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Plugs and dishes

One thing astronomers and geologists have in common is that they both look back in time. The Warrambungles is a place that combines astronomy with a geologically fascinating landscape. I also have personal history with the town, having visited twice before with my parents and siblings.

It wasn't our original intention to head north to Coonabarabran, but I did want to share the area with the rest of the family and I am not sure when we would ever return. So we packed the car and set off along the highway.

Most of the countryside is unremarkable scrub. It is only northeast of Gilgandra that you finally get a view of the distant but distinctive Warrambungles, the eroded remains of ancient volcanic plugs.

On arrival at the tourist information I am disappointed to discover that the Siding Springs Observatory visitors centre is closed for maintenance. The observatory houses Australia's largest optical telescope, the 3.8 metre AAT.

Though I have been there before, I had hoped to take Alex to the SSO. We were also planning to spend the night at Coona, as it often abbreviated to. 

The good news was that the alternative tourist drive to Coonabarabran that the GPS had been nagging me to take was indeed sealed. Though we can't visit the telescope, at least we can view the amazing rock formations of the Warrambungles as we return south.



I remember the Warrambungles being greener, but they have been badly affected by fires a few years ago, and this is summer, the dry season. The bare blades and bulges of reddish brown igneous rock emerge out of the khaki, gold and brown scrub, providing a spectacular landscape as we cross into the National Park.

We pull into the National Park visitors centre, purchase a day pass, and learn about the history and biology of the park.




Australia has been drifting over a hot spot in the mantle responsible for a string of volcanos around the East Coast. Around 15 million years ago it caused an eruption in the Warrambungle region. The softer surrounding rock eroded away, leaving the dramatic landscape of today.

Though it is not yet midday, outside it is already very hot. We decide to drive out to the picnic spot at Wambelong Creek and take a short walk along the creek trail. Dominating the background is massive Split Rock, the creek cutting through a small gorge.








Hungry, hot and nervous about snakes, we don't walk far, just crossing the creek and going up some steps, but nevertheless we enjoy the classic bush scene, the walls of rock, the burbling creek, the eucalypts and wildflowers. 

The drive out is pretty in its own way. The crumbling edges of the road are lined with tall, deceptively soft looking, grass. Then we meet the main highway and begin retracing our steps.

Everyone is hungry, not having had much for breakfast, the time ticking past lunch. By the time we reach Gilgandra we are desperate for food. 

Gilgandra's main street is quiet. There are a few gift and curio shops open, a supermarket, but not much in the way of eateries. In the end it's just pies and sausage rolls from the bakery.


I am in a hurry. After the optical observatory disappointment I want us to reach the Parkes Radiotelescope Visitors Centre before it closes for the day. Now, I know that it's open because of all the advertising on Bathurst television!

Also, I also know their website is up to date. Or at least who to bug if it isn't. 

We pass back through Dubbo, splitting off from our previous route. There are long road trains headed down the Newell Highway, including tankers with three trailers behind them. It's not a difficult drive, but it is exhausting and I am very glad when we finally turn off into the telescope road. 

This is another observatory I have been to before. Once with my own parents, but also as their webmaster in a previous role. Then I used to stay at the visitor's lodge in the times before remote observing. 

The 64 metre steerable radiotelescope dish is a most impressive sight, on object of human beauty in its own right. The visitor's centre has some informative displays, although somewhat less than I remember. At least Alex reads many of them. We don't bother with watching a 3D movie show. All our eyes are too tired to cope. 





I hand the car keys (figuratively) over to B and she continues our drive. We are skipping through Parkes and Canowindra and using the long daylight to reach Cowra. 

The scenery on this route is most interesting. Low hills of volcanic boulders, red rocky soil. The sky above is silver on one side with high cloud. On the other, big cumulus clouds threaten to further develop into storms. After so many bland skies lately, finally some drama! 







We haven't booked any accommodation for Cowra. On arrival we pull aside on the main street and search our phones for options. Our last four nights have been in motels. Motels with interiors done up nicer, big televisions showing Netflix and comfy beds, it must be said, but still showing their roots. The road noise was particularly bad in Dubbo, which seems to have more than its fair share of hoons. 

We splurge a little on the Cowra Services Motel, which seems brand new and, despite its name, the interior is very hotel like. After some very long and exhausting days it is nice to stay in somewhere that is more than just a bed to sleep in. 

Dinner is another splurge. We walk down to the main street and have a pub dinner of steak and chicken parmi at the Imperial Hotel. It isn't cheap, but the food is really nice, especially my "wagyu" steak and fluffy chips. 


We walk back to the motel under warm evening skies. Staring out the window at the clouds I am a little disappointed at the lack of a dusk lightning show. 





I'm looking forward to less travel tomorrow, to another Japanese Garden and fossil museum and who knows what else? 


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