The MacDonnell Ranges consists of a series of rugged ranges extending almost 300km between their eastern and western extremities. The main range is characterised by a number of startling gorges great slashes cut by the erosive power of ancient rivers. The ranges are formed mainly from quartzite with some limestone layers exposed as serrated ridges in places. Erosion over the eons has reduced the tops of the folds, leaving the roots of the rock strata jutting out in the often vertical form. The average height is now less than 600m above sea level. Hard to imagine they were once taller than the Himalayas!
There are plenty of walking trails in the area around Alice Springs. They are full of gorges, chasms, water holes and riverbeds, but it takes time to enjoy their beauty. If you are time-limited, Australian National Helicopters have flights leaving Alice which allow you to enjoy the landscape from a different aspect.
The route Getaway took was along the western part of the MacDonnells, following the 160km unbroken spine extending west from Alice.
We flew over Simpson's Gap, a high craggy cleft and one of Central Australia's most popular tourist attractions. The 31,000-hectare park was designed to preserve a piece of typical MacDonnell Ranges landscape. It has waterholes, ghost and red river gums and plenty of tame rock wallabies.
Flying further west, you will reach Ellery Gorge, with its high red cliffs, large permanent waterhole and sandy creek fringed by river red gums. It is a significant geological site. Continuing west, you follow Serpentine Gorge, a semi-permanent waterhole, and named because of its snake-like course through the ranges.
Standley Chasm is one of the most popular tourist locations around Alice. The steep gorge is 80 metres deep and eight metres across at its widest. Sunlight touches its floor for just 15 minutes each day at noon. The gorge is named after Mrs Ida Standley, the first formal school teacher in Alice Springs and reputedly the first white woman to walk through the gorge.
From there you fly along the ranges to land at Glen Helen. This feast of mountains, gorges, rivers, waterholes and ancient rock formations was once a huge inland sea.
At Glen Helen Resort you take refreshments or lunch and perhaps a swim in the gorge.
You depart Glen Helen over the ancient Finke River, sighting Mt Zeil, the highest mountain in the Northern Territory, rugged Mt Sonder and Gosse Bluff, 142 million years old and one of the world's largest comet impact craters, to Ormiston Pound and return to Alice Springs via the pristine wilderness of the West MacDonnell Ranges.
The ranges look marvellous at any time of day, but early morning light turns them red, orange and yellow. Once the sun is up, they look totally different. Whatever time of day, they are just magnificent.