Exploring Alice’s Gorges in a 4WD

Alice Springs and the East MacDonnell Ranges

Immediately on our arrival in Alice Springs, or “The Alice”, we met some lovely people: first there were Greg and Cyrielle, a French couple working at our campsite, then Steve, a cycle tourer from Canberra, and Andrew and Therese, a New Zealand couple on a 4WD trip occupying the tent spot next to us. We had also really hoped to see Roger and Catherine, the French Canadian couple we met in Turkey, as they were cycling through Australia and planning to be in Alice Springs at the same time as us, but unfortunately we ended up missing them by a day.

The weather was truly miserable for our first few days in Alice Springs: it was freezing cold and raining. We wore all our layers, all day – a T-shirt, two long-sleeved merino wool tops, a fleece and a Goretex jacket, long johns, trousers and two pairs of socks. Freddie even succumbed and purchased a hot water bottle to survive the cold nights. Luckily the weather cleared after a few days, and whilst still cold, it was now clear and sunny, perfect for an afternoon stroll around the campsite where we watched birds and fed the cute little rock wallabies coming down the hill just before sunset.

Rock wallaby   Bird at campsite

Therese and Andrew were planning to do a 4WD trip to the East MacDonnell Ranges not far from Alice Springs and kindly invited us for some “off road adventures”. We jumped at the opportunity as it gave us a chance to deviate off the Stuart Highway. We were planning to go for 3 days, then return to Alice Springs before we headed off towards Uluru. Our bikes were securely parked in Scotty the Campsite Caretaker’s shed, and our bike bags strapped to the roof of Andrew and Therese’s Landcruiser.

The prolog of the Finke Desert Race was taking place on the day of our departure. The Kiwis were keen to go, and so were a friendly German couple we also met at the campsite, Christian and Nicole. Together we drove out of town to the racecourse and spent a few hours watching dirt bikes and quads racing along the track. The Finke Desert Race – an annual off-road 229km race through tough desert terrain – was due to take place over the following two days.

Landrover and landcruiser   Andrew and Therese

Leaving the prolog, we said goodbye to Nicole and Christian who were heading out to the racecourse to camp and watch the actual race.

The MacDonnell Ranges are interspersed with numerous gorges, some containing waterholes. We found a small bush campsite near John Hayes Rock Hole which was was unmanned and only accessible on a rough 4WD track travelling up a narrow, rocky creek bed. The facilities were limited to some picnic tables and a long drop toilet, and we shared a campfire with a couple of cheerful men who entertained us with their hour long cooking antics. In the morning we spent a few hours on a beautiful ridge walk around the area with views of the distant ranges then returned back through a creek bed flanked by steep red quarzite cliffs.

Wet feet   Andrew and Therese near John Hayes Rock Hole

Having dismantled our tents, we drove a little further into Trephina Gorge to do another scenic loop walk which involved wading through a creek filled with icy water.

Trephina Gorge

The campsite here at The Bluff was a little busier as it was located in a very picturesque setting, right near the creek. Again we made friends with our neighbours who had had the foresight to collect firewood before entering the national park where firewood collection was prohibited, and had a fun night sharing stories and making damper on their fire.

Camp spot in Trephina Gorge   Ghost Gum

Our plan was to drive to the historic Arltunga gold fields, but on the way we passed the turnoff to N’Dhala Gorge, which was officially closed to traffic.

“Let’s see how closed it really is”, said Therese. We all quickly agreed and with that our fate was sealed.

The 4WD track involved several creek crossings, some of which had recently had water and were still quite wet. Having let down the tires and crossed our first creek successfully, we became more confident that we would be able to get through to the gorge.

Andrew gunned the Landcruiser into the next creek, all was going well, we looked unstoppable and were dismissing the over zealous rangers for closing the track until we entered the soft sand in the middle of the creek. Our speed slowed suddenly as the Landcruiser began to strain, the wheels spun desperately for grip in the soft muddy sand. Soon enough we came to a complete stop, we were royally bogged!

Creek crossing   Stuck

We jumped out to assess the damage, immediately falling into mud up to our shines. As there were no other vehicles around and we had sunk too deep into the soft mud to dig ourselves out, it was time to test out the winch. Pulling out the cable required all of our combined strength. Guy and Therese strapped the cable around a nearby River Red Gum trunk in the middle of the river while Andrew got the car ready and Freddie captured the event with our camera. As Andrew engaged the winch, we listened to the creaking sounds of the trunk straining under pressure. It was clear the 4 ton Cruiser was too much load.

A sturdier tree was found and luckily the cable was just long enough to reach it. By now, the wheels were sunk 3/4 into the mud. The tree held strong but this time the winch was faltering, straining under the pressure. After a few slips it slowly gained traction and pulled out the Cruiser to the safety of the creek bank.

Andrew preparing the winch   Therese directing the rescue

We were happy to make it to N’Dhala Gorge and had a little walk there, followed by lunch to strengthen our nerves for the return trip, back across the same creek beds. To our relief, we got through the creeks without getting stuck and soon were on our way to the Arltunga gold fields. Due to our little misadventure it was now late afternoon, too late to do much sightseeing, and rather than driving back to Alice Springs that day, we decided to stay out for another night.

The Arltunga campsite marked on our map had recently closed down but we found a little track nearby and set up our camp in the bush. For our last night, Therese made a delicious chocolate pudding, cooked in a camp oven on the fire.

In the morning, we went back to Arltunga to explore the historic gold mines. Arltunga had experienced a gold rush in the 1880s and 1890s when gold dust was discovered in the local quarz. As the location was so remote, life was very hard for the miners. All supplies came from Adelaide via the rail head at Oodnadatta. The last 700km of the long journey had to be completed with the help of camels or horses, or on foot. Many miners pushed all their belongings, food and water on heavy wooden wheelbarrows over sand dunes and dusty tracks all the way from Oodnadatta.

There was not much water in the area, and a harsh climate meant summers often saw temperatures rising above 50°C, whereas winters were freezing cold. Extracting the gold dust from the quarz was hard and hazardous work, and after 20 years the mines were abandoned in favour of more promising gold fields.

Having crawled into some of the old mines and found a couple of gold specks in the local quarz (Therese discovered a hidden talent), it was time for us to return to Alice Springs. We had really enjoyed our 4WD outing, it was fantastic to get off the beaten track especially with such great company in Andrew and Therese, thanks guys!

After a week off the bikes we were really looking forward to getting going again and experiencing the immediacy and intensity of exploring the Outback from the seat of a bicycle. A few more days in Alice Springs saw us completing some last minute odds and ends in town, hanging out at the Botanic Gardens and sampling the local cafes. We also visited the Royal Flying Doctors Service to find out more about the amazing medical service provided to remote communities and cattle stations, where pilots often have to land on makeshift airstrips, most without tarmac, and many without any lighting.

The Desert Park was also worth a visit as we learned a lot about the flora and fauna of the inland rivers, sand country and woodlands of central Australia. The nocturnal house exhibited many endangered or extinct (in the wild) mammals, and the birds of prey show impressed with free flying kites and falcons.

Birds of prey show   Kangaroos

From Alice Springs, we had originally thought we might rent a car for the detour to Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) and Kings Canyon, but in the end it didn’t feel right to arrive at this deeply symbolic place at the centre of our new home country by car. We wanted to explore the area by bicycle, even if it would add an extra two weeks and over 900km to our trip. If only we knew fate still had another roll of the dice to play. ||


  1. Pfft. Twine would have gotten you out easier than a winch.