Run­ning on empty

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An­cient worlds: The wind and wa­ter-sculpted Walls of China in Mungo Na­tional Park at­mos­phere and the frag­ile, un­ex­pected beauty of the Walls of China, Mungo ex­erts an in­ex­orable pull. Much of that pull, though, goes back to the ex­traor­di­nary hu­man fac­tor.

The 1974 dis­cov­ery of Mungo Man in the earth of what was then Gol Gol Sta­tion re­vealed that Abo­rig­ines had lived here at least 40,000 years ago, hunt­ing and fish­ing in the then vi­brant lake.

Th­ese are the old­est hu­man re­mains found in Aus­tralia and the sec­ond old­est out­side Africa.

At Mungo Na­tional Park’s vis­i­tor cen­tre, just near a life-size model of zy­go­matu­rus, a sort of rhino-wom­bat marginally smaller than a Kombi, there are pho­tos of a 16,000-year-old bliz­zard of foot­prints frozen in the clay of what was once a muddy fore­shore. Th­ese were dis­cov­ered only in 2003 by a young Mut­thi Mut­thi woman called Mary Pop­pin Jr, so you get the feel­ing there’ll be plenty more to come. WE pitch our tents at the nearby main camp, a col­lec­tion of sites spaced well apart among the mulga trees. Fire­wood is avail­able at the vis­i­tor cen­tre ($5 in the hon­esty box), as are show­ers for those who aren’t quite ready to fully em­brace the joy­ously grubby side of the great out­doors. While the kids glee­fully run amok, I get down to the vi­tal tasks of de­ploy­ing the comfy camp chairs (part of a stim­u­lus pack­age spending spree) and split­ting fire­wood with our shiny new axe, mainly to im­press Bel with my man­li­ness and the kids with my dad­li­ness.

As the sand red­dens in the evening light, Daisy and Leo ac­com­pany me along the walk­ing trail to the look­out. They pose hap­pily for pho­tos on the bleached skele­tons of up­rooted trees, eyes peeled for roos. ‘‘ I’m go­ing to count how many we see,’’ Daisy an­nounces in the voice she re­serves for im­por­tant an­nounce­ments (the tally will reach 54 by the time we get home).

We come to a plat­form on the rim of the lake bed and stare across an ocean of salt­bush and earth be­ing swal­lowed in shadow. On the far side, the Walls of China are turn­ing pink. Be­fore we left Syd­ney, Bel talked with a Ger­man who had been to Mungo 15 times; trip No. 16 was al­ready on the cards. I’m beginning to un­der­stand why. We walk down a trail of clay, fol­low­ing a line of old fence posts. Amid the con­stel­la­tions of mys­te­ri­ous bur­row en­trances, we spot a bone ly­ing on the sand like a fin­ger of moon­light and Daisy is ec­static; hours will be spent spec­u­lat­ing on its owner.

And then we start spot­ting roos, long, I’d guess from their rigid bodies and swiv­el­ling ears, af­ter they’ve spot­ted us. Daisy ap­pears to see as well as the Hub­ble tele­scope. Leo, who has kept up a prat­tling com­men­tary from his perch on my shoul­ders, isn’t quite so sure. ‘‘ Yeah?’’ he says un­cer­tainly when we ask him if he can see any roos. Then he does. As a big pair of west­ern greys erupts be­fore us, a tremor passes through his body into mine and the joy­ous squeal is surely heard back in Bal­ranald.

As dark­ness falls, we spot a tiny speck of light from a car on the far side of the lakebed; af­ter some dis­cus­sion, we agree it looks like a star that has care­lessly fallen from the heav­ens. THE joys of camp­ing are many: the pop­ping of a camp­fire dot­ted with foil-clad pota­toes; the dis­cov­ery that feasts can be cre­ated on one measly lit­tle gas burner; the moon­less out­back sky so dense with stars it seems al­most as white as it is black. Then there’s the slosh­ing of red wine into mugs; the thump-thump­ing of roos through the scrub; the mag­ne­sium-flare of shoot­ing stars; the tiny bats squeak­ing like shop­ping trol­ley wheels; the merry shrieks of Daisy and Leo play­ing spot­light with some kids from Co­bar. And the con­tented but tired dec­la­ra­tions from Daisy and Leo that they’d re­ally love to go to bed (th­ese are words we don’t of­ten hear).

In the morn­ing, we pass the old Mungo wool­shed. The Chi­nese labour­ers who worked here used to gaze across to the white, pink and or­ange flanks of the lunette — the 33km cres­cent of dunes and fluted clay that swells above what was the east­ern shore­line — and think of their own coun­try’s Great Wall and the name stuck. But it tells you lit­tle about how re­mark­able this place is. Oth­ers de­scribe it as a lu­nar land­scape but that would only work if the moon had once had wa­ter wash­ing across it, and a dust­ing of Mar­tian sand for good mea­sure.

Ev­ery­thing here in the midst of this des­o­late dry­ness is a hymn to wa­ter: the wrin­kles and pleats and gill-like folds in the pin­na­cles and earth tur­rets, the ser­pen­tine gul­lies, and the pale dunes rolling east at 3m a year to­wards the sea they look as if they should al­ready be abut­ting. Not that the kids are es­pe­cially caught up in such thoughts. ‘‘ Let’s jump off them,’’ Daisy bel­lows. Leo fol­lows, throw­ing cau­tion — and him­self — to the wind. As lit­tle bodies go tum­bling down the sand, the dunes echo with laugh­ter.

We slowly travel the 70km loop around the lake, find­ing fam­i­lies of emus mov­ing at a stately pace through the salt­bush, hov­er­ing rap­tors, great pink flur­ries of Ma­jor Mitchell cock­a­toos, and kan­ga­roos of all de­nom­i­na­tions. But even­tu­ally, with the sun beginning to take its leave, we’re drawn back to the Walls of China.

As night falls and the eroded for­ma­tions around us turn to ghosts, we hud­dle to­gether. For a mo­ment, we feel like we could be the last peo­ple on earth and it re­ally doesn’t mat­ter. James Jef­frey trav­elled with as­sis­tance from Tourism NSW.

Check­list

Mungo Na­tional Park is 987km west of Syd­ney and about 11/ hours’ drive on mainly un­sealed road from Bal­ranald or Mil­dura. Camp­ing is avail­able at two sites for a nom­i­nal fee (pay at the vis­i­tor cen­tre). Ac­com­mo­da­tion is also avail­able at the Shear­ers Quar­ters ($30 an adult a night) next to the vis­i­tor cen­tre, as well as nearby Mungo Lodge and Turlee Sta­tion. www.en­vi­ron­ment.nsw.gov.au/na­tion­al­parks/ www.mungolodge.com.au www.turleesta­tion­stay.com.au www.vis­itnsw.com

Pic­tures: James Jef­frey

Fun and games: Leo and Daisy’s ad­ven­ture play­ground

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