Bare bones of history

In the dunes of Lake Mungo, Bruce Elder explores one of the world's most significant archaeological sites.

There weren't many travellers in western NSW 30,000 years ago. If there had been, they would have seen a landscape characterised by a series of large, deep, interlocking lakes teeming with big fish. Archaeologist Josephine Flood imagines the long-ago view this way: "The now-dry bed of Lake Mungo would have been 20 kilometres long and 10 wide, with a depth of some 15 metres. On its eastern side, sand dunes provided sheltered campsites by the lake shore."

It was a kind of paradise. Aboriginal hunters and gatherers, accustomed to walking from waterhole to waterhole, would have been able to settle on the shores of the lakes, enjoy the afternoon breezes, establish semi-permanent campsites and rely on the freshwater lakes for their fish and crustaceans.

About 16,000 years ago, the area became more arid and the lakes dried up. All that was left was a 25-kilometre sand dune, called a lunette, that stretched along the edge of the lake. It was 40 metres high in places. When shepherds, many of whom were Chinese, arrived in the area in the 1860s, they called it the Walls of China.

Today, that landscape remains unchanged. All you will see from the Mungo Lookout above the visitors' centre is the flat, barren bed of a long-dried lake and weathered, albeit unusual, sand dunes rising on the eastern horizon.

"Is that it?" you might ask, quietly grimacing at the very recent memory of 110 kilometres of corrugated dirt road from Mildura. If you go to a place of great antiquity, with cultural and anthropological significance, you want to be able to take home potent images and memories. Somehow, the life-like fibreglass model of the grey zygomaturus - looking like a cross between a wombat and a hippopotamus - at the Lake Mungo Visitor Centre doesn't quite justify the trip. Nor, for that matter, does the nearby Mungo Woolshed, built of hardy cypress pine in 1869, with its unusual drop-log design.

Lake Mungo is one of the most important archaeological sites in Australia and it should be visited with a knowledgable guide who can explain the region's uniqueness and significance. In its own way, Lake Mungo is the equal of, for example, the cave paintings at Lascaux in France or the skeletons of our hominid ancestors in Africa's Great Rift Valley.

Lake Mungo's claims are threefold. It is widely recognised as having been occupied continuously by Aborigines for the past 50,000 years and this makes it one of the most important early Aboriginal sites in Australia. Archaeologists have also recognised that skeletons found in the sands of the lunette are the oldest known skeletons of modern humans to be found anywhere outside Africa. It is also here that the skeleton of Mungo Woman (or Mungo I, as she is officially known), which has been dated to about 26,000 years old, was uncovered. It is the oldest example of ritual cremation found anywhere.

Josephine Flood, in her book Archaeology Of The Dreamtime, acknowledges no conclusions can be drawn from a sample of one but says the discovery "at least shows that 26,000 years ago women were considered worthy of complex burial rites. What emotions inspired those rites - love, fear, or religious awe - we will never know but all show a concern for the deceased, which is the essence of humanity."

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If you want to glimpse what life was like for Aborigines when Europeans were still living in caves, Lake Mungo is an unforgettable experience. You can gaze across the dry lake bed, walk up the dramatic lunette and contemplate the idea that once, tens of thousands of years ago, at this lonely, haunted place, Aborigines painted themselves with ochre, ate fish and mussels from the lake, buried and cremated their dead, cooked meat in simple hearths and ovens, sewed skins into cloaks and shaped bones and stones into tools and weapons.

There is a real sense of magic about the place. It's a strange but easy-to-experience spirituality that is particularly apparent at dawn and dusk.

Bruce Elder travelled courtesy of Tourism NSW.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Mungo National Park is 110 kilometres north-east of Mildura, Victoria, and 150 kilometres north-west of Balranald, south-west NSW. The roads are predominantly good-quality dirt but can become impassable after rain - check with the National Parks and Wildlife Service's Lower Darling area office on (03) 5021 8900 or local visitor information centres.

Balranald is 853 kilometres from Sydney and 435 kilometres from Melbourne; Mildura is 1011 kilometres from Sydney and 551 kilometres from Melbourne. There are regular daily flights to Mildura from Sydney via Melbourne on Qantas and Virgin Blue. Qantas, Rex and Virgin Blue fly from Melbourne to Mildura.

Staying there

The smart but relatively expensive accommodation option is to stay at the refurbished Mungo Lodge. Ensuite cabins are $240 a night; self-contained cabins are $340. The lodge has a large and comfortable lounge, bar, good-quality restaurant and is only a few kilometres beyond the visitor centre. The new facilities were opened in late 2007 by Indigenous Business Australia after the $3.5 million upgrade. There are two camping areas near the lake but the facilities are basic. Bunk accommodation is available at the Shearers' Quarters adjacent to the visitor centre. BYO bedding and linen. Bookings required. Phone (03) 5021 8900 or see mungolodge.com.au.

Touring there

There are two tour operators.

* Graham Clarke, a local Aborigine from the Paakantyi people, owns and operates Harry Nanya Tours. His daytime bus tours operate April 1-October 31 and his sunset tours operate November 1-March 31. The tours, which last about eight hours, pick up visitors from Wentworth or Mildura. They cost $165 for adults from Mildura and Wentworth, $125 from Lake Mungo and $85 for those who want to follow in their own vehicles. Clarke knows where to find fragments of bones, pieces of sharpened rock and old fireplaces and his ability to illuminate the lives on the lunette more than 25,000 years ago is outstanding. See harrynanyatours.com.au.

* Sunraysia Discovery Tours, based in Mildura, is owned and operated by Graham Grant, a former manager of the Mungo Lodge. A day trip costs $115 for adults. See sunraysiadiscoverytours.com.au.

* National Park discovery walks and tours

The Mungo Visitor Centre at the entrance to Lake Mungo is staffed by Aboriginal rangers. During school holidays, representatives of the Paakantyi, Ngyiampaa and Mutthi Mutthi tribal groups are employed as discovery rangers. There are three fascinating walking tours: a foreshore walk, starting at 10am; a tag-along tour to the Walls of China, starting at 2pm; and an evening adventure tour. All tours last two hours and cost $8 for adults, $4 for children and $20 for a family. They will be held during the Easter school holidays on April 4-26. Tickets can be bought at the Mungo Information Centre, which is open 30 minutes before the tour.

* Self-guided tours There is a free brochure available from the Mungo Visitor Centre called Driving The Mungo Story. It lists 39 places of interest around the lake, though these tend to be places connected with European occupation (wells, tanks, rabbit-proof fences, old woolsheds) rather than directions to see Aboriginal artefacts.

For more information

Phone NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, Lower Darling Area Office, (03) 5021 8900. Phone Mildura Visitor Information Centre, 1800 039 043, or see visitmildura.com.au/mungo-np.

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