In Travel

Dark Sky Park Is The Best Place To See Stars In The Outback

For all the cushy convenience city life serves up, from good coffee and plentiful pubs to bathrooms that don’t require a snake-dodging sprint to an outhouse when nature calls at night, there’s one hugely significant drawback to living in the big smoke. Actually, there are 100 billion of them. And that’s just in the Milky Way.

When was the last time you really got a clear look at the night sky, the stars shining bright from the inky darkness like someone aiming a high-powered torch through black velvet? Not just a cloudless night, but a sky completely free from the orange glow of light pollution that plagues any densely populated area?

The answer is almost certainly too long. Because our nights are getting artificially brighter, at a rate of about 2.2 per cent per annum (just think how much worse they’ve gotten in your lifetime), the result of a one-two punch of urban sprawl extending into areas that were once deserted, and artificial lighting getting both brighter and cheaper to install and run. No wonder we refer to the past as the dark ages.

Welcome to Warrumbungle National Park

dark sky park

The night sky filled with bright stars over the dark sky park in the Warrumbungles. Image: Destination NSW

This means that locations where it’s still dark enough to enjoy a star-filled sky in all its wonder are becoming harder and harder to find.

All of which makes the 24-hectare not just a national treasure, but one of the country’s most underrated destinations. Just 120km from Dubbo in western NSW, the Dark Sky Park is so far away from bright lights of civilisation it offers one of the best, and naturally brightest, night-time views of the sky on the planet.

Unsurprisingly, then, the area is home not just to one of the state’s most important astronomical installations, the Siding Spring Anglo-Australian Observatory, but it’s also been named the country’s first and only Dark Sky Park, earning a gold-tier classification from the International Dark Sky Association.

Dark Sky Park

The night sky filled with bright stars over Breadknife in the dark sky park, Warrumbungle National Park. Image: Destination NSW

Premium stargazing

Praised for its “exceptional quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage and public enjoyment”, Warrumbungle is one of only a handful of sites outside of the US to have earned the Dark Sky Park title.

By day, the Warrumbungle’s red-washed rock monuments (formed from volcanic eruptions some 13 million years ago) are mesmerising. But as night falls and the stars spring forth, the scenery takes on an entirely different perspective.

It’s hard to accurately put into words what it’s like to be confronted with a nighttime view identical in every way to the one Australia’s earliest inhabitants experienced, but the impact is genuinely breathtaking.

Imagine a trillion Christmas lights of varying strength all blinking to life at once, or an inconceivably gigantic disco ball emerging from a near-complete blackness, all while a Milky Way so densely packed it’s like a brush-stroke of light cuts a sparkling swathe through the middle of the sky.

Dark Sky Park

Image: Supplied by author

As we bed down in a simple tent rigged to the side of our aptly named Infiniti QX80 4WD that’s parked in one of the Park’s public campsites (all for just a $6 entry fee), your mind can’t help but wander to that great infinity’s beyond. Because the reality of star-gazing truly boggles the mind.

Consider this; the furthest star in the Milky Way is the ULAS J0015+01, some 900,000 light-years from Earth. That means the light you see from it and others like it began their journeys to Earth at a time when humans as we know them were yet to exist. A time when our earliest ancestors, Homo erectus, were only just discovering the wonder of fire, and were no doubt very appreciative of the light offered by stars.

And now, in 2018, that exact same light is illuminating our outback campsite as we settle into our basic but billion-star accomodation for the evening.

It’s a moment so beautiful you could almost forget about the bathroom situation.

(Lead image caption: The night sky filled with bright stars over the dark sky park in the Warrumbungles. Image credit: Destination NSW)

Published 21 January, 2019