Passion for the Burrup


In the Pilbara‘s Burrup, beautiful Indigenous rock art is being eroded by emissions from the oil and gas industry. Chilla Bulbeck joined the FARA Murujuga Tour to find out why the region – and the art – is so historically and culturally significant.

By Chilla Bulbeck

The Dampier Archipelago comprises 42 islands in the Pilbara region of WA. One of them is the Burrup Peninsula, renamed in 1979 after Mt Burrup, which had been named after Henry Burrup, a Roebourne Union Bank clerk murdered in 1885. The peninsula is also known as Murujuga (‘hip bone sticking out’ in the Ngarluma-Yaburara language), and this name was given to the Murujuga National Park created on the Peninsula in 2013.

The Dampier Archipelago is country of primary contrasts. Jagged and broken blood iron rock mantles the hillsides, complemented by the green leaves of a kurrajong tree, stark ghost gum trunks in a landscape dotted with straw blonde spinifex. Heat and earth tremors slowly crack more rocks apart or tumble a broken overhang down a hillside.

Rock art is everywhere on the Burrup peninsula. Some argue it was once ubiquitous across the Australian continent. On the Burrup rock morphology and climate ensured its silent preservation. Over a million images, according to Ken Mulvaney, although most remain undocumented. All remain unexplained.

Petroglyphs feature geometric patterns, fauna – including footprints – and humans. There are humanoid faces with baggy eyes, accentuated teeth and a smallish nose. One has a lolling tongue; some appear to be wearing head-dress. There are sinuous outlines of little men climbing up either side of a pole with their disarticulated heads, or dancing along the line of the earth boomerangs raised. 

In one large petroglyph, the entire face of an oblong rock forms a canvas marked into segments within a clearly defined border and with different geometric markings inscribed into each segment. According to one interpretation, it recorded the movement of the heavens. I named it the giant abacus. Many carvings are deeply etched: you could run your finger along the grooves if touching was allowed.

Game features extensively. There is an emu couple with three eggs, fat-tailed kangaroos (which may have actually been bushy-tailed), thylacines, devils, goannas, echidnas. Some are small and pecked; some pounded by in-fill. Some take up the whole rock, like the kangaroo that featured in the film Japanese Story. There are dugong, fish (including what looks like a human netting a fish), wading birds, the three species of turtles found in the area and stingrays lazing across the rock face. Animal livers possibly reference increasing food scarcity in a period of climate change. Some pieces seem almost hastily scratched, half-finished.

A colonial legacy

It appears that carvings continue with European settlement, at least until 1868. The first Europeans spread deadly smallpox among the Aboriginal people when they established pastoral runs in 1863 and pearling in 1867 using Aboriginal and Malay divers. In 1868 over a period of four months, the Flying Foam Massacre resulted in the cultural genocide of the Yaburara people of the Burrup.

The massacre followed the killing of Police Constable William Griffis, an Aboriginal police assistant named Peter, and a pearling worker named George Breem on the south-west shore of Nickol Bay, along with the disappearance of a pearling lugger captain Henry Jermyn. Explanations for these killings vary from incidental to freeing a kinsman imprisoned for stealing a bag of flour to retaliation for rape of a kinswoman.

The order for reprisals against the Yaburara was given by Roebourne’s government resident Robert John Sholl. Two parties of white settlers under the command of Alex McRae and John Withnell hunted down and killed Yaburara men, women and children. The few survivors fled to join clans living beyond the peninsula, over time losing the cultural knowledge associated with the rock art.

From this land and around this time come the searing images of Aboriginal men lined up in shackles and neck and wrist chains. The men were ‘black-birded’ or captured from their tribes, imprisoned in Roebourne gaol, some for killing cattle and some for nothing. They were a captive workforce, a result of the colonial government’s decision not to send convicts to a climate deemed unsuitable for European labour. In Roebourne gaol, now a museum, photographs of the shackled men show their bellies distended by a European wheat-based diet. A gruesome portrait shows the last three Aboriginal men sentenced to death with their gaolers composed around them.

The impacts of mining

The town of Roebourne is around 1,000 people strong, predominantly Aboriginal. Among the dusty houses with their sketchy gardens, the empty weed and rubbish strewn blocks and the dilapidated early buildings, the restored gaol and courthouse, the shiny new library and the refurbished hotel stand out. Signs identify the location of services for new mothers, for drying out, for the unemployed. An installation on the lookout pays homage to the surrounding clans, now wedged together in this struggling town beside the Harding River. My travelling companion notes the number of kids who are not at school on this weekday and the almost complete lack of local employment opportunities. Not so in Karratha, where unemployment presses against the impossible rate of zero, standing at one per cent, we are told. Someone asks if that includes the Aboriginal population.

Almost everywhere in the Pilbara, the weight of Woodside, Rio Tinto, Fortescue Metals Group and Hancock Prospecting are imprinted on the economy, culture and psyches of the Pilbara communities. Crumbs from billions of dollars extracted and shipped overseas as iron ore or liquified gas are distributed like largesse to the grateful towns. Rio Tinto supports the annual Cossack Art show, a mainstay in reviving this town. Woodside and Rio Tinto provided some of the funding that built the $56 million Red Earth Arts Precinct in Karratha. Rio Tinto recently funded the Centre for Rock Art Research and Management at UWA to continue its work in documenting and analysing the petroglyphs of Murujuga. It has also instituted a training and permit system so grey nomads and other tourists can travel their rail access road from Karratha to Tom Price, and, significantly, the stunning gorges of Karijini.  

If not employed by the government, almost everyone in the Pilbara owes their job, their holiday home and boat at Point Samson, or their satisfying career, to one of these multinational giants. As deformed as Kuwait’s or Bahrain’s economy, Pilbara residents, like the multinationals, rely on fortuitous profits arising from holding extractive leases.

The North-West Shelf Joint Ventures plant was built in the early 1980s, in its construction bulldozing thousands of petroglyphs. Its presence intrudes most insistently among the petroglyphs when you round a bend in the gorge to be confronted by a view of the massive jungle of metal glaring in the sun or the flares roar as the stacks burn off uncaptured gas.

The emissions from the flares appear to be eroding and flaking the petroglyphs. The patina on the rock art is a living organism that grows in a pH neutral environment. Tests in 2017 showed a thousand-fold increase in acidity, particularly downwind of the North-West Shelf plant operated by Woodside. Although appropriate emissions reduction technologies would cost the LNG industry only two percent of its annual profits, Woodside has no plans to update the plant’s infrastructure during the remaining five to seven years of its anticipated life. 

After a long struggle for native title, under the Burrup Maitland Industrial Estates Agreement the Ngarluma Yindijibarndi, the Yaburara Mardudhunera and the Wong-Goo-Tt-Oo groups received land entitlements and financial benefits in return for surrendering their native title claims. The Murujuga National Park was granted as freehold title and is managed jointly by the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions and the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation (MAC). A board of directors is selected annually from the contracting Indigenous parties, a circle of elders advises the board and MAC Indigenous rangers work on country across the whole archipelago.

The website describes MAC as ‘co-existing alongside the extensive mining, gas plant and other industries on Murujuga’. In June 2019, MAC Chief Executive Peter Jeffries welcomed Woodside’s $4 million grant towards MAC’s proposed Living Knowledge Centre. Jeffries said, “when you combine one of the world’s oldest cultures with a pristine environment that is within easy reach of a growing regional centre, you have the foundations for a world-class tourism asset”.

A tour with friends

Into this scenario come the likes of Friends of Australian Rock Art (FARA). Among FARA’s friends are Order of Australia members Christine Milne – the former Australian Greens leader – and John Black, former CSIRO animal scientist. FARA builds support for the rock art with annual tours guided by Garry Slee, Robin Chapple (WA State Greens MLC for Mining and Pastoral) and Ken Mulvaney who, in different ways and from various backgrounds, have spent years learning about this reputedly largest and oldest outdoor art gallery in the world.

They are brimming with desire to share their knowledge and patient in answering all our questions. Vicki Long, principal botanist at Astron Environmental Services in Karratha, introduces us to the delicate unique flora under threat as buffel grass, kapok and other invaders are spread by vehicles and industrial disturbances. June Moorhouse is an accomplished tour organiser, ensuring a convivial and educational experience. 

This unique nine-day trip is reasonably priced: between $800 per person (make your own arrangements for travel, accommodation and catering) and $2,800 per person (standard coach travellers, twin share tent and motel, all catering included). Most of the 40 members on our trip were in their retirement years, several in their eighties. Many had an interest in art, although the tour enlarges understanding of Australian history, anthropology or archaeology.  I cannot think of another tour where enthusiastic volunteers share their passion with tourists in a much more convivial relationship than afforded by a paid guide. 

Some parting words

The Burrup petroglyphs are mute, beautiful, inscrutable. Some express an assured artistic sensibility. Some are heart-warmingly humorous, like the jovial chubby ‘first smiley face’.  The animals are so faithfully executed that we can recognise the devil or each species of turtle. 

We saw one of the most evocative images on the final day. Higher up the rock face, away from casual public viewing, is an ‘increase carving’, reputedly of a thylacine. The animal itself is cross-hatched with a frenzy of lines, some extending out onto the surrounding rocks. The cross-hatchings are so dense that they almost obliterate the tiger. Around 3,000 years ago, thylacines and devils became extinct on mainland Australia. Were these deep desperate markings the cries of artists seeking to keep their disappearing totem animals? Or were they carved in anger and puzzlement at a world changing and deserting them? Or do we have no idea what was thought, experienced and meant in the remnants left to us?

FARA members push our comparatively puny weight against the massive influence of Woodside and Rio Tinto. We argue for World Heritage Listing, or to move the next urea and methanol plant, desalination or gas liquefaction project somewhere else where a million rock art pieces do not lie nearby.

In the face of the unequal struggle, part of me feels these efforts are like the desperate cross-hatchings on the thylacine. The difference is, as we know, former ice ages and rising sea levels were uncontrollable by human beings. The present climate disruption and the destruction caused by our economic rampaging are not. Woodside claims they are on the path to offsetting their carbon emissions with large-scale tree plantings and solar panel installations. For a pittance of their profits, they could upgrade their North-West Shelf facility and preserve the rock art of the Burrup.

Chilla Bulbeck is the co-convenor of the Greens WA.

For more information on the tour visit FARA's website or email June Moorhouse via

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