Running on empty
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.
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
Fun and games: Leo and Daisy’s adventure playground