One small step for man …
Starry, starry nights. We take them for granted here in Australia. The clean atmosphere means that even in the cities we can pick out the planets and the constellations.
Yet it is when you get into the country that you become aware of the big skies at night.
Stars right down to the horizon, not dimmed by the reflected light of city streetscapes. And that opens your mind up to what is out there.
In half a lifetime, we have seen space travel go from the realms of science-fiction novels and comic books to reality. Now we have a satellite crossing into the next solar system and talk of man on Mars, not just on the moon.
These thoughts cross my mind as I wake up to a new day. Driving out of Brisbane of a Friday evening can be frustrating due to rush-hour traffic yet exhilarating knowing you are heading off on another road trip.
This time I have hired an SUV so that it is easy to pull up at any camping or rest stop and stretch out in the back if need be.
I have stopped along the Cunningham Highway, somewhere between Aratula and Warwick.
A light fog hugs the peaks of the Great Dividing Range. The stars and moon hang in the grey sky.
At Cunningham’s Gap there is the chance to look back at the glorious view over Wyaralong and the recently completed dam.
The Fassifern Valley is a sea of mauves and gold as it shakes off the cloak of night to be greeted by the sun’s early rays.
My destination is the CSIRO Radio Telescope at Parkes in central New South Wales – the focus of The Dish: a movie about the observatory’s role in relaying live television of man’s first steps on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969.
The facility had helped give rise to astronaut Neil Armstrong’s most famous line: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Yet it also played a vital role in getting other astronauts back to Earth safely on the beleaguered Apollo 13 moon mission.
We had gone there that year, 1969, in an EH Holden panel van with surfboards on top. It was our first surfing trip to Noosa and the telescope made a big impression, sitting out there among wheatfields.
As young boys growing up we would read about space travel and listen to adventure serials on the radio, not expecting that in our lifetime it would come true.
I will always remember the night Dad got the whole family out into the back yard to watch the first satellite make its way across the sky.
Then when Armstrong landed on the moon … that changed things forever. Our perception of the universe changed.
And instead of answering questions that moon landing only served to ask thousands more.
On this journey I am determined to see more of the country, instead of just driving through it.
The air is crisp, light fog swirls through the valleys, there’s frost on the ground and the grass crackles under your footsteps. Take the time to let the beauty of the sunrise sink in. A fiery orange then red appearing from behind the purple ranges.
Rolling into Warwick marks the start of this new adventure. It’s rodeo weekend in this sprawling country town at the heart of the southern Darling Downs. And it shows, with stockman swags in the back of utes parked near the B-double transports.
The drive down the New England Highway never fails to impress – through the fruit and wine-growing regions of
Stanthorpe, past the Girraween National Park and into New South Wales. Tenterfield is best-known as the birthplace of entertainer Peter Allen, yet also was the site of a fiery and impassioned speech in support of the Federation of Australian Colonies by Sir Henry Parkes.
The five-time premier of New South Wales made his call to the people at the Tenterfield School of Arts on October 24, 1889, for the six colonies to become the Commonwealth of Australia. As for Peter Allen, his grandfather was George Woolnough, a saddler and the subject of Allen’s song Tenterfield Saddler.
Meanwhile, misty rain gives way to sunshine and place names such as Sandy Flat, Bolivia and Deepwater.
Glen Innes and Armidale embody the New England region that stretches as far south as Tamworth and Gunnedah: substantial centres based on sheep and cattle grazing as well as grain crops as you move inland.
Early European explorers included John Oxley and Thomas Mitchell but during the 1860s, bushranger Captain Thunderbolt roamed throughout the region until he was shot at Kentucky Creek, near Uralla. Signs point to his hide-outs throughout the area as well as his grave.
Tamworth, the first place in Australia to use electric street lights in 1888, is the capital of the New England. It is now famous for its Country Music Festival late in January, the second-biggest country music festival in the world, as well as its grain crops and flour-milling past. The city is also recognised as the horse capital of Australia because of the high number of equine events.
Driving through the Liverpool Plains near Gunnedah is a delight yet the rich farming land is now the centre of controversy over plans to develop a huge open-cut coal mine.
The drive takes on a different rhythm. You start to relax, unwind and let the road be your friend.
The mist of the night before has gone and the volcanic rises of the Warrumbungle Ranges loom on the horizon.
How many times have I driven this road as an alternative to the coastal highway on a trip to Sydney or Melbourne yet never made the time to see these remarkable formations?
Coming into Coonabaraban and looking for a servo to get coffee and some fuel, I notice the stone courthouse on the left, and a mixed collection out front: cowboy hats and buckles, caps and sneakers, suits and singlets. Different shapes and sizes, different reasons for being there.
On the right is a tourism sign pointing to the Warrumbungles and Siding Spring Telescope. It shows that you can do a loop and pick up the highway again further south. It’s 20-something kilometres from town through rolling country, mostly timbered but also some grazing properties.
Then at a break in the trees, you see the range right in front of you with the telescopes standing out like something from space travel or science fiction. Staggering.
Farmland is in the foreground and the image framed by trees.
The Siding Spring Observatory is on an eastern peak, 1165m above sea level and Australia’s largest optical astronomy research facility. The area has little light pollution to disturb astronomical viewing and is open daily except Sunday with free admission to the information centre and the viewing gallery of the Anglo-Australian Telescope.
There are spectacular views of the Warrumbungle National Park from here.
The base of the region was formed 180 million years ago and the Warrumbungles are the remnants of a large heavily-eroded volcano from 13 to 17 million years ago.
The main features of the Warrumbungles are a series of huge jagged outcrops in a roughly circular pattern, surrounded by hilly bush and woodland forest. As well as stargazing, the area is an attraction for camping, walking and bird watching.
There are picnic areas but supplies need to be brought with you.
Whitecliffs Trail provides another good look-out of the ranges and is an easy 500m walk from a car park. In front of you are Belougery Spire, Belougery Split Rock, Crater Bluff, Bluff Mountain, The Breadknife and Mount Exmouth. But remember the insect repellent because of the bush flies.
The landscape is deceptive. You are overwhelmed by the magnificence but it’s just as much about the small and intricate, the plants, blossoms, wildflowers and bird or animal life. Parrots dart through the trees, camouflaging themselves as they nibble at the seeds on trees and bushes.
To the west of the ranges, the view is just as dramatic. I stop near Tonderburine to take a photo.
You are reminded of country hospitality when a car pulls over and the driver asks if I am okay. In the back seat, her son is nursing a one-day-old lamb: Baatholomew.
Approaching Gilgandra, the golden fields of the grain crops come into full force. Harvesting has started on what looks to be bumper crops. Dubbo is a thriving rural centre and home of the Taronga Plains Western Zoo but heading through Tomingley on the road to Peak Hill, you realise that grain is not the only wealth.
Gold was discovered at Peak Hill in 1889 but while the open-cut mine was closed in 2002. It is still open for tours.
At Tomingly, a new open-cut mine is starting with the aim of producing between 50,000 and 70,000 ounces of gold per year.
Maybe 10-12km before you reach Parkes is the turn-off to the radio telescope that started operating in 1961 and continues to be at the forefront of astronomical discovery.
In 1970, it was called in to help during the Apollo 13 emergency when an explosion crippled the spacecraft while it was enroute to the moon.
In the 1980s, the telescope was used to receive signals from NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft and in the 1990s it supported the Galileo mission to Jupiter.
In the 2000s, it tracked various spacecraft to Mars and in 2012,
Parkes played a support role in tracking NASA’s Curiosity rover during its descent on to the Martian surface. Today, the 64-metre dish still dominates the landscape. The telescope operates 24 hours a day, every day of the year, and the information centre is open daily until 4pm but the grounds allow viewing of the structure at any time.
For that initial moon landing in 1969, NASA alternated between the signals being received from its tracking stations at Goldstone in California in the US, and Honeysuckle Creek near Canberra, searching for the best-quality picture. A little under nine minutes into the broadcast, the TV was switched to the Parkes signal as the quality was so superior that NASA stayed with Parkes for the remainder of the 2.5-hour broadcast.
One of the interesting things to look for at any visit to the radio telescope is the two concave installations, placed in the grounds about 30 metres apart and facing each other.
They stand more than head height and are an excellent practical demonstration of how the telescope itself works.
You need two people … each faces one of the dishes. One whispers into a dish. As soft as soft.
Remarkably, the other person can hear the hushed words all those footsteps away. Apparently it’s like that with the way these telescopes reach out into space, looking and listening for clues to existence.
The town of Parkes was founded in 1853 as the settlement Currajong, named after the kurrajong trees in the area. It was then known as Bushman’s, from the gold mine named Bushman’s Lead, during the gold rush of the 1870s onwards.
To this day, modern mining methods are being used to extract the valuable ore from the region.
Yet showing that not all gold is in the ground, the town has achieved prominence for its Elvis Festival in January when thousands of people celebrate the life of Elvis Presley.
The town was named after Henry Parkes following the premier’s visit in 1873. My school-day memories were cloudy and I thought he had something to do with wheat.
Yet that was William Farrer, as I have discovered, who developed hardier, pest and rust-resistant crops in the early 20th century.
Not only was Henry Parkes responsible for Federation, he pushed for an egalitarian society, public education and the concept of a free health system. He also established the Gallery of New South Wales and the State Library.
A real visionary who was self-made from hard work, Parkes got his break as a result of his own ability to continue education even though his parents had become destitute in England with the industrial revolution.
It just goes to show how little we know … about so many things.