Chasing the Bushman’s Ruby

If I have one regret on this trip so far its that we did not spend nearly enough time in the East MacDonnell Ranges. The guidebooks and information pamphlets I read said things like “enough to fill a day trip” and “where the locals go to ger away from the tourists”, they did nothing to explain the rugged and remote landscape that we barely scratched the surface of.

After the heat of the Fink we were both surprised to find ourselves driving into the ranges in our jumpers. A cool little breeze popped up after the storm with occasional patches of drizzle thrown in for good measure. It was blissful. We ticked off Emily & Jessie Gaps quickly and enjoyed the beautiful rock art depicting the caterpillar ancestral beings of Mparntwe (no photography allowed). 40km down the road was the poorly named Corroboree Rock where it is likely there were never any Corroborees there, instead the signs informed us that the dolomite outcrop was part of the Perentie dreaming story. We pulled up for lunch at Trephina Gorge Nature Park, I could have spent a week there. It’s a bit hard to describe the purple and red mountains, the sandy white river beds, green cool rock holes and towering ghost gums in a way that would give you a fair indicator of what it is like so I normally take a heap of photos, in this place with the light and the weather I couldn’t do it justice, it is the most beautiful place in the West Macs. We tragically spent all of 2 hours there, we had lunch, hiked to John Hayes Rockhole, hiked into the gorge, marveled at the biggest ghost gum in Australia, and on the way out came face to face with a perentie. It was getting late when we pulled up at our campground in Glen Helen but we had just enough time to do some bird watching before dinner and bed.

The next day was as packed as the first so we left early and drove into the NTs version of Sovereign Hill, Arltunga Historical Reserve. After the disastrous failure of Ruby Gap (more on that later) explorers discovered several gold reefs and went about another attempted resource boom. While there was a reasonable amount of gold it wasn’t even remotely the size or value of the Victorian Fields so the number of people was small but a town still sprung up complete with processing plant and police station. Matt and I spent the morning wandering in the ruins and then climbing into the mines (with encouragement from the visitor centre). This is a fantastic example of the looseness of the NT, they point at a mine, say “take your torch” and away you go, no lights, no signs, no handrails, just climbing over the piles of tailings into a hole. It was great. That afternoon we drove into the aforementioned Ruby Gap.



In the late 1880s a bloke going by the name of David Lindsay was exploring the East MacDonnell Ranges when he stumbled upon beautiful red stones glittering in the bed of the Hale River. Being a calm and logical man, he thought he had stumbled on the motherload of all rubies and promptly started the first gem rush of central Australia. For 18 months 200 miners worked to extract the stones which resulted in flood of “rubies” flowing into the market. The jewelers in London became both annoyed and suspicious and had the gems examined closely finding that they were in fact the more common, much less valuable garnet. I felt sorry for him, I really did until we reached the gorge and I picked up a handful of garnet in a few minutes. I’m not a geologist but if I was to find a stream full of beautiful clear stones my first thought would be oh look quartz not oh my god a stream full of diamonds. The value of precious stones tends to be based on the rarity of them therefore huge amounts of nice rocks = probably not that valuable.

The drive into the gorge started with another warning sign about the dangers of the road and what you’d need to survive it. After the ease of Fink I wasn’t too worried and the track turned out to be even easier as the sand was more gritty and there were more sections of solid stone. We also ended up in an accidental convoy with a family group including a couple of Tasmanians we had a chat with. They took up most of the space in the official campsite so we drove down the river and found our own isolated patch of sand for the night.

The next morning we woke up reasonably early and started the walk to Glen Annie Gorge. The hike was easy, mostly flat and the end was determined by when we wanted to stop and turn around. After around 2km we reached the most spectacular gorge in the MacDonnell Ranges, the red cliffs rose from the base of white sand in the riverbed that sparkled with thousands of garnets. As we moved through, we came across waterhole after waterhole surrounded by lush green reeds with birds darting in and out for a drink. Unfortunately, even my best efforts of capturing the beauty of it were thwarted by the horrible lighting so you’ll just have to go and see it in person for the full spectacle. That afternoon we drove north through another notorious 4WD route The Binns Track. The first 40km through cattle stations was fine but after that and where the NT government took on responsibility for road management it went to crap. The corrugations were so big at one point they looked like someone had lined up speed humps next to each other, we crept along at 20km/h with a concerning mechanical banging sound developing under the drivers side floor.

It was a huge relief when we pulled into the caravan park at Gemtree and things got even better when they had a spot for us to camp in and a place on the garnet fossicking tour the next day. We celebrated by getting fish and chips delivered to our van for dinner! What a great place.

Garnet fossicking was my first bucket list item for the trip so I was more than a little bit excited when we went and picked up our shovels, buckets, sieves, and water the next day. We followed a bloke out to the private mining lease and he showed us the ropes. I picked a hole and we got digging and found…nothing. After 20 minutes and not even a spec of red we decided to move to another hole and began chipping away underneath a tree. Almost instantly it started paying off and after 4 hours of work our tin was completely full of stones ready to be evaluated by the in-house gemologist. We managed to get the most stones out of any of the groups and had a couple of people come up to us afterwards and ask if they could use our spot for the tour tomorrow, we wouldn’t be around so had no issue with that. All our work and 1kg of raw garnet returned 6 cutters (stones with enough clarity and no imperfections that can be used to make into gems for jewelry) 3 x 4mm and 3 x 3mm. I picked the best one and had it sent away to be faceted as a beautiful memento of our trip. For afternoon tea we celebrated with scones and coffee and Matt conceded that maybe fossicking wasn’t too bad.

I’d have liked to spend a week at Gemtree and in the Harts Ranges but we needed to get back to Alice Springs for Matts first special activity of the trip. We went on the nature hike around the caravan park in the morning and spotted a few birds and some dingo pups rewarding ourselves when we got back with yet another round of scones and coffee before getting back in the van, turning on our tail and driving back south.

Campsite Reviews

Ross River – Beautiful campsite with our first grass in weeks and the bird watching was phenomenal. The entire resort was a bit of a strange set up, it had a feeling like it had been really touristy in the past but had partially closed. $30pn – 8/10.

Ruby Gap – Stunning, quite, secluded and beyond peaceful. If you want to visit you will need a high clearance 4WD. $Free – 8/10.

Gemtree – Man I loved it here. Devonshire tea, fossicking tours, fish and chips delivered to your van. I wish we could have stayed longer. $27pn – 9/10.

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