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  • Writer's pictureKirsty - Owner, Red Earth Roaming

East MacDonnell Ranges Tour

Updated: Jun 4

Trephina Gorge hike - East MacDonnell Ranges Tour
Trephina Gorge

Let your East MacDonnell Ranges Tour begin! Sprawled to the east of Alice Springs in the heart of Australia’s Red Centre lies this ridiculously gorgeous straggle of rugged ridges. This east-west facing phenomena stretches out like rows of giant caterpillars snuggled up beside part-buried dinosaurs, their rocky spines basking in the unforgiving Aussie sun. Mother Nature clearly had a blast molding this landscape into a surreal art installation that would put the most avant-garde sculptors to shame. Imagine cliffs and gorges, valleys and crests, all painted in various shades of ochre, green, and deep sky blue, as if someone let a toddler loose with a giant box of Earth-colored crayons. So, let us plunge into this geological spectacle with the whimsy and wonder it deserves.

Emily and Jessie Gaps

Emily Gap - East MacDonnell Ranges Tour
Emily Gap

The first iconic destinations in this rocky wonderland are Emily Gap and Jessie Gap in the Yeperenye Nature Reserve. These rifts are dramatic slashes through the range, and both are flanked by towering rock walls that harbor over four hundred million years of ancient secrets. Both gaps have the capacity to hold semi-permanent surface water, while the drier years hide the liquid gold safely beneath the sand where it can’t be stolen away by the dry atmosphere. Indigenous rock art can be found at both locations telling of the caterpillars that crawled unlawfully into the land of the beetles. Access to these art sites can be limited after heavy rains, so you may be unlucky enough to miss these on your East MacDonnell Ranges tour .

The local Arrernte folk consider these places deeply sacred (with Emily being of particular significance) and it’s easy to understand why. They are part of Mbantua, and for thousands of years this area was a vibrant, bustling hangout used for hunting, gathering, ceremony and more. Imagine taking just a moment to be still here, and to listen and feel. You can almost hear the voices of the thousands of generations of Aboriginal families that not just lived but thrived in this region before the coming of the Westerners to their lands. It is firmly encouraged here to follow the overwhelming temptation to hug the cliff walls, embrace their ancient energy, and see if they’ll give up some of their secrets; just dive in and give them a good old cuddle. No judgement.

Corroboree Rock

Corroboree Rock - East MacDonnell Ranges Tour
Corroboree Rock

The East Mac’s are a veritable buffet for rock enthusiasts. Here you can find quartzite, dolomite, limestone, dolerite and schist amongst others, all muddled up together in an ancient stone concoction. And let’s not overlook the fossils. These ancient relics are like nature’s own time capsules, revealing scattered hints about life on Earth hundreds of millions of years before the coming of us destructive Homo sapiens.

One such place where a cocktail of rocks and fossils may be observed is Corroboree Rock on your East MacDonnell Ranges tour, just further afield from Yeperenye. This masculine looking formation bulging with dark, muscly boulders stacked in a seemingly impossible column was once a sacred place strictly for Aboriginal men. Named incorrectly by the ignorant, corroboree is not the local word for this sacred place, and it’s unlikely it was used for ceremony due to lack of a local water supply.  It was indeed a place just for the XY chromosomed though, and certainly stands out as a special place for whatever purpose it was used. A pathway circumnavigating the formation allows you the chance to get up close and feel the ancient energy that still lies within this land.

Trephina Gorge

Trephina Gorge - East MacDonnell Ranges Tour
Trephina Gorge

As you trek further into the ranges on your adventurous East MacDonnell Ranges tour, you will find yourself at the ridiculously stunning Trephina Gorge, a place so beautiful that it feels it must be make-believe. Here, the rugged landscape opens up to reveal a wide, pale, sandy riverbed flanked by burnt umber, quartzite cliffs where ghost gums cling for dear life, their toes winding their way through the teeniest of cracks and crevices for support.

An optional short hike leads you up through what can only be described as a native rock garden. Once out of the ocean of invasive buffel grass below, the plant biodiversity comes alive and literally thrives. It is hard to imagine how Mother Nature manages to have such a green thumb in such a harsh and unforgiving environment.

The side view of the cliffs on the hike up will certainly draw awareness regarding keeping your distance from the edges. These ancient rocks hang impossibly in sedimentary rows on a twenty degree decline, the majority of them being held in place by nothing but unseen forces of nature and perhaps a teeny pebble. It’s best not to sneeze or cough until you’re back on flat ground! The view from the clifftop is insane as you gain perspective on the immensity of these orogenic ranges, and gaze down upon a seemingly dry riverbed that resembles the sand of Bondi Beach, and which in fact once used to belong to the enormous ocean that covered  much of this continent millions of years ago. On the stroll back up the river you’ll be treated to a glimpse of Arrernte rock art telling of the caterpillar creation time; the story of how these incredible ranges came to be.

On the road back out lies one of the last remaining giant ghost gums; a sole survivor after the horrendous tree massacre that provided the timber for the original Ghan railway track sleepers. These trees stand tall and majestically eerie in the open landscape. Their smooth bark powdered in pure white makes them gleam like skeletal sentinels. This particular tree is an artwork within itself. The intermingling of its smooth, white branches overlapping its’ dark, dead limbs with a backdrop of rich blue sky is breathtaking, and needless to say, completely and utterly huggable.

Ross River Resort

Ross River Resort - East MacDonnell Ranges Tour
Ross River Resort

Last stop down the road (the road literally just stops dead here, as if the work team ran out of bitumen, threw the towel in and called the job a wrap!) is particularly attractive for those with a penchant for early European history. Ross River Resort is a must see on our East MacDonnell Ranges tour. While the term ‘resort’ may not accurately describe this destination, this quirky old homestead offers more history than you can poke a stick at, friendly outback service, and cold beer! Lunch options are simple but delicious, the managers are lovely, and the atmosphere is unique and charming. A great place for some final pics and maybe one more beer before your relaxing, scenic escort back to Alice Springs.

In conclusion

The East MacDonnell Ranges are a geological playground where nature decided to show off its artistic flair. From dramatic gorges and sacred sites to quirky wildlife and upside down rivers, this region offers a little bit of everything for the intrepid explorer. Just remember your hat, walking shoes, water bottle, and of course, your sense of humor.



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