MIGHTY MUNGO COUNTRY


Visit Balranald, NSW to unearth some of Australia’s most beautiful hidden treasures

WORDS BY NOEL SMART, PHOTOGRAPHS BY NOEL SMART

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Can absence really make the heart grow fonder? If so, 40 years of absence should make one love a place completely. This is the case with Mungo, NSW. Way back in time, we went to Balranald duck shooting, with no real memories of the town. Boss had never been there, so it was like visiting somewhere new.

WHERE IS BALRANALD?

On our way travelling through South Australia, we decided to meet with the Nuriootpa Caravan Club and caravan friends Brian and Maureen Quartermain and spend a night in a little town called Balranald. Balranald, settled in the mid-1800s, sits between Hay and Mildura on the Sturt Highway and is the oldest town situated on the lower ‘Bidgee. Originally, paddle steamers and barges were the only means of transporting goods like wool and timber out, and supplies back in – over time Balranald became a busy river port. A fact that is very hard to understand today, as little remains. The inevitable railway and road construction saw the demise of Balranard’s river transport. Balranald made its place in history as an agricultural epicentre, but is now an ever popular RV retreat. Even though the river is no longer used for transport, it still provides farmers with much needed water and a lucky few with beautiful waterfront homes. Considering the average summer temperature sits around 30°C, you would be lucky to be in such close proximity to the water.

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We expected the Balranard Caravan Park to be noisy, with its many passing trucks, so we only planned an overnight stay. Thankfully, we were wrong. A quiet and peaceful caravan park beside the beautiful Murrumbidgee River – does it get any better?

As usual we called at the visitor centre; a modern building landscaped to suit the dry climate, full of friendly and helpful staff. Outside was a great kid’s playground under shade. We loved the eagle sculpture. Our second stop was to the building adjacent to the visitor’s centre, which housed an interpretive exhibition of local history – covering the area’s wheat, timber, and wool production, and an informative freeto- see video. Yes, we’ve all seen them before, but this was better than most.

After the visitor’s centre, we took a stroll downtown. Balranald’s city centre is full of well-stocked shops, tidy streets and obliging people – the perfect welcoming environment for an RVer.

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Balranald made its place in history through agriculture, but it’s also home to the endangered Southern Bell Frog. How important is a frog? Well, one almost stopped our Olympic Games construction site. Roy Mann; a local panel beater, priest, Harley rider, and sculptor – with the help of his son Rod – was commissioned to create a town mascot based on the Bell Frog. The result is a now much photographed funky happy-chappiein character, of which there are sixteen around the town.

Wanting a couple more teaspoons for the van, we called at the local Vinney’s store for a bargain. The Homebush Pub was mentioned and a volunteer brought us right up to date. Heather Jacka was that lady; a licensee at Homebush for ten years, and a bundle of knowledge about the town in general. This sort of assistance was provided everywhere we went. Our overnight stop slowly turned into five.

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We headed off on the 27km drive north toward Ivanhoe. The only place marked there on some maps is Penarie. Camps Australia site #873 is nearby.

A retired steam tractor rested by a property gate. We passed a Homebush Pub sign beside the road and there it was.

So many years. So many changes. There are now accommodation cabins and the bar is many times the remembered size – extending into an even larger dining area. Progress is a little saddening. A rustic room beyond, decorated with a wool press and station bale stencils, has a stage with disco type overhead lighting. This little place must really jump during a function. Two great steak sandwiches, with a light beer and glass of wine, catered for the inner man and woman. Sandy Burdon behind the bar gave Boss a lesson in the gentle art of pulling a beer. It seems she didn’t pass.

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In my memory, the Homebush Pub sat amid sand and saltbush scenery, oozing atmosphere of years gone by. Spilling out the doors of this tiny establishment were a dozen or so duck-shooters and more standing outside. The air was thick with stories and laughter. Money was passed over heads, with drinks and change returning the same way. I noted the beer suffered some spillage, but that’s the stuff memories are made of.

In the opposite direction, 10km from Balranald is Yanga Station Homestead/National Park, on the Hay road. The Station was once owned by the explorer William Charles Wentworth. In the 1870s it was the largest freehold property in the southern hemisphere with 176km of Murrumbidgee River frontage. Australia’s first telephone was installed here by James Cromyn, with his uncle Alexander Graham Bell assisting from England.

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An audio guide and key to the buildings are available from the onsite National Parks office. The self-guided tour is free and done in your own time. The writer was not accepted as deposit for the audio unit. A little money was preferred.

The heritage listed buildings are of native Murray Pine ‘drop log’ construction, on a land spit into the spectacle shaped Yanga Lake. The lake is a great wildlife haven. Closer to town is Yanga Station’s woolshed, and was begging for visiting time.

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The region has five rivers; the Edwards, Lachlan, Murray, Murrumbidgee, and Wakool. All are known for their Murray Cod, boating, and other activities. The Murrumbidgee Fishing Classic attracts 200 anglers to Balranald each March. A NSW fishing licence is required.

If you are keen on birds, take a walk on the wild side. At the edge of town is the mini wetland Ben Scott Memorial trail and boardwalk. Small lilies flowered in profusion, sheltering thousands of tiny fish. The water probably disappears during drier times. Many migratory birds come here seasonally, but our visit missed them.

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No trip through this area is complete without Mungo Man. About 42,000 years old, Mungo Man is one of the oldest human remains found in the world. A Mungo Lady was later discovered, and footpaths have since been traced. Mungo National Park, the Barrier Reef, and Kakadu, became Australia’s first World Heritage Listed sites in 1981.

But this is about destinations, and the long dried Mungo Lake is a great destination. We took a local tour bus on the extremely corrugated road for  the Great Wall sunset trip. It can be hot out there. When booking, an alternative day was suggested as mid 40 temperatures were expected at Mungo. We left at 2.00pm, with a snack pack for the trip. When the bitumen ended conversation became limited.

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Mungo was a huge lake; around 20km long, 10km wide, and up to 15m deep. Surprisingly, this now arid area still supports about 150 bird species.

We had some point of interest stops, with afternoon tea by the old lake. At the rather spiffy Mungo Lodge resort we collected a fly-in couple and a cold bottle of wine for our evening picnic. The eco-styled resort harvests some of its own water on large plastic sheets. The final bus stop required a short walk to the Great Wall, which spans 35km. As we carefully wandered through the 30m high sand dunes and sun highlighted lunar-like landscape, we remembered again WA’s Pinnacles. These dunes are ever mobile, covering some things, uncovering others. Few would see exactly the same thing twice.

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Don’t ignore this great little town out west. It’s full of history. There’s much to do and see in Balranald, but like most places you have to find it. Things of interest are hidden in the big picture of most towns, unfortunately it is a picture some never really see into as they hasten to their next stop.