Who among us hasn’t gazed in wonderment at the stars? Staring heavenwards on a clear night, silent and solemn. Your galactically insignificant brain trying to make sense of light that’s been shot precisely – precisely! – into your eyeball from a billion light years away.
This collective experience once united humanity. Starlight inspired us to ask the big questions: Why are we here? What is the nature of God? What the hell does “one small step for man” even mean? How many aliens did Captain Kirk discover that just happened to be bipedal and look suspiciously like humans in bright jump suits?
And then, starlight… stopped.
Or, at least, was outshined. Nowadays (or since the invention of electric light everywhere outside of North Korea) the stars are harder and harder to see. Van Gogh would have hated it. And that’s why the otherwise diminutive Warrumbungle National Park, around a 90-minute drive from Dubbo, in Outback NSW, is so special.
Just 24 hectares in size, it’s home to Australia’s first and thus far only ‘Dark Sky Park’. As such, it’s perhaps the best remaining place in Australia to peer profoundly at the cosmos after nightfall.
See, in astronomy terms, light pollution is a killer. But the International Dark Sky Association says that the remote, unlit and empty Warrumbungles possesses an “exceptional quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment”.
It’s also home to Australia’s largest optical telescope, plus a stack of privately owned public observatories. Tonight, at least, it’s also home to the marvellous INFINITI QX80.
And us – three city slickers rugged up against the cold, cosseted against the plummeting mercury on the luxury SUV’s buttery, quilted leather seats. Our adjustable seat heaters (possibly the greatest invention since electric light) are set to high, and our mission is simple.
We want to reacquaint ourselves with the mysteries of the stars. In person. In other circumstances, we might be happy to look about the cabin.
We’re surrounded by high-tech displays – central 8.0-inch infotainment screen up front, mounted on the wide, design-led dash, matching 8.0-inch screens on the headrests. They’re not needed today; as we coast across NSW’s Central West slopes and plains on big 22-inch alloys, the jagged outcrops of
the Warrumbungles Range lurching across the horizon.
These towering basalt pegs are the remnants of a 180-million-year-old volcano. Crouched atop Mount Woorat, right in the middle, the grand alabaster nubbin of the Siding Spring Anglo-Australian Observatory is visible, well before the red-soil plains begin to rise. It looks like a colossal ivory Dalek, but its welcome is genuine.
Honest country hotel and motel accommodation is available close by, 30 minutes’ drive east at Coonabarabran, but we’re headed to set up camp at the Warrumbungles’ Camp Blackman.
While the QX80’s off-road bona fides are unquestioned, it’s the car’s cruising and tarmac credentials that come to the fore in the easy-access Warrumbungles. The INFINITI’s 5.6-litre naturally aspirated petrol V8 is simply effortless, its 298kW and 560Nm unflappable, whether overtaking or surging out of bends.
We cough up our very reasonable $6-a-person park usage fee, and barely 20 minutes later we’re all set up under the blanket of dusk.
The full-size, seven-seat QX80 gleams quietly in the evening, our firelight reflecting on its bold lines. The night is extraordinary, inspiring and bitingly cold. We feel the weight of the stars and a strange sort of suspension of time. As the night darkens and our kindling dwindles, the Milky Way presses lower and lower against our one-star tent.
Our zillion-star views are indistinguishable from how the scene would have appeared to the Warrumbungles’ first astronomers, the Kamilaroi people, tens of thousands of years prior.
Asking questions of their own. Although probably not about moon landings. And definitely not about Captain Kirk.