Aboriginal Rock Art of the Burrup Peninsula



The Burrup Peninsula, about two thirds of the way up the enormous Western Australian coastline, is home to the world’s most extensive concentration of rock art, yet is relatively unknown.  Although there has never been a full inventory of the petroglyphs in the region, bodies such as the National Trust of Australia (WA) suggest that there could be up to 1 million individual works.  I am astounded that a place of such cultural significance is not World Heritage listed.  But read on, and you will learn why.


Unfortunately, the region is also home to the mining ports of Dampier and Karratha.  The town of Karratha is relatively new and was built in the early 1970s to support the mining industry.  Shopping facilities are modern and air-conditioned, and we learned that Karratha has the second busiest airport in WA.   Many mining workers fly in from Perth for each week-long shift and then fly home when it ends; testimony to the money they earn and the shortage of accommodation in Karratha.  In short, Karratha is a bustling town, full of business.

We stayed one night in Karratha in 2008, before heading out to a small caravan park in the nearby town of Dampier, on the Burrup Peninsula.  Despite hosting an incredibly busy port, which accounts for 15% of Australia’s export earnings, Dampier is a sleepy, attractive bayside village.  Dampier is a place of contrasts, to say the least; look straight ahead and you see the pristine ocean and the largely untouched islands of the Dampier Archipelago, but turn your head and you face a line of supertankers at the dock.   There is a constant procession of cargo ships to and from the port, carrying iron ore to China, natural gas to Japan, and fertilizer and salt to all parts of the globe.

Dampier was our base for exploring the Burrup Peninsula.   We had seen reports about the extent of Aboriginal rock art in the region and were keen to explore.  The oldest petroglyphs have been dated to at least 20,000 years, and these are the most difficult to see as they are the faintest; many are barely distinguishable from the background rock.  The newer works are far more apparent, so it pays to take your time and have a good look around in order to discover all that is there.  Once you grow accustomed to looking for the petroglyphs, it is amazing how many you find.  Most art works portray animals and sea-life found in the region, but some are more ritualistic in nature.  Most of the works feature an outline of the subject chipped about 1cm into the rock.  This would have taken quite some doing, because the rocks are extremely hard and the artists only had primitive, rock-based tools.  The most impressive works feature entire panels chipped away smoothly from the rock – for instance, the area representing the whole body of a kangaroo may have chipped away.

We spent a couple of days seeking out the art.  All I can say is that we were in rock art heaven – and although we can’t provide any clarification to the official total, we did see many hundreds of petroglyphs…..and we just scratched the surface (excuse the pun), only really exploring two small areas.   I just about wore out the camera photographing them and we probably risked life and limb climbing around the precarious ‘hillsides’ consisting of high mounds of dark red boulders.  Everywhere you turned there was a petroglyph. Nirbeeja would go off on her own explorations and call out her dramatic finds to me, and I’d clamber across with camera in hand.  We probably looked a bit crazy to any onlookers, climbing around these boulders for hours on end, in the blazing sun, but we loved it.  Other people would walk up the valley between the mounds of boulders, look around for about five minutes and wander off disappointed at not having seen much art.  So we feel that our adventurousness was repaid.  We’ve reproduced a few of the photos below, but I took photographs of over 400 separate art works.  If anyone is interested in seeing more, please contact me and I will send you a CD of the photos; I feel this is an important cultural and historic site and the more people who find out about it, the better.

The mining and gas industries have a huge say in what happens in the region.  Big money is on their side, after all.   Eco-tourism also has enormous potential in the area, with the Dampier Archipelago offering the pristine beauty of its islands, and the Burrup Peninsula housing the world’s most extensive collection of rock art.  But we feel these attractions are unlikely to realize their tourism potential because of the power of industry and the complicity of governments.  There seems almost a concerted effort to downplay the region’s natural and cultural attractions, so as not to interfere with the development of heavy industry. It was also difficult to get information on the location of the art sites.  On the other hand, there was an abundance of material concerning tours of the gas plants and mining works. 

We know it is important to develop our industry, but it seemed to us very much a case of develop at all costs in this region.  To show we aren’t totally anti-development, we were both blown away by the incredible technology and sheer level of achievement on show at the natural gas facilities on Burrup Peninsula, and at the economic contribution made by the region’s industries.  It just seems a tragedy that the port and refining facilities were built in a region of such enormous cultural and natural value, when up and down the coastline of WA are many areas of far lesser significance that could equally have housed such facilities.

Much of the industrial development in the area took place before any proper study of the extent of rock art. There are reports that many thousands of art works were destroyed, simply bull-dozed into the ground.  Others, around 1800 works,  were re-located, which meant they were moved somewhere else and placed on the ground.  It has been reported that in many instances these were placed so that the art-works are now in contact with soil (probably face down, if truth be told) and have subsequently been damaged by soil-borne fungi. 

Ongoing air-borne pollution from the ports and gas-works also has potential to damage the art.  Natural varnishes have formed on the rock surfaces over hundreds of years, and these serve to preserve the rock surface and the art-works.  Acids from air-borne pollution can damage these varnishes and speed up the erosion of the art-works.

Don’t just dismiss my comments as the diatribe of an enthusiastic amateur.  The National Trust commissioned two reports in 2006.  These examine the whole question of the Burrup Peninsula rock art and its unfortunate relationship with heavy industry.  The reports can be accessed at the following website:


Here are a couple of quotes from the reports:

  • “The process of decision-making with respect to the destruction of cultural heritage is not based on a sound and comprehensive knowledge of the values and significance. Rather, it is primarily based on the requirements of developers.”
  • “The original decisions to site infrastructure and industrial facilities in the Dampier area did not consider cultural heritage values. The results of these decisions have continued to shape all subsequent land-use planning on the Burrup even though the outstanding heritage significance of the area has been evident since the early 1970s. The most recent agreement perpetuates the arbitrary division between conservation reserve and developed land, based on the original unsound decisions. The entire Dampier Archipelago is of outstanding heritage significance and should be managed as a single unit.”

Go out and see the beautiful art works of the Burrup Peninsula.  They have been there for up to 20000 years, but I hesitate to suggest they will be there for another 20000 if we continue to damage the region at our current rate.  I urge you to make as many people aware of the art as you can.  Write to government, and do whatever you can to help preserve the art for future generations.







To view more photographs of Deep Gorge and its rock art, click on the following two galleries.


We explored only a tiny part of the Burrup Peninsula, but even so discovered rock art virtually everywhere we looked.  Many of the islands in the Dampier Archipelago are also reported to have rich art sites.  We ventured into the Withnell Bay area of the peninsula; the following photographs show some of the art we saw there and, I hope, give you some impression of the area.  It was strange to stand amongst rock art possibly thousands of years old and look across to modern industrial structures pouring out toxic smoke.





Look through the following galleries for more photographs:


The thriving mining town of Karratha is situated just off the Burrup Peninsula, on the mainland.  A beautiful walking trail – known as the Jaburara Heritage Trail, winds through the rocky hills overlooking the town.  The countryside is very similar to that of the peninsula and, unsurprisingly, contains quite a deal of rock art.




  • Chris:


    very nice site, thank you for the in-depth information! I am Chris from Vienna, Austria, and on my 5th trip to OZ I will visit Burrup Peninsula in July later this year, with the aim to explore the roch art.
    I have already found details about Deep Gorge, including some GPS coordinates, so I think it will not be a problem to find the site. Do you maybe have directions for some other sites, e.g. Withnell Bay which you mention above, or any other locations?
    Any information would be highly appreciated!!

    Thank you very much!

    Cheers, Chris

    • admin:

      Thanks for your comments Chris. To get to the Withnell Bay area, you travel along the bitumen road towards the Woodside Petroleum visitor centre on Burrup Peninsula (any of the local tourist guides will help you get to the visitor centre). The unsealed road to Withnell Bay goes off to the right shortly before you reach the visitor centre, maybe several hundred metres before. It may even be sign-posted to Withnell Bay, although we can’t recall whether it is. That track will take you right out onto Burrup Peninsula. It eventually gets quite rough – definitely 4WD material. But along the way we’d recommend stopping and exploring all of the large boulder outcrops if you have time, because you will find rock art everywhere. Hope this helps. Enjoy your time there!

  • Brett:

    Excellent site. Great info, links and quotes. I hope to get there with my family in August of this year. Brilliant photos. The overall situation is a sad reflection on the values underwriting our government’s decisions, and probably an indication of the mindset of the general Australian population as a whole- development at the cost of the environment. Hard to believe one of the largest native title claims in world history recently went through with over 18,000 square kilometres of the Simpson Desert returned to Atnetye Aboriginal Land Trust.


    And yet this heritage area is largely ignored. I think World heritage listing assessment for Burrup is currently underway.

    Your article convinces me I must spend the time and energy to get there soon!!

    • admin:

      Thanks for your comments Brett. Glad you enjoyed our site. We’re sure you would love the Burrup Peninsula, which we are convinced should be World Heritage listed. We only saw a small part of what is there but were nevertheless blown away by that experience.

  • Lyn & Garry Dade:

    We staggered up the gorge with our walking sticks not able to see anything until we complained to a young couple , who said they are everywhere and pointed out a few
    That opened our eyes however due to poor mobility we couldn’t explore very far
    Your photos have made up for that
    I am so grateful
    Love Lyn

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