"Destination Unknown" Day 10 - On the trail of Ernest Giles - Western MacDonnell Ranges (Mereenie)

Sunday, Jul 10, 2011 at 00:00

Mick O

10th July, 2011
Hard on then trail of Ernest Giles
Alice Springs, NT


Once again t'was another glorious red centre morning to be enjoyed by the fire with a cup of tea and a jaffle. Todays objective was Alice Springs, only 3 hours drive to the east, but along the way we intended to take in some of the magnificent Western McDonnell country.


I’d always been a fan of the explorer Ernest Giles having read an Adelaide Uni reproduction of “Australia Twice Traversed” way back when I was an impressionable fourteen years of age. To be in the country that he was the first European to visit is always interesting mind you I often fail to reconcile his romantic notions of the places he describes in his journal with the 'on-ground' reality. Suffice to say, back in September to November, 1872, Giles and his party were struggling through this region as summer approached, trying to push their way west. The Larapinta Drive (Mereenie Loop Road) follows a lot of the route of Giles early journey mind you, our modern day tavellers do so in a far greater degree of comfort.



Once over the George Gill Range, the well graded dirt track heads north across the Dare Plain where the Mereenie oil and gas field now sits. This largely acacia covered plain finally meets the Gardiner Range near the hill known as “Camels Hump”. Here the road swings to the south east and follows the low, jagged ridges of the Gardiner Range. It is magnificent country and the road appears to have been recently resurfaced as well. It’s in fantastic condition as it follows the gentle undulations of the surrounding hills. On our way we disturbed a group of four dingos, three of which didn’t hang around, belting off at speed across the grasslands to the north. The fourth, a lean looking animal was cut off from his mates by the road and our vehicles. It loitered long enough for us to secure a few photos of him. He had a couple of distinctive scars across his snout and though lean, looked to be in good health. The colouration of one or two of his mates indicated they may have a bit of dog in them somewhere along the line.


“The country in its immediate neighbourhood is open, and timbered with fine Casuarina trees; the grass is dry and long, and the triodia approaches to within a quarter of a mile of it. The line of hills I previously mentioned as running along to the south of us, we had now run out. I named them Gardiner's Range, after a friend of Mr. Carmichael's. There is, however, one small isolated hill, the furthest outpost of that line, some three miles away to the south-west; the creek may probably take a bend down towards it. I called it Mount Solitary. This creek is rather well timbered, the gum-trees look fresh and young, and there is some green herbage in places, though the surface water has all disappeared.”
Ernest Giles -18th September 1872 – Australia Twice Traversed


With a broad, open valley to the left and distant lines of trees outlining the many creeks, the area just beckoned us to pull over and stay a while. At any other time, we would have been spoiled for choice as far as camp sites were concerned. Every now and then a track would head off to the north towards the ranges of That Hill (that’s its name “That Hill”! I kid you not) and I must confess that the temptation to head off and explore was hard to resist. Unfortunately time was against us so we headed on. Extensive road works are being conducted along Larapinta Drive. If the quality of the road we’ve been travelling on is any indicator, the results will be well worth it.


Larapinta Drive veers to the south of Mt Katapata and then climbs through the Katapata Gap onto the wide. arid expanses of the Missionary Plain. It is not to far along this easterly track before the craggy peaks of Gosse's Bluff become visible to the north. Gosse's bluff was discovered by Giles in 1872 and named "Gosse’s Range" after Mr Harry Gosse, a fellow of the Royal Society.


The bluff itself is a circular ring of hills 5 kilometres in diameter and 200 metres high. It was formed about 140 million years ago by the impact of an asteroid or comet believed to be up to 2 km in diameter. The hills are part of the crater's central uplift, which formed when the earth's surface recoiled from the impact. A circular drainage system 24 km in diameter marks the outer ring of the crater. The bluff is deeply significant to the Western Arrernte Aboriginal people, who own the Tnorala Conservation Reserve that now contains the crater.





This impact is believed to have occurred at the very end of the Jurassic Period at a time when the largest dinosaurs declined in number. This impact alone would not have been large enough to cause mass extinctions on a broad scale, but would certainly have caused a lot of local damage. The remnants of a similar crater originating in the same period can be found in South Africa (Morokweng Crater). At 70 km in diameter it was a much larger impact than the Gosse's Bluff incident. Either way, this is not a place you would have wanted to be standing any where near when the celestial tour of our cosmic visitor came to an abrupt and no doubt fiery end! What we see today are only the worn remains of a crater that was once 5 km deep and certainly surrounded by a rim much higher than stands today. From the journals of Ernest Giles;

“A few cypress pines are rooted in the rocky shelving sides of the range, which is not of such elevation as it appeared from a distance. The highest points are not more than from 700 to 800 feet. I collected some specimens of plants, which, however, are not peculiar to this range. I named it Gosse's range, after Mr. Harry Gosse. The late rains had not visited this isolated mass. It is barren and covered with spinifex from turret to basement, wherever sufficient soil can be found among the stones to admit of its growth.”

Australia Twice Traversed 6th-17th September, 1872


Despite his less than flattering description of the area, Giles managed to find meagre supplies of water in the creeks and ravines which was sufficient to sustain his party and their horses for the time.


For us, we farewelled the gravel and dust at the Namatjira Road intersection, heading north. The Namatjira Road is a well maintained bitumen road although it is somewhat narrow and lacks a decent verge. It is only a 12 km or so to the turn into Gosse's Bluff. The sign boldly declares that the track is a '4x4 access road' only. Knowing that there would be a few corrugations over the six km run in, I decided to show Johnno the full corrugation eating capabilities of his new Tough Dog shocks. We wound them right down to zero and with the cautionary advice to “watch for any whoop-tee-do’s”, headed off. That short drive alone was sufficient to leave John satisfied with his choice of shock absorber.



While definitely corrugated, and with a sandy creek here and there (and a few rocks), I felt confident that a two wheel drive vehicle would be capable of making the 6 km trip successfully, albeit slowly and with caution. It is only a short 6 km hop and once through the narrow gap and into the bluff proper, a well set out and maintained visitor and parking area awaits. Our little group had a spot of morning tea and then climbed the lookout hill to the east for great views of the surrounding hills. The circular nature of the bluff becomes much more apparent from height.


Returning out to Namatjira Drive, we continued north along and then across Rudall’s Creek (another tributary of the Finke named by Giles) and into the MacDonnell Ranges.Tylers pass provides an amzing view of Gosses Bluff and of the surrounding MacDonnell’s. The pass was carved out by horse drawn scoops in 1941 (fuel rationing prevented the use of heavy equipment) while making a road through from Hermannsburg to Haasts bluff to establish a ration post for the aboriginal people. Tyler’s pass was also one of the last (most recent) features named in the Western MacDonnells.



From Tyler’s pass we descended into the Mereenie Valley and start heading east once again. The Valley splits the McDonnell Range on the right and the western end of the Heavitree Range to the north. The two distinct peaks of Mounts’ Razorback and Sonder stand to the north. What many don’t realise is that the Crawford and later Davenport Creeks that flow down this valley north of the road, are the headwaters of the Finke River. The name “Finke “ is first used to describe the river that flows south from the confluence of the Davenport and Ormiston Creeks only a couple of kilometres north of Glen Helen. From here the river flows through Glen Helen and continues south for 600 kilometres to end at the edges of the Simpson Desert in South Australia. The Finke River was named by John McDouall Stuart in 1860 after an Adelaide man, William Finke, one of the sponsors of his expedition. The aboriginal name for the river in parts of the Northern Territory is Larapinta. I’m sure you see the connection now.


There is a picturesque roadside stop just west of Glen Helen. A short drive takes you to a parking area on a rise above the surrounding valley. The view of the Heavitree Range and the confluence area of the Finke is spectacular and it was a great place to spend time while the savaloys were heated for lunch.


In a mountain range nicked and notched with spectacular gorges and chasms, Ormiston is certainly one of the largest and most impressive in the Western MacDonnell's. Massive geological forces created the towering red walls of Ormiston Gorge and its pound area. Signs along the gorge walk indicate that one of the top layers of rock originated over 2 kilometres to the west of the gorge. In a massive upheaval this layer of rock had been thrust up and forced sideways across other slabs of rock. Like Gosse's bluff, this was definitely not a place to have been standing in prehistory and I couldn't help but wonder if there was a connection between the two events. There is a permanent waterhole within the gorge, estimated to be approximately 14 metres deep. This would be guaranteed to provide a great place to refresh after a hard days exploring. A bit too cold for us though.


Ormiston is also a sacred site for the Western Arrernte people. Its name in Arrernte is 'Kwartatuma'. The dreaming story for the waterhole tells of the adventures of a group of emus who came to the waterhole from the east, and of the man who hunted them whilst they were there. No hunting for us as we climbed the walls of the gorge to the gums lookout. It wasn't as stiff a hike as the Kings Canyon walk but an impressive view none the less.


We had a bit of a family connection with Stanley Chasm as young 'Jackabags' maternal great-grandmother once operated the site with her then husband. We were led to believe that this may have been as far back as the early 1950's. To all accounts she was quite a character who had only passed away a few short years ago. I hadn’t been to the chasm in 5 years or so and on returning on this occasion, it wasn’t the thriving place it had been despite it being smack bang in the middle of the busiest tourist time of the year. Management appears to have been handed back to the traditional owners and as a result, the operation appears to have taken a downhill slide. The once busy cafe no longer operates and the only refreshments available are a cup of instant coffee (sorry no milk but...!) No tickets, just hand over the entrance fee to the attendant and go for a walk. The pathways are no longer maintained and the boardwalks across the creeks are disintegrating. The toilets are inoperable with no water available. It’s a real shame but speaks volumes.





It was a 15 minute walk along the creek bed to experience the sheer walls of the chasm. There were a few other tourists about and I noted that you could no longer pass the far end of the chasm as you once could. Being well past midday, we failed to get the full impact of the sunlight on the red chasm walls but it was interesting none the less and particularly so for Jack. He got to touch a place that held a significant place in his family's history.


It was a pretty straight forward run into Alice Springs along the final kilometers of the Larapinta Drive. Reaching town, we fuelled up and then headed out to our usual van park of choice, the MacDonnell Ranges Big 4. Queen Vik had secured a couple of cabins for us and although it was a tight squeeze fitting two vehicles into each parking bay, the mission as accomplished. We got ourselves cleaned up and then Johnno hit the washing machines before indulging in a Pizza for dinner (accompanied by a bottle of red for the adults). From here Pete and Hugh will begin the trip south tomorrow. Johnno and I will take the three boys out across the Plenty Hwy and down to Birdsville and Innamincka with a view to getting some time on the Cooper before we head home. Our little team's last evening was a pleasant affair, the heated cabin compensating for the lack of campfire.







''We knew from the experience of well-known travelers that the
trip would doubtless be attended with much hardship.''
Richard Maurice - 1903
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