It's 2am and a wind is gusting around Balor Hut, a small green shack high up in Warrumbungle National Park in northern NSW. The alarm has just gone off and the idea of crawling down out of the ramshackle bunkbeds is daunting.
But the annual Geminids meteor shower is due any moment and, given that's why we're here, it's time to get up.
The Warrumbungles is Australia's first and only Dark Sky Park, an honour bestowed upon it by the International Dark-Sky Association in 2016. It is, therefore, a perfect place to watch the meteor shower because there's little to no light pollution.
We had stayed the previous night in Camp Blackman, the campground nearest to the start of the Breadknife and Grand High Tops Circuit, the Grade 4, 14.5-kilometre hike that has gotten us this far and which we will complete tomorrow.
The hut is one of five that were set up between 1958 and 1962 when the park's walking track was being built – and the only one that remains. It is essentially your basic tin shed - "fairly rustic", says the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service's own website. Mawson would have liked it.
But we're not here to look at the hut, we're here to experience the Geminids in one of the darkest night sky spots in the southern hemisphere.
The five-kilometre walk to Balor Hut from the car park, loaded as we were with backpacks full of food, water, sleeping bags and wine (all the essentials) took just under two hours. It's a mildly strenuous hike, with a few sharp inclines and a final, precipitous, thigh-burning section of stairs up to the hut.
The views, though, are worth the effort, with the well-maintained track meandering through some of the most breathtaking vistas that NSW has to offer. The views back down from the summit of Grand High Tops are astounding.
Sun rising over the Breadknife rock formation in Warrumbungle National Park. Photo: Daniel Tran/Destination NSW
But while the walk-in happened in the heat of a mid-December afternoon, at 2am the wind is bringing a chill that forces us to get dressed in everything we own and huddle under sleeping bags in camp chairs by the side of the hut.
Because of the lack of light pollution – they didn't put Siding Springs Observatory up here for nothing - the night sky is like some great upturned bowl of diamonds. This is one of those places where you imagine you can reach up and touch the milky swirl of the galaxy.
Siding Springs Observatory in Siding Springs. Photo: Filippo Rivetti/Destination NSW
And then we spot the first one – a short shooting star, brighter than anything else. And then another, and another, every few minutes. Anybody who has camped in the bush before has probably seen a meteor, but I'd wager not this many in so short a time. And certainly not with the long, long tails which linger lovingly behind these.
The Geminids happen when Earth passes through the tail of an asteroid called 3200 Phaethon. This has debris that's more rocky than dusty, resulting in meteors which travel further across the sky and create the longer trails that so enthral us as they burn up in the atmosphere.
We sit there for more than an hour in the cold dark, pointing out meteors that the other might have missed - "Look, over there! Did you see that one?" – before reluctantly heading back into the hut.
The walk out the next day is a hard trek over some difficult terrain but the views are fantastic and the memory of watching the Geminids as they should be seen is enough to buoy us back to the start of the circuit.
Keith Austin was a guest of Destination NSW and Camptoo.
All camping in NSW national parks requires a booking. Park entry fees also apply. The hut sleeps eight in four double bunk beds. There are two tiny wood-fired heaters but no bedding or mattresses. You will need to bring in bed sheets, water, food supplies and clothes for all weather conditions.
Book online at nationalparks.nsw.gov.au or call the National Parks Contact Centre on 1300 072 757. There is an area for camping but that must be booked separately. The $24.60 per night fee includes exclusive use of the hut and the first four guests.
In 2021, the Geminids meteor shower will be active from December 4-17, with the peak falling on the night of Monday, December 13.