We start the day with hot milky coffee from a tiny cafe in Alice Springs. Today we drive west.
Our route follows the West Macdonnell Ranges out of Alice along Namatjira Drive around the Mareenie Loop and finally to Kings Canyon. We are driving into the heart of Australia, the true red centre.
The ranges stand tall above us, red and rugged. Their scale is immense. Once again I am in awe of this landscape. The red centre is everything I imagined and so much more. On our left the Macdonnells extend far into the distance, their pointed peaks like the serrated edge of a giant saw. To the right the country rolls in a softer female form. Gentle green-grey curves hide the rock underneath, as if a blanket has been thrown over the bony peaks to protect them from the winds.
The sun climbs in the sky, it’s a cool, bright day west of Alice.
The road has been paved and marked with clear white lines to ease the way for day trippers. It’s a comfortable, but unexciting drive. We see a sign for Standley Chasm and turn in to take a look. I’m in two minds about this place. The natural beauty of the chasm is visible, but it has been tainted by handrails, walking paths and a poorly positioned waste bin. A phrase comes to me, “taming the wild”. The chasm is just too close to Alice.
We drive further west. The Macdonnells stay with us, constant companions guiding us on our way. I’m intrigued by a sign for Ellery Creek Big Hole. It’s not a romantic name, but it’s time for a cuppa so we park and take a look. We stroll down the walking path admiring the wildflowers and the red black cubist shapes in the rock faces ahead of us. Then we stop, stand and stare. The “big hole” is the waterhole of your dreams.
The craggy red sandstone walls are reflected perfectly on the surface of the deep dark water. The water is cold, too cold for a swim. A fish jumps, sending ripples across the width of the pool. A ghost gum stands to one side, white limbs leaning like a hesitant swimmer over the water. The water continues through a small passage in the rock and on into the distance. A canoe, and some more time, and we could explore. Perfect.
On our way again, it suddenly feels strange to be travelling alone, without the convoy. We miss the banter on the radio. We miss sharing the beauty of the waterhole with our travelling companions.
Fewer and fewer cars pass by. We begin to distance ourselves from Alice. We are once more in the outback.
The ranges running alongside us become a living aboriginal painting, grey green dots of spinifex against a yellow and red ochre background. The lines formed by the terraced structure of the rock create a wave effect, undulating through the ranges.
We take a detour to look at the ochre pits, where the local people have mined ochre for thousands of years. Imagine the white cliffs of Dover striped in gold, green, white, red and yellow. The walls of the pits are vivid with these earthy colours, red and yellow with iron oxide, white with lime. The colours lie in waves and stripes showing how the seabed that once lay here has been twisted and turned by forces from below.
It’s way past time for lunch and although we need to keep moving to get to Kings Canyon before sunset, we decide to stop at the next rest area. It is a lookout. We climb to the top of a steep incline that levels out to give a panoramic view around us. The plains below are green and grey with spinifex and white cypress pine. That’s when we see Tnorala for the first time – a circle of red rock, like the crater at the top of a volcano. I find out later that Tnorala is the imprint of a celestial body that fell to earth millions of years ago. Wow.
We drive down to take a closer look. A sandy road takes us inside the circle of rock, sheltered from the wind. This is a special place. Beautiful, yes. But it is more than beauty that holds us spellbound. There is a spirit here that is soft and gentle. This a sacred place, and not just because the local people, the Arrernte, say so. I can’t explain it, but I will remember this place in my dreams.
And then it’s fun time, we turn on to the 4WD section of the road, the Mareenie Loop. Hang on to your hats! The sand and gravel road that winds its way towards Kings Canyon is not for standard road cars or the faint hearted. It is slippery. The car slides around the wide road. The driver needs to focus to keep us on track. I look at him. He’s loving it.
I shout “Dip!” as the road drops away suddenly. Just as well we upgraded the shock absorbers. Tight turns, sharp left, then sharp right, arrive with no warning.
The sun is low in the sky and long shadows fall across the landscape. It is stunningly beautiful, but Richard can’t risk taking his attention off the road. The car drifts in the bends from one side of the road to the other before gripping the road again to drive into the next bend. Can this be fun? I look at Richard’s smile. It says it all.
We are both tired when we arrive at Kings Canyon Resort. It’s been another unforgettable day.