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Trip Report A town like Alice – not just a book and movie title!

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In July 2010 our fully-planned trip to Alice Springs took a very different direction when the wet weather called a halt to the tours we had booked. Because of this turn of events we were able to spend time in and around Alice Springs itself and learn about the uniqueness of this area – a town stuck in the middle of a desert and how its people have adapted their lives to survive. It was a great time, and we vowed to return sometime to renew our acquaintance with the township and hopefully take the tours that were cancelled.
And return we did, at the start of August 2011. The weather was amazing – clear blue skies, temperature not less than 28 degrees, and no wind to speak of, quite a contrast to the previous year.
We arrived in Alice on Sunday 31 July a little earlier than scheduled. Our trip on The Ghan was a great experience. We travelled Gold class, complete with pocket-handkerchief-but-efficient en suite.

Our journey began in Katherine at 4:45 pm. but just a little rewind to get us on board. Thank goodness we had had the time to rebalance my bag earlier in the day.
While DH was sorting out the return of our rental (in 12 days and 3 hours we covered 1 853 km) and our receipt was being printed off, I started the walk to the bus stop. I had a mild panic when a bus with The Ghan written on the side pulled out of the area, but the driver explained she was doing a tour and the shuttle bus would be along soon. Finally the bus arrived and we joined the journey back to The Ghan, but when we got there the train wasn't there! Instead a freight train was in its place. Apparently freight trains take precedence over the Ghan - it's the Ghan that has to pull onto a siding when a freight train approaches.
The Ghan finally pulled in and then it was a mad scramble to board so we could leave on time. We were directed to carriage M so we headed there. We were met at the steps by a young woman named Yasmine who told us to board and she would be with us very shortly. We were the last on board for our carriage so 'very shortly' was actually straight away. We were in cabin 3 and 4, not sure why two numbers but there you are.
Yasmine welcomed us on board and explained the bathroom, demonstrating the pull-down toilet and hand basin, and stressing the need to pull the curtain right round when having a shower. She then explained that the staff would be along in the evening to organise the beds for us. We were told if we had any questions don't hesitate to ask. Catherine, the team leader, came to introduce herself and to ask which sitting for dinner we would like to join - 1800 or 2000 hours. We opted for the earlier sitting and were handed our red cards plus our account card. This card is used for any purchases made on board, then the night before or the morning you leave the train you quote your account number and settle the bill.
Once all formalities were over, we settled on our couch and watched the world whizz by. It seemed only a few minutes later when our sitting for dinner was announced, and the time of our welcome aboard gathering. We made our way to the Queen Adelaide Dining car, where we were greeted by Yasmine, who seated us with a young couple from Melbourne. We had a delicious 3 course dinner accompanied by a very pleasant wine but can’t remember what either was 7 months later. Being someone who finds it quite difficult to talk to people I don’t know, I was surprised how easy the conversation was, and how quickly our meal-time passed. It was then to the Outback Explorer Lounge for the welcome aboard, followed by some hilarious games of Yahtzee with several others including our dinner companions. About 10:00 pm we headed back to the cabin and sleep. I slept well until about 4:30 am, although DH found the rocking motion rather off-putting. I had travelled in my very young days on the overnight train between Palmerston North and Auckland when a poor student at Training College, and it was a little like going back to those heady days of trying to sleep sitting upright except this time we were in bunks!
We were “awakened” with a cup of coffee just after 6:000 am, and before long it was time for breakfast at 8:00 am. This too was a 3-course meal, and again a most enjoyable breakfast. We had a lovely, older lady for company. Back to the cabin for a quick packup, and then relax for the last few kilometres into Alice.

It was a beautiful day to return to Alice – 28 degrees celsius, no wind and not a cloud in the sky. Once booked into the Crowne Plaza, we taxied into the shopping area, found somewhere to have a snack and a coffee, then renewed our acquaintance with some of the shops we frequented in 2010. There are a couple of good souvenir shops where we have bought some different quality souvenirs. A few groceries swelled our purchases, and it was back to the hotel. On both our trips to Alice we have stayed in a “mountain view” room at Crowne Plaza. I enjoy watching the sunrise, and just love the East Macs with their interesting formations and flora. We haven’t seen any fauna from the balconies – yet. This side of the hotel also looks across the golf course, just a hop, step and jump away from the hotel.

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    Thanks, Sue. Instalments are written for two of our four trips in Alice, but will post in stages so that the reading is not too onerous at one time!

    Monday was an early start. We were collected by Leigh of4WD Outback Experience in his trusty well-travelled Toyota Land-cruiser for a trip to Chambers Pillar and Rainbow Valley. We followed the Old South Road which in turn follows the Old Ghan track and the Overland Telegraph line. First stop was Ewaninga to look at some unusual Aboriginal rock carvings. At the start of the stroll to the carvings there is a stretch of the original telegraph line from the 1870s. These rock carvings are interesting, quite different to any other Aboriginal art I have seen. Every flat surface seems to have been used to record their stories. Beside the rocks is a claypan which fills quickly when the rains come and remains full for several weeks. Plants grow rapidly, and animals and birds are attracted to the water, thus providing food for the traditional land owners.

    From there we travelled through Rodinga Siding, a settlers’ camp built during the extension of the Old Ghan railway to Alice Springs during the 1920s. Apparently every 60 km a railway cottage was built. These cottages were called Fettlers Cottages. (A fettler is a person who maintains and repairs the railway.) Six people - 1 foreman, 1 cook and 4 labourers - lived in these cottages and were responsible for keeping the track open. The tracks were laid straight on to the dirt. The only reason the buildings are still standing made from concrete.

    On to Maryvale Station. Cuppa time, and time to look around the little store that is on the station. Here they sell basic groceries, and Aboriginal art works. Maryvale is a very large cattle station, a mere 1 000 000 acres in total. We stopped at a dam that was surrounded by cattle, several of whom just looked at us then carried on doing what they were doing before being rudely interrupted, while the rest took off to safer ground from which to watch the intruders! There are 12 bores and 10 dams on the property. They farm mainly Herefords but are introducing Brahmins. I’m pretty sure there is a school on Maryvale with about 30 children attending who are guided by 2 European and one Aboriginal teacher.

    The road continues to wind through this quite harsh country, through the Hugh River (named after Hugh Chambers, son of James Chambers who was a sponsor of John MacDouall Stuart) and onto the Charlotte Range. It seemed very odd driving over dry river beds after seeing so many rivers in flood the year before in Alice Springs. The Charlotte Range, too, was very dry, and occasionally a little zephyr would blow a little dust across our path. The dust clouds being whipped up by the vehicle’s wheels confirmed how dry the land was. It is very many years since I travelled on dirt tracks over such a long distance, but seeing the dust clouds brought back memories of those trips and the bouncing-along on rutted tracks. The main difference was these new dust clouds were tinged with red!

    On top of the Charlotte Range you have an amazing 360 degree view of flat land (the Simpson Desert) with some lumpy bits in the very distance that break up the flatness. One of those lumpy bits 10km away is Chambers Pillar, which stands 50 metres above the surrounding land. It takes quite a while to reach Chambers Pillar though because of the sandy track. As you drive into the Chambers Pillar Historical Reserve you pass another rocky formation called Castle Rock. The following is from a fact sheet about Chambers Pillar issued by the Northern Territory Government:

    "In the Dreamtime it is said the Gecko ancestor Itirkawara(pronounced it-turk-kar-wara) left the Finke River and journeyed north-eastward. As he travelled he grew into a huge and powerfully built man of super human strength and extreme violence of temper. On the way home to his birth place he successfully challenged and killed a number of unfortunate ancestors with his stone knife. Flushed with the ease of his successes he then disregarded the strict marriage code and took a wife from the wrong skin group. His enraged relatives promptly banished him and the girl. The two retreated into the desert, Itirkawara raging in fury, the girl shrinking from him in deep shame. Among the dunes they rested and turned into prominent rocky formations - Itirkawara into the Pillar, the girl, still turning her face away from him in shame, into Castle Rock to the northeast, about 500 metres away."

    Unfortunately we didn’t have time to have a closer look at Castle Rock but perhaps another time . . .

    Leigh’s partner Sandra had packed us very substantial, yummy individual salad lunches which we enjoyed at the picnic site before moving on to the Pillar. From the picnic site you can either walk or drive to the Pillar – we two ladies chose to go in the car with Leigh while the men walked. It is only 400 metres or so but in that 400 metres we learnt quite a bit more about the flora of the area.

    Chambers Pillar is quite awe-inspiring. The Pillar stands atop a mound of ancient, layered rocks on which have been created some steps to the Pillar itself. Spinifex bushes grow amongst weeds and grasses around the mound, and my scaredy-cat eyes were ever watchful for the Mulga Snake plus any other snakes, and the scorpion who inhabit this area. However on the other side I was hoping to see the dunnart, the mice, the Boobook owl, and bats although probably not the last two during the daytime so much. Thankfully and sadly I saw none of them – just a common old magpie who stood guard at the entrance of the path to the Pillar.

    Along with Leigh (our guide) and the other female passenger, I remained on the ground below the Pillar while my DH and her husband climbed the rather exposed steps to the actual base of the Pillar. We dutifully took photos of them waving with glee (or was it terror?) from the top of the steps. When the men returned they said it was scary going up and coming down the steps – there were very limited handrail sections, and those there were were mostly around the base. Just standing on the ground and looking up to the top of the Pillar made you feel the size of an ant. There seems to be several different types of rock and stratas making up the Pillar. I wish I had listened more carefully when our Science teacher was talking about rocks, etc, then I would have been able to report knowledgeably about the Pillar’s makeup.

    I took a photo of The Pillar for the Dental Nurses at school to hang in the clinic as an example of what happens when you don’t look after your teeth! They were highly amused – not sure if the children who went were, though.

    Photos will follow the final instalment of the two days we spent with Leigh, such a knowledgeable and obliging guide. He will stop anywhere, anytime within reason for you to take photos.

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    Aha, thanks for explaining that, Alan.

    We retraced our tracks from the Reserve, over the Charlotte Range again to a track on private farm land, running alongside the Central Australian Railway. This is the only place we saw feral camels. One, the lookout, was sitting in the track but as soon as we came along it took off and rejoined its gang in the paddock beside the track.

    After several kms of yet more rutted tracks we entered the Henbury Station. This station had just been bought by R M Williams, who plans to get rid of the cattle, and turn it into a Conservation area. We will watch the progress with interest.

    Rainbow Valley is part of the James Range, and consists of free-standing sandstone cliffs and bluffs with claypans adjacent. Erosion and weathering has caused the valley shape. Apparently the best time to be there is at sunrise or sunset when the sun hits the coloured layers of the cliffs. I hope to see this one day, too. However, the cliffs and bluffs were quite striking while we were there in the middle of the afternoon.

    A lot of work has gone into preparing information boards and special ‘boardwalks’ to enable visitors to get the most out of their visit. They explain about the makeup of the cliffs, the flora and fauna, and what you can do while there. The only walk is the Mushroom Rock trail, but you can get a permit to visit other areas of the park. There is a camping area available for those who want to spend more time there than just a quick visit.

    We walked to the cliffs along the very edge of the claypan, stopping to look at the interesting little plants growing there, and back to the car park via the netted ‘boardwalk’. Both ways had their highlights.

    We had time to explore some interesting rock formations including Mushroom Rock. We saw something that looked like piles of grit on the underside of Mushroom Rock. I wondered if they were Fairy Martin nests although we didn't see any of these birds around at all. Maybe they were insect homes instead. Quite fascinating, though.
    Definitely worth a visit to Rainbow Valley, and I guess if you can be there for sunrise or sunset would be a bonus.

    A quick trip back to the main highway, and we were back in Alice Springs in less than an hour. It seemed strange that we were so close to Alice when in the middle of the Simpson Desert.

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    A couple of days later we were out again with Leigh, this time heading for the East MacDonnells, Trephina Gorge and Arltunga. Shortly after leaving Alice we took a shortcut on an offroad track which took us across our first river bed for the day, and on the edge of a farm before rejoining the Ross Highway to Trephina. Along the way Leigh gave us snippets of the local history, some of which I have written below:

    - the Binns Track, a plan to link all outback tracks from South Australia to Central Australia so people could travel through the country without going into towns if they wished;
    - the homestead used in an Australian film –not sure which one – was out this way
    - William Benstead was a local builder who built the first hotel in Alice Spring, and whose wife was named Tryphena. The Gorge was named after her although the 'y' has been replaced by ‘e’.
    - The very large family farm of several generations diversifying into cabbages, pomegranates and grapes due to the financial downturn.

    From the turnoff to Trephina Gorge , we travelled down sealed road for a few kms and then onto an unsealed road where we crossed over some creek beds, this time with a little water in them, such as the Trephina Creek. However, we crossed Bitter Springs Creek several times, and there was just no water at all. The reason for the water in Trephina was because the springs behind Mordor Pound were still full. (Apparently Mordor Pound has been likened to Tolkien’s Mordor.)
    We walked from the car park to the departure point for several walks around Trephina. As one of our party was not able to walk great distances we took the 500m stroll to the waterhole in the Gorge, with the magnificent rocky walls towering above us and the River Red Gums alongside the creek. As I keep saying I hope to come back to this area to take a couple of the other walks, and explore, one day . . .

    Back on the road out of the Gorge area we stopped to look at the largest Ghost Gum in Central Australia. It doesn’t look too large when you stop in the car park, but as you walk closer it begins to loom a little bigger. Leigh suggested we try to hug the trunk. Even the four of us couldn’t connect around the rather large trunk!
    The road from here to Arltunga goes past. amongst other sights, an interesting almost-teardrop rock formation, across Paddy’s Plains near Paddy’s Jump Up Mine (an abandoned uranium and copper mine), and past some horses from a station that had been turned out to graze some years before, and are now roaming free. Of course there were many ups and downs to the gravel road, some of them higher or lower than others, and all adding to an enjoyable and informative trip. For those of us who are not Australian – these small undulations in the road are apparently called “jump ups”.

    The first building we saw in Arltunga was the hotel, now closed. It would appear to have had quite a chequered career, not always the fault of the various mine hosts, and certainly not the current encumbents, who are totally involved in the maintenance and restoration of the area and its history. It seemed to me to be a necessary place to be open for travellers to call in after 33 km of a gravel, undulating and sometimes steep road!

    The Visitors Centre, a little further on from the hotel, is an oasis in the middle of the desert – well, so it was for us. Spacious flushing toilets and running water were very welcome!
    The Centre itself has a very informative wall display about the history of the mining in Arltunga, with a selection of labelled artefacts of the time. In addition to this is an interesting short DVD about Arltunga. We wandered around the outside where there are further displays of items used in mining and examples of life in those days. I chuckled when I saw the toy “trucks” made from lidded tin cans, stones and wire – I remember my brother making similar “vehicles” over 50 years ago!
    We sat outside at a picnic table and ate yet another yummy lunch courtesy of Sandra, with the company of a crested bellbird who just wasn’t sure how close he could safely come to us but really wanted to share our lunch. Lunch eaten and a much-needed coffee drained we headed off to explore the area.

    First stop was at the Government Works site. This information is quoted from their information sheet, available at the Visitors Centre:

    “The Government Battery and Cyanide Works was established in 1898 as a facility for crushing and processing ore worked from local mines. Until mining activity faded in 1913, this was the heart of the Arltunga Goldmines.”

    The buildings around the site are what remains of the houses and offices of the workers. The sites are numbered, and armed with the Self-Guided Walk sheet you can identify each building. Most of them have had some clever maintenance work done to extend their life. It was an interesting stroll around, although again my scaredy-cat eyes were alert for snoozing or slithering snakes, after seeing a reminder to watch out for snoozing snakes on one of the info boards! Trying to imagine how the people lived in such cramped conditions made for good discussions. I am not machinery-minded but I found the old machines, some of which I had never seen or heard of in my life, quite fascinating in their appearance and workings. I was rather embarrassed, however, to go into one of the houses and to find among the graffiti on the wall signatures from some NZ people. Although we spent nearly a leisurely hour looking around, the estimation of approximately 40 minutes to complete the walk would be pretty close.

    It was back to the carpark from where Leigh headed for the Arltunga Police Station and Gaol. The current Station and Gaol were built in 1912, and were used as the district Police Base until 1944. The reconstruction of the Police residence and gaol was completed in 1985 following deliberate vandalism. At the front of the Station is a working tamping rammer made of wood, a reminder of the gold-mining history. There is also a covered well just outside the entrance to the Police Station. Not sure if it had water in or was just a deep hole.

    On the road between the Police Station and the White Range Cemetery we passed the old Bakehouse at the Crossroads. The ovens were visible, appearing as if they had been accessed from the back of the building. Another point of interest was the Crossroads Cemetery, where we looked at a couple of graves, one enclosed in a very well constructed four-walled fence of local stones and complete with a drainage hole at the foot of the grave. This grave and accompanying grave stone seems to have been organised by a friend of the deceased. Just opposite was another grave that had its site marked out by a rustic fence, while next to that was yet another site that was just covered in stones.

    The White Range Cemetery is at the end of the road. This is an unusual cemetery, with the graves marked out by post and rail fences. It is a lonely site for a cemetery, on the side of a hill in the middle of nowhere. Of the 13 people buried there 8 are named and the rest unknown. Amongst those buried here are Joseph Hele who first found gold in the area in 1877 (or 1887 – both dates appear in information I have read), and Henry Luce who discovered the reef gold of White Range in 1897. The whole cemetery is inside a modern post and chain fence.

    Just a few steps up the hill from the cemetery is the lookout to the White Ranges, so called because of the quartz that gives the Ranges their white appearance. The first mine closed in 1913, reopened and closed in the 1950s, and then again in 1987 the mine was opened. This mine closed in the 1990s. In 2001 another company began production. However, ore is not being dug out any more but instead material from the waste dumps and pits is being processed.

    This seemed a fitting place to finish the visit to Arltunga. We retraced our tracks through Arltunga, past the Police Station and the hotel, still closed, and on to the Ross Highway towards Alice Springs. Not far past the intersection is a memorial to the Eastern and Central Arrernte people who passed away in Arltunga and the surrounding area between 1942 and 1953. The Little Flower Mission was established in Arltunga in 1942. In 1942 Alice Springs became a military base and for unknown reasons two hundred Aboriginal people were evacuated to Arltunga, remaining there until 1953, when it was decided to move the mission to Santa Teresa due to lack of adequate water.

    Corroboree Rock is about 40 minutes from Alice Springs. Although we had been there last year in misty rain, it was good to see the Rock in total sunlight. It is worth the short walk around the Rock to see its many faces, and the wildlife around here, including a cat. We didn’t see any perentie though they live in the area. Common belief is that this area was used as storage for important objects by the Eastern Arrernte people.

    Next stop was Jessie Gap, followed by Emily Gap a few kms closer to Alice Springs. These two places are important spiritual sites to the Eastern Arrernte people, forming part of the dreamtime story, in particular the caterpillar trail. At Emily Gap there is a rock painting that depicts the caterpillar dreaming.

    Our final stop was a quick call into the Heavitree Gap Lodge to see the rock wallabies that come down at dusk to entertain the guests and others, and of course to be fed. In 2010 there were mainly children gasping with delight, but in 2011 it was mainly adults. What children we are at heart.

    This was our last full day in Alice Springs, and we felt full with pleasure at the wonderful places we visited, the sights we saw, and the people we met. I do recommend spending more than a day in Alice Springs – it has an interesting history and an amazing present and future.

    Link to some photos of The Ghan and the trips just reviewed.
    http://www.worldisround.com/articles/369856/index.html

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    Our tour on Wednesday was out to Palm Valley. We headed out along Larapinta Drive (Larapinta is Aboriginal for Finke) as far as Hermannsburg. Larapinta Drive is reputed to be the first sealed road in the Northern Territory, and Hermannsburg reputed to be the first town in the Northern Territory. Here, our driver Greg turned left onto a dirt road, which lead into the Finke Gorge National Park. We followed this road for a few kms then reached the "Official" entrance to the park. As we drove in we noticed there were iron posts with fabric tied between them. Greg told us these act as a fence, a deterrent to the wild horses going into the valley and damaging the trees. Apparently before the fence was put up there were only 1 200 mature red cabbage palms left in Palm Valley but now there are 13 000!

    At this point we left the dirt road and headed onto the Finke River bed. We drove along here then up on the bank then back to the river bed. Finally we crossed over the little trickle of water left in the river where the Palm River flows into the Finke River, and onto another dirt path. To the left was a camp site, but we drove past that. Eventually we came to a flat parking area that had a toilet block and two shelter huts. Greg pulled up here for morning tea. While he was getting this organised there was a mad dash for the loos!

    After morning tea he talked to us about the native bushes that were around the parking area. First bush was an acacia more commonly known as the Witchetty tree. You can tell if there are bugs there in three different ways - if there is a dead part of the bush, if there is a mound of dirt around the dead part, and if, when you dig around the roots of the bush in the mounded part, the roots sound hollow if tapped. The bugs are found in the root system. Greg said he had tried one once - made the mistake of not biting the head off first. The head popped and crunched like popcorn, and the body tasted like melted peanut butter in marshmellow. I will take his word for it!

    The next bush was another acacia, the Mulga bush. The bush has toxins in it that can be poisonous. Aboriginal men would make spears from the branches, using them in hunting. If they speared a kangaroo and cooked it then the toxins were rendered harmless. However, if they made a fire and inhaled the toxins there were problems! Women made digging tools from the plant, and would use them to dig down into the roots. They were looking for the honey ants, a delicacy.

    The other acacia was the wattle, also known as the 'dead and finished' - once the plant has flowered that is the summer over. He also pointed out a pretty yellow bush with long yellowy-green pods, known as the chocolate senna tree. The Aborigines used it as a laxative! Another pretty flowering bush was the long-leafed hakea, a member of the grevilia family. It is a grey leafed plant with a small pretty purple flower.

    The last tree was the bloodwood tree, a member of the eucalypt family. The Aborigines used it as an antiseptic.
    Next stage was to the Cycad Gorge.

    If I had known about the next very rough rock-and-roll stage I might have set out earlier and walked it! For 3 kms it was nerve-racking for me, worrying whether or not we were going to survive the journey. The Cycad Gorge was just a narrow part of the area with some large cycads and mature red cabbage trees mixed with other trees. Quite an interesting area, with the trees in amongst the large rocks which gave them shelter from the hot sun.

    Another rock-and-rolling 1 km and we were at the Palm Valley. Greg lead a walk up the escarpment and down into the valley, the Arankaia Loop walk. Some of us chose not to take this walk as there were some very narrow steps, and it was in the middle of the day and rather warm. Instead we walked along the bottom of the valley which was interesting. Amazing rock formations line the Valley walls. I saw a really good example of red cabbage tree growth. The plants start life red in colour, leaves and stem. As they grow the leaves begin to turn green although the stems remain red. Gradually they are no longer red but a very bright green with yellowy-green tips on the leaves, and often when you look at them they are tinged with red.

    DH went on theA rankaia loop walk, and got some interesting photos from up there. He said it was well worth the climb in the heat (around 34 degrees) for the views. One poor woman tripped and put her hand down to save herself - in the spinifex bush. She got quite a few spinifex prickles in her hand. Greg took out what he could. During the rest of the day, she spent quite a bit of time trying to remove the prickles.

    From there we returned to the picnic and toilet / shade hut area for lunch - a tasty wrap, an orange or apple, and a small bottle of juice. Pack up completed, we rocked-and-rolled back to the Kalarranga Lookout area. Again, Greg lead a group of walkers up to the Lookout, while some of us chose to stay at the shelter for the same reasons. DH again chose to climb up, and said it was an amazing view of a different aspect of the Valley.

    Back in the vehicle, and back to the main road. Everyone clapped when we rejoined the Larapinta Drive. I guess they too did not really enjoy the tossing about.

    We visited Hermannsburg, the birthplace of Albert Namatjira. Unfortunately we didn't have a lot of time there. I missed the gallery but DH and I did have a piece of the renowned apple strudel (absolutely delicious) with our coffee, and I did manage to get a few photos and look inside a couple of the mission buildings.

    On the way back to Alice, Greg stopped for us to take photos of the MacDonnell Ranges. The sun was not far from setting and so there was a really cool light on the ranges.

    I do hope the rest of our trips do not cover such a rough 4 km as we travelled on today!!

    Interesting facts:

    Northern Territory is 1.4 square million km in area. Of that, 52% is Aboriginal land, 44% is farms and stations, and 4% is townships and National Parks.

    The MacDonnell range is the 2nd largest in Australia after the Great Divide. The rock is made up of quartz, dolomite, shale, mudstone, limestone, and ironfells (?) bark which gives it the red colour, over 1 000 years.

    In 2009 rainfall was 77 mls, 2010 770 mls, so far in 2011 they have had 300 ml.

    People asked why there are still burnt tree stumps from previous bush fires. It is because they take 20 - 40 years to decay.

    The land along Larapinta Drive used to belong to the Vesty family, and stretched 1 400 kms away from Alice through to a river whose name I could not read in my notes. When the law came in allowing stations to be sold off in smaller blocks, some of the station land was sold to Aboriginals and farmers.

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    Thursday 4 August
    We were out the front at 0600 ready for our pickup. For the first time I needed my shirt on. It might be 28 degrees during the day but the nights can drop to below 10! We waited and waited, and then I began to worry that they might have forgotten us. Finally at around 0625 hours the EmuRun bus appeared. We joined the large group, some of whom were going to Kings Canyon with us, and some who were going to Uluru for the day. As we got on one of the 2 drivers handed us a pack that contained a small box of fruit juice, a yoghurt-and-fruit bar, and a small pack containing 3 crackers and Mainland cheese, advising us this was our bacon and eggs! After introducing themselves, they explained the lights would be going off although people could read if they wanted, and that announcements would be kept to a minimum until closer to Erldunda.

    At Erldunda we had a break for our ‘brekky’ coffee or tea, although we didn't bother, and to connect with our bus to Kings Canyon. We wandered around outside and took photos of the oversized models of an echidna and a frill-necked lizard instead. Our bus for Kings Canyon arrived and we were able to get on and secure a front seat behind the driver, and then we visited the shop for souvenirs and postcards.

    Shortly afterwards we were on our way with Bob, our driver and guide for the Kings Canyon trip. Bob is madly interested in snakes, and is hoping to set up a snake reserve, where people can view snakes in their ‘natural ‘ environment.

    Not far from Erldunda and for a few kilometres along the Lasseter Highway, were quite a few yellow balls lying on the side of the road. I noticed that they seemed to be connected by string, and then it dawned on me - they were . . . oh no, forgot what the name was. However, Bob came to the rescue and told us they were paddy melons, and not for human consumption. I remembered that from our visit to Uluru in 2010. We did see something enjoying them though. Several Major Mitchell cockatoos were having a wonderful meal.

    Somewhere along the way we pulled into a layby for a quick morning tea. There were quite a few crested pigeons hanging around, ever hopeful for the odd crumb no doubt.

    Around 100 kilometres we turned off the Lasseter Highway and onto the Luritja Road which leads to Kings Canyon. It was a fair distance along this road (approximately 150 kilometres), and for most of it we were constantly aware of the smoke haze around us. Most of the fires were controlled burn-offs but a few were deliberately lit by some senseless individuals. We saw one fire that had obviously just jumped the road and had started burning quite strongly.

    Eventually we pulled into the Kings Canyon carpark, and had our lunch. A little pied butcherbird flitted around the scrub, and was the first of several different birds I saw. Everyone but me decided they would attempt the climb around the rim of the canyon. I could have done the walk if it had been much earlier in the day, and I didn’t have a 3 hour time limit on me. (My right hip causes problems when climbing, a real pest. Flat or very slightly undulating land provides a much more enjoyable walking surface for me. Perhaps I could be airlifted on to the rim by helicopter!) At the beginning of the path to the Rim walk there is a memorial acknowledging Jack Cotterill, who organised the first tours to Kings Canyon in the very early 1960s.

    I watched them all reach the top of the canyon, then I set off for a very pleasant stroll along the Kings Creek Walk. There are interesting plants, including a couple of cycads which look out of place for some reason, as well as amazing rock formations to admire. As you get further into the walk, the walls of the canyon are clearly seen, and quite magnificent. Across the creek and up a short climb is the end of the walk and a seat. It is truly “being at one with Nature” up here. The silence is so relaxing and peaceful, befitting the age and grandeur of the surrounding walls. For a while I even forgot to look out for those slithery creatures!

    Back at the carpark I watched some little field mice have fun chasing each other around the largish stones. They were quite clever, climbing onto some slightly higher stones then jumping down as the other mouse would scurry past, and sometimes one mouse would creep forward to check around a stone to see where the other mouse was.
    I watched grey-headed and white-plumed honeyeaters drinking water from a puddle, and a Western Bowerbird and friend came to visit me where I sat.

    It was fun watching the intrepid explorers returning from the strenuous walk. Gosh, some people are incredibly fit. I chatted with a young man in his 30s (NZer living in Queensland) who started up the climb well after “my” group but was back before them. He admitted to jogging in places, and I did wonder if he was able to absorb the atmosphere and wonder of the Canyon. To each his own... Others wandered down and expressed the feeling it was probably not a good time of the day to have gone up there as they found it quite hot. I think the temperature was around 27 °C when we were eating lunch so it would have been more than that on the rim. Gradually members of our party drifted down the hill, pleased they had experienced and completed the rim walk, and in awe of the size of the canyon. If DH’s photos are anything to go by it looks a very special place, one I hope to be able to visit myself in the future.

    While I was being entertained by the local wildlife I noticed the sky was becoming an interesting fawny colour – the smoky haze had reached the carpark of Kings Canyon. The fire we had seen on the way to Kings Canyon had burnt quite a stand of scrub and trees and was quietly smoldering away.

    As we travelled back towards the Lasseter Highway Bob pulled into Kings Creek Station, where we were able to meet the sulphur-crested cockatoo and purchase ice-cream and/or mementoes. At the junction of Lasseter Highway and Luritja Road is an interesting construction, labelled “Red Centre Way”. The Red Centre Way stretches from Alice Springs to the World Heritage Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. According to the accompanying signboard there are several podcast stories available for the West MacDonnell section of the drive. This was a cool place to watch the sun set – the red of the setting sun seemed to intensify the red and brown colours of the structure.

    Our last stop before Alice Springs was the Erldunda Motel for dinner and to connect with the coach from Uluru. It was a quiet trip, partly because it was getting late in the evening and partly because of the exertion expended by all on board. At one stage I was aware of something red in the sky. I realised it was the moon made blood red by the fires. Fantastic sight.

    Around midnight we arrived at The Crowne Plaza ready for bed but happy to have been able to visit Kings Canyon. When we began planning our trip to Alice Springs 2010, my dad said we must go to The Olgas / Kata Tjuta and Ayers Rock / Uluru as well as Kings Canyon. Well, we have done all three now and understand what my dad meant about the aura that surrounds all three.

    Photo link for Palm Valley and Kings Canyon

    http://www.worldisround.com/articles/370816/index.html

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    Just a quick postscript / aside to my Alice report.

    I was pleased to hear a travel agent (from one of NZ's bigger travel agencies) advise the Wellington radio audience that after spending 3 days in Alice Springs he realised that that was just not enough time to do Alice justice! Let's hope he follows through on his own advice with his clients!

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