Photographing the Warrumbungles

Warrumbungle sunrise panorama (📷 OM-D EM1 II, M.Zuiko 40-150mm f/5.6 1/400sec ISO200 – 14 image stitch)

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to visit the famous Warrumbungle National Park for two days of landscape photography. Prior to this trip I knew very little about the area nor its famous bush walks and volcanic peaks. However, once the chance to visit firmed up, I immersed myself in blogs and websites to get a sense of the geography of the area and the best walks to try during my short visit. As it was late November, I knew it was going to be hot and not having the time to organize camping gear, I decided to take the easy road and book a hotel in nearby Coonabarabran (a short 30 minute drive from the National Park).

The drive up from Sydney along the Golden Highway was a pleasant and picturesque trip, featuring horse studs and vineyards in the upper Hunter Valley (although I’d rather have missed the vistas of huge open-cut coal mines around Warkworth!).

Arriving in Coonabarabran in the early afternoon, I checked into the hotel and assembled my camera gear, backpack and water bottles and drove straight out to the park for a sunset photo shoot on the Grand High Tops Walk. I got to the Pincham carpark at the start of the walk at 4pm and had a quick chat with one of the park rangers who was on his way home after a day in the hot sun working on the park walks. I mentioned I was going to try the Grand High Tops and he wished me luck in the mid-thirty degree heat!

Having already scoped out the walk on Google Earth (a 13km round trip) I had a mental map of the likely terrain and the first third of the walk was much as anticipated – relatively flat following the dry Spirey Creek but shaded from the sun by the steep mountains and tall trees of the valley. The spring bush flowers were out in force and numerous butterflies and the odd kangaroo were also out enjoying the mid-afternoon warmth. There were long portions of paved pathway and well-built bridges over the creek which have been introduced in recent years given the popularity of this walk (there are good reviews of the walk here and here).

Kangaroos and bush flowers on the long walk to the Grand High Tops (📷 OM-D E-M1 II, M.Zuiko 12-40mm and 40-150mm PRO lenses)

As I moved deeper into the valley, the walk got markedly steeper. Now I’m pretty fit, however, this was a whole new level of incline and before long was replaced with a solid staircase of some 600 stairs that ascended far up into the remnants of volcanic spires including Belougery Spire and the iconic Breadknife. ‘Warrumbungle’ is an Aboriginal (Gamilaroi) word meaning ‘crooked mountains’, and you could immediately see why.

Belougery Spire (📷 OM-D E-M1 II, M.Zuiko 12-40mm f/7.1 1/500sec ISO200 high res mode, Sirui tripod)

The sheer scale of these massive volcanic remnants is hard to capture in a single photo. Belougery Spire is one of the first of these monoliths you encounter on the ascent up to the Grand High Tops and towers many hundreds of metres over the walk like some primitive stone skyscraper. The Breadknife, by contrast is a long, narrow and tall extrusion of volcanic rock that dissects the ascent like some massive fossilised spine. Technically known as a dyke, it was formed some 13 million years ago as molten magma was forced up through a narrow crack in the rocks below the volcano. Once this molten rock cooled and solidified it formed a cast of the fissure and with the erosion of the surrounding softer rock the igneous wall remains 100 metres above the surrounding ground. After managing all those steps, walking up along the base of the Breadknife as it towers above you left me wondering if the boulders lying nearby were recent additions to the path (not somewhere to hang around if you’re worried about falling rocks!).

The Breadknife (📷 OM-D E-M1 II, M.Zuiko 40-150mm f/5.6 1/200sec ISO200)

The last part of the ascent to Lugh’s Throne is a bit of a mad scramble over steep, rough-hewn rock, although there are ‘cats-eyes’ glued to the rockface to mark out the best ascent (very useful when you try and come down again in the dark!). Lugh’s Throne (named by pioneer conservationist Myles Dunphy after a mythological Gaelic sun god) is the centre of what was once the huge Warrumbungle volcano (some 50kms in diameter!) and provides a mountain top vista of not only the surrounding valleys but the main mountain spires that dominate this part of the Warrumbungle Park. With the Breadknife to your north, Belougery Spire to your east, and Crater Bluff and Tonduron Spire to the west, it truly is a startling almost surreal view.

Top of the world ma! Sunset in the Warrumbungles National Park. A long, hard climb to the top but worth it for this view!
A long, hard climb to the top but worth it for this view!(📷 OM-D EM1 II, M.Zuiko 7-14mm f/13 1/60sec ISO200)

On the first evening, I stayed up here for several hours not seeing another soul and waiting for the sunset. Using my trusty 7-14mm PRO lens I managed to find a few interesting bush flowers to provide a foreground element to the dramatic spire of Crater Bluff. I also used my 12-40mm PRO lens to get a bit closer to the peaks and vistas, as well as the 40-150mm PRO lens to zoom right in on mountain details such as the ‘lone pine’ that sits atop the Breadknife, clinging precariously to the trachyte rock. The excellent Olympus in-body stabilisation meant I could comfortably shoot handheld panoramas and exposure brackets even as the light faded past golden hour.

Lone Pine (📷 OM-D E-M1 II, M.Zuiko 40-150mm f4.5 1/640sec ISO200)

That first evening a strong wind picked up though the valley and made focus stacking with the wide-angle lens impossible as the flowers were buffeted by the breeze. The sky was also clear of clouds and so the sunset was somewhat disappointing. By 8pm and with the light gone I set back down the mountain. To give you an idea of the steepness of the path, while it took me close to 2 hours to get to the top, I got back to the car in the pitch dark in just on an hour!

Over the next day and a half, I explored other areas of the park, including the panorama of the mountains from Whitegum Lookout at sunrise, another evening expedition to Lugh’s Throne (this time with a stunning sunset and no wind!), and also tried an early morning drone flight outside the park to capture the dramatic Timor Rock.

Timor Rock at sunrise (📷 DJI Mavic Pro 2, 28mm f/4.5 1/120sec ISO100)

Warrumbungle National Park is a truly distinctive and awe-inspiring place to photograph. The mountain spires provide an insight into ‘deep history’ dating back tens of millions of years. You truly feel insignificant watching the sun set over these massive volcanic structures and watching the amazing night sky of stars appear above you. I definitely plan to revisit Warrumbungle National Park for a longer stay in the future not only to explore the many other walks that are on offer, but also sample the amazing astrophotography this place offers.

Sunset vista ( 📷 OM-D E-M1 II, M.Zuiko 12-40mm f6.3 1/200sec ISO200)

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