Exploring the West MacDonnell Ranges
Where to start? The West MacDonnell Ranges house a most incredible range of nature’s talent. After visiting the gorgeous National Parks, iconic locations, breathtaking gorges and hitting up the infamous tracks of the West Macs we can truly say the rumours are all true.... It’s an incredible must see part of Australia’s Red Centre.
Starting from Stuart highway we ventured across the Ernest Giles track, known for its long stretches of rough corrugated dirt track on our way over to Luritja Road. You’d know us well enough by now to realise we always pick the dirt track over the black top- not sure why exactly, but there is just something about the untamed roads that calls to us. By taking the Ernest Giles Track we were able to visit the Henbury Meteorite crater, our first of all the craters in the area.
What a fascinating lesson for the whole family that day. A collection of 12 creators in total formed by the Henbury meteor which weighed several tonnes and was travelling 40,000km/hr which thankfully disintegrated before impact. The largest creator was 180m wide and 15m deep which was an incredible site to stand above and look into. Of the 500kg of the scattered metal fragments found mainly consisting of iron and nickel, the largest piece discovered weighed a whopping 100kg.
Once we reached Luritja Road we headed down south slightly to the Salt Creek RA free camp for the night. It was a happening camp with plenty of campers in a variety of vans and we nestled in at the back ready to set off north early in the morning to hit up our first highlight (and what would come to be the biggest of the West Mac adventure)- Kings Canyon.
Once we were all hydration packed up, laces tight, beanies on and bubs strapped to my (Amy’s) back we set off on what would be a truly breathtaking 2hour and 30minute scenic rim walk around the top of the canyon.
We climbed the steep 100m of stairs to the top and made it in one piece, aided by the fresh 10 degree breeze. We were blown away by the endless landscapes but in particularly by the incredible rock formations. We wandered through the rocks in, out, around, up and eventually down where we reached the path to the Garden of Eden, where we briefly stopped for a quick bite which would turn out to be a big pain in the leg haha. The 600m return track of straights and stairs to get into the rock pool would be enough for Lucas and I to lose momentum and build up some good old lactic acid in our legs. But after some quick jumping jacks (very amusing to see me jumping with a baby strapped to my back) and some quick massaging we found our groove and continued the climb and stroll to the best viewpoint of the day.
How this canyon’s walls were so straight, like they had been sliced apart with a large (very large) knife is just a true testament to nature. See the Canyon first begun as a crack and developed into this enormous canyon over millions of years. By now the temps had increased to about 17 degrees and the flies had found us, thankfully we were on the homeward stretch and the slow sloping descent down the southern path was very welcomed by us all. By the end we had walked a total of 6km up, down and across some of the most beautiful tracks and looking out across some of the most picturesque views we had ever seen.
After having a proper lunch we all came to the unanimous agreement that this had been our most favourite walk/ hike to date. The views, the challenges, the uniqueness and did I mention the views were simply too amazing. From here we headed up to our camp for the night up at Ross lookout where we watched the sunset over the Kings Canyon before chatting all evening with another lovely travelling family who had braved the 6km Scenic Rim walk with littlies that day too.
Not knowing what to expect of the Merinee Loop, we aired down from the bitumen pressures and found the track to be majority graded with a fun (well maybe not so fun) 50km section to the finish. I think what takes your mind off the bumps is the beautiful views across the plains to which we saw so many a herd or harras of spectacular wild brumbies. The Merinee Loop road requires a very inexpensive permit to travel on- which can be purchased from the Kings Canyon Resort (or Glen Helen Lodge if coming down from the north).
Just before the town of Hermansberg we turned off into the Finke National Park, encountering a fair few more extra track lumps and bumps before settling in a couple of nights at the Palm Valley camp and some incredible days of exploring and meeting a number of incredible fellow travellers.
Palm Valley is an exceptionally unique place to visit. Located in a valley of the Krichauff Range, what makes this section of the 46,000 hectare National Park so special is that it is the only location in Central Australia that grows the Red Cabbage Palm. We loved exploring and walking the many Palm Valley tracks but our most memorable was the 5km Mpulungkinya (gorge) Walk and I can tell you the 4WD experience to get to the walking tracks was just as fabulous an adventure.
The walk was up and through bushland before climbing down into the gorge with gorgeous rock formations, creeks/ water sections and the most incredible view of huge palms that truly looked magnificently out of place. The drive in was a true range of 4WD challenges; a decent water crossing, a few deep sandy sections, some rock crawling and the most beautiful wall full of cycads.
From here we were all pumped and ready for the big West MacDonnell National Park’s gorge loop. First things first, we hit up the second of our meteorite creators Gosse Bluff and Tyler Pass lookout. Gosse Bluff creator was originally a 22km wide site believed to be caused by a comet of frozen carbon dioxide, ice and dust over 140million years ago. Over time, the creator has eroded away now leaving a 5km diameter 180m high creator like feature.
We settled our selves into the Finke River Two Mile camping area in the West MacDonnell National Park. A lovely spot by the water at ‘Big Gum’ 4WD access free camp for 2 days to get up to date with the boys school work for coming week, before heading across the road to the Iconic Glen Helen Lodge for a few special days of exploring, mesmerising sunsets, fun, food and folk music.
Having been something we were looking forward to, we were so pleased to share Glen Helen Lodge did not disappoint. The Lodge’s land is situated within the Glen Helen National Park. It has the most beautiful gorge only a short walk into the park from the camp ground and the famous rock wall that was truly a spectacular backdrop perfect for a sunset dinner on our first night. (To find out more about Glen Helen Lodge click here)
Following a perfect evening we felt quite special to hear a dingo howl off during the night, we all heard it but thought everyone else in the van was asleep. We had a huge chat about it the next day as this was something truly unique for us to experience. We had noticed the odd dingo wandering about outside the grounds in the National Park land, they all looked so timid and very used to seeing people. We decided to make the most of being able to hear and see wild dingos up close and we turned the opportunity into a school science lesson.
We enjoyed the short walks to the Glen Helen Gorge waterhole and along the Finke River, we enjoyed listening to a new (to us) style of music from the 49th Annual Folk Festival being held at Glen Helen Lodge which happened to coincide with our stay and we most certainly took advantage of the sunset dinner opportunity. I can honestly say the shade of red that painted the wall behind the Lodge each evening took my breath away, something that cant be topped but only complimented by the exquisite meals that were on the menu.
Speaking about the food here, with so much of it sourced locally and made on site you can really feel the pride the Lodge takes in delivering the best to its guest- both those staying and those only visiting for day. One afternoon we sat back and enjoyed a gorgeous cheese platter and looked out over the view and then one evening we snuck in kidless to enjoy some of their divine homemade slice for desert.
One of the most comforting advantages to setting up camp for the few days at Glen Helen Lodge was being able to unhitch and leave the van to head out and explore the surrounding areas and Gorges.
Redbank Gorge was only a 20.5km drive west from the Lodge and so worth it. A lovely 1.2km walk to the water that took us about 20 or so minutes to walk in. This gorge was the trickiest of them all to get to, a bit of a fun scramble over some large rock boulders at the end to reach the waterhole but the view was spectacular. Being a family full of boys- they absolutely loved the extra little adventure of the rock climbing.
Ormiston Gorge was a 8.5km drive East from the Lodge and was a quick 300m walk from the car park or a 6 minute round trip. Nice and easy to get to the waterhole and really pretty rocks extending from behind the water and beyond. It was pretty cool that Ormiston Gorge also has a little kiosk set up in the car park for visitors.
Mt. Sonder Lookout is just a short 1km drive west from the entrance road at Glen Helen and parking is right at the site. With gorgeous panoramic views over the West MacDonnell Ranges, Finke River and Mt. Sonder, it’s known to be a truly gorgeous spot for the perfect sunrise.
It’s so wonderful reading all the signed history at each of the gorges and lookouts in the area.
After we left the festive vibes of the Glen Helen Lodge we continued east to explore the last few key highlights of our West MacDonnell experience. We visited the unique site know as the Ochre pits. An easy 300m path takes you around to the rock formations that are the source of the vivid colours of the mineral ochre mined for generations by the local aboriginal people. With the traditional white, yellow and red ochre, there were many uses and each had there own purpose, a truly special place to visit and see.
We then drive up the road a little further where went for a walk through the very chilly water of the Ellery Creek Big Hole. This place was symbolic for our family because back in the day pre kids (well technically at the beginning of kids, I was 7 weeks pregnant with our first- Jake), Ryan was working away up in Alice Springs building asphalt plants for the new airport runways. He and his work mates had taken a day trip out the Ellery Creek Big Hole on their day off, so he was really keen to return and see how much it had changed. To which we can tell you a lot had. Back 10 years ago there was no car park or info signs, the swimming hole was a favourite of the local aboriginal families and the waterhole was twice as big and 3 times as deep.
He had spent the day mucking around with all the local kids and stayed for hours. Nowadays, you have allocated parking sites, fantastic information boards of local species and history, the water hole had significantly shrunk and was what felt like 0 degrees or less.... Just chasing the kids across to the little island sent my feet into spasm and knife like stabbing pain- so no dip for us that day....
But I must give props to the 3 adults and 2 kids who went in, even if only for the 15-30 seconds. Chilliness aside the Ellery Creek Big Hole was a true sigh; the rock formations, the water colour, the plants and the short walk in was worth cold water fun.
We did decide to skip Serpentine Gorge that day just due to how many we had visited already and the extra distance in, but we’ll keep that one for when we visit again next year on our way down the Gary Junction. Our night finished up with a gorgeous roasted Veggies camp oven at the ‘Four Birds and Big Gums’ free camp heading back towards Alice Springs still on Namatjira Drive.
Finally our last stop of our West Mac adventure was Simpson’s Gap. We almost drove past as we were cruising up the Stuart Highway but when Ryan saw the sign and turned to ask me- were we dropping in or not and I was like “oooh yes I have just read some really great reviews on Wiki Camps” and boy were we super glad we did. This was one our our absolute favourites, sometimes gorges do start looking a lot like the last after a while- kinda like Waterfalls... but again like waterfalls you still see them all as they all have that one unique touch that makes it special.
We don’t know if it was because we were there alone or that the surrounding rock formations were so different or the Little Rock’s wallabies that were looking down on us as we walked back to the car.... but this divine gorge with its very short walk was just the perfect way to complete our trip and left a lasting vision and memory we will always hold onto and eventually hang up on the wall when we build a new home..... somewhere, sometime.
When we finished our West MacDonnell Ranges adventure we looked back and were glad we did what we did and that we didn’t skip anything we had really wanted to do. Glen Helen Lodge was a place we have had on our Central must see list for ever. It’s been such a popular hot spot for many many years, with a reputation hard to beat. But when planning our Red Centre adventure, we noted there was some conflicting feedback that had begun to emerge in the past year. We were not deterred and instead we were keen to find out what was the story behind the recent changes of West MacDonnell’s famous Glen Helen Lodge.