The passage of time that exists in the Top End of Australia is barely comprehensible at almost 2 billion years old.
But that’s what you’ll witness as you soak up the Slow Broadcasting Network’s The Kimberley Cruise: Australia’s Last Great Wilderness.
Starting in Broome and culminating in Darwin, the cruise of the stunning Kimberley Coast is like stepping in to a natural time machine. Get set to go slow with these simmering highlights.
Rock formations: almost 2 billion years old
The rugged Kimberley coastline, with its majestic sandstone outcrops of red, orange and ochre, and scenic gorges, chasms and bays, was first formed in the Precambrian age, 1.8 billion years ago after a major tectonic collision.
Once a separate landmass, the Kimberley collided with the Pilbara and Yilgarn cratons to join the Australian continent, creating stunning landscapes like the King Leopold Ranges with its folded, crumpled rocks.
Relatively spritely then are the Pillara, Napier, Oscar and Emmanuel Ranges, remnants of a 400-million-year-gone coral reef comparable in scope to the Great Barrier Reef.
Indigenous rock art: up to 50,000 years old
The ancient rock art of the Kimberley and its coast, said to be among the oldest in the world, is a rich vein to tap into to understand and trace the cultural history of Indigenous Australians.
There are two main styles of rock art in the Kimberley: Wandjina and Gwion Gwion.
Wandjina artworks are estimated to be 3,500 years old, featuring figures with massive heads, often without mouths.
According to Traveller, they were self-portraits painted by the Wandjina people, “considered ancient spirits who carved out the waterways, lifted the mountains, created many of the plants and animals of the Kimberley.”
On Bigge Island, off the Kimberley Coast, Wandjina rock art depicts what is believed to be a European sailing ship and a European explorer smoking a pipe.
But at locations like Jar Island, the provenance of rock paintings remains a mystery. The Gwion Gwion style of art (formerly known as the “Bradshaws” after Joseph Bradshaw, the Melbourne-born pastoralist who first recorded them in 1891) can be found across around 100,000 sites in the Kimberley’s north-west, but it’s still not clear who painted them.
And the questions surrounding the paintings, estimated to be between 5,000 and 50,000 years old, also lie in their sophistication. Featuring finely painted elongated human forms in elaborate dress, with artefacts like spears and dilly bags, they are different in style to other Australian rock art.
Evidence of the use of pigments for painting dates back some 40,000 years at Carpenter’s Gap rock shelter, in the Napier Range, south of the King Leopold Ranges.
Aboriginal culture: about 50,000 years
An archaeological study released last year, dated evidence of Indigenous inhabitation of Australia’s northwest coast at about 50,000 years.
According to research body the Kimberley Society, with the Kimberley in close proximity to migration routes from Timor and New Guinea, it could be one of the first places in the country where Indigenous Australians settled.
Life on the seas has been captured in Gwion Gwion rock art with figures paddling boats with high prows and sterns, and painted with vertical and horizontal stripes. Some experts believe that the pattern suggests the boats were made of reeds. But another theory is that they were made of bamboo, readily available in Timor.
Evidence of the sophisticated tool-making methods of Aboriginal ancestors – the first to occupy Australia – was found further inland, inside a rock shelter in Windjana Gorge National Park. A fragment of an axe discovered there has been dated between 45,000 and 49,000 years old, one of the oldest of its type anywhere in the world.
Dinosaur footprints: 130 million years old
Nothing quite says primeval like dinosaurs, and Broome’s coast offers an abundance of evidence of the prehistoric creatures that’s 130 million years in the making.
Last year it was revealed that the world’s biggest dinosaur footprints can be found in the Dampier Peninsula, 200km north of Broome. Measuring 1.7 metres, the sauropod prints, reports ABC News, are one of 21 kinds of dinosaur footprints in the region.
“With 21 different types of tracks represented, that makes it the most diverse dinosaur footprint fauna in the world,” Dr Steve Salisbury, University of Queensland palaeontologist, said.
Ancient coral reefs: over 9,000 years old
The ancient coral reefs of the Kimberley Coast have managed to withstand tough environmental conditions over many thousands of years adapting to become a unique phenomenon.
Atypically, they have a higher elevation than most coral reef ecosystems that can only tolerate atmosphere exposure for short periods.
But the unusual height of the Kimberley coral reefs means they are exposed above tide level for lengthy periods of time.
“The sight of water cascading off the edges of a Kimberley coral reef as the tide falls is something that you can experience nowhere else on Earth,” marine geoscientist Dr Mick O’Leary, of Curtin University, tells The West Australian.
“Somehow Kimberley corals have managed to adapt over many thousands of years to these extreme tidal ranges, high levels of turbidity, really warm water temperatures and exposure, and are thriving in the Kimberley despite these conditions,” he said.
But with the oldest inshore corals dated at over 9,000 years, they’re small fish in a big old pond.
The Kimberley Cruise: Australia’s Last Great Wilderness airs on Sunday, 13 January at 7:30pm on SBS as part of SBS’s Slow Summer.