Alice Springs & The East MacDonnells

Blog #17 – Alice Springs & the East MacDonnell Ranges – Days 95 to 110 of 180

Corroboree Rock

We drove through some beautiful scenery on the way into Alice Springs.  It had been 11 years since I had been there last on a photography holiday with my mate Bernie Rosser.  The place has not changed. 

One of the joys of returning to civilization is flushing loos & hot showers followed by being able to use a washing machine & dryer.  We checked into the Alice Springs Tourist Park – Greg onto a powered site and me into a single room cabin as we needed to store everything from the car onto the cabin floor plus take out the ARB cage & car fridge out so the mechanics could get into the back of the vehicle to fix the rear door.  This took both of us nearly three hours.  Finally done it was then off to the local ARB store for a replacement globe and a new UHF aerial. 

Like everything to do with 4WD vehicles nothing is cheap.  I could not get a single globe so a pair cost me $116 and the new aerial was another $235.  Everywhere on this trip we have not been able to find anyone who can fit these items as they were all flat out.  We have become quite skilled in doing our own maintenance and repairs as long they are not too major.  So back to the caravan park to do some work.  The replacement of the light was fairly straight forward but fitting a new UHF aerial was a lot more challenging routing the cable through the front grill (the one on the left is the new aerial) then along the side of the engine bay and finally through the engine firewall and down into the cable channel to its destination in the back of the radio under the driver’s seat.  That part alone took us nearly an hour as we discovered that the original cable had many cable ties each needed to be cut as we followed the cable path.  Finally done, turned on the lights and they worked turned on the radio and did a radio check – all good.  That was the easy part done and next day Toyota would start on the door.

Next morning delivered the car in for the service and repairs at 8am – not used to being up this early!!!  This was also a major service as well so it was going to be expensive.  Such is life!!!  Back to the tourist park for breakfast and catch up on the blogs whilst I waited.  A very fruitful day as I managed to complete three blog posts and start working on the accompanying photos.  Late that afternoon I had a call from the Toyota Service Manager giving me the good news that the service was now complete followed by the bad news that the rear locking mechanism on the door was broken.  They had managed to jimmy open the back door so that they could find the actual problem.  Sadly, they did not follow my instructions and take photos of how much dust was in the back door panel (apparently there was quite a lot) this was all cleaned out but the parts would need to come from Sydney which would take a week.  Bugger!!!  This sort of pulled us off our touring schedule as we would need to stay around town until the parts arrived.  I could not see the point in refitting the cage and all the bits and pieces if the door was still not operational.

It was time to go cap in hand back to the Tourist Park and see if we could extend our stay.  Sadly, their cabins were fully booked and I would need to be out in two days but they did work hard and get us two powered sites for the extra days which were close to the loos and showers (always a bonus).  The repair bill was getting expensive because of the broken lock.  We had now spent $1500 on accommodation plus $552 for the spare parts (they had to be paid for before an order was made) with a further charge for 2 hours labour ($290) still to come.

My next issue was to find storage for all my gear from the cabin and here the staff at the AS Tourist Park came up trumps.  They phoned around and found that all other caravan parks were full and the only alternative I had was the self-storage places of which there were three in town.  The closest was 2 minutes away.  I rang them and lovely young lady said it would be easier to drive around and check out the sizes they had on offer.  I ended up renting a 1.5 mtr x 1.5 mtr x 2.0 mtr lockable steel container.  I rented the space for 2 weeks for $71 which I thought was very reasonable considering it would be storing most of my camera gear.  Next it was off to the locksmiths where a very good lock set me back another $127.  Having my gear safely stored behind electronic gates and a well locked steel container made me feel much better.  2 ½ hours later all the gear had been moved from the Tourist Park into the container and locked up.

At this stage Greg found out that his driving licence had been suspended.  He had received notification that he required a medical to maintain his heavy vehicle driving licence.  His doctor said that since he was retired he may not have to do the medical report that is required – bad advice.  Because VicRoads had not received the report they suspended his licence – back in March!!!  Good thing he had not been pulled up in the past three months as that would have been a hefty fine.  After ringing VicRoads to confirm the requirements, he was told he would need to have the medical certificate and they would accept one from an NT doctor.  Took a few days but Greg finally had his examination and passed.  This was then emailed to VicRoads and within 24 hours he was back to a compliant licence.  It does pay to check these details and yes, I have my HB/HT licence up to date.

By the way the reason the caravan parks were so full was because of the Australian Beanie Festival – I kid you not this festival actually exists.  Apparently, you can pay up to $500 for a humble beanie.  We saw some examples when we went to the Gillen Club for dinner that night.  There were some absolute shockers to say the least. 

I had great plans to do a lot of photography around Alice Springs but then COVID decided to stuff up our plans a bit more.  A Fly In Fly Out (FIFO) worker had been at Alice Springs Airport from a mine site out in the Tanami Desert who had tested negative but managed to give two of his family the virus when he got home to Adelaide.  Suddenly we were in a snap lockdown for three days.  On the bright side if we had been home in Victoria our foolish politicians would have had us in isolation for weeks.  Sod you Dan Andrews, I don’t miss you or your politics for a second on this trip.  Sadly, the locals had been looking forward to celebrating Territory Day and their once-a-year chance to light off fireworks and this was in the middle of the 3-day lockdown so the celebrations were cancelled.

My plan was to visit the Reptile House & the Desert Park, as they are great places to visit, but this was also delayed.  Finally, after lockdown was done it was time to explore.  I took many photos at these two venues but being highly critical of my skills was not totally happy with the shots.  Sometimes I think I do this to give myself an excuse to come back and try again to get better shots.

Whilst at the Desert Park we had some excitement as we saw a wild wedge-tailed eagle attack the tame wedge-tailed eagle whilst they were working with the birds in a flight show.  I managed to capture a few shots of them before they dropped from sight around a tree.

Having part of my childhood out here in Central Australia I was well aware of the good works of John Flynn the missionary who founded the Australian Inland Mission & the Royal Flying Doctor Service.  He was a man of vision and many people in remote communities owe their lives to him.  He is interred in a memorial on the road to the West MacDonnells called Namatjira Drive.  Originally the granite boulder on top of their gravesite had come from Karlu Karlu (The Devils Marbles) but the local women there wanted it returned as the stone had been taken from their sacred site.  A deal was made with the local women from the West MacDonnell ranges to supply a granite boulder from their area so the original stone could be returned to the sacred site in the north.

The purpose of the Australian Inland Mission was to minister to the spiritual, social and medical needs of people in the Outback.  In 1917, Flynn received an inspirational letter from Lieutenant Clifford Peel, a Victorian medical student with an interest in aviation. The young airman and war hero suggested the use of aviation to bring medical help to the Outback. Shot down in France, he died at just 24 years of age and never knew that his letter became a blueprint for the creation of the Flying Doctor Service.

At this time, Flynn also met Hudson Fysh, a founder of QANTAS. In 1927, QANTAS and the Aerial Medical Service signed an agreement to operate an aerial ambulance from Cloncurry, Queensland.

When the first pilot took off from Cloncurry on 17 May 1928, he was flying a single engine, timber and fabric bi-plane named ‘Victory’ (leased by QANTAS for two shillings per mile flown). He had with him the very first of the flying doctors, Dr Kenyon St Vincent Welch.

The first pilot, Arthur Affleck, had no navigational aids, no radio and only a compass. He navigated by landmarks such as fences, rivers, river beds, dirt roads or just wheel tracks and telegraph lines. He also flew in an open cockpit, fully exposed to the weather, behind the doctor’s cabin. Airstrips were, at best, claypans or, at the worst, hastily cleared paddocks.

Flights were normally made during daylight hours although night flights were attempted in cases of extreme urgency. Fuel supplies were also carried on flights until fuel dumps were established at certain strategic outstations. The DeHavilland could carry a pilot and four passengers at a cruising speed of eighty miles per hour for a range of 500 to 600 miles.

In its inaugural year, the Aerial Medical Service (which changed its name to the Flying Doctor Service in 1942 and the Royal Flying Doctor Service in 1955) flew 50 flights to 26 destinations and treated 225 patients.

For the next ten years, Flynn campaigned for an aerial medical service. His vision was to provide a ‘mantle of safety’ for the people of the bush, and his vision became a reality when his longtime supporter, H V McKay, left a large bequest for ‘an aerial experiment’ which enabled Flynn to get the Flying Doctor Service airborne.

The Flying Doctor Service had a doctor, a pilot and John Flynn, the man with the vision, but at the time lacked the communication technology to deliver services efficiently. Alfred Traeger helped to hurdle this barrier with the invention of a pedal-operated generator to power a radio receiver. By 1929 people living in isolation were able to call on the Flying Doctor to assist them in an emergency.

Transistorised receivers later replaced pedal radios, making it possible for doctors to give radio consultations. It also meant neighbours, families and friends, scattered over thousands of kilometres, could exchange news and gossip after normal transmission hours. This time became known as the ‘galah’ session, aptly named after the noisy, chattering bird.

Flynn was cremated and his ashes placed at rest under the Flynn Memorial, just west of Alice Springs at Mount Gillen – the very centre of the vast territory to which he brought communication, medical comfort and pastoral care.

Mount Gillen

The burial service for Flynn was linked up to the Flying Doctor network and was heard at remote stations and settlements across the outback.  The RFDS and the AIM are working testimonials to Flynn’s drive and vision.

Flynn’s dream had become a reality. Flynn once said “If you start something worthwhile – nothing can stop it.”

One thing that most of my friends will find very strange about the Alice is the very strict liquor licencing laws in this town (and in many other NT towns as well).  Armed police guard the entrance to the liquor outlets which are open from 2pm to 9pm but closed on Sundays.  You are questioned as to whom you will share the alcohol you intend to buy and asked where it will be consumed.  They have no sense of humour so answer truthfully.  You can purchase any amount but only once in a 24-hour period and your licence details are shared with all other liquor outlets within the town to ensure compliance.  I was even asked my age – didn’t realise I looked underage!!!

After what seemed an eternity (12 days) it was time to leave Alice and head out to the East MacDonnell ranges, in particular Trephina Gorge.  I had already visited Emily & Jesse Gap on the way out of town so it was push on and get a good site as they are limited out there.  Found our perfect spot for the next three days and the camping is as cheap as chips in NT parks ($3.30 a night but some are $4 a night but still very cheap).  Rather primitive facilities (long drop toilets, no showers) but the scenery more than makes up for it.  We had considered doing the complete tourist loop out around to The Gemtree but Greg’s back was giving him a lot of grief from being pounded up and down on dirt roads.  He was lucky to survive a crane accident some twenty years beforehand when his large crane collapsed and rolled over on a mine site.  He spent months in intensive care and even longer in rehabilitation.  This would become more of an issue as we planned the back end of the trip through Queensland with hundreds of kilometres of rough dirt roads between campsites.

Once camp was setup at the Gorge Campground it was time to relax.  There was a lady camped in the next spot who had an electrical problem when her Anderson cable connection had disintegrated on the roadway coming in as her cables were too long.  Her van was an older Jayco Penguin (Jayco as a brand is fast becoming known as Junko to my fellow travelers).  Time to raid our supplies again as no-one in the campground had any spares.  This was the second time I donated a plug to the cause of broken-down travelers.  Greg had soon replaced the plug for Simone plus fixed some other minor issues on her van.  She and her fellow travelling companion Wendy had been touring Queensland & NT together bush walking and bird watching for the past few months.  Wendy, at 81, was much fitter than I was and used to hike around the trails each day which would have flattened me from just starting them!!!

On our second day we drove back to walk around Corroboree Rock.  This was another sacred site that I had visited back in 2010 and is quite spectacular. I remember when Bernie & I first visited here we thought that some careless tourist had discarded blue plastic shopping bags and they had blown up on the rock.  This amused the guide and our fellow photographers as they were actually small gaps in the rocks with the sky streaming through from the other side.  In our defense there was a lot of blue plastic bag trash strewn around Victoria at that time.

The weather out here at this time was lovely and warm days followed by very, very cold nights (down to -2 degC).  We had burnt most of our good wood so it was time for a replenishment run up towards Ross River as no firewood can be collected in NT parks.  We found ample wood close to the road about ten minutes outside the park.  Most of the dead trees we were finding are a type of acacia and generally burned well.  It is definitely handy having an electric chainsaw, especially with new chains that I bought in Alice, as it made short work of cutting timber for the next two nights.

We had bought both vehicles out as I wanted to explore the John Hayes Waterhole but we had been warned it was a rough track getting in there.  So, we parked Greg’s car at the information booth and turned onto the track to see how bad it was.  It was a very rough track with very sharp stones and some sandy sections through the creek beds.  It was only 4 klms in but it took us nearly 45 minutes of tough driving.  Never once had to use low range so from that perspective it was not extreme.  They do warn people that the track is for high clearance vehicles only and they are right.  At the end of the track is a small camping area on rocky ground and pathways to three different walks.  I opted for the easy 100 metre walk into the waterhole clambering over small rocks in sections to get there.  I was hoping to see lots of birds using the waterhole but there were none and I had the wrong lens to take shots of the lovely little waterhole at the end of the track.  It was very cool in the gap in the rocks and the water was ice cold. I settled for some shots of the rock formations around me as it was too hot to walk back to the car and return.  Then it was the slog back out which seemed even rougher.  Halfway back we came across a Subaru Outback which I would not regard as a high clearance vehicle and warned him that the rock steps in front of him could potentially wreck his vehicle.  His response “I am not an idiot and if it gets too tough, I will turn around and come back” – who am I to question such assumptions when I knew a) there was no place to turn around & b) the track got infinitely tougher with the road cut between steep banks.  But we left him to it to encounter two young guys trying to set a world record for speeding on narrow dirt tracks – nearly gave me heart failure as I slammed on the brakes to avoid a collision.  Greg & I were ever so happy to get back to the main track and leave them to sort out who would help who.  Back to camp and relax and watch the ever-changing colours in the hillside.

There were a lot of birds around our campsite but mainly in the very early morning with little of no light.  I heard the calls of the gray honeyeater, western bowerbird and numerous others that I could not identify.  Just across from our campsite there was a fresh (bore?) water tap where the birds had learnt to hang upside down off the tap to quench their thirst.  Some kind soul had placed a small aluminium tray and filled it with water but the stones they put in it had cut a hole so it was useless.  I replaced the tray and carefully placed the stones to ensure no cuts would occur and refilled the tray for the birds.  Hopefully they would be grateful for the bath and fellow travelers would ensure it stayed filled.

The water from the tap tasted much better than the Alice Springs water we had in our tanks so we drained them and refilled with this water.  One thing I have learned on this trip is that water quality is very variable and you should take the opportunity to utilise ‘sweet’ water whenever possible.

One other very interesting site near our campsite is a huge ghost gum.  The claim is that this the largest ghost gum in Australia and it is heritage listed.  All I know it is huge and well worth the visit off the main track!!!

Ghost Gum

All too soon our sojourn here was over and it was time to start the trek north to Darwin.  COVID is still an issue but our plan was to stage north through the NT over the next 18 days and fingers crossed we could fly on the 30th to Ange’s 40th birthday in Perth provided there was no further outbreak in NT.

Next the trek north back through Alice Springs then onto Ti Tree Roadhouse, Karlu Karlu (Devils Marbles), Banka Banka Station, Daly Waters Pub & Mataranka Homestead.

6 Comments on “Alice Springs & The East MacDonnells

  1. Again such wonderful descriptive words to accompany your gorgeous photos of birds, rocks and the reptile park.. the scenery is stunning..love that you and Greg became so handy in fixing things..such alot of ks you both have travelled..love the wedge tailed eagles too..journey onwards Dave..

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  2. Another eventful section of your trip. The photos are fabulous. I feel sorry for Greg with a back problem on those roads.

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  3. Some terrific shots there again! Trephina Gorge is very beautiful isn’t it! I love the colours! What an adventure you are having, Woolly!

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  4. Wonderful blog Wooly, the pocket seems to get bitten badly but what an experience at any cost. Photography is superb as usual.

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