The stories depicted are of life, love, birth, death and yes, spirituality and survival — lessons as simple as how to find food and water.
But the cave art is meaningless without interpretation, Gordon says. That’s why Aborigines traditionally had storytellers as clan leaders rather than kings, in recognition of the importance of shared knowledge.
“Art is a way of survival. I have a thing about that. You need a story-keeper to tell the story of life,” he says.
Viewing the art as living history, Gordon says he wants to eventually train younger Aborigines to interpret the art. He also urges visitors to become storytellers.
We visit six shallow caves, climbing over rocks and bending under ceilings at times to get closer.
Most of the art is painted in red ochre, though some white is also used to depict sadness, some yellow to represent light. Handprints are the artists’ signature; one painter clearly had only four fingers.
We see depictions of animals including kangaroo. We visit a cave where drawings of pregnant women indicate its role as a maternity waiting room.
In another cave is a graphic depiction of a woman giving birth, with legs wide spread and baby arriving. A man is shown off to the side, indicating he was not present at the birth.
The birthplace marks the beginning of life and gives people their spiritual identity or warra — their “I am” or “I belong to,” Gordon explains.
By Aboriginal custom, a newborn was presented to his father in front of the clan. The father then buried the placenta nearby. Later, at death, a person’s bones were returned to the same burial place, completing the circle of life.
In the birth cave, Gordon hits us with his most poignant tale.
In the 1930s, a baby was presented to her father. She had light skin and the father immediately realized his wife had had an affair with a white man. But he decided in front of the clan to accept the baby and plant her placenta.
The baby was Gordon’s Aunt Ruby.
Suddenly, our art tour turns to a discussion of reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous people — a hot topic in Australia.
“Accepting a person is the beginning of reconciliation. You need to make a decision on your own — do you accept this person?” Gordon says.
Reconciliation has to be spiritual, he adds. “We came from the same place, your mom and your spirit and my mom and her spirit.”
When Aunt Ruby was old enough to understand, she was brought back to the cave. Gordon has us bend behind a rock to see a row of little child handprints. A fish symbol is painted nearby symbolizing a good decision was made.
We pause for an emotional moment.
There are other caves with dozens of his ancerstors’ drawings that Gordon does not share with the public. In one, the paintings are explicitly related to sex. In another, the bones of his ancestors are buried.
The last cave we visit has a depiction of the Yirmbal, the Rainbow Serpent, representing the creator in the form of a flowing river that gives life-giving water. It’s a place to pause for reflection.
As we hike back to our starting point, Gordon imparts his know-how of plants and their medicinal purposes, having us crush the leaves of a soap plant to form a foamy liquid and taste the lemony residue of big ants, which he says is good for sinuses.
But that’s not the main message he wishes to impart.
“OK, mate, have a safe trip,” he says, as he drops us off back at our hotel in Cooktown. Then pointing his finger upward he adds, “Remember, life is a journey.” He taps the horn of the van in a friendly honk and drives away.