Ancient rock art in distinct styles, some absorbingly intricate, is hidden in rocky outcrops along the road and pathways to the falls, rated as one of Australia’s finest water features.
Maybe Mitchell is our best waterfall. On an international scale we gave them a 6, using Iguazu Falls in South America, Victoria Falls in Africa and Niagara as a 10.
From the campground it’s a fair walk of between 3km and 4km (depending which National Parks sign you believe), with a couple of reasonable creek crossings to be negotiated. You can get a helicopter either way – or really cheat and chopper in and out.
We bravely opted to walk in and out on what proved a fairly hot day. Impressive as they are, the falls were a bit “Yes, very nice, seen that, let’s go.” We crossed back over Big Mertens Falls and admired its gorge.
Robert Mertens, after whom the falls were named, was not a weighty bloke as the name of the waterfall suggests. He was a herpetogolist responsible for discovering and naming reptiles in the Kimberley. He also apparently named the creek with small and large waterfalls after himself.
Further upstream we slipped into the refreshing rapids above Little Mertens Falls to cool off near the end of the walk back.
We had seen a little rock art along the way but had missed one site. National Parks does not have signs pointing the way to the sites. No one is quite sure whether that is (a) because they don’t want too many people despoiling the ancient galleries; (b) they assume you know a discreet pathway leads to rock art; or (c) if you are too stupid to find the art you don’t deserve to see it.
Back along the Mitchell Falls Road, near the junction with Kalumburu Road, we set aside time to explore two sign-less sites we had identified on the way in. For absorbing hours we prowled around the outcrops marvelling at the ancient and reasonably contemporary (think 1000 years) creativity of Australia’s indigenous people.
Irregular infill paintings of humans, plants and animals – outlines or sketchily filled in work – are between 30,000 and 40,000 years old and represent the earliest records of human occupation of Australia. Some animals depicted are now extinct.
Gwion, or Bradshaw art, depicts humans in ceremonial garb in an art form known as anthropomorpins – motifs with human shapes. Elegant, fluid figures dance and walk across the rock faces with a three dimensional effect.
Gwion art was developed with different styles – the clothes peg style is believed to be the youngest at more than 17,000 years. It has long baffled experts: avid speculation continues over what the graceful, intricately dressed figures mean.
Wandjina is right up there with Gwion as the most recognised Kimberley art form. It depicts deities with headdress and halos, no mouth and large eyes and nose and causes great excitement among those who believe the aliens visit our planet, even perhaps mating with humans to smarten up the species. In Kimberley art terms Wandjina is modern, maybe not much more than 1000 years old. It notched up its fame because a large Wandjina image featured in the 2000 Sydney Olympics opening ceremony.
Tony and I have seen our share of Aboriginal art around the country but nothing like this. Roaming the rocks and studying the ancient galleries was one of those experiences that makes you think deeply about the original inhabitants of the land and how hopeless we are managing the integration of a remarkable people into our style of civilisation.