Cape York rangers race to uncover secret rock art sites before mining and erosion destroy them

Cape York rangers race to uncover secret rock art sites before mining and erosion destroy them

Cape York rangers race to uncover secret rock art sites before mining and erosion destroy them

Updated 23 September 2017, 11:05 AEST

On the Cape York peninsula, Indigenous rangers are racing against time to find and preserve ancient rock art before it disappears.

In the heart of escarpment country on the Cape York peninsula, Indigenous rangers are racing against time to find and preserve ancient rock art before it disappears.

Not only are the sites difficult to find and access, rangers fear the delicate art work will be destroyed by bushfire, weeds and feral animals.

Mining exploration and erosion also loomed as significant threats to the galleries before they could be formally documented.

Laura ranger Gene Ross said some of the more remote galleries took days to get to, and it was unclear if anyone had visited them in decades or even centuries.

Local graziers tipped off rangers to the site of Collapsed Gallery — accessible only by bumpy road and then a hike.

Mr Ross said they could not reveal the exact location of the gallery, a crumbling overhang at least 40 metres across adorned with human and animal figures, hand stencil and engravings and the long-fingered Quinkan spirits so famed in this region.

"It's pretty sacred," he said.

"For us, we feel the presence from the old people. We can sense them. That's why before we came here, I actually sang out."

Collapsed Gallery was one of 350 rock art galleries the Laura rangers have visited and documented across their vast Cape York catchment in the last decade.

"There are sites there where you have get on your knees to crawl inside, and you can stand up inside of them," Mr Ross said.

Along with other Laura rangers, Mr Ross made irregular visits to the Collapsed Gallery since 2012 to monitor its condition.

Rangers co-ordinator Susan Marsh said they also brought the elders in the community out there to see the gallery for themselves.

"Not many of them knew about it," Ms Marsh said.

"They were proud and they were also dismayed, because the site was so damaged."

Mr Ross said concerns for the future of the gallery and others like it, weighed heavily on the rangers' minds.

Even without mining, he said there was little that could be done to stop the likes of Collapsed Gallery crumbling away.

"That's our heritage gone," Mr Ross said.

The head of a spectacular long serpent had already fallen off a wall and when rangers visited the site, they looked around to see what else had gone.

Ms Marsh said there was only so much they could do.

"We simply don't have the resources to manage that many sites," she said.

The Laura Rangers were not the only group in the region looking for history.

Just an hour west from Laura, the Balnggarrawarra rangers based in Cooktown were scouring their region's landscape by foot and sometimes even air.

One of their 75 documented sites featured a strange pizza-shaped engraving the rangers called "The Wagon Wheel".

Balnggarrawarra ranger Larry Banning said the engravings were different to anything else he had seen.

"Coming across this sort of lit my eyes up," Mr Banning said.

Cape York Natural Resource Management board director Desmond Tayley said local authorities that oversaw land management on the cape wanted funding expanded.

"I think [this art] is the history of Australia," Mr Tayley said.

"It's for all of Australia and the rest of the world to make sure we protect and preserve these special places."