Ninety miles from the nearest city, Dubbo stands alone in the Orana Region of western New South Wales.
Since 1881, Dubbo has been a transport hub with the extension of the Main Western Railway, but there’s preserved European architecture going back as far as 1841. What puts the city on the map for modern visitors is a lineup of big-hitting attractions.
To name a handful, there’s the enormous Taronga Western Plains Zoo, a visitor centre for the Royal Flying Doctor Service, a regional Cultural Centre, one of Australia’s most authentic Japanese gardens and an immaculately preserved gaol from the mid-19th century.
1. Taronga Western Plains Zoo
This vast zoo, holding more than 5,000 animals from 350+ species, came about in the 1970s when the Taronga Conservation Society decided it needed more room for its large animals like elephants and giraffes than was available at its zoo in Sydney.
The open-range enclosures can be seen on a five-kilometre circuit that you can navigate on foot, by bike, by car or on a electric safari cart provided by the zoo.
A natural highlight is Lion Pride lands, but some of the other stars are the cheetahs, Sumatran tigers, Asian elephants, giraffes, meerkats and zebras, as well as Australian animals like koalas and kangaroos.
There’s so much to see that tickets for the zoo are valid for two consecutive days, so you won’t need to rush or worry about missing anything.
2. Old Dubbo Gaol
Dubbo’s state heritage-listed gaol opened in 1847 and was developed over the next 100 years before finally closing in 1966. Since the 1970s this has been a fascinating and entertaining window on a brutal era for corrections in Australia.
Among the bone-chilling collections is the largest array of genuine hangman’s ropes in the country, and you’ll learn firsthand what it was like to be locked up in a pitch-black solitary confinement cell.
Making your way through the cells and courtyards, animatronic figures and holographic displays will tell you about the daily routine behind bars and some of Dubbo’s more notorious prisoners.
For an eerie thrill you can also join an after dark Twilight Tour or Beyond the Grave Tour.
3. Western Plains Cultural Centre (WPCC)
The modern, multimillion-dollar Western Plains Cultural Centre opened in 2007 and integrates historic architecture from the old Dubbo High School, founded in 1917. The WPCC contains the collections of the Dubbo Regional Museum and the Dubbo Regional Gallery.
Temporary exhibitions sourced from these rich collections explore a wealth of themes, like Dubbo’s early development, Dubbo during the wars, important pioneers and entrepreneurs, famous Dubbo residents and economic activity down the centuries.
A couple of invaluable pieces are the country’s largest and best-preserved wool wagon, and a carved tree of immense importance to the local Aboriginal people.
Appropriately the centre’s art holdings revolve around “The Animal in Art”, examining issues around the representation of animals in the visual arts, as a symbol, object, trophy and metaphor.
4. Dubbo Regional Botanic Garden
Run by Dubbo Regional Council, the botanic garden is on the east side of Dubbo proper and is planted with a mosaic of delightful interconnected sub-gardens.
The most beloved of these is the Shoyoen Japanese Garden, which we’ll cover in more detail in the next entry.
But complement this are spaces like the Sensory Garden, carefully laid out to engage with your sense of touch, smell, taste, hearing and sight.
You can study the native species of the Dubbo Region at the Biodiversity Garden, and a sensational recent arrival is the Oasis Valley Garden, planted with dry rainforest species and showing how species in the local bushland evolved from the plant life of the Gondwana supercontinent hundreds of millions of years ago.
5. Shoyoen Japanese Garden
The undoubted high point at the botanic garden is one of the most authentic Japanese gardens in Australia.
This was gifted to Dubbo in the 2002 by its sister city Minokamo and is laced with cultural references and religious symbolism.
Some of the garden’s key features involve water, like the koi-filled lake, streams and waterfall, which stand for the cycle of human existence.
There’s a tea hut or “Chaoya”, a dry garden landscape with raked gravel to symbolise waves and rocks standing for islands.
One of the most beautiful elements is the gate, or “Sukiyamon”, designed and built by Japanese craftsmen in 2013 and held as one of the finest examples of its kind anywhere.
6. Dubbo Observatory
A benefit of being so isolated is that Dubbo gets stupendous night skies, and these can be studied in exhilarating detail at the city’s observatory.
This offers a basic Night Sky & Telescope Tour, beginning with an engrossing 20-minute talk by an astronomer, after which important stars, planets and constellation will be pointed out with a laser pointer.
If you bring a DSLR camera with you, the astronomer will be able to take a dazzling photograph of a nebula for you through one of the observatory’s telescopes.
For smaller groups there’s the Astro Exclusive Tour, which is a more in-depth and personalised experience, showing some 20 celestial bodies through telescopes and giving detailed explanations about each one.
The observatory also schedules online stargazing experiences and a special Astrophotography Tour.
7. Royal Flying Doctor Service Visitor Experience
An icon of the Australian outback, the Royal Flying Doctor Service maintains a national fleet of over 71 aircraft and provides assistance to almost 300,000 people every year.
The institution was founded in 1928 by Reverend John Flynn who appears on the Australian $20 note.
The Visitor Experience at the Dubbo City Regional Airport introduces you to the nurses, doctors and pilots who deliver emergency healthcare across a range of almost 7.7 million square miles.
You can read exciting accounts, see an RFDS plane, get a handle on the amazing scope of this organisation and sample daily life in some of Australia’s most far-flung places.
8. Dundullimal Homestead
The retired army officer and wealthy merchant John Maughan built himself this slab hut-style homestead in 1842. Now in the care of the National Trust, this is thought to be the oldest building of its kind in the country.
The property, complete with a timber church, shed and sandstone stables, paints a clear picture of isolated rural life in the years of European settlement, and has made it to the 21st century with hardly any alterations.
There are sophisticated flourishes throughout, like louvres and a series of pane-glazed opening to the verandah, as well as a grand sitting room with a tent-shaped paster ceiling and wallpaper reproduced according to a patent from 1850. The old machinery shed houses a tearoom, and you can see the various working areas vital for self-sustenance, including storerooms, a sunken cool room, a coach room and a blacksmith’s forge.
9. Tracker Riley Cycleway
Alexander Riley (1884-1970) was a tracker based in the Dubbo area who made history in 1941 by becoming the first Aboriginal person to achieve the rank of sergeant in the New South Wales Police Force.
Later this 13-kilometre cycleway was named in his honour, and follows a circuit that lets you enjoy the natural splendour of the Macquarie Foreshore as well as a handful of visitor attractions around Dubbo like the Dundullimal Homestead and the Taronga Western Plains Zoo.
If you don’t have your own set of wheels the Dubbo Visitor Information Centre will be happy to point you in the right direction.
10. Terramungamine Reserve
The banks of the Macquarie River, north-west of Dubbo was part of the traditional country of the Tubbagah People of the Wiradjuri Nation, and as well as being a burial ground, tribes across the region would come to gather here.
Evidence has survived down the centuries in the form of rock grooves, created by Aboriginal people sharpening their tools and weapons.
One outcrop continuing for about 100 metres has more than 150 of these grooves.
There’s also a campground at the reserve for overnight stays, equipped with basic facilities like picnic tables and toilets, as well as places where you can access the river by kayak/canoe or for a swim.
11. Dubbo Heritage Walk
Among the volumes of leaflets on hand at Dubbo’s Visitor Information Centre is a guide to this easy but informative walk around the historic CBD.
On this stroll you’ll track Dubbo’s progress beginning in the 1850s, from village to town to fully-fledged city in 1966. Many of the grandest landmarks are found on Macquarie Street, like the National Australia Bank Building (c. 1907), the Milestone Hotel (1882) and of course the Old Dubbo Gaol.
Around the corner, in front of Victoria Park is the heritage railway station, which opened in 1881 and remains one of the few station complexes on the NSW line to be built from stone.
12. Wellington Caves & Phosphate Mine
If there’s a day trip not to pass up in the Dubbo area, it’s this set of limestone caves and accompanying WWI phosphate mine just past Wellington about 45 minutes out of town.
The caves were first explored by Europeans and soon caught the attention of early palaeontologists for the fossilised bones of megafauna like giant kangaroos and diprotodons from the Pleistocene period visible in the walls.
When we wrote this list in May 2020 there were two tours available.
You could enter the largest cave, the Cathedral Cave, known for monuments like the Altar, a stalactite 15 metres tall.
The Phosphate Mine tour leads you through shafts excavated more than 100 year ago and shows off some of the bones that have wowed natural historians.
13. Narromine Aviation Museum
Continuing the aviation theme you could head along the A32 to the airport in the town of Narromine, where there’s a superbly presented museum run by volunteers.
Narromine Airport has an important place in history, as the setting for Australia’s oldest regional airport, and a secret WWII training base where nearly 3,000 pilots were educated.
The museum recently opened a new wing with three unique aircraft: The world’s only flyable replica of the 1907 Wright Flyer Model A, a Corben Pober Super Ace (1935) and an original Hawkridge Venture glider (1953). An exciting holdover from the WWII days is a Rolls Royce Merlin 25 engine used in the No.
618 Squadron RAF’s de Havilland Mosquito bombers.
While you’re in Narromine you could also make a detour to the statue of arguably the best bowler of his generation, Glenn McGrath, who was born in Dubbo but grew up in Narromine.
14. Dubbo Visitor Information Centre
If you don’t know where to start, there are excellent information centres both here and in Wellington 50 kilometres to the south-east.
These are especially handy if you’re navigating the rather remote country of the Orana Region.
As you plot your next move you’ll be able to pick up a cold drink or cup of tea or coffee, and relax in a shaded alfresco area, while making use of the free Wi-Fi.
There’s a water and charging station, a playground close by for children, as well as public toilets.
And of course the centre’s staff will be ready to give you tips on attractions, natural spaces and events, and you can grab a handful of leaflets and brochures.
15. Dubbo Farmers’ Market
One of the top regional events for Dubbo is a hugely popular farmers’ market that trades on the first and third Saturday of the month, no matter the weather.
Straight from the farmer, grower or maker you can buy seasonal fruit and vegetables, herbs, flowers, nuts, plants, honey, olives, olive oil, preserves, jams, marinades, sauces, wine, cider, fresh bread and a wide selection of locally-raised lamb, beef and pork.
Come early and there will be all sorts of delicious and healthy options for breakfast, from bagels to freshly-roasted coffee.