The hidden gems of the Gemtree (East Mac Ranges)
Have you ever visited an area and felt so in tune with the land and surrounds that you truly felt like you were coming home from an adventure the entire time you were there? Well that’s basically Northern Territories East MacDonnell Ranges. I’ve heard it be said recently (from a friend) that the West MacDonnell Ranges are visited by the tourist but the East Macs are where the locals go to explore….. I see so much truth to this and I am so glad we took the path less travelled on our Red Centre adventure and spent some time taking in the magnificent areas of Trephina Gorge, N’Dhala Gorge, Arltunga Ruins, up the Binns Track and to one of the most incredible hidden gems along the Plenty Highway, the Gemtree retreat.
Gemtree is one of the most welcoming lifestyle parks we have ever visited. As most will know we are quite the freedom campers. We love the wide-open spaces, unpopulated secluded spots and it’s the quietness of hitting up the remote dirt roads that call to us. But as we often do, we added a slight twist to our red centre plans when we surprisingly took interest in visiting the area after a ‘recommended place to visit’ post on our Outback Travellers Group popped up and changed our intended travel route.
We are so grateful we did because Gemtree really had it all. It ticked so many of the boxes of what we look for in a relaxing perfect place to pull up stumps for a few days. An incredible bonus, the journey to get there was utterly spectacular. For us camping is all about the authentic community feel and despite the fact it was unusual for us to stay in a van park- it had all the feelings we were used to with a bunch of surprise features too.
Spending 4 nights making our way in from Alice Springs, we visited some of the most unique gorges, we took several breathtaking hikes, wandered through a goldmining ghost town and were ready to have another new experience. We had heard a few things about this hidden outback treasure and when we arrived it had all been true. It was amazing how owners Carmel and Cameron Charmers, together with their daughter & son in law and an incredible cast of hard working, passionate staff have built the Gemtree into a unique family retreat, providing the most Genuine Outback Hospitality.
After months in the remote outback we were excited to have a little company and the odd luxury (well luxury for us Trekkers). Gemtree has these awesome woodfire heated showers in the ablutions block and then scattered communal campfire pits throughout the park, which really encourage you to get to know your neighbours. We joined in the giant Campoven Kitchen cookout dinner and historic movie screening, where we all got to learn the incredibly unique history of the Charmers family background. The boys favourite evening was the super fun Paddy Melon Bowls Tournament with loaded baked spud dinner, where you effectively play lawn bowls with those seemingly useless fruits you see growing on the side of the dirt highways.
As if all these awesome activities weren’t enough, we were so excited for the opportunity to do some Garnet fossicking too. You can register to do either Garnet or Zircon fossicking. The tours leave early in the morning and are much like a tag-a-long tour. The Garnet tour leads you to a claim privately leased by Gemtree, so you have pretty much free range over the allotted area and can choose your perfect dirt mound (or hole). Before leaving each car picks up their fossicking tools and water for sieving and once you arrive at the site you get a full run down and demonstration on how to fossick successfully. Best part is once you are finished for the day, you can just leave and head back to Gemtree. The only thing we found a little difficult was the little fella couldn’t last as long as the rest of us…. So if you’re fossicking with kids take extra food and drink, and for those big kids that are likely to get hooked and want to keep going, take some extra sieving water with you.
Our boys had an absolute ball, in particularly Ryan and Jake. They were both very determined and focused that day- Jake even found a gorgeous 4.5 carat Garnet, the biggest of the Murphy tribe. It’s great, when you return to the shop after fossicking you can have all your treasures checked, sorted and sized by the knowledgeable staff in the onsite Gem shop. After Jake’s score, he declared he wanted to come back to Gemtree next year to go fossicking again and how could we say no.
Where you stay and for how long, for us is usually determined by the little things, the detail. Why Gemtree was such a special experience for us was because of things we had never seen or heard of caravan parks and alike ever doing. On arrival we checked in and were greeted by the incredibly friendly reception staff. They let us know all about the surrounding areas, all the activities Gemtree had happening for guests but they genuinely welcomed us in like we were family. We were then escorted by ATV to our campsite and guided into our generously shaded site.
Gemtree have an impressive campsite breakfast and dinner delivery service, much like room service and you can even order alcoholic beverages that are delivered to your caravan/ tent door. If you want to eat in during the day, there is a great café including Devonshire Tea at the reception.
Alongside the Garnet and Zircon Fossicking Tours, there is also a number of free onsite activities to do; there is the self-guided Gumtree Nature walk trail, a swimming pool and an onsite museum- detailing the history and stories of many of the local stations and families (researched and designed by owner Carmel Charmers herself).
The best free activity we did was the mud maps self-drive tours. We visited the Box Hill Meteorite Creator site on the day we left East down the Plenty Highway but we did enjoy a drive back down the Binns Track to the Mad Russian Mine Site during our 3rd day. On the trip we came across a fellow travelling family also staying at Gemtree, who were just going for a drive and so we invited them to join us. The mine site of the guy known as the ‘Mad Russian’ was insane, far larger than we first thought. But with some very adventurous dads we uncovered his main claim. After returning to camp we heard more about his backstory from owner Carmel, which really made this experience so much more special. The site was used for mining copper and was so intricate, to think it was created and mined completely by one guy…. Wow, mind blowing.
Our stay at the Gemtree retreat in South East Northern Territory was unique and really had an impact on us. Much like the recommendation we were given to visit here, we can’t help but continue to spread the word. This is a place that when you arrive, you’re welcomed in with huge warm hug and an authentic sense of family and community.
With so much to see and do here, it really is an Outback holiday destination with it all.