Not knowing if we would ever be coming back to the Red Center in Northern Territory Australia, we decided on one last very highly recommended area to visit — the West MacDonnell Ranges. This would be an approximately 550 K drive to the identified campground. Without a 4WD vehicle necessitated going back to Alice Springs and heading west to our destination which was Ellery Creek Big Hole Campground in Tjoritja /West MacDonnell Range National Park. It sounded especially inviting because it had one of the permanent water holes which we hoped to swim in. We anticipated getting there before dark, but barely. Since we had already seen the miles and miles of the stark and unremarkable bushland, we kept a good speed up and made decent time.
Since camping was first come first served, we had to consider alternatives as well since we would be arriving late in the day. We arrived there around sunset time and we were relieved to find 3 open sites to choose from. They all basically backed up to a large communal field and cook area. We were still setting our tents up on the fine red dirt, but had a bit more “privacy” vegetation on the site. It was a race to get camp set by dark, but since it was warm and there was no predicted rain in sight, we opted not to use the rain fly. It was a good bet because we learned that there had been no rain in this area since January. Luke was really hesitant because he was worried about privacy but soon got over it. Reclaimed water was used for flush toilets but there was no fresh water available for drinking or cooking. We were relying on the communal stoves to boil water as our gas canister was low but those metal plates do not transfer heat very readily to our cooking pots. It even takes quite a bit of time to cook anything directly on the grill. After about a half hour of trying to get the pasta pot boiling a generous fellow camper loaned us his gas camp stove to finish cooking the meal (in the dark of course by headlamp). But it always feels like a good challenge to accomplish the goal even under a bit of duress. The night was uneventful, no loud family’s nearby and we awoke early to break camp and head out for the days hike and then on to Alice Springs. We did not get to the water hole but thought it would be an option on the way back.
In the morning we headed first to Glen Helen Resort to buy water, a must have commodity for the Ormiston Gorge walk. I guess we had not really believed that there would not water or at least we would have a way to boil it. Glen Helen was an interesting “resort” of sorts near near Ormiston Gorge and seemed typical of Australian outback accommodations. It is rustic, with lodge rooms, stockman’s quarters, fixed tents and a range of caravan and camping sites on its website. I might better describe it as an aging old motel with rooms, shared rooms with metal bunk beds, platform tents and an unshaded lawn for camping and caravan parking. But they did have cold Coke Zero and cold bottled water-and that fulfilled our basic need!
After getting a couple liters of water, we headed to Ormiston Gorge and opted to take “The Pound” hike. I was curious as to why this trail was named “The Pound” and discovered “the pound” refers to the basin formed by the ring of mountains which book-end the MacDonnell range with Mt. Giles on the east and Ormiston Gorge on the west. The seven kilometer Ormiston Gorge Pound walk is a loop hike of the pound and gorge. It initially, gently climbs the lower hills, moves to a definitive pass from which the views are stunning of the pound. It descends onto the flat floor of the pound, and returns up the dry riverbed to the main waterhole.The rugged gorge walls of red, sunburnt orange and deep purples and the Ghost Gums growing up along the ridges and walls of quartzite and the layered rock formation along the river bed were quite beautiful.
In the early section of the hike the trail was flat, meandered along the road and a dry river bed with spare vegetation. I was beginning to think this hike would pale in comparison to the last ones we had done in Uluru and Kings Canyon. But it slowly began to climb hills, with several switchbacks and the tan sands giving way to red rock and ridges, until we were heading towards a saddle.
It was quite a scene to reach the saddle and see the expansive pound fanning out below. It clearly was a panoramic view of a basin surrounded by ridges and hills.
The trail led down into the pound and at that point we encountered sandy beaches of mostly dry riverbeds, though there was one small water hole. It was a good stopping point for lunch which was accompanied by an annoying chorus of buzzing flies. I donned my net and found a way to sneak food into my mouth without letting flies in. Thankfully, when on the move the flies were tolerable and a very minimal nuisance.
This well defined trail crossed the pound and was a combination of soft and harder packed sand, tussock grasses and other desert shrubs, interspersed with a variety of rocks. I was fearful that it would be a heavy slog through soft sand in the early afternoon sun. We crossed the dry sandy rocky Ormiston Creek bed at least 3 times due to it’s looping course.and at the third crossing it seemed like the rocks were increasing and multiplying exponentially. In retrospect I found the sand easier walking than the rocks that loomed in front of me.
The trail gets harder as you get closer to the Gorge. Soon we were scrambling, trudging, rock hopping, even stumbling further up the riverbed into the gorge from the pound. Sandy stretches, gave way to massive cubist like rock formations interspersed with enough moderate sized rocks to for us to engage in some “creative dance” to keep moving ahead. At points the trail was all boulders and rocks. River rocks coupled with the rust red walls, greenery and the layered formation of the gorges made for a spectacular scenery and I marveled at the array of colors of the rocks and boulders which spanned from the red and orange palette of colors and moved into many shades of mauve, purple and blue.
Sand clinging to the bottom of my hiking boots and loose sand on the surfaces of the rocks made a potentially hazardous combination and I caught myself slipping and falling on three occasions. Negotiating the rocks with beautiful scenery continuing to unfold the higher we climbed into the gorge was challenging but quite the feeling of accomplishment. Eventually we came upon a lovely oasis – a water holes in which a few young men were swimming. Since there was quite a sheet of brilliant green algae on portions of the surface of the water, I could not imagine diving in.
But after crossing to the left side of the water hole and rounding another bend not too much further up, we cam upon a much larger permanent water hole which was exceptionally inviting and was hosting several swimmers. It was just too much for us to be viewing a beautiful water hole with a magnificent backdrop and not immerse ourselves – so we doffed our shoes and jumped in in our clothes with a definite very loud yelp, proclaiming the water to be extremely chilly. But a chill after hot was a great feeling and a very refreshing finale for moderately difficult hike. And, off course the reward of cokes and/or ice-cream from the small concession at the end was definitely a plus.
It was time to get on the road, back to Alice Springs but first a stop at the ochre pits. They consisted of delicate colorful cliffs made up of layers of mudstone and silica in West McDonnell NP. The shades of the ochre range from crimson to yellow. The different colored layers are caused by the presence of iron oxide in varying amounts. The more iron oxide present, the darker and redder the color. These cliffs were a beautiful “canvas” of colorful curves and swirls. It was especially interesting to see knowing how the ochres play an important role in aboriginal ceremony. Though not a seemingly very popular stop I am glad we took the time to see the ochre pits.
The next stop was our hotel, the Doubletree, and a needed re-grouping for our morning flight back to Brisbane. After many camp meals, we also opted to dine out and I suggest the Red Ochre Grill as it was one of the very few places that advertised serving bush tucker. Bush tucker, also called bush food, is any food native to Australia and used as sustenance by the original inhabitants, Kangaroo is bush food. Since up to this point I had not seen one kangaroo in the wild, I decided I would order one up on a plate in the restaurant. I ordered a kangaroo fillet chargrilled, with a shiraz glaze, served medium rare, on a roasted mushroom tartlet with a salad of maple bacon and apple. It was served beautifully and absolutely delicious and quite a welcome change from canned refried beans slithered onto a burrito, though with the gourmet touch of a slice of cheese in it. The others were not quite so adventurous with their food. The following morning we were on a plane first to Adelaide and then on to Brisbane. Luke is very very interested in anything related to airplanes so he was in his glory filming the takeoffs and landings of a couple our flight.