West MacDonnell Ranges, NT

By: Emma Ryan, Photography by: Ellen Dewar


Eight reasons to visit the NT’s West MacDonnell Ranges.

Women -sitting -on -the -tree -at -West -Mac Donnell -Ranges -NT

In the heart of our rugged Red Centre, standing guard over the town of Alice Springs, is the breathtakingly beautiful West MacDonnell Ranges, or Tjoritja in the traditional tongue. The ‘West Macs’ as they are locally known, are an incredible string of escarpments, gorges and canyons, the eroded remains of a once staggering ancient mountain range that stood as tall as the Himalayas. These days, the West Macs stretch for 161km west from Alice, offering water holes, abundant wildlife and a kaleidoscope of colour for adventure-thirsty outback travellers. Here are eight reasons why you need to visit.

1. ACCESSIBLITY

Simpson 's -Gap -West -Mac Donnell -Ranges -NT

Being on the doorstep of Alice Springs, the major hub of the Red Centre, the West MacDonnell Ranges is an accessible destination for anyone using Alice as a through town on a larger trip, be it the Tanami or Oodnadatta Tracks, or the Simpson Desert. It also offers the fly and drive crowd a picturesque slice of outback grandeur usually reserved for those willing to travel to places as remote as the Kimberley. And while the tarmac highways linking the major waypoints may feel a bit pedestrian to serious 4WDers, this doesn’t detract from the rugged beauty of the place and makes the West Macs an easy family destination. Keen offroaders can always get their fix at hard-to-reach attractions like Palm Valley, further down this list.

2. ORMISTON GORGE

Ormiston -Gorge -West -Mac Donnell -Ranges -NT

One of the most spectacular destinations in the West Macs, Ormiston Gorge is comprised of towering red cliffs standing guard over a deep permanent waterhole. The landscape is vast and open and in the morning light the rugged escarpments glow blood red.

Walk the rim of the gorge before dropping down to the shady, sandy banks of the waterhole; or opt for a shorter trek to a scenic lookout where a heartfelt ‘cooee’ into the majestic gorge proves too much to resist.

Camping is available with great facilities including hot showers and barbeques, but it gets very busy during the peak season (cooler months). A quieter camping option is the nearby Two Mile campground on the banks of the Finke River. Access here is 4WD only and there are no facilities, which thins out the crowd considerably.

3. SERPENTINE GORGE

Serpentine -Gorge -West -Mac Donnell -Ranges -NT

Slightly off the main tourist radar, Serpentine Gorge is a more rugged place to explore than many of the other waypoints of the West Macs as it’s bushy rather than sweeping and open. This makes for a very pretty, peaceful destination away from the crowds. It’s a 1.5km walk into the gorge, where you’ll find a semi-permanent waterhole which attracts birds and wildlife and is perfect for a dip in the warmer months. But even then, water in the West Macs can be extremely cold, so beware. 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 capable offroad camper trailers.

4. REDBANK GORGE

Redbank -West -Mac Donnell -Ranges -NT

If it’s camping with a view you prefer, Redbank Gorge is the place for you. The two campsites here are camper trailer friendly and have drop toilets, picnic tables and barbeques. 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.

5. LARAPINTA TRAIL

Larapinta -West -Mac Donnell -Ranges -NT

One of the most incredible walking tracks in Australia, the Larapinta Trail stretches for 223km from Alice Springs to the iconic Mount Sonder, one of the NT’s highest peaks at 1380m. At times the trail follows escarpment ridgelines with incredible views in all directions, and at other times drops into creek beds, past waterholes and along the plain. Comprised of 12 individual sections, well-prepared (and keen) hikers can complete the whole shebang over 15-20 days, or take in part of the trail as a daytrip or overnighter. Truly one for the Aussie hiker’s bucket list.

6. CULTURAL SIGNIFICANCE

Flowers

Tjoritja, as the West MacDonnell Ranges are traditionally known, is a landscape rich in indigenous dreaming stories and thousands of years of Aboriginal history. Home to the Western Arrernte peoples, Tjoritja is dotted in sacred sites including Standley Chasm, a women’s dreaming site where bush medicine was collected and sacred rites performed. Visitors are welcomed to Standley Chasm, a private reserve owned by the Iwupataka Land Trust and managed by the land’s traditional owners. A small fee enables access to the Chasm, but the half-day Angkerle Cultural Experience tour is recommended to learn about the geology, bush medicine, bush tucker and cultural significance of the area, and even partake in a bit of Western Arrente dot painting. Visit www.standleychasm.com.au for more information.

7. PALM VALLEY

Palm -Valley -West -Mac Donnell -Ranges -NT

Located within the Finke Gorge National Park, Palm Valley is a 4WD-only destination not to be missed by those who like to knock ‘er into low range. So named for the 3000-odd red cabbage palms that survive thanks to permanent waterholes, Palm Valley is the remnants of a prehistoric time when the landscape was densely carpeted in tropical rainforest. Today, it’s somewhat of an oasis amidst the arid Red Centre, and offers a range of walks and tracks for visitors to explore. Juvenile palms are vulnerable to damage from visitors, however, so follow marked tracks and be careful not to trample seedlings. Palm Valley is accessed from the town of Hermannsburg via a 16km stretch of rough track alongside the Finke River. There’s a small campsite within the Valley.

8. TNORALA

Gosse -Bluff -West -Mac Donnell -Ranges -NT

Although it’s technically out of the Ranges, one of the most fascinating destinations in the region is Tnorala, or Gosse Bluff, a series of dramatic peaks that rise out of nowhere like the spiky spine of giant stegosaurus. But 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 massive comet struck the earth and created a crater some 20km wide, creating an enormous mushroom cloud that is thought to have spread across the world.

Bearing in mind this event was long before the arrival of human beings, the similarity of the Western Arrernte dreaming story is amazing. It states that 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.

Check out the full feature in issue #124 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest camper trailer news, reviews and travel inspiration.