Georgia Rickard treks out to Mungo National Park, discovering a whole lot more than just a dream-defining landscape. Photography by Elizabeth Allnutt.
Here’s a surefire way to make millions: find a way to put the anti-ageing qualities of the sand at Mungo National Park into a skin cream. “My nan always said it was a healing sand,” says Tanya Charles, descendent of the local Mutthi Mutthi tribe and a national parks ranger here. “She suffered really bad with arthritis, and when she’d come out to the dunes she’d bury herself out in the sands. After that she’d jump up like a young woman and walk down the walls, real deadly.”
According to scientists, the dunes here have been preserving things for the last 45,000 years, give or take a few millennia, and a visit to them today is restorative in more ways than one. For starters, the area is quietly beautiful; a fact that’s most obvious at sunrise and sunset, when the vast plains are lit by a blushing fishbowl sky. But there is also something undeniably spiritual about this place. Standing amongst Mungo’s famous pinnacles offers an easy explanation; a trip here is like coming to a United Nations conference of landscapes. Ridges crowd around each other, hard orange clay mingling with pink dunes of silken sand and the flatness of grey-blue shrub; even if you weren’t to know of the area’s background it would be a poignant place. And then, of course, there is the history.
Mungo National Park first made headlines back in 1969, when every archaeologist’s dream finding was uncovered – Mungo Lady (and five years later, Mungo Man). Since then everything from 40,000-year-old dinner leftovers to clues pointing at wedding rituals have been found; signs that point to the existence of the civilisation, rich in spirit and community, which once lived, and laughed and loved here, long before the pyramids, before the Mayans; before Jesus Christ.
“There were thousands of people here, a whole society,” nods Graham Clarke, tour guide with local operator, Harry Nanya Tours. “In one area, they’ve found a midden with tonnes of freshwater mussels. Tonnes.” He pauses to let me consider that. “You’d need a lot of people to eat all those.”
More amazingly are the constant new discoveries, most of which uncover themselves naturally, as a result of the elements. Most are extremely well-preserved, thanks to the combination of carbonate in the sand and low humidity.
“We had a big rain here in 2010 – 10 inches in one day,” says Charles, as we walk past a particularly spectacular clay formation. “It used to be that a discovery would be made once every 11 or 13 years but since then, things have been coming out of the landscape very, very quickly – you’ve just got to be Johnny-on-the-spot to find ’em.”
A moment later, she stops to point at something hard and white protruding out of the cliff side. “Look here – that’s the jaw of a Tasmanian devil. It’s only become exposed in the last two or three weeks.” The jaw – revealing half a row of almost perfect teeth – looks like the remains of a large bird, left with the elements for a month or so. “Oh no,” she laughs. “That’d be 30 to 40,000 years old.”
Letting the land live
Charles has lived here all her life and, though she says nothing to suggest it, is probably better qualified than anyone else in the world to take care of this place. “We are this land,” she says simply, when asked about it. “We’re the wind, we’re the rain, we’re the water. We’re all that.” She speaks of childhood days spent attending ‘bush school’ as well as ‘normal’ school; of the strong local culture that her tribe maintains today.
“What I know about country got passed on from my grandmother, aunties and uncles, and today I pass onto the younger generation. Our people have a better understanding when they’re walking and talking in the country… you can give ’em books but they won’t get it, you’ve gotta be walking the land to get it, to know what you’re going to protect.”
Her ideas of protection are somewhat different to those of your average historian, however. As we pass an ‘oven’ – a careful pile of termite mound rocks, so used because they retain heat, slow-cooking food without the need for fire – Charles picks up one of the rocks for a closer look, seemingly unconcerned about the fact that she’s disturbing an arrangement between nine and 12 thousand years old. “I’m not going to hurt it,” she says carefully, clocking my concern. “I’m only picking up rocks that are eventually going to roll off and disappear.”
If it seems unusual for an official national parks caretaker to be so casual about artefacts that are, you know, of priceless value to the timeline of humanity, it is also an education. Charles’ attitude toward country – she seems to view preservation as a means of allowing the land to exist as is, rather than digging it up and putting the ‘important’ parts in museums or laboratories – not only speaks volumes about her relationship with the land, but of how this park is different to so many others. Mungo was Australia’s first park to be co-managed by the indigenous people and the World Heritage listing scheme, a tactic that has since been adopted by others. “We know the country,” says Charles. “And it just makes you so proud to be able to work and walk and look after it.”
Charles’ grandmother, Alice Kelly, was particularly vocal about Aboriginal rights in the ’60s, when parks management was approached rather differently, and it is in large part thanks to her, says Charles, that the indigenous people have a say at the table.
“I thank her a lot for that.”
We stop at two more ovens – one which is still stained from ancient, cooked animal fat – spot the jaw of an extinct hairy-nosed wombat, and squat over the remains of an ancient feast: emu egg shells, and 40,000-
year-old ear-bones of a golden perch and a silver perch. It is hard to believe we are allowed here, in this giant sandpit of archaeological treasures.
Mysteries of history
‘Lady Mungo’, as Charles refers to her, was discovered by young geologist Professor Jim Bowler. Initially attracted to the area for its geological history – Mungo was once Lake Mungo – he stumbled across what looked like burnt bones while analysing bedrock. After calling in some archaeologists, who uncovered what was unmistakably a human jaw, the bones were packed into a leather suitcase and carted off for study. Years of debate and a huge outcry from the local Aboriginal people later, Lady Mungo was determined to be a youthful 42,000 years old; then returned to the area.
By then, however, the landscape of Mungo had changed forever. Lady Mungo not only changed thinking about the length of indigenous occupation in Australia – previously thought to be a mere 20,000 years long – but suggested that the ancient people who lived here had spirituality, ritual, and families that cared for them.
“Not just anyone gets them types of burials,” Tanya muses. “Lady Mungo’s burial, her fire had to be lit nine hours first before she was placed in there, and then she was in there for another nine hours. Then she was taken out, smashed with hard hammerstones, placed back in there and then she was buried. I believe she was a clever woman back in her day. Someone particularly special for the tribe.”
The same goes for Mungo Man, whose remains were found a mere 500 metres away from Mungo Lady in 1974. “That ochre that was sprinkled through Mungo Man’s burial site comes from over 100 miles away.”
He too has since been dated at around 42,000 years old, although Charles believes in an earlier scientific finding, which puts his age at around 60,000 years. “We feel and believe he’s much older than her,” she nods. Why? “Because that’s what we feel,” she says simply. “We know we’re as old as this landscape. It’s just waiting for catch up, we’re waiting for the scientific world to catch up with us.” She pauses for a moment, as the breeze whispers around us.
“But we’ve got plenty of time.”
For Mungo’s main attraction, however, time may be running out. The Walls of China – a large crescent of spectacularly shaped pinnacles, which were once dunes surrounding a lake – are not only at the mercy of the elements, but of the area’s feral goats, which trample the delicate pinnacles and eat stablising new shoots. The three local tribes share responsibility for capturing the goats, transporting them to nearby Albury and selling them live to farmers, but it’s an uphill battle. “If we didn’t have them people here, doing that, we’d be overrun,” Charles observes.
There’s another major concern, adds Clarke: people. In conjunction with La Trobe University, he conducted an experiment whereby around 200 fake ‘artefacts’ were buried around the Walls of China. “Within ten days they were all gone,” he says.
“It’s like when they showed the Stegosaurus prints found in Broome on television. Someone came with a grinder and stole them, then one of ’em fetched 2.4 million US dollars on the black market in Germany.” He shakes his head disbelievingly.
“That’s people for ya.”
Tourists have since been forbidden from stepping off the boardwalks, onto the dune area, without a guide, and Clarke confesses he’d prefer to see Mungo remain one of the country’s better-kept secrets; so much so that he actively keeps her treasures quiet.
“When I come across a skeleton that’s been exposed, I don’t tell anyone,” he admits. “I pile sticks on it so the sand collects around it with the wind. That way it just re-buries naturally.” It’s an act that historians might squirm with displeasure at – the world’s next great archaeological find, left to return to the earth without label or analysis – but here, in this quietly powerful place, leaving things as they have been for so many thousands of years doesn’t feel like the wrong thing to do.
Living in Harmony
Of course, not everything has been left unexamined. It was “pretty sad for our people when they took Mungo Man and Lady Mungo,” muses Charles, but things have since changed. Thanks to ‘lots of long talks around a table’, “we have a balance with the scientists. We’re learning from them and they from us.”
One major upside of this partnership is how research has added to local indigenous knowledge of their ancestors, a benefit that flows on to visitors. Tour guides are largely members of local indigenous communities, who offer a wonderful mix of Dreaming and science in their explanations. A scenic 70-kilometre self-guided drive details both Aboriginal and European histories of the area. And the information centre by Mungo’s entrance – a modern, air-conditioned respite built with financial assistance by Dick Smith (“a lovely guy, he’d fly down in his chopper and pick up my grandparents on the way so they didn’t have to drive from [nearby town] Balranald”) – is surprisingly entertaining.
It is here that Charles shows off moulds of the first footprints discovered at Mungo – found by serendipitous mistake. Professor Steve Webb, of Queensland’s Bond University, had come to give the park rangers a short course in archaeology, and found the prints on the very first day. (“And only because we went to the wrong spot,” chuckles Charles.)
That discovery led to over 500 prints being recorded – 22 different tracks in all, including a woman carrying a child in her left then right hip, a group of men hunting together, children wandering around their parents’ ankles, and a husband and wife walking together.
“And look at this,” she says, grabbing a mould with a particularly deep big toe impression. “This guy was one-legged,” she grins. “We reckon he was born with it, because of his strength in that leg. He was a hunter. From his prints you can see he took two shots with that spear, and caught a kangaroo on the second.” She puts it back. “You can tell a lot from what’s left behind.”
Seems like it’s all really just beginning to happen now, what with all these new discoveries, I suggest.
She smiles. “It’s been happening for thousands of years…”
- Rex flies to Mildura direct from Sydney; Qantas and Virgin both service Melbourne to Mildura. From there, it’s about 90 minutes on an unsealed road to Mungo National Park (suitable for 2WDs).
- Roads may be closed in wet weather (call 03 5027 5040 to check). Vehicle entry fee is $8 per vehicle, per day. Payment is by self-registration – envelopes and information available from Mungo Visitor Centre (open daily from 8:30am to 6pm; 03 5029 7292).
- There are plenty of places to stay in nearby-ish (100 km) towns Mildura or Balranald, but parking yourself here for a night will help you slow down and allow the gentle magic of the place to settle into you. If you’re running on city time, you’ll whizz by what makes this place so wonderful.
- Mungo Lodge is by far the most comfortable place to stay, and run by a warm, accommodating staff. Plus air conditioning. Prices start from $229 a night.
- You can soak up Mungo’s pastoral heritage by staying in the park’s historic Shearers’ Quarters, which are basic – think bunk beds and a shared toilet block – but well-priced from $61.50 a night. Contact Mungo Visitor Centre; 03 5029 7292.
- There are also two campsites here – we like secluded Belah, about halfway along the 70km self-drive park loop. From $5 a night.
- We’ll be honest – it’s slim pickings nearby. Again, Mungo Lodge offers the best option; their on-site restaurant also offers picnic and snack-pack options to take with you during the day. Unless on a tour where food is provided, you’re best off self-catering. Don’t bring alcohol into the park – it would be disrespectful to drink here.
- The Walls of China – also known informally as ‘The Pinnacles’ – were once sand dunes, which were covered with clay then eroded. The resulting lunar-like landscape is remarkably beautiful, and Mungo’s calling card.
- As you can’t get close to the landscape without a guide, booking a tour is a very good idea. Indigenous park rangers like ours, Tanya Charles, give informative half-day ‘Aboriginal Discovery Tours’; 03 5021 8900.
- Do not miss Red Tops lookout, ten minutes past the Walls of China on the self-drive loop. Thanks to recent weather, this is currently more spectacular than the Walls, and offers much better access if you’re without a guide. Visit at sunrise or sunset.
- ‘Vigars Wells’ on the self-drive loop has some some gorgeous sand dunes behind it that offer beautiful views of the park if you’re game to walk up them.
- Mungo Lookout offers a wonderfully sweeping preview of the park. If coming from Mildura, turn right at the end of Arumpo Rd into Turleeleaghur Rd (instead of left toward the park’s entrance). A couple of hundred metres down the road, on the lefthand side, is Mungo Lookout. If you’re coming from Balranald, it’s on the right-hand side of Turleeleaghur Rd just before the intersection with Arumpo Rd.
- Wineries, houseboat stays, hot air balloon rides… there’s a fair amount to do in the pretty Mildura area. The must-do restaurants are Stefano’s and Trentham Estate; there’s also an annual writers’ festival, more information at artsmildura.com.au
Need to know
- The 70-kilometre self-drive loop of the park is scenic and informative, but best completed in the morning before it gets too hot.
- Don’t forget to pack mozzie spray. There aren’t always flies here, but when there are, there really are.
- For more info, visit visitmungo.com.au or visitnsw.com/destinations/outback-nsw