Tim Fischer’s secret spot – Mungo national Park, NSW, Australia.
Mungo National Park, NSW
As chairman of Tourism Australia and a former Deputy Prime Minister, Tim Fischer has clocked up more travel miles than most people have had hot dinners. In the eighth of his exclusive columns for AT, Fischer visits the eerie site of one of Australia’s richest archaeological finds, NSW’s Mungo National Park.
Part of the Willandra Lakes Region World Heritage area in far Outback NSW, Mungo National Park provides a tantalising glimpse into the earliest years of white settlement in Australia – and, importantly, even further back to the very beginnings of Aboriginal heritage. The park’s cultural legacy paints a vivid picture of Australian Ice Age environments, and the people who lived and died during those ancient times.
It’s an eerie place, but a fabulous one in which to dream of the first civilisations to occupy this country, some would even suggest the first examples of modern homo sapiens in the world.
Over recent years, erosion of the parklands has brought to light ancient fossils, even age-old footprints of children playing. The collection of human skeletal remains, Tasmanian Tigers, oxen-sized animal bones – including giant kangaroos – as well as small tool-like artifacts make it nothing short of an archaeological treasure trove, creating a tapestry of the earliest Australians, their culture and surrounds.
Mungo lies at the site of a desiccated lake, long since dried up. However, it takes little by way of imagination to visualise the 135km2 stretch of water, once teeming with marine life. It’s believed to have evaporated some 10,000 – 15,000 years ago, and you can almost hear the voices of the civilisations from that time, who enjoyed a rich life on the foreshores of the lake system, complete with permanent BBQ sites for their meals of yams, fish and kangaroos as they dealt with all creatures large and small. While dinosaurs had departed, huge hairy-nosed wombats were still around, industriously ferrying the pink topsoil down into the grey clay levels with their giant burrowing technique, easily traceable today by simply following the pink colourisation along the layers of exposed clay to a large hub circle or nest of yesteryear.
In 1974, the shifting sands of a dune revealed an eroding gravesite, and there lay a 25,000-year-old human skeleton, dubbed Mungo Man. He was actually named after Mungo Lady, discovered only a half-decade earlier. There’s no solid agreement on the age of Mungo Man, with estimations ranging from 25,000 – 60,000 years, but the discovery certainly created a stir in the scientific world: prevailing views of where modern humans ultimately came from have since been questioned on the most profound level.
Wildlife varies in the park and, if you’re vigilant, anything from red kangaroos to carpet pythons will undoubtedly be sighted – perhaps even the rare treat of spotting an echidna in its natural habitat. Bush walking might bring you up close with the endemic orange chat scurrying across your path, so I suggest you keep an eye out.
The park’s natural surrounds are easily accessible and Mungo’s self-drive tour takes you past the “Grand Canyon”, which often has emus stalking about its base, and, of course, the magnificent World Heritage-listed Walls of China. The sprawled, convex and concave constructs of quartz and clay form tall crescent-shaped dunes, known as lunettes, that stretch more than 30km. Sculpted by irresistible erosion, the dramatic, 30m-high Walls are continuously destroyed and reformed by the action of wind and rainfall. That’s why timing your trip around full moon adds so much to the mystique of Mungo: with haunting moonscapes draped over the shifting lunettes, the remote national park exudes an element of magic.
The famous Mungo Woolshed, built in 1869 of local cypress pines, is part of the region’s rich pastoral heritage and hours have been dedicated to the maintenance and restoration of all post-colonial buildings in the area. The shed has been kept in remarkable condition, along with a visitor’s centre boasting extensive exhibits and audio-visual presentations.
Lodgings in the park range from rustic to well-equipped camping facilities, and from secluded campsites to the comforts of Mungo Lodge, a welcome retreat for the weary traveller, only an easy two-hour drive from Balranald, and even less from Mildura across the Victorian border.
There’s also some recently opened shearer’s quarters that have been converted into low-cost lodgings, including a camp ground – the only one in the area with hot showers and flushing toilets! Guests are not only provided with a unique style of accommodation, they’re also involved in the day-to-day activities of the station, such as sheep shearing, sheep dog working demos and tag-along tours (www.turleestationstay.com.au, (03) 5029 7208).
You may wish to take your time visiting Mungo in a relaxed fashion, simply by cycling around the reserve or indulging in a leisurely picnic overlooking its profound landscapes. But as an explorer of this fascinating country, it’s far more rewarding to savour the striking, star-studded sky and the experience of this soul-cleansing, spirit-building adventure into deep history.
Either way, it’s a journey you’ll long remember.
DETAILS: Mungo National Park
Where: Adjoins Kinchega and Willandra National Parks, 980km west of Sydney (about 12hrs by road), or 1.5hrs northeast of Mildura, across the Victorian border.
Best time to go: March-Oct. Cooler months preferable, but anticipate unpredictable extremes at any time.
New find: Children’s footsteps from around 40,000 years ago, captured in solidified clay and sand.
Tourism NSW website:www.destinationnsw.com.au
Mungo National Park office phone: (03) 5021 8900
Mungo Lodge phone: (03) 5029 7297