The Mystery Ship of Walga Rock

The drawing of a sailing ship at Walga Rock, 350km from the Western Australian coast. Photo: C.J. Ison

Tucked away at one end of an Aboriginal art gallery at Walga Rock is a clear depiction of a European sailing vessel. What makes this truly extraordinary is that Walga Rock lies more than 350 km (220 miles) inland from the nearest place where the rolling waves of the Indian Ocean crash against the Western Australian coast.

The picture has intrigued travellers and academics for the past century, ever since its existence became known outside the Wajarri people on whose land Walga Rock is found.  

The painting is stylistically very different to everything else in the extensive gallery.   It looks to be a depiction of a specific vessel and there is what could be Arabic verse in the same white ochre below it.    

A section of the art gallery. Note the style and subject matter is substantially different to the ship drawing. Photo: C.J. Ison.

 Several theories have emerged as to its origin.    

Some people believe the picture is of one of the long-lost Dutch ships which came to grief off Western Australia’s rugged coast in the 17th Century.    The VOC ships Batavia and Zuytdorp head the list.   

The Batavia was wrecked off the Abrolhos Islands in 1629 and while the captain sailed a longboat to Batavia (Jakarta) to get help, a bloody mutiny unfolded among the remaining survivors.   When rescuers finally arrived most of the mutineers were rounded up and hanged but two were put ashore near present-day Kalbarri at the mouth of the Murchison River.    It is possible these men may have been taken in by local Aborigines and followed the Murchison River inland to the Wajarri people’s land and made the painting.

Dutch ship Zuytdorp, 1712.

The Zuytdorp sailed from Holland in 1711 bound for Batavia but never arrived.   The remains of a shipwreck were discovered 40km north of Kalbarri in 1927 but it was not until 1954 that it was identified as the missing Zuytdorp.   It was speculated that survivors may have been adopted by the local people and, over time, moved inland along the Murchison River.   Dutch silver coins, part of the ship’s cargo, have been found at water holes far inland, giving some strength to this theory.

Others have speculated that in the late 19th Century, a Wajarri man may have travelled to Port Gregory or Geraldton on the coast and returned to make the illustration of a sailing ship he had seen.

Another theory is that an Indonesian pearl fisherman named Sammy Hassan made the depiction early in the 20th Century.  It is thought that he was brought to Shark Bay to work in the pearling industry with 140 other boys on the steamer Xanthos in 1872.   Forty-five years later, aged about 60 he was reported to be living among the Wajarri people by early settlers and soon after, the picture was first noticed in the rock art cavern.   Unfortunately, there is also a report that a “Sammy” had died as a result of a shark attack back at Shark Bay.

So, if it was not Sammy who made the picture?   It may have been one of the other boys, also named Sammy, brought out from Malaya and Indonesia to work as pearl divers.

Top: The Dutch ship Zuytdorp; Middle: the Walga Rock drawing; Bottom: The steamer Xanthos. The Walga Rock drawing bears a stronger resemblance to the bottom image.

The strongest evidence for the last theory is the drawing itself. It bears a striking resemblance to the Xanthos, which only plied Western Australian waters in 1872 before it sank at Port Gregory. The two masts and funnel and the painted faux gun ports match the Xanthos as does the flat deck. The Dutch ships Batavia and Zuytdorp both had three masts and a high stern, making the Xanthos a stronger contender.

The upper-Murchison River and country around Walga Rock was explored and prospected from the 1850s onward.    But I could find no mention of the painting of a European ship on the gallery wall prior to the early 20th Century which is the era fitting the Sammy / Xanthos theory.  

Walga Rock art gallery. Photo: C.J. Ison.

Regardless of the drawing’s origin, Walga Rock is a fascinating place to visit and the image opens a window on several aspects of Australia’s colonial and maritime past.

I would like to thank the Wajarri elders and community for allowing the public to visit the Walga Rock art gallery.

For more interesting stories from Australia’s maritime past check out  A Treacherous Coast: Ten Tales of Shipwreck and Survival from Queensland Waters, available now as a Kindle eBook or paperback through Amazon.

© Copyright C.J. Ison. / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2020.

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International Lighthouse Weekend 22-23 August 2020.

Bustard Head Lighthouse established in 1868 is Queensland’s second oldest lighthouse. Photo C.J. Ison.

International Lighthouse and Lightship Weekend started in 1998 as an amateur radio event where ham operators broadcast from lighthouses around the world.

It is a time to remember the contribution lighthouses and past lighthouse keepers have made to safe navigation of the world’s seaways.

I thought I would share a few photos of some Australian lighthouses I have been lucky to visit in recent years.


The Bustard Head Lighthouse was built in 1868 and is Queensland’s second oldest lighthouse.   It is constructed of prefabricated cast iron sections assembled on the spot.   The light is now automated and can clearly be seen from the town of 1770 20 kilometres down the coast.

Bustard Head Light Station at Bustard Head between Gladstone and the Town of Seventeen Seventy – Established in 1868


Construction of the lighthouse started in 1836 and it was completed in 1838.   It is Australia’s second oldest lighthouse and was built by convicts from locally sourced stone.

Cape Bruny Lighthouse on Bruny Island, Tasmania, Australia was built in 1836. Photo C.J. Ison.


The Eddystone lighthouse was built in 1884 from locally quarried granite and stands 35 metres tall.

Eddystone Point Lighthouse on the Bay of Fires East Coast of Tasmania was built in 1889 from locally quarried pink granite. Photo C.J. Ison.


Hells Gate is the entrance to Macquarie Harbour on the southwest coast of Tasmania.    The name “Hells Gate” was supposedly coined by convicts who were transported to the isolated and harsh penal colony on Sarah Island.    The lighthouse was built in 1892 after silver and lead were discovered at Zeehan. 

Hells Gate Entrance lighthouse at entrance to Macquarie Harbour on the West Coast of Tasmania Australia was built in 1892. Photo C.J. Ison.


Low Head Lighthouse stands at the mouth of the Tamar River.    This lighthouse was built in 1888 and replaced an earlier one constructed in 1833 but had fallen into disrepair.   It stands 15 metres tall.

Low Head lighthouse at the entrance to the Tamar River in northern Tasmania, Australia. This is the second lighthouse built on this spot in 1888. Photo C.J. Ison.


The 30 metres tall lighthouse was built in 1878.   It was manufactured in Birmingham England and brought out to Australia on the Lady Louisa where the prefabricated sections were assembled on site.

Moore Point Lighthouse built in 1878 at Geraldton, Western Australia. Photo C.J. Ison.


The Split Point Lighthouse was built in 1891 after several shipwrecks in the waters nearby.  It stands 34 metres tall and made of concrete.

Split point lighthouse at Aireys inlet on the Great Ocean Road Victoria Australia built in 1891. Photo C.J. Ison.


The first Sea Hill Lighthouse was built in the 1870s.   it was replaced by a second lighthouse built in 1895 and still stands there today.  It is 12 metres tall and is clad in corrugated Iron.

Sea Hill Lighthouse, Curtis Island, Capricorn Coast, Central Queensland. Photo C.J. Ison.

© C.J. Ison/Tales from the Quarterdeck.

The Bourneuf’s Tragic Last Voyage

Cross section of emigrant ship Bourneuf. From Illustrated London News 10 July 1852.

On 3 August 1853, the 1500-ton emigrant ship Bourneuf sank in Torres Strait as she was returning to England after bringing a human cargo of migrants to Australia. It proved a tragic end to a grim final voyage.

The Bourneuf had sailed from Liverpool in mid-July 1852 with more than 800 impoverished migrants keen to start a new life in Australia.

Convict transportation to New South Wales had ceased two years earlier, and the recently constituted Victorian Government had introduced an assisted migration program to alleviate the colony’s chronic labour shortage at a time when England still grappled with the social dislocation brought about by the Industrial Revolution.

Emigration Depot at Birkenhead, Liverpool. A ship, possibly the Bourneuf, about to depart for Australia in 1852.

The migrants, many of them families with young children, were crammed in to two tiers of tiny cabins. Good hygiene was impossible to maintain from the outset in the overcrowded confines below deck. Passengers were required to prepare their own food in tightly packed common areas. Toilet arrangements were rudimentary. And it was not long before people started coming down with dysentery. The close fetid conditions below deck proved ideal for the spread of communicable diseases. By mid-voyage measles and scarlet fever was sweeping unchecked through the ship taking a terrible toll.

Isolating the sick proved impossible and for much of the passage ten or more people, mostly children, died each week. By the time the Bourneuf dropped anchor off Geelong in Port Phillip Bay on 20 September, disease had claimed 83 lives, or about 10% of the passengers. The ship was immediately placed in quarantine while twenty passengers were still recovering from illness.

The loss of so many lives on this ship and similar numbers on a couple of other vessels around the same time would lead to limits being placed on the number of passengers migrant ships could carry.

Example of immigrant accommodation on the 1874 James Craig barque at the Maritime Museum in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. Photo C.J. Ison.

The Bourneuf remained in Port Phillip Bay for ten months eventually setting sail on 18 July 1853 bound for Bombay before continuing back to England.

Captain Bibby made his way up the east coast of Australia pushed along by a south-easterly trade wind. He anticipated crossing through the Great Barrier Reef and into Torres Strait at the Raine Island entrance.

At 1 AM on 3 August 1853 the ship slammed into the Detached Reef north of the entrance in the pitch dark of night. Unrelenting swells from the Pacific Ocean pounded the stranded vessel. Captain Bibby gave the order for the crew and few passengers to abandon ship. Thirty-nine people took to three life-boats that night.

Two boats got away safely and the survivors were later picked up by the Dutch ship Everdina Elizabeth. The captain, his wife, sister-in-law, and five crew drowned when the third boat was capsized by huge waves while they tried escaping the stricken ship.

The Bourneuf is just one of 37 ships known to have been lost near the Raine Island Entrance during the 19th Century.

© C.J. Ison/Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2020.

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The Loss of Carpentaria Lightship CLS3

The rusting remains of Carpentaria Lightship CLS3 which was washed ashore at Vrylia Point on Cape York in January 1979 during Cyclone Greta. Photo C.J. Ison.

With an estimated 8,000 or more shipwrecks in Australian waters you could be mistaken for thinking the country’s foreshores would be littered with the remains of long-lost vessels standing silent testament to the dangerous waters they sailed.    In fact, there are surprisingly few recognisable shipwreck remains dotting Australia’s coastline.   

One I had the opportunity to visit a few years ago was the old unmanned Carpentaria Lightship CLS3 which was driven ashore on the remote west coast of Cape York.

Three Carpentaria Lightships moored in the Brisbane River near Peters Slip, Kangaroo Point circa 1924. Photo courtesy State Library of Queensland.

The Carpentaria Lightship CLS3 was one of four built at the Cockatoo Island Dockyard in Sydney between 1916 and 1918.  

They were designed by the Scottish naval architects Charles and David Stevenson, and measured 22 metres in length, 7.8 metres breadth and 2.7 metres draft and displaced 164 tonnes.     The hull was constructed of riveted steel plates.  

An acetylene powered gas light sat atop a mast amidships and was visible 18.5 kilometres (10nm) away.   The vessels carried sufficient acetylene to keep the light burning for six months so there was no requirement for them to be manned.  

There were also mechanisms to switch the light off during the day and for them to flash their distinctive codes when operating.   The lightships were also fitted with a bell which rang as the ship rolled to warn nearby vessels of impending danger.

They were the first lightships to be built in Australia and most of their long careers were spent in Queensland waters.  

Two were always on station, one in the Gulf of Carpentaria and the other at Breaksea Spit north of Fraser Island.   The other two were held in reserve undergoing maintenance and ready to be rotated with those at sea.  One of the Carpentaria Lightships, CLS4 was later used in Bass Strait before being retired in 1985.

Carpentaria Lightship CLS4 at the National Australian Maritime Museum in Sydney, New South Wales. Photo C.J. Ison

The Carpentaria CLS3 was moored at Carpentaria Shoal off the north west coast of Cape York when in January 1979 Cyclone Greta struck. The lightship broke free and was driven south-east towards Cape York beaching a little north of Vrilya Point about 65 kilometres south of Thursday Island. Attempts to haul the vessel off the beach failed and she has remained there rusting away ever since.

Carpentaria Lightships CLS2 and CLS4 can now be seen at the Queensland Maritime Museum in Brisbane and the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney.

© Copyright C.J. Ison/Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2020.

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HMS Boomerang 1891-1904

HMS Boomerang was a Sharpshooter-class torpedo gunboat which served at the Australia Station between 5 September 1891 and 22 August 1904.

She was originally named HMS Whiting when construction began but renamed Boomerang shortly before sailing for Australia.   The Boomerang was 74 metres long, 8.2 metres beam, 2.59 metres draft and displaced 735 tons.  

Crew on the deck of the HMS Boomerang firing a torpedo. Photo Courtesy State Library of Queensland.

She was armed with five torpedo tubes and carried 15 torpedos, two quick firing 4.7 inch guns and four three-pounders. The Boomerang had a tops speed of 35 km/h (19 knots) and had a crew of 91.

The Boomerang was part of the Royal Navy’s Australian Auxiliary Squadron which comprised 5 cruisers and two torpedo gunboats.   While there was no immediate or specified threat to Australia there was an underlying fear in this country of invasion from Russia dating back to the Crimean War.

Sailors during training exercise on HMS Boomerang in 1892. Photo Courtesy State Library of Queensland.

The Boomerang returned to England in August 1904 and was sold off in Plymouth the following year.

© Copyright C.J. Ison, Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2022.

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