Mungo magic

I gaze in wonder at the small bone fragments I am holding. Most likely they are part of a Murray cod or Perch fish. It is difficult to comprehend that these items may have been lying here for around 45,000 years.

The nearby circular black patches are evidence of ancient Aboriginal fire beds, indicating that even back then, the barbecue was in full swing. With eyes focused on the ground, we find other bone fragments and small stone tools used by the indigenous folk of the time. This place is awesome!

At the end of a dusty and corrugated gravel road in New South Wales, about 110km north east of Mildura, is the spectacular Mungo National Park.

I’ve always been fascinated by this place, having read about the discovery of Mungo Lady and Mungo Man (1969 and 1974 respectively), some 42,000 years after they were cremated and buried on the banks of Mungo Lake.

The 10,000 square km area of Willandra Lakes is a World Heritage Site. The Mungo Lake region is particularly important because of its lunette (34km-long, crescent-shaped sand dunes on the eastern rim of Lake Mungo) nature, eroded over thousands of years, exposing archaeological artefacts, bone fragments, fossils and, of course, Mungo Lady and Mungo Man.

The area is collaboratively managed by the NSW National Parks Service and three tribal elders. The Mungo Visitor Centre is generally only manned during school holidays. During other times, the park entry fee ($8/car/day) and camping fees ($8.50/person/night) can be paid through self-registration envelopes outside the centre.

There is a 70km self-guided loop drive (4×4’s recommended but not essential and the track may be closed after rain, so it’s wise to check), mountain bike and walking tracks (bikes can be hired), camping and accommodation at Mungo National Park.

If you are not with a park ranger or licensed tour guide, you are prohibited from leaving the boardwalk and its wheelchair accessible viewing platform, which is located at the entrance to the archaeological site.

You can take a two-hour tour from the Visitor Centre with an Aboriginal ranger for $50 or $35 concession holders.

The alternative is to go with a licensed tour guide as we did, with Phil from the local Discover Mildura tour company www.discovermildura.com.au.

We did the day tour at $150 each, which includes pick-up from your accommodation, park fees, morning tea, lunch and fully escorted ‘Walls of China’ tour. We reckon that this was a fabulous tour and great value. Note that the artefacts and bone fragments identified by Phil during our tour were examined and replaced in the exact spot found.

It is another extremely hot February day in Mildura, heading up to 40°C, so it makes sense for an early pick-up. We had contemplated using our own car, an SUV with two-wheel drive, but were glad we didn’t. Phil’s late model Toyota van skims at speed across the gravel road corrugations, dips and bulldust.

It is the off-season and, as the only tourists on board, we appreciate the personal touch and Phil’s expert commentary on this tour. We see herds of feral goats, kangaroos, emus and lizards, but no snakes. Maybe it is just too hot for them to appear.

Mungo Lake lookout is our first stop for brunch (in place of lunch because of our early start to avoid the heat) and the flies are out in force. The ‘Aussie salute’ is sure getting a workout today.

Across the other side of this dried up saltbush lake, some 10km away, we can make out the so-called Walls of China named by the Chinese shepherds working here in the 1870s.

The woolshed, located at the visitor centre and built in 1869 using Cypress Pine, is still in good condition. We take a wander around the site and check out the steam engine used to operate the shearing machines.

During the last Ice Age, most of the earth’s surface was covered by ice. It ended about 20,000 years ago, after which, Lake Mungo slowly dried up and became a salt lake. Prior to this, Aboriginals lived on the shores of the lake, which was about eight metres deep and abundant in freshwater fish, shellfish and yabbies. There was also a large variety of Australian megafauna in the area.

The lake supported a large human population from at least 45,000 years ago. An Aboriginal family’s fossilised footprints were discovered on the clay pan shore of the lake and have been relocated to the grounds of the visitor centre at the entrance to the park. The evidence suggests that they were tall, lean and healthy, most likely because of their idyllic fish diet. Mungo Man was 196cm (6ft 5in) in height.

We arrive at the site car park. On the outer perimeter there is a toilet block with an outside tap. A mob of kangaroos are pushing each other out of the way to get to the dripping tap for a drink. We make sure they are hydrated before walking along the boardwalk towards the Mars-like landscape and the Walls of China.

We enter through the unlocked gate onto the clay-like surface and study the grossly eroded surrounding clay structures.

European settlement in the mid-1800s introduced sheep, cattle, goats and rabbits to the area. Since then, lunette erosion has accelerated rapidly because of overgrazing. The constant westerly winds have denuded the sandy beaches and lakebed sediments, adding to the mobile lunette, which is moving to the east at about three metres a year.

The sand dunes bring back memories of our time in Morocco’s Sahara Desert. We climb 40m atop the highest dune.

I stand in this soft beige sand at its apex and take in the surroundings. I am mesmerised by what I see. My mind is filled with visions of human activity here 45,000 years ago. The breeze shifts the sand in a surreal way and the gentle wind sounds like the whispers of ancestral ghosts.

I don’t want to let go of this Mungo magic. My thoughts last for a few seconds – I come out of my trance with the voice of Phil suggesting that we head back home.

To book a tour with an Indigenous guide, please call 1300072757 or book online.

Have you been to Mungo? What is the most magical place you have visited?

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Written by MaxWilliams

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