Turn your eyes towards the night skies in Central NSW and you’ll enjoy a holiday with a difference that takes you to the distant reaches of the universe.
The stars in country Australia are seldom short of splendid, flung like a vast box of spilled Swarovski crystals across a dark velvet sky. The Milky Way is a glowing, twinkling extravagance that has you gasping in wonder and pondering the universe.
You’re in for an even bigger treat in Central NSW because this is Australia’s epicentre of astronomy. Telescopes provide a close gaze at the heavens, a giant dish listens to distant pulses, astronomy festivals abound, and you can find out about the magnificent world that lies far, far beyond Central NSW’s sheep paddocks and ubiquitous choruses of sulphur-crested cockatoos.
The Dish in Parkes is the best telescope in the world for pulsar astronomy. (Image: Les Finn)
“The Central West boasts some of the darkest skies in Australia and is a wonderful place to appreciate the marvels of the night sky,” says John Sarkissian, operations scientist at CSIRO Parkes Observatory and a founding member of the Central West Astronomical Society.
“Visitors to the region are amazed by the number of stars that are visible, which is something they never see from light-polluted city skies,” he says.
If you’re driving the easy two hours from Sydney, you’ll find light interference all the way into the Blue Mountains.
As you descend the far side, though, the night skies become increasingly dark. Clamber up the ladder and put your eye to the telescope at Bathurst Observatory Research Facility for glorious close-ups of Venus and sumptuous stretches of the Milky Way, clearest between March and October. On occasion, special day tours allow you to gaze safely at the sun’s surface.
Keep a lookout: this year sees the opening of a new museum and visitor centre, as well as accommodation for the star-struck.
As you drive onwards into Central NSW, you’ll find that few places better encapsulate rural Australia: rolling wheat fields, pegged vineyards, rustic farmhouses.
Cellar doors, great regional museums, national parks and gold-rush towns are the daytime attractions – and of course the wide-open spaces and fresh country air. After sunset, however, other worlds are revealed.
“Viewing the night sky from our stunning Central West NSW skies is inspirational. It helps open our eyes to the wider universe, and to contemplate things larger than ourselves,” says Sarkissian.
Part of the Sculpture Down the Lachlan project, and the first sculpture along the Lachlan River, the amazing sign is a must while you’re in Forbes. (Image: Paul King)
Choose your accommodation wisely and the universe is yours even on an overnighter. Boutique hotels and rural B&Bs in particular are often located away from town lights, making them ideal for stargazing.
Fine examples are luxury home Hickory Moon, or glamping in beautiful Mayfield Garden – both in Oberon – or Girragirra Eco-Retreat in Forbes.
Farm stays also offer suitably dark skies: in Bathurst, try Barcoos Barn or Wilga Station or, outside Parkes, The Fleece promises a comfortable Central NSW escape.
The Central Astronomical Society AstroFest is held in Parkes in July and a must-do whether you’re an amateur stargazer or budding astrophotographer.
The night sky in Grenfell illuminated by stars. (Image: Leigh Kasey Cameron)
Frost and Fire in Forbes is an annual event in June, which celebrates the Winter Solstice under the starry night skies. Frost and Fire features all the elements of a country bonfire night with hearty food and memorable live entertainment.
Evening Under the Stars at Yarrabandai Creek Homestead northwest of Forbes in July, which explores the night sky from the perspective of local indigenous people, with Wiradjuri dreamtime storytelling and bush-tucker catering.
Orange has events through the autumn, winter and spring to celebrate the best of the region on terra firma and in the skies. Nurture and Nourish: A Taste of Orange is billed as the ultimate feel-good weekend held in May and September.
In addition to the option of star-bathing in hot outdoor tubs, the weekend includes cooking, wine-tasting, yoga, walks, treatments and a visit to the farmer’s market. The weekend events are hosted at The Shearers Huts @ Amaroo, a unique farm-stay accommodation with renovated shearers’ huts and a generous lodge-style living space.
Cowra’s POW art installation. (Image: Fee Jennings)
Still in Orange, the Winter Fire Festival is where after-dark markets allow you to sample the delicious regional produce and wines, and indigenous astronomers and star-gazing enthusiasts get together to crane their necks skywards.
Meanwhile, the SkyFest in Condobolin in September features more of the stargazing and storytelling that shows our fascination with the night sky through the eyes and stories of our First Nations people.
Of course, the biggest astronomical attraction in Central NSW is Parkes Observatory, which features memorably in the classic Aussie movie The Dish.
This is the best telescope in the world for pulsar astronomy, and it also played a vital role in the 1969 NASA moon mission and subsequent NASA projects, from the almost-disastrous Apollo 13 to more recent Mars missions.
Short 3D films in the theatre provide a virtual tour of the universe, while the CSIRO Parkes Radio Telescope Discovery Centre explains the radio telescope’s history, and the science of remote and still-mysterious quasars, interstellar magnetic fields and pulsars.
The CSIRO Parkes Radio Telescope under the night sky. (Image: Wayne England)
The Central West Astronomical Society normally meets on the first Friday of the month at the Discovery Centre.
The society runs Parkes’ annual AstroFest, during which a much-anticipated event is the astrophotography competition judged by world-renowned astrophotographer David Malin.
If you’re looking to try your own hand at astrophotography, the Central NSW is the perfect place. For dramatic moonlit foregrounds against a swathe of stars, try the landscapes of Goobang National Park, or the awe-inspiring series of cliffs known as Kanangra Walls in Oberon.
The towers and turrets of historic homes such as Iandra Castle near Greenethorpe and Abercrombie House in Bathurst also provide brilliant silhouettes against the starry splash of the Milky Way.
Inventive amateur photographers will also find inspiration in all kinds of manmade structures: there’s the Gugaa at Gum Swamp (a 20-metre steel sculpture of a goanna or ‘gugaa’ in Wiradjuri language); the looming Grenfell Commodities Silos, Condobolin’s Utes in the Paddock , and other art installations scattered across Central NSW. Both the dark bulk of natural landscapes and human constructions are dwarfed by the night sky, where stars wink with promises of wonderment and unimagined universes.
The looming Grenfell Commodities Silos at night. (Image: Leigh Kasey Cameron)
Central NSW begins two hours’ drive from Sydney and includes Oberon, Orange, Blayney, Cabonne, Cowra, Bathurst, Forbes, Lachlan, Weddin and Parkes. Unearth your Central NSW experience at visitcentralnsw.com.au