Drive a kilometer north of the remote northeastern Australian township of Laura, in the heart of Cape York's Quinkan country, and you'll come to a desolate track. Resist the urge to ignore it it leads to one of the world's most celebrated rock-art sites. Scrawled across immense boulders and along cave walls are 30,000-year-old images of stick figures and animals such as crocodiles, snakes and tortoises, in shades of ocher. The prehistoric images were discovered in the 1960s by Percy Trezise, an artist and bush pilot. These days his son Steve, a painter and rock-art expert, occasionally leads tours around the sites. "These paintings tell the stories of Aboriginal myths and legends," he says.
UNESCO rates the "galleries" at Quinkan, where spirits are said to hide in the rock crevices and rise at night to roam the land, among the Top 10 in the world. That's reason enough for a visit, although the dramatic setting a tranquil valley surrounded by sandstone escarpments adds to the allure. It's hard to believe the Kuku Yalanji people, a tribe of hunter-gatherers, lived here right up until the late 19th century, their lives measured by the rhythm of rituals linked to puberty, manhood, marriage, birth and death. In 1873, gun-toting goldminers arrived in the area, forever disrupting the tribe's way of life. Now the valley is uninhabited, but the ancient traditions live on in the paintings they left behind.
Tours start and end at nearby Jowalbinna (which means dingo's ear in the Kuku Yalanji language), an unfussy but comfortable safari camp Trezise owns. At dusk guests can watch wallabies hop up and down behind the bush cabins. And the sunrise is accompanied by a resounding dawn chorus. Fifty-five bird species have been spotted here, and the din they create is almost enough to rouse the dead or perhaps those Quinkan spirits. www.jowalbinna.com.au