwur to admire ancient hand stencils, dynamic figures in large headdresses carrying spears and boomerangs, a two-masted sailing ship and a female spirit with horns and four arms. At Ubirr, marvel at a painting of a Tasmanian tiger, which became extinct on the mainland about 3000 years ago, and see early records of European visitors, include men smoking pipes. All three sites have extensive signage and viewing platforms for self-guided tours. Both Ubirr and Nourlangie offer free ranger tours. You can also take an Aboriginal-led, 4WD tour to see more remote art sites with Kakadu Cultural Tours.
With some of the oldest art found in Australia, Nitmiluk National Park (home to the billion-year-old Katherine Gorge) is a three hour drive or 50 minute flight from Darwin. Stay at Aboriginal-owned Cicada Lodge and take two tours by helicopter, to an Aboriginal women's site and to the Nipbamjarn boy’s initiation site to see naturalistic, dynamic and X-ray art. Picnics and swimming holes also included. You can also see rock art on cruises with Nitmiluk Tours in Katherine Gorge.
The remote Kimberley region of north-western Australia has two distinctive rock art styles. The Kimberley is accessible via Broome, a 2½ hour flight from Perth, or Kununurra, a one hour flight from Darwin. Visitors either self-drive or take guided tours between the two centres, or join cruises along the remote Kimberley coastline. The mysterious, elongated Gwion Gwion figures, dated to 17,000 years old, are painted in hematite ochre that has bonded with the rock with no trace of surface pigments. The Wandjina creator ancestors, which date back 3000 years, are ghost-like creatures whose large eyes flank beak-like noses in huge mouthless faces. They control the storms heralding the wet season. See both Wandjina and Gwion Gwion art at King Edward River Crossing and along the walk to Mitchell Falls, which you can explore on your own or on an Outback Spirit tour. Kimberley Wild goes to a number of other rock art sites and Kimberley cruise companies True North and Aurora Expeditions offer onshore rock art tours. Aboriginal-owned Wandjina Tours offers guided tours of remote rock art sites around Raft Point.
With 250 rock art sites spread across five spectacular sandstone ridges, the Grampians National Park, a three hour drive from Melbourne, has 90 per cent of the rock art in Victoria. Take the Bunjil Creation tour or the Six Seasons Tour with an Aboriginal ranger from Brambuk Cultural Centre to see highlights including a large red and white ochre painting of the Bunjil Creation Ancestor, ceremonial dancing figures and European figures on horseback in the Ngamadjidj Aboriginal Art Shelter, as well as ancient hand prints and giant emu footprints at Gulgun Manja, a boy's initiation site.
Just an hour's drive north of central Sydney, Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park has more than 400 engraving sites. Explore the most accessible rock art along the Basin track, which has engravings of almost life-size humans, as well as kangaroos, dolphin, turtles and fish. Nearby, you can see stencils at the Red Hands Cave as well as engravings of humans, eels and sharks at the Resolute site. Both sites have interpretive signs for self-guided tours; Go in the early morning or late afternoon for best visibility. go in the early morning or late afternoon for best visibility. Sydney Outback offers an Aboriginal experience that visits remote rock art sites in the park.
See Quinkan rock art, dated at between 15,000 and 30,000 years old, on the sandstone escarpments around Laura, a four hour drive north-west of Cairns. The Quinkan spirit beings are unique to North Queensland and were made famous by the children's book The Quinkins (sic) by Percy Trezise and Dick Roughsey. Visit the Quinkan and Regional Cultural Centre to see an interpretive display explaining the art, which includes figurative paintings, stencils and engravings. Do a self-guided tour of Split Rock, a three hour Aboriginal-led walk of the Split Rock and Yalanji galleries, or take a guided 4WD tour to the Quinkan Galleries, Mushroom Rock and Giant Horse Gallery. The Trezise family also offers guided tours to the Sandy Creek site, Emu Dreaming and Giant Wallaroo rock shelters at Jowalbinna Rock Art Safari Camp.