Wednesday 11 October 2023

Redbank Gorge - Tjoritja National Park, NT

A few months ago we paddled into a mountain - one of our shortest and most accessible adventures yet. But also, one of our most extraordinary. 

Of course nothing will beat the Apsley Gorge Flash Flood for drama and excitement and nothing will beat Mt Cabre Bald or The Hidden Monoliths for that sense of unique discovery. Or Washpool for unbridled wilderness. But our Redbank Gorge adventure was extraordinary in a deep time way. It was surreal. 

Sneaking through this narrow Gorge, with its immense red rock walls and glowing light, created an irrational but overpowering thought in me - that if I paddled and climbed from one end of the gorge to the other, from one side of the mountain to the other, I would emerge onto a primordial earth. It felt like we paddled through a portal. 

It's a thirty minute walk to Redbank Gorge from the car park. That car park is located about 150km west of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory at the base of Mt Sonder. It's a short, easy walk, under blue sky, in warm spring temperatures. At the Gorge's main waterhole, we inflated our packrafts, paddled across and disappeared inside the mountain.

From start to finish the gorge is only a few metres wide, sometimes not even that.  At first, we scrambled over a couple of ledges and climbed a 2m drop. Up to that point, the water was clear and lovely. Above the climb sat a pool of caramel coloured water laced with red slime. We paddled across its stagnant reach to a sandy island. Beyond this, the gorge narrowed further; the sides so close our packrafts wouldn't fit through. We waded into the mucky brown pool, slime swirling up around us as the freezing water deepened to chest height. We pushed the boats through the pinch and man handled them up and over another 1.5m high ledge using some greasy old logs precariously wedged to provide a sort of ladder. 

Above this ledge is, I believe, that portal to another world. 

Suddenly, there was no water. We climbed onto a long bed of dry sand and gravel and a few steps further put us in a cavernous bell chamber of weird and unearthly light. Things were dark and yet glowing and the mountain pressed in all around us, from above and beside and below. The gravel crunched under our feet and 15m above our heads a log was jammed between the gorge walls. We spent a long time in this place but it also urged us to keep going, keep pushing through. 

Beyond the bell chamber was water again, clear and green. The gorge walls were straight like an alleyway. We brought the boats with us, wading waist deep before emerging onto another sandy shoal then paddling another deep pool and beyond that, another 1.5m ledge to climb, which required a tricky exit from the boats, stepping off the very nose of the packrafts. Caz was first out and held my boat steady while I climbed out and up over the ledge. 

In the middle of this manoeuvre we roused a remarkable creature – a Centralian Tree Frog. Life in Australia's arid centre always amazes me. To think such moisture dependent creatures can survive in this dry landscape, with an unpredictable average annual rainfall of just 283mm. Surely this is testament to the resilience and diversity of nature. It was the first of its kind we had seen and we were chuffed. 

Once I'd stopped admiring the frog and finally climbed the ledge, I found myself on a small patch of rocks, maybe a couple of square metres of dry land. Beyond this lay a dark, oily looking pool with a grey film on its surface. A jumble of logs and sticks blocked the left hand side so I headed right. Until, after just half a step, a snake reared its head and recoiled ready to strike. 

At this point I am going to digress. Any visitor to Alice Springs should make the time to spend at least half a day, if not more, at the amazing Alice Springs Desert Park. It has an entertaining and informative bird show, a great focus on Arrente culture and language and the most incredible nocturnal house full of rare lizards and cute marsupials dashing about their big sandy enclosures. At the entrance to the nocturnal house, lying lazily on a large tree branch in its dim, glass fronted home, is the most terrifying snake I have ever seen. It is as fat as a strong man's arm, highly venomous, with unmistakeable black and yellow scales. I have found myself, on every visit to the Desert Park, staring at this enormous beast with obsessive horror. It's common name is the Mulga snake or King Brown. 

As I stood in Redbank Gorge, on that tiny patch of rocks with an angry snake - it's head flattened in an obvious defensive pose - I knew exactly what sort of snake I was facing. It's coloured scales told me it was my friend the Mulga. 

When threatened, the Mulga Snake inflates its body and holds its head and flattened neck in a wide curve parallel to the ground. It will throw its head and neck from side to side, hissing loudly as it does. If pressed further it will lash out wildly in an attempt to bite. Mulga Snakes bite savagely and may hang on and chew as they inject their venom. The venom is highly toxic and can be expressed in enormous quantities…it is important to note that despite the alternative common name of King Brown Snake, the Mulga Snake is in fact a member of the black snake genus Pseudechis, therefore Black Snake Antivenom will be necessary.  Australian Museum

My saving grace was the gorge itself. The snake, despite its threat pose, was obviously cold and lethargic stuck in this deep, sunless place. And, thankfully, it was of smallish size. To avoid it though, we were forced to creep stealthily around the more difficult left side of the rocks and pool, carrying our pack rafts. I managed to slip over three times, bruising my knee cap and generally making such a racket there was no 'sneaking' past anything. Caz followed. He slipped on the smooth rocks, slick with algae, and cut his shin open on one of the sticks. There was some noise. The close confines of the gorge echoed with our splashes and crashes. We usually love snake encounters in the wilderness but this one made us jittery. The snake stayed on its rocks, wary and quiet. 

Beyond this slimy pool we hit another ledge with a trickier exit off the nose of the boats and beyond this another pool with water that was crystal clear; green as a liquid gemstone. We felt we were nearly through the gorge. Looking up at the walls on either side it looked as if the mountain would soon open up. 

Unfortunately, at the end of this green pool, loomed a final climb - a 3m high ledge that was smooth enough and sheer enough to stop us in our tracks. 

As we stood there, unable to go forward, the feeling hit me. We were standing inside something transformative. Each ledge of progress so far had transported us into a world that was different to the ledge above or below. The height of the smooth, water-polished walls inside the gorge was simply staggering. As I craned my neck skywards, I couldn't fathom how water had got up that high. How did water bank up that high? Was the water action from a millennia ago? How did it work in here in a flood? 

I so wanted to press on. But there was no safe way up the ledge and we were getting cold in our wet gear and sunless void. So back we went. Down each ledge, through each pool of water, past our snake, through the muck and slime, through the jewels and caverns. 

The adventure raised more questions than it answered. We had paddled through a transect of the history of our planet. The rocks on either side of us were some of the oldest on earth. So very possibly, quite believably, if I had made it out the other side where would I have emerged? 


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