It’s 8:30 pm, Easter Saturday evening. Today we were collected by Mark of Sandrifter Safaris at 7:30 am just outside the flat. It was a cloudy, cool morning just short of one needing a sweater. He drives a Landrover discovery which I can say from experience, is a very comfortable vehicle. At the kerb and parked it actually drops a few inches making it easier for ladies to board and then elevates when starting on the road.
Our first stop was Emily Gap, one of the many beautiful natural features of the Eastern MacDonnell. Unlike the west, the eastern end is much quieter. The areas around Hermannsburg and Glen Helen are full of tourists over Easter in contrast to where we visited today, there were only a few people driving or walking. After the busy rush of India, the peace and quiet beauty of this region is very relaxing. Emily Gap is formed at the junction of great sandstone hills, riding abruptly, near vertical, with ghost gums and river gums in the river bed and acacias scattered precariously on the cliffs and heights above. As I walked on the deep grey sand, I could study the orange rocks and trees. Near the end of the Gap, is a wall with ancient Aboriginal art, red stripes and three small eyes formed each painting, each one a precise rectangle. In fact, there are several paintings, high up above the level of the river base. Mark dropped to his knees, and dug away at the sand, and after only a few handfuls, water filled the depression. A meter away, there was another depression where a kangaroo had dug for water in much he same way. Water is everything. If you are lost in the outback and see Zebra Finches, you will survive a week. Why is this? It’s because a Zebra Finch must drink thirty times it’s body weight every day, so if you see these birds, you are near water.
The paintings are part of the Caterpillar Dreaming, which is centred at the gap coming into Alice Springs, where two long ranges end, seeming to face each other. With some imagination, you can see a single eye at the end of each, the eye of a caterpillar perhaps. This is part of a song line, a path of Dreaming from one part of Australia to another, joined by natural features and Rock art, paintings like these and petroglyphs, carvings. On this pathway, the people can find and celebrate their country and most importantly, navigate confidently from place to place.
We drove eastwards, stopping then at Corroboree rock. There is a short walk about this formation. On on edge I could see how narrow it is, like half a coin sitting in the ground. Metamorphic sandstone, its sedimentary layers no longer horizontal but vertical. Each layer a layer of ancient sea floor. The history of central Australia goes back to not long after the formation of the earth itself. Great oceans formed and reformed nine times in all , but beginning two billion years ago. Mountains were eroded by ice, by great glaciers when Australia voyaged to the South Pole. Wind and water also eroded these ancient peaks. Their debris and stone, gravel and soil, filled the huge hollows between each mountain, all ocean washed and layered, over and over again producing ever thicker layers of sand then stone This became sandstone as the material above compressed that below. Then the very continent, twisted, contorted by the other great plates, created massive forces of stress and compression. New mountains formed, but twisted like the spines of fossilised dinosaurs. This what you see from planes as they fly overhead. In addition, these same forces spat minerals out of the mantle and from deep in the plate, forming intrusions of quartz, nickel and gold.
Our next stop, was the result, at least in part, of all these geological events. After the Overland Telegraph was built, and a basic road was available, the government wanted a town built near the Alice Springs Telegraph Station to be called Stuart. A government auction of blocks in Stuart, did not have impressive results, with only three sales from the one hundred allotments surveyed. However, there were men, who travelled Australia looking for opportunities. Gold miners from the Ballarat Goldfields visited this area, and saw the rock, understood the geology and realised gold might well be here. Well they knew it was not in Stuart or anywhere near it but some one hundred kilometres east, in the Eastern MacDonnell ranges. This settlement was the first town in Central Australia, called Arltunga. It was a town based on mining, and mining principally for gold. Investors, miners, butchers, administrators, bakers, and publicans, all set up businesses. The mining was intense. Over all only six million dollars in modern equivalence was recovered from the many mines. It was terrible work, the heat over summer, the problems with porting water. The canvas bags used all over Australia, dried out, fraying and leaking. The stamping machines needed water and plenty of it to work. They developed air blowers to blow away, the fine dust from the heavier gold, after physically bashing quartz in troughs. Food had to be transported from Adelaide, or slaughtered locally. The mining ceased early in the twentieth century and most of the people left. Some stayed, solitary miners who liked the isolation, some businessmen bought up cattle stations and became farmers. The ruins of the bakery and post office are badly damaged by vandalism and souveniring by locals and tourists alike however even today, the Hotel is still there, it’s not open anymore but sits there, near the gravel road, still proudly bearing the name Arltunga. Somehow this splendid pub kept serving cold beer inti the 1960s! There is a fine museum of memorabilia and mining artefacts from old days that is well worth a visit. There is a you tube video anyone can access online about Arltunga too.
Over the years, there was more and more confusion about Alice Springs Telegraph Station which included the post office and the town of Stuart. The locals knew which was which, but no one else did. So to settle this mess, poor Stuart lost his town and it all became known as Alice Springs. By the the time Arltunga had died, Alice Springs was established and going ahead, with better access north and south, better communications with the telegraph, better water supplies and more to it than just mining. However it was not the first town in Central Australia that was Arltunga.
We drove a a short distance to Hale River Homestead ( also called Ambalindum Station). This is a business venture of a mother and daughter. They bought or leased sixty hectares of land from the main station for a tourist venture about 18 months ago. They have revamped the old buildings to new purposes. The battery room becomes a charming bed sit. The old homestead becomes multi room accommodation, its interior designs and furnishings reflecting the 1950s when it was last renovated. The dining area is an old tractor and mechanicals shed, with a lot of the paraphernalia of outback life on display. We had a terrific yummy lunch with home made pickles and chilles on corned ham rolls. Sophie, the young manager and part owner, not only joined us for lunch but showed us around her property. It’s wonderful to see and hear a young local woman, raised in the outback, with such determination and capacity for hard work. Over lunch, we talked about life in the outback. I saw a black goanna, a little one, on the concrete path to the dining room. Sophie and Mark told us some stories. Marks wife and co owner of their business, is a veterinarian. She was called to see two injured horses with damaged calves. The calves had been torn away by something. The first thought was dogs but when it happened again, she attached cameras to the horses. These cameras did not show dogs but a goanna, a Perentie which was about two meters high when standing and trying to kill the horses. Perenties are venomous, agile hunters, the fourth largest lizard in the world and will take on anything. Once the station owner knew what to look for, they located the lizard and captured it and relocated it. Well that what they told Marks wife. Mark remains sceptical about the fate of the animal.
After leaving the homestead with Mark at the wheel, we drove to Trephina Gorge. We took the Rim walk, which went steeply up and above the gorge, offering wonderful views of the rock face opposite us. We descended sharply at the western end, to enter the gorge itself. There is hardly any water here to see, but just like Emily Gap, the river is still flowing, its just moving under and not over the sand. The ghost and river gums sending down huge, long roots to tap into this near permanent flow. You may have heard of two German tourists who died at Trephina in February. The story goes something like this. The married, elderly but fit for their age couple arrived at Alice Springs Airport and collected a rental car. They were booked into some very exclusive accomodation for that evening. They drove to the gorge, parked their rental vehicle and went on one of the many signposted walks. Most likely the Rim Walk. After about 1 kilometre they turned off the three kilometre track onto a 18 kilometre return track. I saw the spot and even I had to ask Mark, which was the right way. They carried on this longer walk, got badly confused about direction. Their hotel manager was concerned when they did not show up and he called the police. No one had a clue where they were going. A ranger found the car three days later at Trephina Gorge, and two days later searchers found the first body, and the next day, the second body was located. What mistakes did they make? In short, plenty. The only water they each had were those 250ml bottles you get for free on the plane, they walked in 40 degree plus heat, they had no hats and they told no one where they were going. The map they used was a tourist guide to Alice Springs and surrounds and it was was never designed to plan walks as it was not to any sort of scale. There are excellent maps at the visitor centre at Arltunga and online. They died from dehydration after getting lost and confused, making bad decisions from start to finish.
A feature of our trip are the many native birds. When parked on the road, suddenly a flock of iridescent green and yellow budgies darted in the air and landed en masses in a tree’s branches, a red breasted robin with its black jacket flew in to rest on a branch at afternoon tea near Trephina Gorge and Spinifex pigeons walking on river sand at Emily Gap.
After leaving the gorge we drove back to Alice Springs. We arrived at 5:30, wished Mark well and sat down together for a chilled glass of wine. It’s been a terrific day. The beauty of the hills and plains, the rich red and brown colours of the sandstone spines of this country splashed and then dotted by the greens of the gum trees and native grasses, makes watching the passing scenery very addictive. But there is something important you need to know about much of the grass, vast swathes are not native, but a pesky introduced grass as damaging to central Australia as the Cane toad is to northern tropical Australia.
Much of the native grass is gone due the CSIRO releasing buffel grass in the 70s. This South African grass was planted around Alice Springs Airport to reduce the airborne dust that was damaging Ansett’s jet engines. This was the beginning of the boom in tourism and nothing can be allowed to interfere with its profitability. The fine dust is as corrosive to engines as to everything else. The result has been that this grass is displacing native grasses all over central Australia. It grows back quicker after fire than natives, including grasses, palms and saplings, choking them. When it burns, it burns so hot, that native seeds are destroyed rather than being germinated by lower temperatures. And it’s tough and very hard to pull out off the ground, you need a matic to remove the roots. It looks nice enough but it’s replacing the diversity of grasslands and increasingly forests with a single plant. Kangaroos and other marsupials don’t like it and graze elsewhere. Bush tomatos, bush passionfruit, and other plants cannot grow. This means that bush tucker is not available in many parts of central Australia. This worsens the nutrition and damages the hunting culture of Aborigines. Graziers and government are not all that interested in solving this problem as cattle do like it and eat it and it has made grazing more secure a practice and as a business.