The MacDonnell Range is a string of mountains (hills might be a better term, but its Australia) that runs through the southern part of the northern territory. Mount Zeil is the highest peak rising to one thousand five hundred and thirty one meters (five thousand twenty three feet) above sea level. It is also the highest peak inland from the Great Dividing Range. The western part of the range features numerous little tourist spots all centered around a series of permanent water holes nestled in small, rocky canyons. Located not all that far from Alice Springs, which is also nestled into the range, the waterholes provide a wonderful place to camp, hike, swim, and relax.
Since we planed our visit as part of a loop, we came at it from the south. From Kings Canyon resort we purchased a $5 pass to drive through Aboriginal lands and took the dirt track north. The track is listed as four-wheel drive recommended, but most any two-wheel drive would be fine on the road under normal conditions. The road itself has little of note, but it did provide us with a particularly awesome experience. About twenty minutes into the drive we came upon a pair of brumbies, an Australian term for wild horses, and their foal. We spent at least ten minutes watching them walk and taking pictures. The foal stuck extremely close to the mother, but as long as we kept our distance they went about their business as normal. The stallion had the most beautiful coat I have ever seen on a horse. It was shiny gun metal grey with black splotches of the kind you get when flick paint off a brush onto a surface. The whole experience was majestic.
Once though the Aboriginal land and into the National Park, we stopped at Glen Helen to see if they had any food for sale as we were a bit low on cookable stuff by that point. Like the rest of the many stopping points within the West Macs Glen Helen has a swimming hole. What makes it different is it also has motel accommodations and a bar and indoor places to hang out. It is essentially a road house more then a camping area. We didn’t stay long and to be honest it was a bit dirty and nothing about the place made me want to hang around. They also didn’t have any food for us to buy.
Our next stop, and the place we ended up camping for the night, was Ormiston Gorge. The campsite is like most other campsite we have visited in OZ. There were gas BBQs available for cooking, shaded picnic tables for daytime use, and bathroom facilities including hot showers. The campsites are all dirt, but they do just fine for a night or two of camping and the flies were not nearly as bad as they were around Uluru. We also got lucky in the fact that the office had a BBQ pack left that we were able to buy and cook for dinner. Score!
There are a couple of hikes around Ormiston Gorge. The short hike goes up to a look out point then down the backside of the hill into the gorge and back to camp passing by the water hole. We only did half the walk as we were feeling rather lazy. The Ormiston Pound walk is a 3-4 and is supposed to be a wonderful walk with lots of opportunity for observing the native fauna. We didn’t do it though so I can’t say
What I can say from personal experience is the water hole here is lovely, especially in the evening. It is a short walk from the campsite and much of the area around the water is relatively comfortable sand. The water hole is not that big, but it’s plenty big to enjoy a dip and a bit of a swim in. The water is a bit cold, but the body adjusts quite quickly, and when it’s hot out side, it’s not really a big deal. The sheer sides of the gorge and the multitude of gum trees provide some wonderful shade. Together these factors make it a fantastic place to put down a mat or towel and just relax. We had a wonderful afternoon just relaxing, reading, and swimming. I even took a nap!
For those looking for a bit more middle of the day activity, the gorge provides for some wonderful exploring and rock hopping. At least when we were there, and based on the fact the view point hike comes back that way I assume it is generally the case, the water hole could be fully skirted by walking around and over some rather easy to traverse rocks, which means getting around it and back into the gorge is an easy task. It would be a perfect place to spend an hour or so exploring and the gorge provides for some shade at most times of the day.
All in all Ormiston was a wonderful place to camp for a night and enjoy the scenery. It would be just as good as a place to just relax for a few hours.
Of the numerous other areas to explore, the only other place we stopped was the Ellery Creek Big Hole. It is aptly named, as it is the largest of the permanent swimming holes in the western part of the range. The big hole does have a campground with bathrooms, but it does not have showers. It does have shaded picnic benches and gas BBQs are also provided. It is also a bit closer to Alice Springs, which means it would be an easy day trip location.
As I mentioned before, the big hole is aptly named. It is at least twice the size of the swimming hole at Ormiston. There is a cool little sand bar about a third of the way out which at its shallowest was about ankle deep. One could easily sit in places. The water here was also rather cold, but one you get in the body adjusts quickly. Also, because the holes are permanent so there are little fish and plants living in the water, which keep it all clean.
This swimming hole cannot be walked around so easily. We swam the length of it just to see. I would guess it is a bit shy of one hundred meters long, so it’s not that far in reality, especially with the sand bar to break it up. There are also plenty of places along the banks where one can easily climb up onto the rocks surrounding the pool. The rocks get a bit warm in the sun which makes them perfect places to lay and sun bathe for a brief time while exploring.
Much like at Ormiston, we spent our time at Ellery Creek relaxing in the dappled sunlight, swimming, napping, and in general kicking back during the heat of the day. We spent two days and one night in the area, and for us that was the perfect amount of time.