If I close my eyes I can almost hear tribal whispers, but it’s just the breeze drifting across the dry lake floor. Around me is red earth and a dramatic landscape and I feel like I’m on the moon. The silence compels me to sit, to be still and experience the land with all of my senses.
This is Mungo National Park, one of Australia’s heritage listed treasures, a place that transports you and captivates, a place full of history and wonder. Despite the feeling that you’re in the middle of nowhere, in reality it’s only a few hours drive from both Mildura and Wentworth.
I’m back after my first visit nine years ago and I’m just as enthralled as I was the first time.
We arrived to a hopping welcome
Kangaroos, dozens of them, flocked to us as we arrived at Main Camp. Large ones, small joeys, a whole family it seemed. No other campers, just Roos. We had the pick of over 30 sites, most of them had shelter, tables and fire pits. The kangaroos converged, curious yet friendly, as though used to human company.
Although I was initially unnerved by their boldness, they seemed thirsty. The landscape was barren and dry. How could we not give them a drink from the water tank that was attached to the shelter.
They became our constant camping companions, in the background, in the shade, never bothersome, just there.
Now let me backtrack
We left our overnight stop at Wentworth on the river after a memorable short stay. It was an easy drive towards Pooncarrie before we turned onto Top Hut Road. Here the road became tougher and corrugated so we let down the pressure on the tyres before continuing.
Entering Mungo territory is like entering another land. Big skies, endless horizon, low lying mallee shrub and not another car in sight.
Driving across the expansive dry lakes felt like we were in a time warp. Years of wind, searing sun and droughts have eroded the area of dry lakes leaving essentially a fossil landscape.
Interestingly our GPS still showed blue lakes but forget any idea of swimming. Mungo is one of 17 dry lakes that make up the Willandra Lakes World Heritage area and there’s not been a drop of water here in more than 1400 years.
Once, however, this lake was full of water and teeming with life. It was a meeting place for generations of Aboriginal people.
Mungo’s History in a Nutshell
When the lakes dried up about 10,000 years ago the bones and relics of the people who once lived on its shores were swallowed up by the desert sands. Then the wind exposed a fragment of history.
In 1968 a geologist by the name of Jim Bowler found remains of what became known as Mungo Man. Years later he also found Mungo Lady and in doing so Australia became home to the oldest human skeletons ever found including some of the oldest found outside Africa. Over the years it’s been said that “Jim Bowler didn’t find Mungo Man and Mungo Lady but that they found him. Because they had a story to tell, even after 45,000 years. They wanted to let white Australia know that the Aboriginal people had been here for a long time and were still here.”
Mungo is a place of hugely significant archaeological importance.
Today the Mungo Lunette preserves thousands of ‘snapshots’ of indigenous life. These discoveries have given scientists clues on how ancient tribes lived and adapted to climate change more than 40,000 years ago. The remains of Mungo Man and Mungo Lady, which were taken away and studied by scientists for decades now, will finally (to no fanfare) be returned to their resting place in Mungo sometime in 2020.
The history of Mungo is an extraordinary story of how a culture was able to stay strong and care for Country even as climate change dried up the lakes that were the lifeblood of the region.
More and more discoveries and relics are being unearthed all the time and, understandably, this fragile area is now protected with restricted access.
Settling into Mungo time
Once we’d set up the van, tents and swag, not to mention the fly tent for meal times (to ward off the flies) we settled into camp with a welcome cold drink.
After lunch we headed into the Visitors/Interpretative Centre, just 2kms up the road. This is the hub of Mungo, where you organise your camping permit and where most guided tours leave from. There are plenty of interesting displays here, including a ginormous mega wombat that greets you at the entrance. I wish I’d taken his photo!
In the Centre you can learn about the rich natural history and cultural significance of Mungo. It’s air conditioned, a respite from the often searing heat and open 24/7. The best part, for campers, are the wonderful free hot showers.
Nearby and worth checking out is the shearing shed, once Gol Gol Station, a fascinating place that transports. There’s loads of signs and stories depicting the pastoral history of the land and an eerie feeling inside.
Non campers can stay in the self contained shearing quarters close by or at the very comfortable Mungo Lodge a couple of kilometres away.
For me though, nothing beats a night under the stars to feel immersed in this landscape.
The seventy kilometre self guided tour is a great way to explore Mungo territory. You can pick up a copy of Driving the Mungo Story at the Visitors Centre, which gives route notes on the drive. Allow about half a day. There are lots of interpretative signs along the way and plenty of places to stop.
The loop gives a great feel for the vastness of Mungo. It leads across the lake floor to the Walls of China, over the dunes to the mallee country and then around the north eastern shore of the lake.
Along the way there’s wildlife, a mallee nature walk, board walks, interpretative signs and a place to stop and picnic at the half way remote Belah camp. Towards the end the road detours slightly to Vigars Well. This used to be a watering hole for coaches and drays. You can still see the old wagon and dray tracks that cross the lunette.
Vigars Well is a series of massive sand dunes … and they rise high above you, just begging to be climbed.
From the car park it’s a steep walk to the top but it’s so worth it. Up high you get a sprawling 360 degree view of the lake floor and surrounding plains and the sand is like pure silk and bloody hot! If only we’d had a toboggan to slide back down on.
Sunset Tour to the Walls of China
Our Sunset tour on the last night was the highlight and culmination of an amazing stay.
Gregory, our guide and the manager of nearby Mungo Lodge, was an absolute wealth of knowledge. He was also celebrating his birthday, as we found out from his wife Jo.
As we walked across the western shore of the ancient lake bed and climbed the red sand hills he had us enthralled. He brought the past to life with fascinating stories of early Mungo history.
There’s no way to get out to the Great Walls of China without a guide. Two boardwalks allow reasonably close access but visitors can only walk on the lunettes with an accredited guide. The formations are far too fragile now, because of constant decay from wind and rain.
We walked mindfully amongst the lunettes and rock formations, as Greg pointed out a midden and other recently exposed shells, evidence of a time when this place was full of water. It was mesmerising, being out there, as the light dipped closer to the horizon.
At the top of the Walls, as we gathered for photos, we spontaneously broke out in song, surprising our guide with a Mungo style Happy Birthday rendition.
The last time we were here, over nine years ago, it had been my birthday. I still remember the text my sister sent me afterwards “compared to Mungo woman, you are spring chicken!”
Yes, I certainly felt a sense of timelessness here. A real sense of history in a surreal setting. At dawn and dusk when the hues of the sky converge there’s an overwhelming sense of spirituality, of calm and peace.
We drove back to camp under a big sunset that lit the way. In the one day I had watched the sun rise and the sun set over Mungo.
Earlier that morning, before the sparrows farted, I had woken up my sister and we walked to Mungo lookout, not far from our camp. There we watched the day begin over the plains, grateful for the moment and all that had brought us there.
As we looked out over the vast dry lakes, imagining this land once ten metres deep with water and brimming with life, it was almost humbling.
This land of spirituality, science and stories intoxicates as no place I’ve ever been to before. It’s the ultimate golden hour.
A visit to Mungo is like stepping out of the rat race and into a quiet slow world, one that lets the soul breath. Our time there reminded me how precious life is and how we can all do our part to protect and preserve our land, wherever we live.
We had no Wifi connection but I felt the magic, as though I was connected to something much more infinite in the Universe.
On our last morning we gave our four legged friends one last drink before we headed off. It was goodbye to this unique wonderland as we set off for our final destination in the Murray Sunset National Park.
Our next stop would be another lakeside camp, but still there would be no water and, once again, we wouldn’t need our bathers. We would be heading into new and even wilder adventures.
What an amazing world we live in.
Here’s to finding the calm amongst the whirlwind of life as we seek out new adventures. I’ll be back for part three of my Outback Aussie tour as we explore the pink lakes.
“The greatest adventure is what lies ahead.”
In love and light