When Australia added its first sites to the World Heritage List, it chose three places – the Great Barrier Reef, Kakadu National Park, and Mungo National Park. It says everything you need to know about how important Mungo National Park is that it was included with these two other Australian icons.
Technically, the World Heritage Site is called the Willandra Lakes Region and it covers an area that includes more than just the national park. But, when it comes to visiting the site, it’s Mungo National Park that’s the focus and what I’m going to tell you all about.
At the heart of the site is Lake Mungo. But don’t expect to find water here. Lake Mungo, like the other lakes in the region, dried up at the end of the last ice age, about 14,000 years ago.
This very gradual process of drying up as the climate changed did two things that are important to know as a visitor to Mungo National Park. It preserved a lot of important things in the layers of sand and sediment. And it created stunning landscapes.
It’s possible just to approach a visit here as you might many other national parks – for the scenery. There are certainly stunningly distinct vistas here, from the walls of sand sculpted by erosion to thick forests of gum set in deep red dirt.
But learning about the history of Mungo National Park will take your understanding of the site to a whole new level. Because it was here that researchers separately discovered ancient human remains that became known as Mungo Man and Mungo Lady.
Who was Mungo Man?
In 1968, a geologist called Jim Bowler found the bone fragments of a woman in the eroding sand bank on the shore of Lake Mungo.
The first thing that was so striking about this discovery was that the bones had clearly been intentionally cremated and ritually buried here. But what was even more significant is the study that dated these bones at about 40,000 years old!
She was named Mungo Lady and she was evidence of the oldest ritual cremation known on earth.
In 1974, Jim Bowler made another very important discovery when he came across the bones of a man, who would become known as Mungo Man. He hadn’t been cremated, but rather had been buried on his back with his hands crossed in his laps and red ochre sprinkled over his body.
Again, the details of his burial showed an advanced culture and the analysis of his bones showed they were at least 40,000 years old as well.
Until the discovery of Mungo Man and Mungo Lady, the accepted belief by the scientific community had been that Indigenous Australians had lived on the land for about 20,000 years. Here was indisputable evidence that it was actually at least double that long – and probably even longer, at least 50,000 or 60,000 years!!
Visit Mungo National Park
As a visitor to Mungo National Park, you’re not going to see Mungo Man or Mungo Lady – although at least they have been returned to the site, after being taken away and kept at universities and museums.
(Mungo Lady was returned in 1992 and is kept locked in a vault. Mungo Man was returned in 2017 and buried in the sand.)
But this land was clearly an important spot for Indigenous Australians for millennia and there are constantly artefacts being uncovered by the erosion. It’s quite easy to find bits of tools or weapons on the ground, for instance.
Taking a guided tour is one of the best things to do at Mungo National Park, and the guide will point out some of the artefacts. But there are also plenty of spots in the park you can explore by yourself.
This is Outback NSW at its finest, away from the highways and the towns that most people pass through, visiting Mungo National Park is a real adventure. There’s lots to see and heaps to learn about the Australian bush.
Do you need a 4WD for Mungo National Park?
The roads into Mungo National Park are unsealed but, in dry weather, they will be in a good condition and you shouldn’t need a 4WD to get into the park (but an AWD like a Subaru Outback or Nissan X-Trail would be preferred). The roads are corrugated so it’ll be a bit rough with a normal car, although still possible.
I think it would be technically be possible to get in even with a campervan, but it’s going to be very bumpy and uncomfortable, so take that into consideration.
The Mungo Loop Track, which is a good way to explore the landscapes, is also unsealed and a little bit rougher than the main roads. I wouldn’t recommend doing it with a normal car, although it’s probably still possible, depending on the exact model you’ve got.
When is Mungo National Park open?
Mungo National Park doesn’t have any official closing days or times, so in that sense it is always open, all year round.
However, if there are heavy rains, then the roads will be closed for safety (maybe for days) and so you won’t be able to get in. You should check the weather and call the visitor centre if you need an update.
How long should you spend at Mungo National Park?
Some people do a day trip to Mungo National Park from Mildura but I think that’s too short. Although you can probably squeeze most things, it will be a rush. Also, you’ll likely miss the beautiful sunset.
I would recommend staying overnight (I have accommodation suggestions later in this story) and giving yourself at least 24 hours to see the highlights without rushing. You could even stay a couple of nights and enjoy some walks and drives.
When is the best time to visit Mungo National Park?
The best time to visit Mungo National Park is in the spring, from September to November. However, there are plenty of other times during the year you can also visit.
Just be warned that it gets very hot in summer, with an average of about 34 degrees. Winter days are quite nice, with an average of 20 degrees, but the nights get cold and are often around zero.
May is the wettest month of the year and, because the roads close when it’s too wet, I would recommend not planning a trip then, unless you’re able to be a bit flexible depending on the weather.
How much does it cost to visit Mungo National Park?
Entry to Mungo National Park costs $8 per day per vehicle. (Unless you have a NSW National Parks Pass, which includes entry here).
You will need to pay at the Visitor Centre, where there are self-registration envelopes available all the time.
To help you plan a trip to Mungo National Park, I’ve got some more detailed information with a complete guide for your trip there.
What should you bring to Mungo National Park?
This is very important! There is no petrol or shops at Mungo National Park, so make sure you’ve got a full tank and you bring supplies like water and food with you.
The Mungo Lodge has a restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, so you should be able to get meals there. However, I would recommend having a back up option, just in case.
There’s also no mobile phone or wifi, so keep that in mind with your planning.
Getting to Mungo National Park
If you are visiting Mungo National Park independently, there are two options – you can drive or you can fly.
There is an airstrip at Mungo Lodge, so you can fly your own plane there. Or you can arrange a charter flight from Melbourne with Kirkhope Aviation.
But, let’s assume that most people will drive. The closest major city is Mildura and it’s about 1.5 hours to drive to Mungo National Park from Mildura.
If you’re come from the southeast (on a road trip along the Sturt Highway, for instance), then from Balranald, it’s almost two hours drive.
If you’re coming from the northwest (on a road trip from Broken Hill, let’s say), then it’s about an hour’s drive from Pooncarie.
The roads into Mungo National Park are unsealed but they’re good quality and you don’t need a 4WD to drive them in good weather. However, it’s going to be a bit rough with a small front-wheel-drive. It’s possible to get in with a campervan but not very comfortable on the corrugated roads, so keep that in mind.
When there has been heavy or sustained rain, the NPWS may close the roads and there’ll be no access to the park. If there is (or has been) rain, I would recommend calling the Visitor Centre to check the details.
You can also take a guided tour out to Mungo National Park. There are tours from Mildura or tours from Balranald. However, the tours tend to just show you the main sights and you’ll miss a lot of things.
Things to do at Mungo National Park
There are quite a few things to do at Mungo National Park, both exploring the natural landscapes and the cultural heritage here. There are some ‘sights’ that you can see, but there are also a few trails that you can walk, cycle, or drive.
I think there’s easily enough to fill a whole day – possibly even more if you take it slowly and soak in the unique atmosphere here.
Mungo Visitor Centre
The Mungo Visitor Centre is the focus of the park and lots of the things to do will begin from here. It’s also where you’ll need to come when you first arrive to pay your entrance fee.
But the Mungo Visitor Centre is a sight in itself because of the excellent exhibition it has inside. It’ll tell you all about the geological history and the flora and fauna that you’ll find in the area.
But, of course, there’s also great information about Mungo Man and Mungo Lady and the Aboriginal heritage of the region. There are often Indigenous rangers here who you can have a chat with.
Behind the visitor centre is the Meeting Place, an outdoor area that was designed as somewhere that traditional owners and other groups could meet for discussions and other events. A key feature is the recreation of the footprints that were found here 20,000 years ago.
Next to the visitor centre is the Mungo Woolshed, a legacy of the time before this area was a national park and it was used by farmers to graze their sheep.
The woolshed was built in 1869 and, at its peak, would’ve had about 18 men working here, shearing over 50,000 sheep in a season. It’s an impressive building, constructed with local cypress pine, and has been well looked after and restored.
There are detailed information signs inside and there’s a lot to learn. It’s an important part of Mungo’s history – particularly when you consider that all the sheep contributed to the erosion that ultimately revealed the most important artefacts here.
Zanci Pastoralist Loop
To find out more about this farming history, you can take the Zanci Pastoral Track, a 7-kilometre loop trail that connects the Mungo Woolshed with the Zanci Homestead, another wooden structure from the pastoralist era.
The Zanci Homestead also has a woolshed, along with other buildings from a time when the people who lived here needed to be self-sufficient for months on end. The information signs have a lot of interesting detail.
You can walk the loop but I would recommend only doing that in the cooler parts of the day. It’s also a good cycle route, if you have a bike.
Alternatively, you can drive to the Zanci Homestead along the main road if you just want to have a look at it.
Mungo Foreshore Walk
For a shorter walk, you can do just the start of the Zanci Pastoralist Loop, which is a trail called the Foreshore Walk. It’s just 2.5 kilometres long and leaves from the Visitor Centre.
This walk goes along the ancient shoreline of Lake Mungo and gives you a sense of the variety of landscapes in the park. It’ll climb over a low red dune and into the wooded sand country.
Even though it’s not too long, it’s still best not to walk the trail in the heat of the middle of the day. It’s a nice way to start the morning, though.
The Walls of China
The highlight of Mungo National Park is undoubtedly the Walls of China. This is the name given to the ancient lake shore on the other side from the Visitor Centre, where the sandy bank has been eroded by wind and rain over thousands of years.
What remains are incredible sandy sculptures that look like mountains, podiums, ravines, and cliffs. It’s in here that the Mungo Man and Lady were found.
It’s also here that artefacts are constantly found, as I mentioned earlier. There are little bits of tools and weapons, as well as ancient animal bones, that are revealed all the time as the top layers of sand are taken away by the weather.
The area is a called a ‘lunette’ because of it crescent shape – but it’s aptly named because it also feels a bit like walking on the surface of the moon, with the white sand and strange formations.
There is a boardwalk that takes you to the start of the lunette, with great views and information panels. But you can’t go any further on your own. However, you can walk on the sand as part of a guided tour.
There are usually tours each day (at different times) from the Visitor Centre with an Indigenous ranger, who will be able to tell you all about the heritage of the site.
There are also sunset tours you can do with a guide from Mungo Lodge. These will take you onto the lunette in time to get some great photos as the landscape turns orange then pink as the sun goes down.
The Mungo Track
A lot of visitors who come for the day don’t do the Mungo Track, but I really think this is one of the best things to do at Mungo National Park, after a tour of the Walls of China. Please don’t skip it!
The Mungo Track is a 70-kilometre-long road that loops from the visitor centre, up over the lunette, around the back of the sand dunes, and then back to the visitor centre through some of the pastoralist heritage.
There’s a huge range of landscapes – more than I realised existed here. The track changes colour, from sand to red dirt; it passes through rosewood forest and amongst dense gums.
There are derelict huts left by pastoralists and their water tanks now used by the wildlife; emus roam with impunity while there’s a trap to catch the feral goats.
Along the way, there are even spots you can stop and do little walks to explore things like views of the lunette, ruins of huts, gum forests, and birdwatching.
The NPWS information says that it’ll take you most of a day or that you can even do it over two days, because there’s a campsite about halfway along. I don’t think that’s really right – you can do the whole thing in a few hours, even if you take it quite slowly.
But, having said that, there’s no point rushing so I would recommend leaving yourself half a day to do the drive. If you want to camp, that would be fun, but you’ll have heaps of time if you do that!
Suggested Mungo National Park itinerary
Although you may feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere (you kind of are), it’s actually quite easy to navigate once you’re here because most of the things to do in Mungo National Park radiate out from the visitor centre.
It means that you don’t need to plan your trip in advance to avoid doubling back or feeling like you’ve missed something that you’ve gone past.
Having said that, there are particular times of the day when it’s better to do certain things and, if you’re driving to Mungo National Park for just a limited time, it’s better to be prepared.
So, here is my suggested itinerary, which I think would be the best use of your time.
DAY 1 EARLY AFTERNOON: Arrive at the park sometime after lunch and settle in to your accommodation. Go to the Mungo Visitor Centre to see the exhibition and get any information you need.
DAY 1 LATE AFTERNOON: Join the sunset tour of the Walls of China with Mungo Lodge. (Although I would love to recommend the Indigenous ranger tour instead, the colours at sunset are just so spectacular, so this would be my personal preference.)
DAY 1 EVENING: If you haven’t brought your own food for dinner, the only option is dinner at Mungo Lodge (where there’s also a bar, if you haven’t brought any cold drinks).
DAY 2 EARLY MORNING: Head down to the Mungo Woolshed early to discover a bit of the pastoralist heritage. Depending on your energy and time, do the Foreshore Walk – and even the Zanci Homestead Loop (although you will pass Zanci Homestead later in the day, if you take my next suggestion).
DAY 2 LATE MORNING: (Well, I say ‘late morning’ but probably the earlier you go, the better.) Head off on the Mungo Track to drive the whole 70 kilometres. Make sure you pick up the information leaflet from the visitor centre so you can stop along the way to see things. Take your lunch and have it along the way.
DAY 2 AFTERNOON: Time to head off to your next destination, which may be at least a couple of hours drive away. You’ll see some nice vistas along the way while you’re still in the Willandra Lakes Region, so perhaps leave a little bit of time for photos.
Mungo National Park Accommodation
There are only limited options for accommodation at Mungo National Park, so I definitely recommend planning in advance and booking something as soon as possible.
For hotel-style rooms, there are two options.
The first is the Mungo Shearer’s Quarters which is, as the name suggests, old shearer quarters that have been restored and converted into rooms. They are relatively basic but right next to the visitor centre, with communal bathrooms and facilities for cooking.
The second option is Mungo Lodge, which is a lot more upscale. There is a series of cabins with comfortable beds, air conditioning, and your own bathroom. There’s also a very good restaurant on site.
Mungo National Park Camping
If you would prefer to camp or you have a campervan/caravan, there are a couple of options.
The first is the main campsite which is just a short drive from the visitor centre. There are 33 sites and you really should book in advance. There are barbecues and an amenities block (flush toilets and hot showers are at the visitor centre).
The other option is the Belah campground, which is about halfway along the Mungo Track. There are only 12 sites and the facilities are basic so you’ll need to be prepared and bring everything with you. But you will really feel like you’re camping in the Outback!