March, 6 2010
Burrup Peninsular
William L Fox

Dampier is an active port but only a small town, fewer than 1800 people living in it; that includes the transient workers sharing the motel with us, like the pair of deckhands next door from Shanghai who are here to work out on the North West Shelf natural gas development offshore. The town sits at the base of the Dampier Archipelago, 42 rocky uninhabited islands threaded around the Burrup Peninsula, a finger of islands now connected artificially that is the largest rock art site in the world. And it's also here where the waters flowing out of the rocks of the Karijini Gorges finally meet the Indian Ocean. So we've connected the park and the mines, and the water from the interior to the sea.

We meet Shane Peters in the parking lot early the nest morning, a former deep sea commercial diver who moves in that slightly stiff and off-centre canter that is the legacy of the mixed gases breathed in helmets. He's been in Karratha for 35 years, is of indeterminate percentage of Aboriginal blood, and runs a tour guide business that feeds his passion for the Aboriginal rock art of the Burrup. Barry and I ride with Shane as we head back over the saddle, turn left before we reach the salt flats, and pass by a huge desalinisation facility that also functions as a chemical plant, processing from the salt as a by-product the ammonium nitrate used in both fertiliser for farms and explosives in the mines. Ahead of us is what's left of Mt Burrup, a large hill that's been levelled and is now occupied by a half dozen towering cranes, the construction site of the Pluto Liquid Natural Gas plant that will soon open. It's the second such facility to be built here, a massive and potentially dangerous operation that will freeze the gas brought in pipelines from 60 kilometres offshore. We turn left again, this time up a faint stony track to what Shane calls a 'rock art cemetery.'

The Burrup contains somewhere between 500,000 and a million individual petroglpyhs, some perhaps as old as 25,000 years. An estimated 5-25 per cent of them have been destroyed or damaged by the building and operation of resource facilities, such as the Dampier Port and the original Woodside LNG plant. In an attempt to limit the damage during the early 1980s, more than 1800 rocks engraved with petroglyphs were moved from their original sites and dumped behind a tall chainlink fence. When we start to walk around the exclosure, Shane tells us repeatedly to watch where he put our feet, as he's seen death adders here.

“Take rock art out of its context, and it dies,” Shane tell us, shaking his head at the random piles. Most of the rock images are hidden, the rocks placed upside down at the request of elders, some of the art, according to Shane, “embarrassing for women to see.” He points at a kangaroo glyph, a relatively innocent image left face up. “I've been looking at this for ten years, and it's fading.” Maybe the face-down position of the rocks protects the petroglyphs from the elements and the corrosion of chemical vapors--a clusters of instruments nearby monitors the gasses--but Larry comments that the black numbers painted on white patches to identify the rocks reminds him of tagged bodies. I say 'morgue,' and Larry adds under his breath 'Aushwitz.' It's that bad.

All around us the Spinifex is golden, but there are patches of green ground cover here and there, and a small lizard watches up from atop a nearby boulder. Two wallabies hop discretely from one clump of rocks to another, mistakenly confident that they are unobserved. The chemical plant belches steam and is loud enough to be heard around the entire valley. The compact monitoring station uphill from us records the levels of nitrous oxide, among other exotic fumes. I come from a culture in which 97 per cent of all art disappears within a hundred years of its making. We don't know what the best Greek statuary was because even though it's referenced in literature, the specific works are long lost. There's an entire century of Dutch painting that's gone from wars in the Low Countries, and more recently the largest statues of Buddha in the world, the giant cliff dwellers of Bamyan in Afghanistan, were dynamited almost to smithereens by religious fundamentalists. The loss of the Burrup images from so long ago, however, isn't just one of the world's great lodes of art being destroyed, but evidence into the evolution of the human mind and culture itself. We all know there are better ways to preserve this complex of sites, which includes the nearby standing stones erected to memorialize the massacre of Traditional Owners as they were pursued by colonists in the 1860s along the archipelago until they reached the end and had nowhere to flee.

But this is the nature of human culture, an endless set of stories remaking themselves through and by us. Whereas the ancient songlines of this country helped keep the balance between land and people, the stories we tell ourselves now, at first Euro-Australians but increasingly Aboriginal peoples as well, most often have to do with progress, which means turning over every stone as we look for gas and oil and iron to ship somewhere for a profit. It's not that any of us standing here at the rock cemetery this morning think we can or even want to do without those things; we simply want a way to obtain and use them at a scale moderate enough to allow the world to adjust in a way that allows us to preserve the future and the past together in the present. Shane in particular is concerned with how the cultures of the Traditional Owners, tourists, and resource companies can co-exist in a sustainable manner.

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