Remarkable Rocks

Even from a distance, it separates itself from the landscape that gave it birth. After two hundred million years, its many faces continue to laugh at the sky.

Its act of separation is not one of colour, for the hues are not dissimilar to those around it on that hard-faced dome above the Southern Ocean. Its perpetual difference is one of shape…

In a land where mature male kangaroos spring without warning from hidden gaps in the gumtrees that line the side of newly tarmaced roads – and will wreck a car doing any more that forty miles per hour – the Remarkable Rocks of the Flinders Chase National Park occupy a liminal zone between the ancient and the modern faces of this place – Kangaroo Island – the third largest island off the Australian coast.

It is the way of Australia: that casual, no-nonsense approach to naming things, that renders this collective edifice of two hundred million years as merely ‘remarkable’. Yet that is their name – Remarkable Rocks, and has been for hundreds of years. No-one knows where the name came from, but my guess is that it originated in Aboriginal lore as something that was subsequently translated back into English.

Kangaroo Island separated from mainland Australia around 10,000 years ago, due to rising sea levels after the end of the last glacial period. You might imagine there were no human witnesses, but it may surprise you (as it did me) that the Aboriginal peoples date back an astonishing 60,000 years, so they would have actually experienced the gradual separation of what had become a shrinking peninsula from the mainland.

They left the island, then, but not before naming it Karta (“Island of the Dead”). Their existence here was told in their stories, but has been proved recently by the presence of stone tools and shell middens. If you’ve followed some of the Silent Eye’s posts you may be familiar with the idea that such sites can be seen (and experienced) as not just honouring the ancestors, but as living links with them – places where communion with the collective ‘spirit’ of they who came before is possible. Carl Jung’s ‘collective unconscious’ is a good basis for considering the deeper implications…

They would have honoured its strangeness and gathered here to watch the sparks of their wise fires. For all we know, their spirits may gather now, flowing in from the surrounding greenery, to hold wise counsel when the bewildered tourists have gone home in their coaches and four-wheel drive cars. You cannot leave here without an intense feeling that you ‘missed something’. The inner laughter generated by Remarkable Rocks may well be designed to call you back… to join the commune-ity.

The rocks share a geological process of origination with Uluru, which we were fortunate enough to visit on our last trip to Australia, two years ago. They were once a giant dome of molten lava, thrust upwards into beds of sedimentary rocks ten kilometres below the surface. The intense pressure and heat turned the sedimentary layers into hardened and crystallised metamorphic rocks. Two million years of erosion did the rest – leaving us with the other-worldly shapes found today.

You cannot stand here without being spoken to. Like Uluru, the giant rock in the centre of Australia, to which the Remarkable Rocks are related, these stones invite you to run, to dance around them, regardless of the dangerousness of the steeply shelving platform of basalt that tapers down to the sea – faster in its seduction than the wits of the unwary traveller. No fences or barriers prevent this; you are guided only by a small, written warning to be careful… Which leaves the raw danger untouched by laws of health and safety and invites you to dance around and through the strange shapes, with their curving hollows, sharing the danger as the price of Being here.

It was only as I was leaving that I had a flash of what was so compelling about the shapes of the Remarkable Rocks: they are like one of Salvador Dali’s surrealistic paintings. Once seen, you expect to turn another face of the rock and find a watch face, drooping around a ninety degree corner, moulded to the same magnetic override that shaped the rock on which it lies – its trivial purpose defeated by the incomprehensible age of that which supports it.

And, of course, you want these rocks, this place, to yourself… You want to watch its strangeness and come to terms with its shapes in solitude. I suspect that is seldom possible. Instead, an assorted cross-section of nationalities carry out their individual approximations to presence within the uncompromising shapes. It is playful and there is a feeling that there is no insult to the rocks in that play…. They have, quite literally, seen it all.

The Remarkable Rocks do something to the light. Again, like Uluru, they seem to drink it, allowing it to reflect different faces – different stories – from the vastness of their age and experience. It is impossible not to wonder how they ‘see’ the presence of the civilised men and women around them.

And then, we, too, have to go – urgently – to get to the tiny airport at the far end of the island that will take four adults and two young girls back to their home in Adelaide. I race one final time around the dangerous granite base, intent on taking with me the most precious of the emotions in the form of images. I want to be here…. This brief encounter was not enough. I will bridge the distance with heart and mind in meditation.

©Stephen Tanham

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