West Macdonnell Ranges
Key information: West Macdonnell Ranges
- The West Macdonell Ranges striate their way across Australia's red hot, red earthed Red Centre, through a fascinating landscape. With contorted formations, spectacular gorges and mysterious and engrossing pounds.
- Full of Australia's harsh natural beauty: hot and arid semi-desert, with flora (600 rare species) and fauna to match. Expect a lot of barren, rocky slopes sprinkled with adapted grasses and shrubs.
- Walkopedia rating84
- Natural interest18
- Human interest3
- Negative points0
- Total rating84
- Length: Variable
- Maximum Altitude: 1,380m
- Level of Difficulty: Variable
The West Macdonell Ranges striate their way across Australia's red hot, red earthed Red Centre. A very ancient area, even by geological standards, these mountains were once enormous, and the sand from their erosion was compressed into what is now Uluru (Ayers Rock). Mere stumps compared to their original height, they peak out at Mount Sonder (1,331m). All this history makes for a fascinating landscape, with manically contorted formations, spectacular gorges and mysterious and engrossing pounds: while not on the scale of (say) Africa's Rift Valley, the formations are much more ancient and mysterious and some would say just as beautiful. The range's numerous high and sheer-walled gorges are said to have been cut through the range by rivers that pre-existed it. The ranges are composed of a mixture of hard quartzite and sandstone.
This is classic central Australian landscape, hot and arid semi-desert, with flora and fauna to match. Expect a lot of barren, rocky slopes sprinkled with adapted grasses and shrubs such as sharp spinifex grass. The valley bottoms are somewhat more luxuriant, although here too the vegetation can have to survive months without water - and when it comes, it can take the form of thunderstorms followed by flash floods. (The flora after rain is outstandingly beautiful, enhanced by the surprise given the harsh semi-desert sands and soils.) The vegetation is also regularly scorched and renewed (it has adapted even or this) by bush fires. It is not an easy environment.
As a result, life is heavily adapted, and you don't see many animals, and birds are few as well- this is a harsh environment, and the beasties have to spread out to forage. There are colonies of wallabies here and there, rather more snakes than cowards such as Walkopedia care to meet, a varied and interesting selection of other reptiles and even frogs adapted to survive the long dries. There is a wide and rich bird population, although you may not get to actually get to meet many on any one walk.
There are echoes of a long and rich Aboriginal culture in the area, although these are more in the nature of known traditions and stories from the pre-colonial past, than physical remains. Some areas are sacred. Although efforts are made to give recognition to Aboriginal history and presence (these are lands returned to Aboriginal ownership then leased back by the National Parks) and sacred places are clearly respected (eg no swimming at Serpentine Gorge), the visible cultural aspects are limited.
The landscape has an ancient and numinous air. You will be engrossed by the presence and proximity of the elements. If you can drive there (1,300 or so km from Adelaide), you get a deep sense of the relative scale and context of the Macdonnell Ranges.
This is an amazingly rugged area, but now deservedly well-trodden. While never being all that far from a track or road (as the crow files, anyway) arguably detracts, many [parts of the trail] are largely deserted and only for well-equipped hikers. Heat and regular steep sections make it a challenge, and in winter the weather is unpredictable (rain storms happen...).
The area offers a fine selection of enthralling walking, from the great, long-distance Larapinta Trail to day scrambles into fabulous Ormiston Pound to thrilling but not always lonely explorations through the numerous and very dramatic gorges.
The Larapinta Trail is the word-famous walk here. While you can tramp the full 223km, you can also tackle chunks or just day-circuits. Most multi-day walkers will head to the far west and walk the final stretches leading to Mount Sonder, or (easier of access) westward from Alice Springs and to (say) Standley Chasm. The Larapinta generally runs with the sharp, weathered backbone of the mountains, sometimes along the high ridges, sometimes deep in the valleys below and at times scrambling through deep, dramatic gorges. The trail is challenging more because of the steep, rugged, rock-strewn terrain than because of any great altitude - indeed, its high point is Mount Sonder at only 1,380m.
Ormistion Gorge and Pound : the Ormiston Gorge is a thrilling chasm in the heart of the range, a short section of the Larapinta Trail, and easily accessible from the Alice Springs-Hermannsburg road. So, it gets visitors. The Ormiston Pound is a remarkable (and less-visited) cliff-girt hole beyond the gorge. Climb up to a saddle, then round to a brilliant view into the pound. Then descend into the pound, to view amazing old quartzite cliffs fractured and piled on top of each other. A huge variety of flora on the pound floor. Walk it in a 3.5 hr circuit.
Other key walking attractions include:
- Simpsons Gap,
- Ellery Creek,
- Big Hole,
- Standley Chasm: popular but dramatic, and once through you ca walk a stretch or two of the Larapinta
- Glen Helen,
- Count's Point
- Mont Sonder.
(All have car parks, toilets, picnic areas and walkways to deal with the steady stream of 4WD and camper-van visitors to these highlights. While stunning and hugely atmospheric, you aren't generally that far from the highway.]
If you are walking the Macdonnell Ranges, you are likely to be going on to Uluru (Ayers Rock). Think of exploring King's Canyon [link] in between.
The key attractions and points of interest are well-signed off the Alice Springs-Hermannsburg road. Australian national parks have good interpretation and map boards at key points plus well-marked paths. You can safely self-guide (get the Larapinta trail book), but the early-morning ascent of Mount Sonder needs a guide.
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Other accounts: share your experiences
Your comments on this walk, your experiences and suggestions, and your photos are very welcome. Where appropriate, you will be credited for your contribution.
Books and Maps
Books on this walk
Northern Territory and Central Australia – Lonely Planet:
Lonely Planet Central Australia – Lonely Planet
‘Larapinta Trail Package’ available from http://www.nt.gov.au/nreta/parks/walks/larapinta.html
Decent maps are reasonably easily available locally.
Best times to walk/weather
Best times to walk
Usually during the cooler months (April-Oct, although you will find April and Oct still pretty hot) to escape the heat; even then it can still be hot with little rainfall.
During the summer months the heat is oppressive, even dangerous. The winter months from May to September are ideal. There is little rainfall, with what can be had low and spasmodic. A good sleeping bag is advisable as it gets cold at night.
Nearest airport: Alice Springs – flights from every Australian city.
See www.macdonnellranges.com for some car hire options.
Those on organized expeditions will be transported from/to arranged start/departure points.
No permits are needed to do this/these walks (as at 2014), but park and camping fees can apply.
See Walk Summary above.
Possible problems, health, other warnings
- Heat and strong sun. Carry enough water and protect yourself. But gets cold at night.
- Heights: can be dangerous; not for those who have difficulties with heights.
- Dangerous animals of all shapes and sizes (this is Australia, Mate),including snakes, stinging/biting insects and plants. Take all appropriate precautions.
- Gorge and riverbed dangers: gorges can be lethal, particularly as a result of flash floods. Assess and prepare for all risks on those walks involving gorges. In particular, check the weather carefully and don’t go after rain or if it is possible. And don’t camp in river beds.
- This is remote(ish) country: food and other supplies will not be readily available once on a trail and help may be hard to get if things go wrong.
- Be sensitive in dealings with Aborignal people: don’t photograph them without permission. Ask permission if in doubt about whether they would mind.
See also the websites in our useful links page for more detailed, and up-to-date, information.
Safety and problems: All walks have inherent risks and problems can arise on any walk. Many of the walks featured on this website involve significant risks and possible problems. This website cannot, does not purport to, identify all actual or potential risks, dangers and problems that may relate to a walk or a country. Any person who is considering undertaking this walk should do careful research and make their own assessment of the risks, dangers and possible problems involved. They should also go to “Important information” for further important information.
Make sure you have appropriate insurance.
Guided or independent?
You can do these walks independently, but you will need to be self-sufficient, so come fully prepared.
See our Larapinta page for organizers of food drops for independent walking groups, meaning the burden of carrying all supplies is much reduced. This therefore makes walking the trail accessible to many people.
Many people form or join organised/supported expeditions. Given the remoteness of the country and difficulty of getting supplies, many will prefer to do it this way if going on multi-day expeditions, and travelling here with a knowledgeable guide has real advantages and this can give you the ability to move between the very best (and most varied) walks.
If hiring a guide locally, meet him/her and get comfortable before committing. Make sure all requirements are understood and agreed – including how you will eat and overnighting and, of course, remuneration!
Expedition organisers include:
· Great Walks Of Australia http://greatwalksofaustralia.com.au/
· SEIT Outback Australia http://www.seitoutbackaustralia.com.au/West-Macdonnell-Ranges/
· Heading Bush Outback Adventures http://www.headingbush.com/
See our Larapinta Trail [Link] for more information on relevant organizers.
PLEASE HELP Walkopedia by recommending any reputable tour organizers that you know of – local or otherwise.
Once out on remote trails, camping only.
Luxury camping is arrangeable.
There are various accommodation websites for towns such as Alice Springs.
See what the commentary on Tripadvisor is on possible places to stay – although do take their reviews with a pinch of salt, as they can be “interested”.
Useful websites and information
There are many websites with relevant information. Here are some that we think are useful or have been recommended to us.
· http://www.wikipedia.org. As usual, a good starting place.
· Try www.flickr.com for pictures of this walk.
See our Larapinta Trail [Link] page for more specific links.
Other things to do in the area
Australia has a huge variety of great walks. If you are walking the Macdonnell Ranges, you are likely to be going on to Uluru (Ayers Rock) . Think of exploring King’s Canyon [link] in between.
Creative camps organised by Trek Larapinta situated at Glen Helen, 130km from Alice Springs.
Safety and problems: All walks have inherent risks and potential problems, and many of the walks featured on this website involve significant risks, dangers and problems. Problems of any sort can arise on any walk. This website does not purport to identify any (or all) actual or potential risks, dangers and problems that may relate to any particular walk.
Any person who is considering undertaking this walk should do careful research and make their own assessment of the risks, dangers and possible problems involved. They should also go to “Important information” for further important information.
share your experiences
Add your experiences, suggestions and photos. We would be delighted to receive your writing and ideas (which will be attributed appropriately where published).
Anyone planning an expedition to this place should see further important information about this walk.
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