An easy drive from Alice Springs, takes you into some attractive shooting spots without requiring an off-road vehicle.
The smaller creek that flows into Trephina Gorge can retail pools of water even when the gorge is dry, providing potential for attractive shots.
While most visitors to Alice Springs concentrate upon the ranges to the west of the city, the less-popular East MacDonnell Ranges can be just as good for photographers and you’re less likely to have shots compromised by intrusive visitors. Many areas have creek beds that attract birds and a wide range of scrub birds can be found when conditions are suitable.
The area is also rich in Aboriginal history, with sites containing interesting rock art, which are important spiritual sites to the Aboriginal people of the region. Many sites are easily reached by walking tracks that can be negotiated by anyone with normal fitness, although most can’t be accessed by wheelchairs.
The trip we suggest can be accomplished within a day and is based upon having accommodation in Alice Springs. Visitors who want to take pictures in the ‘golden hours/ around dusk and dawn can take advantage of a number of camping grounds, most with basic facilities (a long drop toilet plus a few marked sites). Picnic shelters with tables and benches are provided at some sites.
Botanists will enjoy a rich diversity of plants to photograph, particularly in spring. This photograph of a Holly Grevillea (Grevillea wickhamii) was taken in June. The species is endemic to Central Australia and grows near and on rocky outcrops and gorges.
When to go
Because Alice Springs’ climate tends towards extremes, the best times for photographers to visit are between autumn and spring to avoid the searing heat and dust of summer. High summer temperatures can cause heat exhaustion and dehydration. Consequently, being out in the middle of the day is not recommended (although it can be the best time for photographing deep gorges).
The most popular time for visitors is between May and September, when nights are cooler and days are relatively warm. In winter, the average temperature range is from a night-time low of three degrees Celsius to a daytime average of around 20°C (although days with 15°C maxima are not uncommon).
Rainfall can vary dramatically from year to year, although the annual average is around 286 mm. When it rains, daytime maxima can be as low as 8°C to 10°C with clouds covering the ranges.
In spring, there are often large changes in temperature from day to day, resulting in spectacular thunderstorms, hail and dust storms. Spring is also the best season for wildflowers and bird photography, reaching its peak in September and early October.
Within Trephina Gorge, the contrast between the white trunks of the ghost gums, the golden sand and the rich red and purple rocks creates pictorial potential.
Getting there/getting around
As indicated by its name, this part of the MacDonnell Ranges lies to the east of Alice Springs and is easily reached along a road that is sealed for the first 74 km. Any car can easily drive as far as Trephina Gorge, the most easterly point in our suggested trip. To begin the trip, drive south from Alice Springs for a few kilometres along the Stuart Highway and turn east onto the Ross Highway.
Photographers with four-wheel-drive (4WD) vehicles can travel further, particularly if they are able to camp overnight. However, the unsealed roads with creek crossings, ditches, gutters and sandy sections of track will be unsuitable for city-style SUVs; high-clearance ‘proper’ 4WD vehicles are required.
Camping is available at Trephina Gorge, while the Ross River Resort at the end of the sealed road offers camping, powered sites, budget accommodation, air conditioned cabins with en-suite bathrooms and meals.
A view over Trephina Gorge from the walking track along the cliffs.
What gear to take
The gear you take will depend on the time of year, weather conditions and the activities you plan to engage in. When it’s dry, dust can be a problem and stormy weather can be unpredictable so weatherproof cameras and lenses are recommended. If your equipment isn’t weatherproof, protect it by wrapping it in cloth and keeping it in a sealed bag when it’s not in use. Be careful when changing lenses so you don’t get dust inside the camera.
If you plan to do any walking (which we recommend if you want the best vantage points), keep your gear light and portable. One camera body with a standard zoom lens (24-105mm or 24-120mm equivalent in 35mm format) should handle most potential subject types and minimise lens swapping.
Most shooting can be done with the camera hand-held, so a tripod is unnecessary unless you want to take shots very early in the morning or around dusk. Bird photographers will probably find a tripod useful and are certain to want longer lenses and, since most of the birds are small and fast-moving. Fast lenses can be helpful for capturing smaller bush birds.
Bush birds like this tiny mistletoe bird are common throughout the ranges, particularly when food is abundant.
Some attractive gum trees can be found in and around Jessie Gap, providing suitable subjects for photography.
What to photograph
There are four main places to stop along the sealed section of the road. Each presents different shooting opportunities.
The sandy floor of Emily Gap is accessed via an easy stroll from the car park.
The Emily and Jessie Gaps Nature Park, which is closest to Alice Springs, protects two small gaps in the ranges. Emily Gap, which lies 14 km from Alice Springs, is a registered sacred site containing some Aboriginal rock paintings that depict the caterpillar dreaming.
Rock art depicting the caterpillar dreaming story associated with the area.
The paintings are easy to find on the eastern wall of the gap and depict where the caterpillar beings of Mparntwe (Alice Springs) originated. These caterpillars formed Emily Gap and many of the topographic features around Alice Springs, then radiated out to the edge of the Simpson Desert. Birdwatchers can often see wild budgerigars nesting in trees around the gap after a period of rain.
Jessie Gap, which is 21 km from Alice Springs, is another Aboriginal rock art and sacred site. A short walk takes you along a creek bed between the hills. Check out the rock art, which has interpretive signage telling the story of the paintings.
The view of Corroboree Rock from the car park shows its flat front face protruding from the undulating landscape.
A 15-minute walk takes you around Corroboree Rock for a series of different views that reveal the structure of the rock.
Corroboree Rock Conservation Reserve is located a further 21 km along the Ross Highway. It’s easy to spot from the road, rising as an arching outcrop of dolomite rises above the surrounding area. A ring of low ground surrounding the rock makes it look like an obelisk, particularly when viewed end-on.
Associated with the Perentie Dreaming trail, the rock is culturally significant to the local Eastern Arrernte people, although it was probably not used as a corroboree site due to the lack of water in the area. Important cultural artefacts may have been stored there and perentie lizards (which can grow to more than 2.5 meters in length, take refuge in the rock falls. They may be seen sunning themselves in warmer weather.
A walking track surrounds the rock, providing different views of the formation. It passes through open scrub and up a small hill and takes about 15 minutes to complete at a normal walking pace. Camping is not permitted.
Trephina Gorge presents the best opportunities for photography. The turnoff road is 27 km further along the Ross Highway from the Corroboree Rock Conservation Reserve. The first four kilometres of the road are sealed but the last five aren’t, although this section can usually be managed by normal vehicles (careful driving is recommended as the road crosses a couple of creek beds).
There are two gorges within the park, Trephina Gorge and the John Hayes Rockhole, the latter accessible only by 4WD vehicles. This track is often closed because of adverse weather conditions. There are also three campgrounds (fees apply).
A walking track takes you around the rim of Trephina Gorge, returning via the valley floor. You can take it in either direction. We’d recommend taking the high track if you arrive during the morning or mid-afternoon and the low track if you’re there in the middle of the day.
The sandy floor of Emily Gap is accessed via an easy stroll from the car park.
You’ll get great views from the top of the gorge wall but stay well back from the cliff edges as there are no protective barriers and the loose rocks can be unstable. The track climbs down a steep slope into a small creek bed, which will contain pools of water after recent rain. You can walk from the top of the ridge track to the John Hayes Rock Hole (a total of 10 km) but that part of the track is poorly signposted and the trek takes roughly five hours, with an 8 km walk along the road adding a further two hours.
The sandy floor of the gorge is part of a larger stream, which can flood in wet weather, although it is often completely dry. It is flanked by sheer quartzite cliffs and dotted with eucalypts. The contrast between the pale trunks of the trees, the olive-green foliage and the orange and plum-coloured gorge walls can provide attractive pictures. The gorge is also rich in birdlife.
If you’re lucky you may spot rock wallabies. The area is part of the Wallaby Dreaming Trail, although the animals are shy and seldom seen up-close. Park rangers conduct campfire talks twice a week during the peak tourist season (June to September).
Four-wheel drivers can continue on to visit the N’Dhala Gorge Nature Park, which is 23 km from the Trephina Gorge turn off. This gorge is narrower and steeper than Trephina Gorge and noteworthy for its ancient rock carvings.
The Arltunga Historical Reserve contains the remains of what used to be central Australia’s first town. About 40 km from the Trephina Gorge turn off, it was established during a gold rush that soon petered out.
Ruby Gap Nature Park is a further 40 km on via a very rough track. It was the site of a ‘ruby rush’ at the beginning of the 20th century but miners soon left after discovering the ‘rubies’ were actually garnets (and much less valuable). Garnets can still be found in the sandy bed of the Hale River. There are several gorges to explore and bush camping (with no facilities) is permitted.
Article by Margaret Brown – see Margaret’s photography pocket guides