PARALTJA— MacDonnell Gorges
Wednesday August 12, 1981
[In celebration of the T-Team’s safari to Central Australia 38 years ago, almost to the day; a revisit to the gorges of the MacDonnell Ranges, Northern Territory. Below is an extract from my book, Trekking With the T-Team: Central Australian Safari 1981, available on Amazon.]
This morning, we raced along the road parallel to the MacDonnell Ranges, dipping into the gorges, Dad verbally ticking the boxes of gorges visited, speeding in and out of each one, snapping photos just to prove our having been there, done that.
At Ellery Creek, I climbed up the hillside rising above waterhole to view the ranges appearing as ripples behind the gorge, and the men as tiny plastic dolls milling on the bank amongst the river gums below.
We hiked through Serpentine Gorge, making good time aided by a receding waterline and an eager anticipation to catch the gap at midday when the sun would shine on both walls casting a red glow on the rocks. Older cousin, C1 and I reached the narrow gap first. A dark burnt-umber hue cast a gloomy shadow over the walls.
‘Are we in time?’ C1 asked.
We perched on the rocks below near the murky pool and watched and waited. The gorge grew darker, the walls bleaker. Younger cousin (C2), family friend (TR) and my brother (MB) arrived.
TR peered at the dull rock-hole languishing in shades of brown. ‘I thought you said there would be spectacular red walls like Stanley Chasm.’
MB picked up a stone and attempted to skim it across the water’s smooth surface. The pebble arched over the pool and landed with a mournful plop in the middle.
‘It’s all in the wrist action,’ C1 said flicking a flat stone, so it skipped across the green surface to the shore opposite.
‘This is boring!’ TR plonked down beside me. ‘What are we meant to do? Wait?’
‘Yep.’ MB chucked another pebble into the middle of the waterhole.
‘Well, Dad, of course,’ MB said.
‘I think I saw a perentie on my way here.’ TR sniffed. ‘It was sunning itself on a rock.’
I hurled a stone in the pool. ‘What? Another one?’
‘If you go for a dip in the pool, you might meet a snake,’ C1 joked and skimmed another stone across the water.
‘A snake?’ TR shivered. ‘Are you serious?’
‘Well, it is Serpentine Gorge.’
TR wrapped his arms tight around his waist. ‘I’m not going in!’
‘Probably best not to.’ Dad emerged through some wiry bushes. ‘The gorge’s sacred to the Arunda people under the Carpet Snake Dreaming. They fear they’ll die if they drink the water or swim in the gorge. However,’ Dad sighed, ‘in the 1950’s your Mum and I paddled up Serpentine Gorge on a lilo. Actually, Mum was several months pregnant with MB, and she paddled on the blow-up mattress and I swam beside her. I almost died of hypothermia, the water was that cold.’
I glanced around the grey-green scrub. ‘By the way, where is MB?’
‘Gone for a walk, I guess,’ C1 said.
‘We’ll have to wait for his return,’ Dad added and then sat down beside me. He glugged down some water from his canteen.
So, we waited. And waited. Not MB lost again! Half an hour crawled by. C1 skipped stones. C2 stared into the gap willing it to turn red. TR reclined on a flat bit of rock and slept. And Dad ferreted around in his back-pack.
‘A watched pot never boils!’ I said. ‘I’m going for a walk.’
I stomped into the bush, heading up towards the ridge to survey the gorge from above. Murphy’s Law, he’ll return the moment I’ve left.
Five minutes into my foray, cliffs barred my way. I diverted to the left, hoping for slopes to accommodate my rise to the top. Instead I faced loose rocks. I stepped on one and it turned my ankle. Ouch! I hobbled on. A wall of prickle bushes scraped my shins. A barrage of spinifex bushes pricked my legs and ankles. I pushed my way through. A rock slid from under me and I scudded down the slope. Grabbing a gnarly stump, I dug my heels into the dirt. Then looked down. Beneath my feet, nothing. Just thin air whistling in the breeze. The land fell away into a ten-foot (three metre) cliff. I gripped the trunk. My heart thudded in my chest like a herd of raging cattle. Holding my breath, I pulled myself up an inch, then another and another, winching my body up to a nearby ledge. I exhaled, relieved that I made it to safety. From there I crawled up the slope to level ground.
Knees trembling, I was conscious that much time had skidded way past lunch. I found the track leading to the base of the hill and plodded downwards, my eyes fixed on the enemy disguised as loose rocks and snakes. I approached the waterhole. I hope they haven’t left me behind. It’s awfully quiet down there.
‘Lee-Anne! Lee-Anne!’ Dad called. He sounded like he was calling a pet cat for dinner. ‘Lee-Anne? Where are you?’
I galloped to the creek just beyond the waterhole. ‘Here I am.’
Dad stood up from his rock seat and put his hands on his hips. ‘Where have you been?’
‘I just went—’
‘You need to tell us where you are going!’
Yeah, like MB tells us where he’s going.
We strutted to the Rover in silence. Next stop Ormiston Gorge.
© Lee-Anne Marie Kling 2018; updated 2019
Feature photo: Ghost gum in the Western MacDonnell Ranges © S.O. Gross circa 1946
[See my painting of this ghost gum at Marion Art Group’s SALA Exhibition, Bayside Village, Glenelg. Hurry, last two days—ends 5pm Sunday August 18.]