It’s getting harder and harder to find unique areas these days without travelling thousands of kilometres – I suppose that depends on where you start though. Either way, I think we just found a little pocket of uniqueness within midwestern NSW. The Pilliga, as it’s known, is a flat 3000 square km area of dense bushland with a host of features within, and significant meaning to local Gamilaroi people who have called this place home for nearly 30,000 years.
Located approximately midway between Narrabri and Coonabarabran, the Pilliga forest was once home to near a dozen sawmills that cut timber sleepers for NSW railways, and was the route of the old Cobb & Co rattlers.
Thankfully now it’s a thick forest of cyprus pine and sheoak trees that can be explored via a maze of tracks that criss cross each other, but are all sign posted. It’s often said that at night in the forest there is a deadly silence, it’s the home of the ‘Pilliga Yowie’, and it would take a week of driving to complete all the roads within.
To avoid this, while still exploring some of the forest’s secrets, your best bet is to head to the local discovery centre at Baradine to grab a map (remember we’re talking about 2500km worth of tracks!) and some local information on where to start.
We began our trip by heading out into the centrally-located ‘Sculptures in the Scrub’ picnic area and displays, which are about 35km away. The roads are generally in good nick, being mostly sandy and gravel based, but do be aware of the dry creek crossings which can be a little rough in spots.
The sculptures were a welcome sight as we wandered around and along the hour-long Dandry Creek gorge walk. These sculptures were designed and made by local Elders, with each sculpture telling a story based on its meaning and the artist.
After spending time here and gaining some understanding of the local culture, we pushed on towards another area to the north called the Salt Caves. Following our designated route on the map, it’s a good hour drive to the caves. NPWS have setup a great picnic and camping area here with tables, water tanks and bbqs.
The Salt Caves were once ‘mined’ for the huge amount of salt buildup, a practice dating back to the turn of the century. People used to come from miles away to break off and bag salt blocks from deep within the caves, which they’d then take home to salt their meat.
These days the caves have all but collapsed, but it’s reported that back in the day they were up to a mile deep. Sadly now they are only about 20 feet deep. Just above the caves, there’s a 200-metre walk to a new steel fire tower that you can freely – and legally – climb. Now, while safe, it’s not for the faint-hearted as you climb nearly 100 metres upwards.
But we must say the views across the flat Pilliga forest in every direction is nothing short of spectacular. NPWS have installed viewing ring up here which identifies and marks the distances of visible landmarks. One hundred kilometres to the south you can see the Warrumbungle range, and to the north you can see Mount Kaputar.
Some things can’t be described until they are experienced, and this was certainly one of them. Breaking the peace and quiet was the sound of distant kitty hawkes and the odd breath of wind rustling leaves.
Around the base of the tower and the picnic area there is a 2km walk to the tower dam and a bird watching area. Known for its high diversity of birdlife, we were able to spot a handful of species including emus, parrots and little wrens darting in the trees.
One of the best things about the Pilliga is that you can free camp within the forest at designated spots including the Sculpture and Salt Caves area.
It’s a hard place to leave but with time ticking away we wanted to head further north to the now isolated town of Pilliga, some 40km away. We hadn’t seen a car all day – this is one of the best things about the isolation in the Pilliga – and on the drive out it was the same.
At Pilliga we knew of the perfect spot to wash away the dust and spend some time relaxing. A stone’s throw out of town are the Pilliga hot baths where for a very small fee ($5 per night at the time of writing) you can set up camp, have a fire, use the provided toilets and hot bore shower, and soak in the hot artesian bore water that comes from deep within the ground.
Back at the turn of the century when the area went through a bad drought, the local council sunk a bore 1800 feet deep to tap into the rich mineral water deep below. These days it’s a Mecca for those with aches and pains hoping the minerals in the water will provide some relief. The ‘town’ of Pilliga is all but gone now apart from the pub and small store, but its history and natural beauty will last forever.
The Pilliga is an area that we highly recommend; it’s easily accessible to those with a sense of adventure, or anyone simply looking for a different place to get away for a few days.
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