Or Three Caterpillars and a Wedgie.
We started the day early, the pink alarm clocks squawking having woken us around dawn. With a coffee imbibed and a quick look over plans made the night before, the wife and I headed out for the West MacDonnell Ranges following the route laid out before us. Now the indigenous origin for Tjoritja (The MacDonnell Ranges) is a story of three Caterpillars which I won’t tell here out of respect, but it’s details like that, that give a unique life to the whole place. So as the thermometer rose we pointed the X-Trail west and went in search of wonders. Tjoritja didn’t disappoint. The journey would take all day, doing a bit over 250 Ks and the sun was already making its presence felt. Though not tall by world standards, the ranges run like a wrinkle in the bedsheet-flat outback for hundreds of Kilometres East and West of Alice Springs. This country can make you feel very small.
Once you turn onto Namatjira Drive you are suddenly surrounded by a landscape that defies adequate description. Even photos don’t do justice to the scale of the ranges. Early on we had to stop several times, just to try and record it photographically. (Thank God for digital photography. In my younger days, I don’t think I could have afforded to print that many hundreds of photos. You’re also lucky I’m selective. As I keep telling my wife, I just need another few photos of rocks and birdies.)
First serious stop was Ellery Creek Big Hole, a waterhole that belies its name, turning out to be a beautiful little Waterhole at the end of a short walk from the car park. Still early in the day, and after a toe in the water told me how cold the water was, we forewent the opportunity to swim, enjoying the serenity, as it were. We weren’t the only people there, but in country this big, you hardly notice the handful of other tourists. Here’s a quick walk through.
I could’ve stayed for ages there, as birds flitted between the trees and cycads, but we’d barely scratched the surface on what Tjoritja had to offer and there were a lot of klicks to go. Back to Namatjira Drive, driving west, following the caterpillar. Next stop was Serpentine Gorge. It’s hard to drive through the country and not think of Albert Namatjira, whose iconic paintings are probably better than any photograph when it comes to doing justice to the landscape. 20 Ks down the road we turned right onto a dirt road that’s pretty close to our 4×4 limit, following the rippled dirt track until we reached the carpark. Shank’s pony from there.
As one of the few permanent waterholes around it is a refuge indeed.
You’re not allowed to swim, so you only get a little window into the gorge beyond the first waterhole. The printed guide for the Gorge said that there was a nice view looking down if you do this little climb up to the lookout. Backtracking to the stone steps, we began our ascent in the morning sun and by half way I was reminded of those gym memberships I never owned. As we rested, three quarters of the way up, we were passed by a handful of people who offered encouragement “Not far to go.” “You’ll be glad you did it.”, though the first guy jokingly said, “It’s not worth it.” We continued to the top and were rewarded for all that sweat.
Not only a beautiful view, but a chance to see a cute little earless dragon. Bonus! (That’s what they’re called, I swear.) Down was much easier than up and it wasn’t long before we were down, across the dry and rocky creek bed and back to the X-Trail. Next stop the Ochre Pits, an important cultural site, another 20 minutes further west. The Ranges look clawed here scarred with long lines, and the legend is a giant wedgetailed eagle created some of the landscape as it flew between Mparntwe (Alice Springs) and the Ochre Pits.We arrived with only one near miss on a goanna that tried to become a speed bump, but we got there.
The Ochre Pits are a traditional peoples’ site and they ask only that you respect it and not touch the colourful ochre. Of course some people have no respect, leaning up against the ochre wall for selfies (Grrrr. Don’t do things like that, people).
There were a few other tourists at the Pits and intriguingly a handful of them were taking turns hugging a large ghost gum in the dry river bed. On closer inspection, I saw that they were pressing their ears to the trunks, apparently to hear water, they said. Of course, always the sheep I walk up to the tree and press my ear to the smooth white bark, and sure enough there was the sound of running water. It’s times like these I remember why I love this planet. The scientific explanation is the sound of the movement of the branches transmitted through the wood, but that doesn’t take any of the magic away from it. I feel like a kid whose just discovered the ocean waves in a conch shell.
Peeling myself off the tree, we returned to the car and headed for our most westerly stop, Glen Helen Gorge. By now the thermometre was beginning to boil as we followed the trail along the salt encrusted Finke River to the large, permanent waterhole. Inviting as the water looked, we were saving the swimming for our next stop.
We checked out the shop at the camping ground but the Lodge/café/gift shop was a little overpriced for us, so we went up to the Mt Sonder Lookout to see how much more of the country we’d missed. Time was against us, and we still had a couple of stops to go on the return journey.
Back in the car and backtracking east, we turned left up the long track to Ormiston Gorge. Now I have to confess, my knowledge of Ormiston Gorge was limited strictly to the level of, I’ve vaguely heard of that, so I had no preconceptions. With a kiosk at the car park offering frozen delights (choc ice cream for me, 😊 ), we walked down to the waterhole that’s nestled between the impressive red walls of the Gorge. By now the temprature was a shade below forty celcius (That’s 104 F on the old scale.) and the dark waters seemed very inviting. Wading in, the bottom drops off very quickly (the waterholes, not mine) and it’s quickly apparent that none of the air’s heat has transferred into the water. The wife refused to do more than paddle her feet and once the fridged waters hit my nethers, make my externals become internals as parts of my body retreated to somewhere behind my kidneys and refused to come out. When this happens, you just have to dive in and wait for the hypothermia to numb your extremities. I told my wife it wasn’t too bad once you got in… She didn’t believe me.
Having cooled off, (or more accurately, frozen me backside off,) we dressed in more suitable walking attire and followed the track up to the platform lookout above the gorge. This takes you passed a variety of wildflowers and wildlife, as you ascend the relatively easy climb up to the lookout. From here you get a clear look up the gorge, the afternoon sunlight casting colours and shadows across the rock walls. If you’re afraid of heights, be warned. The platform is made of steel mesh, giving you a little of that “standing on nothing” sensation.
Back down I watched a crow try to crack open a bush coconut and wondered how many millennia, birds and people have been living off these very Australian bush food. The nut, about the size of a tennis ball, is created by a wasp larva and when you crack through the woody shell there’s the grub for protein and a starchy white lining for the carbs. I restrained myself from trying either, deciding to stick to a muesli bar. Back in the car park, we found the Spinifex Pigeons chilling in the shade of the kiosk’s rainwater tank. It was a lovely end to a long but worthwhile day.
We’d seen things, learned things, and heard things we’d never expected. And we were only half done in our exploration of the MacDonnell Ranges.
It was late afternoon when we arrived back at camp, tired but happy.
Next Blog we explore the East MacDonnell and are privileged to see an art and light festival, Parrtjima.