Time Travel Made Easy
Like no other place I have ever been, you can see pre-history emerge from the sand in front of you. You may be the first person in 20,000 years to see the burnt piece of emu egg uncovered in an ancient fireplace.
When humans walked this landscape around 42,000 years ago, it looked very different. A series of large lakes, filled with fish, spread out to the north. Hairy-nosed wombats foraged for food along the lake edges. Even megafauna grazed amongst the forests. Today it is dry, mostly hot and still windy.
Up until about 20,000 years ago, Lake Mungo fluctuated in depth but remained a lake – as it had no outflow. Fish, animals and people were plentiful. The climate began to change with the onset of the last ice age, when it became colder and drier. At this point Lake Mungo began to dry out forever.
There were large claypans as the waters receded. One particular day 20,000 years ago, a group of several adults, adolescents and a few children made their way across a damp claypan. A young child with the group wandered about, as the others walked. The clay captured their movements and perhaps their story.
A day or two later a small group ran across the claypan at speed, perhaps chasing a ’roo. Someone threw a spear, but missed. The spear skidded into the ground. Remarkably, one of the runners only had one leg – leaving a set of right footprints only. The wind blew and sand covered the tracks until they were discovered in 2003.
There were at least 25 individuals and around 500 prints, making this the largest collection of human footprints in the Pleistocene age anywhere in the world. After three years of study, the prints were covered with sand again so they could remain intact. Moulds of the original prints have been made and arranged as concrete tiles near the visitors’ centre.
A Lady and a Man
Even before the footprints were left, there had been generations upon generations of people living next to Lake Mungo. A particular lady had lived, and then died, here. She was cremated and the remaining bones crushed, burned again, then buried. In 1967 her remains were discovered. This is Mungo Lady.
Around the same time as Mungo Lady lived, there had been a man who was about 170cm tall. He had developed arthritis and his teeth had become worn and scratched. His right elbow was particularly damaged, probably from many years of spear throwing with a woomera. He was about 50 when he died and his family carefully buried him in the dunes, sprinkling him with red ochre. This was Mungo Man.
Both Mungo Lady and Mungo Man have been reliably dated to be up to 42,000 years old. This discovery has revolutionised the modern view of how ancient human migration took place. Three tribal groups – the Paakantji, Ngyiampaa and Mutthi Mutthi people – welcome visitors to Mungo. They wish to share their ancestors’ stories and heritage.
In contrast, Europeans settled the Willandra Lakes area only 170 years ago. In those early days of white settlement, the sheep and cattle runs were huge. The large Mungo Woolshed was built in 1869 to shear the enormous numbers of sheep. At around this time there was an influx of Chinese labourers from the goldfields.
Up until this point, many of the local Aboriginal people had worked on the extensive properties. Eventually they were displaced again and sent away to missions. The 1920s saw the subdivision of many of the old runs for veterans of WWI. That didn’t work out so well as the land had been overstocked and heavily affected by rabbits and drought.
The first tourists are thought to have begun to arrive in 1965 to visit the Walls of China. Tourists were then able to drive their vehicles wherever they chose, as the unique nature of the Walls of China was not fully understood. Today the area is protected by a collection of groups in a cooperative effort with Mungo now recognised as both a National Park and a World Heritage area.
21st Century Visitors
For us, there is lot to see and take in. It would be wise to stay overnight (maybe even a couple of nights). To walk amongst the Walls of China and see pre-history first-hand, you will need to book onto a tour with the local Aboriginal guides. This can easily been done through the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service.
Camping options are good with two campgrounds available. Most people will use Main Camp as it is easy to get to and close to the visitors’ centre, Mungo Woolshed and a couple of walks. There are showers and flushing toilets at the visitors’ centre.
Belah Camp is on the other side of Lake Mungo and is more suited to those who want a secluded campsite. There are pit toilets and tables but fires are not permitted. If you have been travelling a while, the Mungo Shearers Quarters are available (with five rooms) next to the visitors’ centre.
This was a place that I had wanted to get to since I first heard about the discovery of Mungo Lady many years ago. It was a unique experience that doesn’t have parallels anywhere else in Australia. If you like time travel, this is the place for you.
Nearest town: Pooncarie
When to go: Any time you can, but summer can get pretty hot.
Accommodation: Two campgrounds available with Main Camp having the best facilities and Belah Camp for solitude. Shearers Quarters are also available next to the visitors’ centre.
Difficulty: All the roads are unsealed and 2WD in the dry. Rain will potentially close these roads, so best to check before going.
Further info: nationalparks.nsw.gov.au