Catch Us Camping in the MacDonnell Mountain Ranges

Beautiful and weather-beaten, the MacDonnell Mountain Ranges that stretch 400km across the desert in Central Australia, are a different world with spectacular gorges, mountain gaps, chasms and natural swimming holes. The ranges spread east and west of Alice Springs and known respectively as the East and West MacDonnells.  They are 600 meters above sea level and are some of the best watered areas in Central Australia.  

They are remarkable for the colours they throw in sunlight, a photographer’s utopia.  The mountain system is a series of bare quartzite and sandstone parallel ridges.  Fun fact:  They were explored in 1860 by the Scot John McDouall Stuart and were named after Sir Richard MacDonnell, governor of South Australia (1855–62). In 1872 the Overland Telegraph Line was built across the ranges through Heavitree Gap near Alice Springs.

Neither our vehicle nor caravan are 4WD which has limited us to the West MacDonnell Ranges, which is also the more popular of the two ranges due to its easy access by all vehicles.

Part of the West MacDonnell Mountain Range

Today has been one of our best days since leaving home more than five weeks ago. When we planned this trip, the focus was The Red Centre and finally we are here. It is surreal to be camping in the middle of incredible scenery steeped in cultural and spiritual significance for the Aboriginal people of this part of the desert. While others are sharing stories around a large camp fire we are a short distance away being quiet after what has been an amazing day.

Elery Creek Water Edge Vegetation

Always lush and textured vegetation at the water’s edge

Our first stop of the day was Simpson’s Gap, one of the most prominent gaps in the West MacDonnells. As we walked the track we stopped to see what two ladies were looking at and when it hopped to the next rock we too noticed a black-footed rock wallaby. Murphy’s Law as it is, I did not have the telephoto lens with me so I saw but did not capture the tiny creature to show you.

Next stop was Standley Chasm with its sheer walls that glow from reflected sunlight to create awe-inspiring displays of stark form and rich colour. The chasm has been gouged through touch sandstone by floods that, over time, have surged down a narrow tributary of the Finke river system. The result is a deep cleft in the ranges ‘crowded on either side by craggy slopes that rise 80 meters above the floor.” We walked the 1.2 km nature trail that meanders alongside an all but dried up creek that has some spring-fed pools that attract birds and other wildlife; we saw some birds and no wildlife.

Sitting in one of the natural picture frames along the walk to the chasm. The MOTH, myself and Pipty our travelling companion

How do those trees grow out of solid granite and how many millions of years has it taken to erode the rock faces?

Ellery Creek Big Hole was the final stop for the day and where we will spend the night. The creek cuts through a gorge in the West MacDonnell Ranges where thousands of years of floods have carved a beautiful waterhole. While I am not particularly interested in geology I can imagine why there is such interest in this area, the rock formations are fabulous even to the untrained eye.

Ellery Creek Big Hole: The water was very cold

At the end of the day nearing dusk the light changes rapidly and dramatically. Sometimes the same scene looks quite different to how it did a few moments previously.

The herons in the photo above are perched at the top of the cliff face to the right of the waterhole. To put it in perspective they are sitting on rock above the lone tree in the previous picture (right hand side of picture).


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