Deep in the dry heart

Sean Mooney discovers caves and gardens, fossils and a vast lake in the state's central west.

Many travellers will have taken the picturesque drive from Sydney over the Blue Mountains, then on through Bathurst and Orange to reach the state's central west. But fewer will be familiar with the Wellington Valley, a great expanse of land some 350 kilometres from Sydney. This is because most people drive straight past it on their way to Dubbo, just 50 clicks further along the Mitchell Highway. That's a shame, because this region has much to reward the unhurried traveller.

Home to about 4500, the town of Wellington is at the junction of the Bell and Macquarie rivers; the latter runs under the highway before winding its way through 30 kilometres of farmland to a sprawling waterway known as Lake Burrendong. Until recently this area had been classified as experiencing "marginal" seasonal conditions - that is, in between the "satisfactory" conditions enjoyed between the coast and the outskirts of Orange and the "in drought" circumstances west of Dubbo. Recent rain has seen it reclassified as "satisfactory" - but ask anyone in the Wellington region and they'll tell you they've been in drought since the beginning of the millennium and there's nothing marginal about it.

You really notice it as you descend gradually from the ranges near Orange to the plains beyond. The landscape changes - the land and vegetation lose their colour, the air gets drier. At first glance, there's little to tempt the passing motorist to stop and explore the region. But, as the savvy tourist knows, appearances can be deceiving. There are some fascinating and unique sites to see in the Wellington Valley, some of them surprisingly moist for such a dry part of the world.

Shore thing

The waters of Lake Burrendong have been a magnet for anglers, boaties and waterskiers for many years and the brochures make much of the claim that its surface area is 31/2 times greater than Sydney Harbour's. Capacity does not always equate to reality, of course, and the sad fact is that the lake is less than a quarter full at present. However, there's still plenty of water in which to swim, boat and fish and it's a definite improvement on 2003, when the lake was almost empty. Indeed, during our visit the boat ramp was busy with people launching powerboats and sailing boats were out making the most of a stiff northwesterly.

The surrounding area has a rugged, windswept appeal. If that's your cup of tea, camping facilities and cabins are available within Lake Burrendong State Park. A playground, waterslide and pool will help keep the children happy and you can even take the dog.

The 67-hectare Lake Burrendong Sport and Recreation Centre is nearby. Just don't wander into the place without a booking, as the grounds are open only to those in residential programs or on pre-booked day visits.

The centre specialises in children's holiday camps; there are two five-day camps scheduled for next month's school holidays. Families and groups can also stay for a few nights and try some abseiling, grass-skiing, indoor rock climbing or kayaking.

Blooming marvellous

A short drive from the lake is the Burrendong Arboretum and Botanical Gardens. This comprehensive collection of Australian plants and trees covering 164 hectares is a must-see for anyone with an interest in native flora. Our trip coincides with the flowering of the stunning eucalyptus macrocarpa, with its twisted grey-green leaves and vibrant red and yellow flowers springing from woody pods. This month the eucalypts will be blooming, along with emu bushes, bottlebrushes and paperbarks.

The highlight of this property is Fern Gully, a peaceful hollow filled with a sublime collection of ferns and temperate-climate plants, kept moist and cool under a canopy made of sustainably harvested melaleuca brush.

The work of two brothers, the late George and Peter Althofer, Fern Gully features weeping lilly pillies, pimple ferns, native ginger and Christmas orchids, among many other plant species. It's a delight - quite the antidote to the dry landscape that surrounds it.

There are guided tours outside the summer months but it's still warm at this time of year, so your best bet is to arrive early (the gardens open at 7.30am) or just before sunset to take one of the self-guided walks to see wattles, hakeas and mint bushes. You can also stay in the car and take one of the signposted drives, such as the one to Harris Lookout in the excellent Western Australia flora section. Keep an eye out for the resident echidnas, emus, goannas and kangaroos.

Gateways and garden

On the western side of the Mitchell Highway is another paradoxically wet attraction: the Wellington Caves complex. There are two cool, moist, limestone caves open to the public - Cathedral Cave and Gaden Cave - and the water-filled River and Water caves, which can be explored by experienced cave divers.

You'll know you've found the complex when you spot a massive object by the side of the highway, looking like a prop from Mad Max or The Day Of The Triffids. This is the Wellington Gateway Sculpture, a love-it-or-loathe-it creation by the late Orange-born artist Frances Ferguson. Fifteen metres high, it is fashioned from the girders of the old Wellington Bridge that collapsed in 1989, combined with stonework, mosaics and glass. Its form is reputedly based on the shape of a seedpod, representing the fertility of the valley and the future of the town.

The turn-off marked by this oddity takes you past small shops selling crystals and mineral specimens. One of the buildings contains thousands of wine bottles in its walls. Perhaps this is the owner's answer to a lack of recycling services. Pass these and you will soon spot some unmistakably oriental landscaping. This is the Wellington-Osawano Japanese Garden, an oasis of ponds, streams and plants created with a $270,000 gift from Wellington's sister city. Large carp swim in the ponds under the bridges in the garden - children love them.

Caves and mines

The road will eventually take you to Wellington Golf Club but just opposite the Japanese garden is the entrance to the Wellington Caves and Phosphate Mine. The caves kiosk is pretty basic but don't be put off - this is the place to book tours of the caves and mine and they are well worth a visit. If you're pushed for time, Cathedral Cave is the best bet but if you can squeeze in tours of Gaden Cave and the mine, all the better. Each tour takes about an hour.

Groups are led through a maze of sinkholes and abandoned mine shafts to the cave and mine entrances. The temperature drops dramatically below the surface to a constant 18 degrees and that earthy smell you find in so many caverns fills the air.

Don't believe the brochures that promise you one of the world's biggest stalagmites in Cathedral Cave. Altar Rock, as it's known, is certainly sizeable at 15 metres high but, according to our cave guide, it's not technically a stalagmite at all. A bible, of all things, has been encased in one of Altar Rock's limestone ledges since the 1930s, a period when religious services and community dances were often held in the cave.

The acoustics in Cathedral Cave are so good that classical musical performances are still held in its echoing chambers.

The sounds of adjoining Thunder Cave are even more impressive. Thump a hand on your chest in here and the echo does indeed sound like an approaching storm. The cave guides like to turn out the lights on this leg of the tour so visitors can experience total darkness.

During our trip, this black-out inspires an elderly farmer's wife to begin warbling the national anthem while her husband accompanies her with some tuneful whistling. She later tells us her spouse's whistling talent has been honed by years of bringing in the cows. The singalong is nicely rounded off by the guide pointing out a rock formation called the "wombat on roller-skates". And that's just what it looks like.

The World War I-era phosphate mine is also worth a visit, as it houses bone fragments and fossils dating from 300,000 years ago.

These include the bones of three-metre-high kangaroos and two-tonne wombats - creatures you wouldn't want running out in front of you as you drive back to the highway.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Wellington is 362 kilometres north-west of Sydney, about 41/2 hours' drive. Take the Mitchell Highway through Bathurst and Orange, then towards Dubbo. There are daily rail and bus services; see countrylink.info.

Staying there

* Wellington Caves Holiday Complex has 18 self-contained units, as well as caravan and camping sites, next to the golf course and Wellington Caves. Caves Road, Wellington, phone 6845 2970.

* Garden Court Motor Inn has motel-style rooms and a licensed restaurant. 7-9 Lee Street, Wellington, phone 6845 2288.

Eating there

* The Lion of Waterloo Hotel is a historic tavern built in 1841 with a modern menu, wine bar and function rooms. Open daily for dinner. 89 Montefiores Street, Wellington, phone 6845 3636.

* Cactus Cafe and Gallery is a Spanish mission-style former school selling local art, produce and jewellery. Open Wednesday-Sunday for lunch or coffee. 33-35 Warne Street, Wellington, phone 6845 4647.

While you're there

Take a self-guided historical walking tour of Wellington, which includes such sites as the National Trust-classified Cameron Park, old hotels, churches and houses. Phone 1800 621 614.

More information

* Wellington Visitor Information Centre, phone 1800 621 614.

* Lake Burrendong State Park, phone 6846 7435, see stateparks.nsw.gov.au/lake-burrendong.

* Lake Burrendong Sport and Recreation Centre, phone 1800 815 892, see www.dsr.nsw.gov.au/lakeburrendong/.

* Burrendong Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, phone 6846 7454, see burrendongarboretum.org.

* Wellington Caves Complex, phone 6845 1418.

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