The Best Shots I Never Took … Ormiston Gorge, Central Australia
‘If it’s a choice between my camera and the family jewels, you know what to do,’ I instructed Pilchard as I plunged into the thigh-high frigid water flowing through Ormiston Gorge.
Despite the hypothermia warnings on the Ormiston Gorge fact sheet, it was either that or return the seven km (~4.5 miles) we’d already come over a cross section of rugged terrain. While it’d be a treat to see the towering red walls, two rocky river crossings, the Pound’s vast wasteland surrounded by massive mountains and cliffs, the saddle’s rocky scree, wildflowers, spinifex and steep rocky gorges and, of course, the symphonic splendour of Mt Sonder again for the second time that day, I wasn’t really up for another seven km.
Not without the lunch we’d planned to have on our return, anyway.
A few hours earlier at the trailhead, we’d seen the sign warning of a potential swim through the creek at the end of the loop. But we’d heard the water wasn’t that deep and besides, we could always follow the trail for a couple of hours then return if it all looked too hard.
And so we set off on one of the most scenically and geographically varied hikes we’d yet encountered. Looking back, we could see the red walls of the gorge in the distance and if all went well, we’d be walking under them a few kilometres down the track. As we climbed the steep gorge through wildflowers lining the rocky trail, the magnificent Mt Sonder came into view. Continuing into extraordinary spinifex we kept a lookout for the delightful spinifex pigeons that everyone assured us were plentiful on this walk. They weren’t.
The scree covered saddle, much more extensive than it first appeared as we exited a well vegetated but spinifex-pigeon-free valley, was a surprise after the country we’d just traversed. Unable to see over the horizon, we had no forewarning of the jaw dropping view we’d see at its peak. The moving scree turned out to be a lone hiker, red-faced and shirtless, who’d walked the loop in the opposite direction.
‘How high’s the water?’ I asked, anxious to learn what was ahead.
‘Higher than your knees,’ he replied, euphemistically as it turned out. But taking him literally, we continued to the lip of the saddle and a short detour to the lookout above.
Did I say ‘lookout’? The scenery, staggering for every one of its 360º, made taking a rest break redundant as I desperately tried to fill my camera card without falling off the edge. The ancient grandeur of West MacDonnell National Park was putting on a fabulous show, just for the two of us.
Down below, the creek crossing awaited. With natural wonders like this – and more to come – we resolved to complete the loop no matter how unappealing wet knees seemed.
Continuing down a steep, rocky slope onto an exposed ridge leading into the Pound itself gave us magnificent views back up the valley to the lookout and to the mountains ringing the valley. And then we entered the gorge.
Rock-hopping down the mostly dry riverbed between the towering red cliffs on either side was worth whatever the creek crossing threw at us. Wasn’t it? A group of hikers, some taller than Pilchard passed us, trousers wet to the waist. HHHMMMmmm… suddenly the knee-high claim of our shirtless friend didn’t seem quite so watertight!
At the crossing point, the creek flowed deep and silent in the shade of the gorge where the sun sets in the early afternoon. It even LOOKED cold! Now we had another decision to make. The end of the loop – and our campsite – was only a short distance away on the other side. Given the chilly wind whipping around our ankles, did we want to complete the walk with wet clothing?
Compromising by removing my shorts – well, my underwear just might provide a small modicum of protection from the cold – I studied the track through the creek. It was really only a few metres to the other side, and the crossing should take less than a minute.
‘You’re more likely to lose your footing than me (true), so give me your camera,’ Pilchard demanded. ‘I’ll keep it in the backpack so it doesn’t get wet.’ Unable to argue with such irrefutable logic I handed it over.
‘Don’t think about it, just do it!’ Pilchard urged so picking up my boots and socks I charged the creek into water so cold it took my breath away.
Did I say thigh-high? 15 seconds into the stream, the water at crotch level – and rising – my feet and legs turned numb. Although it was a bonus not to be able to feel the rocks underfoot, failure to negotiate the treacherous, slimy and uneven surface below the water would mean exposure of more than my nether regions to the deathly chill of the water.
As he entered the water behind me Pilchard shouted directions.
‘Further to the right’ and ‘head for those rocks’ he called. And then it was over.
For me, at least.
I turned to watch Pilchard splashing through the last few metres of water, clothing held aloft, teeth already chattering with the cold. I reached for my camera. How good would a picture of THAT be?!?!
He caught my eye and smirked, then I realised the extent of his cunning plan. Yes, he’d followed my instructions a little too well. He’d saved the camera from a dunking AND the family jewels from anything incriminating!!
So there’s no point looking for the creek crossing shot because there isn’t one – the photos end here with this unbearably clichéd shot of red gorge walls in the late afternoon light!!
But YOU know who to blame, don’t you?!?!