The MacDonnell Ranges stretching 644 kilometres to both the east and west of Alice Springs are an awesome collection of mountains and gorges, offering visitors a thrilling Outback experience. Since they were formed approximately 350 million years ago, the range has been shaped by folding, faulting and erosion to create numerous gaps and gorges. The vivid colours of the rock, which change constantly with the shifting light, are simply magnificent. It is easy to see why the Ranges so inspired Aboriginal artist Albert Namatijira. Towering Mount Zeil is, at 1,531 metres, the tallest mountain in the Northern Territory, while nearby Mount Liebig and Mount Sonder aren’t far behind.
The most famous of the gorges and camping spots are found in the West MacDonnell National Park. Linking most of them is the world famous Larapinta Trail, a bush walking track that runs 223 kilometres along the backbone of the range.
Ormiston Gorge is the most well-established campsite and even boasts solar heated showers, as well as a visitor centre and live-in rangers. As with all of the gorges, there are some wonderful walks to be enjoyed and there are swimming opportunities along the way.
Not too far away is the commercial camping area of Glen Helen Lodge for those of you who enjoy your luxuries. Further east, there is a more ‘bushy’ camping opportunity – complete with drop toilets – at Ellery Creek Big Hole, which is truly spectacular. Sheer rock faces climb either side of a beautiful water hole. The amount of water varies dramatically with the season and it can get bone-numbingly cold, too, so be careful.
Stanley Chasm is best visited at noon as the light is perfect and enables you to fully appreciate its beauty. This an Aboriginal site and there is a charge to enter. There is no camping here.
East of The Alice, there are some other interesting gorges including the fascinating Trephina Gorge. Further east still, along a dirt track, is the old goldmining town of Arltunga. This township is well worth a visit although it’s probably smart to drop the van at one of the gorges, if you are towing, and take a day trip.
The MacDonnell Ranges are rightly famed as a genuine Aussie icon and are a must do for anyone venturing up the Centre. The distances here are huge so plan your trip carefully and remember to put your shoes and other bits and bobs in at night as the dingoes do roam. So, get yourself a nice campfire going, uncork a bottle of something, gaze up at the stars and listen to the sound of the dingoes howling. It doesn’t get much better than this.
MAKE SURE YOU …
Look for fossil evidence of the inland sea that once covered the area; visit Aboriginal rock art sites at the East MacDonnells; at least dip your toe in the chilly water at Ellery Creek Big Hole; visit the Ochre Pits once used by Aboriginal people as a quarry; drive to the gold-mining ghost town at Arltunga; visit heaps of gorges! To the east are Emily Gap, Jessie Gap, Trephina Gorge, and N’Dhala Gorge. To the west are iconic gorges including: Simpsons Gap; Standley Chasm, Ellery Creek Big Hole, Glen Helen Gorge; Redbank Gorge; Ormiston Gorge.
WHERE TO CAMP
There are many caravan parks in the Alice Springs area which is only an hour or so away from the MacDonnells; there are also wonderfully scenic campsites at Trephina Gorge and N’Dhala Gorge in the east; and at Ormiston Gorge, Ellery Creek Big Hole and the more-difficult-to-reach Serpentine Gorge. A full-facility camping experience is also available at Glen Helen Lodge.