The Warrumbungles; where the earth meets the sky.
Seventeen million years ago, the Warrumbungle Range was a 50 kilometre-wide, 1,000 metre-high active volcano. That volcano has since not only become extinct, but 90% of it has eroded to reveal today's rugged spray of spires, domes and dykes; terrain that instantly sparked my interest when I stumbled upon the Warrumbungles in my perpetual search for new places to explore. From images online alone, I knew that the Warrumbungle Range was, in equal parts, epic and unique.
The thought that there was once volcanic activity on our mainland is almost unfathomable but indeed, there are many remnants of this time throughout Australia, including Queensland's striking Glass House mountains.
What cinched the deal for me with the Warrumbungles was the area's designation in July 2016 as a Dark Sky Park; essentially a national park for the starry night skies. Did you know that one third of humanity can no longer see the Milky Way, thanks to light pollution? A beautiful natural phenomena, three times older than the earth at over 13 billion years old, is fading thanks to us, who have only been here for 200,000 years.
It seems so amazing to me that this unassuming spot in midwestern New South Wales is home to both ancient land and ancient sky, a window to our world as it was and beyond. I knew that I had to see it for myself.
Our visit was short but sweet as we crammed in two separate hikes to Macha Tor for sunset and astrophotography as well as for sunrise. During our visit, we encountered maybe 15 people - and the majority of them were locals from Coonabarabran. I count my lucky stars (pun intended) that I was able to experience the Warrumbungle magic sans crowds and tourists...but I truly believe that this spot deserves more love.
Here are 7 photos that are so beautiful (in my humble opinion) that they prove that these crooked mountains under a big sky should be your next country escape - and some interesting facts that may be new to you!
On the way to Macha Tor for sunset, the sky tauntingly spat at us, making me feel sheepish for not having packed our wet weather gear - something I would berate others for not doing - as well as worried about the conditions under which I'd be shooting...
I needn't have worried.
Sunsets are almost always beautiful but sometimes, it takes a little bit of something extra to transform a scene into being unforgettable. We were actually getting ready to descend Macha Tor when we looked behind us and saw the dusting of clouds highlighted bright red by the setting sun. This cloud type signals the transition from a warm to cold front, which typically is seen as 'bad weather' - but had there not been a chance of rain, we wouldn't have caught such an extraordinary sunset...
The silhouette of the Warrumbungle Range at sunset is not only picturesque but also serves as a cross-sectional view of the volcano's inner structure. In this frame alone, we have volcanic plugs such as Belougery Spire on the left and lava domes such as Bluff Mountain on the right. Belougery Spire is essentially a cast of one of the volcano's vents, formed by magma plugging the fissure and then solidifying as it cooled, exposed due to erosion. Bluff Mountain was formed by gluggy magma bubbling up a vent and, unable to flow far, building up into a pile.
This skyline is prehistoric and fascinating. I felt humbled to be able to witness the colours change and the shadows emerge, as I expect they have been doing every night since time immemorial. It was difficult to leave such a scene but we had to descend Macha Tor before it was too dark...
And then the stars came out to play and as expected from any area with an observatory, they were beaming brightly above Belougery Spire and the iconic and unusual dyke, cleverly named as the Breadknife. The Breadknife is almost 100 metres tall but only four metres wide. You used to be able to rock climb up the Breadknife but for safety and conservation purposes, this has now been prohibited.
Do you know why we call our galaxy the Milky Way? The name originates from the Greeks who called it 'galaxyas kyklos' meaning 'milky circle'. Greek mythology tells the tale of Zeus bringing home his half-mortal love child, Heracles, to Hera to breastfeed whilst she was sleeping. When she woke, she pushed Heracles away, causing a few droplets of milk to spill into the night sky.
At Spirey View, the Milky Way was not only the most luminous but the sharpest that I had ever seen (yes, even better than at Oregon's Dee Wright Observatory).
When I saw the first of a handful of immensely bright stars, I had to double-check with Luke that it was indeed a star and not an airplane!
All night, I craned my neck up towards the stars, almost unable to believe at how crisp the Milky Way was out here...and because of this, and how close the Warrumbungles were to us at Spirey View, it all seemed like this big sky was just at my fingertips...
We stayed at Spirey View until there was not one inch of skin left unbitten by mosquitoes.
Less than twelve hours later and we were back on Macha Tor in anticipation of a brilliant sunrise. There were no clouds this morning and the sky was an uninterrupted shade of baby blue. The ancient volcanic formations glowed a rosy pink until the sun rose and illuminated them in its golden light. Whilst I took photos, Luke fired up the stove for oatmeal and tea and we couldn't have started the day, and ended our Warrumbungles trip, in a better way.
Did I mention that 'Warrumbungle' is the Gamilaroi (or Kamilaroi) word signifying 'crooked mountains'?
I think we can all agree that the name is perfect.