Road Trip: Outback Odyssey

  • Rain clouds over Mungo National Park.

    Rain clouds over Mungo National Park.

  • Lake menindee at sunset, with the skeletal branches of semisubmerged trees reaching up through its surface

    Lake menindee at sunset, with the skeletal branches of semisubmerged trees reaching up through its surface

  • Inside a historic shearers’ shed at mungo national park

    Inside a historic shearers’ shed at mungo national park

  • On the road to menindee.

    On the road to menindee.

  • Eucalyptus leaves frame a view of lake peery

    Eucalyptus leaves frame a view of lake peery

  • Outside the shearers’ Quarters accommodation at Kinchega National Park

    Outside the shearers’ Quarters accommodation at Kinchega National Park

  • The bar at white cliffs hotel is a quintessential outback watering hole.

    The bar at white cliffs hotel is a quintessential outback watering hole.

  • The darling river near kinchega national park.

    The darling river near kinchega national park.

  • New South Wales Map

    New South Wales Map

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Known as “the oasis of the outback,” this system of ephemeral lakes has been bloated by floodwater, with the largest, Lake Menindee, now three-and-a-half times larger by volume than Sydney Harbour. “I never thought I’d ever see Menindee like this again,” says a ranger I meet at the visitors’ center at Kinchega National Park, which encompasses four of the great lakes.

I ask him for a good place to watch the sunset. He directs me to an unmarked spot 20 kilometers down Lake Drive, where I park my car and walk a couple of kilometers to a finger of land that divides Lake Menindee from the smaller Lake Eurobilli. I spot dozens of kangaroos running around the heath and attract the interest of a pair of emus that follow me at a distance. When I reach the shoreline, I see a hundred or so pelicans feeding at the lake, amid the branches of semi-submerged trees. Once again, I marvel at the sheer quantity of water: the vast silvery sheet stretches as far as the horizon.

“That’s what I love about the landscape here: the contrast between the greens and the reds; long dusty plains that go on forever,” says Paul Massie, a gray nomad (that’s Aussie slang for people who spend their retirement traveling around in motor homes) from the coast whom I meet at a campsite that night. “The last time I came here was 1980, and boy has it changed; it’s like a wetland now.”

From Menindee, I follow the Darling River south. Flowing from Queensland to the Victoria–New South Wales border, this 3,370-kilometer stretch of water is in better shape than it has been for years. Yet it’s still depleted in parts, and I wonder how much longer a stream that has dried up around 50 times over the past 100 years can last.

For a lesson in how much the geography of the outback can change, I make a detour to Mungo National Park, a World Heritage– listed area some 60 kilometers east of the Darling. This is the site of the oldest known human occupation in the Southern Hemisphere; human fossils discovered here in 1974 date back at least 40,000 years. In prehistoric times, the park was also home to 13 colossal lakes that teemed with crustaceans and mussels and countless fish species.

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