Our first NT stop was at Tennant Creek for the Cultural Centre (Nyinkka Nyunyu), this was an excellent stop in a town that was not all that inviting to stop at. Nyinkka Nyunyu is a display of the Aboriginal culture in this area with information about the history of the people, how their kinship and family systems work, art displays and a great garden walk showing the various plants and trees that are used by the Aboriginals – all accompanied by an audio tour.
We had planned to meet the Hurt family again tonight at the Devils Marbles so had to push on the next 140km to set up camp. On the way we passed an incredible smoke cloud coming from a line of burn-off to the east. It looked as though the smoke was trapped under the cloud cover and couldn’t escape.
Thankfully the Hurt’s had saved a spot for us at the Devils Marbles, pulling in at 4.30pm was certainly pushing our chances of finding a spot at this very busy camp site. There were caravans, campervans, buses, camper trailers and tents squeezed into every available spot. The attraction was definitely worth all the fuss though, these massive slabs of rock seemingly piled on each other by some freak of nature are an amazing sight and the colours against a blue sky are brilliant. In reality the rock formations are caused by different rates of erosion of the rocks and their surrounding earth.
We spent two nights here which allowed us to enjoy a couple of sunrises and take a walk amongst the boulders. We even managed to spot the local rock wallaby a few times. The nights are still pretty cold at the moment, as soon as the sun goes down the temperature really drops and we’re looking for a fire to warm up around or an early bed to climb into. The days are a great temperature though, sitting around the mid 20’s.
The Hurts had a hot tip from their Lonely Planet book that the mango ice-cream and wine were definitely worth trying at the Ti-Tree Mango Farm, so we pulled in there for morning tea. The place was packed. Although it must be said that the shop was tiny and our arrival happened to coincide with two car loads of the locals who’d come to pick up a couple of kangaroo tails – frozen with the skin on (I didn’t check, but I guess you can get the skin-off variation too!). The ice-cream was definitely worth the stop, not sure about the wine though, there was no tastings happening on the day we dropped in. A short afternoon stop in Alice Springs to restock groceries, water and fuel allowed us to get a little look at the town. Alice is not what I expected at all… although I’m not sure what I did expect! It’s a really big town that’s a bit of a nightmare to navigate around. The main shopping area is off the Stuart Highway and very busy, full of tourists doing the same as us or seeing the sights of the town – which doesn’t make it easy looking for a park with camper trailer in tow. We had a couple of nights to fill before we needed to be back in Alice for a car service so we ventured off to the less popular and therefore less busy (than the West MacDonnell ranges) East MacDonnell ranges. There appears to be enough to keep you occupied for a good week out this way, but as we only had two nights went as far as Trephina Gorge to camp (110kms east of Alice). This is a gorgeous spot, but sites are at a premium, we managed to get the last couple available when we arrived at about 4.30pm.
The scenery is stunning around here, those typical red banks and blue sky shots keep the camera working overtime. We took a day trip to N’Dhala Gorge, up a 4WD track to another little oasis in the desert, this one significant to the Aboriginal people with rock engravings on the walk.
Over the last week or so we have been hearing stories of the mouse plagues in the NT and South Australia and in Trephina Gorge we experienced it first-hand. We’d had a loaf of bread inside the tent overnight which was obviously far too tempting for one little mouse who chewed a big hole through the floor of the tent to have a little feast! The kids were out to catch the little blighter the next night and with the help of the SAS handbook rigged up all manner of traps, the most sophisticated being the old “rock propped with a stick and pull-sting” beauty (reminded me a lot of catching sparrows at my grandparents as a child). After much patient waiting after the sun had gone down all of their efforts came to fruition and a little mousey was caught, only to be released and chased by a mob of mad children trying to stomp the life out of it. Tobey managed to grab hold of the mouse, the mouse promptly bit Tobey’s finger and Tobey hurled the mouse into the air, but the mayhem could not have been more poorly timed, for just as the mouse took flight our neighbouring camper emerged from the toilet track announcing that the mouse being pursued was a native marsupial mouse and not one of the plague mice! Opps!
Another stop in Alice Springs to refuel and with the car service over we headed west to Palm Valley, about 130kms from Alice, but with the track after Hermannsburg getting fairly rough as we drove along the Finke River this journey took 2.5 hours. Brilliant scenery once again, so the extended drive time was not really a bother. The campsite at Palm Valley was again really busy, this time full of families from everywhere – SA and WA mostly, with school holidays at the moment – and far noisier than Trephina Gorge… I don’t think anyone would have blinked an eye at five kids running after a half dead mouse here! The rangers gave a fireside talk to a huge group of people around the raging fire with any topic open to question and plenty of armchair experts to throw in their opinions too! The weather has really turned cool now, even the day temperatures are not at all balmy. It’s not getting much warmer than the mid-teens through the day and still very cold at night. We’re dressed in long pants and jumpers for most of the day and the beanies and gloves have been unpacked too.
This area is significant for the Red Cabbage Palm trees that grow in the valley (hence the name Palm Valley!). The specific, sheltered habitat in Palm Valley allow the palm trees to grow in this mostly arid area. The palms’ nearest cousins are in Adels Grove, over 500km away (and from where we have recently come!). With a big breakfast in our tummies we set off on the 5km Mpulungkinya Walk up through the valley and climbing to the rim before a steep decent back to the car park. Again, the scenery and colours were amazing and it didn’t take long before it started to warm up and we shed our jumpers.
We headed back to Alice Springs again (third time in a week, this place is going to get tired of us) with another date to make… the Camel Cup. What a hoot that was, plenty of arms and legs flying everywhere, a few spills and plenty of laughs. There’s no betting on the Camel Cup, with the temperamental camels often not starting the race and sometimes racing backwards, I guess there’s far too much scope for a rigged result. Along with the camel races there were the usual Miss and Mr Camel Cup and the not so usual Honeymoon race where the groom starts off aboard the camel and races half way around the track to his waiting bride who then has to launch herself aboard the beast and off they go to the finish. You can imagine the mayhem of hooves and veils in the pick-up zone. A great day, but I’d recommend getting there a little earlier than we did so as to not miss out on the kids races.
With all of our Alice Springs events over we were ready to head to the biggest attraction of the red centre – Uluru. At 450km from Alice Springs it’s a pretty significant drive though and I wonder just how the tour companies manage to make it a day trip. On the road south you pass through Stuarts Well, home to the world famous Dinky, the singing dingo. Dinky’s “dad”, Jim Cotterill tells Dinky’s story of fame as Dinky paws out a tune on the piano and howls away to the laughter of the audience. He’s pretty reluctant to take a rest too, having to be encouraged more than a little to leave the ‘stage’. Jim is a fairly significant figure in this area himself, along with his father they pioneered much of the tourism in this area and are responsible for beating the first track to Kings Canyon which we will drive in a few days.
You often read about how the nothing prepares you for the first-hand sight of Uluru and I have to say we all totally agree with this. We have all seen hundreds, if not thousands of photos of ‘the rock’, but pretty well all of those photos will be from the same view – which in itself is very, very impressive in the ‘flesh’. However, what struck us so much over the next three days was the close up views of Uluru, the deep chasms that are worn by years of water (or the pythons marks from the Dreamtime for the local Anangu people). The weather continued to be pretty cold and became rainy during our time around Uluru and Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), so we were fortunate enough to see Uluru on a fairly blue-sky day and then again the following day with water cascading down it’s sides. The sunset was a bit of a non-affair though as the skies had clouded over by then. Because of the weather the walk to the top of Uluru was closed on the days we were there, although we had planned not to climb (in respect to the Aboriginal people who have many sacred sites around the rock) it was good not to have that temptation either. As you can imagine we took literally hundreds of photos with Uluru as the star, these are some of the highlights for me.
Around 50kms from Uluru is the lesser known, but certainly equally impressive Kata Tjuta (Olgas). There are 36 massive rocks that make up Kata Tjuta, the highest of which is 200m higher that Uluru and are thought to be around 500 millions years old. We visited on a very cold and cloudy day and ended up cutting our walk short as the rain looked like coming in and the kids whinging started in full force! The sights were incredible though and the numerous photos we took really do not show the grandeur of the place.
We’d seen the sights and were getting keen to get back into the warm weather again so we headed out to Kings Canyon, hoping that the grey skies would clear and we’d get to see some of these big red gorges with the benefit of a little sunshine. Although that was not to be, at least we weren’t overheating when we tackled the 6km rim walk of Kings Canyon. This walk was definitely a highlight of the Red Centre, the walk into the canyon itself the day before did not over impress any of us, but once on top of the canyon you could see the rock formations for miles and really appreciate the 270m drop down the canyon walks to Kings Creek below. There were a few opportunities to throw the kids over the side, but we managed to come back with all five of them – not for lack of “don’t run, don’t walk too close to the edge, don’t skip, don’t push” warnings though.
The kids had their big chance at the camel races too when they had a camel ride at Kings Creek Station. They loved it, and in typical form Indianna was leading the way with Crazy Hair and Tobey was trailing at the back. There were no speed records broken this day though, just a lot of laughing and bouncing around on the saddle.
The Mereenie Loop Road through Luritja Aboriginal land allowed us to go from Kings Canyon to the western side of the MacDonnell Ranges (Redbank Gorge) without having to back-track through Alice Springs, saving a day or more and hundreds of kilometres of travel. On the way we stopped in at Gosse Bluff, the site of a meteorite blast a little while ago… like 142 million years ago! The inner rings of the blast is all that remains visible today with the outer rings from the shockwaves having been eroded away.
We arrived late in the afternoon at Redbank Gorge and grabbed the last two camp spots left. The last two, but the ones with the most glorious view, that is once the mist cleared in the morning, it is still very cold at night (around 2-4 degrees), but has started to warm up again through the day, I even managed to break out the shorts again after a couple of weeks of having them packed away.
There are a couple of permanent water holes in the West MacDonnell Ranges that are good swimming spots, but even in the middle of summer the water can be pretty cold as it shaded from the sun and very deep in parts. Redbank Gorge has one of these water holes, so we set off with wetsuits at hand in search of a swim. Unfortunately the cold water had also been a little too much for the fish and the water hole was covered with dead fish. The fish dying off is a regular occurrence in the winter-time when the weather gets cold, doesn’t make for such a great swimming spot when that happens though. Lucky the scenery of the gorge was special enough on it’s own and we also managed to spot a dingo which was probably feasting on a few of those fish.
We spent a day travelling back to Alice Springs from Redbank Gorge, stopping in at some of the sights on the way. This stretch of road really needs much longer than a day to have a decent look at everything, but we were keen to move on and get to warmer climates again. Ormiston Gorge was pretty spectacular, there are several walks you can do here, one loop walk requiring you to swim through the river to get across the gorge… considering the fishy predicament at the moment we opted for the lookout walk.
The Ochre Pits further along Namatjira Drive were a mass of colour, the different colours result from the different levels of iron ore, clay and haematite in the soil. This particular ochre pit has been used by the local Arrernte people in many ways, the most obvious use is for body painting, but the ochre is also used for medicine when mixed with fat or grease or eucalyptus, depending on your ailment. It can also be used on hunting implements to protect them from termites and as an emergency food storage unit when food is rolled inside a ball of ochre and stored for later use.
Ellery Creek Big Hole is the closest camping site in the West MacDonnells to Alice Springs and we had read that it was a nice place to camp, but nowhere near as good as Redbank Gorge in my opinion. Again the swimming hole was a bit stinky from the dead fish, but would have been a wonderful oasis on a summers day.
We made Standley Chasm our last stop for the day as time was getting on and the kids were getting tired. The sheer walls of Standley Chasm were definitely worth the stop and the $20 entry fee that is charged by the Aboriginal owners of this area was more than reasonable I think, considering that all of the other areas of the National Park are free to visit.
We have better understood the significance of the land to the Aboriginal people in our journey so far through the Northern Territory. The various parties who have an interest in the land do a fairly good job of trying to educate travellers on the significance of some areas and the meanings behind many of the customs and ‘ways’ of the indigenous people. We are limited though in how much we will ever learn about certain Dreamtime stories as there are strict ‘laws’ that allow only certain people to tell these stories and the stories can only be told to certain other people. Lets just hope that there are enough of those certain people in times to come that these stories are not lost forever.
We’re now back in Alice Springs, fourth stop this time through and the third stay at Heavitree Gap Camp ground, they’ll be getting to know us by name here soon. We have all had a wonderful time in the Red Centre, but do wish it had been a little warmer in the day. There is still so much to see here, especially further to the east, heading into the Simpson Desert, that I think we will be back here again one day in the not-to-distant future. For now, though, we’re moving to the warmth of the north, getting on the Stuart Highway and driving for about 1000kms to make it to Mataranka for a hot swim.