Debra Jopson settles into a cabin at Mount Kaputar National Park and takes in the wilderness.
Mid-mountain, mid-walk, nestling with Thermos tea against a rock on a hardened lava flow, a wedgetail eagle appears. What it does next gives this humble human a glimpse of how it would feel to be further down the food chain.
A few metres above me, it swivels its head to sweep its gaze over the adjacent heathland, searching for prey. Within the arc of its lordly surveillance, it turns its beady eyes on me, holds them there for a moment, then moves on.
Most creatures would be relieved the arch predator of Mount Kaputar has passed them over but some perverse element of human nature makes me wish this imperious bird, in control in the winds from which I have sheltered, would be as curious about me as I am about it. "Just another bloody bushwalker at Bundabulla lookout," I imagine it thinking.
However, my experience of the eagle is unforgettable. Seeing a wedgetail so close from the prey's perspective might only happen once in a person's life. Mount Kaputar National Park, amid a sea of farms, is one of those blessed bushlands where short walks are rewarded with entertaining episodes with such wild creatures against a backdrop of thrilling vistas.
The park is to Narrabri what the Blue Mountains bushlands are to Sydney: an accessible retreat on several spectacular vertebrae of the state's spine, the Great Dividing Range.
But the difference is that Kaputar is 570 kilometres (six to seven hours' drive) north-west of the metropolis. My companion and I spend four of our six nights here completely alone on the mountain in one of three surprisingly comfortable cabins at Dawsons Spring that the National Parks and Wildlife Service rents for $77 a night.
The camping ground nearby remains empty, amid winter-night temperatures that fall below zero, while we roast under doonas in our cabin as the wood stove roars. By sunset, the park rangers and day visitors who bustle around in ones and twos in the day have disappeared. Only the snowy-chested resident kangaroo family hangs around to greet us in the morning chill, joined occasionally by two pied currawong watchful for food scraps.
I have long thought that one of the most restful holidays is to be deep in the wilderness where well-marked trails allow for safe adventure and there is comfortable accommodation and good food to come home to. If you take gourmet meals to cook or reheat in the well-equipped cabin kitchen, that is what this park provides.
You can drive right up to the cabins and campsites. The cabins have pine floors, stone finishes, decks, sliding glass doors and windows looking on to the bush, around-the-clock electricity, hot showers and a supply of firewood kindly chopped by national parks staff. Two cabins can sleep a whole family or a group of six to eight.
A road leads close to the 1500-metre Mount Kaputar summit but the agile can easily make the one-kilometre uphill walk from the cabins. And being right near the summit means easy access to a network of walking trails leading to lookouts in every direction under the park's mountain peaks.
They say you can see 10 per cent of NSW from up here. It's hard to verify that calculation but on a clear day the horizon appears like the edge of a wide bowl. Looking down, the green and brown geometry of agriculture is as striking as from a plane. The trees look like endless bunches of broccoli and the plains are broken up by smoke columns from fires and the glitter of dams and lakes. You can look north to the Queensland border, west to the Pilliga forest over the western plains and south-west to the Warrumbungles.
Closer, you get a sense of ancient Australia, as the skeleton of the volcano that formed the Nandewar ranges pokes through the bush.
This was a large volcanic complex created by repeated eruptions between 21 million and 17 million years ago, which spewed out molten rock at temperatures exceeding 900 degrees.
Sliced-off faces of these lava flows jut above the vegetation. Each bushwalk reveals a different aspect of these formations.
The walks vary from the easy and pleasant 1.4-kilometre Dawsons Spring Nature Trail to the hard 19-kilometre Scutts Hut to Kurrawonga Falls Walk, which takes in a deserted settlers' residence and is for toughened bushwalkers only.
My favourite is the walk to the peak of a large volcanic plug they call The Governor, which entails an amble through snow gums along a wooden walkway and a ladder climb. The reward is a rest in sunshine, watching golden shafts stab through plump grey clouds.
It's a walk of just two kilometres return, but feels like 200 kilometres for the sense of isolation it delivers.
Rambling on a mountain prone to ice and snow requires good bushwalking clothes and kit. The park encompasses alpine country in a warm zone and boasts a strange range of flora, from rainforest to alpine flowers.
Driving the 53 kilometres up the mountain from Narrabri in the late afternoon entails negotiating a single lane, gravel, potholes and a sheer roadside cliff in many parts. The temperature drops from 23 degrees to six degrees as we drive.
A guest book in our cabin provides seasonal clues. "Clouds and mist and a fire in December," reports one previous tenant. "Too many blowflies in cabin," complain some January residents. "A hint to fellow cabin stayers – when the light starts to fade, shut up all the windows and doors as it was the only way we found we could keep the insect invasion out," write others staying in the same month.
A November guest writes: "It rained the whole time and I saw nothing from the lookouts but I loved this cabin and especially the fire." Someone else had hazy views through bushfire smoke. A January tenant reports: "For two days, I looked at scenery through dense fog."
But many speak of the beautiful cool of Mount Kaputar in summer – 10 degrees cooler than the surrounding baking plains. An Inverell family recorded its first snowball fight, in July two years ago, while another former tenant writes: "Retreat to Dixon cabin's warMounth with permafrost all around (August)."
Apart from one recent fashionista, who thought the cabin decor needed updating, most loved the accommodation and the park.
A couple who stayed in May 2006 suggest visiting Mount Kaputar peak four times: at sunrise, for clarity and brightness; sunset for the colours; during daylight for the views; and at night to see the stars and lights of surrounding towns.
We head to Narrabri one day and we're disappointed by the local cotton museum, which spins the industry's political messages and has a series of interactive exhibits that don't work. But it is a pleasant country town and good for a stroll. We skip the Australia Telescope, 20 kilometres west of the town, but if the weather made the national park walks impossible, it could be worth a visit.
The drive is long. On the way north from Sydney, Scone seems a sensible stop and Willowgate Hall B&B is pleasant enough. Between the railway line and the highway, the night rumblings are a reminder that the once-beautiful Hunter Valley has been surrendered to coal, trucks and trains. But we get a chuckle from the proprietor's assertion that the closer you are to the rail line, the less you hear the noise of the trains.
On the way back, we stay at the convict-built Segenhoe Inn at Aberdeen. At $220 a room, with bathroom down the hall, it's clear the convict spirit is still alive. Both these establishments append the adjective "luxury" to their names. Not everyone would want to transport their own food and bedding to Kaputar and wait upon themselves, taking turns at sharing the one wineglass provided. But, for me, the stillness of a mountain with no one else upon it, the crackle of a wood fire and the hopeful gaze of a roo in the morning are all the luxury I could crave – and one of the cheapest rents going.
Narrabri is about seven hours' drive from Sydney. Mount Kaputar National Park is a further 57 kilometres from Narrabri.
The Mount Kaputar National Park has three self-contained cabins at Dawsons Spring. Two can sleep up to six adults, the other can sleep two adults and a child. BYO bedding, pillows, towels and food. Cost is $77 a night for a cabin, minimum two nights. For bookings, phone 6792 7300; see environment.nsw.gov.au/nationalparks/parkhome.aspx?id=n0038. There are also two camping grounds with hot showers, barbecues and fresh water. No caravans allowed in the park.