Saturday, 20 May 2017

Walking the Dark Sky Park - New South Wales

Journal entry: Packed backpacks with three days worth of food in the hope of finding enough water to stay out that long. Parked at Pincham Camp, grabbed one litre of water each. Plan was to fill up at Spirey Creek and camp on Bress Peak. Old maps show a walking track up onto Bress Peak, now disused and invisible. Set off walking. Spirey Creek dry. Kept walking. Spirey Creek still dry. Rethink plan.

We have blogged about Warrumbungle National Park only once before. It is a long way west in NSW, so we don't visit often. It is also quite a dry park, with mainly ephemeral creeks. Its network of trails climb the high, dry ridge lines.  Carrying litres of water for overnight walks is unavoidable and restocking supplies along the way needs careful planning. We knew this before setting out with our measly one litre each. But, we always have a plan B up our sleeve.

Journal entry: New plan. We walk straight through to Balor Hut. The water tank here is full. We load up with 3 litres each and rethink our plan, again. We are well beyond Bress Peak but consider tackling it via a wild off-track route. We scramble to the top of the rocks behind Balor Hut and take in the view. Belougery Spire is magnificent in its sheer bulk and height. The Breadknife looms. Behind this, the Grand High Tops beckon. We return to our packs, shoulder all that life-giving water and choose to climb the long staircase before exploring east along the tops.

The Warrumbungles are a spectacular place by day and by night and it is one of our favourite parks for sleeping out under the stars. So while carrying water is a must, tents are optional.  For this trip, we are carrying a lightweight fly only. Good gear and warm sleeping bags are essential, of course. The next challenge is finding a clear high campsite, somewhere flat but open to the extraordinary night sky.

We head east from the Grand High Tops. Then further east. Up and across and down and up. Crater Bluff is to our right, Belougery Spire to our left, the Breadknife behind and in the southern distance the extraordinary Tonduron Spire.

Journal entry: Caz finds 'Grandstand Camp' on the next peak. Possible campsite of the year. After a side-trip to Belougery Spire it is 4:30pm when we settle in. From our grandstand seats we can see a wild looking storm front stretching south and approaching from the west. To the north the sky is completely clear. There is phone coverage so I check the radar. A slash of red and blue down the entire state of NSW. We are right at its northernmost tip. Pitch the fly, anchor it down with rocks. Into tent on dark to cook dinner when it hits. Lightning. Driving rain. Wild wind. Tent flaps – a lot. 2am and the bungy cord for pegging out the left vestibule snaps, sheared through by the constant buffeting against the rock we used to help hold it down. We drop the tent and stuff it in a pack. 

In recognition of its incredible night sky vistas the Warrumbungles were named (in 2016) as Australia's first Dark Sky Park. According to NPWS blog: "The International Dark Sky Association (yes, it’s apparently a thing) recently included Warrumbungle National Park in NSW’s central west on its elite list of dark-sky parks, one of only 38 in the world and the only one in the southern hemisphere. This makes it a top destination for amateur astronomers, loved-up newlyweds and nocturnal animals."

The Dark Sky Park accolade comes from a combination of factors - a landscape far from the smog of any city, low humidity, altitude (505m). On the edge of the park is also Siding Spring Observatory, set up by the Australian National University and housing the largest optical (visible light) telescope in Australia.

Apparently, with the Dark Sky Park listing, Warrumbungles National Park will now be protected with $100,000 in funding to control light pollution through implementation of updated planning policies. A new Dark Sky Planning Guideline has also been developed with the Australian Astronomical Observatory as part of the NSW Government’s review of state planning policies. Now in the national park there is signage giving tips on how to reduce your light impact. The nocturnal animals must be loving it although we met no loved-up newlyweds to ask.

Journal entry: It is quieter without the flapping tent. Skies are so clear. Still ferociously windy. It is cold. The stars are intensely brilliant. I fight sleep to star gaze. Later the near full moon forces me to pull my sleeping bag over my eyes. 

After a night in the grandstand we are forced to return to Balor Hut to restock with water before making yet another plan. Another 3 litres each on board and we haul the backpacks onto our shoulders, walk back down the high range and off-track again. We climb a different ridge to 'The Hill Camp' (to keep the cricketing camp-site analogies going). Off-track the walking is relatively easy although we hit some scrappy patches of spindly, spikey scrub. 'The Hill Camp' is a gently sloping, open grassy bowl on top of a peak.  A cliff at the bottom of the grass gives magnificent views. This time, no tent. More stars. We are enjoying the dark sky park.

As part of this return visit to Warrumbungles we finish our off-track explorations when we hit the Goulds Circuit Trail and climb up and over Macha Tor and Febar Tor and return to Pincham Camp. Here we restock with water, again, and drive around for a final night under the stars atop Mt Exmouth, the highest peak in the park. We lug our water up the fire trail, enjoy the final foot trail to the summit and settle in for yet another night of vast skies and stunning views. On the plains to the west of the peak, fires burn in long strips of shimmering orange. Farmhouse lights sparkle. The stars however are finally out-shone by the full moon - blazing orange as it rises and burning bright and long as it heads inexorably west. No-one, it seems, has read it the new dark sky rules.

Journal entry: The hardness of the rock I am propped against, ours the only human noise, the wind in my beannie cupped ears. Living in the weather, for these moments. Watching black ants haul my biscuit crumbs. A currawong calls. Where is my shadow going? Watching the small birds - is there any tree uncrept? As the last light leaves the sky, car lights and farm houses appear on the plains below like stars yet to rise. 

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