Tourists just love the Western Macdonnells, with their hire cars and impractical white clothes. After all, you can drive there on bitumen, it's easy to squash into a day trip, and if you've never seen the outback before, it's pretty impressive stuff. But they don't seem to have discovered the Eastern Macdonnells, which stretch to the east of Alice Springs. Again, the road is sealed, although it's mainly single lane (so you have to pull over onto dirt if anyone comes the other way), and as I checked out the few gorges and hillocks on the way east, there were almost no people to be seen, which was rather pleasant after the busier western ranges.
At the end of the road I pulled into Trephina Gorge campsite and found a full house of Australians; this came as quite a relief after experiencing mainly European tourists in the west. I paid for two nights, and settled in to read about the area.
It didn't take me long to realise what a real gem Trephina is. I remembered one guy I'd met en route who'd told me to visit the Western Macdonnells but not to bother with the east side, and he was totally and utterly wrong. The Eastern Macdonnell Range is everything the west range isn't: peaceful, tourist-free, primitive (in terms of camping) and isolated (it's a dirt road from the single-track bitumen into the park)... in short, I loved it.
And what a wonderful collection of people I met during a campfire talk that the ranger held at the campsite, where he made us billy tea, and chatted about being a ranger, the role of the Parks and Wildlife Commission, and a whole variety of stuff from local wildlife to the night sky. How atmospheric it was, with only about 20 of us in the entire National Park.
Exploring by Foot
By Friday I was feeling 100 per cent again, a great relief after the awful exhaustion and total lack of energy I'd been feeling; when I woke up I felt fantastic, much better than I had in Ormiston, so I decided to do some real walking. The walking tracks at Trephina are some of the best laid out I've seen, with markers everywhere and some stunning scenery, and I couldn't wait to get started.
My first walk was the 10km Ridgetop Walk, which took me from the gorge over a ridge of mountains where the views alone made all the effort worthwhile. One bluff overlooked a pound that had lots of little hills inside it; as I climbed the hills in the early morning sun they were lit up from behind, and looked quite bizarre. The view reminded me of those depth-contour pictures you see on album covers and computer screens, where lines are drawn from left to right, wiggling with the lie of some virtual terrain (Joy Division's wonderful Unknown Pleasures is the best example). I hadn't expected to find 1980s album art in the middle of the desert, but if there's one thing I'm learning, it's that deserts are full of surprises.
The walk continued to John Hayes Rock Hole, which was home to a chain of ponds. This string of rock pools in an ever-deepening gorge was surprigins, not just because of the beauty of it all, but also because of the large amount of water; when I visited there was even a waterfall flowing (well, trickling) between two of the larger pools, which I wasn't expecting from an area where the average annual rainfall is just ten inches.
The only problem with the walk is that at the end of a wonderful 10km across the wilderness, you have to walk 8km back to camp along a road, but as luck would have it Dave the ranger came along and kindly offered me a lift, so I was back at camp by lunch, much to the surprise of those having a lazy day in the sun who had seen me set off first thing. I spent the afternoon doing two walks in the gorge itself, meeting various people on the way, including one very friendly retired couple who were full of conversation about their travels and experiences of emigrating from England 32 years ago.
As if that weren't enough, when I got back to camp, everyone in our little area got together for a cuppa, and we continued the conversation round a campfire, into the starry night. There were Bruce and Lorna, kings of acerbic Aussie wit; Diane and her young daughter Ashleigh, who together had travelled to more places than most of us can place on the map (I picked up some good tips about travelling in Russia, Italy and Africa from them... maybe some day!); Annette, an elderly painter who spent every winter in Trephina, and knew lots of stories about the people and places around Alice Springs; and Geoff and Betty, who had been caravanning for years, and could remember when places like Ayers Rock and King's Canyon were deserted. And there was me, the only non-Aussie, loving every minute of it...
The icing on the cake was my first ever bush shower. A bush shower is exactly what it sounds like: a shower in the bush. You can buy these black bags that you fill with water and leave in the sun, and by the end of the day the water's amazingly hot; there's a little tap and shower head on the bottom of the bag, so you can hang it off a tree and have a shower right there in the middle of nature. Diane and Ashleigh, bless 'em, had brought one with them, and had left enough water for me to try it out, as I'd never had one before. There's only one catch: don't drop the soap in the sand unless you want a truly exfoliating experience. I discovered that handy tip the hard way, though apart from that, the shower was a real luxury.
Ah, the bush... you've got to love it!