Australia Day celebrations passed us by as we set off south from Narrabri in the direction of Coonabarabran. Outside this lovely country town is the Siding Springs observatory at the entrance to the Warrumbungle National Park. Siding Springs was chosen as the best place in the Southern Hemisphere to view the southern skies and houses several state of the art telescopes. In 2016 it was designated aDark Sky Park for the exceptional number of starry nights enabling astronomical study of the universe. The road to Coonabarabran runs through the Pilliga State Forest, which supports the largest area of native cypress pine Callitris spp as well as the largest reserve of natural gas in New South Wales. The mining of this gas remains extremely controversial. As we travelled through, the rural fire service was still trying to extinguish a furious fire, which had raged through the forest with the previous week’s high temperatures but was now dampened by the overnight rain.
We spot two emus, well before the burnt area fortunately and roll into Coonabarabran to find the only coffee shop open on the public holiday. Wandering along the street we pass signs for up coming Queen’s baton relay for the Commonwealth Games. A rather hopeful sign also encourages locals to shop local, a sign the town perhaps has seen better days.
Our journey continues south over the big rivers which flow west, the Castlereagh River at Gilgandra and the Macquarie at Dubbo and finally Wellington, our destination. Our trip has been organised to help cousin Helen celebrate her 80th birthday. Family are travelling from Italy, New Zealand, Sydney, Melbourne and ….. Byron Shire. We were all staying at the venue, Hermitage Hill Country Retreat. A former hospital, built in the Queen Anne style in 1903, this magnificent building has been restored as a country retreat and function centre. The old nurses home was to be our accommodation with shared bathrooms, a common room and a huge verandah overlooking the Bell river valley. Kangaroos grazed at sunrise in the open field below the verandah. It truly felt like a school retreat, as cousins arrived from far and near and we gathered in the pool and around the dinner table.
Wellington is one of the oldest settlements west of the Blue Mountains and part of the Wiradjuri lands of the Aboriginal people. Originally the name of a property owned by the NSW colonial surveyor/engineer Percy Simpson, it was ‘discovered’ by the explorer John Oxley in 1817. About 30% of the town acknowledge their Wiradjuri heritage. Gold was mined in the areas but it is now renowned for its rich agricultural produce and its limestone and fossil caves. We decide to explore the fossil cave, about 7km out of town. The turnoff to the caves features The Pod, a huge sculpture manufactured from recycled steel girders from the old Wellington bridge which collapsed in 1989. Designed largely by artist Frances Ferguson and a corporation of Aboriginal artists, this structure is surrounded by stone and ceramic constructions created by the local school children.
We turned in at the sculpture and parked outside the entry kiosk to the caves. Standing outside was a huge model of a Diprotodon – hippopotamus sized – the largest marsupial known to exist 1.6 million to 46,000 years ago and possibly still in existence when the first Aborigines arrived. The bones are referred to in Aboriginal legend as belonging to the bunyip. Their closest living relatives are the wombat.
Our young guide for the tour, who also works at the Taronga Dubbo Plains zoo was full of information about the megafauna of yesteryear, however as we set off, we first learnt about the phosphate mine which was started at the outbreak of WW1 in 1914. Australia’s previous source of phosphate for explosives came from German occupied Nauru.
The nearby limestone caves were well known however, possibly even visited by Charles Darwin, and the fossils inside became prized. Beside the Diprotodon bones we also learnt about Thylacoleo, the marsupial lion and both fossils were first found in the Wellington caves. Other megafauna included the giant kangaroo and Megalania, the giant gonna.
Fascinating as this experience was, especially at temperatures of 18 degrees, we had a party to attend, so we bid the caves farewell to return to Hermitage Hill. Our cousin Helen, the daughter of our father’s sister, is quite a legend in the family. She has almost single handedly researched the family tree on both her mother’s and father’s side and published several books of information with excellent reproductions of old photos. Not only this, she is an acccomplished artist, her expertise mainly in China painting and porcelain doll repair. More recently she has become an avid and canny collector of antiques at farm sales and is reknown for her style, especially her large hats and stylish shoes. Her birthday event arranged by her four children featured a blue theme. Each table was decorated with blue and white flowers and every guest received a lead crystal glass filled with sweets and a personal note from Helen.
She is featured below with her grandchildren and one cousin, after handing out the family heritage scrolls to the future generations.
This weekend was certainly an event to remember and a very happy occasion. Many happy returns Helen!