Orange, New South Wales © Destination NSW
Family road trip to Dubbo and the Warrumbungles
The sun-bleached prairies of the Great Western Plains offer up family adventures and lifelong memories in equal measure.
By Paige Richardson
They don’t call it the Great Western Plains for nothing. Lying halfway between the coast and the start of the outback, this breathtaking expanse in regional New South Wales is characterised by wide-open spaces, infinite outback skies, wispy pink-and-blue sunsets and a landscape that echoes many of the hallmarks of an African savannah.
This four-day road trip from Sydney takes you through charming towns, rolling hills and fertile farmland, to the plains’ heartland in Dubbo and Australia’s first Dark Sky Park. It's like a dry run (pun intended) of Australia’s real middle-of-the-country outback, with plenty of activities to keep the whole family happy.
Day 1: Sydney to Dubbo
- Drive time: 6 hours
Pack up the kids and hit the road from Sydney, plotting a course to the Blue Mountains. Driving along the Great Western Highway, you’ll pass a string of villages and climb the rocky ridge of the mountain barrier that separates the city from the Central West.
Cruising down the mountain’s other side you’ll soon reach Lithgow, where you can choose between two routes that both lead to Dubbo: via Orange or Mudgee. The drive time is roughly the same for each route, but the road to Mudgee is considered the more scenic of the two. It’s also the road that leads to The Zin House – a converted farmhouse restaurant on the outskirts of town where you can enjoy a seasonal long lunch while the kids wander the orchard and kitchen gardens.Show more
Day 2: Taronga Western Plains Zoo
The legendary Taronga Western Plains Zoo is by far Dubbo's most popular attraction and the closest you'll come to an African safari in Australia.
It’s home to over 4,000 animals from more than 350 species, including a rare king cheetah who bore six cubs in 2018, and a herd of Asian elephants, all housed in a huge open sanctuary – complete with Lion Pride Lands. So big are its plains – and riveting its attractions – you’ll need a whole day, and suitable transportation, to get around its 5.5-kilometre (3.5-mile) circuit and many walking paths. While you can walk or drive your own car, hire an electric cart or bike for the ultimate zoofari adventure.
While touring the zoo should be entertaining enough for the young ones, for even more excitement there’s the option to add exclusive animal experiences, like a meet and greet with the meerkats or an up-close feeding encounter with a giraffe.Show more
Day 3: Old Dubbo Gaol & the Regional Botanic Garden
Breakfast at Press is first on the agenda for two reasons: it’s a favourite among locals and the avocado, Pendle Dairy feta, salsa and pistachio dukkah on sourdough is a must-try.
Then, with your family historians in tow, head to the city’s other bucket-list experience: the Old Dubbo Gaol. This heritage-listed structure housed some of the country’s most notorious thieves, bushrangers and miscreants for 119 years until its doors clanged shut in 1966. Today, animatronic guards and prisoners, as well as holographic displays, reveal what life was like behind bars in the olden days, with theatrical (and spooky) twilight tours also available.Show more
Day 4: Dubbo to Warrumbungle National Park via Siding Spring Observatory
When to go
Don't miss StarFest, held every year on the Labour Day long weekend in October. From fascinating displays to telescope tours and talks, it's an extravaganza of astral activities the whole family will enjoy.
- Drive time: about 2 hours
With your safari over and your 'starfari' now underway, set off for Siding Spring Observatory on the edge of the Warrumbungle National Park (home of Australia’s first Dark Sky Park), which surveys the gargantuan landscape and skyscape from a 1,200-metre high ridgeline on the park’s edge. It houses Australia’s largest optical telescope – the Anglo-Australia Telescope (AAT) – which can ‘see’ gas orbiting supermassive black holes up to 12 billion light years away.
As nightfall approaches, wind down the World’s Largest Virtual Solar System Drive into Coonabarabran’s foothills, where a cluster of cosmos connoisseurs are itching to show you the universe. Skywatch Observatory, which is part observatory–part 'domestay' complete with an 18-hole astro mini-golf course, is your first port of call and, down the road, the Warrumbungle Observatory’s 90-minute show gives you a guided tour of the night sky, spotting spiral and dwarf galaxies and far-out star systems light years away.