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Alice Springs and the East MacDonnell Ranges

It was the first time we had entered Alice from the north and it was pretty, with the MacDonnell Ranges in the background.

We chose our usual caravan park – Big4 MacDonnell Range and were able to use the afternoon to plan an exploration of the East MacDonnells and then relax.

Our first day took us to N’Dhala Gorge which involved magnificent scenery on the way there and some 4WD work from the main road. It was quite a short hike and although pretty, not worth the tough drive out, with lots of corrugations and sand, unless you planned to camp there. The gorge is the site of a large collection of Aboriginal petroglyphs, but as the track has lots of rocky sections I wouldn’t think a wheelchair would get very far.

Heading back towards Alice, the next stop was Trephina Gorge and this was really beautiful.

We also stopped at the ghost gum, a 300+ yr old tree. The walk was moderate/easy with the climbing at the start and sand at the end. It is quite majestic.

It seemed like a short stop to visit Corroboree Rock, so we took the turnoff. It is a startling structure in the middle of other rock formations, so easy to see why it was used as a meeting place.

We headed back to Alice and registered online for the Parrtjima light show, that another traveller had told us about. A shuttle from near the park took us there in the early evening and, surprisingly, we saw a couple we knew from SA on the shuttle.

Parrtjima is the only Aboriginal lightshow of its kind in the world and started in 2016. It is free to enter and the displays are beautiful, but nothing can describe the stunning projection on the West MacDonnell Ranges, accompanied by a narration that explains the relationship between the people and the land. I don’t think my photos will do it justice and we watched it twice, it was so moving.

I’d definitely recommend the event as it is free, spectacular but quite small, so it’s an early night. There are plenty of activities for children to take part in.

The following day, Ellery Creek Big Hole was gorgeous and had a large body of water suitable for swimming if it had been hot enough. We saw a girl going in and her partner was filming her with a drone. The water was icy cold so sooner her than me.

An easy, short walk.

Next we stopped at Serpentine Gorge which had an easy walk in, with a still pool of water at the end and a demanding, steep lookout walk.

The pool of water in the gorge is so cold that it has kept people and animals from going beyond it, for thousands of years. This has meant the ecology is preserved and both life forms can get a cool drink in summer when they need it.

Close to Alice Springs, we stopped at the original Telegraph Station, which is a well-preserved station with indoor and outdoor displays, showing life from as early as 1871. It is one of the first European settlements in Stuart, later named Alice Springs. There are short walks, bike trails and a walk to/from Alice township. We walked to the top of a nearby hill to take photos of the settlement.

We were back in time to watch the sun set over the West MacDonnell Ranges.

Travel safe. Take water, hats and sunscreen.

Killer trees – the strangler

The strangler fig is a type of Ficus that grows in tropical rainforests and gets its name from the habit of growing on other trees, often resulting in the demise of the host. They are impressive and beautiful, despite their unfortunate behaviour, and are sometimes very old and massive.

And I’m a big fan of them!

For more square trees (trees for squares?) see here.

Gregory Downs, Barkley Homestead, Tennant Creek and Karlu Karlu.

It’s a sign of the times we live in, that our next stretch was mapped according to where we could get a border pass. Covid-19 had meant that travel in Australia had introduced people to where the State borders actually are, and who could cross them.

From Gregory Downs there are three possible roads, or tracks, but only one is bitumen. We stopped at Burke and Wills Roadhouse for fuel (both the car and us) after encountering those tall grey birds again. I’ll include a zoomed shot, just to give you an idea, but it’s pixelated. Diesel was predictably expensive so we didn’t fill.

It might be worth mentioning that Burke and Wills were explorers who, with John King and Charles Gray, became the first Europeans to cross Australia from south to north. It was on their return journey that Burke, Wills and Gray died of malnutrition.

We took the Cloncurry Road, hoping to get NT border passes before Camooweal, and had to drive about 300km to Mt Isa for printing facilities. The Overlanders Way from Cloncurry to Mt Isa is through the Selwyn Ranges and is very pretty, if winding.

Corella Dam camp was recommended along the way, but reviews on WIKICAMPS suggested that we might have trouble with our van, so we ended up making our way to a free campsite just out of Isa, WW2 Memorial. Its a very spacious site, with many toilets, a BBQ and a shelter. Several other campers were there, mostly within a 20m radius, but some were off in the bush somewhere and I could catch a glimpse of van or hear a distant peel of laughter. The guy in the next car was strumming a guitar before dinner which was very civilized. No phone service and intermittent wifi.

The next morning we crossed the border without incident and made it to Barkley Homestead around midday. We’d stopped here briefly in the past, and this time we thought it was a good way to break up the long, straight drives, and decide what direction we’d take, next. We felt due for a bit of luxury, by way of a pool and a laundry – oh the simple pleasures. More tips were gleaned about where to go next – Banga Banga, Daly Waters, Alice Springs.

Barkley Homestead, like an oasis on the highway.

The Homestead includes some old mining and farming machinery on display out the front, and provides a distraction while you stop.

The facilities are a bit old and tired but there is a restaurant, café, cabins and the break was good. As a last minute decision when we woke we headed along the termite-lined highway the next day to Tennant Creek.

Tennant Creek is a town that you will hear a lot about and generally with warnings and trepidation. We had been through quite a few times and thought it was time we had a tourist view of this large outback town.

The town’s importance probably started in 1874 when the Overland Telegraph Station was built and was an integral part of communication between Barrow Creek and Powell Creek. Mining of gold began in the 1930s and some of the mines later became successful copper mines. The Battery Hill Mining Centre is a good source of information and tours and there is a walk you can do to Battery Hill.

Peko mine from Battery Hill
Telegraph wires

A visit to the Nyinkka Nyunyu Art and Culture Centre was remarkable. Some indigenous women were working on their current pieces and we chatted a little with them before walking through the gallery where, we were told, orders are sent through from all over the world. We weren’t surprised.

some of the artwork on display

For lunch, it was a short drive to Lake Mary Ann where there are many facilities, opportunities for water sport, play equipment, but no camping.

Lake Mary Ann

I think the concerns about Tennant Creek are with staying there overnight, but we have stayed in the Outback Caravan Park in the past and been very happy. There are a couple of free camps not far out of town on the Barkley Highway. I wouldn’t walk around at night as there is a bit of drinking in the town and it can get rowdy. We weren’t stopping yet, so made our way to a very exciting spot.

Karlu Karlu, named Devil’s Marbles by Europeans, is definitely a bucket list place to camp.

This was the fourth time we had been there and yet we hadn’t realised it was so expansive or understood how the rocks were formed.

About 1700 million years ago, magma squeezed up from under the Earth’s surface and as it cooled, cracks formed. Over time, water and wind did its work and columns, then boulders formed.

The Day Centre in the distance

We had arrived uncertain whether to stay but quickly made up our mind as there were only 3 others there. We could access free wifi if we were close to the day centre and did 3 of the walks as they were easy.

There were toilets and we paid $3.30 each to camp, using honesty envelopes. We didn’t have the right money so gave a bit extra.

Three hours after we had arrived, at 5.30pm, the place was just about full. Three or four tents went up and the rest were caravans and campers. We were very surprised, but I can’t deny that we were also pretty chuffed that we were part of another great Australian sunset event. As shadows lengthened, it was time to appreciate the colours and textures of this place.

And in the morning, the parade of colour began, again.

first hints
the land washed in light
the horizon darkens
or is it my camera darkening
We all watch in silent wonder

It really is worth the stop if you have your own accommodation. As a sacred site of the Kaytetye, Warumungu and Warlpiri peoples of the area, you are asked to keep to the walking tracks and not photograph in certain areas. It is made pretty clear, with signage.

I hope that I have respected the signs and wishes of the traditional owners and have not included any sensitive sites in my photos. Please let me know if I have and I will remove them.

Travel safe. Take hats, water and sunscreen.