The Warrumbungle ranges (aka Bungles) near Coonabarabran is well known for its wildlife, bushwalking and rockclimbing all against a breathtaking rugged backdrop. And it was back in the year 2000 when I introduced my then girlfriend, Celia …now wife, to the Bungles to spend a few days over Easter upon the vertical, rock climbing. 15 years on and we are back in this stunning national park …this time, with two young boys in tow and to tick off some of the more iconic bush walks the park is well-known for.
We were both very excited to be back in this beautiful location to introduce the boys to the next level of bush walking relative to anything they have done in the past.
They both now have many kms in their legs from the trip overall, but especially after Bowra two weeks ago, so they should be better suited to the lumpy elevation changes the Bungles throws at you. However we little unsure of what to expect of this visit because of a recent unprecedented event in this national park.
*** In January 2013 approximately 80% of the national park was destroyed by what was labeled as a catastrophic-level bushfire that burned much of the areas surrounding the park as well as destroying dozens of homes in the process. The parks long-established visitor centre and museum at Camp Blackman were also destroyed in the fire as well as kms of railings and many of the viewing platforms throughout the park. The park was subsequently closed after the fire for close to 2 years, but has now reopened, although, some parts still remain closed to this day and may not reopen for years.
3 years on from this massive bushfire, driving into the park was an eye-opener for us because of the highly visual damage that is still evident from the fires. Vast old forested woodlands in some areas are now all but gone, some less affected areas regrowing. The fires in some areas were so intense it actually incinerated much of everything in its path so the regeneration and typical germination after bushfire in some areas of the park is almost non-existent and just bare earth. Bushfires in Australia are commonplace and we have seen a few of them over the years, but nothing like this.
We arrived at Camp Blackman on a sunny if not windy day and this campground would be our base for the next 6 days, and 6 of the last 7 days of our trip around Australia. The long-range weather forecast however was not looking all that great …two days of rain, two days of cool overcast skies, and two-three days of high winds. We were all hoping our last leg of the trip would be one of our most memorable and to hopefully finish it on a high note. And driving into Camp Blackman campground we saw something I have not seen in any of the previous half-dozen times I have been here in the past …that was, seeing the Wambelong creek in flow.
Next to the creek we found a reasonable campsite position, a large area defined by a bitumen surface (nice change) and setup the T3 with the awning out and the fire pit armed and ready. It was nice that evening to roast something on the baby for a welcome change!
The next day we rose to a brisk morning of 5deg and after breaky get the climbing gear out and begin to sort it for teaching the boys how to abseil. Whilst we were sorting our ropes, we were visited by a large group of Apostle birds. Many of these utterly charming birds were clambering all over our climbing/abseiling gear, chattering and squawking and being bold and cheeky in the process. They just took over the place liked they owned it – I guess they do! And over the rest of the week we would often be paid a visit by these delightful birds a couple of times per day looking for any handouts or to seek out something we had lying around to get mischievous with it.
After lunch, Aidan, Lochie and I jumped in the D4 and got out to check a few possible cliff-lines that might offer a good and safe spot to set up an abseil. Quickly though it became evident this was not going to be a straightforward process. The bushfires had burnt almost every sizeable tree along most cliff-lines throughout the valley cliff-tops we could access thus leaving no suitable and healthy living tree, using tree protectors, to abseil off these as safe anchor points. We continued with our search in other local areas and came across a cliff-line in a small 15M high gorge along Wambelong creek that may just work. I quickly look and decide this is the best spot we’ve seen, for now …only to find out a couple of days later it wasn’t going to be …more about this later.
That evening, we had another fire-pit campfire and cooked a lovely dinner on what was a cold and somewhat breezy night. The wind had a bitey-edge to it that felt as though it was snowing somewhere close-by and recorded a temp of 2.7Deg outside. If you take a close look at the temperature gauge you will notice it was balmy 22Deg inside the van – courtesy of its great diesel heating system. The temperature went on to hit 1Deg a couple of hours later and made us reflect on the 40+Deg days several months earlier in the Kimberley of WA asking ourselves which was worse. 🙂
The following day the wind was gone and it was showery weather. We decide to do a number of short walks that lead/finish from the campground that were between 3-5kms in length. Nice walking warm-ups and ideal for ridding of the cobwebs for what’s to come in the coming days. The boys by this stage were aching to try their hand abseiling, however, the showery and windy days were not the best conditions to learn abseiling until at the very least, the wind abated to make communicating and instruction a lot easier. So we do some more bushwalking instead.
With the warm-up walks now out of the way we decide to next do the Gould’s Circuit Track walk around the Febor-Tor and Macha-Tor spires. Not a difficult walk if you allow time and if taken easy and the views, especially from the top of Macha-Tor, make this walk a classic. And strangely, in all the years I had been coming to the Bungles to rockclimb, I have walked past this popular walk turn-off on the way up to camping at Balor Hut, further up the range, probably a dozen times and never did get to do this walk for one reason or another. I’m glad we did as the views back up over a valley to the main volcanic range are stunning and well worth the little extra effort to make the ridge top. As the Gould’s walk is a circuit, it’s easier to approach it if walking from Pincham carpark, to walk it in an anticlockwise direction so as to avoid the steeper ascent ridgeline up to Macha Tor spur from the Fabor Tor side of the walk. It’s steep on both sides however it noticeably easier and dare I say, gentler on the thighs to do this walk anticlockwise.
Once again and now becoming a ubiquitous theme of tour Bungles visit, throughout the walk we couldn’t help not notice the devastating effects of the bushfires – mainly across the many ridge lines and lower slopes. Amazingly though, some of the narrower and deeper valleys we walked through had appeared to escaped the fires – presumably the fire jumping these narrow valleys from ridge-line to ridge-line. And whilst most of the unique flora of the park had been devastated through the fires, so too were a lot of fauna. In particular, the Bungles had always been well known for its large population of Koalas, and in past visits over the years, including our last 15 years ago, we had always seen groups of Koalas around somewhere. Unfortunately however, over the several days we spent in the park we saw no signs of them anywhere so perhaps they were all tragically lost in the bushfires – we don’t know exactly but would stand to reason as to why we did not see or hear of them. The same, thankfully, cannot be entirely said for the birdlife. Although it is much quieter than I seem to recall, there are still numerous birds species around and although many were presumably wiped out during the fires, steadily, populations are now back on the increase and others returning to the park. We saw no Emu’s which was also sad – the one particular bird we have all enjoyed the most on this trip and one we would often see in the lower valleys, but not this time.
The day after we decide to do some abseiling. The spot we had previously chosen a couple of days earlier and arrive at the location mid morning. A simple walk of 100M or so to the base of the cliff where the boys put on their harness and helmets ready to receive their first abseil instruction lesson of the day. After running the boys through the initial basics, 25 minutes later I head up to the top of the cliff-line with two 50M ropes and other gear and start to look for a couple of suitable anchors aligned to where we need to set up the abseil down an easily accessible and safe rock wall. After nearly 30 minutes of searching and assessing cliff access I decide to abandon this spot entirely and we all go off in search of another suitable crag elsewhere. There are no man-made anchors in this part of the park and the burnt out trees were not safe to anchor off. We decide to have some lunch and soon after end up west of the Canyon Picnic area and search the many small cliff-lines in this area. These were more favourable however the bushfires here also had a devastating effect right up to the cliff’s edge which made it unsafe from falling debris that was likely to be dislodged from the movement of the abseiling ropes. We searched for a couple of hours and as the boys were absolute beginners, I didn’t feel there was anything safe enough without dislodging a rock or stone or something else on you when descending – so disappointingly, we ended up abandoning abseiling for the day.
Later that afternoon, we crank up the fire pit once again and Celia made a lovely stew on the fire over 3.5 hours. Apart from the over-peppering of it by me, the stew was great – especially since it was another low single digit cold night.
On the second last day we rose early to do the Grand High Tops walk. This is arguably the signature walk of the Bungles and often regarded as one of the best 10 walks anywhere in Australia. We arrived at 9AM in the Pincham carpark and quickly get on our way on what we were expecting to be a 6-7 hour round walk. It was 7Deg, little wind, little cloud and the sun was shinning brightly and a wonderful day was in store. The walk starts gently and crosses the same stream on three occasions. After the third crossing which was a new timber bridge, the track started to climb steadily along a paved walkway. Yes, very consumer!
About 30mins in from the carpark and you come to the Macha-Tor and Fabor-Tor turnoffs of the Gould’s circuit walk. Another 15mins past these is a nice rest spot on the left and the first glimpse of the 1057M Belougery Spire. We stopped here for 5 mins and had a snack and some water and were immediately visited by two cheeky Currawongs looking for any food they could get from walkers. These two may have picked up a little of our muesli bar that we all “accidentally dropped” near them …yes, we were very clumsy!
Anyway, onwards and upwards, and soon after the rest the walk yet again climbs steeper before reaching a spur and the first real view of the Breadknife and part of the Grand High Tops. 100M past this point and you come to the first step of the new and expensive looking galvanised steel and timber staircase. This part of the track used to be the hardest section years ago with a very steep rocky single trail with many high step-ups and multiple switchbacks before reaching the turnoff to Balor Hut and Bluff Mountain. I remember this section taking upwards of 30 mins to complete, now only 5-10 at most with the new fancy staircase.
From here, the track quickly turns into a more naturally steep dirt single track which hugs and follows the base of the Breadknife. The knife is 600m long, 90m high, and only a few metres thick and kind of defies logic of how it still stands! It is also one of two volcanic dykes in all of the Bungles where rock climbing is prohibited, simply because of the walking tracks that run along the base of them.
Continuing on for another 750M, the track continues to climb upward and eventually southeast from the Breadknife above the tree line the views from here are simply outstanding. Once you reach this point, your view is framed to the east by Belougery Spire, now in full view, and this is a lovely position to sit along the many vantage points and if lucky enough, spot a rock climber somewhere on Belougery spire.
To the south from here, the whole National Park opens up in this direction and the scenery is dominated by the 1094m pillar of Crater Bluff and its distant companion, Honduran Spire as in our feature image of this post. Crater bluff, directly behind Celia, Aidan and Lochie is another popular climbing spire and I remember fondly climbing many routes here years ago and abseiling down into the sheltered ancient palm forests on the southern side of the crater to the valley below. After a few shots here and seeing several more groups coming and going, we descend back down the track and head back down past the Breadknife and to the turnoff to Balor Hut.
150M on is Balor hut and we first notice walking on off the track of the resultant bushfire damage. The little forested section where we use to pitch our tents when rock climbing here years ago were all in regrowth mode. The Hut itself looked to escape the fire however the old timber NPWS Balor Hut sign has now been replaced by a more modern one. The NPWS were finally building a toilet for campers at the hut – one of those waterless eco drop-types which is made from metal fabrication which is probably wise.
We also noticed the old corrugated water tank behind the hut (that use to be full of Mosquito larvae but we still drank it when we often camped here) has now been replaced with a new larger poly version. Apart from these changes the rest of Balor Hut and its surrounds looks largely the same as it ever did. We also showed the boys a section of rock behind the hut to the west which is the location of where I taught Celia to abseil all these years ago which she would later go on to climb the 3-star classic climb of Belougery Spire, “Vertigo” aptly named because of its wild exposure and multi-pitch abseil down to the base of the climb. It was lovely to sit on a rare grass patch next to the hut in the warmth of the sun, a sandwich in hand and reminisce of our climbing days here and quietly ponder if our boys follow at some point in our foot steps? We used to frequent here at Easter time, when we would come to Balor hut with many other climbers from far and wide and spend nights around an open fire talking about the different routes everyone climbed that day or were planning front the next day. We spend an hour at the hut and decide to return back to Pincham Carpark the same way we came up. Along the way we pass more groups of walkers heading up the mountains and pass the odd person or two on the way down.
Just after the steep paved section before the Macha-Tor and Gould’s Circuit turnoff, there is a little rainforest section of old tall trees and several large grass trees where the track follows the fall of the creek line. It appeared the fire missed this one particular area of forrest and was lovely to walk underneath the tree canopies like how a lot of trails through the the park used to be prior to the fires. The rest of the walk back to the carpark is straightforward with a gentle downhill slope most of the way pushing you along. We reached the carpark a little after 3pm and discussion quickly turned to what to have for dinner for the 10 minute drive back to camp …in the end, that good old Italian favourite, Spagbol, received the consensus vote.
Our last day in the Bungles was a relative quite one. We did do a couple of the more smaller walks, the boys enjoyed some freedom to explore how they wished, and we packed and prepared the van for the long trip back home for the following day. Everyone was feeling a little glum with the thought that the following day will be our last day of our lap of Australia travelling home however the Apostle birds visited a few times never failing to make us all smile. It was however a much quieter evening than usual as the reality started to truely sink in with the thought of the trip is now all but over – a sombre thought indeed. Certainly ending a big trip of 50 weeks can be difficult, however each of us for several weeks up to this point had on the occasion started to already discuss the next trip destination(s) and possibly the next one after that. Wherever those destinations tun out to be, what is more important is simply getting out in the wonderful backcountry no matter where it is, as it is ALL GOOD.
This post will be the last of “where & what we did” for this trip and we aim to post a forthcoming summary (or two) of the overall trip in the coming few weeks. Next update though, we will update our National Parks page in a couple of days time and may even make this a “sticky page” for a while as its one of our most visited pages on the site and we hope to continue adding more National parks we visit well after this trip has concluded.
Geoff & Celia