Tower Rock sits as the highest point in a strange red-rock landscape just north-east of Alice Springs. It’s part of a distinctive pocket of land known as Mac and Rose Chalmers Conservation Park, and although it’s only about 300km from Alice Springs, it’s well off the beaten track.
This article was originally published in the October 2014 issue of 4X4 Australia.
The conservation park is relatively new, created in 2011 when Mac and Rose’s son, Charlie Chalmers, signed a voluntary conservation agreement on pastoral land, as part of a project that helps landowners preserve and protect special areas on their properties. For travellers, it offers a glimpse at what was once a private retreat. It’s also a great place to camp while exploring the Binns Track, which begins at Mount Dare in South Australia and ends more than 2000km north near Timber Creek in the Northern Territory.
We’ve got a bloke by the name of Bill Binns to thank for creating such an awesome track through some of the best landscapes of the Northern Territory. The attractions along the track aren’t mainstream tourist hot spots, and the trails are often remote and challenging. All round, they’re pretty good qualifications that make the Binns Track one of Australia’s best four-wheel drive adventures.
But even if you’re not tackling the Binns, Tower Rock is a worthwhile destination – especially if you want to get off the bitumen. The main access track runs north off the Plenty Highway, about 20km east of Harts Range police station, where the ranges form a magnificent backdrop. From there, it’s 48km to the Mount Swan homestead and a further 20km to the Tower Rock turn-off. Though the Parks and Wildlife Commission of The Northern Territory recommends high clearance four-wheel drives for these dirt roads, there’s nothing particularly difficult to watch out for – unless it’s wet. The locals seem to manage pretty well in their everyday sedans.
From the Tower Rock turnoff, it’s another seven kilometres to the heart of the reserve. It’s along this narrow track that the jumbled red-rock landscape sneaks into view and granite outcrops start to appear through the mulga woodlands. The formations are haphazardly arranged with boulders of all shapes and sizes that balance perfectly together to form strange mounds and ridges. The effect is quite spectacular – made all the more attractive as not too many people know the conservation reserve even exists.
The facilities, or rather lack thereof, suit the remote nature of the reserve. The campground is a small grassy plain with two long-drop dunnies surrounded by hessian for a bit of privacy. And that’s it – except for a near-perfect 360-degree sweep of stunning scenery that begs to be explored.
While a two-wheel vehicle track keeps going for a kilometre or two past the campground, walking is the best way to see the Tower Rock reserve. Walking also provides the best chance to see the different animals and birds that live in the region. One of the reasons Tower Rock was considered as a conservation reserve was that the area supports a diversity of animals, as well as plants – even a few threatened species call this region home.
There are suggested walks that ramble around and through the granite outcrops, but they’re fairly informal. Using a combination of short colour-tipped steel droppers and strategically placed painted arrows, these trails have an element of adventure.
This means tourists are required to keep an eye on the terrain, which is a great way to spot wallabies, or perhaps even a small quail, darting among the boulders. For the most part the walks follow rugged paths, with an ever present temptation to clamber over or around huge boulders to see what’s hiding on the other side, which makes the exertion worthwhile.
If feeling a bit lazy, then there’s an easy walk from the campground to where a special section of the reserve is set aside as a memorial to Mac and Rose Chalmers. Their final resting place is surrounded by white-trunked gums and sheltered by random granite outcrops. It’s a great place to reflect on the beauty of the country.
Surprisingly, in what is essentially an arid landscape, the flora around Tower Rock can be diverse and colourful. Though most plants have adapted to the dry climate with spiky grey-green leaves designed to reduce transpiration, some plants are soft, and others almost flamboyant with their flowering displays.
Many species find a root hold in the crevices and fissures formed by balancing boulders. Other plants spring to full growth only after rain. Fauna can be equally as varied, though ultimately shy and reclusive.
Travellers should be self-reliant in these parts, though at nearby Mount Swan there’s a fair dose of civilisation. This is the home of the Eastern Desert art gallery, where Utopian Aboriginal art is displayed. The works of art by local Aboriginal people are as stunning as the country they live in, with an intricate vibrancy enhanced by singular styles. Some of the works are created under a simple thatched bough shed not far from the homestead, and if you’re there at the right time, bookings can be made to watch the artists work their magic as canvases come alive with colour.
The homestead complex also includes a mini-mart that’s stocked with frozen and shelf-stable goods, take-away food, fuel and even vehicle accessories essential for the outback. It’s a particularly good service for people heading further north along the Binns Track as there’s little in the way of facilities between there and Tennant Creek. But Tower Rock and the surrounding reserve is a good place to linger. By far, its most striking feature is the intensity with which both sunrise and sunset transform the landscape.
As the sun nears the horizon, the rocks start to glow and light up with an energy that’s truly spectacular. The show doesn’t end when the sun is beyond the horizon though, as the granite continues to glow as if to release the heat of the day.
At sunrise, the subdued hues of dawn seem to take forever to develop into real light. The first rays hit the top of Tower Rock and then slowly melt downward, boulder by boulder, as the scenery comes alive. This is also the wake-up time for animals and birds. From camp, wallabies can be seen as they seek out safe, sheltered coves to soak up the warmth – their size putting the granite formations into perspective.
The birds are easier to spot, and small flocks of zebra finches and budgies are attracted to the shrubs and grasses scattered around the campground. As the air warms up, wedge-tailed eagles can be seen as they search for thermals over their domain. The effortless power of these birds is majestic.
The Mac and Rose Conservation Reserve might be small, covering just over 4.7sqkm, but it packs a big punch as a showcase of just how rich this part of the country can be. It’s remote, it’s wild, and it’s a friendly haven for those who love seclusion in the outback.
Tower Rock is in Mac and Rose Chalmers Conservation Reserve, about 300km north-east of Alice Springs, Northern Territory. The Parks and Wildlife Commission Northern Territory states access is suitable for high clearance 4WDs.
Bush camping at Tower Rock is free. Campfires are allowed outside fire restrictions; wood cannot be collected within the reserve. The only facilities are two long-drop toilets.
WHAT TO BRING
Prepare to be self-sufficient. Some supplies, plus fuel, are available from the mini-mart at nearby Mount Swan.
All roads to Tower Rock are dirt; check road conditions before setting out at www.ntlis.nt.gov.au/roadreport or call 1800 246 199.
Mount Swan/Tower Rock, (08) 8956 9433
Parks and Wildlife Commission Northern Territory, www.parksandwildlife.nt.gov.au