Just 110km from Alice Springs, the Ochre Pits site is an intriguing blend of history, Aboriginal heritage and geological interest. As one of the attractions of West MacDonnell National Park that’s fairly close to Alice Springs, the Ochre Pits is a popular stop for day-trippers. It’s easily accessed off the sealed Namatjira Drive, just a little further west than Serpentine Gorge.
The bands of yellow, white and red of this 10m ochre outcrop are a striking sight amid the gums of the dry creek bed. Once the floor of a massive inland sea, these layers of mudstone and siltstone were moved around 340 million years ago by a mountain building event into their current near-vertical position as part of the MacDonnell Ranges. The mix of white clay and iron oxide has created the predominantly yellow colour of the cliff, while the red hues are created by higher levels of oxidised iron. Over millions of years the stone has weathered to the colourful swirling patterns you see today.
Before you wander down the sealed 300m pathway to the creek to explore for yourself though, take some time to learn about the varied uses of the many different colours of ochre in Aboriginal culture on the information boards. The use of ochre has always been an essential part of Aboriginal Dreamtime stories of creation. Although ochre is probably best known for its use in paintings and body decoration, it was also used to decorate and protect weapons. The Western Arrernte Aboriginal people have mined the ochre at this spot for generations, and rarer colours were even traded with other groups. The national park is now jointly managed by the area’s traditional owners and ochre is still collected for cultural practices.
As well as the informative boards, the site has barbecue facilities, making it a nice spot to have some lunch.
If you wish to explore the rugged landscape further, then follow the Arrernte Bush Track past the pit for 3km along a narrow, spinifex-lined path to Inarlanga Pass. You’ll need to allow three hours to tackle the return walk and remember to take plenty of water.