The Chambers Pillar Historical Reserve in the Northern Territory is spectacular and has historical and cultural significance.

Chambers Pillar with Castle Rock in the background just before sunset. 58mm focal length, 1/30 second at f/11, ISO 200.

Why visit?

Chambers Pillar (Aboriginal name Idracowra or Etikaura) is a spectacular solitary column towering 40 metres above the Simpson Desert plain. It was formed from sandstone deposited and worn down over 340 million years.

The adjacent Castle Rock, a mesa located 500 metres to the north-east of Chambers Pillar was formed at the same time and is also dominant in the landscape, which contains several smaller, but similarly developed rock formations, the largest being Window Rock and Eagle Rock. 

Afterglow just after sunset lights up (from left) one of the smaller rock formations, Castle Rock and Chambers Pillar. 58mm focal length, 1/25 second at f/11, ISO 200.

Dreamtime story

The area around Chambers Pillar is a site of Aboriginal significance. In the Dreamtime, Gecko ancestor Itirkawara 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 birthplace 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. They rested among the dunes and turned into prominent rock formations; Itirkawara into the Pillar, with the girl, still turning her face away from him in shame, into Castle Rock, about 500 metres away to the northeast.

Visitors line up on the dune near the main campground to watch the sun rise over Castle Rock. M4/3 camera, 21mm focal length, 1/20 second at f/10, ISO 100.

European explorers

Chambers Pillar was an important landmark guiding the region’s earliest European travellers on their way from Adelaide to Alice Springs. John MacDouall Stuart was the first white person to see it when heading north on his earliest attempt to cross Australia in April 1860. He named it for his sponsor and friend, James Chambers. 

Other European explorers and travellers followed and messages were often buried at the foot of the pillar. Until the coming of the railway in the 1920s, the Pillar was a landmark in the desert on the long overland journey from Adelaide to Alice Springs. 

Many of the early European travellers have left a record of their visit in the soft, white sandstone, among them John Ross, the leader of the exploring party for the Overland Telegraph Line construction, and Alfred Giles, his second in command, who were there in 1870.

It is illegal to deface any of the rock formations in the area today because it lessens the historical significance of the Reserve.

Chambers Pillar rises above the surrounding plain beneath a stormy late autumn sky. 28mm focal length, 1/250 second at f/9, ISO 200.

When to go

The cooler months between April and September are generally the best time to visit the area because daytime temperatures are more tolerable and there are fewer flies. However, nights can be very cold.

Since central Australia receives most of its rain at this time, intending visitors should check first with local authorities regarding the condition of the roads, which are unsealed.

Getting there

The Chambers Pillar Historical Reserve lies 160km south of Alice Springs, along the Old South Road on a turnoff to the west of Maryvale Station. Intending visitors will require a high clearance 4WD vehicle because the road is unsealed almost all of the way from Alice Springs. After the Maryvale turnoff, there are deep sand drifts and steep jump ups and the road may be closed  after rain. 

Visitors are advised to be very cautious when driving over single lane sand dunes. The reserve authority recommends having someone to check for oncoming traffic or to attach a flag to warn other motorists of your approach. 

Two designated campgrounds are provided. The one located between Chambers Pillar and Castle Rock has picnic tables and free gas barbecues. The other one, which has wood fire-pits and pit toilets, is located about 750 metres away, on the opposite side of the road to Window Rock. Collecting firewood inside the reserve is not allowed so bring your own.

Camping fees are payable in the ‘honesty boxes’ onsite. Guided ranger talks are held from May to September in the main campground. Pets are not permitted in this park; nor are generators. Rubbish bins are not provided, so make sure you take your rubbish away with you.

A view from the walking path that encircles Castle Rock provides a good impression of the size of the structure. Rock wallabies can sometimes be seen on the peaks of this formation. 45mm focal length, 1/500 second at f/9, ISO 200.

Getting around

Because of its relatively compact size, the area is best explored on foot. There are two well-marked walking tracks, one encircling Castle Rock and the other leading to a sunset viewing platform, roughly half a kilometre from the campground. You can follow this track back along the opposite side of the pillar.

A second viewing platform, which is ideal for taking shots at sunrise, is located on the low dune between the campground and the pillar. There is also a short set of steps leading up to a third platform that partially encircles the pillar. This is where you can see some of the 19th century graffiti.

The campground contains a shelter with displays that show photos of the signatures of the most famous personalities who have visited the area in the past, and you can read some of the stories associated with them. A side track from the Castle Rock circuit will take you to Window Rock.

Photographers gather at the sunset viewing area to photograph Chambers Pillar as the sun sets. 105mm focal length, 1/80 second at f/13, ISO 200.

What gear to take

Since this area is isolated, visitors will need to manage their own safety. Overnight campers should take a first aid kit, EPIRB, map and GPS. Warm clothing and sleeping gear are advisable as temperatures can drop below freezing at night.  

Carry and drink plenty of water, particularly on hot days; wear a shady hat and sunscreen, suitable clothing and enclosed footwear. Insect repellent is recommended, even in mid-winter.

Dust will be the main problem photographers have to deal with so ‘weatherproof’ cameras and lenses are the best option. If your camera and lenses aren’t dust-resistant, keep them in a plastic bag when you’re not actually using them and have a blower brush at hand to remove any dust and grit after each shoot.

Since you will generally be close to your vehicle, there’s no reason to limit the amount of equipment you bring, because items you aren’t using can be left in the car. Extended-range zoom lenses can be a bonus for many shooters as they minimise the need for lens changing, which can allow dust to settle on the camera’s sensor. If you’re after landscapes, most of the shots will be achievable with a 24-70mm or 24-105mm equivalent lens. 

Bird photographers will find plenty of interesting subjects for their cameras but a long lens (around 300mm) will be required since most of them are quite shy. You’ll also need a long lens to photograph the rock wallabies on Castle Rock.

Clear nights in the desert provide superb opportunities to photograph the night sky. Bring a solid tripod if you want to take advantage of this.

Night skies can be spectacularly clear in the outback. This shot was taken about half an hour after sunset with a new moon high in the sky. 58mm focal length, 1/10 second at f/9, ISO 400.

What to photograph

Chambers Pillar itself is a dramatic red and yellow sandstone column. But to see its colours at their best, you need to be there during sunrise and sunset, when the rocks appear to glow as the rays of the sun strike its face. The glow lasts longer during the sunset, when it appears as if the rocks are on fire. 

The view from the sunset platform takes in the pillar and Castle Rock, with Window Rock in the distance. If your time is limited, make it your top priority.

It’s worth walking around the Castle Rock circuit to view the formation from different angles. Late afternoon or early-to-mid morning are good times to do this. You may see some rock wallabies enjoying the sun on the peaks above you (a long lens will be handy if they’re active).

Shooting tips

1. Aperture-priority AE is the best shooting mode to use as it will allow you to control depth-of-field in shots.

2. Set your camera’s auto ISO limitations to minimise image noise and let the camera determine the appropriate level, based upon the aperture you select. 

3. Avoid apertures smaller than f/11 to maximise image sharpness.

4. Be prepared to get up early and catch the sunrise and stay late for the evening afterglow. Both can produce spectacular colours in land and sky.

5. Time-lapse sequences will provide the best way to record the changing light around sunrise and sunset, when it can change dramatically in minutes.

6. Multiple exposure modes, particularly those which can ‘stack’ shots as they are captured, are great for recording star trails.

7. Look for different angles and be prepared to ‘zoom with your feet’ in order to find your preferred perspective.

Article by Margaret Brown –  see Margaret’s photography pocket guides  

Excerpt from  Photo Review Issue 74 

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