Prehistoric Mind and an Australian Cave









Kevin Sharpe



























37,000 words

Copyright © 2000 by Kevin Sharpe.







Koonalda Cave is a protected site. It is illegal to enter it without permission of the South Australian Protector of Relics.










Dedicated to the memory of Peter and Keri



Plates                                                                                                                                     iii

Figures                                                                                                                                   x

Preface                                                                                                                                 xii

Chapter One: Across the Nullarbor                                                                                         4

Chapter Two: Exploring Koonalda Cave                                                                               13

Chapter Three: The Mirning                                                                                                  29

Chapter Four: Nullarbor Fauna and Flora                                                                              43

Chapter Five: Nullarbor Myths

Chapter Six: Koonalda in the Nullarbor                                                                                 79

Chapter Seven: Results of Excavations                                                                                106

Chapter Eight: The Ritual Art of Koonalda                                                                          125

Chapter Nine: Good-Bye to the Gurneys                                                                             150

References                                                                                                                         160


(A Selection Can be Made From These)


1. “The true treeless Nullarbor….” As my shadow indicates, I am clinging to the windmill, the supplier of water for the Koonalda Station sheep.

2. The Eyre Highway with its undulations.

3. “We stopped at a set of Government tanks…to fill water containers.”

4. Filling the water containers: “Even a little lizard poked out its head to welcome us.”

5. “A street light burns all day outside” the Nullarbor Station store.


6. The Koonalda sinkhole: “I am always unprepared for a crater four kilometers from the Koonalda Station homestead.”

7. “Disfiguring graffiti…on the wall above the “squeeze” at the end of the upper chamber.”

8. “In 1952,…the Gurneys still pumped the water up the 85 meters to ground level to water their stock.”

9. Over 1959-60, “Adrian Hunt discovered the line markings on the Cave’s walls.”

10. “The Koonalda markings must be prehistoric and of a considerable age.”

11. “Scratches on the floor boulders.”

12. “A twisted piece of mallee root, charred at one end, sat on a high stone.”

13. “Over one hundred and ninety centuries past, Aborigines perhaps drew on…the walls…of Koonalda Cave.”


14. “They…lived off scraps from White civilization.”


15. “Flowers flourish for a short time after rain.”

16. The Koonalda sinkhole. Note the Gurneys’ water pipe.

17. “We set up our camp on the surface beside the sinkhole.”

18. “Large spiders…inside the sinkhole discouraged our camping” there.

19. Our kitchen in the sinkhole.

20. “We lowered provisions and kitchen equipment one bucketful at a time by rope through a meter-wide hole in the overhang.”

21. At the Koonalda sinkhole: Sandor Gallus, Neil Chadwick, Christine Kortlang, Kevin Mott, and Ian Lewis.

22. Christine “Kortlang was to observe and draw the shapes of the marks and their intersections with each other.”

23. Ian Lewis, a surveyor with a “passion for caving in the Nullarbor.”

24. “Neil Chadwick…assisted with the archaeological investigations.”

25. “I found the crumbling remains of [a cockroach] in the upper chamber of Koonalda Cave.”

26. The remains of a cave cricket in the upper chamber.


27. The Nullarbor Plain has many myths surrounding it.

28. “The land abruptly ended.”

29. “The surf raged below the stark cliffs.”

30. “John Muir…considered this stretch of country one of the finest in Australia and admirable for grazing when water is found.”


31. “A steel ladder starts its 15-meter descent.”

32. “The floor drops to the Gallus Site, 120 meters from the entrance and its ceiling 75 meters underground.” Looking back to the entrance from the toe of the slope.

33. “A backwards scramble over large rocks interrupts the slide and leads to a short steel ladder that sits at an angle on the dust.”

34. “A shaft of light touches [the Gallus Site] from the entrance.” I stand halfway down the entrance slope.

35. Sandor Gallus has found “what he considers a prehistoric mining trench…with sculptural concretions shaped like birds and other animals.” In the center-foreground is the sculptured boulder in Plate 37, and in the center-rear is the mining trench in Plate 36.

36. Sandor “Gallus has marked out what he considers a prehistoric mining trench with ceremonial picks, points down, at each end.”

37. Sandor Gallus has identified “a stone with a human shape [,which] sits propped-up on the surface together with sculptural concretions shaped like birds and other animals.” The scale is in centimeters.

38. “Sculptural concretions shaped like…animals.”

39. “Sculptural concretions shaped like birds.” The scales are in centimeters.

40. Looking from the toe of the entrance slope across the Gallus Site to the upper chamber and the ascent to it. I made the trail of light when I traversed the Gallus Site with the flash gun.

41. The 30-metre high cliff to the upper chamber lit by an ascent.

42. Neil Chadwick and Christine Kortlang descending from the upper chamber.

43. From the high pint of the upper chamber looking towards the “ramparts.” Note the difference between smooth and rounded boulders and those rough and jagged.

44. From the high point of the upper chamber looking in the direction of the “squeeze”. All the boulders here are rough and jagged.

45. Christine Kortlang lying in the “squeeze” entrance under the engraved wall.


46. Sandor Gallus at work at his card table on the Gallus Site.

47. From the “ramparts” of the upper chamber looking at the Gallus Site lit by the glow filtering from the Cave entrance and by Sandor Gallus at work at his table.

48. Trench III. Note the top white deposits, the level water-lain intermediate red zone, and the bottom white where Neil Chadwick and Sandor Gallus are at work.


49. “At the back of the upper chamber of the Cave, covering large expanses of the soft, chalky, limestone walls scrawl masses of marks, stroked into the receptive medium by human fingertips or scratched with sticks or stones.”

50. “Perhaps the most striking symbol near the “squeeze” is a set of large and curved parallel lines in a rainbow shape.”

51. “The marks range from two simple lines that run parallel down a rock face….”

52. “…to meshes of lines as tangled as the wrinkles on an old face.”

53. The “elephant head” rock and “trunk.” The engravings were so thick that they resembled hide. The next three plates are from this boulder.

54. A portion of the “trunk” connecting to the “elephant head” rock.

55. A portion of the “hide” of the “elephant head” rock. The scale is in centimeters.

56. A detail of Plate 55. Note the association with the natural holes in the surface of the limestone boulder.

57. “Smooth boulders, whose inner surfaces usually show engravings, define the edges of the ritual floors or activity areas.” The scale rod is in half-meter sections.

58. “Stones pile up against some human line engravings.” These are from the activity area pictured in Plate 57. The scale is in centimeters.

59. Line markings on a boulder in the upper chamber (see Figure 15).

60. “The upper chamber shows that people engraved lines and, at the same place, cleared floors of rubble. They cleared them for specific purposes.”

61. “I found the skull of a kangaroo, without its mandible, among the bones on one activity area. It sat on a rock not far off the floor…” next to the centimeter scale ruler in Plate 60.

62. Neil “Chadwick later discovered a small flake of flint on the same activity area [as in Plate 60], perhaps an engraving tool.” The scale is in centimeters.

63. “Bats swished past our ears and stars thickened the canopy as we sang ‘Happy Birthday to You.’”

64. “We invited Cyril Gurney to the party.” He sits with Sandor Gallus on the left.

65. “Warbla is near Coompana not far from Koonalda and enters…from a large sinkhole 40 meters in diameter that opens up suddenly into the Plain.”

66. Ian “Lewis abseiled down into the sinkhole.”


67. “I spruced myself up with a plunge into the tank of Cave water that the windmill pumped up.”

68. “The Gurneys’ Koonalda home sits in the midst of the Nullarbor.”

69. “Six emus, four wallabies, two dozen goats, and two horses occupy the yard.”

70. “An overlander on the Eyre Highway every so often drives up the double-sided drive to buy gas at Gurneys’ hand pumps.” Cyril Gurney and Sandor Gallus.

71. From the Gallus Site looking at the climb to the upper chamber. I squat in front of the central flash of light.

72. A portion of a marked boulder in the upper chamber of Koonalda Cave.

73. A portion of the “head” and “trunk” of the “elephant head” boulder in the upper chamber.




1.      The Nullarbor Region, with locations mentioned in the text.

2.      Australian non-Nullarbor locations mentioned in the text.

3.      Koonalda Cave, plan and section of the Northwest Passage (after J.B.Hinwood, 1960; see Richard Wright, ref. 294).

4.      Koonalda Cave, Northwest Passage (after I.D. Lewis and K.R.Mott, 1976).

A.     The Gallus Site.

B.     The Upper Chamber.

C.     The squeeze area.


5.      Geological and archaeological time scales.


6.      Richard Wright’s sections through the excavations in Trench III of the Gallus Site (see Richard Wright, ref. 294).

7.      Diagram showing terms used for flaking procedure.

8.      Features of the inner face of a flake.

9.      A battleaxe or pickaxe found by Sandor Gallus near the “squeeze” (after Sid Fetter; see Alexander Gallus, ref. 102).


10.  An indication of the land surface lost after 20,000 years ago (after Richard Wright, ref. 293).

11.  Expected stages in the weathering of boulders by salt crystallization.

12.  Walbiri symbols, men’s ancestral designs, showing the range of meaning (after Nancy Munn, ref. 216).

13.  A cylcon (after Lindsay Black, ref. 38).

14.  A schematic rendition by Alexander Marshack of a meander with its subsequent additions: one attached laterally, five crossing over and two outside (after Alexander Marshack, ref. 197).

15.  Line markings from a boulder in the Upper Chamber (see Plate 66). Scale approximately 1:1.




Many people and organizations have contributed to the two Koonalda expeditions that form the basis of this account, and to the preparation of it. My thanks go to Christine Sharpe who not only was my companion, but also assisted with research and writing; to Ian Lewis, Kevin Mott, Neil Chadwick, and (especially) Sandor Gallus, who also were on the second visit to Koonalda; to the South Australian Museum (especially Graeme Pretty), the National Geographic Society (especially Mary Griswold Smith), the South Australian Protector of Relics for permission to enter Koonalda Cave, and the Gurneys of Koonalda Station; to Mary Lacombe for invaluable assistance in editing, the interloan personnel of the University of Auckland Library, and Sandra Meyer. Many others, of course, have contributed invaluably.

Kevin Sharpe,


AR02\C01.doc                                          2563 words                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        13 June 2003


Chapter One




[Along the Eyre Highway,] the trackside began to be littered with discarded tyres, witness to the sufferings of the less provident of those who had gone before. Many of the old covers appeared to have received no more than might have been expected, for they were worn and thus quite unfitted to the journey they had been expected to accomplish. However, here and there were strong specimens, pierced by protruding roots, or ripped by sharp rock.

Soon one began to feel that the route should be called “Tyre” and not Eyre Highway.

                   Basil Fuller, 1970.[1]


The Nullarbor is a deadly place. An earnest, desolate and apparently endless plain, its white limestone crops up everywhere and in every direction like dried bones. The explorer Ernest Giles, writing in 1857 after trekking across it, felt the region to be unknown to any human being and forsaken by God.

I drove into the Nullarbor on two occasions to look at one of its caves, Koonalda. Its prehistoric art and archaeology interest me. I believe it contains a key for helping us to understand the nature and history of what makes us human.

The Nullarbor Plain in South and Western Australia is one of the world’s largest expanses of limestone. It is the largest sub-tropical arid area of limestone karst. It is also flat. A section of the railway that zippers it runs unbending for 479 kilometers—the world’s longest straight.

Captain E. Alfred Delisser coined “Nullarbor” in 1886 from the Latin words nullus arbor, meaning “no tree”; the Nullarbor grows no trees. The Aboriginal word nulla also means “not any” or “none.” The Nullarbor can sometimes deceive its travelers into thinking they do see trees. Lofty pines appear to clothe distant encircling hills. The levelness of the Plain reduces sight to about six kilometers, and the pines, as approached, dwindle in size to a half-meter-high thicket of broom. Atmospheric refraction plays tricks on the eye. This deception can bring death; in 1878 Professor Ralph Tate used it to explain why the two explorers Fairie and Woolley lost themselves on the Nullarbor and perished. They stumbled toward mirages that vanished.

Bat- and owl-haunted caverns dot the Nullarbor. Caves undermine it. Its climatic and geological characteristics render it a piecrust, mostly hollow underneath, which every now and then collapses into the cavities to form surface-openings called dolines or sinkholes. At the bottom of the sinkholes often open entrances into the Nullarbor underworld. Prehistoric Australians knew these caves.

Nowadays, the train journey across the Nullarbor takes 29 hours. The Plain extends from 300 kilometers west to 250 kilometers east of the South Australian-Western Australian state border, with a maximum width of 250 kilometers from the coast. The present Nullarbor Plain is smaller than the limestone formation, which covers more like 200,000 square kilometers and which sand and sea cover in places. This enlarged Nullarbor Region, about the size of Colorado or Great Britain, includes three main features: a series of coastal plains up to 40 kilometers wide, a cliff line 40 to 75 meters high, and a plateau running inland from the top of the cliffs. At the foot of the cliffs, lies the ocean or the coastal plain. A wooded belt some twenty kilometers wide runs along the coast.

Roy Gurney, the grazier of Koonalda Station, encountered ancient stumps when rounding up stock. Perhaps some areas skirting the Plain grew trees. Perhaps Aborigines burned them off to help their hunting.

Very large stations, such as those of the Gurneys, farm sections of the Nullarbor with few sheep—and sometimes none—per hectare. The graziers’ forerunners believed in the rich pastoral potential of the Nullarbor. Delisser, a squatter and surveyor and the person who coined the name “Nullarbor,” searched for good grazing land. He left Fowler’s Bay in South Australia and skirted north of Eucla, in both July 1861 and June 1865, and returned with overly optimistic reports about the Plain’s farming prospects. This excess and romanticism is common in the face of the Nullarbor’s desolation.

The sheep and cattle properties occur every 60 to 100 kilometers along the Eyre Highway, the only east-west road that crosses the Nullarbor. The abrupt cessation of towns and people on entering the Nullarbor matches the abrupt rediscovery of them on the other side, as in an ocean crossing. The settlements perch like islands. The railway line paints a similar picture: maintenance depots, stations, and human habitations cluster beside the line at similar distances. These, plus itinerant rabbit trappers and moteliers, break the otherwise uninhabited region. The only settlement of any size is Eucla, and less than 200 people inhabit that. World maps sometimes include Eucla.

The road passes the Nullarbor sheep Station and its store, a couple of near derelict buildings, in the midst of the Plain and 25 kilometers west of the Great Australian Bight. A street light burns all day outside this, the Plain’s “Capital,” the only thing for hundreds of kilometers. “It stands in desolate surroundings,” writes the overlander Basil Fuller. “Approach at dusk and you feel that perhaps after all the world is flat and that here is its edge.”[2] Most of the road passes within a narrow and lusher coastal belt, apart from around the Nullarbor Station where it passes through a short and tree- and bush-less stretch, the typical Nullarbor.

I drove along the Eyre Highway to visit Koonalda as a member of an expedition that the South Australian Museum and the National Geographic Society sponsored. I spent three weeks in Melbourne and Adelaide conferring with authorities and gathering what we needed for the trip, including items of photographic, camping, and caving equipment, and an unrefrigerated menu for six people for three weeks. The South Australian Museum provided a Toyota Landcruiser and other supplies. I met the expedition members at the museum and we set out toward the Nullarbor from Adelaide on the first Sunday in January. Permission to enter Koonalda Cave arrived at the last minute from the South Australian Protector of Relics.

The Eyre Highway connects the 790 kilometers between Colona in South Australia and Balladonia in Western Australia. Its construction started on Anzac Day (25 April) 1941 and follows an Aboriginal trade route and the course John Eyre traversed on his journey across the Nullarbor. A more defined trail developed with the movement across the Plain of pastoralists and settlers, telegraph workers and gold miners, their stock, supplies, and communications. Camels bore explorers and pulled heavy trains of goods. A cyclist, A. Richardson, rode over it en route from Coolgardie to Adelaide in 1896. The impetus for the 1941 construction came from World War II. Four hundred men cleared, graded, and laid gravel over the Eyre Highway and beyond, 1,800 kilometers of road altogether. The route gradually saw reconstruction and paving until completion in the late 1970s¾engineers added kinks to minimize driver boredom.

We spent a night at Ceduna. This fishing port, a little east of the Nullarbor, ships out grain and gypsum. It was hot, dry, and dusty. We pitched our tents with difficulty in the hard ground of a caravan park whose consolation was a battery of showers (an oasis for those returning from the Plain), and a fish-and-chip caravan. “No Swimming—Polluted Beach” notices barricaded the park from the sea of Murat Bay. That night we broke the glass of a gas lamp—the first of the many problems that hampered our ability to illuminate Koonalda Cave. The next morning, after taking down the tent, we waited for breakfast at the service station where we had waited for hours for the previous night’s dinner. We then hunted to find liquid petroleum gas and kerosene for our lamps. The first we eventually procured, but the second we gave up on. This added to our cave lighting worries.

Our two-vehicle cavalcade thus set off late. We drove westwards through hundreds of kilometers of wheat fields and scrub. The road was fairly good and paved at the start, with little traffic. But hot.

The Eyre Highway was mostly unpaved on my previous journey onto the Nullarbor. Invisible potholes dotted the nearly straight road, holes so large they threatened to swallow my orange VW Beetle. Circles of tires lay around the holes as warnings. I contributed a muffler and a hubcap to the parts that littered the roadside. Red dust streamed from my tires. It wafted across the road in fine white puffs, which dissolved into wisps as we entered them, increasing to tree-high clouds that obliterated the foliage. It seeped into the car¾through tightly closed doors and windows¾irritating noses, throats, and eyes. The limestone powder of the Nullarbor can create the worst discomfort of travel across the Plain.

The early Nullarbor settler, surveyor, and Justice of the Peace, Tom Brown, writes that all the roads and tracks on the Nullarbor are good and suitable for driving along fast. He is right if only one vehicle at a time uses the dirt road. Problems arise when two or more do. Drivers overtake blind in the pall of dust that the car in front kicks up, convinced no vehicles are coming in the opposite direction because of the small number that use it. The Nullarbor dirt road saw a disproportionately large number of fatalities.

We traveled on 150 kilometers of new paving before entering the dust. The potholes weren’t as bad this time as on my prior visit. On the other hand, with constant vibration from its undulations, the dirt road made for more hazardous driving. I nearly lost control of the van because of sliding and wheeling on loose stones and dust. The other vehicle, the Landcruiser, drove more sedately. The car wrecks had largely vanished and the land was greener, but the boredom for the passengers still pervaded. The true treeless Nullarbor Plain provides more interest than those portions of the road that pass through scrub and bush. Writes Benjamin Disraeli: “A forest is like an ocean, monotonous only to the ignorant”¾to which Fuller adds that the Nullarbor is only tedious to the imperceptive.[3]

We stopped at a set of Government tanks¾large, rain collecting and storage devices¾to fill water containers. Useable water doesn’t exist at Koonalda: no fresh water river or lake or stream. Its underground reservoirs are too saline for human consumption.

The lack of surface water on the Nullarbor contrasts with other portions of Australia. Numerous sandy and wide watercourses, which run swiftly in the rare torrential rainstorm, interlace the driest parts of the continent. The Nullarbor holds no active surface watercourses, however, even any that might flow on the odd occasion. Aerial photographs do chart relic river courses. These primeval remains of rivers occur in northern and western regions and appear to continue now-inactive headwaters outside the Nullarbor; they didn’t reach the coast even when they flowed. Geologist J. T. Jutson thus considers the Nullarbor one of the geographic wonders of the world. The Nullarbor isn’t waterless rainfall-wise, for it receives more precipitation than most of South Australia. It lacks water because of its limestone composition; riddled with holes, it rapidly drains water from the surface. The Nullarbor resembles more a wilderness than a desert.

The tanks the Government erected to counter the lack of consumable water sit in pairs every 50-90 kilometers along the Eyre Highway. Each holds between 20,000 and 60,000 liters. The corrugated iron roof that more than covers each pair rises a little at each side so that water from rain and dew flows into a central guttering and from there to the tanks. A high, wire-mesh fence with a barbed wire cap stands around the perimeter of the covered area, presumably to keep animals and humans from polluting the water. From each tank a tap projects through the wire.

Fuller found this water unsuitable for human consumption, even when boiled. He saw a possum floating bloated on a scummy surface in one of a pair of tanks. The feed pipe to the other tank had rusted through and the tank was empty. We had better luck when we sought water from the tanks. Even a little lizard poked out its head to welcome us.

The tanks of water can save lives. The previous time I traveled toward Koonalda, abandoned car bodies lay beside the road rotting in the sun. Hundreds of wombats, which we ordinarily never see, also lay dead beside the road. Some call the wombat a living fossil. It loves the desert and looks half-pig and half-bear, with a large bulk, dark fur, strong legs, and powerful shoulders. The Nullarbor sheep Station is the only place where wombats are plentiful, according to Brown, a surveyor who lived at the Station for about thirty years at the end of the nineteenth century. Fuller said the same thing in 1970. I could see beside the road around the Station, among the sparse saltbush and bluebush, mounds of freshly turned yellow soil that mark the presence of the nocturnal hairy-nosed wombat. Aborigines in Brown’s time walked to the Station from hundreds of kilometers to feast on the marsupials. Sometimes they spun the fur into a thread using two sticks and from this they wove garments. The wombat bodies weren’t victims of hit-and-run drivers, but of the drought the Nullarbor experienced that year.

The drought also killed the sheep of the stations. The grazier at Koonalda had no live sheep left on his land and worked on a road gang. Slowly rotting carcasses lay everywhere. Daisy Bates describes a similar situation in 1918: dead sheep lay around wells of brackish water that windmills pump from underground. The land, she writes, was bare and lifeless, ravaged by the drought that ended in 1915.

Rabbits are the last creatures to leave or die during a drought because they crop closer to the base of grass stalks than can most other animals. Bates recalls the time when rabbits were migrating across the Nullarbor into Western Australia. They so easily devour the bark of sandalwood and other trees in the worst droughts and dig up the roots of smaller bushes, she writes, that they adjust to almost any condition. She saw them climbing mulga trees to nibble off young shoots. I lay in my sleeping bag on the hard ground for the first few nights of my earlier Koonalda expedition. I then found it more comfortable to sleep on the rabbit droppings (up to 30 centimeters in places) with a ground sheet over top.

When I visited Koonalda three years later, the fully stocked and grassed stations showed no sign of the devastation. The same contrast between good and bad years strikes Bates as well: herbage covers the countryside in good seasons to create excellent land, ideal for sheep.

The Nullarbor, at first sight featureless and aggressive, grew on me. Its animals, plants, and geology¾and its people¾fascinated me. What I saw in Koonalda Cave offered me something also unexpected and unique.[4]



AR02\C02.doc                                          3,163 words                                   13 June 2003


Chapter Two




Natives knew the Goonalda [sic] reservoir; but tradition mentions only one [Aborigine] as having ventured down into the basin with the aid of rough saplings tied together with hairstring belts.

Daisy Bates, 1921.[5]


It took three days to drive from Adelaide to Koonalda.

We left the road at the Koonalda homestead 70 kilometers or so before the town of Eucla, and bumped across the Plain toward the Cave. The track passes the occasional stunted mallee and samphire trees. The gray of bluebush, saltbush, and tufted spear grass blends with the dull gray of the limestone earth. I am always unprepared for a crater four kilometers from the Koonalda Station homestead, hidden from my view by a rise in the ground. The Koonalda sinkhole descends, about 60 meters across and 30 deep.

Koonalda Cave branches off in three directions. The first to enter, the northwest passage, descends from the base of the northwestern end of the large crater-like doline or sinkhole punched into the Plain. It becomes a stadium-like 90 by 60-meter chamber with a flat bottom. It then ascends a vertical 30 meters to the “upper chamber”: a 60-meter long, boulder-strewn and undulating passage, which concludes with a low “squeeze.” The north passage leads off from the northwest passage near the toe of the entrance slope, runs for around 540 meters, and contains a number of lakes up to 27 meters deep. The west passage leads off from the second passage along its length and culminates in a lake. Over this lake vaults a dome, which the end of the “squeeze” of the northwest passage perforates high up.

Ralph Tate reported the existence of caves from his 1878 Nullarbor expedition, and James Jones from his in 1880. The surveyor Arthur Mason and his companion trekked 260 kilometers on foot to Eucla after their camels were stolen near Boundary Dam in 1896. He passed the Koonalda sinkhole on his way. A kangaroo shooter named Bob Scott rediscovered the sinkhole several years later. He fashioned a ladder from kangaroo-hide ropes, ingenuity and much labor, and climbed down not only to the bottom of the doline but into the Cave. He may have been the first European to try drinking from the Koonalda lakes. L. A. Wells found from inquiries in 1904 that kangaroo hunters, with the assistance of Aborigines, often carried water to the surface. Disfiguring graffiti shows names and dates (“J. Broughton 1907”) on the wall above the “squeeze” at the end of the upper chamber of the Cave. Casual visitors¾tourists, kangaroo hunters, dingo trappers¾ventured into the Cave and placed their mark.

R. McCullough was probably the first to undertake a scientific visit to Koonalda. The government employed him to search for water. Descending onto a ledge of the doline by means of a rope attached to a secured iron bar, and then inching his way down below, he noted and later reported on the water and rock strata inside the Cave. G. W. Hunt, an inspector of stock roads, tested the salinity of the Cave’s water in 1904. Hunt also mentions that G. W. Murray of Yalata Station and Butler of Nullarbor Station tested its water about four years previously. Wells, an inspector and valuer for the South Australian Survey Department, descended into the Cave in June 1904 and describes its interior and the existence of water, as well as Murray’s earlier water inspection. He also mentions that a government boring party (perhaps McCullough’s) visited the Cave some years earlier too.

Daisy Bates used a rope to help her visit the Cave in 1914. She describes the Koonalda lakes as a huge reservoir of excellent quality and adds that every rainfall in the north refreshes it. It becomes brackish, she writes, during long periods of drought.

George Woolf was minister of the town of Ceduna and a missioner in the Far West Mission of the Diocese of Willochra for nearly three years in the 1930s. His parish included the treeless Plain and he loved to couple his parish visiting with his favorite leisure activity: potholing.

J. Maitland Thomson first organized a cave exploring trip to the Nullarbor in 1932 and at least nine more times from then until 1960. The Captain, as others knew him, noticed the name “Caves of the Catacombs” when he looked at a map of the Nullarbor. The name enticed him and the idea of caving attracted him. (The first European to see the Caves of the Catacombs was the surveyor Jones who helped in the fruitless 1879 search for the explorers Fairie and Woolley, lost on the Nullarbor.)

A 1936 article refers to the Captain as the harbormaster at Port Lincoln, South Australia. He found his element on the Plain. Low scrub renders potholes and blowholes invisible to anyone in the driver’s seat. The Captain therefore piloted his vehicle from the bridge, seated on top of the cab, the driver responding blindly to the tapping above. One thump from the Captain’s boot meant “steer to port,” writes Douglas Kemsley in his account of a 1957 Captain-led expedition for boy scouts, two thumps meant “steer to starboard,” and three “steer dead ahead.”[6]

Oceanographic imagery befits the Nullarbor. K. Peake-Jones, a master of a school group the Captain led on a Nullarbor caving expedition, recounts:

I have seen a squall approaching my ship across the Indian Ocean, and a squall rushing towards our lines across the Nullarbor, and they are the same, if you replace spindrift with red-brown dust. The Nullarbor even has waves on it; little, choppy tussocks and rabbit mounds, and a broad, shallow swell which makes it difficult to detect objects on the ground until you are right on them.

The picturesque nature of this imagery belies the danger: from sinkholes, blowholes, rabbit and wombat warrens, it is not easy to extricate one’s vehicle, and a rock noticed too late could quite easily disembowel vital mechanical components.[7]

The Captain’s 1939 trip joined with the Spencer Gulf Aero Club for an aerial reconnaissance in the Nullarbor Station area. They discovered 43 caves in a flying time of two-and-a-half hours with three small planes. (Three decades later, Jo Jennings and others employed a parallel technique of examining stereoscopic aerial photographs of the Nullarbor in a successful effort to locate sinkholes.) The Captain’s squadron next touched down at Koonalda.

The articles retelling the Captain’s caving exploits include incidental snippets. He recounts that in 1940 Roy Gurney heard that Koonalda Cave held water and climbed in to test it. He then obtained a lease for the land around the Cave and he and his younger brother lowered in an engine and pump. The Captain wrote in 1952 that the Gurneys still pumped the water up the 85 meters to ground level to water their stock. They continued to do so, though with different equipment, on my two visits.

Cave explorers (or speleologists) also visit Koonalda Cave. The South Australian Cave Exploration Group formed in 1955 and organized an Australian Speleological Federation expedition to the Plain for December-January 1956-1957. Over 60 members of many caving clubs took part in the cave exploration and scientific research. Speleological societies organized a number of other expeditions to the Nullarbor over the following years. They discovered and explored new caves, surveyed and mapped caves (including J. B. Hinwood’s 1960 plan of Koonalda), and made scientific observations. Many of these expeditions included stops at Koonalda.

Alexander (or Sandor) Gallus’s interest in the art and archaeology of Koonalda Cave began when he refereed the prehistory section of the 1956-1957 cavers’ expedition to the Nullarbor. Gallus commenced his excavating in Koonalda, according to one account, because he found there a large upright rock that supposedly couldn’t have fallen naturally into that position. He thought that a group of people must have intentionally stood it up on end. He also came across two fireplaces: one surrounded by flat limestone blocks in the twilight zone of the Cave, and the other further into the dark zone. Ted Lane conjectures that stone-age toolmakers sat on the flat blocks warming themselves by the fire, while chipping at lumps of flint they had struck off the wall.

Previous discussions between Gallus and Norman Tindale, then Curator of Anthropology at the South Australian Museum in Adelaide, centered on artifact finds from the Nullarbor. The presence of such artifacts on the surface around the Koonalda doline confirmed for Gallus his decision to explore inside the Cave for signs of human occupation. His preliminary survey revealed several sets of small stone tools scattered about the floor of the main entrance chamber of the Cave. He investigated seven sets in 1957 and an eighth in 1959. Lane’s report also mentions finding in the Cave a bone awl and a bracelet made of wooden ornaments with kangaroo hair linking them together.

The 1956-1957 prehistory section of the cavers’ expedition came across a dramatic scene in another cave: the solitary skeleton of an Aborigine lay face down in the powdery surface, with one arm outstretched. A lone wanderer, perhaps injured or searching for water, he must have lost his way. A 1959 Sydney University expedition stumbled upon a similar scene. The bones of a 27-year-old Aboriginal woman lay scattered through an extension of Bildoolja Cave. Some bones were missing, probably scattered by flooding, and two small unnatural holes perforated her thighbone. She had received a blow on her head about 18 months before she died. The expedition also found flint implements in the Cave.

Over the 1959-1960 summer, Gallus and three student assistants undertook a second session of excavations in Koonalda. Adrian Hunt discovered the line markings on the Cave’s walls during this time. Gallus noted the resemblance of the drawings to the “macaroni” that supposedly characterize the beginnings of cave art in Western Europe and concluded that the Koonalda markings must be prehistoric and of a considerable age. A prehistoric workbench marked the center of excavational activity during this session in the Cave. The flint miners of Koonalda used this stone bench to rough out implements from the flint they quarried. Gallus and his team spent a week of days as long as 15 hours to uncover the workbench and the material scattered about. One of Gallus’s three student assistants for this session was Graeme Pretty, a teachers’ training college student from Sydney. He became Senior Curator of Anthropology at the South Australian Museum.

Further Gallus-led expeditions to Koonalda continued the excavations over the following years. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (A.I.A.S.) sponsored the 1965-1966 visit and sent Jo Jennings and Richard Wright as observers. The A.I.A.S. then organized a 1967 expedition of specialists in art, fauna, flora, sediments, and archaeology, which Wright led and which resulted in the milestone 1971 publication on Koonalda that he edited. Gallus contributed to this investigation, but archaeologically took a secondary role to Wright. Documentary crews shot two films in Koonalda over this period.

Gallus revisited the Cave regularly from 1967 to 1976, extending his excavations and piecing together his understanding of the prehistoric activities there.

My assignment from Gallus in 1973, on my first visit to Koonalda, was to record photographically and in detail the well-known wall markings: the finger scrawls and lines engraved with a hard object, fanning out over large areas at the back of the upper chamber. The first few days I spent trying to decide where to start and how to proceed. I worked with Christine Kortlang, whose job was to draw the markings.

Kortlang’s mother led a troop of girl scouts to visit Gallus’s excavation site at Keilor, just out of Melbourne. Kortlang went along too. The romance of archaeology inspired her. This, and the fact that she attended an art college prompted Gallus to ask her to spend her Sunday afternoons drawing cross-sections of the excavations.

Kortlang chose prehistoric Australian art as the subject for her degree thesis. What looked like engravings appeared on a small piece of rock unearthed at Keilor; she also heard of prehistoric markings on the walls of a cave in the Nullarbor Plain, another site of Gallus’s investigation. Their abstract art could tell more about ancient Australians, she felt, than could bones and stone tools. I joined the dig at Keilor during this time.

Gallus invited Kortlang and me to join him in Koonalda Cave on his 1973 expedition.

Kortlang noticed, while picking her way between large boulders to reach the art area, fine lines on some of them. On the second day of recording, she looked more closely at the markings. The first stone stands halfway along the path through the upper chamber. It is smoothly rounded and buried deep into the cave floor, but its striking feature is some half-dozen deeply cut, parallel lines. They stand at a slight angle to the vertical, at twenty-five millimeter distances from each other, and 150 to 175 millimeters long. The ancient red dust that fills them suggests their antiquity. They appear too definite to be part of the limestone’s structure, too ordered to be animal claw marks, and they show the same style as the larger scratches on the walls.

I joined her. She blew away some of the dust that fills the markings and her eyes wandered to the stone behind. She saw more lines. Blowing on the second stone, we saw markings finer and more complex than those on the first. Another marked stone stands ahead of this, and yet another. We announced our find to Gallus.

I abandoned the recording of the wall markings and spent the rest of my time on that visit discerning the extent of the scratches on the floor boulders. I found marked stones when I explored crevices under the boulder floor.

We found other things besides the lines. A twisted piece of mallee root, charred at one end, sat on a high stone: the remains of a torch, sprinkled with dust, resting in the same place someone put it perhaps 19,000 or more years ago. Clusters of charred twigs sit in cup-like depressions, perhaps the remains of another kind of torch of twigs bound together, dipped in animal grease, and lit. I found the cranium of a giant kangaroo. I uncovered, under a loose and flat stone in the floor, a curved stone “cache” containing vertebrae.

Did Aborigines make the marks and leave the torches? They visited Koonalda Cave up to relatively recent years, though infrequently and with trepidation.

The same with other Nullarbor caves.

Weebubbie Cave¾also known as Weebabbj-Junnaaibil, which means slippered or hidden feet, or Weebabbie Karroo, “the place of the hidden feet”¾lies 15 kilometers northwest of Eucla. The name suggests the soft shoes of dry grass or feathers that Aborigines strapped to their feet to disguise their tracks. Bates notes that the Aborigines feared the cannibalistic Weebabbj-Junnaaibil, which they believed lay in wait in Weebubbie Cave. W. C. Evans, in the early part of the twentieth century, couldn’t entice his Aboriginal friends to enter what he calls Wee-Bubbee Caves. They believed that too much devil or Muldarbie waited in it. This terrified them. Yet, Evans found in the Cave old pieces of charred wood (fire sticks) associated with a ridge of flint.

Don Lawler recounts a story about the drought-stricken Eucla tribe and Weebubbie Cave. The shaman or medicine man would perform his ritual to relieve the thirst of his watching tribe and then ducked down into Weebubbie Cave to emerge with a bag full of icy-cold water. He never told his tribe about the underground lake. Much of this story could come from the imagination in countless retellings. Bates, on the other hand, also mentions Weebubbie Cave¾also known as Weebagabbi (gabbi meaning water)¾and that older men of the local Mirning tribe entered it, though rarely. They brought out water in bimpi (deep wooden water scoops) for relatives who paid them. The younger people stood some distance away, frightened.

The naturalist Charles Barrett visited the Plain during the 1930s, its wonder and loneliness luring him, and tells a story about Mereguda Cave similar to the one about Weebubbie Cave. He found the Aborigines feared the Cave as haunted. It provided some years earlier a wooden waddy-shaped weapon, he writes, studded with the teeth of dingoes and representing the nose and eyes of a distorted human face. He considers it a relic of some vanished tribe. Barrett also explored the Dingo Donga Sinkhole or the Cave of Bats (subsequent expeditions failed to locate it until 1967) to search for such things as eyeless beetles. He writes of the Cave as a vast hole punched into the limestone, large enough to hold a battalion of soldiers or a circus arena. Yet Aborigines fear the Cave, he adds, as the haunt of “debil debils” and won’t enter it despite the way it beckons into its underworld.

On my 1973 visit to Koonalda, I could stay for a week because I was traveling to the U.S. Kortlang and I encountered the boulder line markings that week, we explored their cave environment, we examined the other line markings in the Cave, we discerned something of the extent of all the markings, and I took many photographs. We then drove back to Melbourne, leaving the other members of the expedition to continue their excavation work. A priority for my three days in Melbourne was to develop the films. I printed them once in the U.S.

Koonalda Cave’s prehistoric art and archaeology presents a challenge: the art comprises lines in more or less straight and parallel sets, drawn either with fingers or with some sharp instrument like a stick or broken stone on the walls and boulders at the back of one of the Cave’s chambers. A large volume of prehistoric art and engraving offers itself. What does it reveal about the engravers? What might it teach about human development and human nature? I speculate that these findings are from rituals people performed in this Cave 19,000 or more years ago. Over one hundred and ninety centuries past, Aborigines perhaps drew on and engraved the walls and floor rocks of Koonalda Cave with sharp objects and with fingers, and extracted flint to fashion stone tools. They engaged in these activities to the light of torches whose remains still sit on the rocks from where they illumined the scene. Are my speculations correct? Might the marks be natural: animal scratches or geological? Moreover, if humans did create the markings, why?

While living in the U.S., I met Alexander Marshack. Marshack is a rock art specialist who records and analyzes Koonalda type of markings found in Europe. He developed a technique to look at the lines and he shared this with me. It provides a starting point. I wanted to return to Koonalda to try it out.

The National Geographic Society sponsored my next visit, not only financially but also with guiding concern and assistance with photographic strategies. I crossed the Nullarbor for the second time, enthused about what lies beneath its surface.[8]



AR02\C03.doc                                          3105 words                                    13 June 2003


Chapter Three




The inhabitants of this country are the miserablest people in the world…, and setting aside their human shape they differ but little from the brutes. They are tall, straight-bodied and thin, with small long limbs. They have great heads, round foreheads, and great brows. They have great bottle-noses, pretty full lips, and wide mouths. They are long visaged and are of very unpleasing aspect, having not one graceful feature in their faces. The [color] of their skins, both of their faces and of the rest of their body is coal black, like that of the Negroes of Guinea. They have no sort of clothes but the piece of the rind of a tree, tied like a girdle to cover their nakedness. They have no houses, but lie in the open air without any covering: the earth being their bed and the heaven their company.

William Dampier, 1688.[9]


Sooner than we think the last dark dwellers of these regions will vanish from the country which was theirs and their peoples’ from time immemorial, but in which they are now aliens, unwanted by the strange [White people] who have taken possession of their ancestral waters and bring them but death and disease as payment.

Daisy Bates, 1921.[10]


Richard Leakey extols the hunter-gatherers’ way of life as the most efficient method of existence and land use. We may, like William Dampier in the quote above, think of Aborigines in their original state as poor, culturally and materially. We may, superficially, imagine a gaunt people who spent all their time scavenging from a barren and forbidding land for the nourishment necessary to survive. In reality, the women gathered the required amount of vegetables in perhaps two hours per day, and the men mounted hunting expeditions perhaps two times per week. The rest of their time was free for cultural pursuits and childcare. The life of hunter-gatherers leaves them more spare time than the life of agriculturalists.

I spent a night on my return journey from Koonalda asleep outside a gas station on the edge of the Nullarbor. In the morning, a group of Aborigines sat beneath the trees on the other side of the road. They sold boomerangs to tourists and lived off scraps from White civilization.

I wondered whether these Aborigines were the Mirning tribe who originally lived on the Nullarbor. But there are no more Mirning. The Mirning belong to the large number of distinct tribes of Australian Aborigines who have died out.

The Mirning (or Meening) who lived in the vicinity of Koonalda Cave were, more specifically, the Yircla Mirning. Yircla (or Yerela, Yerkla, Yer Coloya) means the morning star (Venus) as it rises over the sand hills of Eucla and Wilsons Bluff, 20 kilometers northeast of Eucla. The word Yircla became Eucla, the White settlement of the region. Mirning means “man” or “men.” The Yircla Mirning were, according to A. G. Howitt in 1904, medium-sized, small-boned, slender, athletic, with a dark copper complexion and black bushy hair. Their territory extended along the coast about 150 kilometers east and 60 kilometers west of Eucla, and north to the Nullarbor Plain proper.

The story of the Mirning must include the observations of Daisy Bates. It must also include a mention of her compassion. Bates was an Edwardian woman who immigrated to Australia from the gentry of Ireland. She married a drover but, disillusioned, soon left him and her son and went to live with the Aborigines. Though she spent 50 years in a tent in the desert, she remained a lady, even to her high collars, long skirts, and white gloves. Her high-heels left tracks in the sand well beyond her tent. She shared life with “her” Aborigines, who came to call her Kabbarli (grandmother).

Bates camped within the border of the Nullarbor so she could intercept the Aborigines who emerged from further inland and try to persuade them to keep their own style of life. This was their only chance, she believed. If they insisted on going to White outposts, she could help them by introducing them to European food, principally warm tea and damper, and finding them clothing. She writes: “Guileless they stood to be buttoned into the skirt and trousers of civilization.” From her own resources she ministered to their basic needs: she fed them, clothed them, dressed their wounds, cared for their babies, and held the hands of their dying. She wanted to comfort this race she believed was disappearing. The most extreme of Aboriginal ways, like blood drinking and infanticide, she accepted and tried to change without condescension or criticism. She thought, she said, as an Aborigine.

No branch of religion could claim her adherence, but she displayed deep faith: “The secret of my lightness of heart is that every night I lie down and commit my soul to God.”[11]

Critics reprimand her for helping to forge the myth of “the dying Aboriginal race that needs the compassion of do-gooders.” True, such a belief can obscure the problem and can hinder a just solution because it fails to confront head-on the causes of social injustice. But we misjudge Bates if we blame the creation of the myth on her. I say this for three reasons. Her times produced her; she probably couldn’t see the underlying issues as clearly as we think we can now. Moreover, the political and ideological causes did concern her¾only she felt powerless to change them. Third, she did do good for the Aborigines because they may have received no relief had she worked only at a political level and failed to convince the holders of power.

Aborigines also criticized her, especially those familiar with White settlements. “Too much plurry Jesus,” one said; “not enough tucker.”[12]

Whites then and now find it easier to shun Bates’ example and to approach Aborigines on a level other than personal¾as statistics or as objects of scientific study. The easiest way both to uphold a wish that they survive and yet to reject their culture, Terry Widders suggests, is to study them as objects.

Anthropologists visited Bates’ camp in 1930 and offered her money. Upset, she threw their money back at them. Professor A. P. Elkin was one of the anthropologists. His review of The Archaeology of the Gallus Site, Koonalda Cave, ends with an account of their meeting. He called on her out of duty and courtesy, he says, not to learn about Aboriginal life and custom; she couldn’t tell him anything worthwhile. He found her disgruntled about seeing him. Later, he helped her obtain money to organize her written material¾“a veritable ethnographic mine,” he calls it.[13]

A picture of Mirning life emerges from Bates’s writings. This information may in turn help us picture the life of the people who frequented Koonalda Cave. Not that we can say the Mirning descended from the Koonalda people. No skeletons of the line markers have emerged and nothing else suggests their physical characteristics. Culturally, however, we can say something. The research of an archaeologist who surveyed the region in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ljubomir Marun, indicates a social continuity on the Nullarbor over at least the last 25,000 years. This implies that the Mirning descended culturally from the line markers in Koonalda.

The Nullarbor creates one of the largest and most inhospitable areas that any Australian tribe occupied, the largest piece of Australia where Aborigines couldn’t live. Little wonder that the Mirning only infrequently ventured inland from the coastal tree and scrub belt, and then probably only after heavy rains or to chase game. Yet, they lived like an inland tribe because of the inaccessible shoreline of pounding surf.

The Mirning menu listed wallaby, accompanied with snakes, iguana, wild dog, plus berries, and baked and pounded mallee bark spiced with white ants. They also ate the hairy-nosed wombat and, where they could scale the cliffs, various sea animals. The Koonalda people probably added megafauna to this diet, including giant but now extinct forms of today’s kangaroos and wombats.

Water concerned the Mirning and its availability largely dictated their movements. Rock holes called “gnamma” holes trapped rainwater and provided one source. S. P. Stevens noticed them loosely filled with limestone boulders; the fill retarded evaporation, prevented animals from falling in and contaminating the water, and restricted the consumption of the water by what Stevens calls “long-necked visitors” such as emus and kangaroos.[14] The Mirning also sunk wells in the coastal dunes. They drew from cave lakes for short periods, possibly the less salty few centimeters on the surface. Sap water from rootlets of a variety of mulga species provided another source. The Mirning gathered a quantity quickly, broke them into short lengths, and allowed them to drain into a vessel. Six hundred milliliters of this clear, woody-tasting white liquid collected in a few minutes. They also mopped with bunches of dry grass the copious dew that falls in the night on the coastal Nullarbor, and then wrung the grass out into wooden containers.

The Mirning’s tools included hand-held knives, mounted adze flakes, spears, throwers, and boomerangs. Wilsons Bluff provided the flint. No record exists of their mining flint in Koonalda Cave, though people did millennia before.

Medicine men headed the tribe: they decided disputes, set combat formalities, conducted initiation ceremonies, and arranged marriages. The Mirning usually married within their tribe. They promised girls to their future husbands as children and beat them if they eloped. Unfaithfulness constituted a severe misdemeanor. They strictly observed initiation rites and circumcised 18 year-old men¾subincision in some cases.

The Mirning treasured their children and cared for them well. They practiced infanticide to limit their population.

They feared the dead. They never buried or disposed of corpses but left the dying, returning when the corpse had decomposed unrecognizably. All people spiritually entered a cave on their death. Through it, they could pass out to sea and into the after-life where they hunted in similar grounds to those of their present life; the caves formed sacred passageways for their spirits. This may explain the Mirning fear of entering deep caves.

Their art¾or at least the little that we know about it¾consisted of a few simple design elements now lost to history. We don’t know how these relate to the Koonalda markings.

I mentioned in Chapter One that, possibly because of fire, the Nullarbor Plain proper may extend further now than in the past. Natural lightning may have set the Plain alight, though thunderstorms would soon drench any fire their lightning strikes ignite. Aborigines may have set the Plain ablaze, though they may have visited the Plain proper only during a wet season. The Mirning carried fire with them (burning dry and resinous woods) when they moved. They lit fires for a number of reasons: to cook, torch a camp on someone’s death, create smoke signals, combat evil powers, hunt, and help foods grow. Harvey Gurney noticed that fires in the coastal bush or mallee happen only in very hot weather and then they burn only a few hectares. Whatever their origin, fires over a long time altered the Plain’s vegetation (and therefore fauna). Excavations in the drier segments of the Roe Plain portion of the Nullarbor Region document this for at least the last 6000 years.

Firings of the Plain by Europeans to produce more land for sheep devastated it worse than pre-European fires. They wiped out several species of marsupials. The more times a piece of land burns, the more thorough and destructive the incineration. Plants and animals face less and less chance of survival.

The change in flora and fauna didn’t factor in the obliteration of the Mirning tribe of about 150 people from 1870 to the early 1900s. “Despite the scarcity of food and water,” writes Marun, the Mirning “proved once again and for the last time during their final decades in existence, that they were still masters of survival.” White settlement caused their extinction.[15]

The local Aboriginal population usually extended friendship to the early White explorers of the Nullarbor. Readily and eagerly, they pointed out water sources. Frequently they guided them long distances in intense heat and thick scrub. “We were indebted solely to the good nature and kindness of these children of the wilds,” writes Edward John Eyre. “Unsolicited they had offered us their aid, without which we could never have accomplished our purpose.”[16]

The explorer Edgar Warburton spied smoke rising from the scrub and sent one of his companions, O’Shanahan, “to catch a [B]lack.”[17] He soon accomplished this. The Aborigine, though unwilling to stay, guided them to water the following day. The Europeans resorted to “a little coercion” because they felt he misdirected them through thick scrub. They felt even more infuriated when he left wearing two coats¾he was naked and shivering from the cold. “The travelers appeared to have ventured their rage in denunciation of the whole race of [B]lacks in general and of their guide in particular,” the chronicler adds, “for whose behoof the stockwhip was kept in constant readiness.”

Perhaps the Mirning’s belief in the existence of an evil spirit called Burga started with their experiences of European explorers. Burga could harm unseen. He was white, always lurked around intending to hurt, and accosted people anywhere after sunset.

White settlers arrived next to establish farms. Aborigines irritated them¾by slaughtering sheep, for one thing. The first White settlers of Eucla were the Muir brothers at Moorpina Station. Their only way to communicate with the outside world for their first two years was via the nearest outpost, Yalata, 770 kilometers away. An Aborigine on foot took three weeks to carry letters there and back. Anthony Bolam, a long-time resident of Ooldea and its Station Master from 1920 to 1925, considered Aborigines “highly intelligent and in many respects vastly superior to their [W]hite detractors.”[18]

Bolam saw many Aborigines who had walked from the Macdonnell, Musgrave, and Everard ranges in the north, up to 700 kilometers away. They lived during their long trek by obtaining water from their wells and from roots of trees, and they arrived, in Bolam’s words, “wonderfully bright and clean.” They then donned “filthy cast-off” clothes, became “dirty,” and succumbed to colds and runny noses.[19] Contact with Whites brought diseases: alcoholism, venereal disease, and measles proved deadly. So did missionary benevolence: Aborigines had to wear clothes, they got wet when it rained and, too frightened to remove their soaked apparel, they become chilled and died of pneumonia.

Those who subsisted beside the railway quickly learned that the “big train” trailed chocolates and coins.[20] The journalist Ernestine Hill saw travelers amuse themselves by leaning out the windows of their carriages to watch “a cannibal scramble for a pink-topped” cookie.[21] The “denizens of the central desert” became parasites, writes W. Charnley, “the poorest” of all the Aborigines who ever lived.[22]

Some Whites shot Blacks for target practice.

Ooldea Soak was one of the largest and most important watering places on the edge of the Nullarbor. Pre-European Aboriginal tribes walked long distances to attend initiation ceremonies there and, in severe drought, to bargain for water.

White travelers left a track back to their starting point at Ooldea, along which curious young Aborigines trekked. White civilization magnetically drew them. Thus began the exodus of Aborigines from their own groups and totem waters, to which they never returned. Each permanent source of water had its group of Aborigines. They cared for it and adopted as their relatives the creatures that lived by it. The old waters around the edge of the Nullarbor fell bereft of their group owners and thus orphaned. The Aborigines had come to Ooldea and its Whites, and the Ooldea water became Weedula Gabbi (orphaned water) for the now-derelict tribes.

The engineers who constructed the railway saw the water of Ooldea Soak as a gift; it provided the only adequate supply for thousands of kilometers. They took charge of it, ran pipes to the new siding nearby, and soon drew off tens of thousands of liters each day to satiate the demands of the steam trains. The Aboriginal population had to obtain their water from taps in the station.

Five years after the railway opened to passengers in 1917, it needed more water. Engineers sunk extra bores. Ooldea was a natural reservoir in a blue clay bed; clumsy calculations and the drilling broke through this bed. Brackish water from the bore beneath streamed up into the fresh water of the soak and spoiled it forever.

Many generations of Aboriginal people had tasted the sweet and plentiful water of Ooldea Soak, maintained by a natural balance. Upsetting this struck a double blow for them: not only did they lose an important source of water, but a ritual center too. Aborigines are conceived spiritually at water holes. From there also come their blood relatives, their other selves, and their totem animals. To destroy the ancestral water destroys the soul of its people.

The young Mirning tribespeople left their traditional areas and gave up their skills and laws in favor of the European way. They found it hard adapting to it. The old customs bonded the people together, gave them ancestral beliefs, the feeling of belonging, and the self-confidence necessary to learn a new life. White males freely abused Aboriginal girls and women, so their moral code broke down and eroded away with their traditional way of life. In 1912, only the old people remained alive. Writes Bates:

[They] had no meat. They existed on Government rations of tea, flour and sugar. When these ran out they drank water until the next supply arrived.

They are in their Wommoos [brush shelters], these old people waiting unconsciously though it be, for the mysterious end they know as “nalba” (death). Their contact with the [W]hites has destroyed their beliefs and now they are undecided as to whether they are going up into the sky or under the ground¾or just becoming Kambu (skeletons) like the animals they have killed and eaten.[23]

Six more years completed the genocide. Jinjabula, the last Yircla Mirning man, died in 1918. Fire, herds of camels, and other natural means then erased almost every other trace of his people.

S. A. White calls the local people of Ooldea, “wonderful.”[24] He writes as they died off. Another person writes of their soon being “as rare as the Dodo.”[25] “Aborigines, when properly handled, can be of great help,” another writes of those Aborigines who were station hands at Mundrabilla Station on the Nullarbor. “They are naturally slow, but patient; and the lowness of their wage-rate makes them a great saving for certain work.”[26] This dominant attitude decided their fate.[27]



AR02\C04.doc                                          3189 words                                       13 June 2003


Chapter Four




After [a 50 kilometer] ride the travelers encamped behind a [23 centimeter] high bit of saltbush, and in great difficulty collected sticks enough to boil a pot of tea. To make a [campfire] was impossible. The horses drew stunted saltbushes to which they were tethered, and gave no small trouble in their recapture.

(Concerning) Edgar Warburton, 1860.[28]


The Plain around the Koonalda sinkhole was very dry and dusty on my previous visit. The saltbush and bluebush seemed ready to die. I saw no live sheep and an extended drought pervaded. Now, I saw a little greenery. The drought had broken. The rabbit plague had ended and the amount of rabbit droppings around the sinkhole had decreased markedly. Sheep made their way to and from the water trough. Yet, the area around Koonalda Cave remains arid despite the comparison between drought and plenty, despite water in its lakes, and despite lying 23 kilometers from the coast.

A belt of vegetation for 16 kilometers from the coast enjoys evening dews and a higher rainfall than further onto the Plain. Sea breezes mean that it also enjoys lower temperatures in the summer. A small increase in the rainfall would probably widen this belt. Ralph Tate in 1878 called this coastal wooded or scrub belt an “oasis.” Small eucalyptus trees dominate it. Mulga, myall, and mallee species also grow here, sometimes densely. Strong and persistent winds from the Southern Ocean dwarf and shear the vegetation in places.

The number and density of the scrub trees gradually reduces away from the coast, until, at the Cave itself, the shrubs¾bluebush, saltbush, and samphire¾dominate. The two groups (shrubs and scrub) show opposite patterns of distribution. Botanist Helene Martin calls the belt of mixed shrubs and scrub, the “arid scrub zone.” That sheep constantly move about the Koonalda sinkhole and its adjacent watering troughs lessens the height and density of plants there.

The shrub vegetation of the treeless portion of the Plain phases in 10 to 16 kilometers north of the Cave. “The uniform color of blue-gray of the bluebush and saltbush stretches out as far as the eye can reach,” writes S. A. White.[29] The hardy bluebush covers a large area to the exclusion of everything else, and then links to a large colony of even hardier saltbush. Trees and large shrubs are rare in this third vegetation zone.

Saltbush rises no more than a meter and is stiff and papery. It can absorb moisture from the atmosphere through its leaves rapidly enough to drink the equivalent of its own weight in a day. It doesn’t need rain to reach its roots, unlike other plants; dew alone can water it. Bluebush has similarly adapted, but to a lesser extent. Both thrive on the Nullarbor by default.

Flowers bloomed and insects danced around and in the Koonalda sinkhole after a rainstorm when I was there. Grasses, herbs, and flowers flourish for a short time after rain. “Miles on miles of plants in flower,” writes Charles Barrett, “with barren red-brown areas here and there, and islands of light green on the limestone, that were bushes with clusters of orange-[colored] fruits: a picture of the Nullarbor after generous rains.”[30] Large numbers of insects attend the flowers and fill the transient pools of water with their nymphs.

The floor of the Koonalda sinkhole supports a wide variety of vegetation. The Gurneys planted fruit trees here. A large fig tree offered ripe figs and an apricot tree too many apricots: their Garden of Eden filled the sinkhole. It always appears green, even at the height of drought. Plants flourish here compared with on the open Plain because of the difference in their climate, shelter, and water resources¾a cool and damp breeze blows from the Cave into the sinkhole. Botanist J. H. Willis wrote in 1951 of the welcome greenery he encountered in the sinkhole of what he called Kunalda. He found the dark-green Black Nightshade flourishing in 1963 on the shaded sides and floor of the sinkhole. Alien plants like this could derive from seeds in sheep droppings washed down or from seeds that human visitors unintentionally introduce.

A wider variety of animals live in the sinkhole than up on top too.

For this reason, we set up our camp on the surface beside the sinkhole. The thought of poisonous snakes, large spiders, and bats inside the sinkhole discouraged our camping down there. We had to pitch our tents, which took a while because a strong wind blew. Nullarbor winds can behave strangely: a gale can suddenly spring up from the northwest and die in 15 minutes, and, after a short time, similar gusts may blow from the southeast for their allotted 15 minutes. A previous group of visitors tried harnessing the wind to fly on their camp stretchers. Chilly and dewy nights drove us to sleep in our tents. Except Sandor Gallus; he preferred to retire early, sleep alone under the stars, and next appear at breakfast time.

We dug our toilet in the heat and flies: a grave-sized pit just over the brow of the slope that leads down to the rim of the sinkhole¾a hill by Nullarbor Plain standards. We attempted privacy by hanging a hard hat on a pole planted nearby. Vulnerability is using the Koonalda pit, enclosed by the sky and the horizon, and visible from all points of the compass.

The coolness and shade of rocks that overhang the sinkhole provided a store for provisions and a good place to cook and eat. A cool breeze from the Cave entrance also refreshed. We tried to ignore Gallus’s comment that more of the overhang had fallen since his last visit. We lowered provisions and kitchen equipment one bucketful at a time by rope through a meter-wide hole in the overhang. The person below had to be wary of falling items. Ropes frayed and, with this long and hard work in the full sun, so did tempers.

We finished setting up camp and turned more consciously to our tasks over the next few weeks. Christine Kortlang and I returned to Koonalda to look at the line markings in the light of Alexander Marshack’s ideas. We shouldn’t philosophize on their meanings, he says, but closely study their structure. Kortlang was to observe and draw the shapes of the marks and their intersections with each other. I was to take photographs to support her observations. I also had questions about the geological development of the Cave. I wondered, for instance, when the rockfalls in the upper chamber occurred in relation to the human activity, and what smoothed and rounded the smooth and rounded boulders on the floor.

Four others accompanied Kortlang and me. We needed a detailed survey of the upper chamber. Surveyors Kevin Mott and Ian Lewis accomplished this and, at the same time, satisfied their passion for caving in the Nullarbor. The two (whom we called “troglodytes,” or “trogs” for short) each day carried their heavy equipment into the upper chamber, set up their theodolite on piles of boulders, worked feverishly, and then stayed up half the night in a large tent to compile their drawings.

Neil Chadwick from the South Australian Museum assisted with the archaeological investigations. He carried out minor excavations in the upper chamber and squeezed his small frame into all manner of crevices to explore areas beneath the floor.

Any team to Koonalda must include Gallus. The area of excavation in the main chamber of the Cave is called the Gallus Site¾an indication of his close association with the Cave. He and his teams have performed most of the work here; the depth of his trenches testifies to hours and hours of patient excavating over many years. He spent this time at Koonalda checking his observations and results.

Five members of our expedition had entered Koonalda Cave before. The exception, Chadwick, had yet to enter any cave. He quickly found warmth and interest in this chamber beneath the Nullarbor.

The Nullarbor resembles a piecrust with hollow spaces under the surface. It can collapse where the limestone crust becomes thin, such as at Koonalda, to expose the caves, tunnels, and galleries of its interior. This sometimes creates a seemingly bottomless hole¾a blowhole¾and sometimes a doline or sinkhole. Over 130 sinkholes perforate the Nullarbor, ranging from 2 to 35 meters in depth and from 10 to 240 meters in width. Most occur within 60 kilometers of the coastal cliffs, but a few exist beyond the railway line. Some are elongated and some circular. About one third retain sharp features with their sides not weathered back and their bottoms not filled. Undercut scarps or lips of limestone feature commonly (we ate our meals under one at Koonalda). So abruptly do sinkholes breach the Plain, most remain invisible until at their rims.

I mentioned that the climate in the Koonalda sinkhole offers better conditions for life than on the Plain. It also provides one of the few sheltered sites in the vicinity for birds. Welcome Swallows emerge in the evenings and flit about. Nankeen Kestrels hover above the sinkhole, floating on the updrafts the swallows dart around in. The kestrels hunt the swallows and their nests.

I occasionally saw a lone owl nesting in the crevices high up under the lip of the sinkhole. The Cave Owl of the Nullarbor is a large bird with snowy white feathers, an expressive face with large eyes, and brown eyebrows ringed all the way round with light brown. Brown peppers its wings as well. It often nests on ledges in the walls of blowholes, sinkholes, and caves, and preys on small birds, lizards, and mammals. Appearing only at night, it impresses observers when it perches on a limestone rock or scrub in the moonlight. Barrett writes that it isn’t a distinct species, but a pale version of the Barn Owl, or Delicate Owl, commonly known throughout Australia.

On a day in January 1917, White only saw a brown hawk¾and he had come to the Nullarbor to collect birds. He feels that, in all of Australia, this area supports the least number of them. However, the day he saw only one bird was extremely hot (47°C) and he describes everything as tinder dry¾even the bluebush appeared to wither. Few birds would venture out in such conditions. Whether White is right or wrong, not many birds live on the Nullarbor. Hardly any roosting places exist. Hardly any of their normal prey still exists there.

Like its birds, the native mammal population of the Nullarbor has decreased dramatically, probably most intensely in the late 1930s when farming and settlement intensified. Few of the previously recorded species¾from either cave deposits or earlier accounts¾now exist here. “The mild-eyed hordes of kangaroos have been slaughtered in their thousands by [W]hite hunters who drank themselves to death on the proceeds,” writes Daisy Bates.[31] Yet, the rifle didn’t kill off native mammals the most. Neither did the grazing of domestic animals, nor droughts. Rather, a combination of factors caused the tragedy: grazing by rabbits, increased burning of the Plain, and hunting by the introduced cat and fox. The fox first appeared in Eucla in 1911 and reached the railway line after 17 years. Whites brought the domestic cat to the southern edge of the Plain in 1899 to control rabbits, and to Eyre by 1896. European animals and practices broke the natural balance of the Nullarbor ecology.

The Government established a number of conservation reserves in the region. It plans to set up more. Yet, previously common species have little chance to recolonize the reserves from isolated populations or by re-introduction from elsewhere, warns M. G. Brooker, while rabbits, foxes, and cats remain.

Rabbits, foxes, and cats¾plus other European and native animals such as caterpillars, grasshoppers, and parrots¾appear in plagues and then disappear. An animal multiplies rapidly when conditions become ideal. Then food runs out, a disease becomes rampant, or a predator, which has also multiplied, decimates the population. The pest dies out or moves on and leaves a residual population ready to take advantage of the next ideal period.

Conditions became right, mice multiplied, and many millions of them entered Loonagana, a small settlement on the railway line, during a night in 1931. The inundation ate almost everything for miles around and disappeared as quickly as it appeared. It wasn’t the last.

Eucla first reported rabbits in 1894 and Eyre in 1896. They reached the northern extremities of the Plain by 1900. From the air in 1932, white patches marking their warrens reminded the geologist W. G. Woolnough of a much-shelled battlefield or of the alluvial workings of an old gold field. They became so numerous that 35 commercial trappers in the Cocklebiddy area caught 20,000 rabbits per week in 1947. Rabbit numbers can vary considerably, however. The density of predators such as the fox and cat plays a part. The disease myxomatosis, a distorting and deadly virus peculiar to rabbits and introduced into Australia to help control them, also contributes.

Rawlinna residents reported numbers at around 3,500 per square kilometer during 1975, the third consecutive year of above-average rainfall. The plague drastically declined from February 1976 because of the rapid increase in the numbers of foxes. Rabbits became so thin by autumn that residents found them worthless to eat, and by May, they were scarce. Many of the rabbits migrated elsewhere. Others died for lack of food and water. In September, their dry skeletons littered the Plain. Three meters of dead rabbits filled a dug well on Seemore Downs. Rabbits died in their millions in the drought prior to 1918 and, at many of the railway sidings, residents collected the bodies together for health reasons.

Droughts don’t push rabbits into oblivion. They survive and breed through long and severe droughts, in deep warrens capped with limestone, ready to rejuvenate when good seasons arrive. Rabbits, the Nullarbor’s most common grazing animal, constitute its most consistent and worst pest.

The camel roams in large numbers north of and on the southwestern edge of the Plain. They wandered all over it not so long ago. First imported to Australia in 1840, by 1866 they commonly transported goods into the interior. James Jones employed them for his 1880 examination of the Nullarbor: in harness they drew wagons laden with two tonnes over soft sand, and heavier loads on the rough but one-in-six gradient road up the Nullarbor cliffs to the table land. Many became trans-Nullarbor carriers. An estimated 20,000 camels inhabited Australia by the end of World War I, many pulling wagons of wool. Camels can plod slowly and steadily for 16 waterless days in temperatures over 38°C (100°F). When they drink, they drink: one can down 200 liters at a time. Today’s wild descendants of the domesticated workers are pests or tourist attractions.

The wild dog or dingo, which arrived in Australia a few thousand years ago, appears on the Plain only occasionally now. It camps in caves and dolines, and pastoralists and Government doggers trap or poison it because it preys on stock. The Western Australian Government used to pay a reward for the scalp of a wild dog. D. R. Nicholls writes that, in some districts, scalps were good currency and storekeepers would accept them over the counter either for cash or in exchange for goods. One dogger tended nearly 600 traps and made his rounds in an ancient motor vehicle that bumped over limestone boulders and rolled down saltbushes as if they were thistles. The Dingo King knew every trick of the trade and could outwit the most cunning dog. Barrett describes the Nullarbor in 1930 as dingo land.

Not only do some introduced animals become pests, but some of the native ones do as well. One insect causes as much nuisance today as years ago. Writes Barrett:

You drink flies on the Nullarbor; breakfast and dine with them; and in hosts they come uninvited to tea. From dawn until evening star the miserable insects annoy; clinging to hands and face, clustering on your back, and flying about your head when disturbed. They are maddening until you become philosophical about the plague of the Treeless Plain.[32]

My impression of Nullarbor insects grew negative, what with the flies and the large spiders that webbed the trees in the sinkhole. I make an exception: a group of troglodytic insects that only live below ground in caves and have no eyes.

The zoologist Aola Richards recollects that science knew of no cave fauna from the Nullarbor before 1966 and that, within a few years, researchers had described 114 species from 47 caves. Six of these are troglodytes and all of the six are blind. Five are rare. One is a centipede, one a cockroach, three are spiders, and the sixth an isopod. Apart from the cockroach, each exists in only one Nullarbor cave. None live anywhere else in the world.

P. Aitkin collected a male nymph of a blind cockroach in Koonalda Cave on 31 December 1963. The hunt began for other specimens: “Wanted¾A Cockroach,” advertised Elery Hamilton-Smith in a speleological journal.[33] Other specimens, living and dead, male and female, adult and nymph, appeared from eight other caves widely distributed across the southern Nullarbor. From them, scientists erected a new genus, Trogloblattella nullarborensis. Its antennae are considerably longer than its body, it has long slender legs, vestigial wings, smoothness in place of the eyes, but it isn’t depigmented. The females grow larger than the males. It doesn’t react to light because of its blindness; however, it shows great sensitivity to vibrations and moves quickly. Scientists consider it one of the most specialized cave cockroaches in the world, with many structural modifications of insects confined to the cold, damp, still, and totally dark interiors of limestone caves. Trogloblattella nullarborensis is the only known troglodytic cockroach in Australia. I found the crumbling remains of one in the upper chamber of Koonalda Cave.

If blind insects live in Nullarbor caves, why not blind fish in Nullarbor lakes? Species of blind fish do exist in cave lakes: Milyeringa veritas, for example, some distance away in the Northwest Cape of Western Australia. An unsubstantiated story says a mining engineer found blind fish in Nullarbor cave pools in the 1920s. They tasted like mud. Another unsubstantiated story says a caver found 50 millimeter-long blind fish in Nullarbor cave pools in 1968. They looked like eels. Stories aside, nothing lives in the known Nullarbor cave waters. We don’t know why.

The harshness of the Nullarbor nurtured a rich and subtle yet sensitive and small array of life. Small flowers bloom after the rare rain. Unique insects subsist in the dark underground. All of its native fauna and flora depend on fragile chains of interconnections. The European cat, fox, and rabbit eradicated many surface species of animals. The boot of a cave explorer can eradicate subterranean species of insects. To reverse the destructive intrusion of European animals, curiosity, and greed will be difficult, maybe impossible.

The same applies to the cave markings in Koonalda. Explorers have and will destroy them and the delicate environment that safeguards them. We could easily lose a unique insight into ourselves.[34]



AR02\C05.doc                                          4043 words                                     13 June 2003


Chapter Five




It gives you an eerie feeling that there is something uncanny about the kindly solid earth beneath your feet when you place a hat over a hole in the ground and see it carried into the air by a current coming from below. It recalls too vividly the theories of those philosophers who hold that the earth is a living, breathing animal, which may some day shake off the beings who swarm like parasites upon its surface.

Thomas Dunbabin, 1920.[35]


Tom Brown, an early surveyor of the Nullarbor, found the Aboriginal people reluctant to set foot on the Plain. Women would cry and men look glum when accompanied to it. They preferred to skirt the Nullarbor rather than cross it and shorten their walk by many days. To chase kangaroos or emus, they might venture beyond the edge some 30 kilometers¾but return to their camps in the coastal belt when evening fell. They knew little about the Plain itself. James Jones, hoping to find water suitable for stock, tried to obtain the services of an Aborigine as a guide and tracker. The locals were loath to face the Plain, much to Jones’ surprise, though elsewhere they would willingly accompany most parties and walk a great distance alone to deliver a letter.

They felt afraid because they believed that a monstrous and hideous serpent, exceedingly destructive, occupies the country beyond the coastal belt. As big around as a house and of untold length, the magic snake Ganba (or Ganbaa, Gauba, Dijarra, or Jeedarra) makes his home (Jeedarra ngoora) under the Plain.

Douglas Kemsley suggests that the Pleiades constellation inspires legends for many indigenous peoples. Australian Aborigines tell of the sisters Yugarilya (the Pleiades) who chased Ganba, the Devil Snake of the Plain, with their digging sticks. Ganba pushed up the cliffs of the Great Australian Bight on his first flight. Then he slid into hiding in holes in Kattaoondiri (Bald Head on the Nullarbor Plain). An old man told Daisy Bates that the sulky snake of the Plain pushed up the land with his shoulders so he could swim under the cliffs.

Several old men from Bight Head said they often saw Ganba playing about in the sea. They would hear a roar and a hiss from a moonyungarra (blow hole) after a while, which indicated that he had arrived back fresh from the ocean through passages and caverns underground. Some versions of the legend have two monsters, a sea inhabitant who visits his terrestrial brother.

Ganba not only created the tunnels beneath the Plain and the cliffs at the Bight. He also lashed about when angry to cause the dust storms that sweep across the land.

A great serpent that swallowed two men left a track now a dry creek bed just beyond the Plain near Ooldea. The locals dreaded it and wouldn’t venture near it. The people of Tigamba (Bight Head) hung closely to Arthur Chichester Beadon on his 1860s south to north crossing of the Nullarbor. They were terrified that Ganba would eat them. Ganba devours anyone who comes onto the Plain within range of his coils and jaws¾which could engulf “an old-man kangaroo as easily as a piccaninny swallows a witchetty grub.”[36]

Trees face the same fate. Ganba ate or burned all the trees that grew on the Nullarbor in the dhoogoon times (which Bates translates as “dream” or “ancestral” times, the Alcheringa of the Arunta people). The old men who told this to Bates showed their children pieces of dead or fossilized wood or wood from a tree they weren’t familiar with. They found the wood, they said, as near the home of the snake as they had dared go. One old man presented her with a piece of unidentifiable wood and told her that it originated way north of the coast and wasn’t from any tree that grew in his own country. The sample was lost on its way for analysis.

So large and constant is Ganba’s thirst, that he sucks down all of the water laying on the surface as soon as it rains. Brown writes that 40 hectares of water 60 centimeters deep disappeared six hours after 125 millimeters fell in 24 hours. The next day he put his ear to a blowhole and heard the water flowing in rivers below. Ganba was drinking again.

Ganba emerged to eat people through gates that were also his breathing holes. These blowhole orifices dot the Plain.

Blowholes range from the size of a fist to a couple of meters in width. Professor Ralph Tate probably wrote the earliest account of them: in 1878 he describes them as perpendicular vents up which a violent wind rushes on hot days. They breathe in or out for long periods. The direction of their breathing often shifts at sunrise and sunset, twelve hours in then twelve hours out.

Blowholes generate a range of noises as they suck in air or blow it out: like tumbling water, steam, thunder, or a train at full speed. Sometimes they screech, whistle, roar, hiss, sigh, or go boo-boo. Such noises can startle a person when a bird or the wind usually produces the only sound. Horses bolt before their riders hear anything¾only the initiated observer concludes that a blowhole blows in the vicinity.

The expelled or inhaled air can rush at 30 or 45 kilometers per hour. A blowhole can tear away a cloth stretched over its entrance. It can throw back dirt tossed in it. It can throw back in splinters a tree tossed down it. It can disperse the contents of a water bottle into a fine spray. It can keep a hat or an open umbrella suspended. It can force birds trying to fly out to go nowhere. It can carry cavers’ hair straight up and tear their clothes off.

A hot Don Lawler stood atop a “desert refrigerator” blowhole and thought he faced an Antarctic blast.[37]

You must watch out for blowholes when you walk on the Plain, especially at night and especially in grass. A hollow sound beneath your feet indicates that only a thin slab of limestone separates you from a cave or blowhole. Bates tells that the hooves of horses sometimes pierce the crust and open up yet another blowhole. She found a wombat skeleton in one of these caves, evidently the victim of a sudden subsidence and unable to climb back out again. A posthole digger chipped into the limestone with a heavy, sharp crowbar. It slipped through his fingers and clattered its way on down below.

A few unexplained disappearances of people¾perhaps they fell down dolines or blowholes to their death¾possibly created the fear of venturing too far onto the Plain. The story of Ganba could thus develop. Aborigines avoided with terror the moonyungarra¾“having many evil spirits,” referring to blowholes. Bates authenticates a similar connection between legendary magic disappearances and quicksand.

Graeme Pretty and Sandor Gallus remind us that fears such as this didn’t prevent the ancient people of the Nullarbor from entering and using Koonalda Cave. Given the terror of the Mirning for the Nullarbor and the caves, they probably didn’t create the lines. The people before them must have thought differently and felt less fearful.

A scientific account of blowhole breathing also reads differently from the Mirning legend. Experiments and mathematical theory suggest that air moves through small tubes in the rock. Variations in the atmosphere set up differences in air pressure that cause the blowhole air currents. The in-out cycles match the pressure changes: air enters with high outside pressure and issues with a fall in the outside barometer. This can happen around sunrise or sunset or with a change in the weather. Blowholes needn’t indicate the presence of caves.

Before the prosaic explanation, Europeans preferred imaginative accounts of blowholes similar to those of the nineteenth century Aborigines. One writer interprets the wind rushing through blowholes as the sighing of a giant. Woolf populates the region with lost, disembodied, earthbound spirits who go their way sighing and wailing, seeking they know not what. Some perceive a dark smell they describe as the unhealthy fetid breath of the earth. Bates smells the sea, especially in the hot summer months and in the rage of a hot north wind. She writes in another place of ocean winds sweeping violently out of blowholes. The draughts of blowholes emit a strong salty smell, even a seaweed odor, writes Captain S. A. White. He suggests that incoming and outgoing ocean tides pass under the Plain to cause the air currents. His writings indicate that he probably visited the Nullarbor only at the Ooldea end of the railway, over 100 kilometers from the sea¾a far reach for the tide. Perhaps the Ganba myth, depicting his travels to and from the sea via the underground passageways, helped inspire the tide idea.

Koonalda Cave, unlike Ooldea, is close to the sea. We decided to take a rest from caving and visit the ocean. We climbed into our four-wheel drive and drove past the Gurney homestead back to the road. Then off the road again and across trackless land of scrubby vegetation that became lower and lower the further we went.

The land abruptly ended. The surf raged below the stark cliffs. Distant bastions stretched out of sight both ways, contrasting with the sky. I sat on the edge of the flat world with my feet dangling, aloof to the ocean that pounded below. The explorer John Forrest looked cautiously over the precipice and reeled back in terror. He suffered from vertigo.

The rollers that ceaselessly march from the Antarctic ice bite the southern Australian coastline. The 60-meter escarpment starts at Point Culver in the west. It continues for 150 kilometers to Twilight Cove. Here the wall recedes inland for 240 kilometers, to lie about 45 kilometers from the sea at Madura. It swings back seawards from this point to front the ocean again after passing behind Eucla. Sand drifts eventually cover and end its 650-kilometer continuity at the head of the Great Australian Bight. The cliffs gradate in color from shades of purple at their base to dark blue and brilliant white. The sea contrasts with a deep blue. The marble rim of the Nullarbor Plain is the longest unbroken cliff-line on our planet.

The first Europeans to see the succession of towering cliffs from the sea found them formidable: Pieter Nuyts in 1627, Brury d’Entrecasteaux in 1792 searching for La Perouse, and Matthew Flinders in 1802 who, from the deck of his ship the Investigator, exaggerated their height by a factor of three.

The height, length, and uninterrupted nature of the cliff line generated another series of Nullarbor legends.

Nuyts (or Nuijts) commanded the ship Gulde Zee Paert (or Gulde Zeepaard, the Golden Seahorse) in which he voyaged further than anyone in his day. The ship blew off course in 1627 and accidentally followed the coastline of the Great Australian Bight, probably as far as the Nuyts Archipelago. The Dutchman had found the Great South Land. He planned a colony here. Writings to tempt prospective Dutch settlers extolled Nuyts Land: “one of the best countries in the world, the land abounds in milk and honey and in all those things capable of gratifying the senses and enabling one to live delightfully; a land full of festivity and good cheer, which is fertile and without much labor produces easily and cheaply all that is necessary for life.”[38] Any settlement, continues the advertisement, must first disembark 500 or 600 good, well chosen soldiers to spy out the land. After all, the local inhabitants may have fortified towns and weapons of war more terrifying than bombs and cannons. Giants of extraordinary strength and knowledge lived in parts of the world before the deluge and great flood of Noah’s time and perhaps they now live here.

Lilliput, the land that Gulliver found in his travels is, according to the longitude and latitude given, in the middle of the Nullarbor.

Rear Admiral d’Entrecasteaux, aboard La Recherche in 1792, was next to sail past the Nullarbor. He described it as so barren, sterile, and forbidding that it seemed unprofitable to spend time and energy exploring it. Still, the French planned to annex it. They called it “Terre Napoleon.”

John Eyre in 1841, the first European to cross the Plain, looked for grazing land and a route for overlanding stock. His 1,600 kilometers journey led him from Fowler’s Bay to Albany. He concluded that the land was useless. He nearly died from thirst. Sand hills held the little water that he found, but keeping to the sandy areas provided its problems. He writes that sand “floated on the surface of the water, penetrating into our clothes, hair, eyes, and ears, buried our provisions when we lay down at nights, it was a perpetual and never-ceasing torment, and as if to increase our miseries we were again afflicted with swarms of large horse-flies, which bit us dreadfully.”[39] He counted 23 of the bloodsuckers at one time on a 50 centimeter-square patch of his trousers.

The first Whites to venture onto the Nullarbor proper were Miller and Dutton in 1857. They looked north of Fowler’s Bay for sheep pasture.

Next, Major Edgar Warburton in 1860 followed Eyre’s route to 130 kilometers west of Fowler’s Bay. He considers this “coveted land a desolate wilderness fit for neither humans nor beasts”; it will remain according to its title, “No Man’s Land.” [40] It’s not worth being given, he says, and couldn’t for 500 years fetch the £1 per acre that Sydney dealers ask for it. His diarist suggests that some traveler will cross the Major’s Desolate Plains by a different route and discover a fertile region beyond it. (Nearly 150 years later, we can add that the Gibson Desert lies beyond the Nullarbor.)

The western boundary of the Province of South Australia lay, in 1841, on the 132°E line of latitude, around 50 kilometers west of Fowler’s Bay. “No Man’s Land” refers to the territory (part of New South Wales) between it and the Western Australian border at 129°E.  It became part of South Australia in 1861. The name, “No Man’s Land,” derives from a bull of Pope Alexander VI in 1493 that divided the world in two, one half to the Portuguese and the other to the Spaniards, with a neutral zone between the 129°E and 132°E lines.

The South Australian Government hoped¾probably because of strong lobbying¾to create a profitable grazing area out of the Nullarbor, and in 1865 sent Alfred Delisser to survey it. He found the only spot along the cliff line suitable for a port (near Eucla), but nothing else of significance. He described the Plain as excellent farm country, if farmers could obtain water.

The Plain saw its first farms in 1871. The telegraph line along the coast opened in 1877, the first pole planted at Port Augusta on 25 August 1875. Further explorations occurred in the 1870s.

W. H. Tietkins took up a lease for 25,000 hectares near Ooldea in 1878, but had trouble finding water for stock. He abandoned one attempt at a well 65 kilometers north of Ooldea after drilling down 18 meters and finding a small supply of salt water, and another after 39 meters. He abandoned his venture after two years of deprivation when his funds ran out. He later said in 1887 that agriculturalists reported the Nullarbor “eminently suitable in every way for pastoraling, and probably also for the growing of cereals.”[41]

Aboriginal legend describes the Plain as once wonderful and beautiful, a land of perfection. Europeans fixated on the Nullarbor as a pastoralists’ haven: crops would grow in abundance and sheep and cattle would graze. Only a myth could empower the Whites to believe this and try forcing it into a reality. Only a myth could empower them to believe that sufficient quantities of suitable water wait in this wilderness to transform it into fine pasture.

A Melbourne company sent two men, Fairie and Woolley, to find suitable grazing. They left Eucla on 4 November 1878 to travel NNE, and no one saw them again. Jones tracked the last signs of the expedition a year later: their water bags leaked and they overshot their camp tracks by over seven kilometers. They stretched a blanket through the branches of a tree to shade themselves¾the thermometer at Eucla registered 71°C to 76.5°C in the sun that day. One of their horses staggered back to Eucla and Aborigines found the remains of another horse, perhaps their other one, on the sea cliffs. Jones writes that they probably abandoned any systematic course and headed directly south¾what they thought was south¾stumbling from one likely looking object to another, continually to meet with disappointment. In their stupor, they probably fell down a blowhole.

Jones thoroughly and enthusiastically went about his tracking task, seemingly immune to the dangers that claimed those he tracked. People lost in a wilderness like the Nullarbor often strip themselves naked garment by garment, hanging one on some scrub and another on a stunted tree as they stumble along. Inexperienced people panic quickly, especially when they notice their predicament at dusk with the uncertainty of night about to fall. It is easy to become bewildered in this sea of saltbush with a horizon of hazy mirages.

The pastoralists’ dream continued in the 1880s and 1890s with the establishment of more farms and feasibility investigations for others.

Arthur Mason and a man named Younge set out to investigate rabbits. During the night of 26 July 1896 near Boundary Dam, shortly after they started their journey, their camels and some of their provisions disappeared. They spent a night sleeping on the Plain in a black frost and found their clothes stiff with ice when they arose. They killed their dog, skinned it, partially cooked it, and ate it. Dew clung to grass and bushes, so they sucked it off. That badly cut their lips. It saturated their leggings, boots, socks and the bottom of their trousers, so they took them off, wrung them out, and obtained four mouthfuls of water. The tan taste of the boots made them feel sick. Younge became delirious. The pair walked 260 kilometers to Eucla. They examined the tract of land between Kurnalpi and Eucla, and returned claiming to have discovered 400,000 hectares of some of the finest agricultural and pastoral country in the world. Mason also mentioned the Plain’s poor water resources.

Forrest traversed the Nullarbor in 1869. He afterward entered politics. The idea of a railway to link east and west enthused him and he pushed it, hoping to unify Australia and sever Western Australia’s isolation. He inflamed imaginations with the pastoral opportunity of the Nullarbor: the train would open up eight million hectares of the best grassy country. Abundant water waited underground.

The Western Australian Government sent engineer John Muir in 1901 to begin a survey along the route for the proposed railway, at least that State’s section of it. He considered this stretch of country one of the finest in Australia and admirable for grazing when water is found¾which would happen soon if properly prospected for. The Western Australian Government mounted further water-seeking explorations in preparation for the railway, most notably those of A. Gibb Maitland in the early years of the twentieth century. The South Australians engaged in similar searches.

Water is available on the Nullarbor from a few sources. Rock or gnamma holes store surface supplies, especially after rain. Muir generously estimates, from the ones he saw, that they could hold between 1,350 to 45,500 liters. J. T. Jutson reports these in 1934 as a chief source of water for the limited pastoral use of the plateau.

L. Keith Ward describes the two other water sources in the Nullarbor, both underground. The water accessible in the lakes of the deeper caves is called groundwater. It lays a little above sea level and gently slopes seaward across the Plain. The lakes average 66 meters in depth. They contain too much salt for humans and usually for sheep; better water floats above the salt water on many of the lakes but, at a few centimeters in depth, that also offers little use.

A separate underground water system exists beneath the groundwater. Ninety meters of impervious clay sit under the limestone, and sand and gravel below it contain water under pressure. The sands north of the Nullarbor absorb the water, it runs seawards, and the clay traps it. The geologist Henry Y. L. Brown thought he saw this water running into the sea at the foot of the cliffs, throwing up sand or mud from the ocean bed in large and continual jets and puffs. Forrest also noticed a stream of fresh water flowing into the sea and the captain of a ship reported fresh water for over three kilometers from the shore. The salt level of this subterranean water varies. Sheep can usually drink it, reports Maitland in 1915, but the pressure won’t raise it to the surface. Farmers need to use pumps.

Only one of the eight bores the South Australian Government drilled in 1880 yielded water sufficiently free from salt. Few of the bores sunk over the years succeeded. Yet the Government continued to pressure for agriculture and money making from the Nullarbor. In 1936, a former Governor of South Australia lamented the neglect of cultivation in this expanse.

Nowadays, the lure of oil and minerals sends explorers into the Australian wilderness. The geologist W. G. Woolnough states that his aerial survey eliminated the possibility of finding a structure on the Nullarbor suitable for concentrating or conserving oil. No hope exists for translating this “veritable abomination of desolation,” he writes, into economic significance.[42]

Flinders observed the sea cliffs and noticed the absence of river outlets. He concluded that the cliffs form a barrier between an inland sea and the open ocean. This myth of an inland sea¾perhaps below sea level¾stood for many years.

Eyre inflamed the belief when he found “freshwater snails” over the region.[43] Tate noticed wheelbarrow-loads under the larger bushes and saw them strewn thickly over the open country. He couldn’t walk two steps without crushing a shell. Bates saw the slimy track of “the mysterious land snail” on early winter mornings.[44] W. Earle noticed “dew shell-snails” crawling around and activated by any moisture, whether a slight rain shower or a dewy morning.[45] The snails grow larger and support a more acute turret on its shell than does the common garden snail.

The snails aren’t freshwater. No inland sea exists. Another of Tate’s observations proved wrong as well: the land doesn’t gradually slope away from the cliffs toward the interior.

The Nullarbor remains an uncanny place of mystery and strangeness, of silent caves and waters. Scientist Michael Archer responded to his feeling of unease by taking an electroscope to test for electrical phenomenon.

Nearly a century before, the train arrived. It was heard a long way off¾softly as it passed over firm and level ground, loudly as it passed over hollow ground. By day, it belched sparks and smoke. By night, it wound its way as a “dragon of lights.”[46] “And anon,” writes Bates, it was here, “moving and creeping so silently that newcomers from the distant Musgrave and Everard ranges not infrequently snatched up their weapons and flew northward again from the magic monster…creeping towards them.”[47] The whole of Central Australia knew the legend of Ganba who killed and ate anyone he caught on his oondiri (“the waterless,” the Nullarbor Plain). With the train, Ganba had left his haunt “to ravage the earth,” as Ernestine Hill puts it, “with death in his breath.”[48]

Aborigines started to take walkabouts over the Plain years later, in 1936. The story of Ganba ceased to restrain them a long time after Europeans arrived on the Nullarbor.

The Nullarbor, with its treeless Plain and black caverns, continues to offer challenges, fields of exploration that call the investigator. Subterranean wonders repay the person who hears and answers, writes Anthony Bolam. Human beings in the Nullarbor, he continues, feel themselves second to something greater.

Standing before the line markings in Koonalda Cave, I feel myself second to something greater too. I now need stories¾sustainable ones¾to help me understand.[49]



AR02\C06.doc                                          6400 words                                   13 June 2003


Chapter Six




[Two hundred meters] in from the entrance we turned and looked back, and never shall I forget the sight of the great rock chamber with the light filtering in and changing colour as it diminished. The huge domed roof and columns of rock could be compared with nothing else but London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. The beauty and majesty of it turned my chest as no [humanly]-made cathedral could do. At the entrance the light was blue-green, this changed through rose-pink to grey. The swift silent flight of bats and swallows added to the atmosphere. It is undoubtedly one of the sights of Australia.

Arnold Wright, 1956.[50]


We finished our first evening meal at Koonalda. The temperature began to fall. Our irritabilities also cooled down and we felt ready to re-enter the Cave¾at least re-enter for some of us; half had not yet been inside. Off we went.

To enter Koonalda Cave from the surface beside the sinkhole means a walk over thorny, sparsely grassed ground, and a climb over a broken-down fence beside water tanks in which grow deadly nightshade. Kittens sometimes occupy one of the tanks; old cans fill the other. Past sheets of iron and onto rocks is the edge of the sinkhole, 30 meters deep and 85 meters across. A steel ladder starts its 15-meter descent. It remains perpendicular to the rim of the sinkhole until near the bottom where it slews off to the right. A forked branch supports one side of it.

Aborigines descended the sinkhole with the help of saplings tied with string. Other people climbed down with a rope, and some, such as L. A. Wells in 1904, with fencing wire.

The last step off the present ladder leaves a further ten meters to the floor of the sinkhole down a zigzagging track of loose stones, the haunt of poisonous brown snakes. A fig tree stands on the floor to the left of the track and, on the right, a peach tree that harbors webs of spiders with bodies eight centimeters across. Right around the fig tree, partly around and over another pile of rocks, the inconspicuous six-meter wide entrance of the Cave opens up a few meters below. We left our protective helmets here. A descent over a pile of rocks and debris (which Sandor Gallus excavated a little) leads into the entrance. The track then climbs up a little into the darkness. A pipe here that the Gurneys once used to carry water from the Cave often struck our helmets.

Water can percolate down from the surface and dissolve away the limestone into solution tubes. Sometimes, the rock breaks away vertically to expose downward solution tubes as cross-sections and horizontal tubes as holes. Such holes and tubes mark a rock face just before the Cave entrance. Several people consider them the inspiration for the prehistoric line makers though, at 30 millimeters in diameter, they dwarf the engravings in the Cave.

We trimmed our lights once into the Cave entrance. Gallus carried a kerosene Tilley lamp, and the rest of us lit with gas lamps and candles. Battery lamps wouldn’t last long enough.

From the entrance, a walk over a rise reaches the Gurneys’ pipe at foot level. The floor drops to the Gallus Site, 120 meters from the entrance and its ceiling 75 meters underground. The slope rises a little further on the right until a shaft of light enters through a hole.

Sliding is the way to reach the Gallus Site. A backwards scramble over large rocks interrupts the slide and leads to a short steel ladder that sits at an angle on the dust. The path mostly follows the Gurneys’ straight pipe, apart from hewn steps that lead in a wide loop from the bottom of the ladder. A track branches off from the last section of the slope into the lake-filled northern chamber of the Cave.

The Gallus Site part of the Cave looks like a football stadium or cathedral¾considering the feeling the Cave engenders, the latter creates the better image¾90 meters long by 60 meters wide by 30 meters high. A shaft of light touches from the entrance. Otherwise, away from the base of the slope into the Cave, a reflected moonlight-type glow bathes the dark. R. McCullough writes in 1892 of the sun’s rays penetrating at noon between the boulders at the entrance and lighting up the chamber to show off the dome and surroundings. The shaft of light changes color as the day proceeds: pinks and yellows, and sometimes a cold ice blue. Swallows twitter as they fly around the entrance. It feels damp and cold. Horizontal lines of black flint and concretions, and nodules of powdery red-brown ochre (hydrated iron oxide) sit conspicuously in the walls.

Paths across the Gallus Site reach a stone wall that fences the excavations. The main trench threatens to collapse at its current ten meters depth; in the glow of the lamps it carries the eye down and down. Corrugated cardboard signs say, “Danger Keep Out,” and, “Deep Trenches,” with Gallus’s signature. He has marked out what he considers a prehistoric mining trench with ceremonial picks, points down, at each end. A stone with a human shape sits propped-up on the surface together with sculptural concretions shaped like birds and other animals.

Behind Gallus’s collapsible card table, to the right of another stele, the path arrives at the back of the Gallus Site. It then climbs to the base of a 30-meter cliff. The upper chamber begins on top. A boost from behind helps the climber up the step to the winding trail up the cliff. The trail is also steep and crumbly. It has fallen away at one place to leave it even narrower: eight centimeters wide. I felt better when I ignored the hole with its darkness, stepped over it, and slogged up to a rest point. An overhang near the top of the ascent forced me to my knees to squeeze under, especially when I wore a pack on my back. Stones easily dislodged under my feet. A cup-sized rock once slipped from beneath my feet and bounced off Gallus’s hardhat.

How would the prehistoric visitors to Koonalda manage that climb, without a formed path and with glowing sticks for light?

The divide between the large rocks (the “ramparts”) at the beginning of the upper chamber appears unexpectedly. It welcomes and offers a needed ten-minute rest on a handy flat slab. I sat on this rock each day to eat my lunch, tinned meat and tinned beans in vinegar, a diet I soon tired of. At least no flies annoyed me as they did outside. I looked at the activities in the Gallus Site way down below. Everything said and every clump of Gallus’s pick I could clearly hear.

The upper chamber smells limy, cold, and dusty. Its overall color is white; lime dust pervades, patched occasionally with red.

The ceiling domes with large holes that correspond to similarly large chunks of rock below. Its height, at most around nine meters, contrasts with the Gallus Site section of the Cave. Its width measures 12 to 15 meters and its length around 200 meters.

I never walked on level ground; I climbed up, or I climbed down, or I clambered over boulders, or I jumped from stone to stone. The daily hike in and out alone exhausted me let alone the climbing the rest of the day. The need to navigate in the darkness added to the challenge. A large rectangular boulder stood out near the high point of the upper chamber and a lamp caught it from almost anywhere in this part of the Cave. I couldn’t remember the way out from the rear of the chamber the first few times and I couldn’t see the entrance. I needed only to head toward this friendly rock¾or “directional stele,” as we called it¾and the route became clear. In some places, the path also obviously wound around rocks and this helped. Yet tiredness eventually restricted even the most agile of us, especially toward the end of a day when our distance judgments waned. I fell once. My lamp broke, the glass scattered, and I lay in it on my back and wedged between rocks, shocked but unharmed. Luckily, no serious injuries occurred on our trip.

The lines strongly called me the first night. I showed the sights to the newcomers¾with a reminder to all of us that lines and pockets of charcoal survive on many floor boulders and that moving in the upper chamber can easily destroy them. Neil Chadwick started to compare the shapes of the rocks with animals and objects, the beginning of his involvement in the rock forms over the following three weeks. The surveyors Ian Lewis and Kevin Mott looked around and discussed troglodyte questions.

The members of one of Thomson’s expeditions to Koonalda¾probably that of 1935¾found a footprint in the dust of the upper chamber. They thought it was that of an Aborigine once employed to inspect the Cave. I found a footprint in the upper chamber on my earlier visit and tried to locate it again this time, but without luck. Perhaps someone had walked over it in the meantime.

The floor of the upper chamber rolls up and down. It divides into three sections. From the ramparts at the top of the climb from the Gallus Site, it rises to a hump at the directional stele. Then it gradually descends until it arrives at a short precipice where the roof hasn’t fallen away and forms a step down. This defines the second section. A short flat area lies past the foot of this slope before the end of the chamber at the “squeeze.”

From the ramparts to the directional stele, the floor comprises smooth and rounded boulders. They show line markings. The floor of the second section of the upper chamber, from the directional stele to the slope before the squeeze, comprises rough and angular boulders. They show no line markings. The rock that did form the ceiling up until it steps down in front of the squeeze now forms the rubble back to the directional stele. Rubble from the rockfalls has slipped and rolled down the slope but, in the short distance that remains before the squeeze, the rubble ceases and smooth and rounded boulders again comprise the surface. In other words, the floor of the third section of the upper chamber is the same as that of the first section, interrupted in the second by the rough and angular rubble that fell onto it. Lines mark the original stones of the third section too.

The rockfall opens up part of the way down the slope to the third portion of the upper chamber. Under a slab of rock that once formed a piece of the ceiling (its underside is smooth), sits a smooth and rounded boulder, shaped like a bird, with a stream of lines running along its “face.” Some other lines in this vicinity look like natural scrapes.

The most famous part of Koonalda Cave is the rock face above the squeeze. Finger markings and large engravings cover dozens of square meters of the wall. One set of markings, looking like chevrons or arrows pointing to the floor, especially intrigued Gallus. His excavations beneath them turned up what he interpreted as a prehistoric mining trench.

Tourists often venture to this terminus of the upper chamber and deface the Aboriginal markings with their initials and dates of visit.

The roof and floor gradually merge toward the area of the markings. This makes the upper chamber appear to end in a four-meter wall. Through this wall, however, runs a slit called the squeeze, or “cat-run” in Thomson’s words. The upper chamber represents an earlier and higher level of development of Koonalda Cave than the lower level of the Gallus Site, during a period in which the water table (and sea level) stood higher than at present. Scallop markings in the squeeze indicate that water once forced its way through it into the upper chamber. G. W. Hunt reports from 1904 that, unlike the other passages in the Cave, a strong wind blew between the ledges of rock at the end.

Thomson needed others to chip rock away in 1947 because he was too large to fit through the opening. I had to pull myself on my belly only one to two of its six meters. I slid into a meter high pit in the middle and crawled the rest on my hands and knees. Mike Smith tried on our previous visit to crawl through an opening at the end of the upper chamber that he thought was the squeeze. Though wiry, he had to take his belt off half way through and lie calm for a couple of minutes before he could back out.

The squeeze leads onto a six-by-six meter, triangular-shaped ledge, its apex at the end of the squeeze, and perching near the ceiling of a large chamber. It consists of boulders sitting one on top of the other. Its edge is crumbly. Some of the undergirding boulders have fallen away to leave a drop of about 30 meters. Richard Wright and his team picked up a few hundred flint pieces on this platform, of which prehistoric humans fashioned at least 26. It is, Wright suggests, “one of the most fearsomely situated tool-making sites in the records of prehistory.”[51]

The wall beside the ledge shows line markings. Markings also lie beyond the present edge of the ledge, presumably created when it extended further. Another opening at the same height as the ledge appears to exist on the other side of the chamber: perhaps the ledge once carried on right around and the upper chamber continues further. Perhaps prehistoric Aborigines visited it.

Thomson first squeezed through to the ledge in 1935, but his lights couldn’t illuminate the far side of the new chamber. In January 1947, he, Roy Gurney, and two others sat on the rock ledge and tried to solve the problem:

I had brought pilot flares to illuminate this space and setting one alight I threw it into the crater….It fell onto a ledge of rock and burned brilliantly for about a minute, giving us time to look around. A second flare completed the job. I was delighted to see at the bottom of the crater a piece of wood leaning against the side.[52]

Thomson had noticed the wood in the lake chamber that morning (Orville Dunnet used it to climb partway up the wall in 1935).

The squeeze opens into the western chamber of Koonalda Cave. It plus the northern chamber contain the Cave’s lakes. The northern passage opens off the northwestern one (the upper chamber and the Gallus Site) near the toe of the first slope from the Cave entrance down to the Gallus Site. It continues northward for about 500 meters where it becomes submerged. In cross-section, it measures about 15 meters high and 18 meters wide and looks like a railway tunnel cut through the white crystalline limestone. The western passage, which runs in a west-north-west direction, branches from the northern one about 150 meters in. We spent little time in these chambers¾unlike most of Koonalda’s modern visitors, who focus their interest on the lakes.

A little into the lake passage rests a disused pump and its large car engine. The Gurney brothers once relied on this equipment to water their sheep. They carried and windlassed the machines and the associated iron pipes into the Cave, cleaned and laid them. Their mammoth effort now rusts away.

Clay, red earth, with some rock collapse form the floor of the north passage between the foot of the initial slope into the Cave and the branching of the west passage. Collapse has eaten out a dome at the branching, beyond which, some 150 meters in, lays a lake 60 centimeters deep and 45 meters long, with a bottom of mud and broken rock. Ted Anderson measured the water temperature on 31 December 1963 at 14.3°C. The water smells moldy and on it floats a thick brown-and-white scum.

Those who swim in the lakes find them bitterly cold, despite the relatively warm temperature. They must lift their feet high while walking in the water and each foot sinks a further 60 centimeters into silt mud with hidden sharp flint boulders that cut. The female members of my earlier expedition to Koonalda ventured a swim and wash in lake water; the bat dung floating on the surface discouraged us males. The mud rules out feet washing. We visited the nearest motel on this trip for a once-only shower.

A low isthmus of clay and rockfall about 33 meters across comes after the lake. The second lake then follows, with less scum than the first. It measures 145 by 27 meters, descends 1 to 1.5 meters, registers 14.6°C on the thermometer, and contains large boulders with their tops jutting out. It widens at a bend under another dome. Jo Jennings noted watermarks in January 1957 of up to six meters above the current level.

The Mountain (or Snow Mountain), a 35-meter high cone of sharp edged rocks, follows the second lake. Glauber salts glisten over it. Above rises a cupola-shaped dome, 60 meters wide and 68 meters up, only 15 from the surface of the Plain and the highest in the chamber.

Thomson’s expedition sailed across the lakes in a frail canoe, but barefoot to save the canoe from damage by heavy boots. They crossed the first lake to the Mountain where some of the party stayed while the others paddled across the second lake. Returning after two hours, they found the waiting members shivering from the cold; with bare feet, they couldn’t move far. They all retraced their steps across the island carrying the canoe. One of the party slipped on the slimy rocks and badly cut the ball of his right foot on a sharp flint. The others rendered first aid and paddled him back across the first pool. Gurney then piggybacked him up to the sinkhole.

After the island Mountain, comes the third and final lake in the north passage. It descends six to nine meters and measures 120 by 24 meters on its scum-free surface. Hunt obtained a maximum depth of 4.8 meters in 1904. He thought it might descend further in places, but he couldn’t test the depth over all of the lake because he found the Cave too dark, the water too cold, and, probably more to the point, because his pontoon deflated too soon. Large boulders jut out of it and its temperature reads 16.9°C (a large difference, notes Anderson, from the temperatures of the other two lakes 120 meters away). One of a 1957 party, a Sydney speleo named John Bonwick, swam the full length of the lake with only the light from his headlamp as a guide. “He must have felt very alone when he rounded the bend at the far end of the Cave and disappeared from our view,” writes Ted Lane. [53]

The third lake in the northern passage ends in a small squeeze, which a person can float through on an air mattress. A terminal pool and steep chimney lie beyond it. A 1967 party tried to climb the chimney. They quit after six meters because it was too tight and the decomposed and chalky limestone broke away too easily. The cold and damp also made them shiver excessively.

The Gurney brothers forged a dingy from a sheet of iron. It struck one of the boulders whose tops jut above the surface of the water, and sank. Down went their lamp too. They struggled to the shallows and to the shore, and then groped their way back through the cavern in complete blackness with nothing to indicate which way to go. Some of the best horses from a circus escaped around Koonalda and Gurney recaptured them after a couple of days of tracking. In recognition, the circus sent him a dinghy to replace the sheet of iron. But he couldn’t carry the dingy to the lakes. A group of boys arrived to explore the Cave 18 months later and they carted it down to the waterway without any trouble¾frequent lifting of their bus from ruts had prepared them. Numerous publications refer to Gurney’s light boat. Not many visitors thought it light, however. One party found it too heavy to carry over one of the islands and could only gaze out over the water to where their pressure lamps showed another archway leading to the final chamber.

The 108-meter-long western passage leads off on the same level as the northern one. Its floor contains low piles of debris and two shallow lakes, the second around 18 by 21 meters and three to 4.5 meters deep at maximum. The passage ends in a dome 30 meters high. Near the top of this emerges the platform¾too far up for me to see it¾that the squeeze of the upper chamber emerges onto.

Gurney’s sheep drink water from the lakes in the western passage, pumped by windmill out of a pipe that passes vertically through the roof of the cave and up 90 meters directly to concrete tanks. (Gurney no longer uses the iron pipe that the path follows into the Cave.)  Humans can’t drink this water because of its high salt content. We could drink the less saline top few centimeters if the bat guano didn’t pollute it.

Stalactites and stalagmites grow in some Nullarbor caves¾none in Koonalda. Unusual crystals grow in the bat guano of some Nullarbor caves¾none in Koonalda. In Koonalda, grow snow-white helictites. These rare gypsum formations, sometimes curved and sometimes straight, develop sideways and upwards from one part of the wall over the lakes. Marion Carpenter describes them as small gypsum flowers. The Russell Grimwade Expedition carried away from Koonalda a “curly stalactite” that the mineral collection of the National Museum in Melbourne now exhibits.[54]

The water in the Koonalda lakes originates with the rain that soaks and runs through the limestone surface to collect in underground reservoirs. Around 200-250 millimeters of rain falls annually around Koonalda. Winter produces most of it, though rare cyclonic depressions can sometimes carry heavy downpours in the summer. Koonalda lies in one of the wetter portions of South Australia; 83 percent of the State registers a rainfall of less than 250 millimeters. Koonalda’s 200-250 millimeters also compares favorably with the 150 millimeters in the northeast of the Plain. Its climate is thus merely semi-arid and warm. The region’s weather pattern originates with the moist southwest wind that prevails and sweeps across the ocean until it strikes the cliffs. There it precipitates its vapor on the Nullarbor. Koonalda lies close to the sea.

For Don Lawler, a member of a cave exploration group in the early 1950s, torrential rain in the early hours of the morning broke his 30 days of silence on the Plain. It fell without warning and drenched sleeping bags¾and sleepers¾in seconds. After the rain, writes Ion Idriess,

a rainbow across the Nullarbor, but what a rainbow! A shaft of sunlight came smiling through the low, black sky. Quickly the ceiling of heaven lightened up to unguessable heights and as it did so the great rainbow drifted down not over us but over all the vast Nullarbor. It must have been hundreds of miles wide at base, a vast, entrancingly [colored] arch over all the Nullarbor. Its gigantic size, its perfect form, its dazzling medley of [colors] fairly took our breath away. All the rainbows I had ever seen if blended into one could not have compared with this.[55]

Heavy rain means flooding. The lack of river channels means the surface of the Nullarbor quickly turns into a slowly and southward moving sea. Sheets of water can remain in usually bone-dry districts for weeks. Wildlife appreciates the water and covers the ground as a moving mass of lizards, rabbits, and wombats. A vehicle¾if not bogged down¾can’t drive for 20 meters without swerving to avoid an animal. Rabbits lose interest in humans. When disturbed, they hop a meter before they stop to plant their noses into another puddle.

The effects of the rain only stay briefly, for two reasons. The Nullarbor’s honeycomb limestone quickly absorbs or drains away almost every drop of what falls. It also disappears through evaporation. At Koonalda, evaporation (2375 millimeters annually) exceeds rainfall in every month. (The rate in half the State exceeds 2750 millimeters.) Some water can stay for a while in a hollow of hard clay or impervious rock (the gnamma holes). Each can hold up to 270 liters.

Precipitation arrives in forms other than rain. Heavy frosts can occur in winter near the coast and dews are common. Dews don’t occur inland because, while the temperatures there fall below the dew point, the air holds insufficient moisture. The early Nullarbor Station resident, Tom Brown, writes about the heavy dews and dense sea fogs that drench grass and trees. Dogs and kangaroos quench their thirst by licking water off them. Eyre sponged the dew hanging in spangles on the grass and shrubs, squeezed it into a two-liter pot, and filled it in an hour.

The mean maximum temperature at Koonalda registers around 29°C. The coast records an even lower mean maximum. Further inland the temperature increases to where, for about 30 days of the year, it exceeds 38°C (100°F). In comparison, the average minimum temperature in July decreases from the coast inland. Freezing nights match boiling days. Days become very hot when the wind blows from the north. W. C. Evans describes the north winds as like standing in front of a fiery furnace with its doors open. Eucla holds the Australian record temperature in the shade of 51.1°C (123.9°F) from a day in March 1905. The daily temperature there often exceeds 45°C in summer, even near the coast and even in the shade. An early inhabitant of Eucla, James Lawrence, notes that the thermometer at six a.m. usual registered above 32°C. The extreme heat from a northerly can herald a southerly: a cooling sea breeze. Southerlies cause their own problems. Eyre describes the southwester as “very cold,” chilling almost as much as the northerly oppresses. Further, the sudden and radical temperature changes can cause illness. [56]

Climatically, Koonalda is harsh. It receives adequate rainfall, heavy dews, and not-so-extreme average temperature. Against this moderation act high evaporation, scorching northerly winds, cold southerlies, and the limestone’s porosity. Only the very hardy and well adapted survive.

The climate of the Nullarbor influenced the formation of Koonalda Cave and the area around it. To trace the Nullarbor’s geological history, we must remember that it consists of different layers or accumulations of limestone and that¾as the deposition of marine organisms¾they formed under the sea.

The upper 30 or so meters of rock comprise the gray-yellow Nullarbor Limestone¾hard, crystalline, and sometimes referred to as marble. George Woolf writes that it tinkled like a bell when he walked through caves formed in it.

The next 200 or so meters of rock comprise the white Wilson Bluff Limestone¾softer than the Nullarbor Limestone yet harder than chalk, it weathers to a powder, and contains both black and white nodules of flint. Ralph Tate writes that its seams of hard white flint rang like chimes under his hammer. He examined the deposit at Wilson Bluff on the coast; hence, the rock’s name. (The surveyor Alfred Delisser created the name Wilson Bluff in 1866. “If this point has not yet been named,” he writes, “may I request that it be called Point Wilson, after Professor Wilson, of Melbourne, the acclimatizer.”[57] An editorial footnote in his memoir comments that Sir Samuel Wilson and Mr. Edward Wilson founded the Victorian Acclimatization Society, not Professor Wilson, a mathematician at Melbourne University.)

The lower chambers of Koonalda Cave occur in Wilson Bluff Limestone, which perhaps explains why the prehistoric miners mined there.

The flinty nature of the Wilson Bluff Limestone caused headaches for the Western Australians who built the “old string” in 1876-1877, the 1300 kilometer-long telegraph line from Albany to Eucla. They couldn’t sink postholes through the flint in many places without continuous blasting. So they drilled shallow holes in the surface rock, sawed a meter off the butts of the poles, placed them in the holes, and piled rubble up over a meter around for support. George P. Stevens (the son-in-law of S. William Graham, the first telegraph stationmaster at Eyre’s Sand Patch in 1877, and himself postmaster at Eucla) writes in 1933 about how well many of the poles erected this way had weathered over 50 years of storms. They stand as monuments, he considers, to the durability of the Western Australian jarrah wood, “as sound as the rock in which they are planted.”[58]

The two limestones formed millions of years ago. The various rocks now below the limestone subsided from the center of the Nullarbor in the middle Eocene (53 to 43 million years ago). The lower part of the Wilson Bluff Limestone accumulated in the subsidence. Then, in the late Eocene (43 to 31.5 million years ago), the chalky upper part of the Wilson Bluff Limestone deposited in a quiet sea about 300 meters above the sea’s present level. It retreated from the Koonalda portion of the Nullarbor during the Oligocene to middle Miocene (31.5 to about 17 million years ago) and erosion of the Eocene limestones occurred. Years later, the sea once more covered and retreated from the central Nullarbor. Then, in the middle Miocene, it gradually expanded across the basin again and the Nullarbor Limestone deposited. The Nullarbor Region uplifted around 15 million years ago to become land.

The sea under which the limestone formed penetrated far inland. How far inland? The gulf it formed included the Nullarbor Region, a large part of the Murray area, and parts of the Eyre Peninsula. Some geologists believe it ventured only to the northern fringe of the Nullarbor. Others suggest that at times it nearly reached the Gulf of Carpentaria and just about divided the continent in two.

Natural erosion of the Nullarbor since its uplift out of the sea removed between 60 to 100 vertical meters in the south. The rock weathers evenly partly because of the low rainfall and partly because of the ease with which water passes through the surface rock. The regularity in weathering plus the absence of earth movement created a uniform landscape¾one of the most featureless large tracts on earth.

The surface of the Nullarbor isn’t absolutely flat and smooth. It rises at a gradient of one in 5,000 to reach an altitude of 200 meters when it meets older rocks at its northwestern extremity. Two features create a slight local relief. Claypans, depressions of a few meters in depth and around a kilometer in diameter, frequently interrupt the flatness throughout the Plain. The other local features are troughs up to several kilometers apart. Parallel, straight, and shallow, they run northwest to southeast and northeast to southwest, with intervening low rises of several meters. Boulders and the rare pavement of limestone stick out along the rises, while the troughs accumulate clay. The troughs aren’t pronounced enough to call them valleys. Few of these exist on the Nullarbor. One begins close to Koonalda. Its six-kilometer flat floor runs continuously southward and its gently sloped sides descend 4.5 to six meters from the level of the Plain. Mild slopes similarly close off its ends. It probably formed as a stream during a former period of greater rainfall, though now no signs of a streambed show. Dolines occasionally puncture the billiard-table landscape. The sides of a doline erode over time and it receives fill washed in from the Plain. It then forms a donga (a name which Charles G. Gibson introduced in 1909)¾round and flat-bottomed depressions 18-410 meters wide, 4.5-6 meters deep, and sometimes with steep sides.

Dolines, dongas, troughs, valleys, and claypans interrupt the flatness¾so does the cliff line. The sea cliffs and the inland scarps pose a geological problem: how did they form, from the eating habits of the sea or from the pushing habits of earth tectonics? Their relative straightness suggests a fault origin. On the other hand, is this what happens when the sea erodes rock beds as uniform as the limestones of the Nullarbor? Experts currently prefer to think that the sea licked away the upper portion of limestone to create both the submerged and the dry lower areas.

One of the dry lower areas is the Roe Plain. Its fertile soil derives from a thin layer of limestone laid down under the eroding sea during the Pleistocene (1 million to 10 thousand years ago). Good crops of wheat grew on it in the early days of Eucla. Winds during previous arid times carried loams from the upper Plain eastwards.

A discussion of the Nullarbor’s geology must mention its underground features. Abrakurrie Cave, 48 kilometers northwest of Eucla, boasts the largest cavern on the Nullarbor, 365 meters long. Mullamullang Cave in the Madura district features one of the most extensive underground stretches in Australia, 4.8 kilometers long. On the other hand, the Nullarbor registers a low rate of caves, around 130 for its 200,000 square kilometers. The Mole Creek area in Tasmania registers over 100 known caves in its 200 square kilometers. The scarcity of Nullarbor caves probably arises from its arid climate; less rain, less dissolving of limestone, fewer caves.

Blowholes, apertures up to two meters in diameter and 11 meters deep and through which strong air currents gust in and out, appear more frequently than caves: between 10,000 and 100,000 of them. A continuum of cavern size stretches between blowholes on the small side and Koonalda near the top of the large side. Such a distinction, though disputable, helps us understand how the Nullarbor caves formed. The two types began and developed differently.

Groundwater that flows beneath the surface toward the coast dissolves the limestone, especially that close to the water table and particularly when the water table stood at about 15 meters below its present level. Collapse into this lower level resulted in the modern caves. (Correlating lower and higher water tables with similar sea levels may help date the cave creation, though experts still can’t say for sure when they formed.) A further lowering of the water table, which would weaken the water’s support of the caverns, assisted the subsidence. Streams undercut the walls. Water seepage played a more important role. It enlarges the joints and bedding planes within the rock, preparing the blocks to drop down or fall inwards after their support weakens beyond a critical point. Earth tremors can also trigger a fall. An earthquake that shook the district from Cook to Eyre in 1950 caused cave subsidence. Rockfalls occur continually through the life of the Cave but on average less than once in a lifetime. Collapsing tends to stabilize when the ceiling becomes a dome, apse, or arch. When the water table rose to its current level, it drowned the lower parts of the caves.

The existence of other channels above the present water table¾the upper chamber in Koonalda Cave for instance¾suggests also a higher water table or water tables in times past.

The water sat 90 meters lower about 20,000 years ago when the Koonalda people visited the upper chamber. Perhaps they also visited chambers now under water and inaccessible. Yet, perhaps portions of some of these hypothetical chambers breach the water surface above the present level. If so, diving might reach them. Lewis arrived with scuba gear and wet suit. He ventured into the final lake of the north chamber to see if he might materialize in another one unknown at present. Unfortunately, his rope lifeline wasn’t long enough and his body unable to stave off the cold for enough time to reach one¾if one exists.

Koonalda Cave formed with the dissolution of the limestone and the collapse of the ceilings into the dissolved channels to create stable geometric shapes. Other mechanisms operate as well. A gently sloping depression about 240 meters across surrounds the sinkhole and acts as its catchment. Surface water flows down from the Plain through the Cave entrance carrying soil, rocks, and other material into the lower parts of the Cave. Flat floors develop. Periodic flows inundated most of the Gallus Site at one stage, a factor that helps unravel how humans exploited this area in prehistoric times. The flows nowadays mainly stream into the northern passages and their lakes.

This water flow can round rocks by dissolving and abrading them. Salts saturate the lake water, however, so water in the lakes can’t dissolve much if any of the limestone. The freshwater “creams” on the tops of the lakes, and the shallow freshwater pools away from the lakes, could dissolve it. We are particularly interested in how the boulders in the upper chamber become smooth and round. If the lake isn’t responsible, what is?

A form of cave breakdown occurs continuously. Surface grains of limestone flake off in a process called salt crystallization or exudation. Water percolates through the rock and evaporates near the surface to deposit crystals of sodium chloride, calcium sulphate, and sodium sulphate. The crystals grow in subsurface cavities smaller than themselves and the pressure they exert pushes off surface grains. This produces dust, prevalent in Koonalda, and smoothes, rounds, and sometimes hollows out surfaces. It also peels off skins from walls and boulders. The humidity and other conditions necessary to produce exudation occur in Nullarbor caves such as Koonalda. For instance, the air must move¾strong winds blow through a number of the caves, in excess of 6.7 kilometers per hour in Mullamullang.

The Aborigines of the greater Nullarbor Region came to terms with the treeless Plain, its caves, and blowholes, through their myths. They thereby knew it and could coexist with it. Our equivalent to the Aborigines’ mythology includes the writings of geologists Jennings and David Lowry, who built on the sketchy labors of previous pioneers and gathered and synthesized a body of geological knowledge of the Nullarbor and its caves. Jennings participated in the caving society explorations and in the geological studies of Koonalda Cave. Lowry, of the Western Australian Geological Survey, investigated the Nullarbor and submitted his work as a doctoral thesis. His and Jennings’ publications provide for modern humans what the myths provided for the Aborigines.[59]



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Chapter Seven




In spite of this reservation [namely Robert Wright’s not recognizing the coincidence of Koonalda’s and certain European stone tools], Dr. Gallus’s interpretation though somewhat imaginative at times¾not necessarily a bad thing¾is worthy of consideration. He aims at “a first attempt in placing Koonalda into some perspective within human evolution.” A little old-fashioned this may be, but perhaps it is none the worse for that. Dr. Gallus, a European scholar, long since domiciled in Australia, brings his European cultural heritage to bear on our [endeavors] in Australian prehistory.

A. P. Elkin, 1973.[60]


Sandor Gallus and bands of helpers journeyed to Koonalda Cave over many summers to excavate. His last visit to the Cave was with me and he spent most of his time checking his notes and diagrams. He draws cultural parallels between the remains of mining, workshop, and settlement activities that he unearthed there and what he saw in Europe¾impressive enough for highly reputable international journals to publish them¾and controversial. Gallus was, and remains, suspect in the eyes of the Australian archaeological establishment. It ignores him if possible.

Gallus holds two doctorates: one in law and one in archaeology. A Hungarian by birth, he was the Curator of Prehistory at the Hungarian National Museum, Budapest, when the atrocities of the Russians toward the Hungarians lead him to leave with his wife and two sons and to rebuild a life in Australia. That happened in 1949. Australian officials examined his qualifications and experience and allotted him to manual labor. He then worked as a clerk and as a language teacher in various high schools until his retirement, but couldn’t regain a professional appointment in archaeology. He vigorously pursued his interest in archaeology and other subjects during his spare time, into his retirement, and until his death in 1996.

Gallus mentored a number of young people interested in archaeology. He encouraged them, inspired them, provided them practical opportunities, and showed them what it’s like to have a vision. He exemplifies quiet determination in the face of opposition.

The 1950s assumed, Gallus recounts, that the Aborigines arrived in Australia shortly after the last ice age. Professional and popular belief dismissed earlier dates. This cautiousness resulted from entrenched ideas about the emergence of human beings: the highest product of human development happens in Western civilization and, therefore, cultural evolution originates in Europe. Gallus believes that both his Koonalda and Keilor (near Melbourne) sites produced evidence for the great antiquity of the human presence in Australia. For instance, he considers that an implement workshop he unearthed in Koonalda resembles those of the Aurignacian in Europe. The oldest Aurignacian finds in France date at around 34,000 years ago, but the Koonalda finds, according to Gallus, date at least 45,000 years ago. This not only challenges the dates for the human presence in Australia. It also proposes that the technology underlying this phase of human development first arose in Australia. Rather than a backward area at the edge of the human world, the Australia of Gallus’s theory leads progress during certain stages of human evolution.

The Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies mounted a multi-disciplinary expedition to Koonalda in 1967 to investigate Gallus’s claims. The main presentations of the expedition specialists’ and Gallus’s results appeared in the same book, The Archaeology of the Gallus Site, Koonalda Cave. Richard Wright of the University of Sydney led that Expedition, edited the book, and produced the authoritative findings for Koonalda.

The Gallus Site area of the Cave¾the main chamber at the foot of the entrance slope¾features a deep hole near the rear: the remains of Gallus’s three main excavations and Wright’s extensions to Gallus’s Trench III. Three matters concerned these archaeologists:

·        the stratigraphy: the layer-by-layer accumulation of soil, rock, and other materials;

·        the radiocarbon dates from charcoal and similar material; and

·        the artifact finds (mainly stone tools) and their interpretation.

Gallus, Wright, and Rudy Frank, a soil scientist on Wright’s expedition, agree that three layers of accumulation are present: white-pink deposits (the top white), red deposits (the intermediate red), and further white-pink deposits (the bottom white). The top white comprises two meters of a mixture of limestone rubble, flint, pink and red dust, and fireplaces. It results from normal breakdown of the Cave (the gradual collapsing and wearing away of the Cave interior) plus human debris. Beneath this lies the intermediate red, about four meters of level red deposit washed in from the surface, with a small amount of white limestone from breakdown of the Cave. Frank compares the two deposits as the steady and continual accumulation of breakdown versus the sporadic dumping of soil that short-lived streams carry into the Cave after rain on the Plain. The lowest level, the bottom white, similar to the top level, comprises breakdown and large limestone boulders with some red soil between them.

Neither Wright nor Gallus (Frank didn’t excavate) reached the bottom of the deposit, the solid rock floor of the Cave. Gallus had only reached the top of the bottom white when Wright excavated and wrote his report. Wright says that a massive rockfall prevented him from investigating deeper and, therefore, he leaves open an earliest date for human use of the Cave.

Wright bases his dates for the prehistoric use of the Gallus Site on an analysis of nine carbon-14 datings on pieces of charcoal from a significant part of the excavation, Trench III. The dates range from 10,000 to 31,000 years ago. Wright disregards the oldest date, however, because to him it seems out of place with the other eight datings. He concludes that the traces of human occupation date from about 15,000 to 22,000 years ago.

Gallus needs a date for Floor 7 in Trench III, near the bottom of the intermediate red unit, because there he found what he considers an important collection of stone artifacts. It dates at around 20,000-21,000 years old according to Wright’s list of dates. Gallus questions some of Wright’s dates, however. So he calls upon two other methods to establish an age for Floor 7: fitting it into a specific geological period, and comparing the tools found on it with ones of similar style and of known age.

He arrives at an approximate age of 45,000 years for Floor 7 with the geological method. It draws, unfortunately, on the 31,000-year date that Wright dismisses. It also questionably divides the intermediate red deposit into levels laid down in different climatic periods. Gallus argues this way. When the intermediate red deposit formed, water ran into and ponded in the Gallus Site and not only in the northern chamber of the Cave, the area that now receives water after heavy rain. This would only happen if more water flowed into the Cave and this would only happen if the climate were wetter than at present. Thus, the intermediate red unit and its Floor 7 accumulated in a wetter climate. Gallus finds the dates for such a climate and applies them to the red deposit. Frank disagrees with Gallus’s argument. Slight shifts in the rockfalls or new collapses could alter the course of the water from the Plain and prevent it from entering the Gallus Site. The climate needn’t be wetter. Further, the stream would deposit soil along its own path when insufficient flow prevented it from running all the way. This would impede its next flow and sometimes cause it to change course.

The second method Gallus employs to date Floor 7 equates the stage of development of the stone tools with other finds at the same developmental stage, notably from his site at Keilor. The majority of Australian prehistorians¾both when Gallus wrote and now¾would dismiss this comparison as too subjective. They wouldn’t agree on his classification for the types of tools he found in Koonalda¾or Keilor¾let alone entertain a connection between them.

The conflict over datings leads to their analyses of artifact finds.

Wright only considers flakes and flaked pieces of flint. A person knocks a “flake” from a stone, which then becomes a “flaked piece.” Both must show, Wright says, particular marks that look like the skin layers of a bulb¾called a “bulb of percussion,” either sticking out of the stone or curving into it¾because these indicate an intentional hitting with a hammer of some sort and hence a human origin. Anything else Wright considers natural or waste from flaking and mining and he wants only to consider definite human artifacts. He discusses why he employs signs of a bulb of percussion as a criterion. Flint occurs naturally in the Cave, he says, and could mix with mined or shaped pieces. It even occurs above the excavation. When in the Cave, a member of his expedition climbed a ladder and examined the flint nodules in the wall six meters above the excavation, pulling out lumps and slivers or flint with the same silhouette as flakes and flaked pieces. No traces of a positive or negative bulb of percussion occur on any of the pieces from the wall. Wright cites two further reasons for caution. First, numerous debates around the world focus on how to identify whether a piece of stone originates naturally or from humans. Second, some archaeologists in the early part of the twentieth century incorrectly matched amorphous waste found in European flint mines with flaked tools from living sites.

Wright’s flake-flaked piece criterion removes from consideration all the flints he found in the bottom white deposit.

Two further criteria supplement this restriction. Wright won’t consider finds from the red deposit because, to his mind, the flints in it probably washed in from other places like the surface of the Plain. He also discounts pieces of flint with dimensions less than 1.5 centimeters because they aren’t obvious and could pass through the sieve he used to screen what he excavated.

The criteria of Wright restrict his analysis to the flints he found in the top white deposit. Only two of these artifacts possess a strong enough character for him to call them implements. Each he interprets as a pick with an end trimmed off for a comfortable handhold. Hitting flint nodules while digging in the rubble shattered the other end of each pick. He concludes that prehistoric people used the Cave to produce pieces of flint that they carried elsewhere to refine for use. The waste doesn’t say anything about the stone tools they would eventually create. Rock shelters in the vicinity would contain the more conventional archaeological debris from the users of Koonalda. The Cave for Wright offers only a glimpse at one aspect of prehistoric people’s lives, their flint mining. The motivation of people who seek their flint in such dark and hazardous passageways, he adds, disturbs him; the flints assume significance beyond the merely practical that, as common archaeological materials, they often receive.

Gallus, on the other hand, isolates a predominantly flake stone-tool tradition from the artifacts he recovered from his portion of the upper white deposit of Trench III. Wright restricts his artifact analysis to the same deposit. The large number of used implements not employed in making stone tools¾the majority for working wood and some for cutting organic matter¾suggests to Gallus that domestic activity or settlement occurred.

Floor 7 in the intermediate red zone provides for Gallus another stone-tool tradition. He finds here refuse from stone tool workshops, splinters, rejects, and abandoned or half-made blanks. It also contains used tools and some broken by use. This stone-tool tradition moves in Gallus’s mind toward implement specialization because it uses wood in a significant and new way: the stone tools include whittling knives, chisel-like burins for incising, axes for chopping, tools for cutting or sawing, scrapers, and implements for hollowing out. He considers this stone-tool tradition less crude than the higher (more recent), more firmly established, and less specialized one he unearthed in the upper white deposit of Trench III.

Evidence from the Cave suggests to Gallus that mining, workshop (producing stone implements), and domestic (such as woodworking) activities occurred. He found no kitchen fires or remnants of meals inside the Cave. The few fireplaces he unearthed are shallow and the pieces of charcoal probably the remains of torches for illumination. What he found on the Plain around the Cave and in the sinkhole do suggest to him the stationary presence of groups of people and that they did other things there than they did inside the Cave.

Evidence for flint quarrying exists not only in the Gallus Site, but also at the “squeeze.” Wright relates this to the marking of lines on the walls. For the age of the mining, he refers to the carbon-14 date of 19,900 years as the most recent use of the area, assuming that the dated charcoal originates from torches. This date coincides with the activity in the Gallus Site. He collected around the “squeeze” 16 flakes and a flaked piece of flint with the charcoal.

Gallus’s excavations in front of the “squeeze” also reveal evidence for mining. The quarrying happened in two phases. The more recent stage dug flint from the walls and the older dug it from the fallen rock. Gallus correlates the first with pieces of wood found seven to 15 centimeters down from the surface and which date at 21,200 years old. The second stage he correlates with a tradition more primitive than the one on Floor 7, Trench III, of the Gallus Site. He draws other conclusions as well. Engraved lines point down to the opening of mining pits and others follow the diggings horizontally¾thus Gallus believes the wall markings link to the mining activity near the “squeeze.” He found an artifact connected with the mining. Near the “squeeze” and on the surface of a slanting rock between other rocks, which a rockfall had covered, he discovered a large pickaxe. This pickaxe, Gallus writes, predates its development elsewhere in the world.

This and his other finds in Koonalda lead him to say that the products of civilization spread from Australia in the opposite direction to what scholars usually think. We must think of Australia, Gallus suggests, as an important center for human cultural and biological development.

Wright says that, apart from the wall markings, Koonalda Cave functioned as nothing more than a flint mine. Derek Mulvaney of the Australian National University in Canberra upholds this conclusion. Australians practiced a developed technology 25,000-30,000 years ago and therefore, he concludes, Gallus’s “primitive” finds can’t be tools but must be waste from stone workshops. Gallus bases his conclusions on empathy not science. Wright and Mulvaney wouldn’t consider most of Gallus’s implements as implements, or even humanly made, because they lack a positive or negative bulb of percussion. The majority of Australian archaeologists either ignores Gallus’s work or approaches it with skepticism and contrariness.

A highlight of the Gallus-Wright disagreement centers on the supposed cultural tradition that Gallus found on Floor 7. This floor lies in the red zone, a deposit Wright disregards because a stream could have washed the flints into it from the surface or from elsewhere in the Cave. Frank concludes from his examination that the stream didn’t flow on through and that rockfalls blocked and ponded it at about Trench III. This lake measured about 15 meters across and started a meter or two toward the Cave entrance from Trench III. Wright would say that people don’t sit in lakes to fashion tools.

Two other points by Frank throw light on the Gallus-Wright disagreement, at least for Floor 7. First, the pond intermittently dried up. Gallus could thus say that people sat on a dried up and flat red floor and fashioned tools; we needn’t think of them sitting in a lake. Second, Frank points out, the stream eroded some of the deposited material as it flowed back into the pond area. Gallus might respond that perhaps the stream didn’t erode that part of the red floor at the time of Floor 7 and so he found the artifacts he describes more or less where their prehistoric users left them, with sediment gently covering them. Alternatively, perhaps they washed only a short distance. Gallus doesn’t describe any water-rolling signs on the finds on Floor 7 and he usually does if he sees any. The fact that this large number of finds clusters around two large nuclei (blocks from which flakes were struck) may count for their lying more-or-less where their makers left them.

Wright selectively recovered only 14 flakes from the red zone, only three of which showed further (but uninformative) working. He doesn’t say how many flaked pieces he found. In comparison, Gallus’s plan of Floor 7¾a small portion of the red zone¾shows 64 numbered artifacts, 40 of which he discusses as tools and nuclei. Why this difference between Wright and Gallus? The diagrams of the two archaeologists suggest that Gallus dug about 15 percent more of the red zone than did Wright and less than half its depth. Gallus excavated over three times the horizontal area than Wright. Alternatively, perhaps Gallus struck it rich in the red deposit with a workshop or occupation area. Perhaps Wright found a mining area while Gallus unearthed a workshop; perhaps the prehistoric people sat and whittled wood a little away from the walls and large boulders (the wall and large boulders were close to and hampered Wright’s lower levels). The same applies to Wright’s finding nothing of cultural interest in the top white. Perhaps luck evaded him. Alternatively, perhaps mining dominated in the area of his dig, and tool making and woodworking in Gallus’s.

If the tools are as crude as Gallus says, then maybe they are cruder than anything found and recognized in Australia when Wright wrote. Wright maybe overlooked most of the few tools among the mining remains because of his strict and systematic methods, and because of the crudeness and newness of the finds for Australia. The difference could reflect the tool recognizing abilities of the two men.

Gallus responds to the assumption of archaeologists like Wright about what constitutes a human stone implement. He describes the way that hammering, shattering, or breaking, and not flaking split the rough and quadrangular blocks of flint in Koonalda. The brittle glass-like nature of the flint makes it hard to flake. To shape it, therefore, people would break it along its natural splitting planes in a controlled and efficient manner. This doesn’t produce the bulb of percussion or the ripples that Wright looked for. Gallus found neat heaps of intact material on the floor, which people had picked through for suitable flakes and broken pieces with sharp edges. They could use these immediately or as blanks to fashion tools from later. He mentions three other corroborations for his position. First, J. Peter White saw people in New Guinea break flints in a way that left no signs of bulbs of percussion and which they still used as implements. Second, two observers of Australian Aborigines noticed that they used any piece of suitable stone without further treatment if it had a suitable working edge. Third, archaeologists typify the old industries in Australia as working-edge oriented rather than shape-of-implement oriented. These references indicate to Gallus that the edge of a (potential) tool should concern him and that he may observe traces of use on formless pieces. He believes that this approach, rather than Wright’s search for evidence of flaking, will correctly identify human stone tools. Wright reports that a microscopic examination of a sample of his flakes showed no signs of abrasive wear. This suggests that people hadn’t used the pieces of flint that he found. Some of Gallus’s finds do show microscopic evidence of wear. This suggests that people had used some of the pieces of flint he found.

Gallus names his stone finds with European terms, terms that summon particular stone shapes to the minds of archaeologists. He doesn’t mean that the same people made the European and Koonalda implements. He merely exploits, he says, the similarities in appearance of the two collections of tools as a basis to name the Australian finds. Wright fails to see the European shapes in the material he excavated. He also fails to see the shapes in the finds he saw of Gallus:

This disagreement is not based on a chauvinistic preference for Australian terminology, nor is it based on an alarm at the diffusionist implications inherent in a European terminology applied to Australian artifacts. In fact[,] I would intellectually welcome the excitement of finding in Australia a site [that] contained the variety and number of types he mentions….What I do find discordant is the lack of coincidence between the actual material from Koonalda and the . . .industries of Western Europe.[61]

To accept this terminology criticism doesn’t mean, though, that Wright and others should disregard Gallus’s work. Gallus’s collection of implements from the upper white deposit resembles the well accepted “small tool tradition” found in Australia from about the same time. Gallus’s finds on Floor 7 from a level lower down resembles the older and well-accepted “core-tool and scraper tradition,” which appears in an evolved form in the later small-tool tradition. Gallus enriches the understanding of these traditions with his analyses of the different types and uses of the tools within each.

Archaeological investigations suggest nothing of distinction about the prehistoric users of Koonalda Cave.

A few excavated caves on the Nullarbor besides Koonalda show signs of human occupation. Ljubomir H. Marun and Peter Thompson examined Madura Cave on the Roe Plain portion of the Nullarbor Region. Human occupation of that site began about 8,000 years ago and lasted about 4,000 years. Marun also excavated Cave N145 with an earliest occupation date of 24,000-25,000 years ago. He concludes from these sites and from his archaeological study of the Nullarbor in general that, over the last 25,000 years, the environment changed in the Roe Plain and, as the unearthed implements indicate, so did the technology. The technology changes are, he concludes, discrete, local, and fail to fit a recognizable pattern for the region.

Excavations reveal the remains of things other than human activities. Alan Thorne accompanied Wright to Koonalda and describes the animal remains that Wright’s excavation unearthed. The meager finds occurred only in the red deposit. They include bones of lizards, a couple of rodents, and of four types of marsupials including a Sarcophilus cranium. (The Sarcophilus or Tasmanian Devil, a carnivore like a wolf or hyena, has disappeared from the Australian mainland¾perhaps human beings or of the Devil’s competitor, the dingo, helped in its extinction. The same holds for the thylacine¾the Tasmanian Tiger or Wolf¾the remains of a number of which explorers have found in Nullarbor caves.) Five sources explain the presence of animal remains in the Koonalda excavations. The bones could have arrived here in owl pellets. Owls eat small animals and then regurgitate the indigestible parts¾bones, beaks, and so on¾as pellets. The sides of the doline outside the Cave contain numerous owl roosts under which lie heaps of disintegrated pellets, and inside the Cave further back from Trench III of the Gallus Site lie similar heaps. The bones could also have arrived here as the food remains of predators such as the Sarcophilus. A Sarcophilus broke some of the larger bones, in Thorne’s opinion. The bones could have arrived here, as a third source, as the remains of animals that lived in the Cave, or, fourthly, of animals that lost their way in it and died there. Perhaps some washed in from the doline or from the surface of the Plain. Nothing¾no signs of use on the bones and no burning¾indicates that the animal remains relate to the presence of people in the Cave.

The surface of Gallus’s excavation produced a few large bones that dingoes possibly brought in, plus bird skeletons and decaying owl pellets with their hoards of small bones. Wallaby bones, which could represent the remains of a human meal, rested just above a level that dates at 13,700 years. Marsupial rat bones and the mummified remains of a honeyeater also rested at about this level. Gallus uncovered bones of small animals, again probably from owl pellets, down further among the bands of the red zone. Much of the faunal remains from his excavations still await examination.

Animal remains exist not only in the Gallus Site, but also in the upper chamber. I found a number. These include the vestiges of owls, crows, bats, and insects¾which found their way there by themselves¾plus several bones from large marsupials that humans probably brought in. The marsupial remains haven’t been identified.

On-site archaeological investigations of Koonalda ceased with our departure and are unlikely to re-open. This also applies to investigations of the line markings. Attempts to understand them further must rely on research in other caves.[62]


AR02\C08.doc                                          6337 words                                  13 June 2003


Chapter Eight




Ritual is the ordered arrangement of symbols and symbolic actions all of which express [the human] urge to conceive in outward forms the “shades,” the inner life and meaning, the permanent element, in [human beings] and the world and [their] relations to it¾mundane thought these often are. Here, then, is art.

A. P. Elkin, R. M. Berndt, and C. H. Berndt, 1950.[63]


The Koonalda people mined flint in the Cave. Why? Why did they risk their lives on vertical climbs in darkness to obtain it?

John Eyre saw white flint lying abundantly on the ground at Kaldiyerra near Eucla. A site close by on the South and Western Australian border readily provides a black flint, like that in Koonalda, called jee ‘mari. Aborigines prized both colors and traded them widely.

Perhaps the Koonalda people could have obtained both black and white flints without entering the Cave. The problem remains: why did the Koonalda people venture into the Cave to mine flint?

Environmental factors add to the puzzle. Rudy Frank compares the red deposit from excavations in Koonalda Cave and present day soils on the surface. He finds them much the same in texture and mineral composition, and concludes that the Nullarbor climate has stayed more or less the same over tens of thousands of years. David Lowry and Jo Jennings review this and other ways for finding out about the Nullarbor climate of the past. They decide that, though the methods draw on a variety of different factors, overall they point in the same direction. Water availability and rainfall on the Nullarbor have changed over the last million years, but the changes from present conditions are always minor in either direction and for short periods. The current climate and environment of the Nullarbor remains as it was tens of thousands of years ago.

Life on the Nullarbor that long ago therefore differed little from that of the Mirning. Early records indicate that Aborigines rarely ventured beyond the edges of the coastal belt, let alone into the heart of the Plain. The only part of the Nullarbor Region that can sustain human life is the wooded coast. The Nullarbor inhabitants of 20,000 years ago lived in the coastal life-supporting environment and, if their attitudes to the Plain were like the Mirning’s, they rarely ventured inland.

Today, Koonalda lies 23 kilometers from the ocean, between the Nullarbor proper and the wooded strip. Twenty thousand years ago, Koonalda lay 190 kilometers from the ocean. It sat in the heart of the Nullarbor. Two facts explain this. First, the present ocean in the Great Australian Bight descends about 46 meters close in shore. The seabed is a submerged plain that stretches southwards at a slight slope that adds another 36 meters in depth before it drops away at the continental shelf 160 kilometers south of the present coast. A lowering of the sea level by 82 meters or more would therefore expose the 160 kilometers of this plain. Further, the earth periodically undergoes glacial periods called ice ages (the last one finished around 16,000 years ago), interspersed with warm interglacials such as the one in effect at present. An ice age locks up much of the earth’s water in ice sheets on the northern and southern extremities of the globe and on the higher mountain regions. This lowers the sea level. The low point for the sea during the last glaciation was about 90 meters below the present level. Around 20,000 years ago, therefore, the 160 kilometers of now-submerged coastal plain was dry land.

This would move the coastal belt south by the same 160 kilometers. Studies on the pollen grains in various levels of a number of sites, including Madura Cave just above the coastal Roe Plain, confirm the movement of the belt with alterations in the sea level. The sea changes over time parallel the changes in the pollen ratios of coastal to inland species. (This negates the suggestion that the coast 160 kilometers south lay in a wetter latitude and thus created a wide coastal belt with a richer environment for human inhabitants.)

The relocation of the oasis would also relocate its Aboriginal inhabitants. While Koonalda sat on the back door of the Mirning, the earlier people traveled some 160 kilometers from their habitation to it.

The sea started to rise around 16,000 years ago and reached the base of the present cliffs between 13,000 and 12,000 years ago. The rise in the sea claimed land¾at a rate of one meter per week over the millennium 14,000 to 13,000 years ago. The advance of the sea would affect the amount of coastal belt capable of sustaining human life and, therefore, tribal territoriality. It could have affected the people in a major way¾they may have died out. This may explain why the Aborigines deserted the upper chamber of Koonalda Cave about this time. Did they decease with their coastal life-support and, after a while, a new group of people, the Mirning moved in?

Perhaps Aborigines frequented Koonalda Cave because it provided the only or the most abundant source of flint during the lower sea level. Perhaps then flint wasn’t available anywhere else. Sand dunes may have prevented their access to the flint nodules in the cliffs¾thick dunes now cover some sections of the present ones. This may explain why quarrying at Koonalda continued to around 13,000 years ago, the time when the sea began to abrade the coastal cliffs and perhaps remove the sand to expose the flint. On the other hand, sand may not have covered the cliffs during the time of the Koonalda people; it doesn’t cover the present cliffs north of the Roe Plain and they contain flint. If this were true, we need another reason than access to flint for their Aborigines’ entering Koonalda.

Perhaps they frequented Koonalda Cave because they thought of the Cave and its flint as special and powerful. The Cave’s mid-Nullarbor inaccessibility plus their needing to venture into a dark, mysterious, and dangerous place to obtain the flint support this idea. So do other factors. For one, the giant snake Ganba dwells in the Nullarbor caves. Local Aborigines also believed that they must pass through the caves after death on their way to the sea and the Koorannup (after-life hunting groups). The spirits of the dead, the Kaanya, must enter the sea from the caves. Aborigines, therefore, felt the holiness of every hole in the Nullarbor, including Koonalda Cave. Its flint perhaps absorbed this spiritual presence and they imbued it with qualities absent in stone they could acquire more easily.

At the back of the upper chamber of the Cave, covering large expanses of the soft, chalky, limestone walls scrawl masses of marks, stroked into the receptive medium by human fingertips or scratched with sticks or stones. The lines comprise one of the oldest examples of Aboriginal expression in Australia. The stroking begins from high up with outstretched fingers that draw together as the hands descend. The effect, covering the buttress-like undulations of the Cave walls and extending overhead out of present reach, resembles the fan vaulting of the decorated Gothic style. Why did people create these lines in the back of the upper chamber of Koonalda Cave, far from daylight and the surface of the Nullarbor Plain? What did they intend by the lines?

This activity, like their flint mining, probably connects with their ritual and religion.

Lesley Maynard and Robert Edwards note that the shape of the upper chamber (or “art passage,” as some people refer to it) changed since the visits of the wall markers. They could easily access the soft limestone that they impressed with their fingers, from before the “directional stele” to the “squeeze.” Now, 15 meters of rocks pile up and rest against the decorated surfaces. Only the wall near the “squeeze” is available.

Edwards and Maynard think that the markings may relate to the ritual mining in the Cave. They concede, though, that the lines may only represent a response to the softness of the walls. Children respond similarly to finger paint. Because the markings appear randomly distributed and void of any preconceived visual impression, Edwards and Maynard think they probably don’t represent an art form. (A few of the finger lines form simple patterns, though perhaps unintentionally by the artists. Open fingers inscribed two curved sets of parallel lines in two movements of the hand and created a design that looks like a concentric circle, a frequent symbol in Aboriginal art.) Edwards and Maynard suggest that Koonalda stands for a transitional phase in artistic development from “non-art” to art.

Jenny Webb writes of the finger markings as ritual touching or stroking of the walls. She feels that the Cave held great spiritual presence and power, and that only important tribal members possessed a power of their own sufficient to withstand and benefit from that of the Cave. Its power transferred to these people when they stroked the walls. It then passed to lesser tribal members outside the Cave. The physical contact with the walls held more importance to the wall markers than the markings that resulted.

The anthropologist A. P. Elkin would agree with an element of Webb’s interpretation. Aborigines impressed on him the meaningfulness of every mark they create. The wall markings don’t result from prehistoric impulse. The drawing of fingers over walls or the rubbing of flint along grooves represent ends in themselves and obtain their meaning from rituals. Elkin’s experience suggests that all Aboriginal rubbings, drawings, and re-tracings present ritual acts.

Rituals, therefore, formed the context in which people created the Koonalda lines. They made the lines deliberately.

Ancient finger scrawls occur not only in Koonalda or Australia, but also in Europe. Altamira Cave in Spain contains such marks made in wet clay. Siegfried Giedion describes the markings as short and linear signs, close together, covering the ceiling, and rendered by quick, unhesitating strokes of the hand. Today’s visitors can discern the pressure of the fingertips at the start of the lines and the fingernail marks at the end of each stroke. Henri Breuil, a father of the study of prehistoric art, coined the name “macaroni” for these finger scrawls¾an obvious nomenclature given their appearance. Other people call them “serpentine meanders” for a similar reason.

A slight shift in direction carries discussion from marks by bare hands to impressions of the whole hand. The hand motif commonly occurs in Australian rock art. Aborigines apply pigment or blood directly to the hand and press it onto the rock face. They chew pigment and splatter it or blow it around a hand held against the rock. They draw hand outlines and then fill them in with a brush. The effect, from a European’s point of view, signifies a hand raised in greeting.

Interpretations of hand stencils include: representations of betrothal contracts, calling cards, pastimes, games, and parts of stories. W. W. Thorpe suggests that, as the hand is peculiar to the human being and relates to work and worship, it should symbolize humanity. R. Verbrugge stresses the importance of gleaning as much information as possible from examining the hand stencils and how the artists created them. For example, we may discern, he says, if a left hand stencil was made from the right hand of the artist with palm facing outwards. Close examination of the stencils may uncover some of their meaning, but not all of it. Perhaps the artist provides the only way to obtain the true meaning of a hand stencil. Elkin writes that he couldn’t find out the Aboriginal meaning of the stenciled hands found in some of the Wondjina galleries. Another anthropologist relates that Aborigines shook their heads in a mysterious manner and refused to explain, or expressed their ignorance as to the presence of the hands. Few anthropologists asked the artists. The origin and meaning of many hand representations may date from well before the arrival of Europeans to Australia anyway and, therefore, are now lost. The existence of a heavy, glazed surface film over many of them supports their antiquity. Aborigines often say that the hand marks were created in the Dreamtime.

Hand impressions occur in eight caves in the Nullarbor Region, including the Murrawijinnie Caves or The Caves of the Bloody Hands, near the Nullarbor Station. The artists may have dipped their hands in kangaroo blood and impressed them on limestone first smeared with red ochre. If so, a chemical reaction between the blood and the ochre would create the white prints now visible. J. Maitland Thomson asked Jimmy Scott, an Aborigine of the Nullarbor Station, how artists created the handprints. No one had made them, Scott replied, within the memory of living Aborigines.

Handprints and stencils appear in European caves especially in the Aurignacian period, a culture whose name derives from the cave in Aurignac, southern France, where in 1860 archaeologists first discovered its remnants. The prints represent one of the first uses of color in art, the beginning of painting. The handprints sometimes mass together and overlap and, according to Giedion, artists created a panel in several sessions. The techniques appear similar to those of the Australian Aborigines.

Lines and handprints belong to the early period of art in Europe. These forms also constitute the only Aboriginal art seen on the Nullarbor.

The early Koonalda visitors created finger lines on the walls of the upper chamber. In addition, near the entrance to the “squeeze,” they expressed themselves in lines they incised on the walls with a stick or a piece of flint. Incised lines stand out separately on bare areas of wall and contrast with the masses of finger scrawls. The incisions suggest orderliness, perhaps even symbols. Nine horizontal lines crossed by five shorter vertical lines form a grid of near-parallel lines. An ellipse or fish shape stands out among the grid’s lines and the grid resembles the tectiforms or latticed signs of Paleolithic art in Europe. Contemporary Aboriginal bark painting also employs lattice extensively as decorative fill. Perhaps the most striking symbol near the “squeeze” is a set of large and curved parallel lines in a rainbow shape. It arches beneath an overhang and runs to nearly a meter in length.

The human marks on boulders that Christine Kortlang and I discovered on our first visit to Koonalda could form a third class of line markings in the Cave. The marks range from two simple lines that run parallel down a rock face, to meshes of lines as tangled as the wrinkles on an old face. Two features stand out: first, the careful, intentional quality of the marks, and, second, the vast number of them.

Kortlang intended to draw some of the boulder engravings in detail and, in the process, to find something out about their structure. Alexander Marshack describes European engravings that form “streams”¾groups of almost parallel lines with the same cross-sections. The streams sometimes overlap and, when they do, Marshack can differentiate between them because each set exhibits its own cross-section. He wanted to know if this also happens in Australia. Kortlang first selected a couple of clear-looking collections of engravings on boulders near the nicknamed “elephant head” rock. She illuminated the area with a gas lamp and looked at the intersections of the lines with a magnifying glass, trying to work out the order in which the line maker(s) laid down the lines. She then recorded the information on paper with a sequence of coloured pencils to represent the overlays. Some of the intersections lacked clarity and not all lines crossed over each other, making it difficult for her to unscramble them.

Lines incised with different implements¾presumably flakes or slivers of the glass-like flint so bountiful in certain sections of the Cave¾show different cross-sections. Lines with different cross-sections would indicate that the engraver(s) intended something different by them, or that different engravers created the lines, or that engraving happened at different times. Kortlang, therefore, looked at the cross-sections of the lines. She held a candle in front of the magnifying glass and, moving the candle from side to side over an engraving, looked inside it to see its shape: a U, a V, a deep U, or a flat U. This she recorded on the drawing as well as in her notes.

Each line in a stream showed the same cross-section and the cross-sections change between streams. Marshack’s European examples demonstrate the same structure. It implies to him that engraving occurred in participatory ritual where different people with different instruments marked the rock surface with specific intentions in mind. Kortlang also found that, in general, fine engravings override coarser ones and that the streams comprise four lines or, if not four, three. The direction of a line often imitates a natural form like a crack in the rock.

Kortlang found it painstaking and slow to decipher the cross-sections and overlays accurately, to write down the information, and to draw it. She could only study a few streams. I faced similar difficulties with my photography. I had to set up a tripod on boulders and maneuver it and myself into a suitable position in front of the markings. Lighting caused the most headaches. I had to position floodlights so they threw a certain amount of shade into the lines: too much light or not enough of an angle and the lines disappeared from view.

Ian Lewis and Kevin Mott knew how to fill a cavern as large as Koonalda with light: a Diprotodon (a large magnesium flare named after the largest-ever marsupial) lit the whole chamber for a few seconds with dazzling white light, providing a chance to film its entirety.

A couple of non-photographic questions intrigued me. Three kinds of boulders sit in the upper chamber: those with rough surfaces, those with smooth and rounded surfaces, and those with smooth and undulating surfaces. Why do the boulders show different degrees of smoothness? Further, no line markings exist on the rough and jagged rocks, and virtually none on the smooth and undulating ones. Almost all the boulder lines occur on the smooth and rounded stones, despite engravable surfaces on the smooth and undulating ones. Why?

I thought about this and I investigated. Perhaps the floor of the upper chamber comprises rockfalls of quite different ages. If so, engraved smooth and rounded boulders may sit underneath the present rough and jagged boulders¾perhaps also under the smooth and undulating ones. Neil Chadwick and I crawled through gaps under these two rockfalls to find out. Maynard and Edwards had previously crawled under 15 meters of rockfall to find wall markings executed before the collapse of the roof to form the rough and jagged boulders. Under both this recent rockfall and the smooth and undulating rocks, Chadwick and I found engraved boulders. This contradicted the idea that water flowing over the rocks smoothed and rounded them; others had told me this and it appeared gospel. My reasoning went like this. Engravings exist on the smooth and rounded boulders underneath the smooth and undulating ones. Chadwick and I found it difficult to climb under the present surface (among other things, we removed rocks to gain access), which meant that the engravers (human or animal) probably didn’t climb under the floor to engrave. Rather, a rock collapse buried the engravings. The surface collapse then weathered to become smooth and undulating¾but the weathering process, if by water flow, would erase the line markings. The existence of the markings, therefore, means that water didn’t smooth the smooth and undulating boulders. Other problems faced water flow as the smoothing and rounding mechanism: for instance, water would have to flow up hill (from the squeeze to the “ramparts”) under pressure and then through a now collapsed channel in the dome above the Gallus Site. I can’t see where it could run from there.

Water flow didn’t smooth and round the boulders. Another mechanism must do this. It must work continuously and must smooth and round originally rough and jagged boulders via a smooth and undulating stage.

Only one mechanism that I know of, salt weathering, fits the requirements. Water dissolves certain salts to form a solution that moves through the porous limestone and evaporates within a few millimeters of the surface. The salts in the solution precipitate as crystals when the water disappears and the growth of the crystals applies pressure on the rock surface, forcing off grains from it. Specialists already believe that this mechanism causes small-scale breakdown in Nullarbor caves. A ten-meter pile of dust in Mullamullang Cave, called the Dune, evidences to it there. Volumes of limestone dust (also known as “rock meal” and “rock flour”) in Koonalda suggest this process also occurs here. Of course, investigators must still find out for sure if the conditions necessary for salt weathering occur with the boulders in the upper chamber of Koonalda Cave. They appear to.

Salt weathering changes a rough and jagged surface into smooth and undulating, and later smooth and rounded. This suggests that the rough and jagged rocks fell the most recently, the (nonengraved) smooth and undulating rocks fell at an intermediate time, and that the (engraved) smooth and rounded rocks fell the longest time ago.

I spent some time posing and answering the questions about rockfalls and a smoothing-rounding process. Even to perceive the questions required that I spend an extended period in the upper chamber. The same applies to seeing that prehistoric people performed rituals in the Cave. A fleeting visitor notices little.

The Gallus Site shows that people mined for flint and, at the same place, set up sculptures. The upper chamber shows that people engraved lines and, at the same place, cleared floors of rubble. They cleared them for specific purposes. Smooth boulders, whose inner surfaces usually show engravings, define the edges of the ritual floors or activity areas. Stones pile up against some human line engravings. Pieces of wood, charcoal, and bone also occur within the activity areas. Koonalda Cave is important not only for its art and excavational finds, but also because it was a center for ritual.

Large torch stubs still sit atop the boulders from where they illuminated the scene, and small pieces of wood litter extensive portions of the upper chamber, probably the remains of torches of twigs lashed together and soaked in fat. Attempts to analyze the wood from the remnants proved fruitless because fungus has seriously damaged them. The wood for the larger torches probably derived from the mallee tree, both roots and branches, whose burning and lighting properties early European explorers knew well.

I found the skull of a kangaroo, without its mandible, among the bones on one activity area. It sat on a rock not far off the floor.

Chadwick later discovered a small flake of flint on the same activity area, perhaps an engraving tool. No flint nodules naturally occur in this section of the Cave.

Another activity area centers on a “cache” inside of which sit several vertebrae and plaques marked with lines. Perhaps the Koonalda people engraved the plaques and placed them in the cache, covered them with layers of pebbles and dust, deposited enfleshed vertebrae on top, and finally covered the cache with a flat stone. The floor around the cache is flat and centers on a large, engraved, smooth, and rounded boulder. Perhaps the Koonalda people constructed the floor this way.

Perhaps important members of the tribe climbed into the Cave, lit their mallee root torches as the entrance light faded, and descended the slope. They walked past the mining trenches and stele and up to the upper chamber. With them, they brought animal parts to place ritually in a particular spot. They sat in a close group inside a stone circle, and chanted, recited myth stories, and added their special marks to those already on the boulders and walls. The Cave and those who had entered before them strengthened them through the ritual.

Koonalda witnessed a modern day ritual. My birthday fell at the end of our visit and a cake hid in the provisions for the occasion. Mott’s and Lewis’s birthdays also fell at this time. We invited Cyril Gurney to the party. Six people sat around a birthday cake and a fireplace of stones, 30 meters down a hole in the Nullarbor Plain. Bats swished past our ears and stars thickened the canopy as we sang “Happy Birthday to You.”                   

Modern visitors also construct meanings from Nullarbor rocks. Formations of limestone still fire imaginations. A. G. Bolam relates that limestone nodules exit all over the Nullarbor, some assuming curious shapes that resemble animals and other things. A railway construction gang found two such nodules attached to each other, the smaller on the larger. To them it resembled a head¾face and all¾on a torso, and they named it Billy Hughes.

The Nullarbor offers a small number of Aboriginal standing stones and stone arrangements, some associated with caves. Aborigines believed that spirits live inside them. They thought that those shaped like people once were people. Some once were other living beings.

Standing stones and line markings exist in places in Australia other than Koonalda Cave. The Orchestra Shell Cave near the town of Wanneroo, Western Australia, contains finger lines like Koonalda’s. Sylvia Hallam distinguishes four types on the roof of this cave: a stemmed splay of lines, wide-spaced parallel grooves of nine lines, short and very deep individual cuts, and, what predominates, curving criss-crossing sets of usually five narrow-spaced parallel lines. Robert Bednarik describes several major sites on the boundary of South Australia and Victoria. A cave in Buchan, eastern Victoria, exhibits the markings too. Similar lines also appear in two caves near Katherine in the Northern Territory, Kintore and Cutta Cutta¾though animals may have created the marks by scratching. The incised lines in both caves occur in soft rock or in now-hardened mud.

Traced or incised lines exist in Australian caves other than those of the Nullarbor. Do they exist in Nullarbor caves other than Koonalda? A photograph of the handprints in the Murrawijinnie Caves show lines cut through the ochre; they appear similar to the Koonalda engravings. Wood and charcoal some distance into Mullamullang Cave could mean that prehistoric people entered it and left line engravings or finger markings.

We set aside a day for visiting Warbla Cave to see if it contained Koonalda-type markings. Warbla is near Coompana not far from Koonalda and enters, like Koonalda, from a large sinkhole 40 meters in diameter that opens up suddenly into the Plain. The Cave’s main passage extends for 240 meters, with a sloping mass of loose rocks as a floor, and a small lake at the end, 90 meters below the surface. The mounds of rockfall down the center of the near-horizontal chamber sometimes reach to its edges.

Aborigines told the Government geologist Keith Ward of Warbla Cave and he visited it in 1908, the first White to do so. Thomson arrived next in 1935. He located it differently: a light plane circled overhead while a car approached it on the ground.

The name Warbla probably derives from the Aboriginal word wardong, or crow, though another source suggests it derives from the warbling of birds. Thousands of crows fly cawing over the sinkhole and weave intricate and constantly changing black patterns against the blue of the sky. The Warbla crows follow a special flight path. They ascend in a spiral climb, often in three circuits before reaching the top, and descend to the narrow opening of the cave in a series of stall turns.

While the rest of us planned our descent into the Warbla doline, Kortlang noticed many flakes of flint lying about. A previous report noted signs of flint workings near the Cave entrance. Kortlang found so many flakes that obviously someone had chipped or flaked tools there. She sat down and began to gather the pieces together. She felt a searing pain. A large bull-ant had bitten her. It reared up waving its front legs and snapping with its mouth. Barrett writes that the Nullarbor bull-ants are the Queensland “bull-dogs,” the world’s largest ants. They measure over 32 millimeters in length and possess a large and powerful sting that they can use often in quick succession. A cut piece of bracken root rubbed on the sting quickly relieves the pain.

Lewis abseiled down into the sinkhole. He tied his rope to the Landcruiser, lowered himself over the lip of the doline, and eased himself down 45 meters or so to the bottom. He looked like a spider on a thread from across the top of the sinkhole.

The rest of us took our turn when he had descended, but over a shorter drop and on a caver’s ladder thrown over the edge. I went first. The ladder¾15 centimeters wide with wire sides and pencil-thin slats of aluminum¾immediately bent me in half by bringing my feet and head to the same level. It also twisted back on itself so that I faced the opposite direction from what I intended. I then began to rotate slowly round and round, gradually picking up momentum. The floor waited for me 24 meters below.

My feet came to rest on a slope of white crumbling limestone containing many fossil shells. I then walked down to the bottom of the sinkhole over thick buffalo grass. This looked like a smooth, green field from above but grew as a thick mat over piles of boulders. Each of my steps pierced the grass and jarred on the unseen boulders. A rabbit shot past.

The mouth of Warbla Cave is larger than Koonalda’s. As I entered, the hot sun cut out abruptly and cool shadow, icy breezes, and the familiar limey smells replaced it. Piles of guano evidenced the presence of bats. The walls of the main chamber near the entrance show fine lines, probably animal scratches. I saw no other markings.

We left Warbla Cave and drove toward the Eyre Highway to return to Koonalda. We disturbed a group of grazing kangaroos, which bounded off into the sunset. Only a few remain from the great numbers that lived on the Plain when Whites first settled here.

The fine lines on the walls of Warbla Cave look similar to several examples of fine line markings in Koonalda. We still don’t know how systematically to distinguish animal marks from humanly made lines. If animals created the Warbla marks, what made the Koonalda lines? Cylcons (the acronym for “cylindro-conical stones”), odd shaped Aboriginal artifacts many of which turned up in the basin of the Darling River, also bear marks similar to the Koonalda engravings yet we assume that humans created them. Owen Broughton describes the cylcon lines as most frequently at right angles to the axis of the stone, some going right round the stone. Sometimes the marks run longitudinally, and sometimes the marks aren’t lines but emu tracks or broad arrow motifs. We know little about the use or significance of the cylcons. Hypotheses range widely: seed grinders, grave markers, calendar stones, sacred stones representing yams, symbols of the death-bone pointer, and instruments for the defloration of virgins.

Cylcons resemble message sticks. Daisy Bates relates that Aborigines write letters to each other on many shapes and sizes of wood: flat and round, long and short, straight and curved, and from 25 to 450 millimeters long. The makings on the message sticks she encountered also vary, from those with a few Koonalda-like strokes or notches, each, she says, representing an individual, to those covered with conventional designs. Some display what she terms cryptic symbols with a meaning known only to the sender and the recipient, while others display marks of a totem sent as friendly greetings between those of the same group.

If the markings on message sticks held meanings, did the Koonalda lines too? I already suggested that they may represent an aesthetic response to the limestone or that people created them in ritual for the sake of creating them. Many other interpretations appear in the literature: the lines are byproducts of tool sharpening, of gauging out calcium carbonate for medicinal use, or of indicating places to mine flint.

We could compare the Koonalda markings with contemporary abstract painting or sculpture. A successful work of art transmits feelings and ideas to the viewer without the help of a representational framework or written words. So too might we respond directly to the Koonalda lines.

Understandings of the activities of prehistoric people often rely on ethnography, the study of living peoples. Archaeologists often compare a living area of prehistoric hunter-gatherers with the area of people who live in a similar way and environment today. Ethnography can also help the study of prehistoric art. We can’t say for sure that what a symbol means for a contemporary society is what it meant for another society in the past. We can learn something, however, about the working of art and symbol in indigenous societies so that we don’t approach prehistoric art from an overly modern or European standpoint.

Several generalizations about art in indigenous societies and about the art of the Australian Aborigine can help.

The audience of an indigenous artist must more easily “read” the art than we “read” the work of many modern artists. Indigenous artists aren’t solitary persons caught up in their own ideas. Rather, the artist remains in close touch with and shares the values of the community so the public can readily understand the art and it convey its message. A close reciprocal bond exists between artist and community.

Aborigines live on two interrelated planes: one attached to the events of daily existence and centered on family, marriage, and gathering food, and the second the life of ritual, symbolism, and faith. Both of these planes are practical as well as symbolic. Everything that exists¾hills, humanity, rocks, and animals¾possesses both spirit and outside form. Art and ritual represent this whole thing symbolically. They affirm in outward, objective, solid, and living forms the co-existence of the spirit life with and as part of the life of everyday.

Even designs that to the outsider seem purely decorative possess cultural significance. Creating the design ranks in importance with the work itself, and a design only reaches completion if its creators sing meaning into it when they fashion it. This meaning isn’t superficial and readily translated or read, but draws the viewer through various related meaning systems back to the Dreamtime. Aborigines also read natural objects, stone outcrops, hills, and waterholes in this way. The objects may form part of a Dreamtime hero or ancestor, or mark where such a person traveled. The Aborigine can re-enact happenings from the time of creation by walking these paths.

An actor dressed to re-enact a legend becomes that ancestor through body painting, and ceases to be the character when the design goes. Ground painting and earth figures possess the same transience. Their creation and destruction form part of and often depict the ritual that the people chant.

Permanent ritual objects¾engraved stones or boards hidden along sacred trails, or rock engravings or paintings¾also reveal the dreaming. Selected individuals may only visit them on specified occasions.

Nancy Munn studied the symbolism of the Aboriginal Walbiri people. She suggests that a design such as the circle can summarize visually the organization and principles of Walbiri mythology and life. A symbol, whether the Walbiri express it verbally, graphically, or in movement during a dance, sets off within a Walbiri person a chain reaction of associations with aspects of society’s structure. This recalling produces new meanings for the associated ideas.

None of these observations about Aboriginal art may apply to the Koonalda people. They present places to start in an attempt to further understand the markings found in Koonalda Cave.

Archaeologists who write on European prehistoric art usually concentrate on the appealing animal paintings. People such as Breuil and André Leroi-Gourhan try to explain the groupings of engraved lines and trailing finger marks by treating them as pictorial representations. The masses of engraved lines become huts, arrows, sorcerers; the finger scrawls become snakes or phallic forms.

Marshack carefully examined the marks on pieces of bone and stone and the nonrepresentational wall engravings. He found that different tools often created the lines on the same piece or formation. Would a mass of lines made with different tools represent a single entity like a hut? Marshack thinks not. He also believes that different people built up some of the line series over time. Each line represents a character or component in a story and all the lines seen together may remind the viewer of that particular story. This form of notation is less specific than writing and leaves the mind free¾after initial stimulation in the direction that the signs indicate¾to build, imagine, and form images. We shouldn’t look for shapes in groups of lines because each line is important, Marshack suggests.

These early marks reveal something of the thought processes of prehistoric people.

We may speculate about the meaning of lines, look at ethnographic parallels, and comment on what they evoke in the contemporary viewer. We ought, though, to base this on as much information as possible from the structure and formation of the lines. Marshack offered me this advice for Koonalda. Bednarik and Francesco d’Errico in France have since then reiterated it.

Looking at the Koonalda lines closely started with the studies Kortlang carried out in the Cave. Trying to recreate the line markings might help us learn more about their creation and the limitations involved. A structural analysis of the markings might teach us more about the sequence in which their creators laid them down. Perhaps there exists a consistency among the sequences.

Koonalda Cave offers a unique opportunity to explore the relationship between the different human activities carried out in it. It has remained relatively undisturbed for so long. Whatever avenues of investigation we follow, we must ensure the preservation of the markings. They are an unequalled part of our human heritage.[64]


AR02\C09.doc                                          2442 words                                     13 June 2003


Chapter Nine




I remember. . .the Gurneys of Eucla and Koonalda, fighting with gay courage and unquenchable energy to wrest a living from the parched soil, and welcoming with matchless courtesy all who pass along the east-west road.

K. Peake-Jones, 1952.[65]


The Gurneys invited us to tea, Nullarbor outback style, one evening toward the end of our stay.

I spruced myself up with a plunge into the tank of Cave water that the windmill pumped up. I hoped the sheep parasite in the water wouldn’t infest me. The six of us piled into the Landcruiser and the station wagon and took off to the homestead and real food.

The Gurneys’ Koonalda home sits in the midst of the Nullarbor, no other buildings for hundreds of kilometers. Roy Gurney bought the ruins of the Eucla settlement for the stone and timber he could salvage from it before the sand swallowed everything, and used some of the materials to enlarge his Koonalda house. It cost him less than transporting the materials across country.

Low slung, hidden in verandas, the house bespeaks the bits and pieces of its origin. A little fence surrounds it and flowers bloom in its garden. Two cages of cockatoos beside it all say, “Hello.” Six emus, four wallabies, two dozen goats, and two horses occupy the yard. Fifteen Shetland ponies, dozens of dead cars, buses, trucks, tires, and sheds occupy the space in front. The creaking and grinding of a half-dozen windmills reverberates and the generator hums. Hides hang out to dry.

The yard also houses many gadgets knocked up from scraps. Ion Idriess describes one as a cross between a centipede and a grasshopper. Gurney compiled his own tractor here from an early vintage Graham-Paige car, an earth scoop, and a pair of wheels from a harvester, along with miscellaneous items. In a shed, Idriess discovered a maze of bags, harnesses, timber, jars, saddle and bridles, old papers and books, half-filled cases, lids, queer-looking machines, carvings, ropes, branding irons, a large and ancient Bible picked up somewhere on the Nullarbor, and a 6.75 kilogram lump of the whale-product ambergris.

An overlander on the Eyre Highway every so often drives up the double-sided drive to buy gas at Gurneys’ hand pumps. It costs half as much again as in Adelaide. The paved highway runs a few kilometers south of the Gurneys’ home whereas the dirt road ran a hundred meters away. I wondered how their business could survive.

Two dozen farmers graze sheep on the saltbush of the Nullarbor. They face dingoes and excessive distances. They face a lack of surface water, good saltbush, and other sheep grasses. They face plagues of rats, mice, and rabbits that suddenly appear in droves and then vanish. They build up a hardy flock in the good years, which withers and dies when the rains fail and the plagues arrive.

Gurney decided in 1940 to graze the Koonalda run when he heard about and confirmed the existence of water in the Cave. He sent samples of the water to Adelaide to test its suitability for stock. A positive reply returned. He and his brother Cyril leased 62,160 hectares (240 square miles) around the Cave so they could pump water from it, but only in 1945 could they install their first pump in it. The year 1950 saw their first fruits: they clipped 40 bales of merino wool, excluding crutchings and lambs wool.

Koonalda Cave offers the only permanent water supply in the whole of this now 295,260-hectare (1,140 square mile) sheep station. Paddocks on Mundrabilla Station ranged from 4,000 to over 12,000 hectares in 1936. Koonalda supported 1200 sheep in the good year of 1957, one sheep per square mile. (Arthur Mason, the explorer who lost his camels and trekked back to Eucla with his delirious companion, wrongly reckoned that the Plains would carry at least 150 sheep to the square mile.) Sheep reared on such terrain are known as saltbush mutton and offer a unique flavor.

We entered the Koonalda farmhouse by a welcoming cockatoo, filed down a dark hallway, and entered the large kitchen. Cyril Gurneys’ daughter stood there, scooping fresh milk out of a basin into smaller containers. A wooden table dominated the room. A cast-iron cauldron sat on a wood stove.

We continued from the kitchen and sat down in the dining room. Its ceiling drooped, suggesting that it might fall at any moment. The old furniture belied the warmth of the house and its people, one large extended family. Sandor Gallus indicated that only the photographs had changed. They seemed to cover every family event.

Mrs. Gurney entered, her face welcoming. She was short and plump, wore a fashionable dress, and looked young for her forties.

We sat down and waited. The Gurneys run on a different time to South Australian or Western Australian time: they observe Gurney time, and by that we had arrived an hour early. The sun had a way to go. Mrs. Gurney told us that Cyril didn’t come in until nine o’clock from “the pastures.”

She spoke of her father who knew Daisy Bates, and about the degeneration of the Aborigines around the train line when it first appeared, how they scavenged for scraps. She insisted that they were all civilized and not wild. The Gurneys also contended that Aborigines didn’t create the marks in the Cave because they couldn’t get down there. Anyway, the Gurneys added, the Aborigines knew nothing about the lines.

What did she think of the overlanders traveling through? Mrs. Gurney just laughed. “Well, Mrs. Gurney,” one joked, pointing to the sinkhole, “how long did it take you to dig that?” “Gee,” she replied, “if Cyril started to dig years ago when he came, and he’s still digging now, he wouldn’t have dug an eighth as deep as it is now.” “Is the Cave underneath your shed?” another asked.

The hour of our wait passed quickly.

Gurney arrived: “Ullo, ullo, ‘ow are ya, ‘ow are ya?” He took his hat off and offered us a beer. We eagerly accepted. He stood tall but stooped, a gaunt man with large gnarled hands and a big bushy beard. He wore a flat-brimmed hat, a sports coat done up, stove-pipe trousers, and crossover boots, folded and buttoned, with pointy toes. His face shone ruddy and his nose sat round and snubbed. His blue eyes pierced.

He looked similar to his brother, Roy, whom Basil Fuller describes as a model for the typical Australian: strongly built with powerful hands, the slouch of a pioneer, sun baked skin, and an easy manner. Idriess describes Roy 20 years earlier as grinning a welcome. He had keen eyes, a quick body, short and wiry, and had started to gray. Roy managed the White Wells Station in the 1930s and retired to Eucla. Idriess recognized in him what he calls “an old bush figure built for endurance,” with a set expression that hints at initiative and determination.[66]

Gurney’s arrival signaled the serving of tea. In came Mrs. Gurney on the first of many trips, with plate upon plate of cakes, large hot pies, and little hot pasties with ketchup, all of which stayed on the table untouched for half-an-hour. She brought in a teapot somewhat like a saucepan with a spout on it. Goats’ milk accompanied the tea. An earlier visitor drank the milk avidly until one of the children said, “Pass the goats’ milk.”

Now we could eat.

Mrs. Gurney spoke of the gatherings she had held at her place, entertaining 50 or 60 people at a time, like the Christmas before last with all the children, all the spouses, and all the grandchildren. Gallus remembered playing with the children when he first visited Koonalda. An old bent-tailed Siamese cat came in and sat next to him, purring.

We started to eat about ten o’clock on the Gurney clock. About eleven we could eat no more.

Gurney and his wife entertained Arnold Wright and members of one of J. Maitland Thomson’s expeditions. The Gurneys invited them on their first evening at the Cave to a birthday party for one of the Gurneys’ five children. Don McKinnon played his bagpipes and Gurney couldn’t keep it to himself. He tuned in his radio to the Flying Doctor Network and spread the entertainment across the Nullarbor. Somebody responded with a mouth-organ solo and off swung the “Nullarbor Amateur Hour.”[67]

“Hospitality personified”¾Crosbie Morrison’s name for the Gurneys¾hides the life of hewing a home from the Plain. “The spirit of the Nullarbor,” Morrison better calls them, a spirit that nothing can daunt.[68] They need both hospitability and dauntlessness to succeed. The larger Gurney clan, “the Gurneys of the border,” is a celebrated Nullarbor family.[69]

We soon had to pack up camp, bid farewell to the Gurneys, and set off back to Adelaide and Melbourne. The last morning we spent clearing the Cave of our belongings and entering last minute records.

A roll of exposed film rolled down between rocks near the “ramparts” of the upper chamber and disappeared out of reach. We removed a few stones and Neil Chadwick climbed in and behind the large floor boulders to retrieve it. He also discovered a large face of line markings under the present floor.

I left last. By that time, the gas for the lamps had expired, the candles had burned away, and one box of matches remained. I knew the route by heart and only needed a match or two at the worst places.

Christine Kortlang fell off the ladder out of the sinkhole on her last ascent. A large brown snake, probably a king brown, slept in the rocks just behind the ladder and frightened her. The king brown is widely distributed, frequently inhabits the caves on the Nullarbor, attains an adult length of two-and-a-half meters, and strikes aggressively. People die from its bite. Kortlang was unhurt.

Roy Gurney met a snake and nearly fell off his wire ladder while carrying a section of pipe over his shoulder, bound for the Cave. He hung about six meters down and on a rock ledge:

This morning it was a bit awkward, like. I could only use one hand, I had to hang on to the piping with the other; that long pipe was jolly awkward to balance. When I reached the ledge I took a grip of the wire with my teeth, then reached my free hand up over the ledge and gripped the wire. I was all right then, so climbed up over the ledge and my face butted straight into the peering face of a snake. It hissed violently and I swayed violently out and the piping went plunging away down below. As the wire jerked me back to the ledge, the terrified snake plunged straight out past me into the open air and I came within an ace of following him.[70]

We said good-bye. Koonalda rested back in the hands of the Gurneys, who probably little understand the importance of the place that waters their stock.

I drove along the unopened stretch of paved road from Koonalda to Nullarbor where I had to revert to the dirt road with its dust. I missed the pre-arranged point for the night’s sleep, Ivy Shed Tanks. Fuller once spent a night there. His thoughts ranged over topics that prevented his sleeping: war and the Bomb. Due north about 80 kilometers lies Watson, the railway siding that links with Maralinga, the Long Range Weapons Establishment of the Australian Government. “Maralinga” derives from an Aboriginal word that means thunder.

Instead of Ivy Shed Tanks, I stopped at the first gas station I found. I slept, as I had over the last three weeks, in the open on the Nullarbor, exposed to the moon and the stars. My thoughts didn’t turn to destruction. A full moon rising over the hot Nullarbor atmosphere can assume square shapes. A halo of colors¾yellow, blue, and green¾suspends in the atmosphere when the sun sets. Myriads of stars emerge. I felt in another world with no other human being around. Bates looked up into a plethora of worlds and felt the earth the tiniest atom in comparison. “On such nights,” she continues, “it is good to wander over these great distances in company with the Aborigines and listen and hear their wonderful legends of this and that star. . .and wander with them along the ‘Yaggin’ (moon) that was made when the moon was human.”[71]

We offered a surplus crate of fresh fruit to an Aboriginal family squatting across the road from the gas station in the morning. They probably lived at an Aboriginal Mission in Yalata near Fowlers Bay. It originally opened at Ooldea early in the twentieth century and moved to its current site in 1952. About 350 people now live and work there, most of them from the more northern Pitjanjara tribe.

Some tribes on the northern desert fringes of the Nullarbor still live in those fringes. One of the last parties of these people to “come out of the bush” attempted to walk south across the Plain to Neale Junction in 1963. They tried to extract water from the roots of the myall, as in their homeland with eucalyptus trees, but with little success. Three of the six died of thirst.

The predecessors of these outcasts and fringe dwellers created the markings we journeyed to the Nullarbor to look at. The civilization of the original Koonalda people and the squatting Aborigines lived successfully in what we find very harsh; Aboriginal civilization had learned the spiritual values necessary for peaceful co-existence with its life-giver. The original Australians met their needs and savored their life. We could learn such civilized behavior. Europeans once did learn from them¾if Gallus is correct¾because Aboriginal experience helped develop the stone tools, art, and self-expression of European culture.

The arrival of later Europeans quickly destroyed this ancient civilization. The Mirning quickly slid from the sole inhabitants of the Plain, to beggars at the edge of society, to ceasing to exist. Bates’ reflection on the Nullarbor also applies to its now-gone people:

Here there is nothing young that was not long since old. Here there is no germination potency of nature. . . .The solemn all-embracing silence. . .is so impressive that one feels as if the moment of breaking will usher in some catastrophe. Even the echoes seem to be dead.[72]

The Landcruiser completed its trek back to Adelaide and the station wagon limped into Melbourne minutes before its engine ceased up. We returned to our lives. Koonalda, with many mysteries still unlocked, continues.[73]





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[1] 93.

[2] 93.

[3] 94.

[4] Sources used in this chapter include: 1, 4, 18-20, 26, 49, 54, 56, 64, 66, 73, 75, 83, 93-95, 109, 126, 129, 142, 144, 145, 148, 175, 201, 206, 207, 212, 213, 239, 242, 248, 249, 251, 253, 263, 272, 277, 282, 284, 286.

[5] 29.

[6] 145.

[7] 253.

[8] Sources used in this chapter: 1, 3, 4, 8, 9, 17, 19-23, 29, 30, 33, 34, 36, 38, 45, 46, 52, 63, 93, 85, 96-106, 112, 120, 123, 124, 126-140, 143, 145, 148, 150, 157-176, 191-198, 201, 208, 213, 225, 226, 233-235, 237, 238, 241, 248, 251-253, 261, 268, 273, 274, 285-288, 292, 294.

[9] 55.

[10] 29.

[11] 231.

[12] 94.

[13] 81.

[14] 243.

[15] 201.

[16] 86.

[17] 265.

[18] 40.

[19] 40.

[20] 55.

[21] 122.

[22] 55.

[23] 231.

[24] 271.

[25] 126.

[26] 218.

[27] Sources used in this chapter include: 2, 25, 29, 31, 33, 35, 36, 40, 45, 49, 55, 80, 81, 86, 93, 94, 122, 125, 126, 143, 151, 199, 201, 209, 218, 222, 231, 243, 255, 257, 265, 271, 278, 279, 293.

[28] 265.

[29] 271.

[30] 19.

[31] 231.

[32] 21.

[33] 118.

[34] Sources used in this chapter include: 4, 6, 11, 12, 19-21, 40, 41, 44, 45, 72, 93-95, 105, 113, 114, 118, 121, 126, 143, 175, 182, 183, 185, 213, 200, 214, 218, 222, 228, 229, 231, 238, 247, 249, 265, 271, 272, 281, 283, 289, 291.

[35] 71.

[36] 20.


[38] 280.

[39] 86.

[40] 265.

[41] 256.

[42] 289.

[43] 86.

[44] 29.

[45] 74.

[46] 122.

[47] 29.

[48] 122.

[49] Sources used in this chapter include: 1, 3, 4, 15, 17, 20, 21, 27-29, 32-36, 40, 47-50, 53, 57, 58, 62, 66, 67, 70-72, 74-76, 85, 86, 90, 93-95, 109, 122, 123, 125, 126, 142-146, 148, 150, 156, 170, 186-190, 201-203, 208, 213, 214, 219, 220, 226, 231, 238, 245, 248, 249, 251, 253, 256, 259, 265, 266, 268, 271, 272, 280-283, 286, 287, 289.


[50] 290.

[51] 295.

[52] 251.

[53] 148.

[54] 213.

[55] 126.

[56] 86.

[57] 67.

[58] 244.

[59] Sources used in this chapter include: 1, 3, 5, 7, 13, 18, 20, 29, 43, 49, 52, 71, 74, 84-86, 91-93, 95, 105, 107, 126-141, 143, 145, 147, 148, 150, 153-155, 157-176, 199, 208, 213, 231, 232, 237, 238, 241, 242, 244, 249, 251-253, 259, 268, 272, 275, 276, 286, 287, 290, 291, 293-295.

[60] 81.

[61] 295.

[62] Sources used in this chapter include: 9, 16, 63, 73, 81, 91, 92, 98-104, 177, 178, 201, 210, 211, 215, 223, 225, 226, 230, 254, 258, 262, 269, 270, 291, 292, 294, 295.

[63] 82.

[64] Sources used in this chapter include: 3, 19-21, 23, 24, 30, 33, 38, 40-42, 46, 52, 60, 63, 77-79, 81, 82, 84, 86, 87, 91-93, 95, 102, 105, 108-112, 115, 116, 119, 121, 126, 127, 129, 133, 142, 149, 152, 158, 175, 180, 181, 184, 193, 199, 200, 201, 205, 216, 221, 222, 224-226, 228, 231, 238, 239, 246, 251, 253, 254, 260, 261, 266, 267, 286, 288, 290, 291, 293.

[65] 253.

[66] 126.

[67] 290.

[68] 213.

[69] 283.

[70] 126.

[71] 231.

[72] 231.

[73] Sources used in this chapter include: 2, 6, 18, 45, 63, 75, 76, 93-95, 106, 112, 123, 126, 148, 202, 213, 218, 231, 250, 251, 253, 271, 283, 290.