The scene is out of this world – just like we’ve landed on another planet. The eerie landscape of desert sands, corrugated dunes and ridges resembles a vast moonscape
I walk along the boardwalk which leads to a viewpoint over deeply eroded ravines cutting through the layers of windblown sediment. The scene is very different from 45,000 years ago when the Mungo area was a massive freshwater lake.
The ancient Mungo lake dried up 14,000 years ago leaving an extraordinary rich deposit of fossils making it one of the world’s most significant archaeological sites. The discovery of Mungo Lady and Mungo Man put Lake Mungo on the global map. These primitive ritual burials are some of the oldest remains of modern homo sapiens found outside of Africa.
The unearthing of these fossils led to the formation of Mungo National Park and the acknowledgement of the Willandra Lakes Region World Heritage Area. It’s a place that is imperative to all humanity. Mungo Lady is the oldest identified cremation in the world, demonstrating the development of spiritual beliefs and faiths of early human beings.
The fruitful Mungo Lake provided the perfect location for Aboriginal settlement. Tribes camped and fished along the shores, hunted for food and excavated stone from rocky outcrops. Today, the sandy, red country is home to an array of animals, birds, and plant life, including wedge tail eagles, kangaroos and emus. However, back in the day giant wombats, kangaroos and other mega fauna such as Tasmanian tigers and devils roamed the land.
My travel partner for this trip is another prehistoric creature – my father-in-law! Lindsay, recently retired to concentrate more on fishing, camping and drinking.
As a fisherman he couldn’t catch a cold but he’s not too bad at the other two pastimes.
After a long drive from Albury, we reach Mungo in the mid afternoon. A break is taken at the Mungo Lookout which sits on the border of the park. This is our first sight of the ancient lake bed. The view doesn’t disappoint. It’s only a short drive to the Visitor Centre, Meeting Place and historic Woolshed.
The Visitor Centre is a great starting point to find out more about the area’s significance to its Traditional Owners and scientists. Informative exhibits tell the story of the park’s unique landscape and reveal interesting details about its megafauna and archaeological finds.
A key element of the Meeting Place is the re-created ancient human tracks that were re-discovered in 2003. The footprints record a fixed moment in time for the Aboriginal people who trekked across a soggy claypan around 20,000 years ago. These ageless human footprints are the largest known collection in the world.
Mungo Woolshed is a short stroll away. In the 1850s squatters moved into the area and established GolGol station. The magnificent Mungo Woolshed was constructed in about 1869 from local cypress pine and is an important part of the region’s pastoral history. The smell of the woolshed is so fresh that you immediately assume the shearers had only just clocked off for the day.
Before deciding on a place to set up camp we check out the nearby Mungo Lodge.
The new managers of the lodge, Bryn and Karen Hall welcome all travellers, even if you’re just passing by for an ice cream or a friendly chat. They both swear that the sunsets and sunrises are the best they have ever seen. “You just have to see it for yourself” says Karen. “The colours are simply amazing”.
It’s music to our ears when Bryn confirms that campers are permitted to stay at the back of the lodge. We set up camp immediately, light a fire and settle in for a few beers.
The following morning we set off on the 70km Mungo Track linking all the main attractions of the Mungo landscape. The circuit takes in a variety of terrains, heritage features sites, lookouts and short walks.
The track kicks off at the Woolshed then crosses the lake bed towards the Walls of China where erosion has sculpted sand and clay into fragile yet imposing formations. After the lake dried up, winds swept storms of sand up from the lake floor, depositing it on the shoreline and creating the famous Mungo lunette. When shepherds, many of whom were Chinese, appeared in the region in the 1860s, they named it the Walls of China.
A boardwalk with educational signage provides a great opportunity to explore the base of the lunette. Beyond the boardwalk, further access to the Walls of China is available through Discovery Tours where a ranger will explain the significance of the lunette and its history.
Back on the track, we follow the edge of the old lake and climb up onto the lunette to the next stop at Red Top Lookout. Here another short boardwalk leads to severely weather-beaten gullies and fragile sand formations. The setting is perfect for a Star Wars film!
Continuing around the back of the Walls of China, the trail navigates a mixed landscape of bluebush, grassland, mallee eucalypts and belah-rosewood woodland. Along the way there’re plenty of opportunities to take a break at Rosewood Rest, Mallee Stop or Belah Camp. From Mallee Stop the Mallee Walk is an easy 500 metre stroll with informative markers through an assortment of mallee species and spinifex.
The next interesting feature is Round Tank, a relic of stock watering tactics employed in this barren environment. The dam was subsequently used to lure feral goats into a trap.
We then travel out of the mallee and head into open shrubland with scattered trees. The track passes Paradise Tank and we then turnoff to Vigars Well which is a popular spot for birdwatchers. The well is positioned on a natural soak and is a haven for local wildlife. It’s a short walk to magnificent views of the iconic lunette walls. As we trek up the dunes we spot a montage of wildlife tracks in the sand.
After Vigars Well the main track travels along the edge of the flat expanse of Lake Leaghur, and then crosses the ancient channel that once fed water from Lake Leaghur into Lake Mungo. After descending back to the Mungo lake bed an expansive view opens out along the arc of the Mungo lunette.
Relics of the pastoral days can be explored at the old Zanci homestead and then it’s just a short drive back to Mungo Woolshed to complete the loop.
After a few days exploring the area, I realise that Mungo is an extraordinary site of great significance and history. It really is a very special place.
I also realise that Lindsay doesn’t always make much sense. Especially after a few beers! It’s like he’s on another planet half the time. And that’s why I reckon Mungo with its unearthly landscape is the perfect place for him to retire.
From Mildura the route travels north-east on 17km of sealed and 93km of unsealed roads.
From Wentworth, a sealed road follows the Darling River for 119km, north-east to Pooncarie. 29 km south of Pooncarie, an unsealed road turns off to the east for another 59km to the park.
From Ivanoe on the Cobb Highway, the park headquarters is about 170 km south-west mostly on unsealed back roads.
From Balranald, two routes mostly on unsealed back roads, approach the park from the south-east. Either route is about 150km.
Main Camp is the most popular base for campers and caravans within the park.
Facilities: Free gas BBQs, wood fireplaces (bring your own firewood), picnic tables, non-flush toilets.
Flush toilets and hot showers are available 2km away at the Visitor Centre.
Belah Camp is located halfway around the Mungo Track.
This is a more secluded campsite.
Facilities: Picnic tables, non-flush toilets.
No fires are allowed.
Camping fees at both sites are $5 per adult and $3 per child.
Payment is by self registration. Envelopes and information are available at the front of the Visitor Centre.
Shearers’ Quarters: Located beside the Visitor Centre. Can cater for up to 26 people in 5 rooms.
Facilities: Heating, cooling, kitchen with cooking utensils, fridge, stove, BBQ, showers, flush toilets, hot water. Economical use of facilities is encouraged. Wheelchair accessible. Own bedding required.
Mungo Lodge is a 4 star eco-sensitive outback property offering a range of cabin and lodge accommodation.
Campsites with access to flush toilets and hot showers are also available.
The restaurant and bar is open 7 days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The gift shop and gallery showcases a selection of local produce, gifts & mementos.
Summer is mostly hot, with average maximums of around 32 degrees and average minimums of approximately 16 and 17 degrees.
In winter the days are cool and the nights cold, with average maximums of 15 degrees and average night-time lows of around 4 degrees. Frosts are common.
The climate of the cooler months is ideal for travelling and exploring.
Fuel and supplies
There are no supplies of food, fuel or equipment available near the park. Drinking water is in limited supply. The closest town for food and fuel is Pooncarie, 81 km away.
Ensure you take plenty of food, water, medical needs and equipment for your trip.
Take appropriate clothing for the expected conditions.
Mungo National Park is in a remote area. There are few services nearby and it can be very hot and dry with little shade.
Visitors need to be well prepared.
Vehicle entry fees
Vehicle entry fees are $7 per vehicle per day. Payment is by self-registration, envelopes at the front of Mungo Visitor Centre.
Visit Mungo at www.visitmungo.com.au
National Parks NSW