Collapsed caves, a timber viewing tower and mischievous Turquoise Parrots, rooted in a landscape decorated with Cypress pines. The word idyllic doesn’t do this place justice.
Located in the NSW Northern Plains and spanning across the Newell Hwy, Pilliga country offers a kaleidoscope of Aboriginal areas, conservation areas, national parks and state forests. I can barely count the number of times I have driven past this area to ‘head outback’ and not even given it a second thought. How wrong I was. While each area has differing management policies and some areas should certainly be left alone, you really don’t get the feeling that you are unwelcome anywhere.
No matter where you come from, and there are many ways to get here, your first stop should be the Pilliga Discovery Centre, located on the western fringes at Baradine. It is so good that even the kids will love it. It is also a great source of local info and maps. Even though I use a HEMA navigator, I like to have paper maps, and a lot of these detailed maps are only available locally.
After getting the local low-down and armed with the right knowledge, I set off to the first camp: Sculptures in the Scrub/Dandry Gorge Aboriginal area. I quickly discovered that the tracks through the Pilliga are all dirt, and in some sections would be unadvisable in the wet, but the parks consists of a multitude of surfaces – most of them quickly draining – so don’t be put off attempting them. In some parts there are gently rolling hillocks, but the vast majority of the area is dead-pan flat.
They say that silence is deafening, and wow, the feeling of solitude and being at one with nature was immediate. The only sounds here are bird calls and the breeze in the trees. And yet, although being so isolated, the modern facilities at hand give a reassuring feeling that you are not alone, and perfectly safe. In fact, I was greeted by 10 campsites to choose from, all private and RV-friendly. Each site has a used fire scar and there are modern bush facilities within a very easy walk.
The highlight at this first camp is the Sculptures Walk. A well-constructed and sign-posted pathway leads you through a three-kilometre loop that takes in a ridgeline overlooking the Dandry Gorge and then loops back on the return path. There are steps in a few sections, but they are easy to navigate. Along the way are a series of magnificent sculptures, but the highlight for me was walking the gorge, easily one of the nicest I have undertaken in a national park. I would recommend doing this walk either early in the morning, or the late afternoon, as the glowing light that plays upon the sculptures makes for fantastic photographs.
I used this area as a basecamp for days. Sometimes doing nothing, at other times driving the myriad tracks and checking out the scenery and wildlife. If time was a luxury I could have happily stayed here longer, but it was time to move to another basecamp and meet with a local ranger, Dave, for a guided tour of the Sandstone Caves. Dave has a rich Aboriginal heritage and was just fantastic. I could have walked that trek in about 30 minutes but instead I went on a tour of discovery and learning that not only did I really enjoy, but came away with a deep seated belief and understanding of times past. To learn how and why the caves developed, what the caves meant to the indigenous people and how they used them was a real joy. I was really feeling a connection to this area through learning its history.
The remainder of my visit was spent at the other well-marked campground in the Pilliga, Salt Caves. Only a short hop from the Sandstone Caves and once again easy to navigate, I found myself in another well laid out area with great facilities and, amazingly, barely anyone else around. I was starting to wonder if I was the only person left on earth! Perhaps I shouldn’t say this out loud, but why aren’t there more people here?
Once the word gets around about this place then Parks are going to have to install more campsites, because at the moment there are only three bush camps at Salt Caves with one common facility area. So, having the pick, I chose the best along with a great bloke I met along the way and we enjoyed more time in this fantastic area. One of the highlights here, apart from the obvious collapsed caves, is the viewing tower. A modern reconstruction of what once was a timber fire lookout, this one of the best man-made places in Australia to view sunrise and sunset. The pictures do not lie and I even got lost – I was like a kid in a candy shop, snapping away at all hours. The views over the native Cypress pines and various gums and grasses as far as the eyes can see are worth the climb. The elevation affords a view to a very distant horizon over very flat and heavily forested terrain.
One thing to note, however, is that you can camp anywhere you want in the national park. As long as you are off the road, you can camp responsibly in a cleared area that suits you; a welcome change for a NSW park, for sure. And fuel is not an issue; I made one trip back to Baradine (under 70km return), and stocked up on fresh food supplies while I was at it.
As with all trips, this one had to come to an end. I really enjoyed exploring what was only a fraction of the tracks in the Pilliga, and trying unsuccessfully to get a decent photo of the very flighty Turquoise Parrot. There a number of signposted ‘bird routes’, but you need a sharp eye and acute ear. I’m heading back armed with a Ghille Suit and painting my camera and lenses in camo next time! But despite being mocked by this particular bird (for many, many wasted hours I might add), it just added to the charm of the Pilliga. Make sure you check it out before it becomes popular!
- Although there are rainwater collection tanks with taps at the campsites, it is not drinkable water so ensure you are carrying a good supply of water.
- Visit the Discovery Centre at Baradine before you enter the Pilliga – well worth the effort.
- Do not travel during rain; the tracks will become very slippery in places.
- Spend your time on the discovery walks.
- There are a number of well signposted bird watching guides and routes – grab the guides at the Discovery Centre, along with some good local knowledge.