From Dubbo, the Newell Highway, the main route from Melbourne to Brisbane, continues through the wheat plains of the northwest, their relentless flatness relieved by the ancient eroded mountain ranges of the Warrumbungles, near Coonabarabran, and Mount Kaputar, near Narrabri, with the vast Pillaga Scrub between the two towns. Clear skies and the lack of large towns make this an ideal area for stargazing, and large telescopes stare into space at both Coonabarabran and Narrabri. The thinly populated northwest is home to a relatively large number of Aboriginal people, particularly in the town of Moree, the area’s largest. In 1971 Charles Perkins, an Aboriginal activist, led the Freedom Ride, a group of thirty people – mostly university students – who bussed through New South Wales on a mission to root out racism in the state. The biggest victory was in Moree itself when the riders, facing hostile townsfolk, broke the race bar by escorting Aboriginal children into the public swimming pool.
The Namoi Valley – extending from Gunnedah, just west of Tamworth, to Walgett – with its rich black soil is cotton country. Beyond Walgett, just off the Castlereagh Highway that runs from Dubbo, is Lightning Ridge, a scorching-hot opal-mining town relieved by hot artesian bore baths.Read More
People come to COONABARABRAN on the Castlereagh River, 160km north of Dubbo via the Newell Highway, to gaze at stars in the clear skies, or for bushwalking and climbing in the spectacular Warrumbungles mountain range 35km to the west.
By virtue of its proximity to the Siding Spring Observatory Complex, perched high above the township on the edge of Warrumbungle National Park, Coonabarabran considers itself the astronomy capital of Australia. The skies are exceptionally clear out here, due to the dry climate and a lack of pollution and population. The giant 3.9m optical telescope (one of the world’s largest) can be viewed close up from an observation gallery, and there’s an astronomy exhibition, complemented by hands-on exhibits and a film.
You can’t actually view the stars at Siding Spring because, as a working observatory, it’s closed at night. However, the improbably named Peter Starr, a retired Siding Spring astronomer, offers stargazing tours by request utilizing his five telescopes. Take along a digital SLR and he’ll take some close-up photos of the moon’s lunar landscape as well as stunning astral skies for you. The one night of the year Siding Spring does open to the public is during October’s Festival of the Stars, when you can also catch pub talks by astronomers, as well as markets and Coonabarabran’s annual racing carnival.
The rugged Warrumbungles are ancient mountains of volcanic origin with jagged cliffs, rocky pinnacles and crags jutting from the western horizon. The dry western plains and the moister environment of the east coast meet at these ranges, with plant and animal species from both habitats coexisting in the park. Resident fauna include four species of kangaroo, plus koalas and a variety of birds including wedgetail eagles, superb blue wrens, eastern spinebills and emus, as well as heaps of dancing butterflies along the trails.
A few accessible trails start at the visitor’s centre, but the most spectacular hike – for the reasonably fit only – is the 14.5km (roughly 5hr) Grand High Tops Trail along the main ridge and back. The walk begins at Pincham car park and follows the flat floor of Spirey Creek through open forests full of colourful rosellas and parrots, and lizards basking on rocks. As the trail climbs, there are views of the 300m-high Belougery Spire, and more scrambling gets you to the foot of the Breadknife, the park’s most famous feature, a 2.5m-wide rock flake thrusting 90m up into the sky. From here the main track heads on to the rocky slabs of the Grand High Tops, with tremendous views of most of the surrounding peaks. Experienced walkers could carry on to climb Bluff Mountain and then head west for Mount Exmouth (1205m), the park’s highest peak; both are great spots from which to watch the sunrise.
The population of LIGHTNING RIDGE, 74km north of Walgett on the Castlereagh Highway, is a transient one, where people in their hordes pitch up, lured by the promise of opal. Amid this harsh landscape scarred by holes and slag heaps, Lightning Ridge’s opal fields are the only place in the world where black opal is found. Against their dark background, these “black” stones display a vivid spectrum of colours, and command top dollar.
Opal galleries and mines proliferate in town, among them the Walk-in Mine, which has tours to an underground mine and the opportunity to go fossicking; and the Chambers of the Black Hand, a 100-year-old mine 5km south of town, where owner/miner Ron Canlin has hand-chiselled over 450 surreal life-size carvings – everything from Egyptian tombs to superheroes – in the mine’s soft sandstone walls and installed an underground opal shop.
You can try your luck at finding opals in clearly demarcated fossicking areas (in 2007, a tourist unearthed a $20,000 black opal), but don’t do it anywhere else, or you may stray onto others’ claims and infringements are taken very seriously. Recover afterwards in the 42 °C water of the hot artesian bore baths on Pandora Street , which tap into the great Artesian Basin, an underground lake of fresh water about the size of Queensland.