It is mid-winter, but hot; sun blasting down and very little shade beneath the sparse cypress pines. Last time here, a year ago, winter was a rude -5 degrees celsius with frost patches lingering until lunchtime. This trip is positively balmy, until we take our shoes off and step into the Namoi River. The water is breathtakingly, painfully cold and knee deep at our crossing point. This is certainly a landscape of extremes.
Warabah National Park is a remarkable find: a tiny reserve hidden amongst old farmland, silent in it's anonymity and keeping secret a rugged stretch of beautiful river. Fishers know it, and locals swim here in summer. The odd tourist stumbles across it. Caz discovered it years ago after short-cutting down some wild back roads on the way to another, more famous national park. The park covers an area of just 3,984 hectares and was first established as a nature reserve in 1971 before being declared a National Park in 1984. The park is situated on the Bundarra Granites, a narrow band of rock (about 20km wide) stretching from the edge of the western slopes near Tamworth north to the Queensland border. It is one of the few inland river national parks in NSW and is located just east of Manilla and north of Tamworth. The Namoi River runs through the heart of the park, for a distance of 14km, winding past tall rock cliffs and over long sections of jumbled boulders then sliding across smooth stepped ledges and a narrow waterfall.
There are no real designated walking tracks in the park but a few old roads that can be followed. Otherwise, it is a matter of scrambling along the edge of the river or cutting cross country through the dry open forest dominated by white cypress pines, Caley's ironbark and an understorey of fragrant cough bush (cassinia laevis) and teatree.
We park at the end of the access road, take a small walking track down to the Namoi River, and cross just above Billy's Hole. We have three days to explore the park and have planned a snakey loop walk to some of its more isolated reaches. So, after crossing we weave our way up the side of the hills on the eastern side of the river. The open forest is baking hot. Large granite boulders break up the forest along the ridges and make for good viewing spots, looking back along the valley below. We walk up and over the high point, drop steeply back down to the river then pick our way upstream beneath the welcome shade of tall river oaks.
At this point, the river is at the end of a remarkable and distinctive rectangular bend, where its course has run dead straight for 1.5km, then turned 90 degrees and run straight for a couple of hundred metres, then turned 90 degrees again, running dead straight for another 1.5km, and basically turning back on itself. Upstream of this unusual feature, lies an area described as the "cascades" and this is our destination for our first night.
We opt for a shortcut up and over the base of the rectangle's dividing ridgeline. It is steep and hot but near the top another granite outcrop provides spectacular views across Warabah's peaks and forest. The Namoi High Tops, in the north and east of the park, provide a dramatic, granite backdrop to the wild river valley.
The descent down the other side is shorter but it brings us out at a distinctly bouldery section of river, quite rugged and with cliffs pressing in close on either side. Campsite options look slim. On scouring the riverbank, and scaring up a massive, beautiful black and grey Euro, we agree on staking a claim to a flat rock beside the river. After brushing away the river oak seed pods we just manage to squeeze the tent onto the flattest part and that is it for the day.
Next morning is a quick rock hop upstream to visit the "cascades". There is one river crossing and again the water is freezing cold. My skin aches, but it is refreshing in a masochistic sort of way. The "cascades" are a series of small drops where the river runs through a section of large boulders, beneath a spectacular 100m high orange cliff face. Another deep pool divides a couple of the drops and while Caz takes photos I am enthralled watching a spotted pardalote in the tree above me and a red-capped robin that has appeared on a small branch just a metre away. Warabah is a birders paradise and is visited by the rare Turquoise Parrot as well as spectacular golden whistlers and a myriad of honeyeaters.
We return from the cascades to collect our packs and begin picking our way back downstream, this time walking the length of the big rectangle bend and cutting off only its very tip where the dividing ridge dropped down to a wide, open forested river flat. We pass long green pools where grebes, ducks and cormorants drift and swim. There are so many pretty riverside campsites to chose from but we have to keep moving as we plan to follow the river bank all the way back to the car, about 8km, and need to get a little closer before stopping for the afternoon.
We stop for lunch of course but as we set off again we disturb a family of feral goats. They are not the first we have seen; the park is teeming with them. Many have small kids in tow and so far we have come across only small family groups of three or four. This time there are at least 10 goats and amongst them two massive billy goats with incredible horns. As we get closer, there comes an almighty loud cracking sound and then another. The two males goats are fighting and I have to admit it is an impressive sight. The larger male rears up on his hind legs, arches his neck and brings his head down with as much force as possible. While the rest of the goat family scatter at the sight of us the two males continue their battle, shifting only slightly further into the low scrub. Then comes one dense thud that sounds more solid than previous ones - like bone on bone - and the smaller male goat emerges shaking his head from side to side, looking disorientated and unsteady on his feet. The fight is over, although the victorious male gives one final rearing head butt for good measure.
Our second night's camp is, at present, a clear contender for campsite of the year. We have had to push on further than expected to find this campsite. As the afternoon wore on nothing seemed to take our fancy, despite numerous beautiful sites. We were after the right mix of scenery, serenity and photographic opportunities. However, around a gradual bend in the river, a kilometre or so above Willow Hole, we come to a narrow section of river. Here the water flows over a series of rock ledges before dropping about 5 metres into a deep pool overhung with a sheer cliff of orange granite. The slabs beside the waterfall are smooth and flat and here we pitch the tent.
The photos speak for themselves. The warm weather of the first day has continued and so we sleep with the inner only pitched. The consequence of this is being woken later that night by the fierce light of the 2013 supermoon. It is a new, photographic challenge for Caz to capture the landscape lit only by moonlight, when the river turns to mercury, surfaced with silver sheen, the river drops below the mercury, and Mercury no longer hangs bright in the evening sky as the supermoon outshines everything.
|The supermoon, (above and below). The transformed night sky with just a few stars still visible.|
As an added note: this walk, in a way, did not start in the heat and glare of an unseasonably warm winter's day. It actually began at night on a dark cold street, deserted and poorly lit. We had parked the car, and stepped out into the frost laden air of Armidale. I was lacing up my boots when headlights pulled in behind us and a stranger jumped out of a white car. Andrew, the owner of Armidale Outdoors, with our topographical map in hand (Welsh 1:25,000). The deal was done. We handed over $10. We had been unable to find this map anywhere near home and this was what he had agreed to do: meet at his shop as we drove through town on a late night dash to Warabah National Park. Now that's service.