Mutawintji National Park may not be one of the first places people think of when they conjure images of Australia’s outback. That doesn’t stop it from blending right in with the rugged scenery and iconic imagery of the Red Centre, despite being a good 2000km from the MacDonnell Ranges, Kings Canyon, the Olgas and other areas normally associated with the region. As it stands, Mutawintji is a fantastic slice of Australia’s outback, and at two hours north of Broken Hill, you don’t even need to leave NSW.
Here, amidst a seemingly endless expanse of arid desolation, the Bynguano Ranges rise in fierce opposition to the flat, red country that stretches away in just about every direction.
Mutawintji lies sprawled across these escarpments, a rugged and spectacular landscape painted in a dense palette of ochre tones. Rich red sands, high sandstone ranges that capture every shift in the afternoon light, colourful gorges with picturesque rockholes, and vibrant desert greenery along oasitic billabongs.
Historically, Mutawintji’s story stretches back across eons, the landscape carved from the eroded remnants of an ancient seabed, with certain layers of rock dating back almost 650 million years.
The land has long been a significant place for indigenous Australians, with thousands of years of history to be found in Aboriginal artworks and other cultural remnants hidden throughout the area. It is the traditional home of the Malyankapa and Pandjikali people, and has stood as a meeting place for the local cultures for millennia.
Have a look for the rock engravings, ochre stencils, grinding stones and other artefacts that tell the story of the people that have called this harsh land home for millennia.
The Colonial history is equally rich, with the remnants of pastoral settlements still scattered about in the form of crumbling 19th century ruins. Explorer Charles Sturt passed through in the mid 1800s, followed some fifteen years later by the fabled Burke and Wills expedition of 1860, crossing Australia from Melbourne to the Gulf.
The comfort, and reliable water, of the ranges held a large portion of the party there for some time, while several members, including artist Ludwig Becker, took great delight in exploring and sketching the same gorges that can be explored today.
As for walking, the handful of trails here happen to be some of the best in the state. It’s hard to go wrong with Mutawintji Gorge, a medium-grade walk that crosses open grassland before following a sandy creek-bed through a rocky gorge. At its end, you’ll be rewarded with an excellent swimming hole enclosed by red sandstone cliffs. Swim through into the tight canyon at its end for a grotto filled with frogs and dragonflies.
The Bynguano Range walk, with detours to Thaaklatjika overhang and the Rockholes Loop, is an excellent long walk which really showcases the best of what Mutawintji has to offer.
Dry creek-beds wind through a maze of tight valleys and open gorges, where small pools sit beneath the gnarled river red gums. Rugged climbs up craggy ridges and over bulbous fields of red pagodas provide views of the expansive red and green wilderness to the east.
The Old Coach Road drive follows part of the historic Broken Hill to White Cliffs route, to an area where a series of craggy, domed ridges rise from the plains. Split Rock dominates these upthrusts, and it’s worth the short scramble to the top, as well as an exploration of the surrounding country.
The park’s sole campground, Homestead Creek, is a great base for exploring the area. It’s even equipped with hot showers: a luxury when camping in the outback. It’s nestled amongst river red gums against a creek that’s likely to be dry, but that won’t stop a plethora of birds and other wildlife from frequenting the area, including an army of Green Tree Frogs that inhabit the showers.
In one afternoon we had emus wandering through the campground, while budgerigars, bee eaters, woodswallows, honeyeaters, babblers, corellas and finches filled the trees. We’d often find shingleback lizards and brown snakes basking in the red dirt, while red and grey kangaroos shared the grassland.
The area also supports several threatened or region-restricted species that thrive in the harsh outback, such as the Barrier Range dragon and yellow-footed rock-wallaby, with Mutawintji being the latter species’ sole foothold in NSW.
The night skies out here can be incredible, as can the sunsets. From atop the Western Ridge, which rises just beyond the campground, the rugged red sandstone tumbles away, falling into plains of mulga and saltbush that stretch to the far horizon. As the sun sets, the dusk light captures the arid landscape in spectacular ways, vibrantly highlighting the ochreous reds and oranges of the vast landscape.
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