It was 17:00 on 18 Aug 2010 when we got to the Simpsons Gap access road. Because it was so late and because Simpsons Gap is only 17 km from Alice Springs, we decided to visit the next day. Although the Visitors' Center (see a separate tip) is 5 km away, it is only a 20 min return walk from the trailhead to the gap and back. The current trail was constructed by the staff and inmates of the Alice Springs Gaol in 1989-90. At dawn or dusk, Simpsons Gap is known as a place to see Black-footed Rock-wallabies along the trail to the gap. However, we were there at midday. We heard noises, including dingo calls, but did not see any wallabies. Sections 1 and 2 of the Larapinta Trail meet at Simpsons Gap. See also a videoclip.
There is a nice Visitors' Center on the access road with many posters and interactive displays. Simpsons Gap was discovered by non-Aboriginal people in 1871 by Gilbert McMinn, a member of the Overland Telegraph survey party. On his map he spelled the name as "Simsons Gap." Why he did so is unclear. Also why the spelling was later changed to "Simpson" is not known, but it is not thought to be a connection with the Simpson Desert. Until the establishment of the national park in 1970 the area was a huge cattle station.
Simpsons Gap is one of a number of scenic gaps that pierce the West MacDonnell Ranges and is one of the most prominent waterholes in the region. Simpsons Gap is an important spiritual site to the Central Arrernte people and is called Rungatjirpe (pronounced Rung-GAH-chip-uh) by them. It is where several dreaming trails and stories cross. As the mythological home of a group of giant Perentie (goanna) ancestors, it is an important local center for the lizard totem. It's also a place that is associated with Eagle and Rock-wallaby Dreamings. There is a nice Visitors' Center on the access road with many posters and interactive displays (see a separate tip). At dawn or dusk Simpsons Gap is known as a place to see Black-footed Rock-wallabies but we were there at midday. See also a couple of videoclips.
About two-thirds of the 10 km access road to Standley Chasm is in the national park. When we had gone ~3 km, we came across a fearless "dragon" in the center of the road. Even as we drove up to it and stopped, it never moved. It had the attitude of "this is my road and get that truck out of here before I rip a tire off!" Actually I think it was a Pogona vitticeps or bearded dragon. By now it may be a pancake.
Standley Chasm (Angkerle) is Aboriginal land and is part of the Iwupataka Land Trust. It is surrounded by the West MacDonnell National Park. Standley Chasm is operated by an Aboriginal family and there is an 8 AUD entry fee. There are many facilities including a campground, restaurant, gift shop and running water toilets (see a separate tip). We started up the trail a little before 16:00. One of the first things we noticed was that there are many man-made additions to the trail: stones in concrete, artificially placed fungi, railings, etc. (the Park Service is not allowed to do such things at sacred sites). This gives a much more commercialized feel to the trail but some sections are still spectacular. See also a travelogue with scenes along the trail. It took about 20 min to get to the chasm. It is a pretty place with a stream running through a narrow gap in the escarpment. Sections 3 and 4 of the Larapinta Trail meet at Standley Chasm.
There are many facilities at Standley Chasm including a campground, restaurant, gift shop and running water toilets. The operating hours are 08:00 - 17:00. The gate to the property closes at 18:00 and "a re-opening fee may apply" if you are late leaving.
Ellery Creek Big Hole was one of the more spectacular gorges that we saw in the West MacDonnell Ranges (Tyurretye). Swimming is allowed in the waterhole. Sections 6 and 7 of the 223 km Larapinta Trail start or finish at Ellery Creek Big Hole. There is a local walk called the Dolomite Walk (3km loop walk - 1.5hrs), which takes in some of the facinating geology of the site along a marked, unsealed path with some steady inclines. See also a videoclip.
When we left Glen Helen Resort at 15:25, the plan was to camp at Ormiston Gorge and then Zyg, George and Pauline would go directly to Alice Springs the next day to get Zyg's car's differential fixed (George and Pauline had seen the West MacDonnell Ranges before). I would switch to the Seymour's truck and we would all go back to Redbank Gorge and do the sites on Namatjira Drive on our way back to Alice Springs the next day. However, when we arrived at Ormiston Gorge at 15:45, the tent camping area was "chock-a-block" (totally full). We decided to camp at Ellery Creek Big Hole instead.
We arrived at the Ellery Creek Big Hole campground around 16:45. It was pretty full but there were campsites. The ground was very rocky, so the tents could only be pitched in certain places. We had to put our tents close to Ben's tent (a French guy walking the Larapinta Trail), so we invited him to dinner and breakfast. It happened to be George's and Pauline's anniversary and they had brought a bottle of champagne to celebrate. Rosie made a tasty spicy salami pasta for dinner. The campground is next to Ellery Creek, which had water. Although there are running water toilets, there are no showers or sinks because they use recycled waste water. The camping fee is 3.30 AUD per person. See also a videoclip.
We returned to Ormiston Gorge on 18 Aug 2010 after not finding camping space on the 17th. The gorge has a deep (14 meters), near-permanent waterhole that attracts much wildlife. Swimming is allowed but the water can be very cold. To the Western Arrernte people, the waterhole is known as Kwartetweme (pronounced kwart-a-tooma). It is an Emu Dreaming place. There is a nice Visiters' Center with wall displays and a 3 min recording by Edward Rontji about the Emu Dreaming (see a videoclip). Ormiston Gorge has camping facilities including gas barbeques, showers and toilets. There is a limited supply of drinking water. Campers should bring their own water.
The 10 minute return Waterhole Walk (wheelchair access to the end of the paved path) and the 40 minute return Ghost Gum Lookout Walk both stay on the west side of Ormiston Creek and are the most popular. The Ormiston Pound Walk is a 3-4 hour loop from the Visitor Center to the east. It meanders around scenic slopes, and crosses the creek 5-6 times. Also, Sections 9 and 10 of the Larapinta Trail meet at the Visitors' Center. We only had time to do the Waterhole Walk. It was a windy day but see also a couple of videoclips of the gorge and waterhole.
It was already 14:40 when we arrived at the Serpentine Gorge trailhead. There are three walks available. The trail to the gorge via the service track is 2.6 km and 60 min return. Another route but up the creek bed adds about 10 min each way. The Lookout Walk is a steep, stony trail from the gorge entrance to a lookout overlooking the gorge from a sheer cliff. It is a strenuous climb and takes about 30 min return. Since we still wanted to see Standley Chasm and time was running out, we decided we had better give Serpentine Gorge a pass.
Altyerre (pronounced al-cha-ra) was the Dreamtime creation period before people. The world was inhabited by powerful spirit-beings that took many forms. Serpentine Gorge is the home of a large and fierce Water Serpent. People only went there if they were desperate. Anyone wishing to drink from the waterhole had to observe the correct procedure. All weapons were left behind and certain songs were sung to calm the Water Serpent. Once this had been done, it was then possible to drink without fear of being killed. Swimming was never permitted though. Even today Aboriginal people are reluctant to approach this waterhole. Maybe we were wise to skip Serpentine Gorge.
Only limited facilities are provided at Serpentine Gorge. Camping and wood fires are not permitted. Sections 7 and 8 of the Larapinta Trail meet at Serpentine Gorge. Evidently Section 7 (Ellery Creek to Serpentine Gorge) is one of the most overlooked sections as a day walk option.
Ochre Pits is a colourful outcrop of ochre on the banks of a sandy creek. Some of the cliffs are 10 meters tall. Ochre is integral to the Dreamtime stories, the stories of creation and law of the Aboriginal people throughout Australia. Red ochre deposits often represent the blood of sacred ancestral beings. The ochre from this site is still used by Western Arrernte people, mainly for ceremonial purposes. Women and children are not permitted to dig the ochre, or know of the stories associated with the site. However, men can give women the ochre to use in their ceremonies.
Ochre has always been an important part of Aboriginal culture and a vital part of everyday life. For medicinal purposes red ochre can be mixed with grease and applied as an ointment and to relieve decongestion when mixed with eucalyptus leaves. White ochre was used as a magical charm, when mixed with water and blown from the mouth it is believed to abate the heat of the sun or the force of the wind. Weapons were painted with ochre to increase the success of hunting. It also protected the wooden weapons from termites.
Visitors are asked not to touch or remove the ochre from the cliffs. See also a travelogue with pictures of the ochre and a videoclip.
The Finke Two Mile Bushcamping Area is on the east side of the river where it crosses Namatjira Drive near the Glen Helen Resort. It is a designated campsite on the Larapinta Trail as an alternative to the Finke River Trailhead. Camping is permitted in a 3 km section of the riverbed but only on the east side. You need a 4WD to get to it but it is free. Do not camp at Finke Two Mile if there is any chance of rain. It is all in the flood plain of the river. We stopped to eat lunch there. Except for one campsite, we were the only ones there. There is not even a dunny in this bushcamping area but it was quiet and beautiful. Another plus is that there are many water birds! It was quite windy but I did take a couple of videoclips. See also a travelogue with pictures of the water birds.
The Mount Sonder Lookout is just west of where the Finke River crosses Namatjira Drive and about 1 km west of the turnoff to the Glen Helen Resort. Mount Sonder is 380 meters tall and is on the western end of the 223 km Larapinta Trail. From the Lookout you also have good views of the Finke Two Mile Bushcamping area. See also a videoclip.
After spending the night at Ellery Creek Big Hole, we were packed up by about 09:30 and headed back west to Redbank Gorge. It took about an hour to get there. The three signs for the Redbank Gorge Walk are confusing. The "Walks of the Area" sign in the trailhead shelter and the online fact sheet say 2 km and 1.5 hours return. The "Welcome to Redbank Gorge" in the trailhead shelter sign says you may walk along Redbank Creek and swim in the waterhole at the beginning of the gorge in 1.0 hour return, and if you swim and climb to the north end of the gorge to add an extra 2.0 hours. The sign on the trail where it splits to go to Redbank Gorge and Sections 11 and 12 of the Larapinta Trail says 20 min to Redbank Gorge. This last sign is just a one minute walk from the shelter where the first two signs are located. We did not have much time, so we decided to go up the trail for 20 min to see what we could see. It turns out that 45 min return is not enough to reach the gorge but we did see a pretty canyon with colorful rock formations, caves and some nice blooming plants. See the travelogues for samples of the plants and rocks.
The West MacDonnell National Park is an area that is north of Larapinta Drive and Namatjira Drive starting just west of Alice Springs and running more than 150 km west past Redbank Gorge. There is also an extension on the west end that includes Tylers Pass. There are many interesting sites (see the fact sheet and map) along the way including Simpsons Gap, Standley Chasm, Ellery Creek Big Hole, Serpentine Gorge, Ochre Pits, Ormiston Gorge, Glen Helen Gorge, 2 Mile, Mount Sonder Lookout, Redbank Gorge, and Tylers Pass. The 2010 VT Survivor Camp tour went to most of these places and the details are in the tips below.