Like the Red Planet of Mars, it was in hope, rather than in expectation, of finding life that we set off into Australia’s Red Centre. We drove west from Alice Spring along the Larapinta Trail and a road which after hundreds of kilometres hits a dead end apart from for the hardiest off road vehicles. A dead end. Not a comforting phrase.
The main reason that people drive, and even walk, the Larapinta Trail is to delve into hidden gorges amongst the mountain range that have pools of water as treasure within them. There’s an obvious foolishness to visit a desert for the water but fools can sometimes find gold.
It wasn’t long before we found our first gorge, Simpsons Gap, and gazed upon a pristinely still pool of water hidden from the sun in the shadows of vertical walls. Amidst 35 degree heat, it looked like heaven and a few painters were trying to preserve the beauty. We ventured into the beauty and nearly became preserved ourselves, cryogenically so as ice blocks.
Attentive readers of my first sentence in the previous paragraph could have guessed this would happen and be less surprised by us at the freezing water in the middle of a desert. The water exists, of course, only because sunlight never touches it and the ambient temperature apparently doesn’t heat water below the surface.
We sat on the edge looking at the water, along with the painters, when two Larapinta Trail walkers eagerly stripped for a dip in the pool. They had been walking for days and this would be their first wash. They could not undress quickly enough as the thrill of clean water refreshing their bodies was there to be had. Moments later, they were screaming and running away from refreshment and back to desert heat. I’m not sure if they did at that point, but I realized that every few days they would experience delirious excitement as they approached another gorge, kidding themselves that this one would not be as cold as the last, only to experience that same shock all over again.
The desert was producing more variety, interest and surprise than we imagined. Ormiston Pound was a beautiful walk surrounded by hills and empty of people. The view to Mount Sonder and across the Finke River was vast, wonderful and silencing in awe. The Red Desert was not endless miles of sand-dunes but peppered by trees and bushes, a mountain range and even a river.
The biggest surprise may have been at Glen Helen Gorge though. A circle of about 20 people stood in the car park of Glen Helen’s Homestead Lodge beside a tractor with other tractors nearby. Could it be an auction inviting farmers from all over? No it turned out to be the Harry Ferguson Tractor Club of Australia driving their tractors from across Australia to meet together in the Red Centre.
The timber Lodge itself was more like something you would imagine in snow capped mountains of American national parks. The cabins sit on a river that is towered over by an escarpment and inside the lodge was a raging wood fire as people huddled together protecting themselves from a cold desert night. We were even treated to a sing-song with the tractor acolytes joining the guest musician in the anthemic “My Fergie Tractor”.
We carried on to Kings Canyon where we stayed on a farm that had camels and helicopters for herding cattle. I would love to see the UK sheepdog trials up against Australian top gun pilots. It’s not just deserts that are a little different out here.