Exploring Quinkan Country
27 April 2012
However, the lure of historic Laura lies in its proximity to Queensland's second largest national park and the Quinkan Aboriginal rock art galleries that are ranked amongst the world's best. While the region has a significant indigenous heritage, the township itself sprang from humble beginnings during the Palmer River gold rush.
James Venture Mulligan's discovery of payable gold on the Palmer River in 1873 triggered a rush of diggers who spilled out of Cooktown and pushed Queensland's coastal frontier over Battle Camp Range.
A decade later, work began on a railway intended to link Cooktown with the goldfields, but by the time it reached Laura, the gold rush was over and the town became the end of the line. By then, however, Laura had profited from the custom of passing gold diggers and had established itself as a trading hub for cattle stations stretched up the Cape.
Today, Laura is home to many Aboriginal families with a connection to the land that goes back 30,000 years. The stories are told through the ochre paintings of Quinkan spirits and totem animals that adorn rock shelters throughout the region. The Quinkan galleries are internationally renowned, and UNESCO ranked them as one of the world's top-10 rock-art areas.
The easiest reserve to access – and the only one that can be toured independently – is Split Rock. It is signposted just off the Peninsula Development Road, 12km south of Laura. Most travellers explore the site on their way into town, but if you would rather join a tour, the Quinkan and Regional Cultural Centre in Laura handles bookings.
Staff there can also provide information about self-guided walks around Split Rock, which are permitted despite the 'No Unauthorised Access' sign in place a short way along the trail.
If you are keen to explore Split Rock on your own, follow the short, steep trail to the first of three galleries, which are a 10-minute walk from the car park.
Totem animals adorn the overhang beneath Split Rock. This includes a red dingo, garfish, turtle, echidna, and a goanna, along with kangaroo tracks that represent a hunt, human figures and blown hands. Many are superimposed over older layers of paint.
The tall, thin spirit figures represent the Quinkans – spirits friendly to people who inhabit the sandstone bluffs. The engravings along the base of the shelter are said to be similar to others at a nearby site, which are at least 13,000 years old.
Beside Split Rock is the Flying Fox gallery, and this is named for the group of flying foxes depicted hanging upside down on the small rock wall.
Another 100m on at Tall Spirits gallery, six long, thin spirit figures are visible, along with blown hands and a creature that resembles a possum. After Tall Spirits, you will encounter the 'No Unauthorised Access' on the walking trail that leads up onto the sandstone escarpment and to other, more-impressive galleries too.
The manager of the Quinkan and Regional Cultural Centre said the sign was there to discourage walkers not capable of hiking on, which seems rather odd especially since the rocky trail has existed for many years. Rest assured that when we visited the cultural centre, managed by the Ang-Gnarra Aboriginal Corporation, we were shown a mud map of the area and encouraged to walk beyond the sign.
I would highly recommend making a full circuit of the escarpment to take in some great views and visit the excellent Guguyalangi Gallery. The trail, a mixture of rock stairs and a well-trodden footpath, is marked with flagging tape and painted arrows, but the old signs have been allowed to deteriorate.
From Tall Spirits, allow about 20 minutes to ascend the stone stairs that lead stiffly up onto the eastern edge of the escarpment.
At the top, a lookout provides broad views over the surrounding high plateau. Long ago, it was weathered into a maze of narrow ranges, spurs and rounded hilltops whose rocky slopes are sparsely coated with eucalypt scrub. The remarkable vista provides a link between Split Rock's paintings and the landscape that inspired them.
From the lookout, you can continue along the escarpment edge to Turtle Rock, or follow the well-trodden path across the flat tabletop to Guguyalangi Gallery (about 30 minutes). This site boasts at least a dozen walls of art and countless small caves, some just a few feet high, adorned with tiny paintblown hands.
On one wall, a human figure stands beside three scrub turkeys. Further on, male and female figures are crowded beneath an overhang, painted sideways and upside down, and some depicted with oversized penises (an indication of sorcery or magic).
There are catfish, animal tracks and yams, and on one wall behind a row of three termite mound ovens, a series of paint-blown hands is clearly visible at least six metres off the ground.
From Guguyalangi Gallery, the pathway back to the car park is marked, but the route isn't signposted in reverse.
The cultural centre manger is happy to supply the following directions to reach Guguyalangi Galley: follow the trail from the car park, and at the sign 'To Split Rock', take the trail to the right of a large rock that leads up the hill (allow about 30 minutes).
To complete a loop of all galleries, allow two-and-a-half to three hours, and be sure to carry plenty of water. No water is provided onsite, but there is a toilet, shaded picnic tables, and a box where visitors can deposit the requested donation of $5 per adult.
In Laura, the Quinkan and Regional Cultural Centre dispenses tourist information (for free), and houses an extensive new exhibition detailing the region's history with entrance fees of $5.50 adults, $4.50 concessions, $2 kids and $13 per family.
If you stay overnight in Laura, there's a shady caravan park opposite the roadhouse where sites cost $5 per person, per night, plus $3 for power (pay at the roadhouse). Facilities are limited to hot showers, drinking water and picnic tables, but there are concrete slabs for caravans and the roadhouse sells basic supplies and hot snacks.
You can also park your rig behind the Quinkan Hotel on Laura's main street for $8 per person and $4 extra for power, and join the friendly locals over an ale or counter meal.
Another accommodation option lies 27km north of town at Lakefield National Park. This is Queensland's second largest national park, which covers over 542,000 hectares.
Popular with self-sufficient fisher folk in the winter months, the park provides an amazing 25 campgrounds, most without facilities, and it protects waterholes and lagoons that pool along rivers draining north into Princess Charlotte Bay. If you don't overnight here, a day tour of the southern section of the park could take in a few good barramundi fishing spots and visits to Red Lily Lagoon and the Old Laura Homestead.
Located a 30-minute drive from Laura, the oldest part of this pastoral homestead dates back to 1892. Back then, Laura Station entertained a steady stream of gold prospectors and pioneers who spilled out of Cooktown en route to the Palmer River and across Cape York.
The licence to occupy the station's original 50 square miles (12,800 hectares) cost Irish immigrants Peter MacDermott and Fergus O'Beirne just eight pounds 15 shillings in 1879.
Timber for the homestead came from local Leichhardt trees, and the floors of ox-blood clay from termite mounds were swept and dampened daily with a mixture of ash and water. The homestead continues to host visitors at the bush campsites along the river, and the lack of facilities seems fitting amongst the grounds of this austere settlement.
Without a doubt, June is the best time to visit. That's when Laura hosts its annual rodeo and races, and every second year, there is the Laura Aboriginal Dance Festival (due to be held in 2009). However, anytime between April and October is pleasant.
Next time you're up north, take the time to explore this beautiful part of the world.
Quinkan and Regional Cultural Centre
Ph: (07) 4060 3457
Lakefield Ranger Base
Ph: (07) 4060 3271
Laura is located 66km north of Lakeland on the Peninsula Development Road. The road is part-bitumen, part-gravel, but it is fine for conventional vehicles and caravans if driven with care in the dry season months only. Check road conditions with RACQ in Cairns before setting out by phoning 1300 130 595.
WORDS BY CATHERINE LAWSON PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVID BRISTOW