New South Wales
Willandra: the lake that once was
November 13, 2018 • Glenn Marshall
8 min read
For over 45,000 years, Aboriginal people roamed the shores of the Willandra Lakes. The discovery of human remains so old, they changed the timeline of human habitation outside of Africa and made Mungo one of the oldest places in the world where modern humans existed. You too can walk these ancient lands.
Rising before the birds, the day begins with a 2km drive from the Main Camp to the Visitor Centre to watch the sun rise over the Mungo Woolshed. Once the day had dawned, I enjoyed a hot shower and a roadside breakfast before the first Mungo Aboriginal Discovery Tour began. I paid my $50 and followed the rangers on the drive out to the Walls of China.
The Main Camp is a great off grid set up
Guided by the charismatic Ernie Mitchell, I was welcomed to his country before being led along the boardwalk and up to the lunettes. Access beyond the boardwalk is only possible on the Discovery Tour and is a “must do”.
I learnt how the Aboriginals came to be at Willandra, what they ate, where they lived and how they were buried. Ernie showed me ancient shell middens, old carving stones and places where fires had been lit. It’s just amazing to get so close in such an ancient place.
The Mungo Lady was first discovered in 1968 after lunette erosion exposed her remains; “They cremated her, crushed her bones, burned her again then covered her remains in the sand” Ernie explained.
The lunettes were once part of an ancient seabed
Over time, the lunettes developed and hid Mungo Lady for 40,000 years before being discovered by a geologist, Jim Bower.
In 1974 Jim also found Mungo Man. He was buried on his back with his hands crossed upon his lap before being sprinkled with red ochre. This is the oldest known example of such a burial ritual.
“Mungo Man was about 50 years old when he died,” said Ernie, “he was a hunter who suffered bad arthritis in his elbow from throwing spears. “
Ernie is a dead set legend
Upon reaching the top of a sand dune, Ernie removed a guitar from his back and sang a song that he had written titled “Mungo Lady, Mungo Man”. His smooth tones echoed amongst the lunettes, creating an eerie yet soothing feeling.
Drive the Loop
The Mungo Track links all the main sites in the National Park and provides a better understanding of the landscape. Beginning at the Visitor Centre the 48km Mungo Track is a one-way loop suitable for 2wd vehicles and mountain bikes. It may be closed during or after wet weather.
It was amazing watching the sun rise over this historic structure
I ventured through the historic Mungo Woolshed and sheep yards astounded by the craftsmanship that went into the building. Its unique drop log method of construction occurred in 1869 using the hardy Cypress Pine, a termite resistant wood. In 1922 a part of the woolshed was removed and relocated to build the Zanci woolshed.
Following the trail, I crossed the bed of Lake Mungo before turning to track along the edge of the lake, reaching Red Top lookout as I climbed the lunette. A short boardwalk offered views along the lunette with deep ravines eroded by the prevailing winds.
A long stretch of bulldust tried hard to cause some trouble as I drove onto the plains then continued along the track, sided by Saltbush, Bluebush Rosewood and Belah trees. Kangaroos enjoyed the shade of the Sugarwood trees as my dust cloud blew their way.
The Loop Road is the best way to explore the national park
Next stop was Allen’s Plain Tank. Established by the early settlers this tank was once covered in rabbit warrens before they were successfully eradicated. There was still plenty of water in the tank, but not as much as in 1956 when locals decided to water-ski.
Entering the Mallee dunes area Porcupine grass replaces the Saltbush and a perfect coffee stop appeared at the aptly named Mallee Stop. There is a 500m loop walk here and the information sign suggested I keep an eye out for lizards.
A good lunch stop at Belah Camp, the second camping area in Mungo, take advantage of the picnic tables under the shade of a Mallee Gum. Fires are not allowed at this remote campsite; my gas stove was suitable. I chuckled at the small piles of stones or wood that previous campers had left as “imaginary” fires.
If you want to see how wild goats are caught in the backcountry, Round Tank is the place to check it out. This ingenious system lures the goats into a fenced off cage with water. Once in the cage, the goats can’t escape and are later herded onto trucks and sold, providing further revenue for the traditional owners.
Vigars Well was the highlight of the drive. It wasn’t so much the well that did it but the massive sand dunes that dominate the area. Climbing to the top of the largest dune I was able to watch a free burning bushfire out to the west. I would have loved to have a board to sit on and slide down the dune like a kid.
Once I re-crossed over the lunettes, I was driving across the lake floor of Mungo heading toward the western edge where red sand dunes dominate the shoreline. Covered with Bluebush and other native grasses, the sheep that grazed this lake devoured this fodder to the detriment of the land.
Upon reaching the red dunes on the western bank, Cypress Pines are beginning to regenerate, their population devastated by the popularity in their strength and suitability for building. I soon reached the old Zanci Homestead.
The dunes are crying out for an Eskie lid or a snowboard
Mungo was once part of Gol Gol Station but in 1921 it was divided into smaller lots under the soldier settlement scheme, creating several new stations including Mungo and Zanci.
The Zanci Homestead site offers an insight into the hardships that the Vigar family went through trying to establish themselves. The drop log woolshed still stands proudly as do the stables, a testament to the longevity of Cypress Pine.
When I walked down the stairs into the dugout where the family spent their time during the tortuous summers, I was struck by the enormity of it all and how hard it must have been, especially as I had just hopped out of my air-conditioned Prado. The dugout was also used as a cool room for food storage.
I spent an hour exploring the site, and thoroughly enjoyed the informative boards that have been erected in the old woolshed. Tracing the pastoral heritage of Mungo from its 1850’s origins to when its life ended as a working property and became Mungo National Park in 1979. Zanci joined the Park in 1984.
The Zanci site is also part of the 7km Pastoral Heritage Walk. Leaving from the Visitor Centre this medium level walk follows the foreshore of the lake and up into the dunes and the shady Cypress Pine and Mallee Gum. After exploring Zanci the return is via the airstrip. Sun protection and plenty of water is a must for this walk.
Top Shelf Bush Camp
Main Camp is the place to base yourself while you explore the remote Mungo National Park. You will need to be self-reliant and carry plenty of water as it can get hot, even in the cooler months. The amenities block and the free gas barbeques are impressive and gave me a chance to chat with other overlanders while cooking dinner.
The Grassland Walk begins and ends here and is an easy 1km walk meandering through a mix of seasonal grasslands, Bluebushes and Copperbushes and Belah, Cyprus Pine and Wilga trees. Interpretive boards explain the flora and fauna along the way.
To top it off, there is a walking track from the Main Camp that takes you to Mungo Lookout. The expansive view across the ancient lake bed is a beautiful vista, especially in the mornings.
As the sun set on another remarkable day, I sat and wondered if the whistling in the trees around me were the spirits of Mungo Lady and Mungo Man watching over me in their sacred land.