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Awe and anger at Lake Mungo

By John Hargreaves - 22 June 2015 13

landscape at Lake Mungo

Ever been to Lake Mungo, down from Broken Hill and up from Mildura? Climbed the dunes at the Walls of China on the lunette? If you have you will have come away affected for the rest of your days.

I went there on my Broken Hill trek recently and was blown away.

For those unfortunate never to have been there, Lake Mungo is a dry lake in north-west NSW, and it has a lunette (half-moon) of dunes which have been caused by soil erosion over thousands of years, exacerbated since the 1800s by vegetation depletion from sheep and goat grazing and rabbit plagues. The denuding of the vegetation left the soil vulnerable to shifting and the piled up at what is called the Walls of China.

This erosion and soil shifting (actually it is sand of the beach variety) has uncovered evidence of human habitation dating back 20,000 to 30,000 years.

This is the place where the skull of Mungo Lady and the skeleton of Mungo Man were discovered. This is the reason it is part of the World Heritage listed Willandra Lakes Region. Many more human remains have been found but they have been left in situ and re-covered to ensure their preservation.

I saw evidence of fireplaces dated by carbon dating which were 20,000 years old. I saw skeletal remains of a Tasmanian Devil, giant wombats and other animals since extinct.

Standing on the dunes, on freshly combed sand from the winds of the night before, I saw the immensity of this spectacular site and experienced a real time feeling of my own insignificance.

The talks by the two guides we had showed a connection with the area by the original walkers on the land and how they revered their environment. They only took what they needed to fill their families. The fished the lake, hunted the mussels, kangaroos and emus and buried their dead with dignity and ceremony.

Who would have thought that a people 20,000 years ago would have societal morays and paradigms? Who would have thought that these “primitive” people had a defined society? We have been taught that the indigenous people didn’t have that structure all those years ago. So much for that theory!

And BTW, Wikipedia has some pretty accurate stuff on Lake Mungo if you want to read it.

I was left with an enormous sense of awe.

But… and there is always a but, eh? The National Parks people and the NSW Parks and Wildlife people should really get their act together.

Let’s go to the smaller of my two gripes. The Lake Mungo Visitors Centre is a small museum with a couple of interesting exhibits, but is un-staffed 90% of the time. There is nothing for sale, like a bottle of water for those who forgot, no take away paraphernalia, and the guides only turn up just prior to the scheduled tour, which you find out about in Mildura or Balranald.

The amenities, toilet blocks and showers are clean and in good nick, which is helpful for the handful of campers in their RVs or self-contained shacks. The phone on the wall has been out for months and there is no mobile coverage. Too bad if you break down!

The guides on the other hand were fantastic. Their local knowledge and stories were enthralling and their knowledge of the archaeology of the area more than adequate.

But… the guides are casual, not part time or full time guides. We met Ernest, a local indigenous man, who gave us the history, the archaeology, the “stories” and the entertainment which was so in sync with the place. I learnt heaps from this man who was largely uneducated in formal terms but carried a wealth of knowledge dwarfing mine.

Not only was Ernest a talented and knowledgeable guide, he also earnt occasional money mustering goats for a local concern who trade in goat skins and meat from feral and semi-feral goats. He also does occasional work on properties nearby. And… he does weed and rabbit control for the National Parks people.

What an exploitation of his talents! The Lake Mungo area is always in need on constant care and whilst there are some maintenance people on site, there should be a program of permanent and fulltime work for the indigenous people of the area who look after the land and are happy to share their stories. Ernest should have been a full time guide who was on the payroll to look after his heritage and this unreal place.

What a way to dispel some of the misinformation about our first citizens? Not!

I came away thinking that the authorities weren’t doing enough for these folk, enough about their prospects and about their quality of life.

I came away with a sense of anger.

All in all, though I’m so glad I went. Blew my mind. How about any of you?

What’s Your opinion?


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13 Responses to
Awe and anger at Lake Mungo
John Hargreaves 6:09 pm 22 Jun 15

justin heywood said :

Excellent shot John,

My understanding is that Mungo Man was dated to at least 40,000 years though (here at the ANU in fact). This indicates a very rapid dispersal of early people across Australia from their initial entry point on the north coast of Australia.

The more interesting thing though was that he was buried with red ochre, indicating some measure of ceremony was attached to his burial.

Absolutely correct. What is not widely known is that Mungo Woman was found first. And it was the ochre which pointed to a ceremonial burial which told a society not known by us whities before that.

Also that more human remains have been found and reburied. Did you know that the powers that be want to rebury Mungo Man and Woman but in a different spot from which they came. The locals are not that impressed and are talking to those same powers about it.

John Hargreaves 6:06 pm 22 Jun 15

pajs said :

Nice one. But ‘mores’. ‘Societal morays’ makes me think eels that hunt in packs.

touché or touchay – bastard autospeller

John Hargreaves 6:05 pm 22 Jun 15

Roksteddy said :

I agree. This is a spectacular place. Anyone into photography would do well to visit.
BUT… Seriously John?! Why are Australians expecting a souvenir shop everywhere we go? If you aren’t taking a bottle of water into outback Australia then you are a potential problem. I explore areas such as this because of their remoteness and for the wilderness experience. I go well prepared so that I am self-sufficient.

I do get your point about the guides. It is valid. But a lot of it comes down to money. National Parks, and the Rangers that look after them, are never funded sufficiently. This goes for the ACT Government past (hint, hint) and present too. They operate on a shoestring. In an ideal world there would be a program of fulltime work for the indigenous people of the area, and in every National Park. I can’t see it happening. Also remember, this is not adjacent to any major population base. Most people would need to travel 100+ km to staff your shop.

Keep it low-key, I say.

Now lets start pushing for a café in the Tarkine Wilderness…..

I would have been happy for a water bottle dispensing machine and a phone which worked plus a human being to talk to about the wonders when deciding whether to hire a guide, which we did through the Mungo Lodge where we stayed.

John Hargreaves 6:03 pm 22 Jun 15

Zan said :

We were standing on the ridge overlooking the trees and grasses in the distance. I asked our local guide what was over there and she said: We call that our supermarket. Wonderful.

That was Ernest the guide. great bloke

Zan 4:33 pm 22 Jun 15

We were standing on the ridge overlooking the trees and grasses in the distance. I asked our local guide what was over there and she said: We call that our supermarket. Wonderful.

rubaiyat 3:32 pm 22 Jun 15

justin heywood said :

Excellent shot John,

My understanding is that Mungo Man was dated to at least 40,000 years though (here at the ANU in fact). This indicates a very rapid dispersal of early people across Australia from their initial entry point on the north coast of Australia.

The more interesting thing though was that he was buried with red ochre, indicating some measure of ceremony was attached to his burial.

I don’t get why people think distance is such a barrier, particularly given the long time involved.

Europeans spread across this vast continent in next to no time when it was already occupied. When the Aborigines came they would have no opposition except local predators which they seem to have eliminated. Their population would have rapidly increased to match the resources available, and were already nomadic without population pressures giving them an incentive to look beyond the horizon.

There are rock paintings in the Kimberley that show herds of deer, which could only have been a memory of time in Asia before coming to the top of the Northern Australia. So very clearly a rapid expansion.

A couple of hundred years at most would be enough to spread out across Australia.

Conan of Cooma 2:16 pm 22 Jun 15

From memory the site is under direct management of the traditional owners and they do not want to create a tourist mecca due to artefact looting and site destruction, both of which are very prominent issues there.

pajs 2:11 pm 22 Jun 15

Nice one. But ‘mores’. ‘Societal morays’ makes me think eels that hunt in packs.

switch 2:03 pm 22 Jun 15

Lake Mungo made me think “This is what Lake George will look like in 20,000 years time.” Or sooner.

Maybe the souvenir shop has run down since I was there (2010) but I thought it (and the staff) were suitably appropriate to the remote location.

justin heywood 1:33 pm 22 Jun 15

Excellent shot John,

My understanding is that Mungo Man was dated to at least 40,000 years though (here at the ANU in fact). This indicates a very rapid dispersal of early people across Australia from their initial entry point on the north coast of Australia.

The more interesting thing though was that he was buried with red ochre, indicating some measure of ceremony was attached to his burial.

Milly Withers 12:37 pm 22 Jun 15

Eerie photo! It looks other-worldly.

Roksteddy 12:05 pm 22 Jun 15

I agree. This is a spectacular place. Anyone into photography would do well to visit.
BUT… Seriously John?! Why are Australians expecting a souvenir shop everywhere we go? If you aren’t taking a bottle of water into outback Australia then you are a potential problem. I explore areas such as this because of their remoteness and for the wilderness experience. I go well prepared so that I am self-sufficient.

I do get your point about the guides. It is valid. But a lot of it comes down to money. National Parks, and the Rangers that look after them, are never funded sufficiently. This goes for the ACT Government past (hint, hint) and present too. They operate on a shoestring. In an ideal world there would be a program of fulltime work for the indigenous people of the area, and in every National Park. I can’t see it happening. Also remember, this is not adjacent to any major population base. Most people would need to travel 100+ km to staff your shop.

Keep it low-key, I say.

Now lets start pushing for a café in the Tarkine Wilderness…..

rubaiyat 9:44 am 22 Jun 15

Why would you think that people, no matter how far back, didn’t have “societal morays and paradigms”?

How do you think they got here, far earlier? Co-operating to cross what would have been one of the first great ocean voyages to get from Asia to Australia.

Otherwise I do agree with you. My wife and I were just discussing how the flood of social welfare benefits turns into a bare trickle as it passes through the hands of the government departments who “manage” it. Darwin has grown fat on the process.

But remember this when you next hear someone bemoaning the Greenies, the Environmentalists and the National Parks and Wildlife Service. We do need more feet and hands on the ground where it counts.

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