Filling the south-west pocket of New South Wales is an ancient landscape holding a million stories.
The Mungo National Park is a desolate and isolated place that is both humbling and deceptive. This vast and exceedingly flat stretch of desert radiates a sense of emptiness – with at times the only sound being that of the wind whipping through the Mallee trees – yet it somehow also feels charged with life.
We’d been driving for many hours already, breathing in the magnitude of this culturally rich expanse, and yet the unrelentingly flat terrain still astounded us. So overwhelming was the landscape that we were genuinely surprised when the road suddenly descended upon a sweeping area of even flatter terrain, solely inhabited by a carpet of rather unfriendly looking shrubbery. This deserted plain stretched for many kilometres into the distance in all directions, until the land finally rose up again, albeit slightly.
THE WILLANDRA LAKES REGION
We had entered into the World Heritage Willandra Lakes Region, a breathtaking prehistoric site that covered an area of 2400 square kilometres. The term ‘lakes’ is somewhat misleading, however; while some 45,000 years ago this area was indeed home to 19 interconnected freshwater lakes all fed by the Willandra Creek (then a major tributary of the Lachlan River), today the land is parched, and serves only as a unique portal to the Australia of long ago.
However, this is not to say these lakes are now empty; on the contrary, they are an exceptionally rich source of plant, animal and human fossils, many dating back to before the last Ice Age. Apparently this extraordinary preservation is a result of the alkaline as opposed to acidic quality of the soil, and it proves that Mungo is one of the oldest places in the world outside of Africa to have been occupied by humans since ancient times. These fossils also offer a window into the ancestry of some of Australia’s most beloved fauna: think wombats the size of hippos, five-metre-long goannas and kangaroos weighing 230kg.
THE WALLS OF CHINA
The next morning, we witnessed another of the national park’s awe-inspiring sights. Driving onto Lake Mungo at dawn – perhaps Mungo’s most magical hour – we watched the arrival of day as the sun rose over the eastern bank of the ‘fossil’ lake, transforming the tapestry of the sky.
It is on this eastern side of Lake Mungo that we found the remarkable Walls of China, a striking natural wonder that earned its name from the Chinese migrants who came to work in the area after European settlement. The Walls are essentially a 26km stretch of ancient sand dunes that comprise a series of ‘lunettes’ – moon-like shapes and pinnacles carved into the sandstone by the westerly wind that persistently lashes the lakebed.
While it’s possible to glimpse the lunette from the boardwalk viewing platform, visitors cannot walk onto it without a registered guide. Therefore, we enlisted the help of Graham Clarke, owner of Harry Nanya Tours and one of the traditional custodians of this land. With his friendly manner and staggering local knowledge, Graham unlocked the secrets of the lunette for us, and shared its vast scientific and cultural significance. Guided through the area, our attention was drawn to countless marvels: a calcified 20,000-year-old tree stump; the bones of three humans probably killed by an ancient bushfire; the remains of a huge wombat-like creature; and the 20,000-year-old shell fossils that hark back to a time when Aboriginal people feasted on crustaceans around campfires in this very location. It’s truly astounding stuff.
Graham also tells us about the game-changing discoveries of Mungo Man and Mungo Lady. When these 40,000-year-old human skeletons were uncovered in the area, the scientific community – understandably – was thrown into a tizzy. There they were, marvelling at the discovery of a 3000-year-old tomb in Egypt, when in this sprawling desert there was evidence to not only suggest that Aboriginal people had inhabited Australia much earlier than anyone had previously thought, but also throw into question the very theory of the origin of the modern human.
GOL GOL STATION
While miniscule when compared to the long indigenous history of Mungo, this rich national park bares the remnants of European history as well. By the mid-1800s, the Willandra Lakes Region was heavily occupied by European farmers, who had established numerous cattle and sheep stations, including the mighty Gol Gol sheep station.
The high wool prices and boom-time economic conditions of the 1850s saw these stations prosper, while local Aboriginal people, who had found themselves displaced, their food sources driven away and their freedom of movement increasingly difficult, struggled under these changing conditions. They worked on the stations as boundary riders, trackers, general hands and domestic help, but the influx of Chinese migrants searching for gold in the 1870s saw them replaced, with many local Aboriginal people eventually sent away to church missions in surrounding areas.
However, the days of prosperity were numbered for the European farmers, with the 1890s heralding an onslaught of shearers’ strikes, a depression, bank crashes and a devastating flood. Gol Gol station was then subdivided in 1922 and sold off under a government scheme that saw the birth of Mungo Station. In 1979, the NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service acquired this 40,000-acre property and registered it as a national park, while in 1981, as a result of its geological and anthropological significance, it was listed as a World Heritage Area. Today, the Mungo Woolshed, constructed in 1869, still stands, and is used as accommodation.
The sense of history in Mungo National Park is palpable, making it an almost otherworldly place to be revered. Despite its appearance, this lonely landscape is alive beneath the surface, with the ghosts of its abundant past echoing in the present. This is the true magic of Mungo, and why it is a place that must be experienced to be understood.
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