Pack your togs, don your Akubra and forget everything you know about Australia’s arid centre.
Though ‘Alice Springs’ contains the word ‘springs’… to many it still conjures visions of barren desert and dust so dry it will keep an A380 in perfect nick.
It’s no surprise, then, that many Australians forget it has a luscious side.
We were ignorant until recently ourselves, before reading a recent Traveller article, which explained, though The Alice is famously dry, the MacDonnell Ranges that flank the town “are riddled with gorges that – given enough rainfall – function as waterholes.”
“Some dry up quickly; others, like Ellery Creek and Glen Helen Gorge, have at least some water in them throughout the year,” Traveller reported in April.
“We have had some really good rain events earlier this year – only two big ones, but that’s enough. Water levels rise very quickly here,” Scott Pullyblank, curator at the Alice Springs Desert Park, told Traveller. “Eventually it will evaporate, but for the next month or so, we’ll have a lot of water.”
Before we dive on in: some context (and acknowledgements). The traditional owners of the Alice Springs area are the Central Arrernte people. As it is the largest town in central Australia, there are also speakers of Warlpiri, Warumungu, Kaytetye, Alyawarre, Luritja, Pintupi, Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara, Ngaanyatjarra, Pertame, Eastern, and Western Arrernte among others.
Alice Springs is also known as the Aboriginal Art Capital of Central Australia, with Indigenous Australian art being the more dominant, and with galleries showing the rich culture and native traditions that abound in Central Australia.
According to Australia.com, in Alice Springs, “You’ll find a deeply spiritual and passionate Aboriginal community, eager to teach you about their history and connection to country.”
Unfortunately, many Australians (ourselves included), until the pandemic hit, were far more interested in drinking cocktails on inflatable pink flamingos in far-flung parts of the world than in exploring our own backyard.
Fortunately, amid the havoc 2020 wreaked, there has been a silver lining in that many Aussies are re-discovering a greater appreciation for the incredible natural attractions and cultures of Australia.
Speaking of incredible attractions: one of the most iconic around Alice Springs is the Ellery Creek Big Hole – one of the most popular and picturesque camping, walking, swimming and picnic spots in the Tjoritja / West MacDonnell National Park.
This stunning waterhole is fed by the West MacDonnell Ranges (Tjoritja) and surrounded by colossal red cliffs.
Ellery Creek Big Hole is located 90 km west of Alice Springs, via Larapinta and Namatjira Drives. Access is by conventional vehicle or 2WD, however, the last 2km is unsealed.
“Thousands of years of massive floods have carved out this waterhole, which is recognised as an internationally significant geological site,” the Northern Territory website states. “Take the 3 kilometre Dolomite walk to see the surrounding formations.”
“The Aboriginal name for Ellery Big Hole is Udepata. The permanent water made it a special meeting place for the Aranda people on the fish and honey ant dreaming trails.”
Camping is permitted (fees apply) and entry is via a gravel road.
DMARGE spoke to a bunch of travellers to ask what it was like to visit.
Olivia Snell – who is currently travelling around Australia in her campervan @murphythemercedes – told us: “Upon heading to the NT we also thought the Red Centre was going to be just that, red and dry. It was on our road trip for Coober Pedy to Alice Springs that we commented on how green the area was.”
“We were both shocked at how much greenery and water surrounded the city but ultimately thought that was just the city. It was when we started exploring the MacDonnell Ranges that we realised that this place is so much more than just red and dry.”
“We knew there were swimming spots in the Macs but didn’t really expect there to be much water around considering we were visiting during the dry season rather than the wet. In fact, we were so sure there wasn’t actually going to be any water at Ellery Creek Big Hole that when we visited the first time, we didn’t even take our bathers and had to run back to the van to get swimming gear.”
“After we found Ellery we made it a mission to explore all of the surprisingly chilly swimming spots in the area.”
Olivia, who visited recently, also told us: “Honestly, we were kind of surprised at how many people were there this time we visited. I can’t imagine what it’ll be like as more and more people begin travelling again and international travel opens back up.”
“It was by no means crowded. But considering that it is in the middle of the school term and on the back of the year that was 2020, I have no doubt that these places will only get more and more crowded as Covid-19 restrictions continue to ease.”
“I think that 2020 has made so many Australians more aware of the beauty that lies in their backyard and the longer we go without international travel, the more people are going to start exploring what Australia has to offer rather than seeking to travel elsewhere.”
“We’re currently travelling around Australia in our self-converted campervan and so getting to Ellery Creek started no different than any other day for us really. We woke up, made up a rough plan for the day and hit the road.”
“We were surprised by how many cars and other people were at Ellery Creek especially considering we had visited the iconic Simpsons Gap only day earlier and had the place all to ourselves but didn’t think too much of it.”
“Heading down to the water we couldn’t really believe our eyes. The water was perfectly still except for the ripples of children playing. And the waterhole looked unreal lying beneath the towering cliffs that surrounded it. The water was cold to say the least, but I’m sure on a hot day that would’ve been super refreshing.”
“It wasn’t the warmest day when we visited, probably reaching only 24 degrees at the peak. So we were definitely surprised by how many people were there. I’m glad we went then rather than a super-hot day where more people would’ve been wanting to swim. It wasn’t crowded by any means but having too many more people there would’ve definitely ruined the tranquillity of the place.”
DMARGE also spoke to landscape photographer Luke Tscharke. Luke told us: “I think these sorts of places have the potential to become more popular with the increased visitation from domestic tourists however I feel it is social media which often helps to dictate these trends due to highlighting these locations via beautiful imagery.”
“I don’t think it will be the last chance to see these places crowded, it will depend on ht time of year you are visiting and the amount of water present.”
Hollee Bruce, who has visited Ellery Creek too, told DMARGE she found out about Ellery Creek via word of mouth: “Most Australians are super friendly and love having a yarn and telling you their stories. That’s the one big thing about my trip that I enjoyed. This is one way I heard about it.”
“Social media is a big one too.”
Hollee also told us: “Ellery Creek is one of many amazing spots. it’s known as the ‘locals spot’ I was told. Very popular and easy access.”
“We had other locals tell us it’s usually packed and when got there we met up with a few tourists who’ve been here for a few years now working and travelling.”
“It was not too busy but maybe in the future due to Instagram suggestions and a big influx of people wanting to travel as soon as restrictions lift it will become full.”
“Ellery Creek was beautiful but there are a few other gorges and rock holes that were much [quieter], such as Redbank Gorge, which was a longer walk and less people.”
Ormiston Gorge is another popular spot too.
Time to don that Akubra? See below for more inspiration.