West MacDonnell Ranges

If you think there's nothing to see in the Red Centre of Australia apart from Ululu, Alice Springs and lots of red desert, then you don't know about the MacDonnell ranges. Stretching for 400km from east-west in a series of parallel ranges, the East and West MacDonnell Ranges straddle the town of Alice Springs, which sits alongside a gap between them.

The long term erosive work of streams in the ranges has created a magnificent series of dramatic gaps and gorges which are easy to access from Alice Springs and are truly a photographer's delight.

The majority of the natural attractions that visitors come to see are in the West MacDonnell Ranges, which is protected by West MacDonnell (Tyurretye) National Park, however the eastern branch still has plenty of natural wonders to enthral the visitor. Tours of the ranges operate from Alice Springs, taking in each section of the range in day and half day tours. All the well known attractions are serviced by well maintained sealed roads that are suitable to drive any kind of vehicle along. For the best photographs, we recommend visiting the gorges in the afternoon when the light on the rocks is far better than in the mornings.

The West MacDonnell Ranges sweep around west from Alice Springs for 200 km. The ranges consist of a series of long, steep-sided parallel ridges rising up to 600m high above the valley floors that were carved by ancient rivers such as the Finke and Hugh Rivers. These are the most popular natural features of the West MacDonnells.

Following Larapinta Drive west from Alice Springs, the road forks after 47 kilometres; whereas the left turn goes towards Hermannsburg, the right turn is named Namatjira Drive from here. It is named after Albert Namatjira, a Western Arrarnta man who was born at Hermannsburg Mission in 1902 and who was the first Aboriginal painter who used the "European" way of painting his country. Having been given watercolours as a young man, he immortalised the beauty of his country in countless paintings. And it is precisely the kind of landscape that inspired him that can be seen along the road that now bears his name.

The road runs along the southern boundary of the West MacDonnell National Park and features lush parkland and water holes.

Standley Chasm

Standley Chasm, near Alice Springs, is a huge gap at the tail end of the West MacDonnell Ranges. The walls of Standley Chasm are so high, at its base there is only sunlight for a few minutes around noon each day. At this time, the sun strikes the walls and provides a glowing orange effect. A stony path through the gap passes desert palms, mulga and a variety of wildflowers. Rock wallabies scurry up sheer vertical rock faces.

Simpsons Gap

Situated 20 km west of Alice Springs, Simpsons Gap is another very picturesque gap in the West MacDonnell Ranges National Park. The river bed and waterhole in the gap are recognised as another good place to see rock wallabies. It was named by Surveyor McMinn in 1871 while exploring possible routes of the Overland Telegraph Line. One of the most prominent waterholes in the West MacDonnell Ranges, Simpsons Gap is an important spiritual site to the Arrernte Aboriginal people, where several dreaming trails and stories cross.

Redbank Gorge

This narrow gorge is a top swimming spot, its red cliff faces are simply stunning in the afternoon sun.  The pool of water is quite small, but there is lots of sand around it.  Also, growing out of the cliff faces are black and white trees.  Very distinct contrast with the red cliff faces.  The water is deep and cold, however, due to the cathedral-height walls towering above. There is a 20 minute walk to the gorge from the car park.

Serpentine Gorge

A lookout above the cliffs of this gorge gives visitors sweeping views of this narrow, winding gorge and its series of semi-permanent waterholes. Marked walking trails give entry into the gorge.

Ellery Creek Big Hole

Another excellent swimming spot with a picnic area overlooking the high red cliffs and sandy Ellery Creek.This is one of the most popular and picturesque camping, walking, swimming and picnic spots in the West MacDonnell Ranges National Park. The 3 km Dolomite walk gives close access to the surrounding formations. The location is also at the trailhead for sections 6 and 7 of the 223 kilometre Larapinta Trail walk.

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Wallace Rockhole

A small Aranda Aboriginal township located on the edge of the James Ranges. Aboriginal culture rock art tours, pre-booked, take visitors to the rock ledges adjacent to Aboriginal rock engravings. A community art centre displays and sells local arts and crafts.

Ormison Gorge

Ormiston Gorge and Pound showcase the spectacular geology and landforms of the MacDonnell Ranges. The cubist-like rock formations tower over the massive pound, making this a spectacular and unique place in the centre. The gorge has a near-permanent waterhole, estimated to be up to 14m deep at its southern end. The area contains an interesting variety of native fauna and flora including a number of relict plant species remaining from a tropical past. The rediscovery of the long-tailed dunnart and the central rock rat makes the park an important fauna refuge. The park is accessible all year round and although the water is still cool in summer, the temperature can soar on the exposed walking trails. The cooler months (April to October) are the most pleasant.

The Ochre Pits

The Ochre Pits, located 11 km west of Serpentine Gorge, are a colourful outcrop of ochre on the banks of a sandy creek. This is the area where the Aboriginals mined ochres for their ceremonies, but also for trading with other groups. Ochre has always been an important part of Aboriginal culture and a vital part of everyday life. For medicinal purposes red ochre can be mixed with grease and applied as an ointment and to relieve decongestion when mixed with eucalyptus leaves. White ochre was used as a magical charm, when mixed with water and blown from the mouth it is believed to abate the heat of the sun or the force of the wind. A short path leads down to the pits where you can see the white, yellow and red layers in the walls.

Roma Gorge

Not frequently visited and probably missed by most travellers, the turn off to Roma Gorge is in a creek bed, the gorge is reached via an 8km track along a dry creek bed. It is quite scenic as it weaves it way through the landscape among the low hills and in places with high cliff faces. Towards the end is a small visitor car park where there are information signs about the place. The main items of interest are numerous petroglyphs (rock carvings) on the rocks in the creek bed that date back thousands of years.

Glen Helen Gorge

Glen Helen Gorge is where the Finke River (known locally as "Larapinta" or serpent) flows into a deep, permanent waterhole. There are interesting rock formations behind the gorge and there is a resort here, complete with motel, restaurant, camping facilities and even helicopter flights, the perfect location for an outback holiday/vacation experience. About 20 km further on, along a dirt road, is Redbank Gorge, with a permanent water hole a 20 minute walk up the rocky creek bed. It is a very narrow gorge with cold clear waters among towering red cliffs.

Climate; the best time to visit

The region is located in an arid environment consisting of several different deserts. December to February is normally very hot; November to March is when the most rain falls. May to September is the peak season when Alice Springs is at its busiest. In these months, the daytime temperature never gets to high but it can get quite cold at night. If you are looking to take sunset shots of Uluru, August and September are the best months as there is generally little cloud about.

If you plan on incorporating the Top End into your travels and want to avoid the hot summer as well as the peak tourist season, the ideal to is come to Alice Springs in April or May first, then head north. Otherwise, see the Top End first in August or September and visit Alice Springs on your way home.

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