If I had to declare my favourite night under the stars, I would readily say Ormiston Gorge in the MacDonnell Ranges, central Australia. Years of camping and star gazing around various parts of the globe has culminated for me here (thus far), in this ancient land coated with rich iron ore, herculean boulders and primordial hills.
Ormiston Gorge lies 135 kilometres west of Alice Springs, amidst a chain of mountains which stretch 644 kilometres from east to west, known as the MacDonnell Ranges. Recently, the gorge was labelled the deepest waterhole in central Australia, reaching 13.1 metres at its murky bottom.
The night my friend and I arrived at this raw, striking land, we were confronted with a horde of campers huddled in designated camp areas adjacent to the car park. An idea struck me. “Follow me”, I called, before my friend grabbed his pack and tentatively did just that. Walking along the ridge, we wound high up over the gorge during dusk.
Leaving almost 100 people behind, we camped about a kilometre away on a sandy flat within the gorge. The moon soon rose, beaming brilliantly across the water before colliding with a towering, slate-like wall and reflecting back at us in a white flame. The cliffs now turned silver, while the beach and water melted from black to grey, parts wrinkled with clarity, others dissolved into the background. The MacDonnell Ranges were now indelibly imprinted on my mind.
Then came the ululations that reverberated around the gorge, lending the night a vivid savagery. Dingoes. My friend, who was a good deal more timid than I, was visibly frightened. But I assured him everything would be okay and we managed to cook some pasta in our kitchen, decorated with scintillating stars and shimmering ochre.
Shortly after dinner I spied a light towards the north, near Pine Gap, which rose sharply before hitting right angles at speed. My friend and I were puzzled. Pine Gap operates under the guise of a satellite tracking station run by both the US and Australia. While I never discovered the light’s source, it certainly added some mystery.
After a patchy sleep, we decamped at sunrise to avoid getting trampled by tourists or accosted by some disgruntled park ranger. I’ll never forget the seven kilometre walk around Ormiston Pound that morning. The landscape was surreal, I was half expecting a dinosaur to thrust its gargantuan femur around the corner at any moment. The light was also beautifully oblique and fresh, and it wasn’t until well into the journey that we saw another travelling type.
“YOU SHALL NOT PASS” I bellowed into the vast, archaic-looking MacDonnell Ranges, feeling if ever there was a place to emulate Gandalf, this was it.