Day 6 Monday 11th July 2011 Coonabarabran – Baradine – Pilliga Forest
We headed 40klm north-west out of Coonabarabran to Baradine and the Pilliga Forest Discovery Centre. This had an excellent display on the history, flora and fauna of the area, and the importance of the Pilliga Forest to Aboriginals and Europeans alike, as well as an art display.
Before visiting the centre, I hadn’t realised that much of this forest is of cypress pine, and that bush-fire plays a role in thinning the growth to allow the remaining timber to grow tall. Nor did I know that this had been a major timber-getting area, in the latter years for railway sleepers – until they were replaced with other materials in recent times. The brochures say that the forest changes from cypress pine, to ironbark, to scribbly gum to box gum and back again in a few hundred metres. Of course, for us city folk walking in the bush later in the day, it all looks like typical Australian bush, but the sandstone base and sandy creek beds are definitely noticeable.
May, the young National Park’s employee at the centre, was very informative. We set off armed with her map and plan of touring which had us off-highway for the majority of the day.
We drove through the forest on dirt fire trails, reasonably wide and graded, although very rocky and sandy in parts, until after about thirty kilometres we reached “Sculptures in the Scrub” situated in the Dandry Gorge in the Timmallallie National Park. There was a well-marked 2.3klm easy bush-walk, going first along a ridge with an expansive view of the gorge below, and then descending into the gorge, walking along the creek bed and passing an area that was once an Aboriginal camp site. The creek was noticeable for its width and sandy base and we could imagine how strong it would flow when the floods come.
The Pilliga, we have learnt, is famous for its birdlife, attracting bird enthusiasts to the region to walk and bird spot. We stopped every so often and listened for their songs, but we didn’t see any in particular. A local enthusiast told me later that the gusty winds have even the birds spooked, so they are not as mobile as usual. And of course we would have needed to stay quiet and still for a lot longer than a minute at a time 🙂
One of the most fabulous aspects of this walk is that as part of collaboration between local aboriginal people and the National Parks, four sculptures have been designed and installed on the ridge to be viewed as you walk along. The first is of stainless steel and represents two human shaped “spirit figures”. Nearby is a separate one that represents spears, with stories marked on them. The next sculpture is of bronze and is an aboriginal man with a child on his shoulders. They are looking out across the gorge and the man is teaching the child about the land and hunting. The next was stone with traditional representation of the rainbow serpent and the Warrumbungle area and other imagery. The last sculpture was of granite and marble but we didn’t get to interpret the imagery as there was another family there, so we didn’t hang around for them to finish reading the explanation boards.
When we descended into the gorge, we finally remembered to stop and look back up at the sculptures as we passed underneath them. I thought the sculptures were a terrific idea, I couldn’t imagine how anyone would have come up with the inspiration. This development in the national park appears to be quite new, the track is well-defined with sandstone steps, and the picnic ground includes gas barbecues and tables under shelter, all very neat and clean. A real credit to the organisers. After the walk we stopped at the picnic spot and ate a roll that we had bought earlier at the take-away store in Baradine – glad we thought of that because we hadn’t come out prepared for hiking, apart from sturdy shoes and water.
Back in the car, we continued along the dirt fire trails for another thirty kilometres, heading east, until we met with the Newell Highway and turned south towards Coonabarabran again. Eight kilometres down the highway there is a turn-off to the Yaminbah Trail, which leads to the Sandstone Caves contained within the Pilliga Nature Reserve.
Again, these are significant in Aboriginal cultural history. The approach and turnoff is not well sign-posted, and the reason is that the local aboriginal community have requested this – due to vandalism of the ancient site. Nevertheless, there is here a well-marked 1.7klm walk that leads through the forest and takes the visitor along a series of sandstone outcrops. The formation from water and wind erosion is impressive, tall stands of eroded rock and showing the colours of the sandstone sub-strata, in creams, yellows and ochres. Every so often, the erosion extends so far back into the rock that a cathedral shaped cave has been formed, and it is here that aboriginals would shelter and make implements such as axes and spears. There are grind marks into the rock where they would saw their tool back and forward to make it sharp, and at one spot there are some rock carvings of emu and kangaroo foot-prints.
After re-joining the Newell Highway for a few kilometres, we once again turned off to a dirt road for a ten kilometre drive down to Pilliga Pottery. The lady there showed us how she cuts the pattern into the damp moulded clay, and behind her we could see a potter creating a mug. He had nothing to say, just nodding occasionally in support of what she was talking about, and he almost seemed shy. All the time that we chatted about bird-watching and the habits of the local birds and how to spot them, her paring knife flew over the clay vase in her hands, twisting it round and round and fashioning a fairy wren sitting on a curved background of branches and leaves. This was finished within ten minutes, and then left in a curing room to dry for another few days before being painted and fired. We had a good look around the pottery on sale, and it is some of the most attractive and artistic I have seen, but sadly for the pottery, nothing that we needed or would match our décor.
In the evening, we went out to the Warrumbungle Observatory, owned and operated by Peter Starr (honestly!), who has five professional telescopes set up in his front yard for astronomical viewing. It was bitterly cold. We stood on a cement slab, waiting for the viewing conditions to be right. The cold seeped up through our socks and into every bone in our body. Freezing!
To the naked eye, the skies were cloudless; although Peter pointed out that some objects were not as clearly focused as they could be, and he said this indicated upper air turbulence. That is no surprise to any of us who have been travelling or working in these windy conditions of the last week. Tonight the moon was three quarters full and very bright, so that also affected viewing, but it didn’t stop us seeing Saturn, her rings and several of her moons, including Triton. We also saw several nebulas and clusters as well as the moon and its craters. Then Peter took three photos on our own camera, two of the Eta Carina Nebula (?) and one of the Jewel Cluster.
There was a crowd of around thirty or forty adults and children, and it was freezing out in the open near the top of the mountain, and yet we were happy to have done it, as Coonabarabran is said to be the astronomy capital of Australia, and what unusual holiday snaps to be taking home with us.
(Even if they do look identical to my scientifically ignorant eye)
Tomorrow – The Warrumbungles,
Gilgandra and Wellington