Gorges and Valleys

The highway was unavoidable if we wanted to go to Alice Springs. I spent the time daydreaming about the roadhouse burger we’d promised ourselves and tapping my feet to whatever songs the iPod decided to play for me in shuffle mode.

In the early evening we rolled into Alice Springs and found the campsite behind the Gap View Hotel. At first it seemed a little suspect and we would definitely be watching our valuables. But soon we settled into the hippie vibe that was spreading from the fires, converted camper vans and reggae tunes. A lot of the backpackers live here permanently, having found jobs in town and we soon got to know them quite well. They’d found a sofa and made a tight rope out of ratchet straps and of course there is always someone with a guitar to hand.

We ended up staying longer than first intended. Of course the bikes needed some attention, having been rattled to pieces the last few days. Lea was in desperate need of a new tire and there were air filters to clean, bolts to be reattached…

And of course we finally had a much needed shower. And Skunk too.

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Some parts wouldn’t arrive till a lot later so eventually we set off towards the MacDonnell Ranges to see what all the fuss was about. A road follows the mountains and every now and again a side road dips in to this point of interest or that. The first, Stanley Chasm, was supposed to be stunning. But the $12 entry fee put us off.

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While in the car park I smelled some petrol. And as suspected, Pippa had a puddle of petrol under her seat again. This was the second time. Each time Aidan filled the tank to the top and rested her on the side stand, this would happen. It is quite common, a hairline crack in the fuel pump cover. Last time we’d discovered that the ring holding the cover down was loose and we thought we’d solved the problem by tightening it. Apparently not. Nothing we could do here, so we just decided to never fill the tank up to the top till we had a chance to fix it.

Once again this place is remote and mobile phones have no reception. To provide safety for tourists these satellite emergency phones have been installed.

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We chose Serpentine Gorge as our next destination. This time no entry fee, just a short walk along a dry riverbed.

A short but steep and rocky climb was rewarded us first with a great view of the valley we had traveled trough and then with with a sneaky birds eye peek into the gorge. We could spot termite hills on the rock opposite, poking up among the green like dwarfs hats.

Back at the bottom we followed a path to the entrance of the gorge. But the way in is blocked by a little cool lake. The place was so peaceful and magical. Tiny birds fluttered about, tweeting away and sitting o the rock to drink from the water.  Bees that live in the ground nearby were buzzing quietly and dragonflies would whirr past our ears.

The lake stops humans and larger animals entering into the gorge making it a unique oasis for little animals, birds, insects and unusual plants. We stayed and soaked up the tranquility until it was interrupted by the next lot of backpackers popping by.

A few kilometres down the road were the Ochre Pits. This is where aboriginals have been getting their natural ochre paints for ceremonies and the like for centuries. Iron oxidization determines the colours: white, yellow, orange or red. The stuff is super light to pick up and stains your hands like blackboard chalk. Tourists are not allowed to take any with them as there would soon be nothing left. It’s a $5000 fine if you get caught. I am starting to think they like their fines over here.

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Wherever we stopped we found heaps of caravans parked up and more littering the road. The other tourists greeted us and stopped for a chat, telling us which gorges were how beautiful and how difficult to reach and exchanging travel banter. They were all friendly enough but we couldn’t help feeling like we were on a sightseeing tour.  These places were nice but the organised tourism and the noisy hoardes of people were ruining it for us.

So we gave the next couple of gorges a miss and headed straight for Glen Helen Roadhouse to obtain a permit for the Mereenie Loop. It is an unsealed stretch of road leading directly to Kings Canyon. But it goes across sacred aboriginal land and you are not allowed to stray from the road except at designated rest stops. Glen Helen offered beer and camping. We made use of the former and then popped across the road and down a sand path along a river for some free camping. Aidan cooked dinner as the setting sun painted the red rocks in the distance an even brighter red.

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There was one last place along this tourist trail that we wanted to see. Gosse Bluff is a ring of red rocky mountains with a protected green, brushy valley inside. Once upon a time aboriginals used to live here and even now the land is sacred to them as a sad massacre between tribes happened here centuries ago. Some caravanists had told us that you could get a great view from the lookout just before, but you can only see them in the distance.

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Then a red sandy track leads in. Respecting the aboriginals tourists are only allowed into the entrance to the valley. But you can climb one of the mountains to get a view. From up here you got a real sense that this was a special place. Sadly it was nice again ruined somewhat by the many tourist vehicles parked up below. We couldn’t talk though, after all we were here too.

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Back at the bikes I had to adjust Lea’s chain. It was on its last legs and far too loose in some spots while still scary tight in others. I did my best and hoped it would last. A new one was on its way to the postie in Alice Springs for me. Aidan used the opportunity to chef up some lunch. We decided that we’d had enough. We would head to Hermannsburg and from there into Palm Valley. I’d read in another traveler’s book that it was supposed to be a nice spot that not too many people got to. Perfect!

At the cross roads the road became unpaved and turned into a corrugated nightmare. This was a popular tourist route and formed the stretch between Hermannsburg and the Mereenie Loop. You are supposed to fly over the bumps at 80km/h or so and the rattling will stop. But the sudden stretches of deep soft sand were prohibitive. And this time there was no escape to the side either. The thousands of tourist vehicles had done a good job of it. We hobbled along at a snail’s pace, praying the bikes would hold on to their bolts and parts. It took us one and a half hours to ride 43 kilometres!

Shredded tires sprinkled over the roadsides were evidence of the corrugations’ ruinous nature.

When we finally reached tarmac just outside Hermannsburg, we just caught Aidan’s tool roll as it dropped to the ground. Phew! We need those tools! We didn’t actually need anything in town so we turned down the dirt track into Palm Valley. It started with corrugations and I tried to console myself that we only had 18km to go.

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But then we crossed the river for the first time and the track began to look promising.

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From here on in the track followed the river into the valley with the rocky mountains slowly closing in. The corrugations were soon forgotten as the track became technical and we had heaps of fun finding the best route through. Deep sand and loose gravel had us paddle along until stretches of packed dirt let us speed up again. We zigzagged along crossing the river over and over, each time hoping the water wouldn’t be too deep. Our boots were soaked, our jeans covered in mud and dust and we were having a wicked time.

We reached the turn off for the camp site feeling like it must be evening. But it was only three in the afternoon. The track ahead down to the gorge where the actual palms grow looked promising. We didn’t need much persuading to carry on. Tired or not, this was awesome!

The track got trickier and trickier and we were loving it. The water often flowed over giant rocks that looked flat but on approach revealed lots of bumps that would test the bikes’ suspension and made me glad I’d invested in that metal bashplate to protect the engine. Deep puddles of glistening mud and stretches of sand had us slip and slide but we remained upright, kicking the bikes about this way and that.

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We reached the first palm trees and took lots of photos, all excited and exhilarated. The palms are so special because they shouldn’t be here. This place is in the middle of the desert after all. But in this valley where the gorge walls prevent excessive evaporation and there is always water the Red Cabbage Palms survive and thrive. It is a mystery how they got here so far away from their cousins by the beach. The story they are going with at the moment is that aborigines brought the seeds here hundreds of years ago.

A small sign promised another 1.6km of off-road fun to reach the spot from where the walks into the valley start. There was more water than usual so little blue ribbons in the bushes guide the way. The track got even more tricky with steep rocky steps upwards. Would Lea make it? I decided not to let doubt enter my mind and opened the throttle. The right approach for this kind of terrain it seems as she made it just fine.

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Few sections were deep sand. From now on we were mostly climbing and descending complex rocky sections picking our way so the bikes wouldn’t bottom out. This was the most fun you can have with your pants on (to quote Graham Field) and we were having the time of our life.

The water crossings became more frequent and we splashed through one after the next until we reached one where we couldn’t see how deep it was just before the end of the track. Aidan got off to check but he didn’t want to wade in. We were too close. It wasn’t worth filling the boots up with water.

And it certainly wasn’t worth damaging the bikes. Lea’s air filter is pretty low and the broken cover on the condensation drain is even lower. She only has about 35cm before she would suck water into the engine and stall. And I really didn’t fancy opening up the engine to dry it out just so we can say we went all the way. It’s not like our lives depended on getting across. Aidan hates giving up so close to the goal (remember the Enfield adventures in Goa?) but eventuallly he listened to reason. We parked up to the side of the track and walked the rest.

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Cycad Gorge was a tropical paradise; peaceful with water trickling and palms swaying in the breeze. We walked in in silence soaking up the tranquility and beauty. We had the place all to ourselves.

Red rock walls protect this place and small plants and white River Eucalypts cling to the edge finding hold and nourishment in the smallest cracks.

We were quite aware that we still had to go all the way back along that challenging track, so we turned around well before sunset. Neither of us fancied rock-hopping and river crossings in the dark. The way back out was just as much fun as the way in had been.

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We reached he campsite just before dark. There were only a few 4WDs around but they were spread out and didn’t disturb the peace. We were starving and exhausted. Aidan whipped up a yummy curry and then we collapsed into the tent totally shattered and blissfully happy. This was our kind of fun!

Of course this wasn’t the end of it. In the morning we still ad 18km of fun ahead of us to get back to civilization. We were greeted with glorious sunshine that made the red rocks glow.

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We had lots of fun riding back through sand and stones, following the river.

There was a strange wire thing across the track but with no fence to either side so no idea what purpose it served except to entangle Pippa’s rear wheel. On the way in we’d had real trouble to detangle her but this time we were cleverer. I pressed the wires into the ground, stopping them from attaching to the tire tread, even though they were supposed to be electrified. I didn’t get zapped though. Of course Pippa then got stuck digging a hole in front of one of the metal bars of the contraption and I had to put a few rocks under the wheel for grip.

Suddenly Aidan stopped and whipped out the camera. It took me a while but then I saw the too: wild horses! Two had come real close to the track. As I rode on I spotted many more behind the trees. I turned the engine off but the herd fled before I could dig my camera out.

A few more river crossings and then we’d reached the end of the track. What a shame! It had been the best fun. The valley is probably no prettier than any of the other ‘sights’ in the MacDonnells. But challenging ride made it a million times better (and kept the noisy tourists hoardes at bay). This was our kind of heaven and it was free. Just writing about it has fixed a giant grin on my face.

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