2001 Troopy’s First Trip to the Red Centre – Part 4 Ross River to Palm Valley

Monday, Sep 10, 2001 at 16:37

Member - John and Val


Arltunga is an early gold prospecting and mining area said to have been the incentive to bring the first white men to the centre. Not many white women came in those early days. It must have been a very tough life as the country is very dry and harsh with little or no surface water, and very hard rock. It was only accessible by foot with prospective miners pushing wheelbarrows over huge distances to get to the gold.

There are quite a few stone buildings spread over a large area; some are being restored. On a hot listless day it was hard to imagine how we would survive in such a desolate, harsh and isolated spot. It was with a touch of relief that, exploration done, we abandoned history for the air-conditioned comfort of Troopy and headed back to Alice Springs.

Then it was time to head west; first stop Simpson’s Gap. It is magnificent – huge red cliffs finishing abruptly where water has cut a channel through the range. There is a big pool of water in the gap itself with a broad dry sandy creek bed either side of the gap lined with scattered red gums. We were lucky to see a black footed rock wallaby, one of the 20 or so that live in the boulders near the gap. It was about the size of a cat and very well camouflaged.

The MacDonnell Ranges (according to the signage) were once as high as the Himalayas but have been eroded down over 800 million years to their present form. Softer rocks have worn away and what is left is hard quartzite. What is revealed are the layers of rocks, once horizontal, now tilted upwards, twisted and buckled; the ancient fissures providing the niches where gums and grasses mange to weave their roots into the whole mosaic.

The scale of this scene is difficult to comprehend, and the emotional response quite powerful. It is also very difficult to photograph given the scale and the contrasts of light and shade.

Standley Chasm is managed by an aboriginal group and there is an entrance fee. The gorge narrows to about 5m at its narrowest point, and runs roughly north-south. Consequently sunlight only reaches the floor for a short time around noon each day. This event seems to elicit some kind of reverence for some of the many people gathered there anxiously studying their watches.

We chanced to arrive there at about the “sunlight time” having made our way into the gorge along the kilometre long track that follows a dry creekbed. Walking in the heat is quite strenuous as we negotiated loose hard rock, big boulders and patches of loose sand. After all that we were a bit underwhelmed and beginning to experience the “gorged out” feeling that we have heard other travellers speak about – trying to take in too many quite overwhelming experiences too quickly.

We stopped for lunch in a quiet spot in the shade of big gum tree beside another dry creekbed. These creekbeds can be up 100 metres wide, with extensive stretches of sand, and drifts of hard clinking pebbles and rock debris – very different from the creeks that we are familiar with at home in the east!

Ellery Creek Bighole promised camping and a swimming hole, and of course another gorge. When we arrived the temperature was well over 30 degrees, the water was too cold for swimming, the campground was full and the toilets foul. (That was in 2001, and we believe the toilets are now good - see Daz's comment below.) But the very presence of water makes any place attractive, and apart from the toilets, this is indeed an attractive place. The gap in the rocky red ranges is taken up by a big pool of water, while shallow pools extend back along the creeklines. These pools are very pretty, lined with big gums and supporting lots of small fish and birds aplenty. A good place to spend the night.

Ormiston Gorge is the next gorge to the west, but before going there we visited the Ochre Pits that were a source of ochre for aboriginals to use in their ceremonies. The ochre is also said to have been widely traded. The pits were in the bank of a dry creek, in vertical bands of various colours each a metre or so wide. The colours ranged from the predominant purplish-red, through white, yellow and orange. The Red ochre was quite hard while the yellow was soft and chalky.

The red rock walls rising perhaps 200 meters from the creek was an awesome sight. It required some effort to walk along the alternately sandy and rocky creek bed to reach the large pools where a few people were enjoying the water. It was very hot so we decided against walking further but John climbed the track to the top of the walls for an impressive view.

By this stage we were becoming saturated with beautiful gorges and stunning scenery – it provides so much to take in that one becomes saturated and emotionally overloaded. We decided to make camp early so called in to Glen Helen Gorge for our Mereenie Loop permit before heading out to Redbank Gorge and the campground there. This is an excellent National Parks camping area with plenty of space, free gas BBQs, clean new tables, fireplaces, even a soft sand base to the actual campsite.

During the night it rained a bit, enough to redistribute so of Troopy’s burden of mud and dust. In the morning the birds responded with much song and occasional flashes of colour, including from a beautiful red cap robin.

We were on the road early heading for Hermansberg on a road that was in reasonable condition, although a bit rough and corrugated in places. There were plenty of flowers to see, mainly flowering shrubs that seemed to change with every ridge we crossed. There were daisies, mint bushes, cassias, grevilleas or hakeas as well as the astonishing desert oak or casuarina. These are attractive, well-proportioned trees when mature with pendulous prickly foliage. The juvenile trees however have an erect columnar shape, so stands of mixed-age trees present an unusual and distinctive landscape.

We stopped at Tylers Pass for a cuppa and were stunned by our first sudden view of Gosse Bluff, shimmering blue and craggy in the distance, in sharp contrast to the rounded Spinifex covered hills surrounding us. Behind us the West MacDonnells were still imposing though they too were blue and hazy.

Gosse Bluff is thought to have been formed by the impact of a comet hundreds of millions of years ago. The impact crater has eroded away and the present bluff is all that is left of the central cone of almost vertical rocks. We drove in for a closer look but much of the areas is a sacred site, not open to visitors. A short walk around allowed us to see sections of the crater-like walls with strange looking rocks.

The stretch of road into Hermannsberg was about the worst that we had encountered so far, corrugated with big potholes. The Finke River there had big pools of water so we were soon heading for Palm Valley. Signs advised 4WD only and to allow 3 hours for a return trip plus short walk. This proved to be an optimistic estimate. Halfway in we encountered a German couple who had apparently given up trying to get in to Pam Valley in their small $WD that had limited clearance. They spoke little English so it was hard to be sure. So we escorted them across a particularly soft section of riverbed, then proceeded on our way.

The road became more interesting with loose sand, rock bars and coarse gravel while the scenery became more spectacular as we passed towering piles of ancient red rocks. The colours are astonishing – big gums and patches of bright green reeds contrasting with the deep purples and reds of the rocks.

The campground where we stopped for lunch was very busy and when we returned to it late in the afternoon we were lucky to get one of the last vacant spots. But we were eager to get to the valley so we set out on the last 4km stretch which took us nearly half an hour to negotiate. But the valley was certainly worth the effort of getting there. There are hundreds of red cabbage tree palms clustered along the river-bed which is constantly fed by a reservoir of ancient water stored in the porous sandstone. Following the track along the valley floor we soon reached the termination of the short walk and quickly decided to do the full 5km 2 hour circuit. At this point the number of other walkers had thinned out so we felt as though we were alone in this beautiful country.

It is hard to describe such a magnificent place – the scale, the contrasts of colour and texture, the juxtaposition of water and desert are quite overwhelming. Will our photos do the scenery justice? Still the walking was easy over flat rock platforms and patches of sand, with enough palms to provide refreshing shade. Eventually the palms thinned out and it was time for the return trip across the plateau above the cliffs. But first a little cooling off was called for, via quick dunk in a cool rocky pool.

It was a steep climb up a gully under massive rock overhangs, then out across the top through huge clumps of Spinifex with seed heads as tall as our heads, and plenty of flowering shrubs. We sampled some ripe native figs, juicy and pleasant tasting providing there were no ants lurking inside. The view from the edge of the plateau was spectacular, as was the sight of Troopy with a cold beer in the fridge! Back at the camground a hot shower marked the end of a most satisfying day.
J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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