Roger comes up to me with a plan: climb Rwetyepme, Mount Sonder, the local geographic and topographic icon. Sounds good.
Rwetyepme is a sleeping pregnant lady.
A hiker walks up her legs, crosses her pregnant belly before summiting on her prodigious breasts, overlooking her sleeping face with her hair spread out behind her head.
But there’s a slight twist to the idea.
“We start at 2 am. It’ll take about three hours to walk to the summit. Then we’ll catch the sunrise and walk back. Should be back at work by 8, 9 am”
I do the maths. Getting any decent amount of sleep to coincide with a 2 am wake up suggests going to bed immediately after finishing work. Even if feasible I doubt I’d be able to sleep. Then, after completing the 16 km walk and returning to Glen Helen I’ll have to work like eight or so hours.
It seems just a bit too implausible. I’m deep in the learning curve of new accounting software and site-management and need a L O T of hours per day to accomplish my tasks. Being tired from a 16 km walk that begins at 2 am after waaay tooo little sleep then attempting to remain alert for a ten hour work day seems just too far beyond me. I decline.
It takes about another twelve hours to come to another conclusion. This may be my only chance to climb Mount Sonder. I planned to climb it waaay back in December after arriving at Redbank Gorge, from where the hike starts. To do so requires the intrepid hiker to cross the dry Davenport Creek, which when it joins the Ormiston Creek form the Mighty Finke River. Within four hours of arriving at Redbank it began to rain. Within 18 hours the Davenport morphed from a hot dry river bed to a 200 metre wide raging torrent. I did not climb Mount Sonder back in December.
Redbank lies some 28 km from Glen Helen. Twenty minute drive. Unless you are on a bike, then it’s an hour and a half. One way.
“You still planning on climbing Mount Sonder?” I ask the next day. “Sure” Roger answers, and I sign-up for it.
We set off from Glen Helen a little after 2 am. Both of us managed three hours of sleep. We’ve lots of water, snacks and headlamps.
A full moon is high in the sky and, in a way unique to desert environments, illuminates a spectral landscape designed for creatures for whom the sun may well be an enemy. It is spectacular. There’s every chance we may not need our headlamps.
“Guess what the temperature is” asks Roger after a glance down at the thermometer read-out in the Nissan’s dash.
“Mid-late twenties” I guess. It’s a warm night.
“32” he corrects.
“Wow” it is a warm night. 32 degrees and it’s two thirty in the morning. God knows what the temperature will be once the sun rises. Not a bad plan to get the climb out of the way before the sun comes up.
The moon is bright creating a surreal ethereal world in which I feel ill-suited to inhabit. This is the world of the silent ambush where birds with huge eyes that don’t rotate in their sockets fly on wings whose feathers make no sound. Where small mammals flitter and dart through the night’s air, glimpsed more as a figment of my imagination than something I can definitively say I saw. Each step runs the risk of stepping on a motionless serpent perfectly camouflaged and whose venom can kill me in a matter of hours if not minutes. Tiny macropods the size of mice emerge to take on these apex predators. Various other reptiles and mammals also use the night as part of their survival technique. Though I can see, quite clearly, by the moon I lack the contrasts and colours which make me, a diurnal primate, an apex predator by sunlight. It’s a fantastic world.
The track is not steep. It is relentlessly up though.
Mount Sonder is the fourth highest mountain in the Northern Territory at 1380 m. It shares a lot of characteristics with glacial terrains in the north of Scandinavia. The terrain is rocky and strewn with stones. The path has been improved by hardy Parks and Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory personnel. Otherwise despite the reasonable grade it would be tricky to treacherous in places where the stones and rocks can shift and slide underfoot.
That’s pretty much where the similarities end mind you. The glacial terrains of northern Scandinavia are cold, wet, swampy places where in places snow can survive the summer. Here it is dry dusty and hot. The vegetation sparse hard and unyielding, causing scratches and splinters if I push past them without due care. Then there’s spinifex. The eponymous grass of central Australis with silicon-tipped spears to encourage the unwary to keep their distance. Unfortunately it is pervasive and frequently I feel a pin prick or two when I brush past a clump.
Roger fearlessly leads the way. He’s got his headlamp on whereas I’ve turned my Petzl off. Once my eyes get used to not having the sharp white beam of the Petzl I can see remarkably well. After a while Roger also turns his headlamp off too and immediately stumbles and trips as his eyes adjust. Before too long he’s walking confidently again.
There are moments though when we turn our headlamps on, mostly to do with traversing a section of difficult terrain in which a wrong step can twist an ankle or worse, trip one or both of us headlong down a steep rocky slope.
Quite often the moon is behind us and my shadow is brutally efficient in blacking out where I am walking. My own shadow conspiring against me to make the hike more tricky than it needs to be.
It’s eight kilometres one way to the Mount Sonder summit. It IS 32 C. Periodically we stop to drink, mostly for Roger’s sake since I’ve a two litre Platypus hydration pack in my bag from which I can sip whenever I need to. Whereas he has bottles in his rucksack.
The stops are necessary also to simply admire the incredible view. We tower above the landscape by now and it stretches forever in every direction, except that which we are going. Since we’ve turned our headlamps off our eyes can make out the monochrome details of an ancient landscape formed well over 500 million years ago, at the dawn of life on earth.
There’s not a trace of anthropogenic light. Anywhere. The sky itself is relatively empty too. Only a few very hardy stars, planets in our solar system mostly, which can outshine that monstrous moon, and then only on the opposite side of the sky to the moon.
We attempt a few tripod photos. They give an impression of this strange ethereal world. But only an impression. And we continue.
Where the path eventually ends is not the actual summit of Mount Sonder. That lies on a ridge a few hundred meters to the north along a far more arduous and dangerous path. It’s not obvious that that peak is higher than where we stand. We decide we’re not going to make the effort.
The view is spectacular right where we are.
We’re a good hour or so from actual sun rise. Even so there’s a distinct red-orange glow over the far eastern horizon.
The lights of the community of Hermannsburg, well to the south, are visible. As are the lights of Glen Helen albeit of a lesser scale.
Over the next hour we watch this ancient landscape emerge from its nightly cloak of monochrome blue-grey to an increasingly stark landscape of oranges, red, muted greens and the ever present yellow-gold of spinifex.
Waaay over in the distance we can see the mysterious Tnorala, otherwise known as Gosses Bluff Comet Crater, some 37 kilometres south west.
A powerful reminder of unimaginable force. Tnorala is what happens when you slam a 600 m wide comet into a continent. It’s taken 142 million years for the 2000 m of earth to be worn away for us to marvel at what happens deep below the earth’s surface when such an impact occurs. I can well imagine the geologists scratching their head trying to make sense of the feature, painstakingly putting the bits of weird data they had together before the proverbial light went off. Mind you its shape must have given them some guidance: it looks like an impact crater. But it isn’t. It’s what occurs 2000 m below an impact crater. Amazing.
Aboriginal knowledge has a different interpretation, albeit one that hints at questionable motherly consideration for a baby. A group of women were enjoying themselves dancing across the sky as the Milky Way when a baby resting in a turna (wooden baby carrier) kinda fell from the Milky Way, which after all was a dance area, and crashed to earth.
Interestingly both contemporary western science and traditional Aboriginal knowledge have a celestial origin to Tnorala and both involve an impact. Looks like the Aboriginal ‘scientists’ were on the ball.
Another geographic icon emerging from the nether world is Mount Ziel, the Northern Territory’s highest mountain at 1531 m. It’s only some 15 crow flying kilometres to the west. It hasn’t quite got the mystique of Tnorala. But it’s still pretty impressive.
Althought it may only be 15-odd kilometres away, that doesn’t make it easy to get to from the Namatjira Drive. I believe it’s easier via the Tanami Track, which would require us to travel 130 km from Glen Helen east to Alice Springs, then some 20 km north to the Tanami Track and another 160 (at least) km before turning off and driving in. A good distance for something which seems so close.
The exposed rocks and ridges have a distinct skeletal appearance, of spinal cords of timeless quartzite attached to tendons of scree slopes separated by gullies.
Roger and I idly commit to various excursions and expeditions as we wander back to the Redbank Gorge carpark. Both of us are aware of the near impossibility of managing any of them particularly since I fly to Indonesia in about three weeks.
Still, fun to dream for if you don’t live the dream what are you living for?
Glen Helen 24 Feb 16