Overnight stops: Macquarie Woods Recreation Area, Vittoria; Red Earth Estate, Dubbo (2 nights); Tinja, Mudgee (2 nights); Cullenbone Picnic Area, Cullenbone; Camp Blackman, Warrumbungle National Park (2 nights).
Picture this: a hot day, clear skies, and birds singing in the quiet streets of outer Bathurst. The crowd roars as 4.5 tonnes of elegance enters the streets, ready to tackle Australia’s infamous Supercar track. Engine revving, the (non-functioning) lights go green, and we’re off, zero to 40 km/h in about 30 seconds, neck-breaking pace.
We’re chasing the course record of just over two minutes. Up the steep slope like bread through butter, across the ridge with a short stint to admire the town with a thousand schools below. Then down through the slowest part of the track, weaving through turns with pace just as the legends had before; Johnson, Skaife, Lowndes, Wombat. We lost track of our splits, such was the speed we managed, until we hit Conrod Straight, where we hit our top speed, shaking at 64km/h.
Loz stopped the clock at 7m36s, a new motorhome record, maybe?
Bar the Mount Panorama hot lap, everything takes half a day in the WomBatmobile. Whether it’s travelling 100km or 300km, everything seems to take half a day. Acceleration is slow, braking is slow, corners are slow, and top speed is low. Thankfully we’re not in a hurry.
Testing the WomBatmobile
With nothing keeping us in Bathurst, we continued towards Orange, pulling in for the night at a free camp, Macquarie Woods Recreation Area, halfway between the two towns. Our eyes were set on a hike in Mount Canabolas the following day, so we didn’t get too settled. Here we experimented with the WomBatmobile’s limits a little. She runs on a combination of solar, gas, 240v power, and love. With solar power in the tank, we figured we’d see if she had it in her to run the fridge overnight on solar, rather than the conventional gas. Midway through the night we were woken by a piercing scream. Our power inverter, used to convert solar power to charge 240v items had lost all juice, and figured we needed to know, not silencing until I rocked it to sleep. Just as we were back into a deep sleep, the fridge started clicking, a chocolate wheel sans the prizes, telling us she too was done. A steep learning curve to run the fridge on gas overnight (at least when we don’t have 240v power). Volts, watts, amps, power is tricky stuff!
The following morning, sunny and perfect for hiking, we packed up and made our way for Mount Canabolas. Here we reached our first major disappointment for the trip, our only way in being closed for reasons I can’t remember. Looks like Canabolas will have to wait for another day.
So we charged on, Wellington-bound, to check out hundreds of millions of old rocks and fossils in their cool caves. Forty degrees above ground, and a delicious 18’C underground, in the Cathedral Cave, full of beautiful crystals and the ‘alter’ reminiscent of King Kong. Liv found a friend, and stuck to her like a rash, continually asking to hold her hand.
As the crow flies, we were staying just 1,400m from Dubbo’s Western Plain Zoo. You’d barely call it a campsite, but it was great. Red Earth Estate, a small winery run by Lin the legend, where you can sample the local produce and setup camp out the back, plugging into his shed and rainwater tank. Metres from the family vineyard, with some much needed late afternoon shade provided by the shed.
Dubbo Observatory is right next door, so we booked in for some star gazing on our first night, with the Central-West well regarded for some of the best astronomy in the country. Excitedly we walked down the road just shy of 9pm, Liv leading the way with her new head torch. We were greeted by large locked gates on arrival, hmmm. So I rang old mate, “I’m on my way mate, see you soon.” So much for ‘bookings essential’! When he arrived, before even saying so much as hi, he looked up into the sky, and informed us that there was some cloud about, we won’t be seeing stars tonight. Err, what? Was he looking at a different sky where he had driven from? Why drive here and drag us along only to disappoint us? Just tell us on the phone… He then jumped back in his ute and went on his way. We won’t be back 😔.
Western Plain Zoo
As I mentioned above, the crow has an easy journey from Red Earth Estate to the zoo, barely having to flap its’ wings. For us humble travellers with bicycles, turns out it’s more of a roundabout way to get there. A return trip of about 9km, seemingly uphill both ways. Thankfully it was about ten degrees cooler on our chosen day, a petty 30’C or so. So we made our way, excited to cruise around on our bikes all day, and check out the animals.
This is definitely the best zoo. Whilst Taronga has its views and accessibility, Western Plain has space and a more natural environment for the animals. And rhinos, so many rhinos. So we leisurely rode around the 7km track, and admired the animals. Our favourite was the Siambong (monkey), with a howl as powerful as this dude I went to uni with (watching him get going in laughing fits was pretty well the only reason I went to class), and its’ awesome walk, on hind legs like a human, but with arms longer than John Howard’s reign, hanging, giving it the look of the coolest kid in school.
What ever happened to the wave? This is the country, doesn’t everyone wave?! On our way from Dubbo to Mudgee, I decided to give up on the one-finger off the wheel country wave, as my success rate was none out of five return waves. So disappointing, it seems like the Sydney snobbery is sprawling west. Nek minute people won’t say ‘g’day’ in the country, now that’s a scary notion.
Mudgee has charm. It’s always been one of my favourite places, held dearly to my heart. My mum grew up here and I often reminisce about fond times bringing mates to the farm during school holidays to ‘work’. Early and mid teens, we’d drive around the farm, pulling down fences, killing trees, water vines, and pretend to enjoy wine (we were teenagers, so all alcohol was amazing), and have the time of our lives. Every time we visit we remind each other that we should come more often, especially given the close proximity to Sydney.
After a bike ride in town and around the beautiful Lawson Park, we plugged in at Tinja, the house mum and my uncle Lowey grew up in; a gorgeous spot looking down to the Cudgegong River. We were soon joined by Lowey, Kim (his wife), Zander (cousin) and his girl, Claire, for a drink on the verandah, while the sun set.
I was lucky enough, when working for Lowe Wines in 2013, to spend a few days pruning up at Nullo Mountain; the most beautiful place no one has heard of; and Australia’s highest vineyard. Since then I’ve been promising to show Loz this sacred place, with breathtaking views. The opportunity was finally presented in this trip, and Lowey offered to take us up there, a 3 hour return journey. The drive itself is impressive enough, through vineyards and gorges, rock formations as good as any. The higher you go, the more ‘Deliverance’ the land becomes (cue the banjo). Cars! The amount of cars some of these places collect is out of control. Lowey hypothesises that the cars belong to those who have stopped for directions or help, never to be seen again 😂.
Swerving wombats and wallabies, we made our way to the top, Zander in-pursuit on his motorbike, sliding across the gravel like dry ice on a slip ‘n’ slide. A quick check on the vines, enough time for Loz to graduate the school of David Lowe’s viticulture, and we scraped across to the gorgeous gorge for a glass of Australia’s best Riesling, Lowe Wines Nullo Riesling – grown only metres away. Turns out we were second to the spot, disturbing this little dude’s (below) awesome view.
“Are you calling from a mobile phone?” asked Ted, the 84 year-old Hill-End hero, helping tourists find fortune for the past 50 years. We got his card from another family in the local park and decided to give him a call, to see if we could fund the remainder of the trip with gold specs. Ted was more than happy to help, and showed us how to pan for the precious mineral famous in this area, with assistance from his mate, Gary.
Ted told tales of the things he’s seen and taught in his time in Hill End, and could’ve continued doing so for days, just as we could listen. He’s the sort of dusty old bloke you expect to see in a tiny town like this – empathetic, patient, knowledgeable, legend status through the roof. To top it off, he adored Liv and was keen to find us fortune, despite being older than the hills and charging for his time like it was 1960.
We left Hill End with a finger-tip’s worth of gold specs, possibly enough to trade for a red frog at your local swimming pool in the mid-90s. In a year or two it’ll be worth more than a Bitcoin, but then again, so will a single WeetBix.
With time up our sleeve we decided against our original plan of staying the night in the pretty little town, and moved back towards Mudgee, knowing the following day involved a few hours driving. We pulled into the best free camp at Cullenbone, only a few kms from Tinja, where the sound of the gentle river rapids rocked us to sleep.
There’s generally three reasons people live and work in the Mudgee region: vines, wines or mines. Sure, there are a handful who live in Gulgong, clinging to its ‘$10 town’ history, but for the most, vineyards, wine or coal provide employment in some form. Little known by visitors is The Drip, a rock the size of Russia, on the outskirts of Ulan, looking like a half-broken wave, forever feeding water to the rock-bed below, providing a quasi kid swimming pool for locals on a hot day. It’s easy to walk to, provides great shade, and its sheer size is certain to impress. We didn’t know much about it, but it has long been in my ‘to-do list’. So we dripped in on our way north, and we’re suitably impressed as a place to munch down our daily sanga. Well done locals for keeping this off the radar, well done indeed.
It’s a long way to the top (if you wanna hike Coolah Tops)
We like to wing things, especially with our lack of deadlines and expectation this year. The amount of people we have given political-type non-answers to already in response to “when are you going to be in …?” is astounding. But lack of travel plans adds to the adventure, and often the best travel tales come from your lowest, most unexpected points. Such as that time we were taken off a bus in the wee morning hours on the Argentina/Uruguay border, and asked (in Spanish) to explain why we had no entry into Uruguay recorded on our passports; or the time Loz woke up in a toilet-wreaking bus with the butt of a gun in her face, as the bus had been raided by Brazilian cops.
Our failed visit to Coolah Tops National Park doesn’t hold a candle to those, and it’s unlikely to be a story that’ll go down in Wombat history, but it’s another example where our wingingness set us up for failure…
Having taken tips to try a few Coolah Tops hikes, we continued north from The Drip, looking for adventure. A hard right turn off Warrumbungle Drive towards seemingly nowhere, onto a road barely wide enough for a motorbike, let alone a motorhome, and we were excited for what lay ahead. Sadly, about 15-20 minutes in, we realised what lay ahead was gravel, shitloads of gravel.
A younger, more adventurous Davo and Loz would’ve relished the challenge, seeing dirt roads as merely an opportunity to have some fun. But we’re old, and parental now, so a 35km return journey on a steep slope of rough gravel, bound to pop all six tyres, just doesn’t whet our appetite in our 4.5 tonne home. So we turned around, retreated, and continued our journey, the Warrumbungle Way, past Cooinda, the place dad grew up.
Warrumbungle National Park
I remember it like it was yesterday. Brand new tent, high excitement for our first family camping trip, and a large tin of Milo – a holiday treat. My first ever visit to the Warrumbungles was in the mid-90s with my family, and some family friends. Us three kids had the back room of the tent all to ourselves, wow, how fun is this?! All the usual holiday camping antics: late nights, early mornings, those 6-packs of small cereal where you fight over the Frosties and forget the Weetbix, and space to be a kid. I don’t remember if it was night one, but let’s say it was (to add drama to the story), but we had a huge electrical storm, ones you only seem to get in the country, where even the adults are shaking in their boots. Each lightning strike added to the adrenalin, would we make it through? After not too long of relentless rain we discovered our kids room was starting to flood, fast. Me, on my brand new air-bed, had been touching the side of the tent the entire time, which was bringing water in faster than our hearts were racing, and we began to float around the room, unanchored boats in a fast-flowing current. I actually can’t remember if it was fun or frightening at the time, but the events are as clear as the night sky in this magnificent, unlit part of the world.
With neither of us having never been, for well over a decade, this place was high on our list. So with Coolah Tops a distant memory, we shot through Coonabarabran into the National Park, to find home for a few nights. We soon lost count of roos and wallabies, although one wallaby in particular decided he either wanted to come with us, or didn’t want us on his turf. He popped out in front of the WomBatmobile from nowhere, asking me to brake suddenly, of which I obliged. And when we started again he figured he hadn’t achieved his purpose, so he ran straight into the side of the motorhome, head butting it like a Johnny Bairstow introduction, and then floundered off on his merry (albeit sore) way.
The National Park is quiet at this time of year, despite school holidays – probably because of the extreme heat in summer out west. This worked in our favour as we had the pick of campsites, and found a ripper amongst the roos, ‘toos (cockatoos) and rocks at Camp Blackman.
Grand High Tops hike
If we were going to make it, we needed an early start. None of this 8:30am Liv wake-up business. So we rose as soon as we woke, clanging and banging until the baby wombat finally woke, and we were on our way to beat the heat. The following days had weather forecasts of high 30s / low 40s, so today was our only chance.
On the infamous first Worldon trip to the ‘bungles, we hiked the Grand High Tops, possibly to dry off from the fateful flooded foray. And I remember a shrill scream from someone up ahead, hours into the walk, “snake! Snake!” Apparently one of the girls had stepped right over the snake, slithering across the track, and understandably freaked out. No damage, but another mental scar from our first camping experience.
With Loz and I both well aware but also petrified of snakes, we have been training and reminding Liv of what to do in the event she sees a snake. She nailed the theory, but let’s just hope we don’t have to put it into practice anytime soon.
Anyway, no snakes this time, phew.
The track is rated as ‘Medium to Steep‘ and is 12.5km long. Piece of piss for the Wombats, who basically have the experience of Bear Grylls by now. As we started to find our path ascending steeper we were trying to establish which parts were medium, or were they steep? Turns out they were definitely medium, and give you a false sense of security that this is pretty easy stuff, noting that Liv was in Loz’s back 90% of the way. About 4km in we found the steep parts, wowsers it was steep, and hard. But worth it, the views from the top, above the Breadknife were as good as you’ll witness anywhere. And the fact that we had the summit entirely to ourselves on a bluebird day was the icing on the cake.
The return hike was relentless. Making it back down the steepest part of the path we felt a sense of relief and achievement, with what we thought was an easy downhill run home from there. We came to a literal fork in the road where we could hook back to the track we came on, or finish the Grand High Tops loop we had planned to accomplish. For those of you who know Loz, know she’s not one to back away from a challenge or sense of achievement, so we continued on the loop, a casual 7.6km stroll home… or not… 500m in we started climbing again, up and up, and up. Shit, what had we done?! The sun was starting to do its thang, and we were already buggered, how could this possibly be uphill again?
There is no question this was the hardest hike we have ever done together, especially with a 3yo in-tow. We made it back to the start in just shy of 5 hours, parched, exhausted, finishers. We decided 10km is probably about our limit for future hikes, and we must give credit to 🐔 who was a trooper the entire trip.
As the mercury surely reached 40’C in the arvo, we battled on our unpowered site with the lack of breeze and shade. Especially given the mammoth morning we’d had. The National Parks staff informed us they were shutting down all tracks the following day due to heat – not surprising given the chance of bushfire and/or dehydration. So we battled through the arvo into the clear cold night, and with no activities available the following day, continued our journey, one in a long cavlecade of caravans and motorhomes, towards Tamworth, for the amazing annual Country Music Festival, yeehah.