Western MacDonnell Ranges

For our final full day in Alice Springs we headed out to the Western MacDonnell Ranges. There are plenty of attractions there to see and a good number of facilities. This meant following Larapinta Drive out of Alice Springs and passing Simpsons Gap and Standley Chasm that we visited the other day. After 45 kilometres we turned off the main road which went to Hermannsburg to join Namatjira Drive that followed the MacDonnell Ranges to the old homestead at Glen Helen. 

This area has some famous scenery. In so many places, you can imagine Albert Namatjira (the famous Aboriginal artist of thew 1950’s) sitting by his old truck and painting one of his typical scenes of ghost gums, river beds and mountain ranges. The only change these days is the large number of tourists (including us) who visit this area that has become increasingly popular and accessible. The changes in light during the day and the seasons have a dramatic impact on the landscape.



The total distance to Glen Helen, our final destination, was 132 km from Alice Springs. This used to be the end of the bitumen road but it now continues for some distance at least and potentially will be upgraded all the way along the loop to Hermannsburg. 

The Ellery Creek Big Hole, along the way,  is a very pleasant place to visit. It’s the deepest waterhole in the West MacDonnell Ranges and great for swimming. The pool is in the shade for most of the day and the water is freezing cold. Needless to say, it’s teeming with bird life and as I wondered along the sandy beach at the edge of the water, I was surrounded by the noisy chatter of various parrots and other birds.

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Further along, we found the road that led off the highway to Serpentine Gorge. The road was very rough but still easily accessible by conventional car. We squibbed out when we saw that it would take a walk of over a kilometre from the car park to get to the gorge.

We reached the Glen Helen Homestead just before lunch and decided to drive on a little way along the road to do a little more exploring. We found a newish lookout that provided a good overview of Mt Sonder (the subject of many of Abert Namatjira’s paintings) as well as a view of part of the Finke River. 


At this time of year, the Finke River is just a chain of intermittent water holes but critically important in supporting wildlife and the local cattle industry.


We bought lunch from the cafe at the old homestead. I was surprised to find that they sold alcohol (which is banned in most places to protect the aboriginal population) so I was able to enjoy a cold beer over my juicy hamburger lunch – one of the old fashioned type with everything including beetroot and an egg.The homestead now runs as a B&B and a campground although the accommodation in the old shearer’ quarters looks pretty basic.  The original homestead was built in 1905 and in 1945, the station extended to a chain of four properties all the way across to the Roper River, some 1400 kilometres away. In the 1960’s it was sold to Ansett Airlines and then bought and sold to a variety of owners. It was burnt down and rebuilt in 1985 and flooded in 1988. 

Just below it and a little further down the river is the Glen Helen Gorge with its permanent waterhole. It’s a nice view and good for swimming but for the average tourist like me, once you have taken a few photos there is not much else to do here.


After lunch we began the drive back to Alice Springs, stopping at a couple of places that we had bypassed on the way out. One of the was the simply named ‘Ochre Pits’. This is a location where the Aboriginals mined ochres for their ceremonies, but also for trading with other groups. Certain kinds of ochre are rarer and more valuable. It was only a walk of a few hundred metres to the cliffs along the creek where where you can see the white, yellow and red layers of ochre in the walls.


Our final stop (apart from a few more photographs along the way) was at Ormiston Gorge.  The main attraction here is the narrow gorge on the Ormiston Creek itself.


Walking is the main activity here – not only along the gorge but it is a stopping point on the long Larapinta Trail that extends all the way from Alice Springs to Glen Helen.


Bruce is a keen traveller and photographer. This web site describes his travel and family interests

One thought on “Western MacDonnell Ranges”

  1. I just love colours of inland Australia and your photography Bruce has quickened my heart again for the beauty of this ancient land. What a contrast to the colours of Europe.

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