The Great Aussie Road Trip Part 4: Alice Springs & The MacDonnell Ranges

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October 30th 2015
Published: November 4th 2015
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King's Canyon, Alice Springs, and West MacDonnell

Continued from Part 3...

Day 11:

We wake up early but decide to it’s too cloudy for sunrise so we sleep in. By 8:00 it’s starting to get warm again so it’s time to get up and get a move on. We have to head back to Yulara to get some gas. At $2.03 it’s the most expensive gas we have seen so far. I put $40 in and decide to fill up at Curtain Springs, where we waited for the sandstorm that never came. It’s not much cheaper there but if we can save a dollar here and there why not.

We are heading to King’s Canyon today. It’s a lesser known, but still highly visited, park in the Red Centre. It’s sort of out of the way to Alice Springs but we decide it’s worth it. We will spend one night here before heading to Alice Springs. Unfortunately this is the cloudiest day we have had so far. It’s completely overcast, not a hint of blue in the sky at all. But no rain clouds either. It never rains here. Clouds like this are rare too. It’s been cloudy all week now, whereas the typical forecast is nothing but sun. On one hand it sucks as the views are not as nice with grey clouds in the background. But on the other hand I guess we can be grateful it’s not as hot without the sun. I’d still prefer the sun and blue skies though.

We roll into the King’s Canyon Resort just after noon and make a lunch of eggs and baked beans, which we have been meaning to eat for a while now. The first thing we notice is the flies here. They are even crazier than the flies at Uluru. They prefer lips, eyes, and ears, and unlike previous flies we have dealt with are attracted to our food. They land all over our food. There is nothing we can do to get them away. They don’t even appear to be repelled by the propane. We cook as fast as we can and get back in the van.

As I’m putting a little gas in the car Nimarta asks the clerk at Shell about hiking trails and maps. That’s when we get the biggest let down of our trip so far: the canyon rim trail is closed. Once again, because the forecast is over 36 degrees, even though right now it’s barely 30 and completely overcast. This angers us to no end. We just drove three hours out of the way to get here to do this canyon rim loop and now we can’t do it. And when Australian park trails are closed they are literally gated and locked to prevent people from entering. There are also cameras catch you on tape so they can prosecute you if you jump over. There is nothing we can do.

Nimarta has done the trail before in peak summer temperatures and says this policy of closing hiking trails in hot weather is new, within the last four years. 36 degrees is about 96 Fahrenheit. Yeah, it’s hot. But this is the central Australian desert. Every day from October to April is 36 degrees or more. That’s just the way it is here. So now the Australian government is basically saying you can’t do anything but the light nature walks in the national parks for half the year. Could you imagine going to the Grand Canyon just to find out the South Kaibab Trail is closed because it’s hot outside? How would that make you feel? There’s a difference in encouraging people not to do the hike in extreme heat and literally blocking off trails with gates and locks when the forecast is calling for high temperatures. They don’t block it off when it gets to 36 degrees. They block it if the forecast says it may get to 36. To us, this is unacceptable.

We decide this policy is solely because they don’t want to have to operate a working search and rescue team and head to the canyon. The short 2 mile nature walk in the valley is open, but we won’t get good views there. As we start the walk we see the sign that says the trail is closed. It’s a fixed sign in the ground. A fixed sign, like it stays here every day. They never changed the status of the trail being closed. It’s just closed until they decide to remove the sign someday next winter. Again, this is a complete joke. Even if the forecast is 33 tomorrow this sign will remain and the trail will remain closed. I vow to write the National Park service an angry message and we start the nature walk.

Shortly after we start the walk we see the fenced gate of the rim walk. Once again, there is a permanent sign here saying it is closed – not something they can remove and replace day by day. We continue the nature walk trying to keep the flies from sucking our eye balls out. It’s a nice canyon – small, but nice – and there are red rocks with lush green vegetation everywhere. There is no water though. As is typical in this area, it probably hasn’t rained in ages here. 15 minutes later we are at the end of the walk. We get a decent view of the canyon walls from in the valley, but our experience has already been ruined by the Australian park service.

It’s 2:45 when we get back to the van. We were planning on a 4-5 hour hike but that only took 45 minutes. There is nothing else to do in this national park. Literally nothing. The rim walk is the heart and soul of the park. There’s no reason to come here if you can’t do it. If we stay the night we can do it in the morning before 9 AM (that’s their caveat – that you can do it as long as you start before 9 AM) but what would we do the rest of the day? Plus we were planning on camping somewhere on the side of the road and we don’t really want to pay the $40 to camp at the resort, the only place in the park you can legally camp. We decide to just head off back towards Alice Springs. We will call West MacDonnell National Park and see if they have the same bogus policies up there. If they do, maybe we’ll just head to Queensland early.

We head towards Erlunda. The gas is cheaper there and I get cell service to I can call West MacDonnell. We will camp somewhere nearby and head up towards Alice Springs tomorrow. As we are driving, though, the thunderstorms that have been in the forecast for days now finally start to appear. It is eerily dark in front of us and to the west. Then we see the lightning. Huge bolts light up the dark sky. We stop to take a few pictures of the darkness and spot a wild camel chewing on some leaves. He does not seem too concerned about this oncoming storm as he wanders off into the bush.

The thought of rain at Uluru excites Nimarta and she wants to know if it is raining there. When it rains hundreds of waterfalls form on the rock. It would be quite the sight to see. But it’s over 150 km in the wrong direction. We compromise that we will drive to Curtain Springs – where we waited for the sandstorm – and ask there about the weather in Uluru. By the time we roll in the west is looking a bit brighter and the east is looking really dark. The storm is definitely moving west to east. Nimarta calls the Uluru information center but no one answers. It’s nearly 6:00 and they must be closed. Looking that way, though, it looks like the storm is over there, if it ever was there in the first place.

We decide to camp at the Mount Conner Lookout a few miles back towards the Stuart Highway. We park and Nimarta runs off to take pictures of the storm over the salt lake nearby while I cook. We appear to be in the eye of the storm here. Directly above us are patches of blue sky. Everywhere else is dark black clouds and lightning. It’s pretty creepy and I wonder how long it’s gonna last.

Things are still looking alright at dinner but then we get the shock of the night. A black snake slithers underneath the picnic table, not more than a foot or two from where Nimarta and I are standing. I see it first and grab Nimarta saying “snake, snake, move, move.” Nimarta does exactly what you don’t want to do when you see a snake: she panics. She turns to run and runs into the side mirror of the van, leaving a nice bruise on her arm for the morning. I grab her and usher her into the van from the driver’s side. I close the door and reach back to close the side door as Nimarta is freaking out that the snake is gonna jump into the van. I tell her snakes don’t jump but she doesn’t believe me. By now we cannot see the snake anymore. I assume he has slithered off into the bush, but I start the car and drive around a bit so she can be sure it’s gone. Thankfully, the snake is gone.

I have never seen Nimarta more terrified than when she saw the snake. It is understandable, as it was most likely extremely poisonous. But the first law of seeing dangerous creatures in the wild is to remain calm and back away. She promising to remain calm next time. And coincidently enough, next time comes right away. Satisfied that the black snake is gone we get out our headlamps and finish washing the dishes while the headlights shine on the picnic table. Nimarta is scanning the area with a flashlight as I wash, and sure enough there is another snake. I never see this one, but she says it is brown and was about a few meters behind me. We jump in the van and close the door. By the time we shine the light back outside it is gone. I am proud of her for remaining calm this time and not freaking out. OK, two snakes in 15 minutes means we are getting the hell out of here. We are hoping by now that the storm has moved further east and I can drive towards the Stuart highway again.

We decide to drive as close as we can get to Erlunda (the truck stop on the Stuart Highway). We shouldn’t really be driving at night here in the Outback, but I only spot on kangaroo on the side of the road. It’s raining, but not too hard, and the lighting appears to be dying down. We pick a bush camping site about eight kilometers from Erlunda. After checking for snakes we get out and make the bed. As always, it’s hot so we leave the doors cracked and windows open. The storm appears to have moved on. Or at least that’s what we thought.

I awake around midnight to rain and close the windows. I fall back asleep, but not for long. The sound of thunder wakes me up to the sight of huge bolts of lightning everywhere. North, west, east – it’s all over the place. And there are only a few seconds between bolts. It’s bolt after bolt after bolt of lightning. I’ve never seen anything like this before and it is quite unnerving to think we are out here alone in this campsite with no shelter around but our van. This storm is of epic proportions and we don’t feel comfortable out here anymore.

I make the decision to drive to Erlunda where there will at least see some other people and some structures. It’s eight kilometers east and it’s a nerve-racking drive, as bolts of lightning strike all around us. Just let us get to Erlunda without getting hit by lightning, I pray to the atheist god. We arrive at the truck stop and a trucker suggests we park the van under the car parking shelter. We like this idea and put the car under the steel canopy structure. Trees in the Outback are small so we are not really worried about branches from trees hitting us, and this canopy gives us an added level of comfort. With thunder and lightning around we manage to fall back asleep.

Day 12:

The storm is over when we wake up around 5:00. We move the car to a free camping site up the road and try to get some more sleep. It’s not raining, but the sky is completely overcast. This is the sixth day in a row of overcast skies in the Outback. I seriously never thought I’d see a single cloud on this part of the trip. The thought of dull grey skies never occurred to me. The extended forecast calls for clouds and scattered thunderstorms throughout the entire Outback for at least the next week. Last night may not be the only time we see an intense desert storm.

By 9:00 we decide to get on the road and go check out the Henbury Meteorite Craters. It’s about 15 kilometers off of the highway on a dirt road. The first 10 km of the dirt road is quite good. I’m able to go 60 kmh. But then the crappy Australian corrugated dirt road makes an appearance. So back down to 10-20 kmh it is. I still have no idea why they make the dirt roads corrugated with all these bumps. They don’t want people driving down them?

After bumping around for 15 minutes we arrive at the craters. After hiking 30 minutes in the wrong direction we get back to the trail and approach the craters. Eh. I was expecting more than this tiny little crater full of trees and grass. We drove 30 minutes down a shitty dirt road for this? That’s two days in a row of big let downs now! We complete the walk and beat the flies off our hats before getting back into the van. I would not recommend a visit to Henbury Meteorite Craters to anyone visiting the Outback. Take note.

Back on the highway we speed towards Alice Springs in hope of finding a shower. We are dusty and dirty and flies have probably licked every square inch of our bodies. We roll into town just before 1:00. This is the largest city in central Australia, population just over 30,000. Sadly enough, the first thing I notice about this city is the Aborigines. Similar to Coober Pedy, there is a high population of natives here, and again they spend the day loitering around and jaywalking. I see a toddler playing in a garbage can on the street as his parents sit on the curb and it just makes me sad.

Alice Springs is actually in the mountains, which surprises me. I thought it would just be in the middle of the flat desert. But the MacDonnell Ranges are rocky and rugged. They are not mountains like we are used to in New Zealand. They are not very high, but they are striking nonetheless. It gives the city a nice look. Downtown is actually quite clean, save the Aborigine toddlers playing in trash cans. We decide to hold off on a shower until we get to our airbnb and head to an Indian place for lunch specials. It’s been almost two weeks since Nimarta has had Indian food and she is starting to go crazy.

After lunch we check out the visitor’s center to get some information on West MacDonnell National Park. The clerk tells us there are no heat restrictions there and suggests we go to Ormiston Gorge to swim in the natural pool. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen water. Every river we have passed has been dry as a bone, so this sounds like a good idea to us. We will make a day trip there tomorrow.

We are staying just outside of downtown at a room rented on airbnb. It’s small, but most importantly has a real bed and air conditioning. The AC feels amazing. We have had awful sleep the last four nights so we are really looking forward to this. We shower and throw some laundry on then head back downtown to get some dinner. We are really treating ourselves after five straight days of beans and noodles. We head to Uncle’s Tavern, which is apparently the place to be on a Thursday night in Alice Springs. It’s crowded but we get a table outside and order. They have a special tonight of $10 for a burger and a beer. Nimarta gets the chicken burger but the camel burger isn’t part of that special and I need that. I have never had camel meat before so this is a must-try. It looks like beef, but tastes more gamey. I can definitely tell the difference between this and beef. It’s more similar to bison, but it has its own flavor. When in the Outback…

Sleep comes easily in this comfortable bed. The AC is on and for the first time since Coober Pedy we are at ease as we fall asleep and sleep through the night.

Day 13:

Waking up is difficult. After the first good night’s sleep in a while all I want to do is stay in bed and sleep more. But we have things we want to do today. We are on the road just after 11:00 heading west to Ormiston Gorge. We pass a few other gorges and canyons in the mountains on the way there but we figure we can stop on the way back if we have time. It’s almost an hour and a half drive and we reach Ormiston in time for lunch. But Nimarta wants to swim first so we head to the water hole.

It’s very quiet out here. It seems like we are the only ones here. That’s probably because we are the only ones here. It’s a short walk to the water hole and when we get there we are rewarded with a gorgeous view of a big red canyon with eucalyptus and gum trees abound. The water hole is maybe 20 meters in diameter, nothing big, but still pretty cool to see in this dry barren land (we later learn that this is not a permanent water hole like we though – eventually it will dry up again). The canyon is more spectacular than King’s Canyon, we both agree. Too bad we didn’t skip King’s Canyon and spend a night here. The flies are, of course, relentless, but there is a peace and quiet about this water hole that makes us fall in love with the place.

After taking some nice pictures of the canyon it’s time to get in the water. Word on the street is that the water is really cold. As I put my feet in I see what they mean. Damn that is cold. I kind of wish the desert sun was shining today so that the water would be a welcome release from the heat, but it’s cloudy here and actually not too hot today, so the water feels a bit colder. I slowly make my way into the water and go for a little swim. Nimarta joins me a few minutes later. We are all alone until one guy comes taking some pictures and puts his feat in the water. The best part about the water is that the flies leave you alone when you are in it. I stay in a bit longer than I was planning on due to this realization.

After swimming we walk a bit further into the canyon then take the short trail up to Ghost Gum Lookout, where we are given a vast view of the canyon and all the striking colors of the rocks. It’s amazing this place is not more crowded, so close to Alice Springs and all. It’s truly a beautiful place. Back at the van I make a sandwich and we hit the road back towards the city. We try to stop off at another gorge but it’s five kilometers down a horribly corrugated dirt road so we decide to skip it and check out a place called the Ellery Creek Big Hole. It’s a large water hole – this one is permanent - and it is far more crowded, seemingly with locals. It’s at a spot where the mountain seems to stop and start again, somehow creating this large pool of water. We decide not to swim here, though, and head back to the city, as it’s past 4:00 now.

Back in town we fill up gas, which is so cheap here compared to the roadside stops in the Outback, and stop at the grocery store for some fresh kangaroo. I opt to try the kangaroo kebabs this time instead of the steaks. Nimarta is making a lentil curry tonight so I will add it to that. Kangaroo curry! This roo turns out not to be as tender as the steaks I had last week, but it is still damn good and actually goes pretty well in the curry. We open a bottle of pinot noir and relax as we try to decide what to do once we reach the east coast. At this point we are basically done with our Outback sight-seeing. There is not too much to see north and east of here so we will be getting to Cairns as fast as we can.

After multiple hours of research on the computer we finally decide to stay in Palm Cove, about 15 miles north of Cairns, for Tuesday and Wednesday night to relax on a nice beach before our great barrier reef adventure in Cairns. From all the reviews we have read that this beach, and Trinity beach a few miles south, are the best beaches in the area. It will be good to relax on a beach after a 2500km drive across the country from Alice Springs. I send a request for a nice place on airbnb and fall asleep.


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