This journey begins and ends in fire and leaf smoke. As it always has.
The first fire was lit alongside the body of a tall man, on the shores of a lake brimming with spring meltwater, rich with fish and the clamour of waterbirds.
Precious ochre from far-distant ridges - traded in and ground up - was used to anoint his long limbs, before kin buried him in the silvered dune that rims the eastern shore of this lake, now dry.
Mallee eucalyptus smoke drifted over the remains of Mungo Man and 104 other ancient ancestors, in a millennia-old cleansing to mark their return to Lake Mungo in one of Australia's most significant Aboriginal repatriations.
The discovery of the Mungo Man remains at Lake Mungo in 1974 (and Mungo Lady five years before) forced scientists to recalibrate previous assumptions about the journey of modern humans into Australia, at that time a vast land mass joined to Tasmania and New Guinea.
They are still the oldest human remains found in Australia, and one of the world's earliest ritual cremations, which triggered the creation of the Mungo National Park and the region's World Heritage Area status.
But the Mutthi Mutthi, Paakantyi/Barkindji and Ngiyampaa peoples - traditional owners of the Willandra region - were never consulted when their ancestral remains were taken by researchers to the Australian National University in Canberra.
Deeply concerned, the traditional owners called for their ancestors to be returned, and have fought for 40 long years to regain their rightful custodianship.
Mungo Lady came back to country in 1991, and Mungo Man was formally repatriated with an apology from the ANU in 2015 and temporarily moved to the National Museum of Australia, where he has lain since.
Since their ancestors walked these sandy plains, the Willandra traditional owners have weathered the brutality of colonisation and pastoral expansion across their country. With the tall man's return to Lake Mungo comes a kind of healing, says Mutthi Mutthi elder Aunty Mary Pappin.
"Even after 40,000 years this man came up from the ground to walk with us for a while. And he's told the world that we are a very ancient people.
"The last 200 years have been a struggle for all of us and our young people have been disadvantaged in the towns and in the cities. This will make them proud, and stand up."
On Wednesday, the first day of the ancestors' journey home, a fire of Yellow Box and peppermint-scented eucalyptus leaves was lit on a barren forecourt in front of a large warehouse in suburban Canberra, which holds the National Museum's repatriation facility.
A coach drew up and a group of Willandra traditional owners alighted, making their way across the hot asphalt towards a collection of containers on a trolley. This was a funeral, not a celebration, their sombre faces said. Tears had already wet their cheeks that morning, and more would flow.
On the trolley were the remains of Mungo Man, cradled in a casket crafted from 5000-year-old red gum wood unearthed on the banks of the Murray.
It was donated by geologist Jim Bowler, now a professorial fellow at Melbourne University, who spotted the Mungo Man in 1974 while riding his motorbike across the dry lake, and has repeatedly called for his repatriation.
Bowler believes Mungo Man has a message for Australia: "He says 'What have you whitefellas done to my land and what you have done to my people?' That's the challenge for all of us."
Sprinkled with white ochre - a symbol of purification and protection for the Ngambri-Ngunnawal people from the Canberra region - the casket and containers were gently placed inside the gleaming Aboriginal hearse.
Bought by the Aboriginal Advancement League in Melbourne in the '70s, the hearse became a familiar sight in Indigenous communities throughout Victoria and NSW as it returned people to be buried on country.
Retired a decade later and acquired by the Melbourne Museum as a potent cultural object, the hearse has now been painstakingly restored at the request of the Willandra traditional owners, ready to carry their ancestors on their extraordinary return journey.
As elders, Aboriginal community members, museum staff and government bureaucrats watched, the hearse - its chrome and paintwork gleaming - purred into life and edged forward.
And at the wheel, Ngiyampaa man Steve Meredith raised his fist in exultation as the 800-kilometre journey began.
When Mungo Man and Mungo Lady were alive, somewhere between 38,000 and 42,000 years ago, the Willandra Lakes were fed by the Lachlan River, cupped within vast sandy plains.
Lake Mungo holds an extraordinary trove of cultural items buried in layers of sand and clay. Many of these are in the Mungo "lunette", a 33-kilometre-long dune where erosion has exposed the internal strata and opened a window on the past.
Here lie clusters of debris from the cooking of a bettong, a rat kangaroo. There an otolith, or fish ear bone. Stone tools, grinding stones and middens abound.
And an enchanting collection of more than 700 Ice Age human footprints, rediscovered by traditional elders in 2003, are the largest collection of such prints anywhere in the world.
They include the footsteps of a one-legged man who hopped across the mud with the aid of a pole. A child's steps circle away from the prints of two women, and then rejoin them. And six men run, fast, in the same direction, probably chasing prey. The mud is marked with the groove of their spear as it bounced across the ground.
Scientific discovery continues in the Willandra, but not through human remains. Nicola Stern, a palaeolithic archaeologist from La Trobe University, has been documenting evidence of everyday activity, such as hearths and stone tools, to establish a history of human settlement in the region over the past 48,000 years.
"It gives you the feeling that you have this little window that you can use to reach the distant past, a little vignette," she says.
If researchers happen to uncover a human burial in field work, everything is left in place and not touched, says Stern.
More than a decade ago Stern was approached about working with with indigenous communities in the Willandra at the request of elders, who were concerned cultural artefacts would be lost through erosion.
A 30-year research plan was agreed upon, which enshrined involvement from elders and cultural officers who could advise scientists on matters of cultural sensitivity.
Once it left Canberra, the Aboriginal hearse roared along the Sturt Highway through landscape that changed from undulating, gum-studded hills to the big plains that flank the Murrumbidgee. The horizon expanded. The earth turned orange.
The long journey was punctuated with ceremonies. In Wagga Wagga, on Wiradjuri country, the crowd formed a guard of honour as the hearse rumbled across dry grass and came to a stop in a grove of Casuarina trees.
In Hay, the boys and young men from the Tirkandi Inaburra dance group greeted the ancestors in ochre and red, dancing the rapid gait of a goanna and the relaxed sprawl of a kangaroo.
Ngiyampaa man Damien Kennedy said it was an emotional end to a long campaign by his elders, including his grandparents Roy and Beryl Kennedy.
"It was hard for us at times growing up. Too white to be black, too black to be white. But they always took us out to Lake Mungo and taught us our culture. That helped us to grow strong."
In Balranald, the tall figure of Mutthi Mutthi elder David Edwards called on the crowd to look for the face of Mungo Man in the high desert clouds above: "Can you see him? He's there."
And always, there was fire and pungent smoke. It drifted through the windows of the hearse, settled on the crowd. Toddlers cupped it in their hands, drawing it over their faces like a scarf.
Aboriginal people all over Australia use fire to symbolise cleansing and companionship, says Barkindji/Paakantyi elder Warren Clark.
His people believe smoke from the Emu Bush removes bad spirits that cling to everyone. Bringing Mungo Man home has been an emotional journey, Clark says; his stomach has felt tied up in knots.
If he'd known about the discovery of Mungo Man at the time, Clark wouldn't have agreed it should be taken away for research. But he also believes the scientific insight into his people's cultural longevity has value: "Now we have this information, we can walk together on these human lands."
And the record of Aboriginal life in Australia is likely to be expanded again. In July, it was revealed that years of archaeological excavation in an ancient campsite on Mirrar country in Kakadu, in the Northern Territory, had uncovered stone tools dating back 65,000 years.
But while scientists have a preoccupation with the linear timeline of human expansion, the Willandra owners have their own creation stories.
These include a totem, the kangaroo, says Paakantyi and Parintyi elder Michael Young, who sits on the Lake Mungo repatriation committee. Other totems include the carpet snake. These are sacred stories that are told on country, not shared through the media.
Some Aboriginal people believe their ancestors have always been here. Others agree with theories about migratory routes, and emphasise their ancestors' holistic relationship with country over aeons.
Traditional owners have asked successive state governments to invest in a fitting "keeping place" for Mungo Man and other ancestral remains, and are disappointed successive governments have failed to stump up.
Biological anthropologist Steve Webb, a professor of Australian studies at Bond University, has been involved with the Willandra collection for almost 40 years.
"In those days we didn't ask about permission, it wasn't something we even considered. It's the big change that has happened with anthropology these days, you wouldn't dream of it now," Webb says.
He'd like to see a keeping place built alongside a scientific research centre for remains, so that traditional owners could oversee future research. Michael Young, also, wants an education and research centre that would allow future generations to stay connected with the knowledge of their elders.
And he condemns politicians for their willingness to reference Aboriginal culture but their tardiness to fund it: "They won't put their money where their mouth is. It's deeply disappointing that politicians don't seem to understand what it really means to have this heritage."
For now, Mungo Man and the 104 other ancestors will be kept in a pre-existing building on their return, with the location kept secret to guard against vandals. Next year community discussions will begin on a final resting place.
For more than 150 years, the remains of Aboriginal ancestors and sacred cultural objects were stolen, taken or claimed without permission. Often in the name of "scientific" research, anatomists, ethnologists, anthropologists and pastoralists used these remains to justify systemic discrimination on the basis of delusional theories of racial purity. "They assigned us to museums and universities as mere curiosities," says Young.
Now repatriations are increasingly common: in the past 25 years there have been more than 1475 returns of ancestral remains from overseas institutions and private collections to Australia, the vast majority from Britain.
Mary Pappin says the pain of dispossession and discrimination are never far from the surface for Aboriginal people.
"The change [in attitudes] has been slow but it's starting to trickle through, like the water comes through a Cumbungi [reed] swamp."
She believes the ancestors' return will make young Indigenous people feel proud, connect them to country.
"We are still surviving today. We should be able to go for another 40,000 years if we all work together and respect our land," she says. "This is what Aboriginal people are all about: connection to country and looking after our rivers, trees and land. We have to do this for the future, to survive."
The story The long way: fire and smoke for Mungo Man and the ancestors on their road home was originally published on The Age.