Tjoritja, Finke Gorge & Watarrka National Parks

Saturday, Jul 29, 2023 at 20:40

ExplorOz - David & Michelle

This blog picks up from where we left our last blog documenting our 12 week trip through outback WA and NT in 20222. In this blog we cover 9 nights exploring the West MacDonnell National Park (Tjoritja) travelling west to east along Namatjira Rd, then east to west on the Larapinta Drive visiting Palm Valley in the Finke Gorge National Park, and continue west along the Meerenie Loop Rd to Kings Canyon, and onto Uluru - Kata Tjuta which for us was just a transit as we were then headed further west onto the Great Central Road to Laverton. We end this blog at the Docker River Campground and will continue the remainder of the Great Central Road in our next blog.

Don't forget - all photos are cropped thumbnails - tap to expand. Also the map below is the Track Log of this part of the trip, recorded using the ExplorOz Traveller app. Tap the panel on the right side to open the Segment Explorer to view daily trip statistics etc. Tap the box to display overnight locations. Map is fully interactive so you can zoom to view more detail etc.

A major must-do segment of this trip was to hike some of the longer day walk sections of the Larapinta Trail that we've never been able to do on previous visits. Despite the agony of my (Michelle's) extreme blisters endured from the Mt Zeil summit hike and an awareness that they needed another week to heal, the plan was still to forge ahead with the hiking.

Since online bookings are required for camps in the National Park, we had to plan ahead whilst we still had internet service at Mt Zeil so we had a guess at some destinations that we figured would be suitable for staging the hikes and figured if we had to do a bit of extra driving back/forth then that was ok as the roads are sealed, easy driving and distances between each POI is not that far and we certainly have the fuel range to contend with unexpected distances. (PS: at the end of this trip we bought our StarLink RV so in future these online booking issues are less problematic). If you haven't looked at this, we would recommend you do. It's a game changer for travellers that require internet service for work/family connections but also useful for the practicalities of the camp booking systems.

We booked ahead for 2 nights at Redbank Gorge in the Woodlands Campground. 2 nights at Finke River Two Mile (that become 3 - read on for a story about why), and then 2 nights at Palm Valley in the Finke Gorge National Park. We then used official free camps for the remainder of our trip along Meereenie Loop to Watarrka (Kings Canyon) and then Docker River campground on the Great Central Road which will then be the subject of our next blog.

Redbank Gorge

15th August 2022
There are two areas to camp in the Redbank Gorge area - Woodland Campground and Ridgetop Campground. They are about 1km apart with Ridgetop being closer to the gorge carpark/dayuse area but still requires driving. Our preference was the Woodland campground for peace and tranquillity, visiting wildlife, and less people exposure to other campers nearby. Whilst the views of Mt Sonder are lovely in the afternoon from the Ridgetop Campground, the camps are very close together and exposed with no privacy. We like to move around our camp area and talk freely without that feeling that we can be heard, and without hearing other people's conversations so these are the types of camps we always seek out.

I was caught off guard by these spectacular blue Splendid Wrens. Luckily I had my Canon EOSR with a long lens within reach, but sadly I had no time to adjust settings and they were constantly moving so the photos aren't as good as I had wished. They were so delightful to watch!

Later in the day as the heat wore off, we drove up to the gorge carpark and walked up the creek bed to the head of the gorge. Sadly, there had been a problem with dead fish in most of the waterholes in the West MacDonnell National Park recently and the water was not pleasant or safe for swimming (also freezing cold) so we did not venture further into the gap to the upper gorge. Most people who started the walk up the creekbed did not reach the water at the end as its not easy for people that aren't used to hiking over uneven surfaces. Despite being a mostly flat walk and not terribly far, the rocky boulders and sand makes for challenging conditions. When we reached the end we found 2 Larapinta hikers here who were doing their final segment of the Larapinta Trail tomorrow to the summit of Mt Sonder, as were we. They had taken 26 days and had lots of stories to share that we found enjoyable to listen to as we sat in the gorge together.

Mt Sonder & Roma Gorge

16th August 2022

The next day we hiked to the summit of Mt Sonder. We started at daybreak which was very icy cool but wore layers of clothing so that as the temperatures increased we could adjust our clothing. Our hiking pants have zip off legs, and we had t-shirts, long-sleeved thermals, and jackets. Most of our stops along the way were to adjust clothing layers - at some points the wind was cold, at other points it was hot. We had 3L water each in our packs, plus food. It's no surprise that many people don't reach the summits on these hikes - we saw people starting as we were finishing in the heat of the day in nothing more than thongs, shirts and shorts and no water packs. You simply cannot stand the conditions if you are unprepared. The hike is steep, rocky, exposed and windy.

We greatly enjoyed the walk, especially as unlike Mt Zeil, it was a well marked trail so there was no complicated navigation required. We quickly made our way past a lot of struggling slower walkers on the steep steps and about half way up we came upon the 2 hikers from yesterday that had setup off an hour before us. They were going quite a bit slower than us (understandably). For general day hikers, the information about this hike is a bit deceptive. If you read that you should plan to do it for sunrise - you are being misled and confused by the suggestion to go to the Mt Sonder Lookout (not the summit and not the lookout half way along this track) but in fact, that information refers to another lookout that is located right by the side of the road (Namatijira Dr) near the Finke River Crossing just near Glen Helen. You can drive to that lookout and enjoy a view of the sunrise over the range that is Mt Sonder. All without doing a hike!

The Mt Sonder summit however is a challenging hike best done starting after daybreak. It would be ridiculous to hike in the dark as you need to watch your step and it is awfully cold on winter mornings before the sun hits the track and if you go too late the sun will be scorching hot. It takes at least 2 hours to reach the summit. We took 4hr 14mins for the total distance of 15.5km but although we are very fast hikers we spent a long time (more than 40 minutes at the top). The hike recorded 850m elevation. We both said we would definitely like to do this hike again - the views the whole way are worth it but best at the top. Note - the so-calledlookout about half way up is a complete waste of effort as your turn-around point as there is nothing there other than a sign. There is no formal resting point, no clearing and almost no signage. From here you cannot even see Mt Sonder. We encourage you to plan to go to the summit or not at all. We came across a few disappointed people who only realised once they'd reach this point that they could not make it any further and it's rather underwhelming to come this far and not be rewarded with the views you expected. You have to go to the end/top!

After our hike, we returned to Woodland Campground for some lunch, water refill, then drove off to Roma Gorge. At the entry into the creekbed, the car ahead of us also turned off into the Roma Gorge track so we had to follow at their pace. Here, a track through the soft and stony creekbed has been worn by previous vehicles and its easy going provided you stay in the wheel ruts. Unfortunately, however, the vehicle we were following was driving at a snail's pace and putting on brakes at unexpected times and David wanted to pass. They didn't seem to notice us travelling behind which made it difficult to consider overtaking without making a more aggressive move and putting ourselves into a more compromising part of the creek bed so we had to follow for quite a way until they noticed and pulled over to let us pass. We were very curious who was driving and they stopped for a very friendly waved and laughed at themselves and apologised for being slow and the lady said it was her first time 4WDriving. At that point we couldn't see their faces well, and couldn't see who else was in the vehicle and assumed it was too girls. We didn't see them again until we had finished the gorge walk and were on our way back at which point we noticed it was a young couple with 2 kids - the wife was looked well groomed and glamourous and the husband was in his best cowboy gear with trendy sunglasses, new cowboy hat, best jeans, leather knife pouch on his belt, and nice new cowboy boots so they looked like they'd just stepped off a movie set with their adorable 2 young kids. David nicknamed them "Farmer wants a Wife" and we had a giggle. Little did we know that in the next couple of days we'd come to see them more and end up hitting it off and feeling as if we could be great friends!!

About midway is a section called Goyder Pass. This area is absolutely beautiful and if we went again, I'd allocate more time to stop and explore here but we didn't have time. Roma Gorge itself is a very small rockpool nestled in a rock crevice with a few petroglyphs.

Back at camp, we found we had pretty much come to the end of our main food reserves and so we had nibbles for early sundowners but no food but lots of drinks after a big day.

Finke River Two Mile

17th August 2022

Packing up our camp we moved on the short distance to the Finke River Two Mile (4x4) Camping area directly opposite Glen Helen. Wow what a spot! You could really just base yourself at this camp for your whole West MacDonnell National Park visit. It's so good. We arrived in the heat of midday and found there were a few different tracks to choose. We managed to avoid getting bogged and tucked into a great little spot overlooking the river and nestled under shady trees but it was a bit funny ... David deliberately unhitched the camper trailer and used the winch at the front of our cruiser to swing the trailer around 180 degrees so we could have our camper door and main views looking out towards Mt Sonder which met with his OCD requirements for perfection! It was quite a feat, as we were camped on soft sand but he was impressed with his effort.

Once we were settled, other campers stared to arrive and we saw 2 vehicles get incredibly bogged in the soft sand before reaching camps. The strangest thing was seeing it happen to a tour group. This particular Larapinta Tour operator refused to accept assistance despite being right in front of our camp and David offering to snatch, winch or give MaxTraxs. We were weren't however offering to dig! He had a 4WD Troopy, and a trailer that was obviously heavily loaded however we didn't reduce tyre pressures, didn't unhitch and drive out to then snatch his trailer or any of the usual recovery options he could have considered. The reason he gave for refusing assistance was he was bound by the operator's insurance to refuse public assistance! 2 hours later he had not managed to resolve the problem - he was digging and wheel spinning endlessly. He was the equipment truck but no passengers. The other vehicle with the passengers hadn't yet arrived and it was meant to be his job to setup the camp. Finally, the other vehicle arrived, driven by a female who was a bit more cluey and she quickly agreed to use our MaxTrax and she got it sorted quick smart. But, we left them to it, and drove over the road to Glen Helen for a swim to cool off.

It was a bit of a shock to see how much Glen Helen has changed in the years since we were last there. Aside from being a full caravan park and loads of new infrastructure, it is certainly much easier now to get through the reeds and to the gorge itself. The water was frightfully cold and it wasn't possible to stay in long enough to explore so we were left wondering how far back the water went through the gorge...and decided we'd come back the next day with our SUPs and paddle through. Sadly however, there was no shop offering any groceries as we had hoped.

On the drive back we went up the small lookout (best view at sunrise), then back at camp collected river water to do some washing and hung it out in the sun to day around our camp.

Dinner was (vegan version of) duck and noodle stir-fry with the last of our fresh cabbage, and a tin of asian veg (bean sprouts and bean shoots). The "duck" is available in all Coles/Woolies (Plant Asia Brand) and has been a favourite with our family for some time.

Ormiston Pound

18th August 2022
Today we did the 10km hike around Ormiston Pound. Leaving our camper setup at Finke, it's a short 5km drive to the day-use carpark with toilets, showers, cafe, and the trail heads. This hike was right at the top of my wish list for this trip to the West MacDonnell Ranges but I didn't know what to expect. Given the relatively short distance, we didn't bother to do much advance research and just went with the plan to take it on the day as it comes. However, it wasn't until we got partway through the hike chatting to a French hiker and his family that we learned that we would eventually come to water crossings where he was expecting to need to remove clothing and swim.

We actually had to carry our backpacks (and camera/phone) above our heads, and it was indeed easier to remove our clothing to keep it dry so we did that too (kept underwear on). Luckily we prepare for all contingencies so we already had plastic garbage bags inside our packs so we put our electronics (phones, camera) inside some sealed bags and then put the packs into the garbage bags and David was tall enough to wade through the water at about waist height with the packs carried above his head. There were indeed two such crossings. Aside from the excellent, mostly flat and easy hike, the views were great but the almost naked water crossing was a definite exhilarating highlight! The food on offer at the café wasn't appealing but we sat down and enjoyed a hot coffee and then drove back to Glen Helen for a SUP.

Beyond the opening of the gorge, we found the water doesn't go back very far and the wide pool ends in the shallows. We could only continue to paddle a very small way until hitting the bottom. We tested a few tributaries and got out to walked around a little but it was hard going on unprotected feet so we soon ventured back on the SUP. We then enjoyed lunch on the balcony (vegan burgers, beer for him and G&T for me). The "Farmer wants a wife" family we had come across in Roma Gorge the day before had been down at the water's edge when we were SUP-ing and we ended up talking with them for ages after lunch in the sun on the balcony. Wow were they just gorgeous people!! Hi to Tristan, Katie, Maya, and Frazer from Victoria. Such a lovely family, we hope we can catch up with them when we next get over that way.

When we got back to camp at Finke River Two Mile, we had a bit of discussion about our status and made a plan to do a dash to Alice Springs and back the next day without the camper in tow. A total distance of 270km. Easy with just the car. We had a pretty long list of things we needed to sort out:- gas bottle refill, shocks, uhf aerial, Compeed blister patches, and food. The intent was to do the shopping without the need to lift camp and avoid staying overnight in Alice Springs at all, and keep our nice camp at Finke River Two Mile instead. It also gave us a rest day from hiking, giving my poor feet a chance to hopefully recover. I was just in so much pain it was starting to put a stop to what I could do. Whilst this plan will mean doubling back along 85km of the same road the following day, we will be able to complete the West Macs loop including all the stops at points of interest and still get to our next camp at Palm Valley that day.

Driving & Shopping Day - Alice Springs

19th August 2022
We locked the camp, and left in the early morning, didn't stop, got everything we needed and made it back before sunset with sufficient time for David to even fit the new shocks. Having the second fridge (Waeco) in the back of the cruiser is handy for this. It's been an interesting test this trip to see how well we can cope with the needs of our dietary requirements and we are learning what items we need to stock up on that we cannot get unless in a major town that has a Woolworths or Coles.

West MacDonnells via Namatjira Dr

20th August 2022
To get out of the Finke River camp was always going to require the winch to spin the trailer back around 180 degrees to hitch it onto the car - it was a very tight spot in soft sand and impossible to fit the hitched rig as a drive through due to the angle of trees. The things we do for nice camps! We weren't sure how successful this would be upon departure however it wasn't hard at all thankfully. We started to pack up the camper trailer at 8.55am and by 9.15am we had shut the camper, winched it into position, hitched it and were driving off. Was definitely worth doing and has given some ideas for the future. Who knew how useful a front winch could be! We've decided we should fit a new furling and a new winch cable - jobs for back at home that were progressively being added to the list. I have succeeded in no longer using pen/paper lists and use the Notes app on my phone where I organise various subjects and progressively add ideas and notes to each one, including my travel diary which I am now using (some 11 months later) to write this blog.

Our camp for today (Saturday) was booked at Palm Valley in the Finke Gorge National Park, where we had prebooked 2 nights. It was only 160km so we had plenty of time to stop and explore all the sites along the way.

First stop was the Ochre Pits (only 21km from our start) and only a very short walk. We went to the viewing platform which is the furthest part of the main site although from here you can head out on a NE trail for 3km to meet up with a junction of the Larapinta Trail on Section 9 between Serpentine Chalet and Ormiston Gorge.

Looking back at EOTopo 2023 now, which features 10m contours instead of the 50m contours we had at the time in the 2021 EOTopo mapset, we didn't realise that this may well have been a worthwhile extension as there looks to be a nice section of gorge through there that may have been an achievable spot to walk to, and just turned back. There just isn't any signage to help you make on-the-spur judgments such as that, but this was the trip where we recognised the need to build the 10m contours and the onscreen distance ruler into the app adn had we had those features at the time we may well have continued on and done just that. We generally have the time to be spontaneous and we're sure we're not the only people who travel with this type of mindset about adventure, hence a huge part of the appeal of the Traveller app is to help in situations like this so that you have all the tools and data at your fingertips as and when you actually need it, anytime, anywhere which reduces the need for extensive pre-trip planning.

Moving on past the Ochre Pits, it's only 5km to the Neil Hargrave Lookout Rest Area which has been converted to 24 hour free camp. It's situated on a high point immediately above Namatjira Dr offering spectacular, sweeping views. We popped up there for a look and photos. The camp wasn't appealing but has bins, a mobile service booster dish (common in this region), and a plaque to commemorate Mr Hargrave.

From here it's just 1km to turn off into Serpentine Chalet. This is a bit of a strange place - there 6 separate bush camping areas, each dispersed along the track through to the Chalet Ruins (which exist of nothing but a slab in an overgrown, neglected area and beyond to a dead-end with a locked gate and signboard where the trail heads commence. There are two walks Chalet Dam 1.2km easy, and Inarlanga Pass Walk 3.3km. Beyond these you can access the Larapinta Trail Sections 8/9. Due to my blisters and a general underwhelming impression of this section, I didn't wish to even do those short hikes so we turned back and continued on our way. Oh well, there's always "next time"!

Back on the main road (Namatjira Dr), its only a short 6km to the turnoff to Serpentine Gorge, with an easy 2km unsealed road to reach the carpark and trail head. There's a short walk to the gorge lookout of 1.4km (total 2.8km). If you follow the marked trail of the Larapinta Trail Section 7 for 600m you will reach a junction, where Larapinta walkers turn east/right, but continue straight on for a further 300m, take the right fork and take the steep steps up to the lookout. David did the walk without me whilst I got out the first aid kit and started tending to my blisters and then made some lunch ready for his return. I was disappointed that I was missing these hikes but I simply could not stand (pardon the pun) to have weight on my feet.

Back on the main road (Namatjira Dr) its a quick 10km drive to the next turn off, which is Ellery Creek Big Hole, with a further 2km access road. At the time we visited this was unsealed but this has now been upgraded and is tarred. We were very curious to revisit this site. On our own previous trip in 1999, we had encountered a stranded tourist here who had his young family including baby travelling in a hire car from Alice Springs lose his car-keys in the middle of the waterhole. We had scuba tanks with us and all our cold water diving gear and lights but it was a highly dangerous operation to look for these keys at the bottom of a dark, freezing waterhole and there was no one around. No one else came for over 24 hours and there was no mobile phone coverage in those days. David had a short attempt but realised the water was far too deep and it was a risky operation so instead we had chosen to use our HF radio and use the services of VKS737 HF Radio Network to ask them to see if they would coordinate contact with the hire car company to organise for a spare set of keys to be driven out to him (or a locksmith). We stayed with him that night and we will never forget this experience. Other than the man, the rest of the family didn't speak any English and even he was a bit hard to follow. They were visiting from Slovinia. Instead, he found he had a bottle of alcohol with him that he was very proud to share with us, thinking it was a great honour for us to enjoy his special home-made brew! We have no idea what is was, but it was clear as water but burnt like fire. We squirmed and nodded our feined pleasure and thanks and so he insisted we take it with us! That whole 1L bottle was never finished! So that is how we remember our first and only visit to Ellery Creek Big Hole.

More recently, our son had a scary incident here himself. He was travelling solo at the time and had a near-death, hypothermic drowning incident here. So both these completely disconnected stories, occurring in this strange waterhole have stuck with us. We had considered SUPing but it looked cold, dark and too small to bother so we only spent a short time here and moved on. On closer inspection of the campground, we weren't too impressed - very tightly crammed spaces where you'd open your camper trailer onto the gravel carpark with no direct access/view to the waterhole. Just a place to park really. That justified our earlier decision to stay at Finke River Two Mile camp and again, we recommend that for anyone like us that is self-sufficient and prefers views & space to provided amenities.

It was just another easy 10km to a lookout (24hr camping) and then another 20km to the Hugh River crossing where we knew of a 4WD track up to the Huge River Campground and beyond to Reedy Waterhole and Birthday Waterhole but there was very poor information available to us at the time and it didn't fit within the plan we had already made so we had to drive past this, however it's on the "next time" list. From the Hugh River, it was just 9km to reach the junction of Namatjira Dr & Larapinta Dr where we turned south to being our trip towards Palm Valley.

There is an ExplorOz Trek into Owen Springs that we could've taken, but unfortunately, that's another spot we had to drive on past, for a mostly uneventful drive all the way through to Hermannsburg.

We had plenty of time, so took a drive through Hermannsburg to get a feel for it. It's been so long since we were last year, and we couldn't recall the layout and I'm sure things have changed. Unfortunately, everything was closed despite being Saturday so we couldn't do a proper look but knew we'd be back after visiting Palm Valley. I was hoping that the Hermannsburg Potters would be open but sadly it was not to be. We did take a look at the "caravan park" and met the proprietor - who also runs the supermarket. He was super excited. He really did have a great sense of pride in his work and was very motivated for people to know that the store is well stocked and the town is welcoming of tourists. The caravan park is very basic but convenient. See Ntaria Camping Ground listing in ExplorOz Places for more details.

The Hermansburg Mission was established by German Lutheran missionaries in 1877 and has heritage value today so the buildings are nicely restored and good work has been done to make it a worthwhile stop with a self-guided walk you can do through the old buildings using the free wifi on your phone to listen to stories (see signage for instructions). The tearooms, when open, are popular too.

Palm Valley - Finke Gorge National Park

The drive into Palm Valley is lovely and very scenic - mostly you travel along a dry creekbed over a mix of stones and sandy after the initial stretch of corrugated gravel. I really would have liked to have stopped more along the way to take photos/videos and do the drive at different times of day but things never work out this way unless you have immense time and planning.

When we first located our booked site at the Palm Valley Campground we were not terribly impressed. It was incredibly exposed to everyone else with no privacy, no grass underfoot, just camping on the gravel carpark. There are some other lovely grassy sites, but we just had to deal with it. The section of sites we were in, all centred around a grassy area that had a communal firepit, so despite David's normal hesitancy to "mingle" with strangers at camp, we had little choice.

Once we arrived at the campground, however, the only thing on my mind was a SHOWER! The biggest problem with our current setup is the lack of a hot water shower system. Our previous 80 series had a built in heat convertor under the bonnet that ran off the engine so at the end of a day's drive it was easy to have a quick hot shower. We haven't setup this 200 series in the same way but I was beginning to think this issue needed addressing. (Added to my Notes folder on the phone for post trip discussion)!

However, within minutes of taking our chairs to the communal campfire with our drinks and nibbles we found ourselves greatly enjoying the company of the other campers. First up we met Lenny & Liz who were MTB ebike cyclists. One look at Lenny's cyclist legs and it was a dead giveaway plus he had the humble demeaner of someone who is very good at sport, and his wife later told us he had qualified for the Commonwealth Games! They then told us that they had ridden their ebikes to the start of the valley walks, which Liz said she'd found quite challenging and had come off a few times in the sand drifts. Whilst this is only 4km (each way), most people find it challenging enough in their vehicles as it's a rocky, sandy, 4WD track. The other people we met that night at the campfire was Ray's family and his friends travelling together in Track caravans from Victoria. They had all said the track to the valley walks was "low range 1st gear".

21st August 2022
The next morning, Sunday, we setup off on our MTB bikes at 8.30am so that we could beat the heat of day. There was no way you would need to engage low range 1st gear to drive here but it was a fun track on our bikes though! We took 24 minutes to ride from the camp to the end of the track, and both walks combined took 1 hour 50 mins (with photo stops etc). As we began to ride backthe first cars were arriving at the carpark.

During the ride back we had to consciously stop to take the time to take a few photos. So David's new iPhone 13 ended up in the leg pocket of his shorts instead of being put back into the top zippered section of his, when he took a slide on a corner of sand trying to avoid another vehicle heading at him, his weight pressed against the phone screen as his leg hit the ground and we didn't realise at the time, but it smashed the screen. If you've been reading the previous blogs from this trip, you'd know that that phone was only 2 weeks old, having been purchased in Port Headland due to a failure with both our Samsung phones. We got back to camp at 11.30am nicely timed for lunch and rest and to treat my still sore blistered feet. We had another shower, did some washing in a bucket to hang out in the sun and David tried to restore data off his phone. The above photos of me on the bike were on that phone so we did manage to get some data off.

Later that afternoon when it was cooler, we headed out for another hike from the camp. This time we walked in the other direction to the Kalarranga and Mpaara Lookouts. My feet were still incredibly sore and I reached my pain threshold and had to take a short cut back but David did a bit more.

We welcomed the luxury of another hot shower, and new visitors arriving at camp that sat at the communal campfire. It was here that we met sisters Wendy and Ros who were travelling in a 4WD Conquerer motorhome that we had already spotted had an ExplorOz Member sticker on the back window. They had spotted us too and told us all about themselves - wow what a hilarious pair they were! Funny, oh so funny. It was so welcome and refreshing. As much as we prefer to travel solo, we have realised its incredibly nice to meet beautiful people like that. We felt a huge surge of wellness from our interactions with them. We had a wonderful night chatting and laughing around the campfire but it was a very mild night so we were in shorts for the first time at night during this winter trip! At the campfire, we also met Mark & Rose who told us their stories. They were interested in digital mapping as they had been complaining of getting lost and confused around Binns Track recently using paper maps and so I asked him if ours was correct and showed him the Traveller app on our iPad around the campfire. He was so impressed. **After returning from this trip we have made further revisions and improvements to the map data for the Binns Track area in the 2023 edition of the EOTopo mapset and have also prepared 4 ExplorOz Treks covering the full Binns Track. We intend to be travelling Binns ourselves in Winter 2024 and will be able to do a ground survey first hand to review it once again.

22nd August 2022
The following morning (Monday) we packed up and were on the go by 9am. We got back to Hermannsburg, got our Mereenie Loop permit, and did some shopping. The store is surprisingly well stocked, with a large bank of fridges filled with fresh fruit and veg and not bad prices.

We also stopped to look through Albert Namatjira's house where he lived briefly with his wife and children. This is fenced, but visitors are welcome to enter and take a look around.

Gosses Meteorite Crater

Next stop was Gosses Meteorite Crater, a small diversion off Larapinta Dr for about 10km to the turnoff.

It's very difficult to get a sense of the crater from the ground so we decided to put up the drone thinking it would give us a quick look of the layout of the crater and give us some idea of what to do here but no sooner had it took off that it started playing up. David had been having problems recently with it so he brought it back down to ground to inspect. The batteries have been discharging themselves and the gimble has been getting stuck. He got it sorted but said he didn't think the battery had a full charge so to save time, we took a short hike from inside the crater to get to a high point to launch it from the top of a ridge for a short flight. All we wanted was a quick photo showing the whole crater. At the time we were not aware it was a no-drone zone, as the crater lies within a Conservation Reserve and not a National Park and we didn't see any signage confirming no drones. In fact, I have looked back at the photos of all the signs and there is no statement about no drone flying but I later read this may have been noted in the Mereenie Loop Permit booklet I think.

From the top, he got the photos we wanted but there seemed to be sufficient battery left so he set the panorama program. But - there was a catastrophic disaster ... before it could complete the program it suddenly went into "critical battery" level without warning - which has never occurred before and we panicked because it instantly lost altitude and we realised it would never be able to return to the launch point. We should have let the drone deal with the issue as it would have gone into a safe landing itself. Instead, David panicked and put into back into manual flight mode so that he could bring it back closer to our position (as he had actually lost sight of it during the panorama) but for some reason he lost communication with the drone and we watched the screen in horror realising it had probably crashed from a height and we had no idea exactly where it was. That was at 11.30am.

David was fairly certain that the direction he was flying and the vision he was seeing at the time would mean it would've landed on the entrance road so I ran back down the hill to see if I could drive out of the crater rim back to the entrance road before someone came along and unwittingly drove over it. Meanwhile, David walked up through the scrub and down the mountain in the direction he had flown the drone. He was flying it with a Wifi only iPad which meant without the drone, there was no GPS feed to the screen so whilst he had a dot on the map showing the last known location of the drone, the iPad could not show his current position. So since we were in communication contact via UHF radios (he had a handheld, and I was in the car) we made a plan to meet up and I would give him the Garmin Glo 2 bluetooth GPS receiver that we use in the vehicle so that he could connect it to that iPad. So, this all took about 30 minutes - and during that time quite a few vehicles had driven past and we were just hoping they hadn't been driving over the drone. Sure enough, once he found the last known location of the drone it was 2m by the side of the road but it wasn't there. We searched and searched and searched. A few people stopped on their way back out to ask if we were ok but it wasn't until Tim & Julie stopped and said they would help us look for it. Turns out they were from Perth too and they had just downloaded the Traveller app. Tim had a commercial drone with him so he setup that up and he did an aerial search but we still couldn't find it. Eventually, after more than 2 more hours searching together we had to give up as it was 2.45pm and we both needed to drive on to reach our camps for the night. They were headed to Kings Canyon Resort, whilst we were aiming for Gintys Lookout 24hr free camp. Tim tried to insist that we keep his drone and return it when we got to Perth which was incredibly generous but we declined.

Had karma felt we needed punishment for flying the drone were we should not have? Was it because the Crater holds a bad omen in aboriginal dreamtime stories? A dramatic Western Arrernte dreamtime story describes the formation of the crater being caused by a baby falling to earth from the Milky Way. The story describes that whilst celestial women were dancing as stars in the Milky Way a baby that had been put aside in its basket had fallen and plunged into the earth, forcing the rocks upward, and forming the circular mountain range. The baby's parents, the evening and morning star, continue to search for their baby to this day. The baby's basket is said to be the constellation Corona Australis.

Here is a photo of the signboard that I took before we flew the drone that tells The Legend of Tnorala.

So whatever spiritual force this place holds, we felt we had been punished by some power beyond our control. It felt pretty awful having both a brand new iPhone and a drone now broken in consecutive days.

This is a photo of the signboard showing all the restricted activities - no mention of no drones though...

As were were both driving in the same direction towards Kings Canyon, we travelled for a short way together but they needed to stop at the start of the unsealed section of the Meerenie Loop to air down tyres but ours were already down so we moved on ahead. However, I'd been thinking about their generosity and feeling terrible for how much we'd impacted on their time, knowing that they couldn't possibly reach the Kings Canyon Resort before sunset so we pulled over to have a final chat with them and offered them a free EOTopo offline map licence to say thanks as we had heard that they hadn't yet purchased that and had only downloaded the app before going offline and realised it was required. I said that once we got into mobile service range again at Kings Canyon that I would look up their ExplorOz account and set up the license. It was the least we could do and the only thing I could think of at the time to express our gratitude.

The Meereenie Loop was fantastic with amazing colours and a very different landscape to the surrounding area but I really wished we weren't in such a hurry to beat the daylight as David wouldn't let me take any time to stop and take photos of the brumbies so this is all I got out the window as we whizzed past.

We made it to Ginty's Lookout Campsite just in time to secure a prime camping spot at the lookout just before the majority of other travellers arrived so we had time to soak up the view, contemplate the bizarre day, and prepare for a cold and windy night.

And then.... we heard a familiar sound of laughter and who do you think it was but Roz and Wendy the gorgeous sisters we'd met at Palm Valley. Seemingly they knew everyone and spent their time catching up and socialising but it was so good to see them again. We thought we had setup our camp such that there was no way anyone else would camp beyond where we had parked but of course someone did... I mean really... they literally parked up their hired motorhome facing our campfire and so that our bedroom windows were mere metres apart. It was very comfortable! We didn't know what to say or do but we didn't like it one bit. We tried being aloof and grumpy instead of being friendly, but they didn't get the hint. We watched as they seemed to have some trouble making a campfire and we really don't like people making multiple fire pits so offered for them to share ours. They turned out to very lovely people and it was difficult to remain grumpy with them but camping on top of one another when it's unnecessary to do so seems to be a strange predilection for some people for some unknown reason I can't fathom! If you have the answer to this - please enlighten me!

During the night, the wind howled and we had to get out of bed to make awning adjustments. It was still very windy in the morning and bitterly cold although we sat in the warmth of the car driving the 28km to Kings Canyon Resort and managed to locate Tim & Julie quite easily just as they were driving off to head to the walks (a further drive of 9km). We had to spend a bit of time updating Places and checking the POI information for accuracy before heading on to the walks ourselves so we didn't join them and arrived in our own time.

Kings Canyon Rim Walk - Watarrka National Park

23rd August 2022
We loved the Rim Walk and added the 2 extra side tracks to Cotterals Lookout and Garden of Eden. There were stairs, bridges, waterholes, cycads, beehive domes etc. All up 7km and my feet survived. Just as we come through the exit back to the carpark we spotted Roz and Wendy who had just arrived. They had decided to book a helicopter tour instead of hike. We'd seen a few choppers whilst we were hiking. David was a bit envious. It is his life's dream to travel around Australia by helicopter but I'm not keen on risking our lives so it's unlikely to be fulfilled (sorry husband).

We then found a rest area with water to refill our tanks and had a picnic lunch before driving on to the next hike which was Kathleen Springs. It was ok but overrated and I wish we had put our time into doing the longer Mt Giles hike, or even doing part of it which I've since learned we could have done by parking at the Lila carpark. Oh well, add it to the list for "next time"!

Our next stop was just down the road at the Kings Creek Station which was intriguing! We wanted to stay and soak it up. They had a proper coffee machine, and even some vegan banana bread, lovely staff, and an interesting room with loads of photos and documents to read. It looked like a good spot to stay. Another "next time" spot.

The Luritja Road through here skirts the George Gill Range and Petermann Hills and ranges on the northern side and it's just beautiful and you soon realise that the tourist area of Watarrka National Park is just a tiny piece of this magnificent area so yes, a helicopter tour from the station would be excellent. There's some tracks on the map around Tempe Downs that look interesting - could be worth contacting them to find out about access maybe?

We drove on for another 75km to a rest area/24hr free camp (Desert Oaks Rest Area). This entire area is all part of an IPA so there are restrictions elsewhere. This camp is fabulous - if you have a 4WD you can take tracks out the back and pop over a small dune down into a beautiful little grove of desert oak trees and camp on the soft red desert sand and almost think you were on the Canning Stock Route.

David was feeling a bit sore and sorry, as he had injured his hand collecting firewood before coming into camp - I think he crushed it under the weight of a big log as he put it up on the roof racks after collecting by the roadside. He was tired and not in the mood to fuss about the camp layout yet I couldn't visualise how to line everything up in a pleasing way that was level etc etc so we had a grumpy start to our evening... However, just as we got the fire started and he had a beer in hand, who should pop over the dune but the delightful Roz and Wendy sisters who can light up anyone's mood. They were happy to see us too and we shared our camp and had yet another funny night.

Yulara - Uluru - Kata Tjuta

24th August 2022
We had 420km to travel today to reach Docker River Campground on the Great Central Road but it was an easy drive along tarred roads through to Kata Tjuta. We travel faster than Roz and Wendy but they left from camp before us but we stop frequently to do our work research and documentation. We had been stopped at Curtin Springs for quite some time when they rolled in and this time we figured would be the last we'd see of them so we made our goodbyes here for the second time. Curtin Springs was worth a look - lots of interesting things.

When we arrived at Yulara it seemed to have grown considerably since we'd last been through so took a little sightseeing tour before getting fuel and attempting to use the internet over mobile data on our phones to make our Great Central Road permits (2 required - one for the NT section and the other for the WA section). Once that was sorted, we were able to pass through the National Park entrance gate without payment as we were not visiting the park areas and could show our GCR permit and our home address in WA which are criteria for the free entry.

We did stop at Kata Tjuta at the sunset viewing carpark to stretch our legs and use the facilities before commencing the Great Central Road.

We were surprised to see bitumen for a while and once we hit the dirt we stopped to reduce our tyre pressures. Whilst we were stopped, another traveller heading back into Kata Tjuta/Uluru slowed down to ask us how much further to the tar because they'd had an awful trip. They looked completely exhausted and explained how challenging they had found the road and its extensive corrugations. David took a quick glance at his tyres and whispered to me "no wonder, he hasn't let his tyres down" but didn't say anything to them. They wished us luck and off they went.

We actually found the road very straightforward at this point didn't even notice any corrugations. We had a good run to the Docker River Campground and found ourselves alone with the pick of the sites. It's such a shame this place never got the water activated to the wonderful little amenities huts that were built to support the camp. The camp site layout is gorgeous - with sites nestled in a grove of desert oaks on soft red desert sand. We climbed the little tower on top of a dune for a look around and took some photos at dusk. We did get a visit from a local family from the community who tried to sell paintings from their car. We would have been more than happy to look and buy paintings from a community gallery but found this approach most unsuitable. Campers should not have to deal with hawkers when preparing dinner.

For the full story of our trip across the Great Central Road, please read our Great Central Road blog.
David (DM) & Michelle (MM)
Travelling fulltime in 2024
BlogID: 7821
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