West MacDonnell Ranges, NT

By: Chris Bouma & John Butts

Too many travellers pass through the MacDonnell Ranges in a hurry. Do yourself a favour and savour the experience.

West Mac Donnell Ranges NT

Stretching across nearly 200km, the vast and spectacular West MacDonnell Ranges in the heart of Central Australia are the gateway to a vast number of scenic gorges, cool rock holes and breathtaking landscapes. But while most visitors make do with a one-day whirlwind tour of this outback region, you can easily spend a week here.

Camping options vary from bush camps without any facilities, to unpowered sites with hot showers and flush toilets and a powered campsite at Glen Helen Homestead Lodge, 130km west of Alice Springs. We chose to base ourselves at Glen Helen, an outback oasis surrounded by awe-inspiring scenery. The entire campground faces the impressive ochre-red walls of Glen Helen Gorge which are set ablaze as the sun sets – an unforgettable memory.

Our first trip was to Redbank Gorge, the most remote gorge along the ranges if you travel from Alice Springs but definitely worth a look. The road to the turn-off is sealed, leaving just 5km of dirt road until you reach the parking area. The Ridgetop campground perched high above the creek bed affords magnificent views at sunrise and sunset that are enough to justify the camping fees.

West Mac Donnell Ranges NT 1

A narrow track leads into the gorge while the last section follows the creek bed itself. Normally a 20-minute walk, it took us a lot longer as floods the week before our visit had washed away part of the track. Quite a bit of rock-hopping is involved to reach the actual gorge but the stunning views of the deep-red vertical cliff walls are well worth it. Plus, if you bring a lilo, you can float down the gorge to explore places others will never see.

Fifteen kilometres down the road, spectacular Ormiston Gorge is probably the most-visited destination in the West MacDonnells. Early in the morning, the gorge’s jagged rocks are perfectly reflected in the still water of its near-permanent waterhole. This breathtaking scenery is accessible via a wheelchair-friendly 500-metre walk.

For an entirely different perspective, hike up to the Ghost Gum Lookout where you’ll be rewarded with awe-inspiring views of the gorge and beyond. The 20-minute walk is also the start of the Ormiston Pound Walk, a circuit that will take three to four hours to complete.

Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira featured ghost gums in his works and helped make it one of Australia’s best-known trees. This icon of the Outback, with its pure white trunk and bright green leaves contrasted starkly against the red landscape, is an absolute favourite with photographers.

West Mac Donnell Ranges NT 2

The next day we drove to Serpentine Gorge, one of the least-visited places in Tjoritja NP. A dirt road leads to a parking area with a small picnic shelter – we enjoyed our lunch here before heading down the 1.3km track to the gorge.

The traditional owners consider this place dangerous as they believe it’s home to a large and fierce water serpent – for this reason they only ever came here when they were desperate and will not swim here.

Black-footed rock wallabies make their home here as the steep rocky slopes and large boulders provide protection from the dingoes that are their major predators. Unfortunately we didn’t spot any.

The gorge is also one of the most important drought refuges for fish in Central Australia. The Banded Grunter is one of five species found here; here they can survive the worst droughts then disperse downstream to other waterholes with the next flood.

A short but steep track leads up the mountain to a lookout with sweeping views of the gorge on one side and the wide plains on the other. Standing high above Serpentine Gorge, it becomes clear why this name was chosen – the creek cuts a snake-like course through the ranges.

On our final day we headed to Standley Chasm. If you pushed for time, this can be accessed from Alice Springs as it’s only 50km from the centre of town.

Owned and operated by an Aboriginal trust, the chasm is best visited around noon when the sunlight transforms the walls into fiery reds and oranges. The easy 20-minute walk follows a well-formed path that meanders along the rocky creek bed and past the rare MacDonnell Cycads that grow in this sheltered environment.

West Mac Donnell Ranges NT 3

The walk most people don’t attempt is the lookout on the other side of the kiosk. A steep and rocky path leads to an impressive vantage point, rewarding you with panoramic views of the ranges. While it’s a shame more people don’t try it, it adds to the sense of awe to be alone in this magnificent spot among such rugged scenery.

Simpsons Gap was the last destination on our list. It’s one of the best places to see black-footed rock wallabies, which are now considered a threatened species, making it all the more important to protect habitats such as this. This time we were in luck and spotted several wallabies sunbaking on the warm rocks.

A visit to the West MacDonnell Ranges is a journey into an extraordinary landscape that will leave you longing to go back for more. Head to the Red Centre and explore this part of Central Australia for yourself – you won’t be disappointed.