Mungo Lake's alien landscape reveals our past

This landscape is called a 'lunette' for a reason - it feels a bit like walking on the surface of the moon. Pictures: Michael Turtle
This landscape is called a 'lunette' for a reason - it feels a bit like walking on the surface of the moon. Pictures: Michael Turtle

It doesn't have the fame of Kakadu or the Great Barrier Reef, yet it's just as significant and just as magnificent.

Driving into the Willandra Lakes region in southwest New South Wales along a dusty unsealed road, I first hit Garnpung Lake, marked on Google Maps as a huge expanse of blue. Yet, there's nothing but pink-tinged dirt, low shrubs, and a heat haze that hovers near the horizon. I drive across the dry lakebed and then, not too long after, find the same thing at Lake Leaghur, and then again at my final destination, Lake Mungo. Each a large blue lake on the online map I've been following. Each, in reality, arid.

Of course, these were once lakes, but they haven't been blue since cartography was invented. In fact, they dried up at the end of the last ice age, about 15,000 years ago. It may be time for Google Maps to update its imagery.

The formations on the Walls of China change colour during a sunset tour.

The formations on the Walls of China change colour during a sunset tour.

But it's partly because these lakes dried up that they have become one of the most important natural landscapes in the country. (The area was added to the World Heritage List 40 years ago in Australia's first submissions, with Kakadu and the Great Barrier Reef). Preserved in the ancient shoreline of the lakes are incredible archaeological treasures. The most important are the human remains of the Mungo Man, buried here about 42,000 years ago, and Mungo Lady, the oldest known ritual cremation in the world. These discoveries in Outback NSW, far from any modern settlements, dramatically changed the understanding of how long Indigenous Australians have lived on the land.

But Mungo National Park is not just about the heritage buried beneath the ground. The surface offers a range of incredible landscapes for visitors, the most famous being the Walls of China, the dry edge of the lake that has been sculpted over millennia by the wind and rain into a stunning panorama. Boardwalks take you to a viewing platform, but you need to take a guided tour to go further and actually walk on the sand.

The Walls of China lunette where ancient artefacts are regularly found.

The Walls of China lunette where ancient artefacts are regularly found.

On the tour I join, the guide assures us that our footsteps will do minimal damage compared to the strong winds that blow through here. So much sand is moved by the gusts that small relics are constantly uncovered - bits of tools, weapons, bones.

"If you see an artefact on the ground and it is loose, you're welcome to pick it up and have a look at it and then put it back again," the guide tells the group. "If it's being held by the sand in any way, then we just leave it - it hasn't revealed itself yet."

 A view across Lake Mungo from the Mungo Loop Track.

A view across Lake Mungo from the Mungo Loop Track.

Around us are the carved mounds of dense silt, creating statues, podiums, facades, and canyons. This landscape is called a 'lunette' for a reason - it feels a bit like walking on the surface of the moon. In the late afternoon, as the sun goes down, long shadows stretch across the white sandy floor and eventually everything turns a bright orange.

Most days, there is a tour of the Walls of China with an Aboriginal ranger, who will offer an insight into Mungo Lake's cultural significance, stretching back tens of thousands of years. The sunset tour is led by a guide from Mungo Lodge, which is a comfortable and convenient place to stay overnight. There aren't many options for accommodation at the park, although there are also camping and campervan sites and a few rooms in authentic former shearer's quarters. Mungo Lodge is also the only spot with a proper restaurant.

Mungo Lodge under the starry Outback sky.

Mungo Lodge under the starry Outback sky.

Normally it's possible to visit Mungo National Park as a day trip, using Mildura as a base, but I don't think that leaves enough time to properly explore this otherworldly wonderland, because there's more variety in the scenery than you first realise. The best way to discover it all is with the Mungo Loop Track, a 70-kilometre driving trail that goes across the lakebed, over the iconic dunes, and into mallee country.

Driving along the 70-kilometre Mungo Loop Track.

Driving along the 70-kilometre Mungo Loop Track.

There's an excellent free booklet from the visitor centre that describes what you'll see along the way. "Notice how the dead and dying Bluebush still hold some of the surface together, forming a residual pinnacle as the surrounding surface is eroded away," I read from the guide as I look out across the rippling ravines of the lunette.

The track changes colour, from sand to red dirt; it passes through rosewood forest and amongst dense gums; there are derelict huts left by pastoralists and their water tanks now used by the wildlife; emus roam with impunity while there's a trap to catch the feral goats.

Some of the pastoral heritage that still remains in the national park.

Some of the pastoral heritage that still remains in the national park.

There's so much more than I expected and I'm struck by what a wonder Mungo National Park is. It doesn't have the fame of Kakadu or the Great Barrier Reef, yet it's just as significant and just as magnificent. It's probably less known simply because it's less accessible and further away from the cities and the typical tourist trail. Yet, when I chat with the staff at Mungo Lodge, they tell me they've never been busier. I wonder if the boom in domestic travel is going to bring new notoriety to an ancient place where people have lived for 50,000 years, and perhaps put it more on the map (even if that map still has blue lakes).

WHAT TO DO:

WHERE TO EAT:

  • You can get breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the Mungo Bar and Bistro.
  • There are no other shops or food options, so it's wise to bring some supplies with you regardless of what you plan to do.

WHERE TO STAY:

Michael Turtle was supported by Destination NSW. He will be bringing you new ideas each week for travel within Australia. You can see more details on his Travel Australia Today website for visiting Mungo National Park.

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This story Alien landscape reveals our past first appeared on The Canberra Times.