We packed up on Monday morning and hit the road to spend some time in the “West Macs”, about 50kms west of Alice is a dirt track off to the north with no signpost but you can see an information shelter 100 metres in. We actually drove past but saw a 4WD coming out so we decided to have a look. The track runs up the Hugh River to several gorges and, importantly, provides access for support teams dropping supplies to walkers along the iconc Larapinta Trail. We decided to see how far up the track we could get as it turned sandy, rocky and steep in places where the track dropped down into the river. After a particularly rough and rugged section we spotted a beautiful stretch of dry, sandy riverbed with enormous old trees and drove up the sand until we decided on a campsite.
Quiet, peaceful – only one car came along but turned around at the top of the steep, rough section before they came down into our section of river. The next morning we filled a backpack with water and snacks and headed off up along the riverbed towards a gorge called Birthday Waterhole.
We mixed and matched between the riverbed and the 4WD track that kept winding along and across the dry watercourse. Eventually we got up into the waterhole which was pretty low but still a great water source for wildlife.
One of the trekking company blokes was setting up camp for a dozen walkers he was supporting and he suggested hitting the Larapinta Trail and walking further in to Stanley Gorge.
It was early enough so we decided to have a go although we were starting to calculate some distances and add up around 16.4kms that we would be walking before we got back to camp (Cammy of course was in his standard trekking footwear….crocs…. – possibly the first person ever (definitely the fist six year old) to tackle the Larapinta Trail in crocs!).
We passed a few walkers who were doing the whole trek (223kms) mostly independently (as opposed to the walkers who did sections each day and had the support crew with food and tents ready). One had an umbrella up for shade as he walked through the most spectacular orange and red rock escarpment – it was almost like something out of Priscilla Queen of the Desert.
The views are amazing and Spencer Gorge was quite unique compared to others on the tourist trail with lots of large old trees, palms and cycads within the steep narrow gorge cliffs. We made it back to camp and put our feet up around the fire.
The next morning we decided to move on and packed up the Hilux. As the car moved off, Josh did his usual last minute check making sure nothing was left behind only to find a small patch of some sort of oil that had dripped while the car had sat still for a day. Luckily the drip had gone onto a rock as well as sand because only onto sand we may not have noticed it. Getting down under the car we found the drain plug on the transfer case was the source and had a good drip hanging off as evidence but the plug didn’t seem loose. Not great and we were a bit annoyed that we just had a pretty hefty service in Darwin where they changed the transfer case fluid (!) so the problem seemed like someone hadn’t threaded the plug on properly and it could have been leaking for weeks. Frustrating too that we had little option but to head back to Alice Springs to deal with it. We didn’t realise that trying to see everything in Central Aus involves many loops back through Alice which is very much a hub of roads, tracks and highways and has the supplies and (in this case, vehicle repair services) to keep you going. The car service people said they couldn’t look at it until 4pm which wasn’t great as it meant we were stuck in town and weren’t going to get far out after they’d checked it out. Anyway, we eventually got someone to check the problem and the fluid levels. A $10 new plug seemed to fix the problem but we’re still wondering how it was incorrectly screwed in and tightened to start with (and we’re hoping that and the loss of fluid hasn’t caused any deeper damage).
We got back out into the West Macs – heading straight for Standley Chasm which is at its best around midday as the light makes the steep rock walls brighten in amazing colours.
Lots of people there as school holidays have kicked in. This location isn’t national park like much of the rest of the West Macs – it’s owned and operated by the Traditional Owners who charge an entry fee, take people on free guided walks and make a motza from their café which was full of people as we walked back out.
Next stop was Ellery Creek Big Hole and an easy short walk takes you to a beautiful gorge with sandy beaches leading down to a large pool of water that lasts through the dry times. A great spot in warmer weather for swimming to cool off but most people were not interested. One hiker did a crazy dash across from one side the other – probably his weekly shower while on the Larapinta Trail.
The next stop was Serpentine Gorge – most of these gorges are only a couple of minutes’ drive in off the main road called Namatjira Drive which runs parallel along the West Mac Ranges. Then mostly only a short walk often on concrete or hard surface walking track.
The Larapinta Trail, which runs for 223kms through the West Macs, links through each of the main gorges and gaps. Serpentine Gorge has a water hole that prevents access further up the Gorge (by humans and feral animals which is good). From the waterhole the gorge appears to be only a small gap with steep cliffs but still a beautiful area to see.
The great thing about this spot, though, is a steep walking track up to a high lookout with exceptional views – just an incredible place to look right up the gorge which opens into a huge canyon. The views in all directions are beautiful – not the least of which is the wide, flat expanse of scrub as far as the eye can see in other directions is in stark contrast to the steep, rugged, buckled, spectacular cliffs – 100’s of millions of years old – that we are standing upon.
We drove into an area known as Serpentine Chalet which has the ruins of the original accommodation for people who spent days travelling out here in the early years of tourism. It didn’t last long before better roads and better vehicles made day trips possible. We found a great camp right out near the end of the 4WD track – protected in amongst a shady grove of wattles but overlooking the sandy river bed – lots of good firewood in the flood debris that wraps around the old river gums too.
Next morning we stopped in at a great site called the Ochre Pits where an amazing array of coloured ochres occur along a few hundred metres – set in a low cliff along the riverbank. A one-stop-shop for the Aboriginal people who mined what they needed for art and ceremonies and then could trade some with other groups. Such an interspersed, multi-coloured mix of ochre allowed for such a range of different colours to be mined. Once mixed with animal fat from goannas or emus, the oily paint was perfect for rock art and body paint.
We had a quick stop in at Glen Helen Gorge – this is a bit unique being on the southern side of the Namatjira Drive. There’s a small ‘resort’ here that was mostly a busy dustbowl of a campground and the howling wind that had arrived this morning didn’t help. It was strange that so many people had packed in here when literally across the road there was a camping area called “2-Mile” that had free camping that went forever along the big, wide Finke River that still held long stretches of water. The gap itself held some water with tall reeds and a few birds paddling around.
Our next stop was Ormiston Gorge – definitely the popular destination for many tourists – and the multitude of coaches and smaller tour guide buses ensured there were lots of people – in fact between the constant vehicles coming and going, large tour groups making a racket and the café there was noise that was difficult to escape from even as we walked our way up into the gorge. The highlight here is the walking track that leaves the river bed down in the gorge and winds its way up onto the ridge and back past a great lookout with expansive views.
We moved on to Redbank Gorge and set up camp in a national park campground. Soon after we had set up in our own spot, the procession of cars and camper trailers and campervans indicated that the camp was full so we were lucky to have claimed a spot when we did. A good fire as the wind eased off at dusk as it so often seems to. We saved the walk up the gorge until the morning and it was great having the place mostly to ourselves. The small waterhole at the end was filled through a narrow chasm which was spectacular but difficult to get a good photo of!
On the way out we would have passed at least 40 people walking in – some with air mattresses to float around on (it was freezing out of the water so it’s unlikely anyone was going to be in long once they’d fallen in off the mattress!). We ended up not being able to walk on the track due to the number of people pouring in so we hit the sandy creek bed and worked our way out.
We hit the road and looped back around to the tiny village of Hermannsburg – home of painter Albert Namatjira who had plenty of inspiration and lots of colour to work with out here. We headed into Finke Gorge Reserve aiming for Palm Valley where there is a relic population of cabbage palms that have somehow survived centuries of fire through this landscape. The track in was pretty easy going but on arrival….bedlam. Absolute mayhem. Not only had the school holiday traffic snarled at this very spot but a group of Cub camper trailers had decided to come here – this very day – in a rampaging convoy.
So this brings us to the track into Palm Valley. This is not a track – the rocks and boulders and monoliths that you need to navigate around, through and over are ridiculous. We thought that the track was just not worth the wear and tear on the Hilux – especially when we would have just walked in from the campground if there was any sign or even the slightest indication that the “track” was so bad. When we finally reached the end of the track there were some magnificent stands of palms. A national parks information sign suggested the palms might have arrived when a pelican brought the palm seed in … Back at the campground the chaos continued.
The camping area was full so they’d decided to open the day-use picnic area for camping. We decided to make tracks and head for a camp along the Finke river, only a short drive out we were looking for tracks off either up the bank or down into the riverbed. Driving up the riverbed was pretty easy as it was mostly a pebble or small rounded rock base for traction. The wind was blowing so we sought somewhere sheltered and a patch of dense tea-tree we spotted up the river was perfect.
As we got to the spot the pebble base gave way to deep river sand and the Hilux sank in and was bogged. There it could stay, we decided, until we had to get out in the morning. We unpacked, set up camp and found good wood for a fire.