An alpine wilderness is just the place to get a shiny off-roader a little muddy, writes Lee Atkinson.
The bruised and battered Pajero has its hood up and engine out, its bits strewn over the rocky ground and categorically going nowhere when we pull up.
Its owner, a forlorn young man from Queensland, is valiantly trying to rebuild and restart the flooded engine while trying to coax a smile from his clearly unimpressed and not-very-happy-at-all girlfriend. They are both extremely happy to see us, however.
Stranded on the Barrington Trail in the middle of the Barrington Tops, in a vehicle that won't go, is not somewhere you want to be. Even though it's just 12 kilometres to the main road, the trail is an hour-long drive on a sometimes steep and always rocky track that's accessible only by four-wheel-drive.
Barrington Tops National Park is just a 3½-hour drive north from Sydney but it is wild and lonely. Its World Heritage-listed wilderness is much less trafficked than the bushland of the Blue Mountains and your chances of meeting other people on the trail are usually pretty slim.
Barrington Tops is also a place where wild weather, unexpected snow and flash floods can occur. The rugged ranges reach 1577 metres, more than half a kilometre higher than Katoomba. It's a place of craggy cliffs and rainforest, long-distance bushwalking trails, high-altitude lookouts and beautiful riverside camping spots, where lyrebirds wander through the scrub and kangaroos and wombats graze the grassy flats.
The park has two main sections: the linked plateaus of Barrington Tops, halfway between Gloucester and Scone; and Gloucester Tops, about 45 minutes from Gloucester. We've set up a base camp beside the Gloucester River, where you can sit in the crystal-clear shallows and soak away the aches of trail-weary feet.
We've travelled across beautiful rolling farmland to the northern section of the park to hook up with the Barrington Trail, and along the way, have driven through pristine stretches of rainforest, past towering tree ferns and stands of Antarctic beech.
It's these forests, remnants of temperate rainforest, that give the park its World Heritage status. We'd stopped at lookouts, peering through the morning mists over the edge of the escarpment and down to the valley floor below, and stretched our legs on a one-hour walking loop around the Polblue Swamp - one of the highest points on the range and once part of an ancient volcano.
By the time we hit the turn-off for the Barrington Trail we are high above the snowline - snow gets so thick here the road is closed in winter and the rainforest replaced by snow gums and carpets of yellow-centred white everlasting daisies.
It's the height of the summer school holidays and we haven't seen another car all day, so it's no surprise our Queensland friend with the broken-down Pajero is pleased to see us when we finally make it to the pretty string of river pools at the end of the trail. Rain starts to bucket down as we arrive, too.
You don't need a 4WD to see the best of Barrington Tops, though, although most of the roads are unsealed and can be rough on tyres. The road into Gloucester Tops, past our campsite on the river, has six causeways and the river rises quickly after rain; we discovered later that an overnight shower is enough to make getting out tricky. But, if you're looking for an alpine adventure or just want to get that shiny new off-roader a little muddy, Barrington Tops is perfect for a dirty weekend.
Barrington Tops is about 320 kilometres north-west of Sydney, 37 kilometres from Dungog and 42 kilometres from Gloucester. To get to the plateau, use the scenic Barrington Tops Forest Road between Gloucester and Scone.
WHERE TO CAMP
Polblue is a roomy camp ground suitable for cars, caravans and camper trailers. At 1450 metres above sea level it can get chilly at night in summer.
Four-wheel-drive camping spots include Gummi Falls, Junction Pools and Little Murray Swamp.
Also suitable for caravans is the Horse Swamp camping area on Tubrabucca Road and the Gloucester River camp ground off the Gloucester Tops Road.
There are several walk-in camp grounds and you can bush-camp anywhere in the park as long as it is at least 200 metres from any road or track.
WHEN TO GO
Spring, summer and autumn are the best times. Dustings of snow are not uncommon in winter and nights are cold. Weather conditions can change quickly, so be prepared. The Barrington Trail is closed between June 1 and September 30.
National Parks has comprehensive maps showing where to drive (four- or two-wheel-drive), trek, fish, camp, picnic and cycle. Phone (02) 6538 5300 (Gloucester) or (02) 6540 2300 (Scone); see environment.nsw.gov.au/NationalParks.