Pilliga Forest is a 5,000 square kilometre semi-arid woodland, nestled between the towns of Narrabri and Bardine in NSW’s Central West. It’s the largest forest of its kind in the state and gives off big outback vibes.
- Discover a totally unique environment in NSW
- The red dirt roads feel like you’re in the outback
- Combine nature and culture on the Sculpture in the Scrub walk
Protect the Pilliga
First things first, the Pilliga Forest is under threat. The NSW State Government has recently given approval for an expansive 850-well coal seam gas field near Narrabri, in the state’s Central West, with much of the field overlapping into the Pilliga Forest.
There’s been a tonne of vocal opposition to the project from the local community, which has the potential to severely disrupt and contaminate the Great Artesian Basin, which farmers rely on for their crops and livestock, especially in times of drought. There’s also the risk of damaging waterways, native habitat and the health of local residents, not to mention the strong local Indigenous opposition to fracking on Gamileroi land.
The project now only requires federal approval before it gets underway, and with the government’s push towards a ‘gas-lead economic recovery’, it seems unlikely to be denied.
For more information on the fight to Save the Pilliga Forest, check out The Wilderness Society’s campaign.
Down the Dirt Road
Turning off the highway into the forest, I was surprised to be greeted by a red dirt road, stretching for miles and miles. These soft, dusty roads stretch throughout the entire forest, with changing (and often questionable) quality a lot of the way.
A 4WD would be ideal for traversing these dirt tracks but it’s not essential. My 2WD wagon (plus plenty of other cars) went the distance. There are no huge obstacles to overcome, but you’ll certainly need to keep your wits about ya, as there are many dips, corrugations and sandy build ups along the way. It’s best to check the current road conditions before heading into the forest.
Sculptures in the Scrub
Distance: 3.5km loop
Time: 1.5-2 hours
The Sculptures in the Scrub hike is minimum effort for max reward. It’s super easy, almost anyone can do it – a flat gravel path meanders most of the way, with just a slight incline and a few stairs.
The hike combines the stunning Dandry Creek Gorge with a permanent local Indigenous art installation that weaves through wildflowers and scrub along the gorge clifftop.
The Indigenous sculptures that are dotted along the path have been inspired by the gorge itself and bring a unique cultural element to the landscape. Be sure to give yourself enough time to read about each piece and truly take in the surroundings.
After wandering through the sandy woodland along the clifftop, descending down into the gorge is like entering a secret haven. Aboriginal rock art and engravings mark the gorge walls, so keep your eyes peeled and take a break in the shade to absorb the significance of this space.
Salt Caves Bird Walk
Time: 45 mins
This is your chance to wander through the great swath of trees you’ve been driving past for hours. This meandering path is another short and easy walk that starts at the Salt Caves and takes you along a sandy path lined with wildflowers and into the woodlands. The path ends at a big, albeit empty, dam before turning back the way you came.
Keep eyes and ears sharp for flocks of birds flying overhead and flitting about in the trees.
History and Views
The coolest part of the forest is the view from Pilliga Lookout Tower. Located at the Salt Caves, which have their own unique history, this giant steel tower used to act as a fire watchtower. From the top, you’re treated to unimpeded views, as the forest sprawls towards every horizon.
The Salt Caves themselves (which are below the tower) are a unique geographical feature, in the otherwise mostly flat forest, and are a sacred Indigenous site.
Wildlife and Wildflowers
In spring, Pilliga Forest comes alive with wildflowers. Bright purple dandelion-like blooms line the road, while ruby and golden flowered shrubs sprawl across the ground between the trees, and delicate orchids pop up in between.
The forest is also home to an aviary of birds, whose squawking and tweeting will be your alarm come morning. Watch out for emus quickly hobbling their way across the road as you drive.
I also spotted three goannas and a bunch of other lizards soaking up some sun on the edges of the road.
Pilliga Bore Bath
Ok so not technically within the forest itself, but you didn’t come this far just to come this far, did ya?
The Pilliga Bore Bath is about an hour’s drive further west from the forest, situated on the outskirts of the tiny 200 person village of Pilliga. Although amenities are basic, the warm, thermal water is a damn treat to glide around in after a day of exploring.
This is just one of a system of baths created by naturally heated bore water that make up the Great Artesian Basin.
There are BBQs and picnic tables at the bath, plus it’s situated on the edge of a great big paddock that’s used as a local campground. Book online, hand over five bucks and stay the night. That way you can go for a swim once the sun’s down and the temperature drops.
The Salt Caves campground is the less popular of the two campgrounds in the forest (the other being at the Sculptures in the Scrub walk), however having access to Pilliga Tower for sunrise and sunset makes this one the winner in my eyes.
You’ll feel like you’re camping in the outback with the red dust under foot and tent. There are picnic tables, BBQs and a drop toilet, but no power and little reception. Also, it’s free! (If you excuse the $6 booking fee).
- Camping gear
- Camp chair (unless you like sitting in the dirt)
- Water (no fresh water available)
- A spare tyre
- An esky, ice, and beers
- First aid kit (Just in case! Pretty remote and little reception)
How To Get There
Pilliga Forest is about a 6 hour drive northwest of Sydney. Drive to Coonabarrabran (best last town to buy supplies and fill up the car). Follow the Newell Highway north out of Coonabarabran for about 40km before turning left onto No 1 Break Road. Be aware, once you turn off the highway, the road is all dirt from there.
- Bird watching
- Wildlife spotting
- Staring in awe at the view
All of the walks are super easy, it’s just the driving that can be a bit tricky and possibly dangerous in the wrong car or when conditions are poor.