The mountains to the west of the gap (Heavitree gap) are called the West MacDonnell Ranges. Alice Springs itself is located at this gap in the MacDonnell Ranges (source: https://www.outback-australia-travel-secrets.com/west-macdonnell-ranges.html)
Ormiston Gorge showcases the spectacular geology and landscapes of the ranges. The Gorge has a near-permanent waterhole, estimated to be up to 14 meters deep. Contrary to previous walks, this area had an interesting variety of native flora and fauna including a number of relict plant species (‘Living Fossils’) remaining from a tropical past.
To get here we traveled off to Ormiston Gorge. Another great hike. This time it was the ‘Ghost Gum Walk’ or ‘Pound Walk’ – not sure which one we took. Access to the Ormiston Gorge is via Larapinta and Namatjira Drives. We begin our climb, another arduous one, but was different than previous as it had much greenery and water holes. All of us had an urge to dip in the waters, but couldn’t since few were not so clean and were extremely cold. It is said that prolonged exposure, even during summer can result in hypothermia. Few of our team members still endured a waterhole which was just near to the visitors center. I and my son took off to take a dip. Our feets touched the water and…..a cold wave went through our spines. The water was indeed extremely cold. There were few swimmers in the pond mustering all the strength they have. My son still wanted to get in and he got in only to stay in there for less than a minute. He was literally shivering and eager to get back under the blistering sun. Who would have imagined such a cold phenomenon in the middle of a desert? The following picture is of another waterhole we found out during our hike.
We were experiencing an arid landscape, high cliffs, waterholes, and plenty of native flora and fauna. While walking we came across small creatures which we all could see far on the rocks. These were no monkeys or mountain goats. They were Black-footed Rock Wallabies, perched high up on the rocky slopes. If you see close to the picture on your left, you would see one bang in the center soaking under the sun. They were far on the cliffs and this is what I could capture from my telephoto lens. They were everywhere, popping out of nowhere, jumping around dangerously (at least for us) from rock to rock.
Earlier in the day, we had encountered one of the venomous – the Redback Spider, a female, and it was right under the bench we were sitting while reading the information boards. Though they can be found everywhere in Australia, I saw it for the first time. If you find one in nature, you are not supposed to kill it but let it be. Our guide slightly pulled out the web where she was so we can take a closer look. At 1 cm body size, she occurred harmless to us as she was lazily hanging there in her messy web, oblivious of her surrounding. Let me rest this case here or we might go on a tangent giving a zoology lesson..!!
Coming towards the end of the walk, we experienced something which we haven’t seen. The Ochre Pits. We could see the yellow and red layers in the ochre walls in abundance on the banks of a sandy creek. This is the area where the Aboriginals mined ochres for their ceremonies – raw material for paintings and ceremonial body decoration. Certain kind of ochres is rarer and more valuable. Being a culturally active site, we were not allowed to touch, use or remove the ochre. Took it all in and moved on.
The landscape had so much vegetation and a much-required shade from the blistering sun and the oppressing heat, we decided to spend more time mucking around, taking photos of surroundings and the group. All of us had a very good time here. Soon it was going to end as we were to regroup and join at the parking lot where the van was parked. We drove through the Owen Springs Reserve following the footsteps of the first European explorers. Tonight we were to rest at Owen Springs, spending another beautiful night under the southern stars, complete with campfire, cooking a hearty meal on the coal, and sharing today’s experiences and wondering what’s next. Tomorrow was the final day of the camp, so we’re sad too. The group has already said goodbyes to two families (couples, who were visiting from Holland) yesterday since they had only booked a 3-day trip.
This was a different night. This site was completely Outback, Wayoutback. No tents, no commercial activity, no establishments of any kind, no water, no nothing. We and our van, that’s it. We camped next to a river bed which was now completely dry. As we have planned to reach this site with ample daylight we were able to check around and set up things before it was dark. Few of us hiked another hill to watch a spectacular sunset. Few of us took out all the swags that we have carried from the previous campsite since this site had no such facility to store them. We made a makeshift table which was going to be our food work area for that night. A partner of our guide joined us at this location. He was another guide working on a different route and company but from the same hometown. Time was our enemy. We had to race to set up everything – our swags, our belongings required for the night, torches, food preparation – before it went dark. And soon that area was engulfed by the darkness and a light fog started building up. The campfire was now on. Production of coal had begun. In all that chaos we lost a crucial ingredient, I think it was the wheat flour or something. Since it got all mixed up with the sand we couldn’t save much.
You could see in the above picture how prepared were we. A toilet roll secured in place for an emergency, swags ready, food and fire being prepared. This log was the only sitting area above the ground. The damper was being cooked once again, so we all were very happy. The entire crew was huddled around the fire as the temperature continued to drop. This was our last camp of the trip and was purposely set it up that way to give us a complete native feel of what’s it like living in the outback.
After another hearty meal, we jumped into our swags, bundled up and started chitchatting. No one wanted to sleep. Few of us – the Bravehearts – thought of taking a quick stroll in the night so we did. Some of us found good old trees as a barrier to getting the unwanted fluids out..:-). Soon the entire area was covered with moonlight. It was such an amazing scene. So serene and sublime. Stars were shining brightly. It was an open sky amphitheater, way away from every man-made thing. Just us and the sky above. Nothing artificial. It was late and every one of us begin dozing off and soon slept. All was eerie and so quiet other than occasional stirrups and someone waking up for bathroom breaks. I am sure most of us didn’t sleep at all due to the chillness and openness we were put into. Awaiting for the sun to come up and another day of the hike.
Another early morning start. By this time we have gotten used to the bright start and quick breakfasts and a quick run to pit toilets. You don’t fancy reading books there, so do the job and come out. :-). Readers who may not know what pit toilets are, please google. All I can say is that they are environmentally better waste systems, used by remote campers and third world countries.
We were ready for another hike. This time it was the Kings Canyon. Located in Watarrka National Park, Kings Canyon known for its 100-meter-high sheer cliff walls. The idea was to take a guided walk (Rim Walk) to see the towering walls, crevices, and plateaus of Watarrka. Soaring 270m above sea level, this canyon has been forged over 400 million years and is made from layers of sandstone with hard shell between layers. The Rim Walk took us on a 6km circuit transcending down into the ‘Garden of Eden’ and back to the top to get a 360-degree view. The start of the walk was very difficult. From the base, we could just admire the steep climb, somewhere around 500 steps to climb. The first thought was not to do it at all. But that’s what we were there for and not doing it didn’t make any sense. So we began the climb. After few steps, we all were exhausted, panting, looking for some shade and looking down where we started. We were already high up and still more to go. With all the panting and huffing, we ultimately reached the top. The view was breathtaking and magnificent. It was worth the climb.
Continuing our walk on the rim, through Priscilla’s Crack (made famous by the classic Priscilla Queen of Desert) we came to our first lookout at across the canyon. From here, we were exposed to all the elements and were experiencing the grandeur of our surrounding. In front of us were the marvelous sandstone domes (a mini-Purnululu) known as the ‘Lost City’. (I wish I could share more photos so you can experience what I did, but have to restrict due to the storage capacity.) After a long walk, we now started our journey towards the ‘Garden of Eden’. The name sounds interesting and we were all looking forward to it. We undermined and were skeptical of how could there be something sounding an Oasis in the middle of such a harsh geology. I thought our guide is bluffing just to raise our spirits. But in no time we were all proven wrong. There was literally the Garden with lush forestation and shimmering water. This is the picture taken from above a cliff. The water had a strange copper color due to the iron deposits in the sand and probably many other elements from the Periodic Table…!!.
We took the stairs down to the picturesque Garden of Eden filled with lush greenery, where plants thrive along the line of permanent rock pools. Crossed the secured bridge over the sacred watering hole. It was a welcoming relief from the blistering sun and the soaring temperature hovering close to 45-degree Celcius, probably more. We all sat down in the shades taking it all in. This place is very serene and of a great significance to the original landowners, whose only request to visitors is NOT to swim in these waters. It was so tempting but we resisted. It was time to make a move so left with heavy-hearted back to our descent. We had another adventure waiting for us, rather planned.
The group left Kings Canyon to travel on the famous Mereenie Loop Road. The 93 km loop road lets you drive directly from Kings Canyon to West MacDonnell Ranges. This is an unsealed road with pretty bad corrugations. We shook all the time through the entire journey praying it would stop soon. The road took us through the Aboriginal Country and a permit is a must. You are not allowed to do anything here. Shouldn’t leave the road, shouldn’t park and go walking, no picnicking, no camping, no nothing. We were all by ourselves on the red road with just one or two camper vans passing by. Aircondition was on full mode inside the van but wasn’t sufficient. If we chose to open the window, the red dust settles in very quickly, so no chance of doing that. Glad that I wasn’t wearing complete whites that day. Our guide and his accomplice were cool like cucumber and were smiling and laughing at our predicament – the shaky state we were in. This area was far from any habitat so much so that the nearest accommodation options or fuel station were at 197 km and 225 km (source: Internet).
While looking out into the nothingness, I could see scores of dead animals, vultures swirling around and an occasional red kangaroo. The thought of being there all alone was too scary. What if we get stranded? What if the van breaks down? Every bad thought crossed my mind – most probably everyone’s – along the journey. The shaking stopped and the van was now back on the paved road, a great sigh of relief from all the passengers. Today’s trip was about to end as we approached another permanent camp located at Glen Helen.
Glen Helen is a sublime gorge carved through the MacDonnell Ranges by the Finke River. A truly beautiful waterhole edged by red quartzite cliffs. It is known that the first pastoralist in the district, Alan Braeden called the home he established on Ormiston Creek, Munga Munga. The Arrernte Aboriginal people called the gorge ‘yapalpe‘ and knew the Finke river as ‘Larapinta‘ which means serpent, a powerful Rainbow Serpent. (source: http://www.aussietowns.com.au/town/glen-helen-nt)
As soon as we arrived at the camp, we picked up our tents, as usual, left our belongings and stretched a bit before beginning the evening rituals. Don’t remember if there was a facility for a shower, but must have. Once we were ready, all of us took on our duties. The woods were half collected on the way collected more from the surrounding (remember, at no time we cut the trees, only picked up what was fallen on the grounds) and built a massive fire to make coals. Cooked our dinner, dined around the fire, chit-chatted for a while, picked up our swags and soon we were all snoring…!!. Though I was very tired, I had a feeling of achievement, a certain sublimity. Was already looking for the next day adventure.