An echo of fire

My father grew up near to the Warrumbungles, and told many stories about exploring and climbing the old volcanos. His work as a school teacher took him away from the mountains, but it didn’t dint his curiosity. His interest in the wild took him back many times – once as part of a photographic expedition – more often to teach his kids about the bush and to climb. His interest touched many places in the outback – from the great wetland beyond Warren to the forests of the Southern Alpines. Where ever he went, he engaged with the old bushmen, those who could teach him about the history of the places, and the value of the native trees and bushes. He was chosen as a trustee for the Dubbo Arboretum (subsequently, after he retired, transformed into the Taronga Western Plains Zoo) and I hold an old record of his appointment as a ranger with pride.

He had his own names for the mountains. He called them the Warrumbungles, preferring the name used by the original people to an alternative given by early explorers and still occasionally used by the graziers who ran sheep and cattle on the pains. He was careful with names. He told us the names he used, but always told us that they were names he had heard from others, and that he was not sure of their real name: the Watcher, the Breadknife, the Butterknife and Timor Rock. He aged too fast. As his memory dimmed, I sat with him and he would look at his pictures, and would teach me their names 

I struggle to better his pictures of the old volcanos. When last I visited, it had stormed here - and in the canyons the little waterfalls and creeks were flowing. It smelt of pepper and eucalyptus - heavy in the canyons - subtle on the rock faces higher.

My father told me the volcanos are protected by two guardians – Timor Rock guards the front entrance, The Watcher guards the back entrance.

My father told me how he climbed Timor Rock while at school. Lacking climbing gear, he took his school shoes off at the bottom of the mountain, and climbed it barehanded, without ropes with a friend. He said that climbing it was not so hard, although they disturbed a couple of snakes along the way, but getting down proved to be almost impossible. Today the climb is rated intermediate to difficult with ropes necessary at a number of points.

Guarding the back entrance to the Warrumbungles is Chalker's Mountain. My father called this mountain the Watchman. The Watchman always takes my breath away - but as I then enter the park, the twisted shapes of the natural spires (especially the Breadknife) and tors make me feel very small.

One of the most striking formations in the Warrumbungles National Park is the Breadknife. A volcanic dyke 800m (2,600') high. Note the tree at the top of the structure - and regrowth in the trees burnt in recent bushfires. Climbing the structure has been forbidden for many years. I shake my head in disbelief each time I see it there.

Nearby is Belougery Spire – an attractive rock for climbers with medium and advanced chimneys and traverses. Just after this picture was taken, an eagle dropped from the overhang in the top left of the spire, and circled over me down to the creek below. I disturbed it (or perhaps a second eagle) a little while later, this time watching it rise out of the forest.

My first memory of the volcanos were of a land newly burnt by bushfire. I was upset by the devastation – but my father took care to show me how the bush regrew after each burn. He said that, if it didn’t burn, the trees would become overburdened with pests that would create far greater chaos. Still, it seems that this is a place that attracts greater than its fair share of fires – every few years, fires impact the forests – and recently severe fires have devastated the region.

In mid-summer, lightning ignited the wilderness. Fanned by westerly winds, fires tore through the valleys. Eighteen months later the bush is regenerating in most places. In some places, particularly where the fire was intense and the soil is shallow, the trees have not come back this time.

High in the mountains is the 154" Anglo Australian Telescope - one of a number of telescopes at the Siding Springs Observatory. My father was very excited about plans to build here – we often travelled the new roads that opened up the region and went to the new observatory when it opened. Fire lapped against the observatory last year, and for a little while it was unclear whether it had suffered the same fate as the Mount Stromlo observatory in the Canberra fire storm a decade earlier. Apart from damage to external buildings, the telescopes were largely unaffected.

Deep inside the valleys of the Warrumbungles are the Xanthorrhoea – long-lived grass trees. This type of tree is extremely long lived. The black trunk only grows a little each year - the actual rates vary from place to place. The trunk on this one was as high as me. I am told that the variety is the Xanthorrhoea Glauca – a slow grower, averaging about 20mm a year (I am also told that the trees here are perhaps only bested by a colony at the Gibraltar Ranges near Glen Innes). With a number of these trees between 3 – 5 meters, some of these trees are well over 100 years old but could easily be much older, perhaps predating white settlement. The age of the trees is even more remarkably because they burn with everything in the valley. Nevertheless, it is the first to reshoot after a fire - developing a healthy flower spike. The tree is very efficient at resisting fire - the grass leaves form a protective humid zone and the trunk chars very slowly. As here, it is usually the first tree to recover from a bushfire. There are regular bands on the trunk suggesting periodic natural disasters, perhaps in the form of an intense fire. The flower spike is very sticky - the first people and early settlers used it as a resin - the first people used it to cement stone axe shafts to wooden handles and spear shards to hafts. Settlers used it as a glue and as a substitute for shellac for furniture.

Outside the park – plains that stretch forever, and emus.

I have been coming here since I was four. It is a sharp playground, and I have not yet mastered all the rides. If you are thinking of coming over – do it in the Australian Winter - in Summer you will sizzle.

I sometimes wonder if living nearby to this would take some of the magic off the colors. But then I remember the anticipation in my dad's eyes as we got closer to this destination.


Anonymous said…
Your dad is watching over you; immensely proud.

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