Welcome to this blog, the story of a great big Australian adventure. It documents my travels, life in Australia, and a subject close to my heart – environmental conservation. 

Outback 3  West MacDonnell Ranges: Ormiston Gorge

Outback 3 West MacDonnell Ranges: Ormiston Gorge

The challenge of the Western Macs was choosing which of many delights we could comfortably fit into a day. In theory, our next destination, Alice Springs, was little more than an hour's drive away (132 kilometres), but what to see between here and there (see map below)? One thing was certain: an early start was necessary. We didn't have a kettle in our cabin at Glen Helen Resort, so we packed up quickly and drove a couple of kilometres down the road for a brew at Mt Sonder lookout. This majestic peak (1380 metres and fourth-highest mountain in NT) is at the end of the famous Larapinta Trail and is its highest point. It was a glorious morning that held great promise, and the sun glinted off the Finke River as if to emphasise the point.

The Larapinta Trail extends 223 kilometres from Alice Springs to Mt Sonder. The hiking track sometimes follows the ridge line of the Western Macs and other times drops to the plain below. It is divided into 12 sections, each with camping facilities. There is a huge amount of information about each stage both along the way and on the website. People speak with pride of having walked the Larapinta in its entirety, and I now understand why.

Most rivers run to the sea, but not those of Central Australia. The Finke River floods out into sand and dunes at the western edge of the Simpson Desert. If there's a flood, the desert becomes a swamp that drains slowly as the water gradually percolates down to replenish underground reservoirs. The Finke is claimed to be Australia's, and possibly the world's, oldest river. In part of its course, the James Ranges near the Finke Gorge National Park, it flows in deeply incised meanders, normally a feature of flat plains. So the river must have been flowing before the land around it was pushed up. This happened 400 to 300 million years ago during a mountain-building event known as the Alice Springs Oregeny.

The Finke (the Aboriginal name is Larapinta) flows for approximately 600 kilometres from the confluence of the Ormiston and Davenport creeks north of Glen Helen. In big floods (in 1988 there was the largest in centuries), the Finke's waters can reach as far as the Macumba River in South Australia, and thence into Lake Eyre, a distance of 750 kilometres. We had crossed the Finke on The Ghan days ago.

The Finke River forms chains of ponds for most of its course. This is presumably why, where it crosses Namatjira Drive (above) just west of Glen Helen, its flow is not enough of a problem to warrant building a bridge.

The Ormiston Gorge turn-off is 4 kilometres down the road from Glen Helen towards The Alice. It is a stunningly beautiful place; with complicated geology. Basically, massive earth movements have heaved and thrust a huge chunk of Heavitree Quartzite on top of itself. Here's a useful diagram from the site, and some folded-back rock.

You have three choices of walk: the 3-4 hour Ormiston Pound* loop (7 km, moderate); the 40-minute-return Ghost Gum Lookout; and the 1.5 hour Ghost Gum loop (2.4 km, moderate). We chose the third option. There's a steepish climb up to the Lookout; then a more gradual descent to the creek bed, which you follow back to the car park. The last bit involves walking in soft sand and scrambling over rocks: there is no designated path.

I don't know which is the most iconic tree of the Outback. River Red Gum? Desert Oak? Ghost Gum? Your opinion might depend on where you are at the time. Mulga is ubiquitous but not as lastingly impressive. The Ghost Gum of Lookout fame was a spectacular example, which has grown to such a height by forcing its roots down through cracks in the rock to the waterhole 70 metres below. Smaller ones cling to the rock face.

From the Lookout you can contemplate the depth of the waterhole beneath, and trace the creek out of the Gorge and beyond.

Would it have occurred to you to do this before you read the sign?

The Lookout from the creek bed

The Lookout from the creek bed

On the way down there are enticing views deep into the Gorge and lots of multi-coloured quartzite slabs.


As if the rock wasn't splendid enough, there was bird life by the waterhole, including a family of White-necked Herons. 

Black-fronted Dotterel

Australasian Grebes

There wasn't enough time to drink in enough of this beautiful spot.

We stopped at the Ranger Station/Visitor Centre for a takeaway coffee and a pot of Nature's Botanical Natural Rosemary & Cedarwood Oils fly repellent. One worked; the other didn't. I took a straw poll among visitors and the ranger about which to visit – Standley Chasm or Simpsons Gap, bearing in mind I wanted to see Rock-wallabies. They were non-committal, although one lady had seen the shy creatures at Simpsons Gap the day before. On the way back to the main road, there were a couple more shots of the sandy creek and its beautiful trees. Next up? Ellery Big Hole.

*A large rock basin surrounded by hills
This post was last edited on 1 October 2015

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