Meet the relatives
The lunette at Mungo National Park / Pictures: Kelly Fitzgerald

Standing on top of the Walls of China, the wind is so strong the edges of the walls blur as the sand beneath my feet shifts and runs away on the breeze.

Way down below, under the sand, salt and clay, are chapters of our history uniquely preserved in the home of the oldest known human remains in Australia.

I'm at New South Wales' Mungo National Park, about 110km from Mildura or 875km west of Sydney, where 60,000 years ago there was a 15m-deep lake with a surface area of 200sqkm.

Lake Mungo has been dry for more than 20,000 years but it left secrets hiding just below the surface, easily uncovered by winds and rain.

This was the case in 1968, when geologist Jim Bowler discovered the remains of Mungo Lady, and then in 1974 the remains of Mungo Man. Estimates of their ages have changed over the years as technology has advanced and it is now believed both are about 40,000 years old.

I learn all of this by accident as my husband and I look for something to do while passing through Mildura. We haven't heard of the park and, since getting there involves driving an 80km stretch of unsealed road, decide to book a tour through the visitor centre.

It ends up being just the two of us, accompanied by Trevor Hancock from Murraytrek tours, who has been taking visitors through the park for more than 11 years.

He picks us up at 8am, laughing as we come off the bitumen: "That's the end of the good road!"

It takes about an hour and a half to reach the park along a rattly but pretty good road. Trevor says it has recently been graded but he has seen some two-wheel-drives get into a bit of trouble on the road, with bumpers shaking loose and cars getting bogged in the wet.

We have none of those problems and we reach the park's visitor centre, from where we can see sandhills in the distance. These are the Walls of China, which got their name from Chinese labourers who built a woolshed here in 1869 when this area was a sheep station.

You can walk through the woolshed and even stay in the restored shearers' quarters. The visitor centre offers an almost overwhelming amount of information, from a video about the discovery of Mungo Lady and Mungo Man and details of the megafauna that existed here 45,000 years ago, to more recent history of the area's life as a working property up until it was established as a national park in 1978.

The diagrams illustrate the history of this place in the millions of years - it's almost too hard to try to consider that span of time and how archaeologists even know when to start to piece together what life looked like so long ago.

Scientists tell us Mungo Lady was about 18 when she died and that her bones were burnt, smashed and then burnt again, making hers the oldest-known ritual cremation site in the world.

The visitor centre tries to paint a picture with this data: "Around 42,000 years ago an Aboriginal woman lived here on the shores of Lake Mungo, collecting bush tucker including fish and shellfish and nourishing her culture . . . Mungo Lady was a keeper of women's lore - the special cultural knowledge that only women could hold and which could only be passed down to her 'daughters'. When she died, her family mourned for her."

I like to see how scientists draw conclusions from facts: that the 50-year-old Mungo Man had severe osteoarthritis in his right elbow, meaning he could not have thrown a spear. That the ochre his body had been painted with before burial was not found within 100km of the area, causing speculation about its importance in a burial ritual at a time when humans weren't known to have such spiritual or cultural sophistication.

With all of this swirling in our heads we jump back into the van and drive a few minutes to see the Walls of China up close.

The crescent-shaped 30km dune system, also called the Mungo lunette, is up to 30m high in places and dotted with mini hills that make me think of something resembling a stalagmite crossed with the Pinnacles.

Trevor tells us the sandhills are made of many layers of clay, salt and sand blown up from the lake as it dried out. As grazing stock and rabbits cleared vegetation from the area during the past 150 years, this led to greater erosion from wind and rain. You can see where water has coursed down the dune, leaving deep tracks in the sediment.

The dune system is up to 30m high in places / Pictures: Kelly Fitzgerald
Trevor kneels down and shows us some wombat teeth buried in the sand, and at another spot the remains of a fireplace that has been dated at thousands of years old.

You can appreciate how quickly the sands shift here. As we walk higher on the dune the air is swirling with it.

The wind is whipping so strongly that it snatches the hat off another visitor and flings it off the far edge of the dune where he has no chance of retrieving it. My husband laughs: "Fifty thousand years from now someone's going to find that and think we all wore stupid hats."

See visitmungo.com.au for more information.

The West Australian

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