We pulled off to the side of the corrugated red dirt road at a T intersection to reconvene and plan our last couple of hours of daylight. A moment of quiet fell amongst the group and, in the absence of all other noise, I noticed for the first time the ever-present thrum of Mungo; the wind whipping gently but persistently through the mallee trees that dominate much of this landscape. The sound was deceptive, promising some shimmering surf beach just beyond the thicket when, in reality, we were hundreds of kilometres from the sea.
Our small group comprised of photographer and long-time outback explorer Stuart Grant in his newly refurbished Troop Carrier; Caravan World editor Max Taylor sporting a 200 Series LandCruiser towing an offroad Trakmaster Kimberley; CW videographer Steve Dwight, his lovely wife Dee, also a keen photographer; and yours truly in a brand-spanking Pajero GLX. I was towing our new giveaway camper, the Complete Campsite Jabiru, voted Camper Trailer Australia magazine’s Offroad Camper of the Year 2013 in its price bracket.
HEADING BACK IN TIME
We’d been driving for many hours from our overnight stop at the Victorian/NSW border town of Swan Hill, and the landscape had been unrelentingly flat. So flat, in fact, I was astounded when suddenly the road descended upon a vast area of even flatter terrain. There was not a tree in sight on this desolate plain, just a carpet of rather unfriendly looking shrubbery; old man saltbush, I was told, which I considered might be an excellent name for a character in a children’s book, or perhaps my next cat. The sky here was as big as I’d ever seen it.
Many kilometres in the distance, in all directions, the land rose again, albeit slightly, to its former state of not-quite-as-flatness. A glance at the Pajero’s inbuilt GPS confirmed two things: a) we were indeed travelling across a lakebed, and b) someone forgot to tell the producer of the mapping software that these lakes have been dry for 20,000 years!
We had entered the Willandra Lakes Region, a World Heritage Site covering 2400 square kilometres in NSW’s south-western corner, some 800km from Sydney. Now ‘fossil’ lakes, up to 45,000 years ago the 19 freshwater lakes of Willandra were interconnected and fed by Willandra Creek, then a major tributary of the Lachlan River. Once teeming with water but now merely parched land, they are an exceptionally rich source of fossils – plant, animal and human – dating back to before the last ice age. It is thought this is due to the alkaline quality of the soil. Regardless, it renders this region a unique portal to the Australia of long, long ago.
We arrived at Mungo National Park’s main campground, close to Lake Mungo, and lit a fire to fight off the impending desert chill as the day’s remaining light twinkled out on the horizon. It was a new moon and, while this made trips to the campground’s drop toilet interesting (mind you don’t trip over a roo), it made for one of the most dazzling displays of stars I’d ever had the pleasure of gazing upon.
WALKING ON THE MOON
The next morning we drove down on to Lake Mungo. We arrived in the soupy pink light of dawn – perhaps Mungo’s most magical hour – and watched the shifting tapestry of the sky as the sun rose over the eastern bank of the old lake.
On this eastern side lies Mungo’s main attraction, a 26km stretch of ancient sand dunes known as the Walls of China, so named by the Chinese migrants who came to work on sheep farms here after European settlement. The Walls of China comprise a series of ‘lunettes’ – a rather beautiful word befitting the moon-like shapes and pinnacles carved into the sandstone by the howling westerly wind that whips across the lakebed. As well as its flamboyant displays of artistry, this wind serves to assist archaeologists by constantly shifting the sands and uncovering ancient fossils that tell of a long human occupation of this area, not to mention the giant ancestors of Australia’s most beloved fauna. Think wombats the size of hippos, kangaroos weighing 230kg, 5m-long goannas and a carnivorous marsupial lion big enough to eat them all.
While you can see the lunette from a boardwalk viewing platform, you cannot walk on to it without a registered guide, so we met up with an old mate of Stu’s, Graham Clarke, who runs Harry Nanya Tours (see page 77). Graham is one of the traditional custodians of this land, and probably the best qualified to walk us down onto the lunette and explain its vast scientific and cultural significance.
With his friendly manner and staggering local knowledge, Graham took us on a guided tour of the lunette; a calcified 20,000-year-old tree stump here, the remains of a huge, wombat-like creature there, right next to some evidence of an ancient bushfire that probably killed three humans, whose bones are right there, too. Oh, and mind you don’t tread on these 20,000-year-old shell fossils, relics of a more abundant time at Lake Mungo, when Aboriginal people feasted on crustaceans around campfires in this very location. It’s truly astounding stuff.
Graham tells us about Mungo Man and Mungo Lady, 40,000-year-old human skeletons whose respective discoveries had thrown the scientific community into a tizzy over the origin of the modern man, while simultaneously speaking of an Aboriginal presence in Australia much older than anyone had thought.
A few days after our trip to Mungo, I saw a documentary about Ancient Egypt and the search for a 3000-year-old tomb. To think, for all the hype surrounding that particular civilisation, Mungo Man had been lying ritually buried in the ground for 37,000 years before King Tut was even a twinkle in his daddy’s eye.
The sense of history at Mungo is almost tangible. Despite its aesthetic – vast, flat and empty – this lonely place feels somehow charged with life. Perhaps it is the imagination in overdrive as one tries to envisage this arid stretch of desert as a wetland wonderland, the lakes teeming with giant fish and tasty crustaceans, waterbirds flocking overhead, mega fauna drinking at the water’s edge and the smoke from Aboriginal campfires rising up between the dunes.
The ghosts from its abundant past seem to live on here, only just out of view. This is the magic of Mungo, and it must be experienced to be understood.
GOL GOL STATION
While merely a grain of sand in the long human history of Mungo, there is a European history here, too.
By the mid-1800s European farmers had moved in and cattle and sheep stations occupied much of the Willandra Lakes region. Gol Gol sheep station was the largest of these. It was a prosperous, bustling place thanks to the high wool prices and boom-time economic conditions of the 1850s. In 1869 a large woolshed was constructed, Mungo Woolshed, which still stands today at the visitor centre and is used as accommodation for those less self-sufficient than caravanners.
During this time, Aboriginal people had found themselves displaced, their food sources driven away and their freedom of movement increasingly difficult. They worked on the stations as boundary riders, trackers, general hands and domestic help, but were largely replaced in the 1870s by Chinese migrants arriving in Australia in search of gold. Many local Aboriginal people were eventually sent away to church missions in surrounding regions.
Times were about to get tough for the European farmers, too, with the 1890s dishing out shearers’ strikes, a depression, bank crashes and a devastating drought. In 1922, Gol Gol was subdivided and sold off under a government scheme that allowed returned WWI soldiers to settle on land, and Mungo Station was born. In 1979, this 40,000-acre property was acquired by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and registered as a national park. It was recognised for its geological and anthropological significance in 1981, and was listed as a World Heritage Area.
MUNGO NATIONAL PARK: GETTING THERE
- Mungo NP is about 120km from Mildura, via Arumpo Road. From Broken Hill, you’ll cover 320km though Menindee and then Pooncarie, before entering Mungo NP via Top Hut Road. Check road conditions before departure, as roads into the park can be closed during heavy rain. Contact the Buronga NPWS office on (03) 5021 8900 for conditions.
- There is a 70km self-guided drive tour around the Walls of China. Follow the signs from the visitor centre.
- Graham Clarke operates Harry Nanya tours, running daily during the cooler months and sunset tours during summer. You can follow in your own vehicle, or be picked up from Mildura or Wentworth. Visit www.harrynanyatours.com.au for more information.
- The visitor centre is the ‘hub’ of Mungo National Park. Interactive displays provide an insight into the region’s ancient history. The centre has showers and toilets for people staying at the Main Camp, a five-minute drive away, as well as barbecue facilities.
- The Main Camp works on a first-in, first-served basis. Pay for your camping permit at the visitor centre ($5 per adult per night; $3 for kids). Daily vehicle permits ($7) are required per vehicle, per day, too. The other option is Belah campground, located halfway along the 70km self-guided tour drive around the Walls of China, but this camp is unsuitable for trailers. The site fees are the same for this campground as at the Main Camp. Visit www.visitmungo.com.au for more information.
- Mungo is isolated so you’ll need to take in enough of your own water, food, spare fuel, etc., for the duration of your visit.
Originally published in Caravan World #516, July/August 2013.