The Great Western Plains is a place of starkly contrasting natural beauty, a place to unwind and reconnect with the wonders of the natural world.
You can’t miss it; it rises like an iceberg from the vast swathes of blonde farmland to which the Great Western Plains derives its name, a hulking stegosaurus whose spikey spine dominates the landscape for many hundreds of kilometers in all directions.
It’s the Warrumbungle Range, an ancient geological wonderland for hikers, campers and stargazers alike.
An hour northeast lies a very different landscape indeed; a million flat acres of sprawling semi-arid scrub dissected by red, sandy 4WD tracks – the Pilliga Forest.
But perhaps most surprising of all, travel just a stone’s throw west and you’ll happen upon a lush, verdant oasis teeming with birdlife, fish and reptiles at the Macquarie Marshes and Tiger Bay Wetlands.
There’s an old dad joke about camping being ‘million star accommodation’, but nowhere does that ring more true than in the Warrumbungle National Park. Spend a night here and you’ll almost need sunglasses to shield your eyes from the radiant Milky Way above.
It’s no accident that this is the site of Australia’s premier astronomy facility, Siding Spring Observatory, home to $100 million worth of research equipment including 52 telescopes.
Positioned high in the Warrumbungle National Park some 1160m above sea level, the site was chosen for its crisp, clean air with minimal humidity, its non turbulent atmosphere, its lack of light pollution and its high percentage of clear nights.
And then there’s the scenery. The Warrumbungle Ranges is the crumbling remains of an ancient volcano that erupted some 14 million years ago. It rises from the surrounding plains like a castle, its jagged peaks and spires visible for many miles in all directions.
And when viewed from the top of the range those endless plains stretch on for hundreds of kilometers; you’ve likely never seen so far.
Indeed, the Breadknife and Grand High Tops Circuit is considered one of the most scenic hikes in NSW. It’s a 14.5km loop that takes in the park’s most iconic rock structure, the Breadknife, a huge shard of volcanic rock piercing the earth like, you guessed it, an enormous knife.
And while the Warrumbungles is a fabulous year-round destination, the best time to visit is November when the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service host the fantastic Crooked Mountain Concert, a family-friendly evening of music and laughter.
Bring your dancing shoes or, better still, kick them off and boogie barefoot under a bejeweled night sky.
THE PILLIGA FOREST
There’s something about the Pilliga Forest that sets the imagination on fire. Perhaps it’s the fact that it’s the largest continuous area of bushland in the state, a million acres of semi-arid forest known locally as ‘the Scrub’.
Whatever the case, this area has birthed many an urban legend, from rogue yowies wandering the bush the so-called ‘Pilliga Princess’, a ghostly woman who allegedly tormented truckies along the Newell Highway where it passes through the forest back the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Perhaps it’s the sheer untamed vastness of the Pilliga that fills people with wonder and awe. In contrast to the nearby Warrumbungles it’s rather flat country, densely forested and serviced by a network of red sandy tracks that surge through the thick scrub-like arteries.
Our first port of call was the Pilliga Forest Discovery Centre, a beautiful, architecturally designed building in Baradine with interpretive displays that tell of the geology, wildlife and cultural significance of the Pilliga.
Home to the local National Parks office, staff here gave us some excellent pointers on how to get the most out of our visit to the sprawling Pilliga.
Next was the Sculptures in the Scrub at the spectacular Dandry Gorge. A series of sculptures dotted along a 3km loop walk around the rim of the gorge, this wonderful project was four years in the making.
Each sculpture was a collaboration between an artist and Aboriginal elders and young people to tell a story of local Aboriginal history and culture.
Half an hour driving along north along an impossibly straight, undulating outback track and we’re at the Salt Caves and Pilliga Forest Lookout Tower. The cave is deep and provides excellent shelter, and was used as such by the traditional owners of the land.
A short walk leads us to the Pilliga Forest Tower, a 16m viewing platform that affords incredible views across the Scrub to the Warrumbungles, Mount Kaputar and the plains beyond. It’s a dizzying climb but a blessedly robust structure (opened in 2014), and worth it for a rare vantage point across the otherwise level landscape.
Rounding off our trip to the Pilliga, we called into the famous Pilliga Pottery at Barkala Farm where handcrafted ceramics are made on site, painted in delicate Australian native plants and animals and sold to visitors.
The 8000-acre property was the creation of German migrants in the early ‘80s, becoming a self-sufficient ‘micro village’ with a distinctive European atmosphere.
MACQUARIE MARSHES AND TIGER BAY WETLANDS
Passing back through the town of Warren, we called in to check out the Tiger Bay Wetlands and Window on the Wetlands Centre on the outskirts of town.
The wetlands are a constructed system that has given rise to a rich ecosystem of birds, fish and aquatic flora. Present year round, these wetlands provide drought refuge for water- and woodland-birds, including plum-headed finches, spotted bowerbird, various egret and heron species, ducks, crakes and ibis.
Adjacent to the wetlands is the newly opened Window on the Wetlands interpretive centre, located within a restored historic church that was saved from demolition and moved to the site to begin its new life in ecotourism.
It houses a café and provides information on the region’s environment, culture and heritage.
We then hit the road and headed north for an hour through semi-arid agricultural land, until suddenly a riot of lush green vegetation burst from the crisp, golden landscape. We’d reached the Macquarie Marshes, which after flooding rain several months prior were full of water and positively teeming with wildlife and vegetation.
One of the largest semi-permanent wetlands in southeastern Australia, the Macquarie Marshes are fed by flood water from the Macquarie River. They contain extensive areas of reed, river red gums, coolibah and grasslands, and are home to over 200 bird species making this a true bird-watcher’s paradise.
From the towering heights of the Warrumbungles to the sprawling, outback vastness of the Pilliga Forest and finally the verdant quagmire of Tiger Bay Wetlands and Macquarie Marshes, we felt as though we’d been served a veritable smorgasbord of treats by Mother Nature.
A land of stark contrast and stunning natural beauty, the Great Western Plains proved the perfect location to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and get back in touch with nature.