Tag Archives: MacDonnell Ranges

Friday, August 30

I awoke well before dawn to the singing of birds. The room was warm, but when I stepped outside, the air was a sweet, gentle cool that never seems to exist any time other than dawn.

I packed quickly, in preparation for my departure, then glanced at my watch and got a shock. I’d set my watch back the 1/2 hour for the Centre’s time zone, but not my travel alarm. No wonder it was still so dark out. Well, better early than late.

Then out the door and out of Alice Springs, on my way to Ross River Homestead, in the East MacDonnell Ranges–new territory for me, as I’ve previously only been in the West MacDonnells. I was pleased that not all the road was sealed. As I noted in my book, a sealed road may be easier to drive, but an unsealed road seems to better suit this place–rougher and more natural.

We drove for about 45 minutes, out along the dry Ross River, with the spinifex, desert oaks, gum trees, and mulgas all around us, and the ragged, red mountains rising up behind. We passed a camel-crossing road sign and several dry creek beds, and then finally pulled in at the Ross River Homestead.

This is paradise.

Ross River Homestead

Ross River Homestead


The only sounds are the wind in the massive desert oaks around the homestead and the cries of the noisy minas and galahs. The hills rise around us, and the fragrance of the bush fills my nostrils and my heart. Kangaroos and camels are about, the sun is shining, and I could stay here forever.

The cabins are wonderful: all wood, with stone floors. They look rather plain from the outside, but are really charming inside.

Cabin interior

Cabin interior


I was given a little tour and introduced to the staff: Burt, Alec, and Jeff, who is the manager, and was then directed to a damper-making lesson given by Alec. Once the damper was made, we enjoyed billy tea and damper around the fire. In any other setting, this might seem touristy, but here, it’s simply perfect. This was followed by whip-cracking and boomerang throwing lessons. After that, we were on our own.

I hiked and photographed till lunch, and then I hiked and photographed until 4:30. The bird life is unbelievable around here: majestic wedge-tailed eagles, tufted pigeons, pied butcherbirds, noisy minas, ruby-breasted mistletoe birds, pink and gray galahs, and splendid, bright green parrots that Jeff, the manager, later told me were Port Lincoln parrots. There were many others I didn’t know, as well. Apparently, the northern and southern bird habitats overlap here, so there are more birds than one might reasonably expect to find.

Port Lincoln Parrot

Port Lincoln Parrot

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August 29, part 2

I signed up for Toddy’s afternoon tour to Simpson’s Gap and Standley Chasm and was soon roaring out of town in the Toddy’s bus. Clouds dotted the brilliant blue sky, and it was a glorious day. As we passed through Pitchi Ritchi, I did notice that there was a motel now on the site where I had camped during the “flood tour” from my last strip. It made me wonder what other changes I’d see. Still, the surrounding rocks were still dramatic and dynamic looking.

My pulse quickened a bit, as we rolled into the red land. On my previous trip to Australia, though I had already been in the country for more than three weeks by the time I got to Alice Springs, it was here in the Centre that I began to really transform–and truly fell in love with Australia. And now, finally, having succeeded in beginning my life over, I was coming back to the place where it started. But would I feel the same about it as I had during that first, seminal visit? It didn’t take me long to learn the answer: absolutely.

What a gloriously beautiful land this is. It hardly seemed possible that eight years had passed since I was here, in the (almost) unchanging Centre. The red earth rolled away from the road, dotted with mulgas, corkbark trees, desert oaks, and ghost gums, bounded in on one side by the dancing red wall of the MacDonnells.

Standley Chasm

Standley Chasm

We stopped first at Standley Chasm. This being my third visit to the spot, it hardly seemed necessary to shoot a whole roll of film–but maybe I missed something the last two times. Hiking in, along the winding path that leads to the chasm, I saw my horse head stone, though it was broken, and I again found the burned out trunk of the old gum tree that had four new gums growing out of it. Reaching the chasm, I wandered between the tall, parallel walls to the tumble of rocks on the far end. It was as if no time had passed.

Simpson's Gap

Simpson’s Gap


Next we headed for Simpson’s Gap. Aspects of it looked the same, particularly the distinctive gum tree spreading its arms at the entrance to the gap, as if in welcome. We only had a short stop here, so we hiked in and hiked out, without much time for exploring, walking mostly along a footpath constructed since my last trip by inmates from the nearby Alice Springs Gaol. I was a little disappointed, as the walkway takes a bit of the romance out of the place. However, it does make for much easier going than slogging through the deep, soft soil of the sometimes riverbed. And the wonderful, worn rocks have not changed, and I delighted in those.

During the drive, we passed many sights that were familiar to me, including the memorial grave of John Flynn (Flynn of the Inland) and the famous Namatjira twin ghost gums. The driver was just that: a driver, so he said nothing about our surroundings.

The others along on the day’s drive were almost entirely British university students, mostly young men around 20 years of age. Since no information was being shared by the driver, I began to point things out and relate what I knew of the mountains, gorges, plant life, and sights. I began quietly, speaking only to those near me, but found an eager audience, and I was soon surrounded. I was, of course, more than delighted to answer the questions with which they peppered me as we blasted back across the 50 kilometers to Alice Springs and Toddy’s.

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Ross River Fire

On my second trip to Australia, I stayed at a wonderful “resort” in the Red Center, in the Eastern MacDonnell Ranges. (The quotes around “resort” are because this is far from what that word might conjure in other locales — this place is a bit rustic, though in my case, rustic was what I was hoping for.) Ross River Resort offered me a cabin not too far from the original, historic homestead, and I spent three remarkable days, hiking around the fabulous rock formations, enjoying the bird life, learning about the area’s history–simply perfect. At least one bird photo (Galahs) that I’ve posted previously is from Ross River, as is the “Cabin ‘roo” I wrote about some time ago–with a photo of the large kangaroo that was waiting on my cabin doorstep when I returned from a hike one day–in case you want to see anything from the resort that was. It was a memorable location, and I’d always hoped to get back.

However, in January of this year, brush fires in the region swept through the area, consuming the cabins, camp grounds, and other facilities at Ross River. The original homestead appears to have survived, but the property is ruined, from the standpoint of continuing as a resort. I am hoping they rebuild, as it was such a splendid place to experience the solitude of the Outback — without having it be too much solitude. (That is, spend the days wandering alone in the wilderness, but have a few folks around the fire in the evening with whom one can recount the day’s adventures.)

The thing that makes it a bit more dramatic is that firefighters thought they’d saved the resort. The fire had been stopped. It had rained. But then the wind picked up, and suddenly, the fire was roaring again.

For more details on the fire, here’s an article from the Australia Broadcasting Company: Outback Resort Devastated By Fire.

Really sorry to lose this place. Hope they stage a comeback.

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Simpson’s Gap

I had been to Simpson’s Gap on my previous trip to the Centre, but it was good to see it again. This is one of the several breaks in the West MacDonnell Ranges, where the ancient mountains are cut by a river that adds greenery and a fair bit of wildlife to the area. Once again, we scanned the rocks for signs of the rock wallabies that make their home here, wandered by the water hole, and admired the birdlife. I was also in love with the rocks, which are so worn and layered in these mountains–like the bones of the earth.

On both visits during this first trip, to reach the gap, we waded up the dry riverbed, through soft sand. When I returned a few years later, I found that a walkway had been built, to make the hike into the gorge easier — though I’m betting part of it was also to keep people from stomping all over the scenery. Fortunately, though it is now easier to reach, Simpson’s Gap itself is unchanged — and is still quite wonderful.

Simpson's Gap

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The Green Centre

Finally, we made it to Alice Springs. We camped just outside of town for a few days, while we explored the town and the surrounding area. Driving west out of the Alice, we followed the east-west line of the ancient, eroded MacDonnell Ranges. Here, even more than elsewhere, the land seemed to have responded to the recent rain–though perhaps it’s just that it has now had a little more time to move from flooded to well-watered and verdant. One could still see the red earth, but it was blanketed in green. Wildflowers were abundant. It was lovely, though it seemed odd, having fallen in love with a drier version of this area. However, it was wonderful to see, and to be reminded how eager life is. After months and sometimes years of waiting, a bit of rain brings remarkable growth.

The West MacDonnells

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Standley Chasm

It is sometimes said that Australia is the oldest continent. It is just as often countered that this is impossible, as all the continents must be the same age. In a way, both of these statements are true. Sure, all the continents—or rather all that became the continents, either by breaking apart and drifting or running into other broken bits—appeared at the same time. However, all the other continents besides Australia are currently, or at least recently, undergoing some sort of dynamic change that makes them younger, whether we’re speaking of volcanic activity adding actual land or tectonic plate movements pushing land up (the Himalayas are still growing) or down (subduction zones where earthquakes are common). A lot of what you’re looking at on these younger continents is recently added.

In Australia, none of that stuff has happened for millions of years. The landscape is not created by volcanoes or uplift zones, but rather by erosion. The Great Dividing Range, for example, is not actually a mountain range, but rather all that is left of a huge plateau that has slowly been eaten away until all that is left is a long strip that runs like a spine up the eastern side of Australia. That’s why it was so hard for the first explorers to cross the Great Dividing Range: there were no passes. It was only finally crossed when explorers figured out you had to get on top of it, and then walk along the flat top to the other side.

Australia does have real mountains—lots of them—but most of them are fairly worn down. Australia’s highest peak is Mount Kosciuszko, which stands 7,310 feet high. Like all the rest of Australia’s real mountains, it started out much taller.

All over Australia, there are remarkable formations created by this history of erosion. Often, hard minerals that would be veins in mountains in other places stand alone because the mountains have washed away, as is the case with both Broken Hill and the long ridge of quartz known as the Great China Wall.

Other places, it is the veins which were softer, and while the surrounding rock remains, the veins are gone. This is the case with Standley Chasm, one of the wonderful formations worn into the red rock of the MacDonnell Ranges. Here, the softer rock has been eroded away, leaving a 15-foot-wide channel through the wall of rock.

Everywhere one goes in Australia, there are wonderfully wind- and water-sculpted rocks, from the “beehives” of the Bungle Bungles in the north corner of Western Australia to the Remarkable Rocks on Kangaroo Island to the fabulous caves in Tasmania.

The photo below is of Standley Chasm, which we saw on the same day we visited Ormiston Gorge. The walls close in as you get farther into the chasm, until the sky is just a strip of light far overhead.
Standley Chasm

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Ormiston Gorge

We had spent more than a week seeing the wonders of the Red Centre, but still Ormiston Gorge surprised us with its beauty. The gorge is more than simply stunningly beautiful, however. It is one of the best places to view the complex geology of the MacDonnell Ranges. It has remarkable flora and fauna, including species of plant that survive from an earlier time, when this was not a desert. And it has a surprisingly reliable waterhole—almost permanent and up to 40 feet deep in places.

Great river red gums guard the entrance to the gorge, as you can see in the first photo below. The gorge walls rise unevenly, wonderfully broken and eroded, creating a glorious backdrop (second photo). And the clear water reflects the complexly layered rock (third photo).

River Red Gum Ormiston Gorge Ormiston Gorge

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