Australia's Top Tourism Treasures - The MacDonnell Ranges

More than 600 species of native plants grow here, many of them ignoring the seasons and responding only to rain, so that during a wet spell the slopes may be brightened by masses of white everlasting and yellowtop daisies. About 148 species of birds inhabit the ranges. But perhaps the most surprising feature of these arid ranges is the wealth of aquatic life found in the seemingly modest water holes: the pools support as many as 10 species of native fish.

The MacDonnell Ranges are extraordinarily rich in color. Depending on the geology, light, and perspective, the rock faces glow gold, suffused with mauve, or blazing red, and there is little to equal the white trunk of a ghost gum against the intense blue of the Central Australian sky.

The drive into the Finke Gorge National Park is spectacular, with the road passing beneath the high, red cliffs of Finke Gorge. At Palm Valley, several trails allow you to explore the dramatic escarpments and hidden gorges, including the Kalarranga Trail, which follows in the footsteps of an Aboriginal Dreaming ancestor. Palm Valley is noted and named for its red cabbage palms, an ancient species found only here; its closest relative grows on the coast of New South Wales, 1,400 miles away.

Most of the mountains to the west of Alice Springs are contained within the 1,125,000-acre West MacDonnell National Park; much smaller parks and reserves protect places of interest to the east. The national park encompasses many of the ranges' most spectacular and accessible gorges as well as their highest peaks. Trails wind through and around most of the gorges, and eager walkers can experience the full grandeur of these ancient desert mountains by hiking the Larapinta Trail. Most of the trail's 13 sections are now open, and when fully completed, it will wind for 137 miles along the backbone of the western MacDonnells. Each section starts and ends at a roadhead, so the trail can be enjoyed in stages and provides even novice walkers with access to some of the wildest parts of the ranges.

Visitors can walk, drive, or even cycle from Alice Springs to the park's most popular destination, Simpsons Gap. Situated 14 miles (22 km) west of Alice Springs, Simpsons Gap is an arresting cleft in the red quartzite rock of Rungutjirba Ridge, eroded by the floodwaters that pour infrequently down Roe Creek. A colony of rare black-footed rock-wallabies lives among the great boulders on the eastern bank.

Most walkers take two days to cover the distance to Simpsons Gap along the first section of the Larapinta Trail, staying overnight at the Wallaby Gap campground. The trail provides good views of Alice Springs from boulder outcrops overlooking the town, and at Euro Ridge visitors can see a striking panorama of the western ranges as far as Mounts Conway and Laughlen. Parts of the trail pass through shrub lands of many-stemmed witchetty bushes, prized by Aborigines for the fat moth larvae, called witchetty grubs, that live in their surface roots. Euros, or hill kangaroos, inhabit the ridges, and there is another colony of black-footed rock-wallabies at Wallaby Gap. At Scorpion Pool, you may come across the pied butcherbird, with its melodious, organlike calls.

Continued in: Australia's Top Tourism Treasures - Kakadu National Park

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