Alice Region

Monday, Oct 11, 1999 at 00:00

ExplorOz - David & Michelle

Arriving in Alice Springs we were excited by having both mobile phone service, collecting over a month's worth of mail and the huge variety of shops!

Our first night in the caravan park (we went to the Big 4 to use our discount) we met up with 4 different couples, around our age, doing the same sort of gypsy-wandering-thing - we got together and swapped life stories which was quite a change from the conversation with the older travellers we usually encounter.

A week later we were a few dollars short, having upgraded our camera lenses, stocked up supplies, bought 1kg of Territory Jerky from the factory and visited the excellent Alice Springs Desert Park ($12).

We started to get a bit annoyed with eveything costing so much money - to visit the museum at the Royal Flying Doctor base was $5 per person, the Old Telegraph Station was $4 per person, infact the only FREE entry was to the Date Farm (but that's because it's really a shop and they'll get your money somehow).

There are absolutely stacks of excellent walking tracks, biccycle tracks and gorges to visit not far from the main centre of town. Most people with a car or 4WD explore at least some of the East McDonald Ranges and some or all of the West McDonnell Ranges. Some people use Alice Springs as their base and do numerous day trips but Ayers Rock is 455km from Alice on the tar and is certainly not a day trip.

We headed off to the West McDonnell Ranges on Thursday 21/10/99. Late October through to February is generally the off season (summer is too hot) but the recent rains had kept the temps down to a comfortable high 20s - low 30s. There are heaps of colour brochures and free maps to use for touring the West McDonnells and its all you really need. There are a few choices as the route to take, but mostly you can do a loop around and back to Alice without retracing your steps (approx. 460km on the Larapinta Drive including turn offs).

We intended not to return to Alice as we're on our way to Perth so we planned to take in all the West McDonnells along the Larapinta Drive and then after visiting Palm Valley drive south to Boggy Hole in the Finke Gorge NP from Hermansburg. The track south of Boggy Hole meets up with the Ernest Giles Road where we planned to turn west, visit Uluru and Kata Tjuta and continue west to Western Australia.

On our first day we took in the sights at John Flynn's Grave (founder of the RFDS); walked into Simpsons Gap, walked into Standley Chasm...

... took the Namatjira Drive diversion and finally arrived at the beautiful clear, deep waters of Ellery Creek Big Hole where we set up camp.

The signs warn that the water is sometimes too cold for swimming but we found it beautifully refreshing after all the walking in the hot sun. There were no other campers and with the swimming hole just a few metres from our camp it was pretty damn good! Almost nearing dark another 2 cars of campers arrived - we thought it was too good to be had on our own!

The following morning we set off for an early morning walk (Dolomite Walk) bringing us back up Ellery Creek to the main waterhole. Before swimming we climbed the main rock over looking the hole and sat inside a cave looking down at the water below.

As the morning progressed a few more tourists arrived for a quick look and to touch their toes in the cool water. A few more of the adventurous ones swam the 150m or so to the other side where you could get out on a white sandy beach and walk a little further up the gorge. I set up my chair, table and painting stuff while David went back to the car to fix himself some lunch. I started to wonder why he was taking so long when I heard a rumour that someone had lost their keys in the waterhole. I found David helping him break into his hired 4WD (Hilux Surf) to get his mask, snorkel and fins to try to find the keys.

Simon the "owner" was a foreginer travelling with his family on a 6 week tour from Slovinia. They'd just left Alice and planned to continue on through the West McDonnells, Ayers Rock and south to Marla and the Oodnadatta Track. They'd picked up the hire car in Brisbane so there was little chance of a spare key being available in Alice Springs, now 93km back and out of mobile phone range.

Finally, they had to smash in a window so at least the family could get at their camping equipment, food and water and hopefully to use the snorkelling gear to search the bottom of the waterhole for the car keys. Simon, David and I all had a go at duck diving to find the keys but the cold water and the incredible depth hindered our progress and Simon had no idea quite where the key would have dropped, having dived in with the key tucked into his speedos, swimming the whole length across to the other shore and back before realising he'd lost them.

We all started to assume that the key was gone forever as it was getting late in the day and we were not getting anywhere. Dave and I wanted to move on to our next camp but felt obliged to stay until the Slovinian family's dilemma was resolved. Dave had a go at hotwiring their car and got it to run but the steering lock couldn't be budged unless he made some permanent damage (not something you want to do to someone else's hire car!).

In the end we used our HF radio to ring the Australian National 4WD Network (VKS737 Alice Springs) who relayed the problem to an Alice Springs company that were agents for the hire car company. The choice returned that either a tow truck could be sent out at Simon's expense or wait for a locksmith to come out. At 5pm on a Friday things didn't look good either way for our friend Simon.

We waited out the night with them and thankfully a locksmith arrived and replaced all the locks and gave them new keys. The following day they were happily on their way again and meeting up with us at the next major gorge and walking sites along the McDonnell Ranges route.(Big thanks to Ken who is a volunteer worker at VKS737 Alice Springs base.)

PS: We were offered a bottle of Simon's home made brew (Schnapps) for our trouble, but either it was heat damaged or we don't have strong guts because we couldn't drink it - but we found it was an excellent fire starter!

So back on with the touring - we had a fantastic day of walking and driving to Serpentine Gorge, the Ochre Pits, Ormiston Gorge, Glen Helen and finally Redbank Gorge where we set up our next camp.

1km walking track from car park to gorge entrance. Optional 600m deviation to climb up cliffs to the lookout. As for most of the walking tracks around this region the track was made by the inmates of the Alice Springs correctional centre.

Less than 1km walk to gorge entrance but an excellent 7km Ormiston Pound loop track is worth doing during the cooler weather or early in the morning.

Less than 1km to the lookout but we pushed on through the reeds and mud to get to the rocks at the waterhole. This is the Finke River.

The entrance to the gorge is behind the Glen Helen Homstead, now a motel, restaurant, bar and bistro. A good spot to stop for lunch.

The walking in the West McDonnells is excellent with quite a few choices depending on your level of fitness or temperature of the day. Walking close to some of the rocks can get incredibly hot in middle of the day, yet there are some gorges better visited at midday when the sunlight shines directly on the rocks and lights up the sheer walls with intense red colours (such as Standley Chasm).

After Glen Helen the bitumen peters out and so do the majority of tourists. Those with 4WDs and time usually continue on and the next attraction along the route is Redbank Gorge. By the time we made it to Redbank we were feeling in great need of a swim. The walk along the sandy creekbed to the waterhole was exhausting making the cool water at the end all the more worthwhile. We stayed for a while to allow the sun to get a bit lower before beginning the walk back but we needn't have worried, the return was much easier after rehydrating.

The camping here is excellent with two camp areas - the Woodlands is the larger and is well set up with shady camps, free gas hotplates and burners. Actually, Redbank is the place if you like to pitch your tent - each site has a special patch of sand under the trees!

Back on the main road, heading west past Redbank, we saw a small sign on the left saying "Roma Gorge - no camping". After a look at the brochures, our Lonely Planet guidebook and other maps I could find no information. So we put the trailer under a tree and drove along the sandy but rocky creekbed for 8km until we came to a well signed Aboriginal rock art site at the gorge. It was an excellent drive, and the art was of good quality so we don't understand why it doesn't feature in the guidebooks.

This was our 4th day in the West McDonnells and we had lots of driving to do today to get to Boggy Hole in the Finke Gorge National Park. The road swings south and it's worth stopping at Tylers Pass where there is a good lookout where you get views to Haasts Bluff in the North and Gosse Bluff to the South West.

The turn off to Gosse Bluff isn't far from the lookout and although the tracks go every which way its easy to head towards the main feauture - a spectacular crater formed when a comet crashed to earth about 140 million years ago.

From here the route to Palm Valley is fairly uninteresting compared to the previously spectacular views you've enjoyed all through the West McDonnell Ranges. The turn off on the right to Palm Valley is just 1km before the township of Hermansburg. It's about an 18km drive along the Finke River to reach Palm Valley which is just not worth trying without a 4WD. The main obstacle is 4 km of rock steps at the very end that take you to the main attraction. In fact, this section is not even worth towing a trailer along due to the much slower speed required with a trailer and the inevitable traffic jam you will cause. This is a very popular area with literally thousands of people visiting each day, mostly by 4WD tour buses.

There are 4 main areas to the Palm Valley area - the Ampitheatre walking track area, a nice looking camp ground, a major picnic area with shade shelters (but none for the truck) and finally rock steps and spectacular cliffs leading to the Palm Valley carpark. You have to get out of your vehicle to see the palms and cycads and if you set off on one of the 2 available walks you'll see plenty more of these tropical plants growing thicky in the shadow of the gorge walls.

We arrived at the hottest time of day and could barely move, let alone set off on a long hot walk. We pulled into the picnic area, set the trailer aside, had a leisurely lunch under the shade shelters and filled our water tanks. Finally after a couple of hours rest we drove the final 3 kms over the rock steps to the palm filled valley but still I was suffering from the heat and could hardly finish the 2km walk, stopping at every chance of shade to recover. The walks in this area (NT) have been well signed and we've been interested in learning more about bush tucker. I tried the flowering fig and found it to be the most exquisite thing I've ever tasted, truely!
David (DM) & Michelle (MM)
Travelling fulltime in 2024
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