Lake Mungo – in the footsteps of the ancients

24 September

Odometer: 3658 km

We are on our way to Broken Hill and are now officially in the Outback, having moved past the “outback NSW” sign, just before Balnarald. It doesn’t look like outback, this area is an important horticultural area with lots of orange groves and vineyards on either sides of the highway.

But traffic is getting less and wildlife is getting more abundant. We narrowly avoid running over a turtle crossing the road, and have the occasional emu trying to outrun us. This is Big Truck country and Road Trains are becoming a common sight. We also see our first cyclist on the road, with the strong winds it doesn’t strike us as the safest way to get around.

However, before we hit the Silver City (Broken Hill), there is one place I want to visit; Mungo National Park. On the weekend we were told that the park was closed because of the recent heavy rains. However, at the last minute NSW Parks informed us that the park would partially open again and one of the roads leading to the park is open. So, Mike and I set off, heading north, away from the river country. We soon hit unsealed roads with large puddles and do the occasional slip and slide in the soft wet red mud. I decide to push on, applying my “outback defensive driving” skills course from 20 years ago. The vineyards and orange groves disappear quickly, replaced by the occasional flock of sheep, cattle grids and big country.

As we enter Mungo NP we check with the rangers to get the latest information. Most roads in the park are still closed due to flooding, but the main campsite is open. So we pitch our little tent on a completely empty campsite, under the watchful eyes of the local family of kangaroos.

Lake Mungo is a dry lake, part of the Willandra Lakes World Heritage area. It has been the site of continuous habitation for thousands of years. In 1974 Mungo Man was discovered here, the skeleton of a modern homo sapiens who was buried over 42,000 years ago, adorned with ochre and fire. At that time the lake was full of water and the area teaming with wildlife. It put Aboriginal Australian habitation back to over 42,000 years, the oldest homo sapiens habitation besides Africa. It also demonstrates that these people had a belief system with burial rites and had managed to acquire ochre from at least 200 km away. He was a modern man, at the same time as Neanderthals were still roaming Europe, and living in the time of the mega flora and fauna in Australia.

The lake is dry now, a big flat plain, surrounded by a long row of low dunes which are called the “Walls of China”. These dunes consist of layers of sand and clay, deposited by cycles of the lake flooding and drying out. The dunes are slowly being eroded by the wind and foraging animals, releasing evidence of human habitation in the area in the form of shell middens and burial sites. Besides Mungo man, the Mungo woman cremation site was also found here, as well as 20,000 year old footprints. There are not many places in the world where it is this easy to feel a connection with our ancestral peoples.

We walk up to the Lake Mungo Lookout to see the sun set, and then return to the camp and lay down on a picnic rug to watch the stars. The outback night sky is amazing, hard to describe. There are so many, many stars. It is very quiet and serene, you can nearly feel the earth move as the stars rotate slowly towards the half moon.

The wind here is continuous, and we have to hold on to bags and boxes as Mike prepares an early dinner while it is still light. We are trying out hiking rations, effectively dehydrated meals where you add boiling water. The spaghetti turns out to be awful, the beef bourguignon is ok, and the apple pie is yummy!

There is, not surprisingly, no phone reception here. We play another game of scrabble, I loosely by only 8 points this time! The strong westerlies (winds) that shaped the dunes that surround lake Mungo, blow our food and scrabble tiles from the picnic table.

It is a very, very cold night. The wind drops a little, but there are occasional showers and the temperature drops to just above zero. Our summer hiking sleeping bags are not made for this. I am sleeping with socks on, a t-shirt, my Qantas PJs, and have our heaviest sleeping bag and liner. I wake up at about 4 am to Mike putting on his winter coat and beanie, he is freezing! His sleeping bag is way too thin, we will need to go shopping if we want to do this again!

Mike gets up early and captures the sunrise. He is slowly defrosting in the rays of the sun, together with the kangaroos. All standing up catching the early rays. I am happy snoozing, with his sleeping bag covering me as well, listening to the dawn chorus, and pondering some of life’s big questions; do flies sleep, where do they go at night?

As anywhere in the outback, the moment you step out of the car you get covered in your own personal cloud of flies. They happily stay around you as you walk around and practice “the aussie wave”.

There is an old woodshed next to the visitor centre, build originally in 1869 from drop logs, it was relocated here a couple of years ago from Gol Gol Station and is very interesting to visit.

We came here via an overnight in Wentworth, and we drive back to Wentworth. We stop in Balnarald at the Visitor Discovery Centre Cafe. They make an ok coffee and do a lovely lunch as we discovered on our outgoing trip to Wentworth.

Our accomodation for the night is a homely cabin on the river in Curlwaa, next to Wentworth. We find ourselves between the orange groves and “Tuckers Creek”, a creek coming off the Murray, joining the Darling River just before that one joins the Murray in Wentworth. I have a paddle on the river, enjoying the river gums and the pelicans sailing on the creek.

Wentworth is a nice little town, also here a significant number of buildings from the late 19th century have been preserved. This pleasant little town is often overlooked as people flock to neighbouring Mildura. However, as Mildura is on the Victorian side of the border, and hence off limits to us, we happily discover Wentworth.

The Crown hotel serves a nice schnitty and is a popular spot for the locals. We have a quick look at the old paddle steamer and house boats on the Darling river, just before the point where the Darling and Murray rivers join. Then it is time to head on to the Silver City, Broken Hill.

  • Best coffee: Balnarald Visitors Centre (I checked on Yelp, and of the 19 coffee spots around Wentworth the lowest ranked ones were on the NSW side of the border..)
  • Accomodation: AirBnB Nonna’s Retreat, Curlwaa. I wish we could have stayed here longer, sitting on the deck overlooking the river and kayaking. Relaxing under the large river gums, eating oranges fresh from the trees, still warm from the sunlight.
  • Tip: visit Mungo National Park and stay overnight in the shearers quarters or on the camp site.

3 thoughts on “Lake Mungo – in the footsteps of the ancients

  1. Excellent writeup Janny! Have been to Mildura 4 times (swim meets) but have never made the shortish trip to Lake Mungo- you’ve inspired me to do so next time

    Liked by 1 person

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