Caterpillar dreamscape

Andrew Bain explores the often overlooked yet culturally rich East MacDonnell Ranges.

It doesn't look like Mordor, but maps tell me it is. I'm standing on a hilltop in the East MacDonnell Ranges, outside Alice Springs, peering into Mordor Pound. The desert floor is veined with ephemeral waterways, and the imposing rust-red cliffs of Mount Benstead rise in the near distance. It's a scene about as Tolkienesque as a phone book, but as a pure statement of the landscape's otherworldly looks, it seems well named.

For visitors to central Australia the East MacDonnell Ranges are often another world, a place forgotten in the scramble to see Uluru, Kings Canyon and the myriad gorges of the West MacDonnell Ranges. The East MacDonnells are overlooked in this land of scenic plenty. Which is why I'm now on this hilltop, wondering why I have the place to myself.

In many ways, the East MacDonnells are a mirror image of the infinitely more popular West MacDonnells. Both are about 200 kilometres in length, and both are sliced by gorges and waterholes. They differ in subtle ways: the East MacDonnells have more rock art but less permanent water, and more history but fewer people.

Out of Alice Springs, the Ross Highway heads east along the foot of the range, where the names of the features are as much a mystery as the Aboriginal stories around them. Near Alice Springs, the first two gorges are Emily Gap and Jessie Gap, but nobody really knows who Emily and Jessie were. A short distance on, the outcrop known as Corroboree Rock is a sacred site, but it's not believed to have been a place of ceremony.

The rock that armour-plates the range - from flat, polished sheets to layers buckled and folded by the upheaval of the earth - is like an art work in itself, but it's also a canvas. Aboriginal rock art is a prime feature of the East MacDonnells and it begins at Emily Gap, less than 20 kilometres from Alice.

Like much of the range, Emily Gap is part of the Caterpillar Dreaming and, at its centre, red-ochre and white-lime paintings depict the caterpillars said to have been cooked and eaten here by an ancestral hero on his Dreamtime journey.

It's a storyline that continues in Jessie Gap. In this shallow break in the range, the Emu Dreaming intersects with the Caterpillar Dreaming, and in a corner of rock another painting of of caterpillars.

Emily and Jessie gaps are mere tasters of more remote and dramatic places ahead. As I drive east, the range seems to be constantly changing, sometimes crouched low and flat, at others rising like a stone wave about to break over the desert.

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At the foot of the range, figs hug gorge walls, bloodwoods hang with bush coconuts (a gall on the tree containing an edible grub), and bush passionfruit grows from the sand. It looks like dry, unyielding land, but it's akin to an outback platter.

At Trephina Gorge the road turns into the range, where the rocks are exposed like compound fractures of the earth. Past one of central Australia's most impressive trees, a 300-year-old, 33-metre-high ghost gum, Trephina Gorge is the finest of all the East MacDonnells' natural features.

Around the gorge are five marked walking trails, ranging from a 500-metre stroll to a nine-kilometre mountain traverse to nearby John Hayes Rockhole. The main walking trail circuits through the gorge, climbing to its rim then returning through the sandy riverbed past traces of another gallery of Aboriginal rock art - spokes of white paint - that's unmarked and often overlooked. It's a walk reminiscent of the popular circuit through Ormiston Gorge, but again without the people.

It's here, too, that I follow the Panorama Walk out of the gorge, climbing to a low peak overlooking Mordor Pound and dome-like Mount Benstead, probably the most striking peak in the East MacDonnells.

For all the beauty, the East MacDonnells aren't all about natural history. Continuing east from Trephina Gorge, the Binns Track wriggles through the ranges - a driving experience you don't get in the West MacDonnells, where the road never enters the mountains - and into Arltunga.

In 1887, gold was discovered among the quartz seams at Arltunga. Though it would never be as rich as many other Australian goldfields, within a year 200 people were working its mines, making it the first significant European settlement in central Australia.

It was the presence of Arltunga that led the government to commit to building a town 110 kilometres away on the Todd River. That town was Alice Springs.

Mining activity had pretty much ceased by 1913 but a century on, evidence of its heyday is plentiful. Half-a-dozen sites throughout the Arltunga Historical Reserve reveal everything from settlements to mines to cemeteries.

At several points it's possible to enter mines, most evocatively at the Great Western Mines, a warren of tunnels cut into a quartz seam. When I enter, sun is streaming through the mine entrance, lighting it in the orange reflection of the rock. Outside, ghost gums grow from the tailings, with views out over an empty mountainous landscape.

This night I stay at Old Ambalindum Homestead, at the northern foot of the ranges. The lease on this 3400-square-kilometre station was first taken up in 1906 by an assayer from Arltunga, and today the spacious original homestead is one of only two accommodation choices along the range. The homestead still feels like an old-fashioned farmhouse, right down to the linoleum floors and enamel stove, with views over the cattle yards to the East MacDonnells.

In the morning, the rising sun lights the distant tips of the mountains one by one, like candles flickering into life. Zebra finches line the barbed-wire fences, and ringneck parrots pick at the homestead lawns.

I'm heading back into the range, where I turn south to its final gorge: N'Dhala. Though it was stripped bare by fire early this year, the gorge's natural beauty has never really been its true lure. Inside the gorge are Aboriginal petroglyphs estimated to be up to 10,000 years old.

Unlike many art sites, the visible petroglyphs in N'Dhala Gorge aren't hidden in overhangs or caves, but pounded and pecked into some of the largest boulders lining the riverbed. As I walk through the gorge, the art that textures the rock reveals familiar shapes - my journey is ending as it began, with the tale of the Caterpillar Dreaming.

The writer travelled courtesy of Tourism NT.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

See travelnt.com.

GETTING THERE

Qantas flies daily to Alice Springs from Sydney and Melbourne, while Tiger Airways has four flights a week from each city. See qantas.com.au; tigerairways.com.

STAYING THERE

Old Ambalindum Homestead offers a range of accommodation, from camping to staying in the homestead, which sleeps 12. The homestead costs from $235 for two people. See oldambalindum homestead.com.au.

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