Warrumbungles: a climber’s paradise

By Ken Eastwood 9 May 2014
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Born from ancient volcanic activity, the distinctively rugged Warrumbungles landscape calls climbers who revel in the challenge of raw, unpredictable lines.

“SHE WOULD have been a pretty hairy place here about 13 million years ago,” John Whitehead says.

Author of several books on the geologic and human history of the Warrumbungles, John was first wowed by the Warrumbungles area in 1960. He joined the national park trust in 1972 and has been involved in the park’s management and conservation ever since.

From a hill above Camp Blackman, one of three main camping areas in the park, John describes the scene that would have stretched out in front of us before the volcanoes that shaped this landscape erupted, creating the mountains we see today. “All this here, you chop a kilometre off the top and you’ve got a sandstone plateau,” he says. “Ninety per cent of the park is sandstone.”

The 2km-thick sandstone layer formed from sediments that settled at the bottom of the vast Pilliga Sea. This shallow inland lake system covered the landscape about 150 million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed among the region’s ferns and pines.

“I found a trilobite [fossil] about 10 years ago, just here, and I can’t find the bastard now,” John says.

Compressing 150 million years of history into a few minutes, he describes the way the Australian continent drifted back and forth over a volcanic hotspot (now under Bass Strait), creating, in succession, the Glasshouse Mountains, the Bunya Mountains, Mount Warning, and the Nandewar Range (now Mt Kaputar National Park, 150km north-east) before it fired up the Warrumbungle area 17-13 million years ago.

A shield volcano about 1km high and 50km across resulted, and lava spewed and oozed in thick plugs, cooling slowly to form the fine-grained trachyte we see today. The shield volcano has long since eroded away, but the plugs, dykes and cones remain. They are the distinctive features for which the Warrumbungles are known today, and they include the iconic 90m-high slice of jutting trachyte dubbed ‘The Breadknife’.

Warrumbungles a visual feast

Carved out of rugged grazing country in 1953 and inscribed on the National Heritage List in 2006, Warrumbungle National Park is a visual feast with highlights that include towering volcanic features and myriad wildflowers that colour the landscape in spring.

The range’s relatively high position – with peaks up to 1206m – temperature extremes, and location on the border of nsw’s dry western plains and moister eastern ecosystems, means it has a strange mix of more than 620 plant species, ranging from spinifex and sticky daisy bush, to white gums and western golden wattles.

Since the 1930s it has been known as one of the state’s best bushwalking destinations and some 30km of tracks scramble up, around and over the striking natural formations.

The best walks among them are Belougery Split Rock, Macha Tor and the iconic Grand High Tops, all of which offer glorious views and take hikers past grazing kangaroos and woodlands alive with eastern spinebills, honeyeaters, currawongs, wattlebirds and the flashes of firetails.

Bushwalking history of the Warrumbungles

Dot Butler, aka the ‘barefoot bushwalker’, and Australian Geographic Adventurer of the Year for 1988, climbed and walked in the Warrumbungles in the early 1930s. She was one of the toughest members of the Blue Mountaineers climbing group, and later the Tiger Walkers, a group that achieved phenomenal off-track bushwalking feats. Dot was also one of the key people who helped petition for the Warrumbungles’ protection.

“It was Dot’s group and Dot who put the park on the map – and the Sydney Bushwalking Club was instrumental in ensuring it was declared a reserve,” says Mark Fosdick, Coonabarabran Area Manager for the NSW Parks and Wildlife. Dot’s climb of Crater Bluff, with Dr Eric Dark in 1936, remains legendary for its derring-do.

With none of today’s safety devices, the two figures were simply roped together – Dot in bare feet and with no real means of preventing a fall as she ascended the precipitous cliffs, hanging onto sticks of vegetation no thicker than a pencil.

Their actual route has still not been ascertained, but Dot’s description at the time was vivid: “Inch by inch we edged along, clinging to scarcely perceptible ledges of grey, lichen-covered rock, feeling our way in those places where we couldn’t turn to see for fear of upsetting our balance by a fraction of an inch, pausing now and then on some relatively safe ledge to draw a deep breath, for the suspense kept us so tense we hardly dared to breathe, and then on again, high above the giant eucalyptus, which, in the valley below, appeared to our wide-open eyes no bigger than matchsticks; and always the huge eagles, wheeling aloft, surveying us from their untamed heights with fierce, contemptuous eyes.”