A Road trip through Mungo National Park and Murray Sunset National Park
Sometimes a destination trumps the journey. That’s the case with a road trip from Melbourne to Mungo, a long haul but so worth it. At just under 600kms the trip can be broken up at either Mildura or Wentworth. Our choice was Willow Bend Caravan Park in Wentworth, where the mighty Murray and the Darling Rivers meet. From there we head towards Pooncarie and Top Hut Road as we drive into the big skies and mallee scrub of Mungo.
Our first trip to Mungo was nine years ago and I still remember how awe struck I was. Would our second trip live up to the magic I remembered? Out here it seems that time is irrelevant, and nothing really changes. Sure enough, despite our GPS showing blue lakes on the dashboard, Lake Mungo, within the Willandra Lakes Region, is devoid of water, just as it has been for the past 18,000 years.
Years of wind, searing sun and droughts have eroded this area of dry lakes leaving essentially a fossil landscape and driving here feels like venturing into a time warp. It’s amazing to imagine Mungo as it once was, full of water and teeming with life, providing an important meeting place for generations of Aboriginal people.
Today this place feels frozen in time, with its red earth and a cultural heritage that goes back thousands of years. To experience it firsthand is to fully appreciate this surreal landscape, cratered, stark and so unlike anywhere else in Australia that you could be forgiven for thinking you’d arrived on Mars.
The Main Campground at Mungo has 33 sites all suitable for big rigs and set around a large circular drive. Most have fireplaces, tables and shelters and there are non-flush toilets and a communal shelter available. It was quiet on our last visit in early November 2019, except for the company of thirsty kangaroos that converged on us. In this dry environment they seemed grateful for the water we offered from tanks attached to the shelters. The friendly kangaroos were peaceful and constant companions and obviously used to campers.
Once you’ve set up camp the first stop is the Visitors Interpretative Centre, the hub of the park, where camping permits are sorted and where tours start from. Inside there’s a heap of fascinating information and artefacts from the past. The best part for campers is the amenities and hot showers located next door, which are open 24/7.
Close to the Interpretative Centre is the wonderfully preserved Mungo Woolshed which gives a great insight into the pastoral history of the area. Beyond the Centre, one of the best ways to appreciate the wonders of Mungo and its main attraction the Walls of China, is through a guided tour. With a guide not only will you gain access to the fragile lunettes beyond the lookout, but you’ll also come away with a true appreciation of the history and cultural significance of this sacred place. First, however, we had our own exploring to do.
Undoubtedly the best way to experience Mungo is to pick up a copy of Driving the Mungo Story from the Visitors Centre and set off on a 70km self-guided drive tour, a route which leads across the lake floor to the Walls of China, over the dunes to the Mallee country and around the north-eastern shore of the lake walls. The entire loop provides a great feel for the vastness of Mungo so allow at least half a day to appreciate the interpretative signs, the boardwalks, and the nature trails.
Halfway around is the remote Belah campground and further along is Vigars Rest, once a well stop for Cobb and Co coaches. From the carpark a steep climb to the top of the dunes offers a spectacular 360-degree view of the lake floor and surrounding plains.
Later that night was the highlight of our stay. Starting from Mungo Lodge, the only commercial building in the National Park, we joined our tour guide and twelve others on a sunset tour to the Walls of China.
Out on the dunes we learnt of its history, how Mungo became one of the world’s oldest sites of continuous human habitation and that some of Australia’s most important discoveries and oldest human remains ever found, Mungo Man and Mungo Woman were both laid to rest here, in ritualistic burials, over 40,000 years ago. The man who found them, Geologist Jim Bowler, says not even the present-day indigenous peoples of Africa can claim such a continuity of culture.
Our guide told us of archaeological finds from the shore of the lake, such as stone tools and grinders for making flour. He showed us fish bones and evidence of hearths with some finds going back 50,000 years. So much lies exposed here and even the smallest precipitation erodes the ground revealing everything from the bones of small fish to long extinct megafauna. At the Mungo Visitors Centre a lower jaw of a Zygomaturus is on display, proof that Aborigines coexisted with our continent’s megafauna for thousands of years. You’ll leave with a greater understanding of why Mungo is special and how the ancient Willandra Lakes became one of the most important places in Australia.
This is a place where all your senses come alive. History is almost tangible as the sun touches the horizon and turns the surrounding hues from yellow to orange to blazing red. This vast landscape with its human stories of the past makes you feel as though you’re standing in footsteps of generations gone. It’s eerie, awe inspiring and incredibly humbling.
Back at camp, a walk to the Mungo Lookout makes you appreciate the vastness of the plains. This is perhaps the best view of the lakes and makes staying overnight at Mungo even more special. To see both the sunrise and the sunset from this vantage point is awe inspiring. Mungo has a heartbeat that can’t be ignored.
FROM RED EARTH TO PINK LAKES
From Mungo we travelled back to Mildura via Arumpo Road, a slow and corrugated drive further slowed by a whirlwind dust storm. Eventually the red swirling dust dissipated, and we reached Mildura stopping for lunch before continuing onto Ouyen, eventually turning off the bitumen as we went off the grid again.
We arrived at Lake Crosbie, on the edge of Murray Sunset National Park, close to dusk and marvelled at the changes in nature since our last visit nine years ago. Back then the lakes were full but since then droughts have evaporated the water, leaving pure glistening pink salt. After setting up camp and securing the tents, with the wind blowing up, we walked out to enjoy the last rays of the sun on this wild and pristine backdrop.
By the next day, the wind had become a gust. It had also given our intrepid teenage boys some radical ideas, a new sport out on the hard salt-lake plain, pirouetted by the gusting wind. Armed with one of their tents, a skateboard and loads of enthusiasm they took to the salt-lake like seasoned pros.
While we walked from one side of the lake to the other, the boys twisted and skated their way across the lake floor, pirouetted by the tent and wind. It was hilarious to watch. At one stage they lost control of the tent, and it flew, caught by the wind, further away from them, as they chased it across the lake floor.
A tree eventually stopped the tent, snagging it so they could rescue it. They continued, taking their intrepid windsurfing skills and ingenuity to a new level. Amazingly, the tent survived for another night of its intended purpose.
There are plenty of bushwalking trails within the park, where salt was commercially harvested from these parts until 1979. Some of these walks, like the Kline Nature Walk, features interpretative signs, relics, salt heaps and interesting information boards on the history of the area. A loop walk around Lake Hardy and Lake Becking is easy but beware where you tread. I took a precarious step at nearby Lake Hardy and discovered firsthand the dark patches were deep, black mud. My sister thought it was hilarious and Doug wouldn’t let me back inside the car and made me ride back to camp on the back of his tailgate.
After my unexpected foot mud bath, the day passed uneventfully. We drove the 9km circuit loop around Pioneer Drive, stopping to check out salt-lake mining ruins and various heritage signs within the park, as well as dodging Stumpy Tail Lizards and a long brown snake that slithered across the road and into its hole. There are plenty of challenging off-road adventures within Murray Sunset National Park with remote locations and basic camping areas such as Mopoke, Pheeneys Track and Rocket Lake. Make sure you carry water and supplies, a map and a good navigation system as the tracks are many and the wilderness is vast.
Both the Pink Lakes and Mungo National Park are incredibly special. Whether you visit one or both, these unique destinations with their remote camping, ancient history and surreal landscapes offers a chance to fully disconnect from the hustle of life and appreciate the stillness and serenity of two amazing outback locations.