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Driving to the Walls of China

Lake Mungo and the Walls of China. An exotic, ineffable landscape of prehistory: here was Mungo Man, here was Mungo Lady. The endless plains of Mallee scrub. The glistening banks of the Darling. It called; we drove.

You can drive to Mildura from Melbourne in under seven or eight hours if you’re frugal with coffee breaks. But I was surprised by the number of picturesque towns on the way there — a discontinuous strip of tourist-ready quaintness. The scenery, inflected by long cultivation (like blazing fields of canola), is not devoid of interest unlike the insomnia cure of the Hume Highway. Too, the recent years of rain has given the land a sheen of lushness, even the scrub seems dense and fertile.

On the banks of the Darling beyond Wentworth

We’d booked a few days at a homestay outside Wentworth at the start of spring — the old Avoca homestead on the Darling — a 90 minute drive from Lake Mungo. It was a splendid choice — the house sits on rolling banks above the river among massive trees. The vista of morning light rippling off the water stirs the heart, made me (unfortunately for all) burst into song and whistle.

Our hosts, Ian and Barbara Law are the salt of the earth (that biblical phrase has curious contradictions, but not inappropriate for the Mallee) and freshly redefine hospitality. Ian was a famous Hawthorn footy star of the 60s (three times best and fairest, and a 1st class cricketer to boot. Looking over his glory wall I was amazed by his early resemblance to Tony Abbott). Naturally they’ll be at the G this weekend to witness the Hawks’ impending triumph. Good luck, Ian.

Driving to the Walls of China

You know the stuff: enormous dry lake, discovery site of Mungo Man, oldest human remains found in Oz; and of Mungo Lady, oldest human remains in the world found to be ritually cremated. The lake itself is a vast plain of low scrub punctuated by verticals of roos and emus, topped and tailed by birds and lizards. You can walk far into this space — all that land and sky — the flatness, the human silence, the wind, the visionary light.

You drive from the old sheep station to the Walls. (You can spend hours circling the lake, or a couple of days on a bike.) The Walls of China were named for the Chinese shepherds of the 1860s which suggest something of the antiquity of multicultural associations. The Walls make for the luminous attraction of the site, all sun bleached sand and dunes and strange wind-carved towers. The blistering paleness under the sun is the kind of landscape that makes spiritual such a tempting word to reach for.

But having heard so much about it I was hugely disappointed to discover (as did other people while we were there) that the boardwalk through the scrub to the Walls ends in a closed gate. In the old days, as I’ve been told, you found your own way. Now the only way on to the sands is with a tour guide; we saw such a group in the distance. In any case, the instinct is to walk alone and silent among the dreaming sand spires, to get lost. Not to trail around in a group to the information soundtrack of the guide, no matter how interesting that is or environmentally required it has become. Alas. Still, the sight once seen lodges in the memory; while it’s not the most remarkable sight I’ve come across, the atmosphere is unique, it is a dreaming space.

Meanwhile back at the station

We enjoyed enormously our stay in the Mallee. Walking the dogs among the burrs and dust and paddy melons. Watching potatoes roast on the fire by the river. Seeing the dogs react to an echidna on the lawn (pictured is Avoca’s Poppy). Eating (sensational) national prize-winning vanilla slice in Birchip on the way home (the Great Australia Vanilla Slice Triumph had just been held the previous week).

We loved it all, all that country, all that sky, all that rolling water — which is meant to be fantastic for swimming in summer. (And we didn’t even get to Stefano’s to fine dine.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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