It took us about five hours of driving from Port Stephens on the coast through the Hunter Valley to reach Coonabarabran. It is almost 200 miles from the coast. It isn't exactly the Outback, but our guidebook stated that 85% of the population of Australia lives within 30 miles of the coast. Pretty amazing for a country that is over 2000 miles wide. So I wanted to explore a little way into the interior. Another time we might go back and do the coast drive from Sydney to Melbourne. That is supposed to be really pretty. There are too many cool trips to take!
I wanted to visit Warrumbungle National Park. Although Australia is by far the least mountainous of continents, I had seen some pictures and it looked like there were some neat rock formations in the park. And the "Grand High Tops" is widely regarded as one of the best bush walks (translation - hikes) in Australia. So the next day we had a good breakfast and headed into the park. We had a few nice views on the drive in, but were in valleys most of the time and couldn't really see the peaks. Although not real high, there are some rock spires that are all that is left of the core of a very old volcano. We were also still hoping to catch a glimpse of some wild kangaroos which were supposed to be common in the park.
As soon as we stopped at the Visitor Centre, we noticed a different kind of fauna - flies. But it was rather boggy there so we were hoping they wouldn't be too bad on the trail. Plus we would be moving most of the time, so we thought it might be ok. The parking lot at the trailhead had a lot of cars, which I took as a good sign. And it looked like a beautiful day. Mostly clear, and warmer than it had been near the coast. So we started off.
Sandy was the one with the good eye. She spotted a kangaroo only about ten feet off the trail. Just like deer in US national parks, it was definitely not afraid of people. I was able to get quite close to take a picture. And even then it didn't bolt. It just kind of wandered off. Kind of hard to picture how something can wander off by hopping, but that's what it did. When you see a kangaroo up close and watch it, the resemblance to a deer is pretty striking. And it seems to me that it is in a similar ecological niche.
But the wildlife was causing a problem. The flies were bad. I have done a lot of hikes, but have not encountered any like these. I have done hikes in North America where every once in a while a fly would find you, and then you either have to swat it or shoo it and keep moving till it loses you. Places in the Canadian Rockies were probably the worst I had encountered. But these were small, fast flies. And they seemed to be around all of the time. So we just walked along with our hat in our hand swinging it at the flies to try to keep them at bay. Some people on the trail didn't seem to be bothered. But a lot of people were walking along swinging their hands and arms at the flies. One guy had weeds dangling from the brim of his hat. As he walked they would swing back and forth, automatically shooing the flies away. Every few minutes one would get to Sandy and she would yell WOOOOO!!!!! We kept at it for about a half hour, but then we decided that this was NOT fun. The hike is supposed to be spectacular but would take several hours. We would be more worn out from shooing the flies than from walking. And stopping to rest didn't seem like an option. So we gave up and turned around. Next time I am taking bug netting. But at least we saw the kangaroo so the hike wasn't a total loss.
I had expected the hike to take most of the day, so now we had a lot of extra time. We stareted to head back to town. Besides being close to the National Park, Coonabarabran is also known as The Astronomy Capitol of Australia. The Siding Spring Observatory is on a mountaintop in the National Park and has the largest telescope in Australia as well as a number of other telescopes. There is also an astronomy tourist attraction just outside town called Skywatch. It has a telescope, planetarium, exploratorium and even "astro mini-golf". It offers guided viewing of the sun during the day and various sky objects at night. It was even common to see domes of personal observatories next to people's houses. And it has the largest model of the solar system at 1/38,000,000 scale.
We drove up to Siding Spring Observatory since their website said they were open during the day. I really wanted to get a look at the 3.9m telescope. They had a small coffee shop there and an "exploratorium" you could go through for a fee. I figured that it got you into the observatory so we took the tour. But I was wrong. They had a few astronomical exhibits but not too much that I wasn't familiar with. They did have a neat model of the large scale structure of the universe that was cool to see in 3D instead of just in pictures in books. And they had some good info on the deep space survey that they were doing with one of the telescopes at the observatory. They could do redshift measurements on 100 distant galaxies at a time. They had already mapped the red shift for 100,000 galaxies and they expected to reach 250,000 when the map for the part of the skies visible from their location was complete. Mind boggling.
But I was disappointed that I didn't get to see the big telescope. I asked the lady in the coffee shop if there was a tour. She said only on special days. So we got ready to leave. While Sandy and Shannon waited at the car I walked around to the dome in back. After all, we were on a mountaintop and I thought I could get a good view of the Grand High Tops. At the parking lot it was blocked by trees. And sure enough, on the other side of the largest dome there was a really nice view of the center of the National Park.
But then I noticed a door that was marked "To gallery" on the dome. There was also a sign warning visitors that the doors were locked promptly at 4:30 so to be sure to be out before then. So I poked my head in to see what was there. I figured that the gallery was probably photos taken with the telescope. But it was just a stairwell. So I went up. Well over a hundred steps. And I came out in a small room with a large viewing window that looked out over the main telescope. It was amazing to see. The idea that it is used to get information about galaxies that are billions of light years away is just mind boggling. Some people might have thought there wasn't anything to see, but I thought it was awesome. They also had some info on the telescope posted on the walls, and yes, they did have a gallery of amazing photos taken with the telescope. By the time I got back to the car, Sandy was about ready to send out a search party. I was really glad I had found my way in though. I was kind of ticked at the lady in the coffee shop for not telling me about it either.
Another interesting thing that starts at the Observatory is a huge model of the solar system at 1/38,000,000 scale. At that scale, the sun would be about the size of the dome of the large telescope at the observatory. At various points along the highways nearby they have placed signs indicating the relative size and distance of the eight planets, plus they kept Pluto. The amazing thing to me was the size of the outer solar system. You pass all of the inner planets (Mercury, Venus, and Earth) on the five minute drive down the mountain, and Mars and Jupiter before you get back to town. We had passed Pluto on our drive in the day before in a town that was an hours drive away. It is a looooooong way off. And on that scale, the Earth is about the size of a basketball. The solar system is a pretty empty place.
After that we went back to town and packed up. We were supposed to stay at our motel for one more night but Sandy was not too pleased with it. I thought it was ok but I am less fussy than she is. That is one of the problems with making all the arrangements ahead of time over the web. Sometimes the plan doesn't quite come off and sometimes the places aren't what you expect. And Sandy wasn't too excited about staying another afternoon and evening in Coonabarabran. She wanted to move on. It is a small town. It did have a Subway (where Shannon had got her dinner the night before) and a pizza place (where I had gotten my dinner the night before) and a few small cafes, but the dining options were not extensive or cosmpopolitan like Sydney. And there wasn't much more to do. We had gone to the Crystal Kingdom the previous afternoon. My sister Lorri would have loved it. She is into crystals and alternative healing techniques and such. For some reason, crystals are big in Australia. We saw crystal shops in just about every town. Anyway, we had pretty much exhausted the shopping in Coonabarabran. So we went back to our motel, checked out even though we had already paid for the night, and headed on. Actually, I think in the back of her mind Sandy was hoping that if we moved everything up a day, we would have an extra day to go back into Sydney so she could do some jewelry shopping to make up for the time she missed when she wasn't feeling well.
No big deal. We were exploring, after all. Unfortunately we did have one major disaster. As we were hurrying to check out of our motel so we could get going, we left the wine we had bought the day before in the room. The two bottles of Verdelho that we were going to take home as a special treat. But we were able to find Verdelho in the duty free shop in the Sydney airport on the day we flew home. You can't take bottles through security, but since the duty free shop is past the security check, you can buy wine there. So we bought three bottles (the limit we could take into Singapore) and all ended well. Especially for the cleaning lady at the motel. She probably thought that we left her an unusual tip, but appreciated it all the same.
To be continued...