RT2022: MacDonnell Ranges

Rocky Outcrop, Ellery Creek

On our way to four nights in each of the East and West MacDonnell Ranges, we had the luxury of two night in an Alice Springs hotel – the Mercure. Apart from the two hour wait for our room to be ready and the bizarre room light switching (which meant reading in bed with a head torch – just like camping), this time allowed us to wash clothes and restock our provisions.

We also managed a visit to the Alice Springs Desert Park which turned out to take up a whole morning by the time we listened to a Dingo presentation, watched a bird flight display and visited all of the nine aviaries (much to K’s delight). The park was very well laid out with many information boards dotted around the tracks – well worth a visit!

East MacDonnell Ranges

Trephina Gorge

Our next four nights were spent at Trephina Gorge in the East McDonnell Ranges. This was one of three NT Parks campgrounds at the gorge with plenty of space around each site and each with a fire pit. Unfortunately, three weeks prior, some numbskull camper decided to empty his ashes from his own portable fire pit into the grass and set off a hot wild fire that even managed to jump the dry creek bed.

Campground from Panorama Walk shows the extent of the fire.

This was a great base for a number of activities, the first of which we tackled on arrival – the Trephina Gorge loop walk. The track took us up the dry creek to the end of the gorge and then up an incline to the top of the gorge rim and down again – a short one hour walk.

While at the campground, we also completed a 8km trek up and back down the 4WD track off the Trephina Gorge access road to John Hayes Rockhole and lookout and the Panorama Walk, the latter having great views of the campground (see photo above) and the surrounding landscape.

We also did two trips in the car – one to Arltunga and the other to N’Dhana Gorge


This is a very remote abandoned gold mining town, officially Central Australia’s first town which once supported up to 300 people. We were a bit late in leaving on this drive as we sat in on a ranger talk about local bush tucker (which was very interesting), so we didn’t do it full justice. However, driving up a rough and corrugated 33 km road we managed a walk to Joker Gorge (but not into it due to the large sized rocks along its base), the climb up to the old Joker Mine and a wander round the government buildings, some of which have been sort of restored.

N’Dhala Gorge

Close to the end of the road to Ross River Resort and about 7km down a gravel road, this was one of the highlights of our stay in the East MacDonnell Ranges.

The track into the gorge took us from quite a wide space to a very narrow gap with Aboriginal art all along the way. This art was petroglyphs or rock carvings, rather than paintings, that was created by either ‘punching’ indentations with a sharper piece of stone or by using a ‘chisel’ struck by a ‘hammer’. The gorge contains 6,000 individual petroglyphs found in 438 engraved sites along the main gorge and 240 engraved sites in the side gorge. Some of the patterns are quite intricate, such as this one:

When we reached the end of the formed track, we noticed that a track of sorts continued, so we carried on, clambering across the rocks that formed the dry river bed until we reached the sun at the other end. On our way in we were the only people there, but on our return, we passed four groups of others making their way in.

West MacDonnell Ranges

Ellery Creek Big Hole

Our next stop, after calling into to Alice to restock, was the Ellery Creek Big Hole Campground in the West MacDonnell Ranges. When we arrived, we were initially very disappointed with the site we had booked as it was only big enough to squeeze the trailer in (after some expert reversing on my part) and park the car in front, half on the thoroughfare. As we were due to stay four nights it was our intention to put up the awning, but the site didn’t allow that. In some respects this was good, because during our third night we had a really bad storm with rain and strong winds that could have damaged to awning. On the other hand, it wasn’t so good as it rained heavily during our last day, meaning we couldn’t use the pull out kitchen. Once the rain and sky had cleared, we had one of the coldest nights of the trip – by morning we had ice on the wagon’s windscreen – neither of us slept very well due to the cold!

Using Ellery Creek as a base, we managed to visit most of the gorges along the way: Standley Chasm, Serpentine Gorge, Ormiston Gorge, Glen Helen and The Ochre Pits.

Standley Chasm

Fellow campers suggested we visit Standley Chasm around 12.00 – the time of day when the sun shines directly into the chasm, so off we went. Arriving about 12:30, we found the car park pretty full, suggesting that everyone else was there for the same reason (although some were there for lunch at the café). After paying our $20 entrance fee, we walked up to the chasm and found quite a few visitors there. Miraculously, about 30 minutes later, during which time we sat on a rock to eat our filled roll lunch, we had the place to ourselves, allowing me to spend a bit of time taking a few shots.

Standley Chasm with people to show the scale

From a photographic point of view, that time of day is not good due to the high dynamic range created by the sun and the shadows, meaning that the above shot has been processed using the HDR function in Photoshop.

Serpentine Gorge

Ormiston Gorge

This gorge features a small number of walks, ranging from 500m to the waterhole to a 4 hour hike round the Pound, the latter featuring a wade through nicker high water across the creek. We had been recommended to visit the café for coffee and cream scones/muffins, so that was our first stop. The scones were very good, but not enough jam. We bought a take away muffin for later, it was excellent and would have been a better choice with the coffee.

Our selected walk was the Ghost Gum circuit. This involved another steep climb to a lookout over the waterhole and then a slow descent up the gorge. We expected to return via the other side of the gorge, but when we arrived at the creek crossing, we returned the same way on account of there being no discernible return track. The gorge itself, as all the other gorges is really impressive.

Glen Helen

Only another few kilometres beyond Ormiston Gorge is Glen Helen Gorge. On my previous visit in 2017, this was a very welcoming attraction, but it has been acquired by Discovery Parks and is now very commercialised. I was hoping to top up with diesel here, but they no longer provide this service. However, we needed to buy a permit for the Mereenie Loop Road for the next leg of our trip to Kings Canyon, so we stopped, very briefly, without walking to the gorge.

Ochre Pits

On the way back to the campground, we stopped at the Ochre Pits. This site was the source of ochre for the local aboriginals. Ochre is used for many purposes including medicinal and ceremonial and at this site there are many different colours. Unfortunately, it was a dull day, so the colours were not as bright as the last time I visited in 2017. None the less, worth the extra visit.

Larapinta Trail

The Larapinta Trail extends 223km from Alice Springs to Mount Sonder. To walk the full length takes around 14 days. One of the camping stopovers is Ellery Creek Big Hole, so we saw quite a few hikers camping out on the creek bed. As it was on the door step, we decided to walk part of the section to the east. This was our last day and the forecast was for rain. Setting out, it started to drizzle on and off, but undeterred we carried on making it to the north side of the saddle, about 4.5km. At this point we were able to enjoy the view across the plain to the north of the escarpment to the ranges beyond.

By the time we were half way back it started to rain lightly and we managed to get back under cover before it became a lot heavier. Fortunately, by mid-afternoon the rain stopped and we were able to dry everything out before packing up the next morning for travelling to Kings Canyon, even though as I said earlier, it was a sub-zero night.

2 Responses

  1. Your adventures are amazing. We went to Creswick today with the intention of doing some walks – but alas, it was raining. We did vis3the information centre and are now prepared with very helpful brochures for a return visit in better weather.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

error: Sorry, this image is not available for downloading, please contact Martin Leitch for further information.