Jagged volcanic rocks protrude high above the trees, an ancient skyline we’ll soon summit on the Breadknife and Grand High Tops Circuit. The 14.5km loop in Warrumbungle National Park winds through the engine room of a once-bubbling volcano, last active 13 million years ago. In this Dark Sky Park, where volcanic landforms rival the starry skies, the arid western plains meet the lush hills of the east. Acacia and wattle give way to towering white box gums, while orchids and maidenhair ferns flourish in the cool gullies.
From Pincham carpark, we criss-cross Spirey Creek, passing through a wooded valley shaded by ironbark, eucalypts, and angophoras white with pom-pom blooms. King parrots and crimson rosellas dart between the trees, and an echidna ambles across the path, comically burying its head to make itself invisible as we approach. When the creek flows, the plaintive twang of the pobblebonk frog echoes like a banjo being plucked.
The dirt trail eventually gives way to a paved walkway, our own yellow brick road winding up into the heart of the heavily eroded shield volcano. The sun beats down, the occasional breeze bringing with it a hint of warm earth, cypress pines and the purest air. In the stifling heat of late afternoon, the bush is quiet. Too hot for the mobs of emus and eastern grey kangaroos that frequent here. A solitary sand goanna suns itself on a rock while, above, a wedge-tailed eagle coasts the currents, a black speck in a sea of blue.
A second steep incline an hour later takes us above the canopy, and the first tantalising glimpse of green valleys and ridges punctured by thumb-like volcanic protuberances. The path ends here, replaced by metal stairs that disappear above the bush into volcano country. It’s a quad-burning climb sweetened by the humbling proximity of Belougery Spire, a massive hunk of rock that was once a volcanic plug.
We catch our breath at the top, dropping our packs at Balor Hut, a solitary cabin near the Grand High Tops and our campsite for tonight’s Geminids meteor shower. Keen to summit, we continue on, following the honeycomb wall of the Breadknife, a narrow dyke barely four metres wide. A final heart-thumping set of stairs deposits us at Lugh’s Throne, 960m above sea-level.
Up here, in the centre of the volcano, the park seems lost in time, pierced by a thorny crown of ancient dykes, plugs and soaring spires. Undulating green hills in the east slowly flatten into pale beige tablelands to the west, and the Breadknife cuts through the canopy like a rusted blade. The setting sun spins everything golden.
In the morning, we continue west toward Bluff Mountain, a huge helmet-shaped volcanic dome that draws the eye at every turn. The rocky up-down path passes through heaths, pampas grass and sandstone escarpments that are home to the endangered brush-tailed rock wallaby.
We circle close to Bluff Mountain, where figs sprout in the cracks of boulders and tiny orchids and xanthorrhoea grow in pockets of shade. Butterflies dance along the path, too fast to be photographed.
The final rocky scramble follows West Spirey Creek. Magpies caw tonelessly on the wind and flocks of galahs and cockatoos screech across the sky. High in the trees, koalas drunk on gum leaves doze in the branches, oblivious to our tired but happy return.