Monday, June 14, 2010

The West MacDonnell Ranges

The West MacDonnell Ranges.

Rock formations in the West MacDonnell Ranges

Tuesday Morning (9/6/2010) and we checked out of the G’Day Mate Caravan park in Alice Springs and headed into the West MacDonnell Ranges.  I was told by Michael Barrett from NT National Parks that Stanley Chasm was worth a stop and I should get some birds to photographs there.  Michael is a contact on Flickr so I sought to use his local knowledge to my benefit.   Our first stop was Simpsons Gap and our arrival there bought back the memories from six years earlier when we camped here while walking the Larapinta Trail. We had covered 25 kilometres that day carrying our heavy backpacks and, on arriving at Simpsons Gap, we abandoned the dusty gravelly camping area that had been set aside for campers for the clean comfort of the sandy river bed.  The gap was still as beautiful as that day and as I walked down to the waterhole it all came back to me. 

While we were here, I observed the cruelty of nature where two young Ringneck Parrots, which I suspect only left the nest that day were attacked by other birds.  One was attacked by two butcherbirds and the second by Yellow Throated Miners.  The one attacked by the two butcher birds was near the end of its short life while the one attacked by the miners had made it into trees but it also was in trouble.  Sad but this is the way of nature. 

Early morning at Simpson's Gap before the sun rises above the gap.

From Simpsons Gap it was on to Stanley Chasm to catch the Midday spectacle of the sun directly overhead the chasm.  This is something like an ancient sun ritual where mere mortals gather to witness the sun in a certain location when it lights up this narrow canyon slot.  It was $8.00 / person to go see the chasm as it is on Aboriginal land but I asked if we could camp there the night and that was $4.00 / person with entry into the Chasm.  Can’t work this one out but took it and said thank you.  Later I walked back along the Larapinta trail towards Brinkley’s Bluff and managed to get photographs of four types of Honeyeater and a Pardalote.  By the time I returned to the camp site, track walkers had walked in and again the memories were there.  I recalled the 17 kilometre section from Brinkley’s Bluff into Stanley Chasm.  As well as our heavy backpacks we had to carry water for two days on this section and the climb to Brinkley’s was a steep 600 metres high.  I remember carrying 8 litres of water up to our camp on the top of the Bluff.  That day when we arrived at Stanley Chasm, Mike and myself put away two large hamburgers.  Graeme and Margaret managed one each. 

Like ancient sun worshipers, People gather in Stanley Chasm for when the sun is directly overhead and lights up the chasm.

Next morning we packed up and travelled to Ellery Creek Bighole, another memorable place from our Larapinta backpack.  Ellery Creek was almost half way and we had arranged for a hot dinner to be bought out from Alice Springs as a feast and celebration for reaching the half way mark.  This was also the place where some of the group decided that they had done enough, pulling out and leaving four of the original team members going on with the challenge.  Ellery creek today has changed since we used it as a camp site six years ago.  It now has modern toilets with solar powered lighting and gas burners and hotplates for people to use.  We dug a hole in the bush for a toilet and cooked on our camping gas stoves.  The shelter we used for our celebration dinner is still there.

The Ellery Creek Big Hole.

It was then on to Glen Helen and the gorge where the Fink River flows through the range on its way to Lake Eyre.  This is a beautiful place and I have always loved this spot.  I have been here several times and it is always great to visit again.  Glen Helen was our camp site for Day three of our Larapinta Backpack.  We celebrated Margaret Smiths 60 birthday here with a barbeque where the“resourt” supplied the meat and the salads.    By now you may be thinking, boy this was some backpack, always eating out.  Well the backpack took the four of us who finished the walk 17 days and we utilised catering services on three occasions.  These are the three that I have mentioned.  The rest of the time we carried our three meals a day and cooked our own.  We did have three food drops carrying supplies for up to six days at a time along with everything else that we needed.  It was hard but it was a challenge and the experience was great.   Also the beauty of the area can only be seen by walking in the areas where the vehicles cannot go.  Most of our campsites were nowhere near a road and there was no vehicle access.

The Finke River flows through an opening in the red range at Glen Helen.
The red cliffs tower above the Finke River at Glen Helen.

Redbank Gorge was the end of the road for us this trip.  The dirt road into the place had not improved.  The camping area was still a red dirt surface.  We had intended to camp here but I must be getting soft as on seeing the place again I made the decision to return to Ormiston Gorge to camp that night.  As we walked down to the river bed into Redbank Gorge, we saw the six tents of people doing the Larapinta trail and I assumed that they had left them set up while they climbed Mt Sonder.  A recent flood had come down the river and through the gorge and the build up of floating materials was still in the trees.  We walked the rocky track to the gorge which had changed since our last visit.  A build up of sand now covered the rock shelf at the entrance of the gorge. 

Redbank Gorge is where we started our walk to do the Larapinta Trail in August 2004.  Three of us also climbed Mt Sonder making it to the top.   The track to the top of the mountain from Red Bank Gorge is 8.5 kilometres so double this for the round trip.   Mt Sonder is 1,300 metres high.  We started after lunch and were back before dark.  Not a bad feat for 60 year olds.

Seeing Mt Sonder really hit me and bought a tear to my eye.  Mt Sonder is a blue mountain ringed by the red ranges and of the West MacDonnell’s.  It has always impressed me from the first time I saw it.  It is a beautiful mountain that stands out like a sapphire on a red velvet cloth.  Seeing the mountain again my thoughts turned from the things that happened on the track to the people who I did this walk with, especially the three close friends that I shared the full experience with.  This was only one of many walks that we had done together and we had built up a respect and friendship that only lucky people ever know.   We challenged each other but also helped each other.  Sadly bad knees and other ailments have stopped two of us from doing these things together and although we sometimes talk on the phone, I really miss their company and the great times and challenges we shared as true friends.

An early morning shot of Mt Sonder.  The further away you view it from the bluer it gets.

There is still a place where the wild Dingo calls and that is Ormiston Gorge.  You can hear it howl either at dusk or early morning.   Back in the days when I was still backpacking we would often hear them close to the camp but there is no fear of being attacked by them.  There is a Dingo here at Ormiston Gorge who still goes through the camp every night and fishes in the river during the day.  Yes that is correct it fishes in the waterholes and does catch fish.  It runs the fish up into the shallow end of the pool where it can then catch them.   It is not tame in any way and will not allow anyone to approach it.  We spent two nights here as there are hot showers and flush toilets in the National Park Camping area.  Also there were a variety of birds here that I wanted to photograph.  A flock of over a dozen Spinifex pigeons would wander through the camping area on a daily basis looking for seeds.  These are the most colourful of all the Australian pigeons. Grey Headed Honeyeaters claimed the territory at the top of the camping area attacking any other small bird that came within their range.  Grey Crowned Babblers also frequented the campsite while White Plumed honeyeaters andBrown honeyeaters played chase me through the trees.   A Western bowerbird claimed the scraps from the barbeque that the crows had missed. 

Ormiston Gorge is a beautiful place with walks along the ridges and through the gorge.  At present the water level is still up and it is not possible to keep dry feet when walking in the gorge section.   Also the tracks in the riverbed are very rocky due to the recent flooding in the area.   Ormiston Gorge is a camp site for the Larapinta trail walkers.  The track section from Glen Helen is short enough to allow walkers to arrive at Ormiston early enough to set up their camp and explore the gorge.  Ormiston Gorge was our first food pickup point when we walked the Larapinta.  We also had the afternoon exploring the gorge.

The swimming hole at the entrance to Ormiston Gorge is a five minute walk from the camp grounds
The lush conditions following recent rains show at old cattle yards beside the road to Ormiston Gorge

The road into Serpentine Gorge now stops 1.3 kilometres from the gorge and it is a walk from this point.  This gorge has wonderful swirl patterns in the rocks and the climb to the top is spectacular.  When we walked the Larapinta we arrived here for Margaret’s 60th Birthday and we celebrated with two small bottles of scotch that I had secretly carried in.  This campsite had also been on the red dirt and some of us traded this site for a sandy section of the river bed.

Coba and I arrived back in Alice Springs on the Friday Afternoon as the town was setting up for the Fink Desert Race.  All accommodation was full but we had booked into a caravan park before we left for the West MacDonnell’s so we were guaranteed a spot.  We were well into cleaning out the fridge and freezer getting ready to leave the van and fly back home on the Sunday.  This gave us an excuse to dine out so we took the opportunity to spoil ourselves on the Friday and Saturday evenings with restaurant meals.  Sadly for us the Finke Desert Race started on Sunday and so was our flight back to Sydney so we were not able to witness this event.


  1. Mate(s), you have excelled again with your great report and pics. Just fantastic. One of our prized posessions is a B&W pic taken of our 3 boys at Stanley chasm, now 30 years ago. They could be overlaid on your pic, as little has changed. Continue your fantastic adventure safely. Brice & Fran

  2. A wonderful report of this stage of the trip, great to be able to share your memories of the Larapinta walk and the beautiful images of this tour.

  3. Images only surpassed by your story telling...just great!!

  4. Considering they're from 2 years ago, lucky me for stumbling upon these lovely Alice Spring pictures, although the rivers all look a little dry, I hope it's not due to global warming kicking in on overdrive.

  5. Terribly nice pictures. May I ask, what you took them with? And what settings? are any of them hdr?