West MacDonnell Ranges, NT

By: Emma Ryan, Photography by: Ellen Dewar

Arguably the most accessible outback destination in Australia, touring the ancient West MacDonnell Ranges is equal parts simple and beautiful.

West Mac Donnell Ranges NT

The West MacDonnell Ranges – that ancient, ochre behemoth that closes in on Alice Springs from the west – is written off by a lot of ‘hardcore’ 4WDers as too pedestrian to bother with. Sure, there’s quality tarmac roads linking most of the major waypoints and there are tourists speaking a colourful array of languages, but this is a place of breathtakingly rugged beauty that needs to be experienced by every outback traveller worth their salt.

The ease with which one can tour the West Macs makes it a simple, stress-free family touring destination, and there’s always the option for a side trip here and there if you feel like knocking the fourbie into low range. We visited recently as part of a much bigger trip from Melbourne, and called in at all the major waypoints to see what we’d been missing.


Having just driven the Oodnadatta Track to arrive at Alice Springs from the south, the dramatic peaks and escarpments of the West Macs took our breath away from the start. The landscape here stood in stark contrast to the gibber plains and gently undulating outback terrain further south, and just a few minutes drive from Alice the rocky cliffs soar to dizzying heights at Simpsons Gap.

Here, a short walk through the dry creek bed that carved the ‘gap’ in wetter times delivered us to the money shot, where two ancient folds of rusted rock try in vain to reach one another. A uniformed kindergarten class on excursion enjoyed its little lunch perched on a fallen river gum in the shade of the creek bed.

West Mac Donnell Ranges NT 1

It occurs to me what a remarkable town Alice Springs is, out here in the heart of our ancient continent surrounded by scenery not unlike that you’d find in remote corners of the Kimberley. I think of city kids taking day trips via busy trains to crowded urban parks and wonder if these littlies playing in warm red sand in the clean outback air know how lucky they are.


Next up, Standley Chasm and another short walk to a similarly breathtaking location where opposing rock faces stare one another down. This is privately-owned Aboriginal land, so we paid the $10 per person entry fee and trekked into the spectacular natural spectacle.

Traditionally, Standley Chasm was a sacred women’s-only site where bush medicine was collected and sacred rites performed; secret women’s business only the initiated can know about. Of course, this set my imagination alight as I took in the ancient pulse of the place, imagining groups of women going about their business here for millennia. These days, Standley Chasm is well facilitated with a cafe and a camping area, and all money raised goes back into paying the local staff and maintaining the site.

West Mac Donnell Ranges NT 2


We then headed west along Namatjira Drive, named after the artist Albert Namatjira who, in 1957, became the first Indigenous Australian to be liberated from the oppressive ‘ward of the State’ status and granted Australian citizenship. Hailing from the West MacDonnell Ranges near the town of Hermannsburg to the south, Namatjira carved mainstream success through his Western-influenced art. He was the first Aboriginal Australian to be able to vote, build a house and buy alcohol, and his memory is immortalised here in his ancestral country via this main transport artery through the ranges.

Our next stop was Serpentine Gorge. A little more rugged and less visually spectacular than some of the West Macs’ other waypoints as it’s bushy rather than sweeping and open, Serpentine Gorge is nonetheless a very pretty and wonderfully peaceful destination.

The diminished glamour factor filters out most of the crowds, as does the 1.5km walk into the gorge. That means you’ll find peace and quiet when you reach the semi-permanent waterholes within the sheltered, meandering gorge, which attracts birds and wildlife and is perfect for a dip in the warmer months.

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There’s no camping at Serpentine Gorge itself, but nearby Serpentine Chalet is the pick of the West Mac camping locations for those who enjoy self-sufficient bush camping away from the crowds. There are no facilities here and access is by 4WD only, suitable for camper trailers but not caravans. If you’ve been in anyway begrudging the backpacker brigade, this is your best bet for unfolding the camper. There’s some cleared grassy space for camping as well as shady sites and a handful of fire pits. You’ll need to bring everything, including water.


Our next stop was also one of the most spectacular; Ormiston Gorge. Here the towering red walls of the gorge stand guard over a permanent waterhole, estimated to be 14m deep. The landscape is vast and open and in the morning light the rugged escarpments glow blood red.

There are a couple of walks on offer here: one that takes you up and around the rim of the gorge before dropping down to the shady, sandy banks of the waterhole; the other a shorter trek to a scenic lookout where a heartfelt ‘cooee’ into the majestic gorge is sure to prove too much to resist.

There is camping available at Ormiston Gorge with great facilities including hot showers and barbecues. But be warned, this campsite gets very busy during the peak season (cooler months), so for those after peace and quiet try the nearby Two Mile campground on the banks of the mighty Finke River. Access here is 4WD only and there are no facilities, which weeds out the crowd considerably.

There’s plenty of space to camp in undesignated sites and the riverside scenery and wildlife is incredible.

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But if it’s camping with a view you prefer, Redbank Gorge might be the place for you. The two campsites here are camper-trailer friendly and have drop toilets, picnic tables and barbecues. We opted for the Ridgetop camp which, as the name suggests, is perched on the precipice of a rocky escarpment overlooking the gorge and Mount Sonder beyond. The scenery from our camp was nothing short of stunning, rich outback colours dancing across the landscape at both sunset and sunrise.

Redbank Gorge itself centres around a beautiful permanent waterhole divided into sections by the ancient gorge. In the warmer months it’s the perfect place to explore by lilo or inflatable boat; follow the narrow channels between the rocks to see how they open up to magical, hidden desert oases. The waterhole is a reliable source of life-giving hydration for native birds and wildlife, so there’s that to enjoy, too.


West of Redbank the road is unsealed and 4WD access only, so naturally that’s where we headed. We turned off to the south towards Hermannsburg, crossing the range and entering into the vast, flat landscape beyond. Although we’d technically driven out of the West MacDonnell National Park, we had one more not-to-be-missed stop on our West Mac itinerary: Tnorala, or Gosse Bluff.

Probably the most fascinating destination in the region, Tnorala is a series of dramatic peaks that rise out of nowhere like the spiky spine of giant stegosaurus on an otherwise flat landscape. Its unusual visual interest aside, the most incredible thing about Tnorala is the remarkable similarity between its scientific explanation and the Aboriginal Dreaming story of its creation.

The scientific explanation is that Tnorala was formed more than 130 million years ago when a comet measuring 600m across struck the earth with a force 200,000 times greater than the nuclear explosion that destroyed Hiroshima. The impacted created a crater some 20km wide, and the terrain there is still 2km lower than the surrounding country. The impact would have created an enormous mushroom cloud that spread across the world.

Bearing in mind this event was long before the arrival of human beings, the similarity of the dreaming story is amazing. According to the local Arrernte people, Tnorala was formed when a group of women were dancing across the night sky as the Milky Way. One of the women placed her wooden baby carrier – a turna – onto the ground, but it fell to earth instead and the impact created Tnorala. It is thought that Indigenous Australians were the world’s first astronomers, and this example certainly seems to validate that idea.