Monday, August 29, 2011

Hiking Mt Sonder - the proper true summit

When I first did the Mt Sonder hike back in August last year, when I reached the top I discovered - much to my horror - that the trail lead to a false summit, not the true summit of Mt Sonder. Initially I figured it was for safety reasons, but later people replied to my blog, informing me that the Arrernte People had special beleifs about Rwetyepme (Mt Sonder), and that was the reason the trail did not reach the true summit.

Mount Sonder (proper), West MacDonnell National Park, Northern Territory

At Glen Helen a few days ago, having traipsed across the countryside for three days in search of Mt Zeil, I had flicked through a collection of newspaper articles in the cafe. I stumbled upon one from the Sydney Morning Herald from back in 2005, when a reporter did a story on the Mt Sonder hike. He had fished around, suspicious of the story of the false summit trail. Interviewing a park ranger, James Pratt, "he shattered one illusion when he explained that the supposed Aboriginal legend was 'just an urban myth'. ... He also confirmed that the official summit was not the real one. 'It was a decision made for safety.'" They held beliefs of the mountain, just not the one that is being thrown around, and it was not the reason the trail did not go to the true summit.

Enough said, I was convinced. We were off to reach the real summit. The newspaper article referenced a Norwegian professor, Petter E. Bjorstad (referenced below). He had climbed many mountains around the world, including the true summit of Mt Sonder. He had some track notes, we were set.

At the campsite on the dry sandy banks of Redbank Gorge the night before our hike, we met Jas and Kev, from Parkham in Melbourne. They had just completed 19 days on the Larapinta Trail, hiking out from Alice Springs. The wildfires had chased them down the trail. They had one final section left, the climb up to Mt Sonder. They were keen to reach the true summit. We shared our track notes.

The next we saw of them was when Graham and myself reached the false summit early the following morning. Off on the distant true summit, we could see a couple of silhouetted people wandering around the summit cairn. They were only about 750m away across the rocky cliff-sided saddle, but we could hear their voices. They had risen at 4.30am, so they could enjoy watching the sunrise from the false summit. We didn't care for the early rise and hike in darkness.

Reaching the false summit is easy, a 7.5km track along the rocky spur from Redbank Gorge. Reaching the true summit was another matter. We headed back along the track, down from the false summit cairn, then headed north to the cliff edge. From here we surveyed possible routes down. The Norwegian professor included a photo of possible routes down from the false summit peak to the saddle below. From there crossing the saddle and then climbing the true summit was straight-forward. We were watching Jas and Kev return down the true summit. We thought we might wait it out for their advice since they had just made the crossing. We shouted out our hellos, and they soon shouted back their directions.

We climbed down the steep slope along the rock strata, heading for the top of the steep gully. Halfway down, we met up. They looked maggotted. Truly. The steep gully was tough work, returning later to make the ascent was even tougher. This was the hardest bit of the climb from the false to the true summit. Having reached the bottom, we contoured around to a small saddle at the base of the true summit, then climbed the rock 'staircase' to the true summit.

Jas was right, it was glorious and well worth the hike over. There was more to see, and unlike the view from the false summit, no thumping big mountain in the way of a 360 degree panorama. We could see wide wildfires burning on the western horizon.

We did a few laps of the stone cairn searching out the illusive logbook. We kept up the search, there must be one. Then I caught a glint of plastic, there, buried deep from the top of the cairn was the logbook. Placed there in 1965, in quite a rustic steel container, we found lots of pieces of paper, no book as such.

Leafing through the papers, I was surprised to find none from this century. That's right, not this decade, but this century. Not for a moment do I think we were the first people up there in 12 years, I mean Jas and Kev had been here moments before. I think it was more a matter that the logbook had been lost deep in the cairn for a number of years. I really was eager to find it, you see, I knew there had to be one lurking around somewhere. The Larapinta Trail was opened in 2002, which would have included that trail up to the false summit. The number of people reaching the true summit probably would have dropped around then, but the sheer number of people who reached the true summit in the '90s was proof enough that many people would have been up here since then.

  • Have you hiked up to the true summit of Mt Sonder? What route did you take?
  • Did you find and sign the logbook?
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View full hike from Redbank Gorge to Mt Sonder South (the false summit) and onto the true Mt Sonder summit in full screen format
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Proceed back down the marked trail some 180 metres from the cairn on the false summit. The ridge is wider, the track having just come off from steep north-south cliffs facing the east. There is a number of small paths leading off the north (GR528901), some no doubt in part to take in the view of Mt Sonder proper. A number of rock stratems lead downwards to the west. 50m to the east there are three pines on the east facing cliff edge mentioned before. Study Petter E. Bjorstad's photo of possible routes, taken from the true Mt Sonder, looking back to the false Mt Sonder summit. It is easy enough to use his red marked route, you can ignore the blue rope-using route. Walking down the steep strata, proceed down the steep gully. Careful, there are lots of loose rocks on the slippery surface, plenty of spinifix and other hostile bushes you will need to be friendly with (they don't really want to be your friends.) The grid reference around this steep gully is 529 903. From the base of the steep gully, contour around to a small saddle at grid reference 533 904. From here, climb the rocky 'staircase' to the true summit. Return by the same path, being careful to pick out the right steep gully to climb. It took us 2.5 hours to hike from the false summit to the true summit, and return again. It is 2km return. I wouldn't tackle this section unless it is in the morning, without a breeze it can be insatiably hot climbing the steep gully with the northern sun.

Mt Sonder (proper)
Redbank Gorge to Mt Sonder South, then onto Mt Sonder proper
Distance 17.3km
Start Time 6.30am
End Time 12.50pm
Moving Duration 4h26m
Stationary Duration 1h47m
Moving Average 3.9km/h
Overall Average 2.8km/h

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hiking Mt Giles, Ormiston Pound

With four sets of track notes we were almost assured of success in our plan to climb Mt Giles. The NT's third highest mountain, and as Wild magazine puts it, "For such a prominent peak, with relatively easy access and the best views in the MacDonnell Ranges, it was surprisingly little visited. Not being on the Larapinta Trail had, to a great degree, kept its secrets hidden."

Mount Giles, West MacDonnell National Park, Northern Territory

Over the last two summers it has rained an awful lot out here, unusually so. The rains here come in summer, not winter, the rain from the left-over tropical cyclones from the north. Ormiston Gorge was flooded, people wanting to walk the 7km/3hr Pound Circuit would be rewarded with a very cool swim through the gorge. I gather not many people took that reward, opting to hike in halfway along the circuit, into the pound, then return the same way.

We hiked in halfway, and as the track veered north-east we veered off the track. With Mt Giles in our sights, we trekked across the pound floor, which was by no means flat or easy going. We hopped over rocks, between spinifex and around other more deadly bushes, seeking shade under the occasional tree or, if we were super lucky, stand of trees in a dry creek bed.

Approaching the main Ormiston Creek, which we had not seen up close since our shortcut across the pound, I saw what looked like shimmering water. The mind plays funny tricks, I thought. I gather Graham may have been thinking similar things, neither of us confident enough of our own eyes to make a call about water. Just as I convinced myself the appearance of water was caused by a strange mix of shiny rocks and grasses, a bird landed on this strange surface and caused ripples across it. Strange rocks indeed. We couldn't believe it, none of the track notes we were armed with mentioned water in the creek, quite the opposite, they all mentioned the lack of it. Making a bee-line for the water, we were rewarded with what seemed like endless pools of water. We wouldn't need to search out the illusive springs on the side of Mt Giles, or any lingering pools elsewhere.

Following the creek upstream we got wet, muddy boots, most unexpected. We even caught sight of some fresh foot prints, there were others out here recently. Having chosen a nice campsite out of the hot sun, on the sandy banks of Ormiston Creek, aroundabouts where the national park people recommended you camp (there are no formal campsites out here in the pound), it seems we had lucked on the exact spot specified in the main track notes we were using. With a couple of nice pools of water, we relaxed in the late afternoon shade and contemplated the madness of climbing Mt Giles which dominated the view before us.

The following day, somewhat before sunrise and when it was still cold, we headed off carefully following a set of track notes.We sidled up to the mountain base, and sure enough the spur ahead of us looked like a good option. Up we went, it was very steep to start with, almost scarily so, but the hardest bit was this first section, each higher section was gradually flatter until we eventually came upon the false summit, large and rounded. Now Mt Giles and it's distinct tin-on-a-pole cairn visible in the distance, we strolled along the ridges and saddles and made the final climb up to the summit.

From the top we looked around in every direction, generally ignorant of what we were seeing. I spotted a few landmarks, Mt Sonder, that so illusive Mt Zeil and Gooses Bluff in the distance. Scanning through the logbook, we were only the sixth party up here this season (there seemed to be seven to 11 parties each year), we noticed the many references to the south spur route up. People had been making some pretty quick times up. We had followed John & Lyn Daly's notes, from Take a Walk in Northern Territory's National Parks (referenced below), which could very well be the same route described by John Chapman in his Bushwalking in Australia book, although scanning through the book back in Alice we could find no mention of Mt Giles. A Wild magazine article from last year mentioned a quick, direct route up, but was lacking any good directions to find the base of the spur. Up here though, it seemed all to obvious, so down we went. Indeed it was quick and direct, the grade was steady and unrelenting, but easy enough. Both spurs offer numerous routes forward of each step, but the route up involved quite a few grade changes, flat spots, a false summit and much ridge walking. This southern spur was direct, constant and only 1.45km long (the route up was 2.2km). The grid reference for the base of the quick spur is 793827, for the longer spur 786827, check out the track notes on the topo map below.

Back at our previous night's campsite at lunchtime, Graham didn't take much persuading to convince him of the benefits of laying low in the cool shade under one of the big gums lining Ormiston Creek. So instead of hiking out, or over to Bowmans Gap in the other corner of the pound, we sat and read the afternoon away.

The third day, once again setting off super early, we made excellent time in the cool of the morning and were soon back at the car.

The sun had been bloody hot, the shade refreshingly cool, sometime positively cold. Hiking in the mornings had been a good thing. It seems only too evident now that last time I was here hiking the Larapinta Trail, I had benefited from the two months in the tropics of the Kimberley and the Top End to acclimatize to the heat. Dropped in here from the cool south's winter seemed to make the afternoon heat just a little too much.

  • Overnight Walks or Ormiston Gorge, official national parks leaflet

  • Take a Walk in Northern Territory's National Parks, by John & Lyn Daly, Take a Walk Publications 2006, ISBN 0 9577931 5 4. Walk article titled Ormiston Pound, Mt Giles, Bowmans Gap Circuit, pages 224-228

  • Wild magazine, issue 119 September-October 2010, pages 24-28, article by Michael Giaometti from a hike on 25/7/07

  • Mt Giles deviation in Ormiston Pound, a subsection of the page titled The Larapinta Trail, Central Australia by Roger Caffin

  • Have you hiked up Mt Giles? If so, which route did you take?
  • Where did you find water?

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The route we took going to the basecamp follows the creek more, this is good for afternoon walking, and to find water.

The route we took returning from basecamp to the carpark is more direct, it is better for the cooler morning as it involves more cross country ups and downs, and less shade.

The down route from Mt Giles to the base is probably the better of the two spur routes to summit the mountain.

Day 1

Ormiston Gorge carpark to Mt Giles basecamp



1 - Ormiston Gorge carpark







Break (tree)




lunch (trees)




Ormiston Creek (water pools)








8 - Campsite

National Park recommended campsite

Ormiston Creek


Day 2

Mt Giles basecamp to Mt Giles summit and return

8 - Campsite

Leave 6.55am with daypack





Base of mountain and spur



Mt Giles summit


Mt Giles summit

Return downhill, leave 10am


Base of direct south spur



Plenty of suitable campsites here in creek

8 - Campsite

Arrive 12.20pm/7.86km

Day 3

Mt Giles basecamp to Ormiston Gorge carpark

8 - Campsite

Leave at 7.15am













Ormiston Gorge carpark


GPS Stats

Mt Giles
Wednesday Thursday Friday
24/8/2010 25/8/2010 26/8/2010
Ormiston Gorge carpark to Mt Giles basecamp Mt Giles basecamp to Mt Giles summit and return Mt Giles basecamp to Ormiston Gorge carpark
Distance 12.65km 7.86km 12.07km
Start Time 9.07am 6.46am 7.13am
End Time 4.32pm 12.23pm 10.53pm
Moving Duration 3h15m 3h14m 2h51m
Stationary Duration 2h00m 2h21m 44m
Moving Average 3.9km/h 2.4km/h 4.2km/h
Overall Average 2.4km/h 1.4km/h 3.4km/h
Oodometer 12.65km 20.5km 32.6km

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Hiking Mt Zeil, one of the State 8

The wildfires were burning on the Larapinta, even the reopened sections of burnt out, smoke smelling bush didn't seem too attractive to hike. We opted for Plan B. Hike Mt Zeil, maybe Mt Giles and then some more.

Mt Zeil, MacDonnell Ranges National Park, Northern Territory

This blog post is about an unsuccessful climb of Mt Zeil.
I've since made a successful climb,
refer to this July 2012 post.

I have planned to tackle Mt Zeil for a couple of years now. It's in the State 8 - NT's highest peak, the State 8 being the highest peak in each of Australia's states and territories. I was up here this time last year, but I was all lonesome, and that's no condition to set out off the track for a couple of days.

With Graham beside me, Mt Zeil presented a very viable option. Most people used to access the mount from the northern side, driving a 4WD - or a few brave souls 2WDs - along the Tanami Track, then along some isolated bore access roads until they or their cars could drive no more. From here it was a short 6km up to the summit. That route is no longer an option, that pastoral station on that northern side has closed that access route off.

I hadn't yet contacted the ranger here at West MacDonnell National Park, he is widely held to have the access info from Redbank Gorge, I had planned to do that later this year in preparation for a tackling of the summit next year. Plan B was enacted just a day before we left for Alice, so there was no time to contact him then. I had already thought a walk in from Redbank Gorge seemed a much better option than hiring a 4WD and tackling the Tanami Track and bore roads.

We parked our hire car in Redbank Gorge, possibly the world's smallest car, and our packs full of weighty water, we set off through the gorge. Our base load was 11kg each, but adding 9 litre of water too that hefted that weight up somewhat.

Redbank Gorge posed our first problem. It is a narrow gorge, full of water. So we hiked up and around it, quite an adventure in itself, all to avoid getting a bit wet. Next time I thought - why would there be a next time - we should float our packs through and swim for our dear little lives. Surely a refreshing swim in water that never sees the sun, perhaps three or four degrees, would be pleasant enough compared to hiking up a scandalously steep gorge?

Safely through over to the other side, I surveyed the scene before us. Mt Zeil lay well off to the north-west horizon, much as expected, and a series of creek fed into Redbank Gorge. It was crucial we set off up the right one, but really that was a matter of choosing the one that seemed the biggest (it really wasn't that hard.)

Heading upstream, we experimented a little with walking along the grassy banks, which sounds nice enough was seemed fraught with danger. Rock hopping along, we set off to our major creek junction at GR468942. Ahead of me I soon spied what seemed to be water, was it a cesspool full of half dead-fish? The closer I got the less likely that seemed, we were soon upon an expensive pool of lovely clean water. Or course we would have to share it with those ducks, but I think we could deal with that. Walking further upstream towards that before mentioned junction, we came across a few small pools, and another large pool.

These all abruptly ended, perhaps they are semi-permanent, but all much too close to Redbank Gorge to be of that much water resource use for our hike. The creek became wide and flat, much like the super creeks of our homestate Flinders Ranges.

Once we reached the important creek junction, we began following the north-western creek. The hills to the right looked more direct, and we were overcome with temptation to take a shortcut. The scrub was freshly burnt out, it seemed like a good idea at the time. It soon turned outright miserable, as we followed the landscape from one saddle to another, eventually emerging not that far where we would have passed on the longer creek-following route. Lesson learnt, we stuck to our creeks from there on.

It soon became all too apparent though, this was a dismal plan. Our speed was slow, the terrain tough. I'm not sure at our current rate we would make it around to the northern side of Mt Zeil, the best place to attempt a summit from. Enraged with summit fever, or just the sheer stupidity of many "best-laid-plans", a shorter and more viable day's hike to the south-eastern base of the mountain seemed like a viable idea. The summit was still achievable, or so I convinced myself while carefully looking over the broad empty contours of the 1:250 000 topographic map. For you novices back at home, a 1:250 000 doesn't show much, indeed for the most part it allows the cartographer to do some very sloppy work. In an afternoon they could map out much of Australia with a few squiggly lines here and there for the biggest of the mountains. I pity those cartographers assigned to drawing up the 1:50 000 topo maps, they're going to spend the rest of their lives steeped in detail of every hill from here to, well, not Timbuktu but somewhere equally remote in this vast country of ours.

We soon broke out of the creeks, the terrain was flatter and broader now, so we set our sights on distance features and made straight lines to them - thankfully, or we would never have got that bloody far from Redbank Gorge.

The sun setting on our hard day's hike, we set up camp in our dry creekbed. Unbeknownst to us, we were camped within a couple hundred metres of the Tropic of Capricorn, who could imagine that just over that imaginary line lay the glorious wet tropics of our country's north. I guess it doesn't really work like that, and I already knew that.

The followed day we set off on our mad plan, neither of us any the wiser to the madness of it all. Atop the first saddle I was little dismayed to see a few more hills than I expected. On we went, eventually realising our plan was right royally stuffed. The summit cairn of Mt Zeil was clearly visible, but oh so long away. We had to give up, we had three days water with us on this trip, scantly that, stretching it out to cover four days in this heat was just bloody stupid.

A little bit inside me was relieved, managing our water stocks was somewhat stressful anyway. Back at camp we threw everything back in our packs, and set off in the direction of Redbank Gorge, out destination for tonight's campsite would be one of the two major waterholes we found this side of Redbank Gorge.

Dodging enraged bulls and their fellow cattle, we headed back to our creek system, there would be no shortcuts this time. We discovered these cattle form their own little trails which look every bit like trails designed for people, most are strangely many kilometres long, slowing wandering along creek banks.

We climbed over the fence back into the national park, safe from the crazy bulls, over a somewhat strangely placed chair aside the fence. We weren't the first people to cross here, that much was certain.

That night we were much pleased to reach the first waterhole before sunset, setting up camp after refilling our water bottles. Nine litres each had just got us back here. Sitting back relaxing the local birds put on a show for us, dancing across the surface of the water catching insects, and a couple of willy wagtails doing some kind of foreplay with each other.

Sitting under the cool verandah at Glen Helen Resort, just a few short kilometres drive away, sampling every cool drink we could lay our hands on, we pondered the madness that our scheme was. For one, I really did need to contact the park ranger's name I had been given for Mt Zeil info, there must be water out there somewhere. For one thing, those cattle need to drink something. Being well trained off-track hikers, driving into Glen Helen Resort we spied a small helicopter plying tourists for scenic flights, oh yes, here was another viable option of reaching Mt Zeil at some point in the future. We could charter it to drop us and a whole heap of water out on the northern base of the mountain, summit the mountain on the first day, and enjoy a pleasant day and half's walk back to Redbank Gorge.

Well our reconnaissance to Mt Zeil involved some walking, alas, but many an off-track mountain requires more than one attempt. We are now set to tackle it again with sensible, realistic and achievable plans - a plan that is not the least bit mad.

  • Have you climbed Mt Zeil? Let us know how.
  • Have you swam through Redbank Gorge? If so, tell us some info, is it narrow? Too cold? How long?
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The return route is the better of the two routes to follow, no bad shortcuts, follows creekbanks rather than creekbeds.



Day 1

Redbank Gorge carpark to Mt Zeil base

Redbank Gorge


Halfway across above gorge




In Redbank Creek having crossed above gorge



First waterhole




Second waterhole




Major river junction




First saddle on questionable shortcut



Lunch on creek




Open country




Cattle country



1-8 - base campsite



5.5+2.5 hrs

Day 2

Mt Zeil base, attempt on Mt Zeil, return to second waterhole

8 - campsite

Leave 6.45am








Turn around



Back at base camp


















Back at 2nd waterhole for campsite


Day 3

2nd Waterhole to Redbank Gorge


Leave campsite at 7.25am

Redbank Gorge carpark

GPS Stats

Mt Zeil attempted summit
Sunday Monday Tuesday
21/8/2011 22/8/2011 23/8/2011
Redbank Gorge carpark to Mt Zeil base Mt Zeil base to summit attempt, return to 2nd waterhole 2nd waterhole to Redbank Gorge carpark
Distance 21.42km 26.35km 3.97km
Start Time 8.03am 6.45am 7.19am
End Time 4.48pm 4.36pm 9.06pm
Moving Duration 5h38m 6h38m 1h24m
Stationary Duration 2h37m 3h05m 18m
Moving Average 3.8km/h 4.0km/h 2.8km/h
Overall Average 2.6km/h 2.7km/h 2.3km/h
Oodometer 21.5km 47.8km 51.8km