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My trip to Mungo was something I almost didn’t do. To explain why I need to back up a bit…
One of the fundamental decisions you have to make (over and over) when you are on a trip like mine is “what do you see?” Australia is a big country and there’s lots of things to see and places to explore. There are many national parks which are not well known. Trying to visit all of them would be impossible. On the other hand, if you limit yourself to just Uluru, Sydney and the Great Barrier Reef, you are missing out on a most of the country.
One of the things which I use as a rough guide is the UNESCO World Heritage sites. The idea is if it was important enough to get on the list, it is probably worthwhile seeing. This isn’t always the case. The Melbourne Exhibition Pavilion was pretty underwhelming as was the Sangiran Early Man site in Indonesia. I also can’t visit all of them. I didn’t get to any of the sites in northern Japan for instance and had to pass on a few in Indonesia and South Korea. Some of the neatest things I’ve seen were not on the World Heritage List and probably never will be. Nonetheless, it is a good rule of thumb. If you are in the area, it is probably worth visiting.
The Willandra Lakes Region is in the far South West of New South Wales, just across the border from Mildura, Victoria. It was one of the places which I didn’t know much about other than it was a World Heritage Site. The primary site in the World Heritage area is Mungo National park. Looking at a road map, there appeared to only be one, unpaved road going to Mungo. I had no idea if there was a visitor center or if it was open to the public (if I used guidebooks, I’d probably have known those things, but that is another discussion)
I figured with a large city nearby, there was probably some sort of tourism industry and there was probably some way to go visit the park. I rolled the bones and drove up to Mildura not knowing what to expect.
My hunch turned out to be true. Mungo, it turns out, is a pretty popular destination for people visiting the Mildura area (they call it Sunraysia) and there were tours available every day going to the park. The visitor’s information center in Mildura was easy to find and they were able to set me up.
Prior to this point on my trip I had been to rainforests, coral reefs, glaciers, fiords, tropical islands, mountains, megacities, volcanoes and cedar forests. I had not however, been to a desert. If nothing else, going to Mungo would give me that opportunity. Going on a guided day tour was really the smart decision. Driving my rental car down an unpaved Australian road with little traffic in 105F (40C) weather was probably not a good idea. Our guide Graham was an Aboriginal native to the area who had been working in and around Mungo in different capacities all his life. He's worked as a guide, with the park, and on archeological excavations. I also picked to go on the sunset tour because it would be cooler, I could sleep in later, and the photos would be better with the setting sun. Mungo is the site of the dried up bed of Lake Mungo. Once you are there it is very obvious that it is a dried up lake. The basin is very flat and you could easily see where the old shore was. The lake dried up with the end of the last ice age and all around the lake, you can see skeletal remains of humans and animals. It is the human remains which is why the area was chosen as a World Heritage site. Mungo is the location of the oldest known remains of modern Homo Sapiens on Earth, dating back 40,000 to 60,000 years. Many of the better known archaeological sites are not of humans, but either human ancestors or different species which split off from our line. Lucy, the famous fossil found in the Olduvai Gorge in Africa was an Australopithecus. Likewise, skeletons of Java man, Peking man. or Neanderthals were not of modern Homo Sapiens. Graham was pretty well versed in the archeology of Mungo and the state of the current theories of the ascent of humans. He was also very opinionated on the subject, saying that moderns humans arose in Asia, not Africa. He also opined about a range of other subjects such as the alignment of the planets, on which he was full of crap. Walking around the lake bed, we could actually see many fossils poking out of the sand. Because the lake was around so recently (geologically speaking) it never really was buried in much sediment. As the lake receded, bones of animals left over from human camps littered the edge of the lake. You could also see several layers of the sediment around the lake which was black from the carbon leftover of fires which burned the outskirts of the lake. At sunset, we work our way to the Wall of China, which is a big moving sand dune on the edge of the lake. It is rather odd to be on this big sand dune. On one side is a flat, dry lake bed, and on the other side of the dune, it was rather green with trees. The erosional formations in the Wall of China were visually the most interesting things to see in the area and were the most spectacular as they were lit up by the setting sun. The flies in Mungo were the worst I've ever seen in my life. They didn't bite, but everyone had their entire back and head filled with flies. They were extremely annoying and would fly with you everywhere you walked. Once the sunset, however, all the flies disappeared. The temperature also dropped down to a very reasonable level. On the way back, we stopped on the side of the road to look at the stars and Graham gave the explanation of the Aboriginal "dream time" and what it has to do with the Milky Way. He also gave some of the Aboriginal names for some constellations and the stories behind them. I'm really glad I went to Mungo. Most of the backpacker crowd in Australia keep on the same path and seldom deviate from it. Mungo is well off the beaten path and not a place most people visit. I didn't see a single wicked Camper the entire time.