Jutting out of the New England tableland is Cathedral Rock National Park – a place of peppermint gums, stringybark and swamp land broken by peaks of granite boulders teetering skyward against fierce winter winds that spear ice across the high country. This is a mysterious and introspective landscape. Off-track walking is a battle against tough banskia, heath scrub and sedges all vying for space in a bewildering and yet enticing maze of granite rock outcrops, sudden drop-offs and blockages, inaccessible wet gullies, dead-end granite alleys that force slow detours and rethinks.
There are few marked walking tracks in the park. We have visited Cathedral Rock many times, it is a winter favourite where frost casts a white morning shadow across the low swamps and the skies are clear, the stars immense. In winter, surprisingly enough, wildlife is also at its most active. Superb lyrebird song is everywhere. It is breeding season, therefore performance season. And, we discovered on this trip, it is also breeding season for the park's rare population of pure dingoes.
But, I am getting ahead of myself. Firstly, this walk started with a desire – to get a close-up look at three distinctive but unnamed granite peaks that promised expansive views and a ‘picnic at hanging rock’ type experience wandering through their quiet jumbled landscape.
We decided to begin our walk at Native Dog Creek campground, located off the Ebor to Guyra Road. We started by taking the Warrigal Walk, a 2km loop track named for the local Aboriginal word for dingo. Cathedral Rock National Park has been listed as a dingo management area due the large population of pure dingoes within the park. We stopped briefly at an interpretive sign on the track but time was pushing on and before long, as is our want, we were off the track and the signs were all gone.
The faint ridge we first followed was covered in low flowering urn heath, dwarf geebung, holly grevillea and prickly moses. The latter two plants could be sold to the US military as devices of torture so, for once, I was wearing gaiters. It was a slow, 4.5km walk - all the way, the unbending toughness of the flora made the walk an intimate dance with nature, reaching to grab and swing away from every tree and hold back the whips and gropes of shrubbery; stepping over and under and between conesticks and crinkle bush. At one point, coming out onto a jutting granite boulder we could see up the valley of Sandy Creek but where there should have been three peaks there were now only two. Pushing on, the perspective changed again. Suddenly, there seemed to be only one peak. To try and sort things out we climb up into a saddle beside the one remaining peak. It turned out to be just a trick of distance and treeline and granite hide-and-seek. A quick scout around made us realise we had one peak either side and the third peak hidden behind both. Proximity had reduced their might. A camouflage of tall manna gums and messmate, under-laid with silver wattle, distorted things further.
We decided to press our way up onto the right hand peak. The left peak appeared to have a lower summit and more sheer-sided rocks that looked impossible to scale. It was a dance again, a tricky stepping left and weaving right until we were forced to drop our packs in a nook between boulders. This spot looked like it might prove a good bivvy site unless we found something higher. The last part of the climb had Caz scaling large boulders, gripping easily on the rough granite, with me crawling through a dark tunnel between and beneath the rocks. We crept past mountain tea trees until we found our third peak, hiding again and catching the warm afternoon light.
Even though only small (10,920 hectares), Cathedral Rock National Park is one of the few remaining tracts of naturally vegetated land on the New England Tablelands having never been cleared for farming or actively logged. The altitude of the park varies from 1,100m to 1,584m above sea level at the summit of Round Mountain - the highest point on the New England Tablelands.
That night, sitting as high as we could get on our rocky peak, looking out across the undulating landscape to Woolpack Rocks, the wilderness that the national park protects sent out a chilling call – it was a night for the warrigal. Up and down the valley below us, in the very gullies and swamps we had skirted around that morning, dingoes howled. They drew closer to our peak, drew away again. From at least six different locations they called to each other. Their howls carried through the cold night air. I imagined them picking up our scent, hunting us patiently, seeking out a camper’s unwatched bag of food with its treats and nibbles. We were high up. The large rocks afforded us some protection. For an hour, until just after sunset, we could track their progress below us - howling, howling, howling, encircling our peak.
Then in the morning, it was the mating lyrebirds turn to call: rosellas and kookaburras and cockatoos and pigeons and who knows what other strangers called to their cause. One mimicked up a honeyeater from the valley behind us, one sent up yellowtails from the north.
To reinforce the winter mood, a smashing southerly wind of ice-laden moisture was whipping through gaps in the rocks, between the onion-skinning granite.
We spent the morning exploring all three peaks, crawling through crevices, dodging the wind as we bouldered around high points and leapt across ledges, our shoes sticking easily to the granite with its perfect friction. There was neither sight nor sound of the dingoes from the night before. It could have been a winter dream except that I had been wide-awake when they’d come calling.
To get back to the car we decided to return along a slightly different route, following a distinct ridgeline of rocky outcrops. The walking was more open, long slabs of granite to drift along. We snuck up quietly on some glossy-black cockatoos feeding on the seeds of the forest oaks. We followed Sandy Creek to the main road, followed the main road to Native Dog Creek, followed it back to the Warrigal Track and followed the Warrigal Track back to the sign we should have heeded.
The sign in question: now I read it in full. They were not hunting us in the night. Winter, it turns out is also the mating season for dingoes, a time they are most active, noisiest, howling, pacing up and down the valleys looking for the warmth of the mate, not looking for us, just looking through the same mysterious landscape.