Monday, 21 August 1995

West McDonnell Ranges

Mt Sonder
With the disaster of yesterday behind us, we headed for the West McDonnell Ranges and somescenery which had been unheralded prior to our arrival in Alice Springs.

The McDonnell Ranges are a line of mountains rising suddenly from the fat terrain and extending in an east/west direction like long spines. Their origin was as layers of sediment laid down in a slow moving body of water. The layers were then uplifted andfolded to form the massive shapes which tower above Alice Springs and the country side to west and east.

Where the ranges have been breached by the movement of water, gorges have formed. These range from the spectacularly narrow and deep gorges such as Standley Chasm, through to the more sedate Glen Helen Gorge.

Our day trip took us first to the most remote of these gorges, Glen Helen Gorge, which is approximately 140 kms from The Alice, in a roughly westerly direction. Glen Helen Gorge is a hole in the range where the Finke Riverfows through from the south and contains one of only six permanent water holes in the Finke River system. The water hole is at the base of the gorge
and contains deep, cold, clear water. Although there are no dangers from any creature which might lurk there, the depth of the water and its temperature are the traps for young players. Even in hot weather, the temperature differential between the first metre of water and subsequent depths is great and warnings have been posted to that effect. In fact, in hot atmospheric conditions, the risk is even greater, because the difference between ambient atmospheric temperature and water temperature is greater and the shock to the body on entering can cause sudden blackout or the closing down of body functions.

Glen Helen Gorge
At Glen Helen Gorge, you are unable to walk through the actual gorge as the water course takes up all of the space available, but the reflections in the still water and the antics of the ducks and greebes were worth the drive.

Also of note here was a breath taking view of Mt Sonder, which was another twenty kilometres distant inthe north west. The blue and grey hues were unmistakable trademarks of the painting of Albert Namatjira. Namatjira was born not all tha far from Glen Helen, at the Hermansburg Mission to the south. He spent his life here and painted his wonderful water colours of the mountains in this region. It was not until now we realised how accurate a refection his work is of the actual scenery.

From Glen Helen Gorge, we travelled back towards Alice Springs to Ormiston Gorge. By starting at the most distant gorge, we figured we would always be getting closer to The Alice and therefore, anything we missed could be caught up with on the following day. Ormiston Gorge is the headquarters for the West McDonnell NP and is described as the "jewel" of the West McDonnells. All of this was unknown to us before arriving at Alice Springs.

Our chosen walk was the Ghost Gum Walk - a 4 km return loop which would take us Into the gorge and afford us views of the area. The gorge is a very deep one, with the western walls extending to a height of over one hundred metres. The water course which formed this gorge is non existent at this time of the year, with only a few shallow pools remaining along most of its sandy length within the gorge. The only exception is the larger Ormiston Pool, which sits below the southern entry point, marked by a vertical cliff face of 60 metres. It was above this pool and on top of this vertical face, where we had our first stop and viewed the amazing vista of the gorge and its surrounding scenery.

The western walls are dominated by massive layers of orange and black sandstone tilted upwards at
about25 degrees from the horizontal plane. Ghost Gums cling to rocky vantage points in several places and smaller acacias also eke out a lonely, desperate life on tlie vertical face of the rock wall.
The opposite wall is lower - perhaps only 30 metres at its highest point - but above this is a fairly steep and long slope rising to a similar height as the western wall, but in afar less immediate or dramatic fashion.

The first 30 metres is vertical and shares the orange hues of its opposite.

Low on the cliff faces and in the rubble at their base, the sandstone takes on purple, green and blue colours which ripple and run in beautiful patterns beyond human construction. It was beside such rocks we chose to sit and have our packed lunch.

We competed the walk after lunch, scrambling over rocks which are a jumbled obstruction as you near the southern entrance to the gorge. The large pool is on the other side of this long section of rocks and we were able to identify Sooty Grunters, Spikey Bream and Rainbow Fish as we walked past the bank of the pool and returned to the car park.

As In other places we had visited in the Territory, it was the combination of stark, vivid colours which
assaulted your vision on this walk and the vastness of the landforms. You couldn't help but feel the physical environment we had observed in NSW and Victoria on past trips was small by comparison to the scale of things in the Top End and Centre of Australia.

There was a reasonable camping ground at the site and this led to a sense of dissatisfaction that we had not been told about this place prior to the trip. As I have previously noted, I had written to the tourist information offices in all of the centres we were travelling to, indicating our preference for national parks and bushwalking. Despite this, we had not been told about the West McDonnell Ranges and the facilities here and we were disappointed we did not make our base here, instead of Alice Springs.

Still, this was the first regret in eight weeks and 8 000 kms of travel, so the original planning was holding up pretty well!

The ochre pits
From Ormiston Gorge, we continued east to The Ochre Pits: a major source of materials for aboriginal painting. Layers of fine sedimentary material - siltstone and mudstone - had been bedded into layers and then tilted through 90 degrees by the action of the earth movements. Later in its geological life, a creek has cut through the soft material and exposed vertical cliffs with a smorgasbord of coloured ochres. The soft yellow, red and purple rock is still removed from the layers and used for painting and rock art, but only by the traditional owners.

Our last visit for the day was to Ellery Creek Big Hole, another of the numerous breaks in the mountain range. Like Glen Helen Gorge, the hole in the range is filed with water and a large body of water remains here all year long. The depth is no where near as great as Glen Helen, so swimming here is much safer. We contemplated our navels whilst Sam and Sarah made mud structures in the sandy slope leading to the water hole. Chris skipped stones rather successfully over the water, whilst a constant draft of visitors blew past our particular spot on the billabong's edge.

This quiet, cool rest gave way to our return to Alice for supplies and to drop off five more films for developing.

The day spent, we retreated to our camp and settled down for another pleasant evening under canvas.

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