We could be in a remote corner of the Kimberley, or one of the shadowy chasms in the West Macs near Alice Springs, but we’re actually in NSW, 130km northeast of Broken Hill in Mutawintji National Park.
It feels as though we’ve stepped into one of those famous watercolour paintings of central Australia by Albert Namatjira, with ghostly white gums and weathered ranges baking beneath a cloudless cyan-coloured sky.
This relatively overlooked park, between Broken Hill and the subterranean opal-mining town of White Cliffs in western NSW, is a great alternative to the Kimberley or even the Red Centre.
It’s the quintessential outback experience, but one that doesn’t need a four-wheel drive. You can get there on sealed and well-maintained dirt roads from Broken Hill, but we’ve come from the other direction, from Wanaaring via White Cliffs, kicking up a plume of dust on what’s possibly the loneliest road in NSW, passing just three other vehicles all day.
Our route has taken us across ochre-coloured plains, through Nocoleche Nature Reserve and deep inside Paroo-Darling National Park, past billabongs and waterholes full of spoonbills, pelicans and ducks.
We stop at Peery Lake, full for the first time in a decade, where we see no people but plenty of bustards stalking the roadsides, which are carpeted in wildflowers thanks to winter rains. Like the perennially dry Lake Eyre, which attracts crowds of travellers on the few occasions it fills with water, this 14km-long lake fills, on average, only once every seven years, and when it does, masses of birds flock to the park.
It’s a long day’s drive from Wanaaring, and we pull into Mutawintji’s Homestead Creek campground with just enough time to pitch the tent and get the fire going before dark. Mutawintji might fly a little under the radar, but it has some of the best camping facilities you’ll find in an outback national park, with solar-powered hot showers (tip: the water is much hotter in the afternoon than in the morning), flush toilets, gas barbecues, water tanks and fire pits, which are very welcome in a place where winter days are mild enough for a T-shirt, but nights are cold enough to freeze water bottles left outside. Just make sure you remember to collect firewood before you enter the park and bring enough to last your stay.
The homelands of the Malyankapa and Pandijkali, Mutawintji was the first park in NSW to be handed back to its traditional owners. It was – and still is – an important gathering place, where sometimes as many as a thousand would come together for ceremonies, including initiations and rain-making.
There are more than 300 recorded cultural sites in the park (and probably many more that haven’t been recorded), including rock-art galleries, petroglyphs, scar trees, quarries, tools, cooking hearths and artefacts more than 8000 years old. The Mutawintji Historic Site has one of the largest collections of rock art in the state, but as it’s still an important cultural place, it’s only accessible via a guided tour, which, sadly, was not operating during our visit thanks to Covid.
There are plenty of sites you can see on your own, though, including the gallery at Thaaklatjika, an easy 20-minute stroll from the campground. The rocky overhang, also known as Wright’s Cave, is covered in hand stencils and paintings of emus and kangaroos, as well as more intriguing symbols. One of the largest and most vibrant was vandalised in the 19th century by William Wright, the man blamed for the death of explorers Burke and Wills. He was the leader of the backup party that famously abandoned the camp at the Dig Tree just hours before the ill-fated explorers returned. His initials, surrounded by a big blue triangle, can still be seen obscuring the art.
This is gorge country, and the best way to explore it is on foot. There are several hiking trails that lead deep into the rocky canyons. The most popular is the three-hour walk into Mutawintji Gorge along a sandy creek bed to a serene waterhole, encircled by rusty red cliffs. It’s a known haunt of the endangered yellow-footed rock wallaby, but all we see are the remains of a few feral goats, their bleached skulls arranged on a rocky shelf like some sort of sacrificial altar.
On our second day, we hike through Homestead Gorge, past rock engravings of emus. We picnic beside a rock hole with a mirror-like surface so dark and so still that it’s hard to work out where the craggy cliffs end and the reflections begin, and then climb up to the top of the Byngnano Range, where the views across the zigzag maze of gorges and steep-sided valleys that cut into the red desert plains are truly breathtaking, and not just because it’s a bit of a slog to get there.
Massive, teetering boulders look set to roll off the edge the next time the wind blows, while eagles and kites ride the thermals above our heads. It’s a reasonably challenging walk – one section involves using a rope to get down a steep section – and it takes about six hours to loop back to the campground, but if you’re up for it, this is one of the best one-day hikes in outback NSW.
If the Kimberley or Red Centre is on your bucket list and border rules continue to hinder travel, who knows when you’ll be able to tick it off?
Don’t despair. Mutawintji is a beautiful and much more easily accessible alternative.
Mutawintji is 130km northeast of Broken Hill. Roads may close after rain. For more information about tours of Mutawintji Historic Site, call (08) 8084 2880. Bookings are essential for camping at Homestead Creek: nationalparks.nsw.gov.au
This article originally appeared on Escape and do not necessarily represent the views of australiaexploring.com