We were last in Alice on Sept 23, 2015 – on route up to the Kimberley Region of WA. In our haste at that time to get across to the Kimberley as quick as possible before the season had closed and the first signs of the wet season began, we missed out on one of Alice Springs most favoured regional National Parks – Tjorita/West McDonnell Ranges National Park.
It’s now late March 2016, and by a late season rain system down south that had temporarily closed the Birdsville track, we now find ourselves detoured back to Alice.
We arrived there for the 2nd time on March 22 after a straightforward drive via Andamooka, Coober Pedy and Erldunda. The rain effect of the past two weeks on the changes in the landscape was immense. This desert regions as we previously saw them last Sept are now abundantly green – quite surreal in fact. Purple Hibiscus flowers line the Hwy in patches, usually bare and lifeless ironstone fields are now covered by lush green growth, cattle gorging themselves, many dams are near full, some creeks were even flowing, and many species of birds are far more visible. A definite time of plenty, but it never lasts for long out here.
It was nice to be back actually, we enjoyed Alice last time and we instantly felt the second time around we are going to enjoy more – especially now with all the recent rain and this time and not so much in a hurry like last September.
The other nice thing about being back in Alice is that it has just about everything you need, including great coffee. Last time we discovered a wonderful eclectic cafe that knows how to make good espresso (that also, a few years back, won the Australian barista championships) a little out of town in the suburbs called the Watertank Cafe and it was nice to get back there as a little indulgence we miss.
More importantly, Alice was an opportunity for us to carry out little purchases often harder in remote places such as: replacing t-shirts for the boys, Aidan has grown three shoe sizes since the start of our trip, you can never have too many hats so we also purchased a new hat or two, customary trip(s) to Bunnings never hurts, must drop by a quality butcher and of course, stocking up on old grocery favourites and back into fresh fruit & veg.
On our third morning back in the Alice, we pack up and make our way to the Larapinta Drive and head 145Kms west to the Ormiston Gorge on the western end of the MacDonnell Ranges National Park. The drive out scenery is simply breathtaking. The ranges are composed of many rock types, but are most famous for their red quartzite peaks and permanent water holes in gorges, many of them deep and cold in temperature all year round. Another big attraction to the ranges is the 223Kms Larapinta Trail. The trail head starts in Alice Springs, comprises of 12 sections and finishes west of Mt Sonder, the 2nd largest mountain in the NT at 1,379M with the trail also scaling the 1st & 3rd largest mountains in the territory.
We used Ormiston gorge as our basecamp for 4 days, to not only look around the Ormiston pound area, but to also carry out day trips to the other gorges within the park. Ormiston itself has stunning scenery of large red quartzite cliffs towering over the large cool waterholes below with wonderful exhibits of Spiny Spinifex grasses and white (Ghost) gums growing in the most unlikely positions.
We visit the chasm on our last day and being very honest, it was a disappointment. It was a lovely spot despite not even close by comparison to other types of chasms we have visited on this trip, however it was spoilt by the gouge they slap on you to see the chasm. $30 for the family and 5 minutes it was over and the chasm, well, let’s just say is a bit of a stretch to call it as such. Nonetheless, we take a few pics to record the experience and chat to other visitors that had the same sentiments, and walk back out and have a sandwich on one of the outdoor tables and chairs in the shaded car park area.
I was most excited about visiting this small but lovely gorge due to various images we had seen over the years depicting Serpentine as one of the more picturesque in the ranges due to its colours. When you have high hopes for something, the easier it is sometimes to get disappointed, and we were. The waterhole was the size of two average swimming pools and a third was covered in weed. Not only this, we picked the wrong time of day to see it as we were told by some parks people to get there around midday – but it was very hot, all colours were washed out by the sun and the gorge was not swimmable. Other than this it was a pretty place to visit with an abundance of birds the water holes provide a sustainable life for. We took a few images however no amount of filters could have corrected the harsh lighting conditions so we lucked out on this one. Still, we are happy we visited just the same but early or late afternoon is the best time.
The Ochre pits was not too far from Serpentine Gorge – in fact, a 15min drive back up Larapinta Drive.
The former Ochre mine belongs to the Western Arrernte people. Prior to European settlement of the area in 1880, only certain men were qualified to collect the ochre. The pits consist of several layers of natural multi-coloured layered rock that was traditionally used by Aboriginal people in ceremonies and played an important role in the continent’s past economy being traded with neighbouring clans and country. Today, it is a worthy tourist attraction and it well set up with modern facilities and free BBQs.
After the boys finished their schooling on our 2nd last day in the ranges, we set our sights on visiting the most western point of the Larapinta trail gorges, Redbank gorge. It’s reportedly a 4WD track in from Larapinta drive …interestingly however, that didn’t stop a little Mazda 3 we saw in the car-park when we arrived around mid-afternoon. Not sure how they are going to get back out with a steep climb to negotiate and a few creek crossings – perhaps it was a hire car so it didn’t matter too much?
Redbank gorge is swimmable, albeit very cold as a most of the water in this deep gorge would rarely see direct sunlight. The walk in from the carpark takes about 30 mins with the last 400M requiring large rock hopping around and over large quartzite boulders in a dry creek bed. The boys loved this section despite the intense heat.
There were a few other people when we arrived and we took shelter from the sun under a large ghost gum.
We immediately notice a cute Long-Nosed Dragon perched up 3M away on a rock next to us watching our every move. We stayed at the water hole for 2 hours and he stuck around the whole time we were there and entertained us several times as we watched him catching various insects.
The key attraction of course was the waterhole. We presume its called Redbank because the walk in through to the gorge is between narrowing high red stone walls covered in Spinifex and ghost gums – with the cliffs around the waterhole itself orange. The boys couldn’t swim this day as they are both trying to get over a cold and Celia and I didn’t think it was fair that we should swim while they watch. After about an hour, we had the gorge to ourselves so the boys and I perfected our rock skimming prowess on the still water – with Lochie stating; “Dad, this rock skipping is more fun that swimming anyway, I could easily do this all day long”. Okay Loch, I will remember this statement for another day 🙂
After the sun dropped lower in the sky and the light became less harsh, we took a few frames of the gorge and decided to begin the hot walk back out to the carpark. When we returned, only our vehicle and the Mazda 3 remained and we soon left it behind wondering what was to become of it.
Our last attraction in the MacDonnells was the Desert Park on the outskirts of Alice Springs. We had heard so many good things about the park and visited early one morning before the temperature got up. What a great park. We first watched a bird show in an outdoor arena that is easily the best of its kind we’ve seen anywhere. It’s a large natural park with wonderful native flora and fauna exhibits and several large walk-through aviaries. We spend 3 hours in all and found our favourite area being the desert river area where they have set up a desert stream system whereby you can observe all types of local desert birds.
Overall, we loved the WestMacs.
It’s easy to see why these ranges are popular with travellers, keen bush walkers and locals alike. The ranges are truly glorious, the natural colours are amazing and apart from the heat of the midday sun at this time of year, the temps of the evenings and mornings were just perfect. There are loads of things to see and do or simply, do nothing at all.
In hindsight, we should have perhaps stayed another day or two to do some further exploring along the Larapinta Trail, but we’ll gladly leave that carrot dangling for another day in the hopefully not too distant future.
Geoff & Celia