Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Exmouth and Echo - two journeys - Warrumbungle National Park

From the top of Mt Exmouth, the highest peak in Warrumbungle National Park, I can see east across the open valley below. On the horizon, amongst the jumble of spires and peaks, is a point called Echo Mountain. On top of that mountain, looking back across the same valley, is Caz. We are each alone - immersed in solo, overnight adventures on top of different peaks, each sitting quietly amongst the rocky mountains of this spectacular park.

Warrumbungle National Park is located on the central western plains of New South Wales, just 35km outside the town of Coonabarabran and about 500km north-west of Sydney. It is a bushwalking and rock climbing paradise and is registered on Australia's National Heritage List. The distinctive rocky spires and peaks, that tower over the forest and valleys, are some of Australia's most distinctive and grand landmarks.  

The park boasts an extensive network of marked trails and endless possibilities for off-track adventure so it was the perfect place for the two of us to have our little solo outings. I first drove Caz to the start of his walk and dropped him by the roadside on the eastern side of the park. He was heading off-track, into a section of forest most obviously affected by the catastrophic 2013 bushfire event. This massive fire burnt out more than 90% of the park as well as destroying 53 houses and over 150 sheds and buildings in surrounding rural residential areas. Fuelled by strong winds, it destroyed much of the park's infrastructure including the Visitors Centre. While most walking trails have been rebuilt and repaired, the landscape is still recovering and is now a sea of head-height regrowth - small scrappy saplings and eucalyptus trees re-sprouting from the base of tall, black charcoal trunks. When we visited in winter, clumps of purple flowering hardenbergia vine added a flash of colour against the bright green of the new leaves.

Caz headed off on his adventure to Echo Mountain and quickly disappeared amongst the brush as I sat in the car and waved him farewell. His walk had him climbing steadily from the road and weaving his way around broken, charred trees and logs up onto an unnamed peak. From here, the vast panorama of the Warrumbungles spread out to the west with all those famous peaks lined up along the view - The Breadknife and Belougery Spire, Crater Bluff and Bluff Mountain and Bluff Pyramid.

All these peaks are not only remarkable to look at, they are also rock climbing heaven.  Warrumbungle National Park is a renowned and popular rock climbing area with cliffs hundreds of metres high surrounded by nothing but air and eagles. For more information visit Sydney Rock Climbers or The Crag but for some amazing reading it is worth tracking down a copy of Dorothy 'Dot' Butler's autobiography, The Barefoot Bushwalker. Dot was an amazing outdoors adventurer and, in particular, a gifted climber  – always barefoot.  In 1936, with her friend Dr Eric Dark, she made the first ascent of Crater Bluff in Warrumbungle National Park. Visit Bushwalking NSWs wonderful history page here for loads of stories about this remarkable woman. 

Crater Bluff

While Caz was off exploring his new peaks, I had the ease of access roads and foot tracks for my walk to Mt Exmouth. I parked at the Split Rock carpark and set off through the fire damaged forest.  As this was to be my first solo overnight adventure it felt best to stick to tracks that were straightforward and easy to navigate. After 45 minutes of walking I reached the first mark on my map, Burbie Camp. From here there was a bit more uphill climbing but soon I reached 'The Boulevarde', a stretch of scenic woodland between Burbie Camp and Danu Gap. I kept getting distracted by wildflowers beside the track and I kept getting startled out of my reverie by bronzewing pigeons as they took fright from their sunny resting spots. Flitting through the low shrubs were white-eared and yellow-tufted honeyeaters and above, visible through the tops of the tall trees, loomed the cliff faces of Mt Exmouth.

Caz, meanwhile, was searching out a route along the top of his ridges, heading south from his first peak and dropping steeply into a saddle. Here, a long band of extruded rock, like a vertical 4-5m high wall, ran the length of the saddle and forced him to detour and scout around until he found a crack and a small break that he could climb up and over.

From here he began the ascent of Echo Mountain, walking through a mass of low shrubbery and dead eucalypts with splintered rocks underfoot. He traversed the rise at an angle, reached a few false summits before finally making his mountaintop with views in all directions: towards the east lay steep farm land and to the north sat the white domes of Siding Springs Observatory. Swinging south, the view took in Needle Mountain, Bluff Mountain and finally in the west was me, picking my way along the top of Mt Exmouth.

Mt Exmouth in the distance

View of Bluff Mountain from Mt Exmouth

Caz's view provided a different perspective of this spectacular park. He found a great flat spot on top of his mountain and laid out the bivvy. Behind his camp a mum and dad Euro with a small joey relaxed in the afternoon light. On the western side of his camp, the mountain fell away in a high cliff face.

My final leg to the summit of Mt Exmouth was along a narrow foot track that climbed up from Danu Gap on the southern flank of the mountain. This was by far the prettiest section of the walk. It took an hour, winding along the side of the mountain, gaining height, creeping along a couple of rocky ledges where a few strands of loose, flimsy fencing wire were supposed to provide support, before the track zig zagged up onto the top ridge of Exmouth. From here I wound along the spine of the mountain towards its eastern summit tip. The vegetation up high was mainly mallee eucalyptus and tall, twisted grass trees growing amongst small rocky outcrops that had been carved and weathered into walled gardens and grottos, dips and hollows, that were covered in soft green grass and patches of yellow daisies.

And the view from the summit cairn was impressive. To the north stood the Wheoh Peaks and Wedding Cake Mountain. Far in the distance I could see the mountains of Kaputar National Park as a faint outline on the horizon. The most imposing view was just to the south with the spectacular wall of Bluff Mountain and behind that the iconic peaks of The Breadknife, Belougery Spire, Crater Bluff and Tonduron Spire. The first mountain I picked out though was Echo Mountain. It was only possible to try and image what Caz was doing over there but one thing was for sure - we were watching the same burning orange sun setting over the western plains, and to the east, the same brilliant full moon creeping its way into the night sky. 

Looking back at Echo Mountain on descent

View from Mt Exmouth 

By the morning it was freezing cold on both our mountains, with the overnight temperature dropping to -5 degrees celsius. We both woke to frost icing the rocks and our bivvy bags. The wind was painfully cold and getting up and out of bed to take photos was a battle of willpower, for both us. We may have been on solo adventures on different mountains but we were facing the same winter blast. Caz's mountain was frostier than mine and it made the rocks slippery, particularly on the eastern side of the mountain. To make his trip a loop walk, Caz headed south across the top ridge of Echo Mountain, following jumbled boulders before reaching the tree line again. His ridge kicked back towards the west and then kicked again northwards before dropping him into a creek quite close to the main road. From here he bush-bashed back up through the regrowth to Whites Lookout where I found him. I had retraced my steps from Mt Exmouth back to the car and then driven back to collect him.

We then spent the afternoon relaxing at the main campground, exchanging stories over an afternoon glass of red wine: talking about wedgetail eagles soaring the thermals above our mountains and kestrels hunting the rocky cliff lines, and the next mountains we hoped to explore in this spectacular park, together or alone.

Echo Mountain

All Rights Reserved - Christina Armstrong & Craig Fardell.


  1. What a unique idea. Sharing the experience in a different way. Excellent article and photos as usual.

    1. Thanks for the comments Cameron. It's always fun finding new ways to have adventures and write about them.