Mungo National Park…
Mungo in the native aboriginal means “meeting place.” In the distance past, it was Lake Mungo and was used by the Paakantji tribe as a food and water source. Up until 17,000 years ago, Mungo was Lake Mungo. Lake Mungo was a large lake measuring 10 kilometers by 37 kilometers. Aboriginal peoples met here to collect clams, fish, and hunt small game for food. They also conducted religious rituals, communed with one another, and conducted trade with other passing tribes. As a member of a different aboriginal tribe, you had to have permission to pass through another’s land. This could be gained by meeting and trading goods. The lake dried up about 17,000 years ago and left behind a wealth of fossils as well as breathtaking landscape. Our tour guide told us that every now and then, someone will show up at Lake Mungo with their jet ski or boat. They are pretty disappointed to arrive and find that the lake is now dry and has been for centuries. The tour guides laughingly said they tell these tourists, “You’re about 17,000 years too late, mate!”
In the 1860′s, this land became a sheep station. The wool shed that still stands here next to the visitor center was built in 1869 by Chinese labour and was used by the owners of the sheep station all the way up until 1978 to shear sheep for the wool market. At its peak, shearers sheared 50,000 sheep in a season in this wool shed. Amazing since it was done by hand until a steam powered system was added which was later replaced by a diesel generator to run the shearers. The Stiratt family bought the station in the 1920′s and this family owned the station until 1979 when they sold it to the New South Wales government to become a National Park. Today, while the park is owned by the state government, it is cared for by members of the Paakantji aboriginal people. This collaboration was spearheaded by four aboriginal women of different tribes who deeply believed, along with their tribes, in the historical significance of this land to their people. We have them to thank for the preserved beauty of the park.
On the northern edge of the now dried lake bed, an extraordinary archeological find was made several decades ago. Human remains were uncovered that eventually were dated to 40,000 years ago. She was aboriginal and was ritually cremated and buried at her death. Mungo woman is how she is known now and the discovery of her remains rewrote the history of human habitation of Australia. Until she was discovered, it was thought that Australia had been occupied by humans for about 20,000 years or so. Now, it is obvious that humans have been here much, much longer. The remains of a male have also been found and date to the same era as Mungo Woman. Several years ago, the aboriginal people who care for this land successfully petitioned the government to have Mungo Woman’s remains returned to the land where she was buried and are now attempting to have Mungo Man returned as well. They believe that human remains should no longer be disturbed or tested for age, but should instead by respected and left to rest in peace. After all, these remains are the remains of their ancestors. However, they do allow testing of other artefacts that are found on the land. They plan to build a monument to honor Mungo Man when he is returned. Today the land where these remains were first found are on the list of World Heritage sites.
We drove 60+ miles of dirt road to get to Mungo one Sunday afternoon. Yep, you read right…60+ MILES of dirt road. Granted, the road is cared for by the NSW government, but still, dirt road is dirt road. We stopped twice along the way to take photos of lizards sunning themselves in the middle of the dirt road and passed through unfenced cattle stations with cattle grazing on the side of the road, no fence between us and them. When we finally reached the visitor center, we weren’t disappointed. The center was modern and clean. The walls had a beautiful mural of the landscape and two walls had traditional aboriginal totems painted on them, depicting traditions of the people who care for this land. The center contained artefacts found on the land as well as the story of the aboriginal peoples who originally occupied the land and the family who owned the sheep station from the 1920′s through the 1970′s. Across from the visitor center stands the wool shed I mentioned that was built in 1869.
Surrounding the visitor center and wool shed is the stunning land that is the dried lake bed of Mungo. About 10 kilometers in the distance you see what looks like, from the visitor center, white walls. These “walls” are known as the Walls of China and are actually what was the lake shore. Today, the landscape has been eroded by nature and now consists of sandy dunes and lunettes. Lunettes are outcroppings of harder rock not eroded by nature as fast as the softer sand.
Visitors are not allowed on the Walls unless accompanied by a tour guide. Our tour guide was Ernest, a member of the Paakantji tribe. He was a wealth of knowledge about the the artefacts and fossils that he pointed out on the tour and told us about what life was like when the lake was filled. We drove across the lake bed to get to the Walls and counted about two dozen emus, some of them young ones, and too many kangaroo to count during the 10 km drive. The emus even ran across the road in front of the tour guide’s truck. Funny to watch them run! They look like dirty feather dusters on stilts when they run.
We toured the Walls about an hour before sunset. When the sun is high, the walls are pretty, but just look like white dunes. As the sun got lower in the sky, the walls gradually transformed into a multicolored striped landscape. Layers of white, red, and orange appeared in striped layers of the sandy soil and lunettes. Shadows played around the lunettes adding dimension to the landscape and providing contrast to the white. Ernest pointed out ancient fire places where aborigines made camp and cooked mussels and clams on the shore of the lake 9,000 years ago and showed us how these ancient people started their fires and maintained them for days at a time. He talked about how other tribes passed through the land, trading goods with the Paakantji in order to have permission to cross the land.
As we made our way to the top of the dunes, I really got a sense of how timeless the landscape is, how ancient. Every where you look while on the walls is beautiful, but the view at the top…well, at the top, I could see for miles in any direction. Looking back over the lake bed, I saw miles of low brush inhabited by the emus and kangaroos we had seen. With my back to the lake bed, I could see outback for miles stretching south toward Victoria, a region known as the Mallee. In all four directions, the horizon stretched across the land miles away. Beauty in all four directions, the stark beauty of the outback. My feet sank into the soft sand while bird and mouse tracks wound through the sand. We all found ourselves stepping around the animal tracks rather than stepping on them as if by doing so we could preserve them for eternity, like we had walked around the aboriginal fireplaces earlier on the tour.
As the sun sank lower, it was time to leave. Time to leave behind the timelessness, the beauty.
Dusk turned into night on the drive home. It is beyond dark that far out in the outback at night. Kangaroos hopped along on the side of the road, thankfully away from the road every time except once. When they did cross in front of us, they were far enough ahead of us that we could stop for them. We wound our way through the cattle crossing the road, laughing at the calves who seemed like they thought we were one of them. We stopped at one point to get out of the car and look at the night sky. It’s so dark that far out that you see stars that you can’t otherwise see. There’s really no space between the stars and the Milky Way stands out like an almost solid stripe across the night sky. The constellation known as the Southern Cross was just rising and Orion was crossing the sky, arrow at the ready. Maybe he was hunting kangaroo with the aborigines who used to be the only humans on this land. This must be the sky they saw when they looked up those millenia ago on the now dry shore of Lake Mungo. I wonder what stories they told, what creatures they saw outlined in stars.
Australia, as the country we know today, is relatively young. But the history of the land and the people stretches back thousands of years. When you visit places like Mungo, you get a sense of just how long those thousands of years really are…