Situated in the heart of the spectacular East MacDonnell Ranges in Central Australia, Trephina Gorge is sure to impress with its sheer quartzite cliffs and rugged landscapes. The nature park is an easy one-hour drive from Alice Springs and accessible to all vehicles, except after heavy rain which can make the last 5km stretch of dirt impassable.
We drove into the park after a long journey from Chambers Pillar on the western fringe of the Simpson Desert where we had spent the previous night. Trephina Gorge offers totally different but equally impressive scenery. The recent heavy rain was bringing life and plenty to these otherwise dry areas of Central Australia and the usually barren ground was covered in a blanket of green and the steep ochre-red rock walls were dotted with spinifex, the characteristic grass of the red centre.
As we approached ‘the Bluff’, we stopped the car to admire this massive rock formation which towers over the nearby ranges. Back on the road, we had to slow right down to drive through a section that was still flooded and extremely muddy before reaching the first campground.
The park is home to three campgrounds that are accessible by conventional vehicles on an unsealed road and have been designed for different styles of rigs. A fourth campground with for tent camping is accessible by high-clearance 4WD vehicles only.
The Bluff campground, set beside Trephina Creek, is suitable for motorhomes or tent camping, but not for caravans or camper trailers. It is, however, prone to flooding so it’s important to keep an eye on the weather forecast.
The Panorama campground is the ideal location for caravans and has some sites that allow you to keep your rig hitched up if you intend to stay for just one night – though this won’t do justice to the many activities that are on offer within the nature park.
We headed straight to the Gorge campground, set in a peaceful, timbered gully, which has a variety of sites suitable for camper trailers, tents and small caravans (but not big rigs). We found a secluded site near the pit toilet and within walking distance from the nearest tap – our four-day stay had a promising start.
Camping fees are very reasonable, considering the facilities in the park, which include drinking water, pit toilets, gas barbecues, fire pits and picnic tables, and are payable via the self-registration box. Just make sure you bring the right amount of cash.
Bushwalking is the best way to explore the park. The one-hour return Trephina Gorge Walk is a must-do and rewards with sweeping vistas of the gorge and the surrounding landscape. The walk can be done in two directions, though I would recommend climbing the steep ridge first so the full size of the gorge can be appreciated before descending into the sandy, tree-lined creek bed.
The views from the rim are awe-inspiring, extending beyond the gorge to the vast desert landscape to the east and towards a number of other parks that are well worth a look while you’re in the area. Time-permitting, N’Dhala Gorge Nature Park, Arltunga Historical Reserve and Ruby Gap Nature Park are all within driving distance from Trephina Gorge and can be accessed via the Binns Track.
As you continue along the gorge rim, the track passes the turn-off to the 9km Trephina Ridgetop Walk, which is not for the fainthearted. This challenging hike to John Hayes Rockhole traverses the ranges and should only be attempted by experienced walkers – allow four to five hours to reach the rockhole. Add another two hours if you plan to walk back to Trephina Gorge via the main road.
Back on the rim, you soon reach the steps that take you down to a semi-permanent waterhole, which was full during our visit due to the recent rain. It’s a beautiful spot for a short break to admire this dramatic landscape and maybe discover some of the local wildlife. Crested and spinifex pigeons abound in this area and you might spot a long-nosed dragon, warming itself on the rocks. Black-footed rock wallabies also call the rocky gorges home, but these shy marsupials are hard to see as they blend in perfectly with their surroundings.
As you climb up the other side, you find yourself once again on the gorge rim, looking down from a dazzling height – this is the perfect location for snapping some great pics. From here, the walk leads down into the sandy creek bed, providing a completely different perspective. Suddenly, the vertical cliff walls tower over you, making you feel small and insignificant. Keep an eye out for Aboriginal rock art here as it can be easy to miss.
The wide creek bed is lined with beautiful river red gums, which provide shade in the heat of summer and plenty of food for the many animals that live in this arid environment. The black and white tree martins you see flitting about here are common inhabitants of river red gum hollows.
The 2.5km Panorama Loop Walk is a moderate-to-difficult hike up a steep incline to a vantage point which rewards with scenic views across the entire park and to Mordor Pound in the north.
Bushwalking isn’t the only way to enjoy the park. The 4WD track to John Hayes Rockhole is a real adventure but should only be attempted with a high-clearance 4WD. This 4km track crosses the rocky creek several times and can be narrow in places, creating a challenge when there’s oncoming traffic. Other sections are sandy and prone to becoming muddy.
The reward is an isolated campsite at a short distance from a beautiful waterhole. During our visit the rockhole still had quite a bit of water in it, which perfectly reflected the ochre-red rocks. At dawn or dusk you might be lucky and spot one of the elusive black-footed rock wallabies as they come down for a drink here.
You can explore this spectacular landscape on foot by venturing out on the 3.5km Chain of Ponds Walk. A shorter option is to simply follow the steep walking track for the first 20 minutes to reach the rim of a narrow gorge, which will reward you with stunning views.
On your way back to the campground, make a detour to the towering ghost gum, believed to be one of the largest in Australia. This magnificent tree is 33m tall and estimated to be over 300 years old, and provides full board and lodging for an amazing variety of creatures, including yellow-throated miners, budgies and galahs.
Four days was scarcely long enough to enjoy the extraordinary beauty of Trephina Gorge Nature Park. This fairly unknown destination in the East MacDonnell Ranges has everything any outdoor adventurer could wish for, and much, much more.
Trephina Gorge is situated 85km east of Alice Springs, accessed via the sealed Ross Highway and a 5km stretch of dirt road which may become impassable after heavy rain.
The full article appears in Caravan World #554 August 2016. Subscribe today for the latest caravan reviews and news every month!