McDonnell Ranges – Gorging on Gorges

Ruby Gap is actually full of garnets
Ruby Gap is actually full of garnets

Tent, check. Sleeping bags, check. Remainder of camping equipment, check. East MacDonnell Ranges here we come! Ruby Gap is as far east as the Ranges go and we decided to make that our first stop. All the guides advise this track is only for high clearance 4wd with experienced drivers. Our Ranger has stock road tyres and standard suspension. High clearance as defined by the National Parks is 20cm clearance from the ground. We’ve got 23cm so technically we make it even though we are locked and not lifted! The experienced drivers bit is debatable.  After our Cape York adventure we are feeling a little more confident at being able to explore this track.  Now when I say ‘we’, I mean Craig, he’s the one doing all the driving!

Another car arrives while we are filling in the camping permit at the track entrance. They go through first while the kids and I venture down to the riverbed. The kids are picking up garnets that are littered across the top of the sand. There are millions of them, all quite small but the kids have got the fever upon them and are scooping up as many as they can stuff into their pockets.  Hence the name Ruby Gap.  Early settlers mistook the garnets for Rubies.

Ruby Gap campsite

Driving along the sandy creek bed we caught up to the other car so we piggyback the lead along the track, keeping an eye out for each other on the more difficult sections. The track consisted of a steep water crossing, lots of bouldering and sections of driving through deep river sand. I hate to admit that my heart was in my mouth and every time we scraped along a boulder or banged on a rock I either said ‘Shit’ or made a high pitched intake of air sound. I was worried that we would do some damage to the fuel tank or something serious and be a looong way from getting towed out! Mostly it was the side steps copping the bangs as they are quite low. We made to the the end of the track where a sign stated ‘No vehicles beyond this point’. Fair enough. We had a beautiful camp spot uphill from the river and enjoyed the sun reflecting off the red cliffs and the sound of a babbling stream. Note to self, as nice as a babbling stream is, it also make me want to pee more often than usual.  The kids continued to collect garnets and I’m sure Xav was thinking of how much money he was going to make. We had to break it to him that they were all too small to cut and polish therefore not of any value.

Just after the crack of dawn we set off on foot to check out Glen Annie Gorge. We crossed creeks, walked through scrub, mud and more river sand until the water and cliffs cut us off from going any further. Despite the earlier sign, there were car tracks quite far into the gorge. A couple of guys with cameras asked us about the gorge and when we told them it was nice they said with their heavy Eastern European accents “No! We will not walk further!” Okay then. They had parked near our vehicle and as we were taking it pretty slow offered that they could go first “No! You can go first”. Okay then.

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We shifted camp to Trephina Gorge for a night. Who should turn up but ‘The Eastern Europeans’ with wives and teens in tow. Of course I go over and say hi. Why? Not sure if I’m friendly or weird. Possibly a mix of both. I asked the not so friendly guy from yesterday where they are from and he says with his heavy accent “Australa. Why?” Unfriendly and a smart-arse. It was a fine line to remain friendly or flip him the bird. Seeing as we were sharing the same camp ground, best to let it slide. Anyway it turns out they are from a country that borders Russia and perhaps that was why he was a bit cagey.  Probably had some secrets or were on a mission or are in hiding.  A healthy imagination is a good thing okay. Anyway, we then refer to them as ‘The Russians’ and use our best KGB accents.

We get up early to climb around the gorge. The kids are killing these walks. I’m timing them and they are undercutting the estimated walk time with a fat margin!

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Cold, cold nights in the MacDonnell Ranges
Cold, cold nights in the MacDonnell Ranges

Now I haven’t mentioned how cold it was getting a night. Let’s just say, I was waking up grumpy every fricken morning! There is that saying “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing”. I’m sure there’re exceptions but in our case it’s probably true. Planning which clothes to take while still on the sunny, warm Sunshine Coast, I’d probably underestimated how many cold nights in a tent we’d be having. In an effort to get warm at night I was wearing a singlet, tshirt, a long sleeve shirt, a jumper, ‘active wear’ tights, tracky-daks, flanny pj bottoms, two pairs of socks AND shoving my feet down the sleeves of a second jumper, and only then getting inside my sleeping bag. The area was very picturesque and I did want to explore it, so it was just a case off having to suck it up and lasting through a few cold nights.

A hop through Alice to restock on groceries and we are out to the West McDonnell Range. Simpson’s Gap was just a quick stop which ends at a small waterhole and very narrow gap. A cranky ranger yelled at some guys who had climbed the rocks. Fair call, there were signs that asked you not to as they are the habitat of the rock wallaby. One portly fellow was having all sorts of trouble getting back down from atop a large rock he’d climbed and I know it’s wrong, but it made me laugh.  He had none of the characteristics of the nimble rock wallaby.  He was desperately trying to get down after being roused on and was stretching his legs trying to make his feet touch the ground.  His butt cheeks were holding onto the rock.  His friends were trying to assist by holding his hands, but I think he actually needed to use them to lift his butt cheeks up.  Definitely not PC to find this amusing but probably karma for not respecting the wildlife.

Setting up camp at Ellery Creek Big Hole we bump into a group of three families from the kids’ school.  Kids had fun catching up with some old friends.  The Rock pool was really cool actually pretty fricken cold.  In the afternoon the light reflecting of the high walls of rock felt magical.  We met some Larapinta walkers and it was fun to hear of their adventures and discuss lightweight gear.  All of us want to do it!  Kids may have to wait a couple of years but Craig and I could have a practice run.  As long as one set of grandparents would be available for duty.  Anyone?  Anyone?

We ducked into Ormiston Gorge for a walk and some lunch where the local spinifex pigeons were hopeful of a few crumbs. We explored  Redbank Gorge and a couple of times we thought we were at the end but decided to check out what was on the other side of the next set of boulders. We finally got to a point where we could walk no further and a large pool of water that disappeared through a narrow crack in the gorge. If you had a Li-Lo you could probably float through but nothing bigger. While we were enjoying the scenery we were lucky enough to spot two super agile rock wallabies on the other side of the gorge. Walking out, who do we see, none other than ‘The Russians’!   Now I think they are following us.  The fact that they are tourists just like us is more probable but also boring.  So I greet them with “Ah, it’s the Russians!”  This did elicit a couple of grins from a few of them and one of the ladies and I exchanged greeting kisses.  Okay, highly likely they are not KGB.

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There is a free camp opposite to Glen Helen Lodge called 2-mile, which is along the Finke River. It’s mostly driving on coarse sand and you just pick a spot, any spot. It was beautiful and peaceful there, and probably my favourite campsite in the Western Ranges.

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Time to tackle Palm Valley. We set up our tent and get ready to go four wheel driving. We come to the first river crossing and two cars are stopped in front of us. We get out to check it out and it does look a bit sketchy. To get across requires a couple of tight turns that you can’t see as the path is under water. If you venture off the path you risk your wheels falling over the edge and getting stuck. A guy waiting with his family asks if he can follow us through as he’s not very experienced. Ha! It’s the blind leading the blind, or as Craig said the ‘Beginner Advanced’ leading the ‘Beginner’!

Craig and I have a pretty good walkie talkie system going when backing the van into caravan parks so we decide to use this system on the track. I’m barefoot in the water with walkie talkie in hand and he’s on the UHF in the car. “Right, now left, left, straight, you’re clear! Go, go, go.” So we continue this with me talking Craig over the obstacles and then the next family vehicle.  It works well for us but I then have to jog barefoot back to our car to the next obstacle. I suspect Craig was sneaking in some cardio training for me as the distances he was stopping at seemed to get further and further along.  We made it to the end with no complications and see a tour bus with complications. The cabs over and a mechanic is hard at work. We can’t offer any mechanical assistance but did offer use of the satellite phone if needed. No, they are all good, so we head off on our walk. The other family we were with were so nice we ended up walking and chatting the whole way.

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We get back to camp and get a call on the UHF from the tour bus asking if anyone had a satellite phone.  They broke down again!  I bet the patience of some of the passengers was running thin by then.  Craig drove off to take the sat phone to them.  In the end they had to leave the bus and another one came out to collect all of the passengers.

Back at camp the kids of the family we met were of a similar age and all got on really well. We all hung out after dinner and worked out we’d be in Alice Springs together the next night when we planned to meet the Stolls. We made plans for Alice and packed up early after our last cold night in the McDonnell Ranges.

In hindsight, if we did the East and West McDonnell ranges again, we might have set up camp in a central location and drive out to each spot from our base location. It would have saved us much time with set-up and pack down of the tent, airbeds etc. However, like teenagers at their first all you can eat dining experience, we couldn’t help trying out all the different camp sites and staying at all those different camps was pretty good, so maybe not.

Albert Namatjira's house, Hermannsberg.
Albert Namatjira’s house, Hermannsberg.

Hermannsberg was an interesting little town we stopped into on the way back to Alice Springs.  It is also the birthplace of Albert Namatjira.  His story is an interesting one and we visited his little two room home.

Lutheran Pastor Carl Strelow, was one of the first settlers to take an interest in the local aboriginals.  He studied their culture and documented their language.  The locals respected him and his son very much.  So much so, that they gave them tribal skin names.

We are hooking up with The Stolls in Alice for our next adventure to the big rocks!  The Red Centre stories shall continue…