There are five major Aboriginal rock art sites in the Grampians National Park (Gariwerd is the indigenous name for the park) in the Wimmera region of Victoria, Australia. The paintings are found in what were once rock shelters for the local Aboriginal Jardwadjali people and the sites form the majority of rock art sites in south-east Australia. In October 2012 I decided to visit all of these sites (in past years I had only been to two of them).
The most easily accessible rock art sites are the two northern ones. The largest in the north is Gulgurn Manja Shelter (“Hands of Young People“) under a rock shelf near Hollow Mountain which features many painted hand prints (interestingly they are all right hand prints) including those of kids, along with animal track paintings and other symbols. This site offers great views off into the distance across the Wimmera plains (the Grampians are the only major mountain range in this region).
Not too far away is the second northern rock art site – Ngamadjidj Shelter which is only a short walk from the Mt. Stapylton campground. The Aboriginal word Ngamadjidj means white person and the rock art there depicts white-painted figures in different poses. Unfortunately the true meaning of the painted images are unknown today (in western culture the shelter has also been known as the “Cave of Ghosts” but it is not a cave, nor is it certain that it has anything to do with ghosts!).
The eastern site called Bunjil Shelter is also easy to access being located off a major road near the town of Stawell. This site underneath a large rock formation atop a rocky outcrop depicts a painting of Bunjil and his two dingoes. Bunjil was a spirit ancestor and the traditional creator of the land along with Aboriginal laws and culture in the Dreamtime(the beginning of knowledge and the laws of existence for the Aboriginal people).
The other sites are on the south-western side of the park – Billimina Shelter and Manja Shelter. These are reached at the end of different dirt tracks by car (both are located off the Horsham to Hamilton road and Manja Shelter is 10 minutes further down the track from Billimina), then a 15-20 minute uphill hike through bushland to reach either shelter.
Billimina Shelter is found under a massive rock overhang which stands alone amongst the steep bushland. The red paintings depict hundreds of straight vertical bar lines in many rows which are believed to have been used to count events when telling stories or possibly how much time was spent at the shelter (it was used as a shelter from winter to early summer and stone tools and animal remains have been excavated at the site). The paintings also depict human stick figures and animal tracks such as that of the Emu and Kangaroo. Nearby is Buandik Falls.
Manja Shelter (Manja means hands) has many stencil paintings of hands which are believed to record a visit to the site. They are found in what are effectively two shelters under a large sandstone rock shelf. This is reportedly one of the best sites in Victoria to see such rock art. The paintings also depict people and animal tracks. The view across the Wimmera plains to the Black Range from here is quite spectacular.
Different coloured clay (red, white etc) mixed with substances such as emu eggs or animal fat was used to make the paint used to make the rock art. The paint would be applied by sticks/bark with a frayed end or edge, or by using a finger. For handprints, depending on the site the paint would be applied by pressing a hand covered in paint against the rock face or by spraying the paint by mouth over a hand to leave a stencil like effect. The paintings were used to pass on the stories, and laws of the Aboriginal people. Given the natural method of creating paint it is fascinating to think how long these paintings have survived considering they are not in actual caves but just under rock ledges!
Although the age of the paintings is unknown, information from the Brambuk National Park and Cultural Centre indicate that Aboriginal people are estimated to have used the shelters in the area over the last 22,000 years and have lived in what is today the state of Victoria for at least 40,000 years. Security cages were placed at the rock art sites in the 1960’s and early 1980’s to prevent vandalism and damage to help preserve them for future generations. It is unfortunate that the cages are required, but necessary I am afraid to say. The shelters are in a beautiful part of the country and are well worth a visit when in the Grampians National Parkand as they form an important and interesting part in Aboriginal culture and the history of Australia.