What can one do, with a week to kill in Alice Springs and 170litres of diesel? A lot actually, overwhelmingly. However, with five minutes of deliberation over a pamphlet in the caravan park laundry room, we decided to explore the West MacDonnell Ranges.
It had become apparent that plans were out of fashion for this year, so at almost a whisper we decided we would…. drive towards the West MacDonnell Ranges; And see what we can see. Careful not to even hint at a plan. We took stock of the fridge contents, grabbed some fresh bread, vegetables and snuck over to the fuel station.
With a fresh bag of clean clothes and our fix of crap TV, we were ready to say goodbye to the Caravan Park and hello to the open road.
Simpsons Gap was a ridiculously pretty introduction to the Ranges, unlike Redbank Waterhole’s raw necessity, Simpsons Gap was picture perfect, almost grand standing by comparison. Complete with a rock bordered path to wander down, safe from obstacles whilst we dragged our bottom jaw. Our new favourite wildlife was the Spinifex Pigeon, or rather, Desert Chicken. This walk provided a lot of them, barely concerned with us.
Next stop was not far down the road at Standley Chasm, a different aspect again, a lived-in affair with a rambling veranda, we paid an entry fee here and walked the short but heavily trafficked and vegetated track to the chasm. Just like that I was in the Northern Territory stereotype I had imagined. Something soberingly unromantic about waiting for nameless strangers to get out of your frame, the same shot you feel 50% obliged and 50% reluctant to take purely because you have watched those nameless strangers ahead of you take the same photo. However, eject the tourist wildlife from the frame and the beauty of the Chasm induces that tourist amnesia and we enjoyed our minute in its warm glow.
The next brown sign we came across we swung in, ceremoniously aired down, locked the hubs and headed down the track to Birthday Waterhole. Slow going, twin wheel tracks there was no chance of getting lost. A couple of interesting bits asked for low range before we practically landed in the extent of the waterhole, deep beige sand, large gumtrees under the quiet supervision of a red coloured sentinel gorge. There was a car parked, most likely a day walker for the Larapinta as we could see the section checkpoint and rainwater tank up the hill. Otherwise, we only had the company of galahs.
Barely 10minutes into contemplation by the dwindling waterhole, a troop of hikers appeared over the ridge. Looking no older than 15, they all gathered around the waterhole, a few boys stripping off their packs to burn some energy climbing and skipping stones. We had read a notice at the start of the track asking for us to ignore any school age hikers whilst on their rite of passage. Likewise, they ignored us and after an hour they set off, loosely tied boots dragging, proverbial steam running low in the descending afternoon sun, we could hear their varied banter, whinging and laughing for probably half an hour.
The silence here would suit me just fine, the prattling hikers somehow accentuating the quality. We unrolled the swag on the grassy bank, and got working on a fire, to say a quiet campfire was overdue was an understatement.
We needed to smoke the caravan off our clothes, smudge the urban out of our souls. A sliding scale obviously but even Alice Springs counts as a charged urban energy. Collecting firewood, I channelled my inner rock wallaby and explored the gorge. The only sign of any wildlife being scat… wallaby, dingo and bovine.
A Troop Carrier rolled in and a hiker rambled down the trail, barely audible, they scaled the gorge and watched the sunset before leaving in the Troop Carrier, we wouldn’t see anyone else until we made it back to the bitumen.
Dinner was a light affair, tinned salmon, cheese, tomato sandwiches with a lot of tea. Our palate still a little stupefied from the gastro. Sleep came easy, the soft grassy bank and the serene gratitude to be back in the swag, after hours of bush tv.
Sleeping in as long as my bladder would allow, the waterhole was livelier in the cool of the morning with finches. Weetbix and almond milk breaking their chorus in my ears. We slowly packed up, churned our way out of the river bed’s sand and back along the track. Whilst we were airing up near the sealed road we chatted with an older couple, tanned leathery veterans asking if their camper van would be ok and what was the Waterhole like. Passing the baton, we wished them well and pushed on for the next brown sign.
Ellery Big Hole, down the road was well, big. Open air, particularly majestic and guarded by sincere walls of red rock and perched eucalypts. Whilst there was more water here, it was very cold, and too cold for the resident fish, now dying off. Despite sharing Ellery with a few families we lingered, enjoying this lively, brighter waterhole, with larger birdlife.
By the time we got to Serpentine Gorge, I was expecting to share again. However, despite a few cars parked we only saw one person on his return walk. By now it was hot, our pace slowed but alone, we enjoyed the quiet. The Gorge was darker, a puddle by comparison, unkempt but peaceful. Signs of works underway by Parks and litter from our filthy fellow visitors in the carpark… Who consciously leaves a bag of cooked chicken, napkins and other lunch paraphernalia in the carpark and drives away?
Lunch was a shared bowl of wedges and $5 coffees from Glen Helen Gorge hotel before we rolled out the swag at Omiston Gorge.
Despite taking one of the last remaining camping sites, Omiston shared the positives of its predecessors that day. Large, raw, open yet discerning gorge. Perhaps scaled up to accommodate the dozen camp sites and its occupants, all of which were proving to be quiet and civilised, we shared Omiston comfortably. Solar showers, flushing toilets and gas BBQs, wrapped in the glorious view. We had a chat with the caretaker whilst paying our fee, she recommended we walk the Pound, starting early.
After the spotlight moon, we were treated to the Milky Way kissing the Omiston Gorge. Packing our headlamps and tripod we took the 4/3rds SLR along the now pitch black path towards the water, in aim of avoiding any of our neighbours camplight, minimal as it was. Following a guide online we had far more success this time around compared to along the Finke, I was beginning to understand not only what the camera needed to do, but rather how its lens was limited. Nevertheless, I was chuffed with our efforts.
The Pound walk would be our most favourite walk of the trip, it was long, quiet and transporting. Armed with hiking boots, sandwiches and water, we were comfortably alone and absorbed in the view, constantly changing. Majority of the track however, was consistent; rocky. After several kilometres the view got the better of me and I had a royal stack, still a bit of a novice at this game. Walk, Stop, then take in the view, walk again….
Tore my pants and cracked my knee but nothing broken. We paused for a rest and bite until the throbbing subsided. The remaining walk was along the river, sandy, interrupted by large rocks, if not boulders, brilliantly purple but unavoidable. Trying to take in the view at this point was jaw droopingly dumb but I managed without further injury.
We took the extra walk up to the White Gum Lookout, steep and now quite hot but well worth it, taking in our progress from this altitude.
The descent was immediate and shaded. We dropped into the Kiosk and joined some Larapinta hikers in some delicious frittata and salad, our caretaker was an amazing cook and we also feasted on scones and coffee. Omiston Gorge had proven quite the treat.