Saturday, 15 March 2014

Weekend At The Warrumbungles

Belougery Spilt Rock at sunset
It's not like we haven't been there before but ever since my first visit to Warrumbungle National Park in 1967, I have always felt compelled to return.

I was a bright eyed eleven year old then, arriving mid morning to a vista of enormous mountains and kangaroos watching us bump along on the rough dirt roads. To a lad from the bland suburbs of The Shire, my only experience with the bush had been the small creek which ran through Lady Carrington's Drive in the Royal National Park or the beaches of Cronulla. I didn't know Australia could look so wild: I didn't know anywhere could look as wild.

We parked under the influence of Belougery Split Rock with it's two heads and vast expanses of orange rock faces, which glowed the next morning when I peeked through the window of the trams we were sleeping in. Trams? Yes old city trams, still in their working livery, but hollowed of their seats and with a masonite dividing wall at the halfway point to create two cabins. A one element grill/cooktop and a recycled bar fridge was the kitchen, old wire bunks the bedroom and the bathroom was a sink in the end compartment - so narrow that a size 42 would be wedged there until help came.

I slept in the same quarters six years later on a school excursion when Peter Farmer smuggled in a bottle of Ouzo, got horribly drunk and two of us were handed the job of keeping him alive for the night. It might have been more fun if we had been drinking.

35 years of visits to the Warrumbungles
The trams were still there when I bought my wife here on our honeymoon and we walked Split Rock in 38C heat, she screaming for most of the dangerous accent up the chain to the summit. I've been up there of rainy days and watched bogans in thongs somehow survive against all odd and Darwinian theories. These days the summit lays unchained. Climbers take their own risk.

I bought my children here and climbed Mt Exmouth with my eldest son, while my wife stayed at a lower level using the younger children as her shield in order to avoid another literally breath taking climb. He her life rushed before her as she bordered on collapse climbing Bluff Mountain the day before. Somehow, her body races to the memory of that Split Rock day on her honeymoon - hot for all the wrong reasons - and it bails at the first incline.

Having lived close enough, the park was a day trip away for eight years and I have logged frequent flier points on most of its tracks: especially the Pincham Track, which rises up Spirey Creek to the Grand High Tops. From this vantage point, it is easy to become convinced one is the Mountain King and that The Who were right ... you can see for miles and miles and miles and miles ... and what you see is old and spectacular. Millions of years have gone into the making.

So more than thirty trips here in 45 years make the treasures here even more valuable. Treasures I never tire of looking on at sunrise or listening to at sunset as the kookaburras farewell the sun. They are so familiar.

Until late yesterday afternoon.

We drove in past White Gums Lookout and down the steep pass that descends into this valley of giants but much looked unfamiliar. Unfamiliar because so much more was on view. The road to the park entrance should have prepared us but it didn't. 

On almost all of the slopes, black spindles were organised like sloping beds of nails. There were no leaves in the upper reaches, no screen to shield the rock faces, to provide shade for animals in the summer or roost for birds. It was like looking with Superman's eyes and not seeing clothing and skin but the bare bones underneath. At their base and down in the valley, there were verdant collections of shoots, mostly at the base of the eucalypts and a few macropods moved slowly about. What drought hadn't thinned in eight years, the worst bush fire in the Warrumbungles NP history did 14 months ago.

Even in dry times, the base population of eucalypts and black cypress provide a green relief in a orange and black rocky vista. Today, ebony has taken fortress. The weeds are back and of course and those perennial survivors, the ants. The park is administered from a prefabricated office, across the creek, beside the Education Dept's field study centre. The original office, with it's large plate glass window looking up to the Grand High Tops, it's expanse spreading from floor to a high raked ceiling, was destroyed on a black Sunday which caused so much plunder within and without the park. Walks are still closed as their infrastructure is rebuilt - bridges and staircases and the borders of paved tracks.

I've never seen the Warrumbungles look like this. Very few have. There were big fires here in 1959 and again ten years later but not like January 2013. Whilst the Grand High Tops had sections of fire, with some parts of the valleys up that way in the south of the park untouched, in the northern section, beyond the Blackman Camping Areas, the fire raged to 1000 degrees C. Up there, even some eucalypts didn't survive and whole populations of birds and animals have been all but wiped out.

Nature has a perverse sense of humour or perhaps just exquisite timing. Three weeks after that dreadful Sunday, a storm delivered 150ml of rain in thirty minutes. The top soil, destroyed by its intense baking and with no foliage to anchor it, eloped with the water gushing toward streams. There is a silt in the creeks a metre deep but deeply damaged vegetation and soil were rejuvenated.

There are fewer places to walk for the time being but there is a spirit about this place. New growth is exploding from the eucalypts and populations of wildlife are slowly, painfully slowly, starting to breed. Whilst many of the park workers have had enough, most are hanging on, some with enthusiasm about the future. Programs are underway. Warrumbungles will go on. 

The kookaburras sang the sunset last night.

This morning, with that first cup of tea which is so exquisite, I watched a wedge tailed eagle rise from the ground twenty metres away and with massive effort climb in swirls and circles into the air. Two magpies flew back and forward across his path, nuisances for a minutes or two, but he soon found his way in less and in less than five minutes he was up and away and rising on thermals. His view of the new sun beat mine by minutes and then he swung away for the mountains, silently waiting for him in the south.

We walked the asphalt roadway to Canyon Camp, new growth bushy and bright green on either side of the road. We stood where the trams had been and laughed about funny memories from our honeymoon - although Split Rock appears doomed to never be among them. Thoughts of watching a family of Blue Fairy Wrens just around the corner on the nature walk along the creek that we used as a means of "breaking in" our children to the Warrumbungles; of the day the goanna ran up me to my chest before departing in even grater flight; and of the memories of snakes and adventures our children are now making with their own partners.

A family group of emus wandered past to disturb us and bring us back to recognised that these great memories we have are part of a set that is still growing.

After lunch, three heavy showers passed through, enough to make the creeks run hard for an hour or two and start the work of cutting through and removing the silt.

Everywhere you look in this place, you can see an ecosystem at work.

So, after all this time, the Warrumbungles has thrown me up a new experience and I'm again like that wide-eyed eleven year old, studying everything and gob smacked at the magnitude and even, amid the debris, inspired by the place.

We drove home via Spring Ridge and the black soil plains, chasing the storm which led us home to Tamworth.

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