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Lake Mungo is a dry lake in the far west of New South Wales, about 760 kilometres west of Sydney. About 50,000 years ago, Lake Mungo held a huge volume of water. The water disappeared with the end of the ice age and the lake has been dry for more than 10,000 years.
Today, the eroding sand dunes expose evidence of a region once home to ancient people and giant prehistoric animals.
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A scene from Lake Mungo, dry for more than 10,000 years, in 2011. Photo: Deborah Frederick.
Lake Mungo was filled with water about 120,000 years ago, when a river (now known as the Lachlan) flowed through the Willandra Lakes region, draining water from the Great Dividing Range. The level of the lake changed depending on climate over the next 100,000 years, when humans reached Australia.
Tens of millions of years earlier, well before humans had evolved, much of what we now know as the Murray-Darling Basin was flooded by the sea. Between about 6 and 2 million years ago, the coast of southern Australia slowly retreated towards its current location.
Willandra LakesLake Mungo is part of a much larger lake system called the Willandra Lakes. The lakes have been dry for thousands of years after the river that fed the region changed course. Eroding sand dunes have exposed ancient bone, stone tools, fireplaces and shell middens, revealing glimpses of the people and environment as it was many years ago. The importance of the Willandra Lakes region has been recognised by its inclusion on the World Heritage list. Photo: Deborah Frederick.
Walls of China
Eroding sand dunes, known as the ‘Walls of China’, on the eastern shore of Lake Mungo. Photo: Papphase, Wikimedia Commons.
Thousands of years ago, when the lakes of the Willandra region were full, winds from the west blew sand from the shore, forming sand dunes along the eastern edges of the lakes. Whenever the lakes were dry, the same winds blew clay from the dry lake bed onto the dunes. Because of this, the dunes are layered and reveal evidence of times of wet (sand) and dry (clay).
ErosionThe introduction of sheep and other animals such as rabbits and goats over the past two centuries dramatically changed the Lake Mungo environment, causing widespread erosion on the plains, and in the sand dunes, visible here in the distance. Today, Lake Mungo as a World Heritage-listed area and national park, is managed by the Federal and New South Wales governments, leaseholders and traditional owners from the Paakantji, Ngiyampaa and Mutthi Mutthi groups. Photo: George Serras.