Chewings Range (15-29 May 2021) – Week 1

In May 2021 we joined Roger Browne and a few others on a SBW trip to the Chewings Range. It was the first time we’d been in the West MacDonnells since we did the Larapinta Trail way back in 2007. We managed to lose a party member (bad back) before we even got on the bus out of Alice Springs so that wasn’t a great start. 2021 had been unusually wet in the red centre, with considerable rainfall in January, which meant there were plenty of grasses, flowers, butterflies and birds – as well as water – to delight us.

Our first day started from the Ochre Pits and was designed to get us to the Chewings Range as quickly as possible. With full packs, it was a relatively long day. The highlight was Pioneer Pass – where we encountered an over waist-deep pool pretty early on. Roger gamely went in to check just how deep it was but we hadn’t come with packs waterproofed so there wasn’t much enthusiasm for going through the pool. Fortunately Tom found a relatively straightforward bypass on the right which kept us dry.

Starting off through a field of purple flowers

An unexpected deep pool in Pioneer Pass

Tom finds a nifty route around the pool

After a long day of walking with heavy packs we are glad to make camp

On day 2 we did a bit of exploring of the nearby gorges. The main goal was to identify the spot where the photo on page 48 from Henry Gold & Frank Rigby’s book “The MacDonnell Ranges” was taken.

Exploring some nearby gorges the next morning

Roger & the spot from p48 of the book

We’d left our tents up as surprisingly there was a fair bit of condensation on the tents overnight. So after we’d packed up we followed the base of the range (not as flat as you might think) around to a creek junction with good water. Unfortunately the campsites weren’t great but we were coming to realise that the bar for a campsite in Central Australia is somewhat lower than in other areas we walk regularly.

Setting out with full packs after our morning of exploring

I don’t think barbed wire was in the hazards list!

Tom & I score the plumb campsite on night 2!

there were lots of birds & butterflies about thanks to the rain earlier in the year

Day 3 had us ascending Diagonal Gorge. The lower section was full of prickly acacia but it soon gave way to an attractive middle section with numerous dryfalls and lots of scrambling. By lunchtime we were at the saddle where we planned to camp – a surprisingly good campsite. Though at least two party members had experienced close encounters with the spinifex on the ascent so the tweezers got a bit of a workout.

Early morning reflections & Tom

A gully full of evil acacia

The creek gets rocky and so no more acacia (for the day at least)

Diagonal Gorge had some very attractive sections

The team scrambling around a pool

Our campsite in the saddle between Diagonal Gorge & Portals Gorge

After lunch most of us went to explore the upper section of Portals Gorge. There was a lovely section of canyon before we got to the top of a 10m drop (it was definitely 10m as we used our tape, and a walking pole to measure it!). The keener people then climbed out and around to drop in further down and managed to work our way back up to below another drop – so maybe 70m of the gorge that we couldn’t access. Then we headed downstream till we were stopped by another drop – though this one we could probably have got around if there’d been a real need to. As it was it was time to head back to camp.

Exploring upper Portals Gorge

Tom below a couple of drops we can’t get through directly

The iconic ghost gum of Portals Canyon

Everyone else was sufficiently worn out so Tom & I didn’t get any takers to climb up the hill next to camp to watch sunset. It was a pretty good one!


Tom & sunset

The wind had come up overnight so packing up on day 4 was fraught with danger – much care needed to ensure nothing blew away. Unfortunately the wind persisted through the morning so we weren’t able to truly appreciate the views as we wandered along the range. After morning tea we had a challenging loose, steep descent to wind our way eventually to Portals Canyon.

Day 4 we head up on to the range. Unfortunately it’s very windy.

The views are pretty spectacular though!

We took a fairly steep, loose route down from the tops

Tom at camp outside Portals Gorge

With the threats of freezing swims only Roger, Tom & I braved Portals Canyon. Roger had specifically carried in a wetsuit & his KT26s, while Tom & I had brought our canyoning shoes and opted for our usual the-less-clothing-is-warmer approach. Portals Canyon was spectacular – though we kept waiting for the swims to materialise. I managed to bridge over one deep wade, and wasn’t that disappointed to find there was only one compulsory swim of about 6m high in the lower section. We guessed that debris had washed into the lower pools turning them into wades – for the moment at least!

Now this is what we’re here for!

Tom in Portals (Freezing) Canyon/Gorge

Not sure that method of stashing a camera dry bag is going to catch on…

Ascending Portals Canyon

Our single swim

We made it as far as the point where we’d got to the previous afternoon, and spent a bit of time looking at the options for forcing our way up. Apparently some parties are so cold having gone through the canyon they can’t bear the thought of the return journey and climb out and down the ridge. None of us had any desire to do the ridge again and were more than happy to enjoy the return journey through the canyon – I appreciate we probably had warmer conditions than normal.

Ascending to just below the Ghost Gum we visited the day before

While we’d been exploring Portals the others had been around to False Gorge. Raf mentioned they’d been stopped by a pool – which was like waving a red rag at a bull. Despite it being 4pm I immediately suggested to Tom we should go visit since we’d be happy to go through the pool. I was somewhat disappointed to find that it was not just a pool that stopped them – but a 20m waterfall on the other side of the pool!

False Gorge

The main camp at Portals

Sun on the Portals ridges

By day 5 the packs were feeling lighter as we set off around the base of the Portals Massif in some of the easiest walking conditions we had. We climbed across the low point of the ridge, descended to then immediately ascend a different ridge and find ourselves at Upper Giles Yard Spring. There were lots of pools of somewhat questionable quality just above the main drop, and better quality further up. Tom & I went for an explore further up the creek in the afternoon – and enjoyed finding a shady gorge to relax in. There wasn’t a lot of shade as most of the trees had burnt in the fires a couple of years earlier.

Some easy cross country the next morning

Termite mounds & funky clouds

Upper Giles Yard Spring

Exploring Upper Giles Yard Spring

The luxury of a (not very warm) wash

Our sixth day was one of the best traverses I have done. It was a fairly hard day with quite a lot of up and down on the rocky ridge, with some interesting scrambling along knife-edge sections. The views were great, the walking was interesting, and we found the lone surviving tree so that we had shade at lunchtime.

Starting a spectacular traverse the next morning

One of the narrower sections of the traverse of the Giles Massif

Tom & Raf

Morning tea exposure

Raf at the top of the chute

Roger looking on as Robert & Tom ascend the chute

One of many flowers

The only tree (& therefore shade) on the whole traverse. Great spot for lunch!

We made it to Mt Giles by early afternoon. Robert & Alan decided to head down and camp at the bottom which left the rest of us to draw straws for the camp sites. I got lucky and got first choice so Tom & I had the prime campsite. The sunset was one of the best I think I’ve seen… All in all it was a great day.

Mt Giles

We draw the long straw and got the prime campsite

This is the life

Room with a view

Sunset was spectacular

It was amazing

We had a fairly long day into Ormiston on day 7. Roger was keen for an early start, so the alarm was set for 5:10am. Eek! Tom & I stuck round a bit longer than the others at the top to wait for the sun to actually rise (and take photos!) before joining everyone at the bottom by 8:30am. After filling up water at Giles (SW) Spring we then had a fast march towards the Pound Track. It was the hottest day to date and we were all glad of some shade at lunchtime. It was a pretty hot, weary party that eventually made it into Ormiston – though the motivation to keep up the pace was definitely there since the kiosk closed at 4pm. It was a very quiet group as we sat round inhaling ice creams and iced coffees.

Sunrise wasn’t bad either

Mt Giles in the early morning light

Once was spinifex

At the end of a long, hot day on the Pound Walk into Ormiston to resupply

Mentally it felt like this should be a chance for a rest – but it wasn’t – there was the opportunity for a shower but then it was time to sort through our food drops, eat 5 avocados (if that’s what you’d packed in your drop!?) and get to bed since it was going to be another hot day tomorrow.

Week 2 is here.