Warrumbungles: Star Gazing In The Australian Outback

The southern hemisphere’s first accredited ‘Dark Sky Park’ – about six hours inland from Sydney – is fuelling a boom in astronomy-inspired travel.
Credit: Destination NSW

The twinkling span of the Milky Way. The magnificent Southern Cross. A meteor streaking across the night sky. For people living in Australia’s light-polluted big cities, it’s the kind of spectacle most can only dream about.

Although Sydney is skirted to the north, west and south by a magnificent belt of national parks, including the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, few of these bushland areas are these days unaffected by the city glow.

That’s why an increasing number of astronomy-inspired travellers are heading outback to Australia’s first gold-tiered Dark Sky Park at Coonabarabran, in the Warrumbungle National Park.

Around two-hours or 120 km by road from Dubbo, and unimpeded by artificial light, the national park was created over millions of years from an extinct shield volcano.

It’s also home to one of the country’s most important astronomical installations, the Siding Spring Observatory.

Covering 23,312 hectares of publicly-owned land between Coonabarabran, Gilgandra and Coonamble in central west NSW, the park was placed on the National Heritage List in 2006 in recognition of its geological and biological values.

The park is home to more than 520 species of native plants, and a safe-haven for endangered and vulnerable native animals – including koalas, echidnas, wallabies, emus, goannas and various bird life.

It also enjoys some of the darkest skies in the world, thanks to a 200 km light exclusion zone, making it an ideal destination for star gazers.

Chances are you’ll see 6,000 or 7,000 stars out here, all with the human eye. In a city like Sydney, you might be lucky to see 100 or 200 due to the invasive light. 

Especially during winter and spring, the Milky Way’s constellations and star clusters can be seen clearly across the vast landscape.

Astronomy research in the Warrumbungles actually dates back to the 1950s, although the International Dark Sky Association (IDSA) only bestowed ‘Dark Sky’ status in 2016.

What Is A Dark Sky Park?

Dark Sky Parks – mostly in remote locations far from excessive, man-made light – are nocturnal environments that are so exceptional they warrant protection from light pollution.

They are specifically important for their sensitive ecosystems, but are also valuable scientific, cultural and educational areas.

There are around 20 accredited Dark Sky Parks worldwide, including Death Valley National Park and the Grand Canyon in the US, Mayo and Kerry in Ireland and Galloway Forest Park in Scotland. There are also nine Dark Sky Reserves, a lesser category. 

Blinded By The Light

In some extremely light polluted places, like SingaporeKuwait and San Marino, the sky is so filled with light that 99.5 per cent of all stars are completely invisible without an optical aid, according to “The New World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness”.

Sydney is still one of the darker cities in the world compared to cities like London, New York and Las Vegas, where you are lucky to see two or three stars in the sky.

Similarly in Asia, it’s impossible to spot the Milky Way in densely populated cities like Hong Kong, Tokyo or Singapore.

The downside is that light pollution does not just disrupt views of the night sky; it also disturbs wildlife, disrupts our sleep and represents wasted electricity.

The excess light dumped into the environment is particularly harmful to nocturnal animals whose feeding, breeding and navigation depend on the dark. 

It’s only when you are standing in complete darkness, marvelling at the 250 billion or so stars that make up the Milky Way, that you truly comprehend how our fast-paced existence is having an impact.

Siding Spring Observatory

Siding Spring Observatory overlooks the spectacular Warrumbungle landscape, perched 1160 metres high on the eastern ridge of the National Park.

It is home to Australia’s largest optical telescopes, including the white-domed 3.9 metre Anglo Australian Telescope (once a joint venture between Australia and Britain), the 2.3 metre Advanced Technology Telescope and the two metre Faulkes Telescope South.

There are another 40 telescopes of varying size dotted through the bushland.

On the mountain road, visitors pass surprisingly small scale-models of Earth, Venus and Mercury. Head into town and you’ll pass Mars and Jupiter. The other planets are found on billboards along major roads and highways across the region.

Because the Observatory is a working scientific facility, it is not open at night to the general public. But you can book day tours of the facility, with tickets starting at $25 for adults and $18 for children 5-16 as well as seniors.

For one day a year, on the October Labour Day long weekend, it does open its telescopes to the public at night.

Getting There

The drive from Sydney to Coonabarabran is about six hours, via either the Blue Mountains or the Hunter Valley wine region. It’s also a 90-minute road trip from Dubbo, heading north-west.

If you’re not up for the long road trip, you can fly with REX from Sydney to Dubbo, or take the train. Then hire a car at Dubbo for the scenic drive to Warrumbungle National Park.

You can camp under the stars, with plenty of allocated areas for caravans and camper vans at Camp Blackman.



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