Central Australian Ochre Pits

Central Australian Ochre Pits

Not visiting an ochre pit while you are in Central Australia, is a bit like visiting Sydney without seeing the harbour bridge. While it’s not one of the sights likely to leave you breathless, it is worth seeing if you haven’t ever before seen an ochre pit or you would like to discover more about the indigenous culture and traditions. Indigenous culture, tradition and language is strong in Central Australia and the people here are deeply connected to the land. Visiting an ochre pit is an opportunity to learn more about and appreciate this rich culture.

On our trip Up the Guts of Central Australia, we visited two ochre pits. The first was just south of Marree in South Australia while the second was in the West MacDonnell Ranges. Each pit is different to the other, though both have excellent ochre samples. The colours in the first pit seemed to be somewhat richer than in the second, as well as the pit being wider and deeper.

Both pits have substantial deposits of red, white and yellow ochre. The ochre runs in downward bands, making for a rich, earthy kaleidoscope of colour in the changing light of day.

Information boards are located at both pits, offering an explanation of the different traditional uses of ochre within the local culture. These boards are helpful in understanding its many varied uses.

When visiting, it’s important to be aware that the ochre pits are sacred sites. Severe penalties are in place to protect the site from being disturbed or interfered with in any way. As the saying commonly goes, “Take only memories, leave nothing but footprints” (Chief Seattle).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kati Thanda–Lake Eyre National Park

Kati Thanda–Lake Eyre National Park

What is it that draws travellers, year upon year, to stand on the shores of a dry lake in the Australian desert? Like pilgrims, they traverse hundreds of kilometres of corrugated roads through remote Outback South Australia, across a blistering, barren landscape. Vehicles squeak, rattle and groan their protest as they bounce and shake their way over the worst stretches of road. Dust clouds trail behind, obliterating all from the rear-vision mirror, while inside the car a thick layer of dust accumulates, covering the tightly packed goods. It permeates the unimaginable, and its strong, lingering smell hangs in the air making it difficult to breathe. And, just to really test your patience, you may have to make one, or maybe even two, unscheduled stops for changing a pestiferous flat tyre – a task made all the more unbearable by the scads of Outback flies, and their interminable, frenetic fascination with the human face.

So, then, what is it that drives people to make the trek out to this remote location? Maybe for some, it’s a personal obsession with superlatives – Lake Eyre is Australia’s biggest lake after all. For others, it could be the prospect of ticking and flicking the 3rd largest endorheic lake in the world. While still others might be propelled by an unconscious desire to romanticise the fact that they will be standing at the lowest point in all of Australia – but at only 15 metres below sea level, it’s nowhere near as impressive as those that rank in the top ten lowest points on earth. Or, is it the fact that Lake Eyre is a salt lake that rarely fills with water – just three times in the last 160yrs – and so when it does, it’s a fairly significant event. Or maybe it’s just that salt lakes are unusual and, as humans, we have a natural curiosity for things that are different.

In the months leading up to our trip in 2016, considerable rains caused the Oodnadatta Track, the main access road to the lake, to be closed on a number of occasions. With our trip looming, and no definite sign of the rain abating, we were beginning to think we might not get the chance to discover what it is that draws people here, after all. But luck was on our side, and when the time came to set off, the Track was open to 4WDs. We weren’t so lucky though, when it came to the smaller 4WD tracks out to the lake’s edge, which, surprisingly, remained closed. We soon realised we’d have to abandon any thought of camping at, or standing on, the lake’s edge and instead settle for seeing what we could from the roadside.

We caught our first glimpse of the lake as we drove along the Track, some 90 kilometres or so north of Marree. The salt crystals shimmered on the lake bed in the midday sun, under a crisp azure sky. The expanse of lake bed seemed vast; it was impossible to tell its parameters. In the distance, what seemed like a mirage in the heat of the day, was actually water pooling in the depressions in the lakes crust. The road closely followed the lake for a way and we soon came to the lookout.

This viewing point, although elevated ever so slightly, provided a surprisingly good vantage point for taking it in the rugged beauty of this landscape. It was the first salt lake I had ever seen and I found myself suitably impressed. But what I didn’t realise at the time, was that we were seeing the smallest possible section of the lake. Lake Eyre is in fact made up of two lakes – a substantially large lake in the north and a much smaller lake in the south – joined by a narrow channel approximately 15 kilometres long. And, it is only when you see a map of Lake Eyre that you begin to fully appreciate its size – a staggering 144kms long and 77kms wide!

The explorer in me longed to drive down to the lake’s edge, especially since it was partially full of water and I’d heard that in the wet, the lake is teeming with birdlife and other saltwater species. However, with the roads closed, the lightly-crusted mud around us looking like it was ready to claim its next victim, and no recovery vehicle in sight, we opted to play it safe and stick to the main Track. For another day, maybe.

To really get the chance to explore this salt lake, and provided the weather is good, consider spending a few days camping at Muloorina Station which provides access to the south lake, the channel and the north lake. Alternatively, you can camp out at Halligans Bay Campground on the shore of Lake Eyre North. Both locations require a 4WD to access, and it’s important to enquire beforehand at the Maree Hotel or William Creek Hotel as to whether these tracks are open following any rain.

Possibly the best way to truly appreciate the wonder of this lake, though, would be from the air. I have no doubt the experience would be most rewarding, whether or not there is water in the lake. To avoid disappointment, book your flight early by contacting Wrights Air. Flights can also be booked locally from Marree or William Creek Hotel, or from further afield such as Coober Pedy and even Adelaide. But as is the case with most scenic flights, this option is not one for the budget conscious traveller.

The Painted Desert

The Painted Desert

Standing there on the edge of the cliff-face, I stared intently out at the lunar landscape, vast and desolate, stretching infinitely before me. I slowly cast my eyes across the gibber planes and the smattering of flat-topped mesas and rocky scarps that rose above them, pausing to take in every new detail in this rugged yet intriguingly beautiful picture. The landscape was a sea of colour, patterned with various shades of yellow, orange, brown, white, and cream. It was indescribable and unimaginable, almost like the colours had been splattered across a desert canvas. It’s no surprise that this 880 square kilometre area is called The Painted Desert. This was the work of the most famous artist all right – Mother Nature herself.

The Painted Desert, or the Ackaringa Hills, is an area of great geological significance. Once an inland sea, the marine and early Cretaceous mudstone and sandstone was subject to extensive weathering over a period of more than 80 million years, exposing the red, brown and yellow oxides and hydroxides, and transforming it into one of the finest examples of Breakaway Country or Badlands topography in Australia. The extremely fragile nature of this environment lead the South Australian Government to declare it a State Heritage Area in 1985 and to limit public access to only a couple of areas. Despite the access restrictions, there are still sufficient opportunities to appreciate this remarkable area – one of which is Batterbee Lookout. The turn-off to this lookout can be easily missed, so drive slowly and pay attention to the faded signs along the way to ensure you don’t miss out on this captivating view.

The Painted Desert can be accessed from the Oodnadatta Track in outback South Australia by following Kempe Road in a westerly direction and then taking the right turn onto the Painted Desert Road. Alternatively, take the turn off from the Stuart Highway at Coober Pedy in the South or Cadney Park in the North. The dirt road out to The Painted Desert is recommended for 4WDs and is definitely a well-worthwhile detour off the highway. It’s not often you get to experience such incredibly unique landscapes like this one.

Gorgeous

Gorgeous

Here you’ll find our list of “gorgeous”…the sights that will leave you mesmerised, spellbound, and awestruck….the must sees as you travel “Up the guts” of Australia.

Uluru (Northern Territory)

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Kata Tjuta (Northern Territory)

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The Painted Desert (South Australia)

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Lake Eyre (South Australia)

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Ochre Pits (South Australia)

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(The remainder of this page is currently being updated. We hope you have enjoyed reading about these gorgeous locations so far. Come back soon to see what we have to say about the others!)

 

Watarrka (Northern Territory) 

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Ellory Creek – West MacDonnell Ranges (Northern Territory)

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