Rain comes from the sky, the abode of the ancestral spirits from whom it brings life.

Frederick D. McCarthy, Aboriginal rain-makers and their ways, Australian Museum Magazine, Sydney, December 1951

Keith Vincent Smith

Aboriginal rainmakers, who used the power of sorcery to bring rain, were revered as clever men by their people. In times of drought they invoked rain through rituals of song, dance and ceremony.

In the remote and sparsely populated Kimberleys in north-west Western Australia, Dreaming stories about creation heroes have been influenced by the extreme wet and dry seasons and the landscape of tropical gorges, rocky ranges, rivers, grassland and sandy beaches. Indigenous people make up half the population of about 40,000 in an area twice the size of the state of Victoria.

Maralla shelter waterhole
Mount Elizabeth
Kimberleys, 2000
Maralla shelter Wandjinas, Mount Elizabeth Station      PHOTOS: Keith Vincent Smith

I photographed this group of Wandjinas (pronounced wannia) , painted inside a rock shelter by a waterhole, in 2000, when I travelled with my wife Irene along the rugged, unmade Gibb River Road (a stock track) from Kununurra – via Purnululu – the beautiful Bungle Bungle peaks in the desert – to Derby and then Broome in far north-western Australia.

Wandjina paintings occur in the countries occupied by the Worrorra, Wunambal and Ngarinyin peoples, who believe that they descend from them. The distance through the ‘Wandjina Belt’ is about 1200 kilometres.

Wandjina are creatures of the hot, wet season, from October to March, when there are tropical storms, cyclones and heavy flooding rains. They have a nose but no mouth and large round eyes with dark eyelashes. They are brightly painted on rocks and in caves in black, red and yellow, usually on a white background. Their cloud-like headdresses suggest rainbows or storm clouds.

The Wandjina figures represent spirit rainmakers, owners of water. Aboriginal people believe that if Wandjinas had mouths the rain would never stop and all human beings would perish. If the Law is broken, the Wandjina will let loose floods, lightning and cyclones.

The first Wandjina, called Wallungunder, the son of Idjair, was said to live in the Milky Way. He was the father of all Wandjinas. The Mowanjum people near Derby repaint the existing Wandjinas each year to keep their spirits strong. There might be forty layers of paint on each image.


This background about the Wandjinas has some relevance to the Sydney area. It is here because of the startling fact that a rainmaker, a garadji or clever man named Boneh, lived at the foot of the Blue Mountains, close to the Hawkesbury River. He was revered by his people just as much as were the Central Desert and Kimberley rainmakers.

Boneh might have been a Gundungurra man. His only memorial is an account of his death, published in The Sydney Gazette on 18 December  1803 (page 3c). The printed text is so difficult to read in the original that I transcribed his name wrongly, as ‘Bench’, in my MA thesis Eora Clans (Macquarie University 2004). I have retained the derogatory references, such as ‘sooty Chieftan’ and ‘inky venerable’ so common at that time.

A visitor from Hawkesbury mentions the death of Boneh, an ancient native, who we believe was but little known at Sydney. This veteran had for many years past presided with supreme authority over his tribe, from whom he received a species of homage which approached to adoration. In fact, the straggling subjects of this sooty Chieftan, have been frequently heard by the Settlers resident nearest the foot of those inaccessible Mountains, to ascribe to him the power of agitating the elements, and of causing floods, rains, &c. &c., a finesse probably constructed purposely to impress us with awe and reverence for a being possessed of such extensive qualifications. That the Mythology may in some degree owe its existence to similar causes, we shall not argue, but had this inky venerable been known to those imaginary evidences, little doubt can be entertained but his complexion would at least have recommended him to a seat in the infernal regions, where, in the course of time, he might have become a com-peer with the august Pluto.

Copyright Keith Vincent Smith 2020