Learning on the Larapinta

The swimming hole at Glen Helen Gorge. Pictures by Jan Clare
Cycads flourishing at Inarlanga (Echidna) Pass.
Our group listening to guide Shelby at Serpentine Chalet Dam.
Hiking to the Ochre Quarry.
The devastation caused by wildfires.
A huge cleft in the rocks at Serpentine Chalet Dam.
Rick perfects his ‘Aussie salute’ at the Ochre Quarry.

Jan and Rick Clare continue their adventures on Australia’s Larapinta Trail . . . on Day 4, they learn about the origins and traditional uses of ochre; visit one of the world’s oldest rivers; hear about a mythical serpent and discover the futility of swatting flies . . .

Straight after breakfast on yet another gloriously sunny morning there was a rush of activity as everyone swept out their tents and rolled up their swags. All the facilities were speedily cleaned and made ready for the next group of hikers — we were moving on to Camp Fearless that night.

We made a quick sortie to the site of the Serpentine Chalet Dam. This was constructed back in the late 1950s to provide water for the first tourism venture in this remote part of central Australia. However, the scheme was doomed to fail, because the dam leaked — the underlying rock turned out to be too porous to hold water.

The trail led next to the Inarlanga (Echidna) Pass, a very pretty place with abundant cycads and large, multi-coloured boulders. We relaxed here for a while to take photos and soak up the peaceful surroundings.

Heading southwest, the trail led across some barren but starkly-beautiful country to the famed Ochre Quarry. It was sheltered from the breeze and quite a lot warmer here — which meant the one thing without which no Aussie story would be complete: flies! Yes, flies are an environmental necessity. But until that day I had not experienced their persistence and the utter futility of attempting to swat them away — such is their desperation to suck any microscopic drops of human sweat.

Ochre, a naturally-occurring clay earth pigment, has been extracted from the cliffs here for thousands of years and is still used by the Western Arrernte people for ceremonies. Traditionally it had many uses. Ochre could be mixed with water or grease and applied to various complaints on the skin. The red ochre (mixed with animal fat from a possum or emu, for example), was rubbed into aching muscles.

We learned that the ochre formed 700 million years ago in sediments under an inland sea the size of the Mediterranean. Then when the sea dried up and massive geological forces thrust the horizontal layers upwards, the ochre cliffs were revealed.

Over millennia the wind and rain have eroded the cliffs forming the dramatic patterns seen today. In Aboriginal society, only the men are allowed to obtain the ochre and they gather enough for women’s ceremonial use too. A special song is sung when preparing the ochre product to enhance its powers. This custom is known as wulya.

After this fascinating cultural and geological lesson we had a picnic lunch with our fly nets on. Tip: when about to take a bite or a drink, remember your fly net.

The early afternoon was spent fly-free at nearby Glen Helen Lodge, where there is accommodation, WiFi and you can buy souvenirs, food, coffee and beer.

Glen Helen Gorge is on the Finke River, one of the oldest rivers in the world. The permanent waterhole provides an important refuge for nine species of fish and migrating water birds. It is surrounded by towering sandstone cliffs and looked like a really beautiful place to swim although disappointingly, was too cold for us. Later, after hearing about the blind Rainbow Serpent that has its home in the gorge, according to Aboriginal lore, I was thankful it was winter.

Finke the world’s oldest river

The early afternoon was spent fly-free at nearby Glen Helen Lodge, where there is accommodation, WiFi and you can buy souvenirs, food, coffee and beer.

Glen Helen Gorge is on the Finke River, often regarded as the oldest river in the world. It has been flowing the same general course for 100 million years.

Starting in the West MacDonnell Range, the river meanders for 700km creating a ribbon of life through a drought-prone area.

The permanent waterhole at Glen Helen provides an important refuge for nine species of fish and migrating water birds. It is surrounded by towering sandstone cliffs and looked like a really beautiful place to swim although disappointingly, was too cold for us.

Later, after hearing about the blind Rainbow Serpent that has its home in the gorge, according to Aboriginal lore, I was thankful it was winter. — To be continued

Jan and Rick Clare continue their adventures on Australia’s Larapinta Trail . . . on Day 4, they learn about the origins and traditional uses of ochre; visit one of the world’s oldest rivers; hear about a mythical serpent and discover the futility of swatting flies . . .

Straight after breakfast on yet another gloriously sunny morning there was a rush of activity as everyone swept out their tents and rolled up their swags. All the facilities were speedily cleaned and made ready for the next group of hikers — we were moving on to Camp Fearless that night.

We made a quick sortie to the site of the Serpentine Chalet Dam. This was constructed back in the late 1950s to provide water for the first tourism venture in this remote part of central Australia. However, the scheme was doomed to fail, because the dam leaked — the underlying rock turned out to be too porous to hold water.

The trail led next to the Inarlanga (Echidna) Pass, a very pretty place with abundant cycads and large, multi-coloured boulders. We relaxed here for a while to take photos and soak up the peaceful surroundings.

Heading southwest, the trail led across some barren but starkly-beautiful country to the famed Ochre Quarry. It was sheltered from the breeze and quite a lot warmer here — which meant the one thing without which no Aussie story would be complete: flies! Yes, flies are an environmental necessity. But until that day I had not experienced their persistence and the utter futility of attempting to swat them away — such is their desperation to suck any microscopic drops of human sweat.

Ochre, a naturally-occurring clay earth pigment, has been extracted from the cliffs here for thousands of years and is still used by the Western Arrernte people for ceremonies. Traditionally it had many uses. Ochre could be mixed with water or grease and applied to various complaints on the skin. The red ochre (mixed with animal fat from a possum or emu, for example), was rubbed into aching muscles.

We learned that the ochre formed 700 million years ago in sediments under an inland sea the size of the Mediterranean. Then when the sea dried up and massive geological forces thrust the horizontal layers upwards, the ochre cliffs were revealed.

Over millennia the wind and rain have eroded the cliffs forming the dramatic patterns seen today. In Aboriginal society, only the men are allowed to obtain the ochre and they gather enough for women’s ceremonial use too. A special song is sung when preparing the ochre product to enhance its powers. This custom is known as wulya.

After this fascinating cultural and geological lesson we had a picnic lunch with our fly nets on. Tip: when about to take a bite or a drink, remember your fly net.

The early afternoon was spent fly-free at nearby Glen Helen Lodge, where there is accommodation, WiFi and you can buy souvenirs, food, coffee and beer.

Glen Helen Gorge is on the Finke River, one of the oldest rivers in the world. The permanent waterhole provides an important refuge for nine species of fish and migrating water birds. It is surrounded by towering sandstone cliffs and looked like a really beautiful place to swim although disappointingly, was too cold for us. Later, after hearing about the blind Rainbow Serpent that has its home in the gorge, according to Aboriginal lore, I was thankful it was winter.

Finke the world’s oldest river

The early afternoon was spent fly-free at nearby Glen Helen Lodge, where there is accommodation, WiFi and you can buy souvenirs, food, coffee and beer.

Glen Helen Gorge is on the Finke River, often regarded as the oldest river in the world. It has been flowing the same general course for 100 million years.

Starting in the West MacDonnell Range, the river meanders for 700km creating a ribbon of life through a drought-prone area.

The permanent waterhole at Glen Helen provides an important refuge for nine species of fish and migrating water birds. It is surrounded by towering sandstone cliffs and looked like a really beautiful place to swim although disappointingly, was too cold for us.

Later, after hearing about the blind Rainbow Serpent that has its home in the gorge, according to Aboriginal lore, I was thankful it was winter. — To be continued

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