Camped upon ‘Wurre”, one of the last hunting and gathering grounds of the Upper Southern Arrernte people, travellers wait all day to witness one of nature’s most vibrant desert spectacles. As the setting sun ignites this multicoloured landscape of sandstone bluffs and crumbling cliffs, Rainbow Valley glows in brilliant boldness, its bands of rust red, desert gold, and deep brown highlighted against a shimmering white claypan.
You could watch this outback show from a comfy camp chair with a drink in hand, but get on your feet and you’ll discover that close-up views are the best. Beyond Rainbow Valley’s spacious bush campground, foot trails lead across the spinifex sand plains to easily climbed outcrops that afford incredible vistas across the James Range, an important bush tucker dreaming site.
A conservation reserve protects Rainbow Valley’s sacred archaeological sites where thousand-year-old artefacts – grinding stones, stone tool fragments and charcoal – have been left behind by the Upper Southern Arrernte people who occupied these normally arid desert lands seasonally. Annual heavy rains that triggered the lush bloom of vegetation and lured wildlife to water pooling on claypans, provided a rich bounty of food for the Arrernte who returned to who hold sacred ceremonies and adorn caves and rock faces with paintings and petroglyphs.
When European settlement of the Red Centre in the late 1800s began forcing traditional people off their lands, Rainbow Valley was one of the last places where they could hunt and gather. More than 100 years on, evidence of their occupation remains in the artefacts discovered atop dunes and beneath rock overhangs.
Close to the main camp, an information shelter helps you tune into your surroundings and put a name to a host of hardy plants: succulents such as samphire and parakeelya that magnificently carpet the reserve’s claypans after heavy rains, the hardier desert raisin and bush tomatoes, and bright clumps of everlasting and poached egg daisies that linger late into the dry season.
Foot trails lead across the spinifex sand plains through the archway of magnificently sculpted Mushroom Rock (40 minutes return) where tiny fairy martins build mud nests beneath the rock’s enormous weathered sandstone overhangs. Lured by the howls of dingoes echoing off the range, we ventured beyond, following dry creekbeds through a grove of desert oaks to reach a distant rise of rusty red sand and climb lonelier rock outcrops.
Comprised of fragile 350-million-year-old Hermannsburg sandstone, these low-lying bluffs and ridges with sculpted caverns and undercut walls weathered like honeycomb, throw off great boulders and crumble into sandy slopes. Climbing any number of them rewards with incredible views over the James Ranges that can’t be glimpsed from camp.
As the sun began to dip, we retraced our steps, spotting a pair of black-flanked (or black-footed) rock wallabies and crossing sudden paths with a dingo that paused long enough to eyeball us before disappearing with a shake of its tail. Outside of the brief season when rain falls over Rainbow Valley, little wildlife bares its head other than the Australian kestrels that circle overhead and a multitude of lizards. Studies have shown the Red Centre’s spinifex grasslands support incredibly dense populations of lizards – up to 440 per hectare.
We hurried on, arriving on the edge of the claypan in time to watch the setting sun ignite Rainbow Valley’s most famous skyline: a jagged ridge of red sandstone wedges weathered by a million years of erosion to reveal now glowing layers of orange, yellow and white.
Every sunset at Wurre is incredibly memorable and a full moon rising here is a sight to behold. A rare photographic moment occurs when rain fills Rainbow Valley’s claypan, reflecting its vibrant cliffs and triggering the bloom of bright purple parakeelya that carpet the desert.
Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve is located 77km south of Alice Springs, signposted off the Stuart Highway. A 4WD vehicle is recommended.
The park is accessible year-round, but is best visited during the cool, dry months from April to September. Unpowered campsites (gas and wood barbecues, pit toilets, picnic shelters) cost $3.30/adult, $1.65/child (5-15 yrs) and $7.70/family (2 adults, 4 kids), payable on site (www.parksandwildlife.nt.gov.au).
Don’t Miss: Rev-heads congregate in Alice Springs in June for the Finke Desert Race, a gruelling off-road adventure for cars, bikes and buggies. July marks the start of the Beanie Festival and the Imparja Camel Cup. For more information head to www.centralaustraliantourism.com.