[G’day, Lee-Anne Marie here from Australia. first of all, I’d like to thank Mohamad Al Karbi for inviting me to share my travel adventures… read more]
Glen Helen, Northern Territory
Friday, July 12
Central Australia had changed since I last trekked it in 1981. The landscape seemed greener, lusher, compared to 32 years ago. Good rains and buffel grass had made it so.
But, some things never change.
Mr K paced the gravel Strehlow Centre (art gallery and museum) car park. ‘I don’t want to be setting up camp in the dark,’ he muttered. ‘They’re late; we’ll have to go without them.’
I put my mobile to my ear and called them. Mrs T (my brother, MB’s wife) yelled above the whine of the car engine, ‘You can leave earlier if you want.’
‘We’ll go at 2.15pm, then.’
2.30pm we remained waiting at the Strehlow Centre car park. First, my mum, and then Mr K trotted off to find the toilets. They anticipated a long drive and didn’t fancy ducking behind a bush by the side of the road.
Thus prepared for the near two-hour drive to Glen Helen, where we had booked our campsite, we climbed into our cars. I drove Son 2 and Mum in her hire car, and Son 1 accompanied Mr K in the Ford Station Wagon. As we proceeded to the car park exit, MB’s family, once white now brown with bulldust, Mitsubishi Star Wagon rolled in; one of the many fine-timed events that have been written into T-Team law.
So, after a brief discussion we launched down Larapinta Drive heading west, the ranges to our left, russet-brown. Squinting with the afternoon sun in my eyes, I glanced at the procession of signs, noting the unremarkable one leading to Pine Gap and a warning on a weathered metal sign: “Do Not Enter”.
After bearing right at the fork in the road, we travelled on Namatjira Drive. To our right, the MacDonnell Ranges gleamed sapphire-blue in the afternoon sun and roads, mostly narrow and unsealed, lead to the many gorges the ranges offer.
[Photo 1: View of MacDonnell Ranges from road.]
‘Definitely cattle country,’ I remarked as we passed a huge bull carcass by the roadside. Another sign warning of wandering cattle zipped past.
One and a half hour’s on and the flat road became hilly, twisting and turning, up and down as if a rollercoaster. ‘I don’t remember this,’ I said. ‘Oh, that’s right, the other times I visited Glen Helen, we hiked through the back way along the Finke.’
[Photo 2: Back of Glen Helen along the Finke River © C.D. Trudinger 1981]
[Photo 3: Walls Reflected, Glen Helen © C.D. Trudinger 1977]
‘Can’t do that now,’ Mum said, ‘the land belongs to the indigenous owners.’
‘So, we’d have to swim to the other side.’ I recalled the large body of salty water that divided one side of Glen Helen from the other.
‘We’re getting close,’ Mum warned. She knew. She’d come to Glen Helen with her sisters in 2010. They treated themselves to a helicopter ride over the MacDonnell Ranges.
‘I remember you took some stunning photos of Glen Helen from above,’ I said.
‘Now it’s the only way you can see the best part, the rock walls,’ Mum replied.
‘Unless you swim,’ I laughed.
Son 2 shuddered. ‘I don’t like swimming.’
[Photo 4: Aerial view of Glen Helen © M.E. Trudinger 2010]
Photo 5: Glen Helen’s walls from the air © M.E. Trudinger 2010]
Mum pointed. ‘The turn off is coming.’
I pressed the brake pedal and slowed down. Another of the region’s “blink-or-you-miss” signs emerged from behind a bend in the rise and directed us left to Glen Helen. The entourage of MB’s and Mr K’s cars sailed on past the turn off. We beeped and flashed our lights while following the stray drivers. Down the hill we went.
‘We’ll end up at Gosses Bluff, if they don’t stop,’ Mum said.
‘Or, if they take the wrong turn, who knows where we’ll be,’ I groaned.
‘Lost,’ Son 2 said.
At the creek at the bottom of the hill, Mr K stopped, and we drove up behind him. The MB Star Wagon parked a few metres ahead.
I jumped out of the car and raced up to him. ‘You’ve gone too far.’
He rolled his eyes. ‘Really? How do you know?’
‘The sign to Glen Helen is at the top of the hill.’
We climbed into our respective cars. Mr K did a U-Turn over the double lines. After tutting at his driver-indiscretion, I checked my surroundings, and followed suit. MB and co, conscious of the road-rules, drove forward, up and over the next rise, to turn at a safer location.
[Photo 6: Red Cliffs and Eagle over Glen Helen Campsite © L.M. Kling 2013]
Glen Helen’s cliffs glowed red as we arrived at the “resort”. Once a cattle station some 60 years ago when Mum and Dad lived in Hermannsburg, just a few kilometres down the Finke River, in 2013 a camping and holiday destination for tourists. We entered the bungalow which housed the reception to pay our camping fees.
Mrs T nudged me. ‘Here, I’ll try to get us a deal.’
For the next few unfortunate minutes, while I stepped out of Mrs T’s way, my gaze exploring the rustic dining area, photos of the cattle-era displayed on the brick walls, and then wandering over to the souvenir shop, Mrs T tried to convince the rangers that we were “locals” as Mum had grown up in Hermannsburg. The lady in charge then asked for ID. Unimpressed by Mum’s and Mrs T’s South Australian driver’s licences, she refused to give us a “deal”.
While Mr K and Son 2 set up the tent, I drove with Son 1 to the “U-Turn” creek where we collected firewood. At last, we could have a campfire in a designated area of the campsite. (Read more about this Firewood-Collecting venture in “Story behind the Painting: Glen Helen”.)
[Photo 7: Sunset on cliffs over the Finke © L.M. Kling 2013]
[Photo 8: A good source of wood © L.M. Kling 2013]
After collecting the wood, Son 1 and I swung past Mum’s “luxury” cabin, well, compared to our tents. Mum showed us around the one-room interior of this simple Besser-brick construction.
Mum sighed, ‘Very basic, but it’ll do. At least it has a bathroom attached.’
‘Better than having to trek to the toilet and shower block like we have to,’ Son 1 said, ‘and there’s a sign warning of scorpions and dingos.’
‘It’s like they’ve tried to capture what it was like 60 years ago,’ I remarked trying to distract from Central Australian reality of life in the desert. ‘The Namatjira print and antique sewing-machine table are a nice touch.’
Son 1 glanced around the plain room. ‘Let’s go. What’s for tea?’
‘Lamb chops and baked potatoes cooked on a real campfire.’
‘Sure you don’t want to join us, Grandma?’
‘No, I’m going to have me a meal at the restaurant,’ Mum replied. ‘I need an early night. After all, we’re getting up before the crack of dawn to catch the sunrise on Mt Sonder, aren’t we Lee-Anne.’
‘Yes,’ I hugged her, ‘goodnight and see you bright and early tomorrow.’
The K-Team settled down by the fire and munched on lamb chops, baked potatoes with slathers of butter, and juicy canned corn. Ah, this is the life! Surrounded by Glen Helen’s cliffs of red iron, tranquil waters below, ducks quacking, and the cry of Mrs T rising above the hubbub of fellow campers.
‘Oh, no, the T-Team’ve had back luck again!’ I said.
‘The schnitzels have gone off!’ Mrs T’s voice echoed, bouncing off the nearby cliffs.
‘So much for their super-dooper cool box,’ Mr K muttered.
I trotted over to the T-Camp and found the T-Kids cooking up eggs, fish-fingers, and whatever unspoiled supplies they could scrounge from the bottom of their cool box.
‘We have lamb chops left-over,’ I offered.
My nephew took up my offer.
[Photo 9: Relaxing by the fire © L.M. Kling 2013]
After dinner, we stumbled around in the dark; washing dishes, packing the food and utensils away in the station wagon.
‘If you leave food out, the wild dogs, the dingos will get it,’ Mr K warned.
My nephew stopped and pointed. ‘There’s a dingo.’
We looked into the darkness and saw nothing resembling a dingo.
‘Alright, time for bed,’ Mr K commanded.
At that moment, Mrs T loped into camp. ‘Mum got lost in the dark. Lucky I woz there to guide her to her cabin. Pity I couldn’t stay in the cabin with her, looks alright, need a break from youse kids. Could do with a good night’s sleep.’
[…to be continued]
Read more of the T-Team’s intrepid travels visit leeannemarieblog
© Lee-Anne Marie Kling 2017
Feature photo: Glen Helen © C.D. Trudinger 1992